Saturday, April 30, 2011

What It Is, What It Isn't, What It Does, What It Doesn't: Interrogating the Internet, Part One

What, really, is the Internet all about?

That's probably not a great question, since, hey, we all use the Internet all the time for all kinds of things.  Part of the point is that it's not really about anything, it's just there.  The digital world is a part of our lives in much the way that eating, or, if it's not quite at that level, making insurance payments is.

Looking at the most visited - according this list to - there are a few focal points of our web-lives.  There are three primary categories that jump out to me:

1) Information
2) Networking
3) Shopping

If human experience is richer than these three things, it's not reflected in our Internet usage.  Almost every top-50 website fits into one or more of these three categories.*  I could go through the entire list, but I think each of those categories has a site or two that capture the essence.  You can probably guess what those sites are, but I'll go ahead and tell you anyway.

* The exceptions are interesting (all rankings at time of writing, by the way).  A part of me thinks that at 11 and at 22 are none-of-the-above, though information kind of works.  Microsoft's presence on the list owes to Windows, of course, and Adobe's to Flash. checks in at 31, despite being a kind of meta-website.  In some sense it fits under networking, in some sense shopping, but really it's just a web-hosting site.  It's place this high - way above any other hosting service, owes to their aggressive Danica Patrick advertising campaign. is kind of reverse shopping, at 34.  Pandora rates 36th, the first website explicitly designed around artistic purposes, even if it also has a financial goal as well.  There are a few others further down, but you get the idea.

The top information site (and top overall site) is, of course, Google.  Quantcast estimates approximately 150 million users per day.  Google, however, as a search engine, is not an information provider so much as, well, a search engine.  The other end of the information spectrum is the 7th most visited site on the Internet, Wikipedia.  At over 70 million daily users, Wikipedia may be outstripped by other search sites like MSN and Yahoo, but is the most visited pure information site on the web.

The top networking sites, of course, are Facebook and Twitter.  Youtube has an argument, as well, but it straddles the line between information and networking a bit too much for it to really count as either, to my mind.  Moreover, Youtube is less a networking or informational destination than a hosting service for videos hosted or linked to from Twitter and Facebook or found on Google.  That it is a part of Google only goes to show.  Anyway, Facebook attracts about 140 million users a day, Twitter nearly 100 million.

Shopping is the least robust of these three categories, with Amazon's 70 million users and eBay's 60 million falling well short of Facebook, even when combined.

Now none of that is likely to be news to you, but I wanted to get the numbers on the table as a kind of primer for the picture I want to paint.  I've been trying to grapple with the questions in the lamentably verbose title of this post, lately.  What, really, is the Internet?  What does it do?  Is there, maybe, a way that we're using - or, more to the point, failing to use - it that might be particularly good.  And I don't mean good, as in useful, I mean good, as in good.  For all the talk about the meritocracy of the web, about the role of Twitter in revolutions, about the educational opportunities afforded by technology, I can't help but wonder whether there's an untapped potential, a chance to do more than make the things we do easier, a chance to actually make the world better?

There's an argument to be made - and a good one, I think - that it has done exactly that, and not just because is it difficult to separate "easier" from "better."  Even so, there's something missing, something essential to real human progress.  You see, despite the presence of the Internet, there's still so much social injustice, so much corruption and greed, so many profound and profoundly dangerous flaws in human society.  It is not, of course, possible for technology to address the bits of human nature that make us cruel, ignorant, or both, but that doesn't mean that we people who believe in trying to create a better world ought not to use whatever tools are at our disposal.

With that in mind, I want to talk about these categories of our digital lives, in my next few posts.  What do each of them represent in us, why are they so important, and what potential is there for something better.  I am leery of this project exactly because it requires me to take a moral stand, to say that certain actions or ways of thinking might be morally superior to others.  That's always a slippery slope, because it can be hard to separate real, fundamental morality from cultural and societal norms.  Nevertheless, without any moral compass, without a vision for a better world in which "better" actually has meaning, what's really the point of anything at all?

In any case, I don't presume to have answers, here, but part of my sense of "good" is that it has more to do with the way in which we do things than what we do.  That is, I may not know what the right thing to do is, but if I act out of compassion, empathy, and a desire both for the joy of myself and others, it doesn't really matter whether I do the "right" thing by some social, cultural, or religious standard.  What matters to me is the intentionality, not the action (really, this is just a repackaging of my preference for process over outcome).

Before we launch into actually looking at the biggest, best, most popular, most successful sites on the Internet, then, as we try to understand what it is that they are and aren't, and what it is that they do and don't do, I want to bring up two points as a wrap to this introduction.  First, I've chosen "networking" over "communication" for a reason that I'll discuss more when I write on those sites.  Suffice to say, I'm not convinced that communication actually does happen on the Internet.  Or, if it does, it does so in spite of, and not because of, the web-based services that currently exist.

Secondly, I want to make a point about intentionality on the part of designers of extremely successful websites.  There is no question that the entrepreneurs that founded Facebook and Google had good intentions.  There is also no question that they were a part of a system where the purpose of any product is not the betterment of mankind, but profit.  Were they motivated by money?  Are they now?  Does it even matter?  Those are questions I won't try to answer now, but I do want to share a true parable, that may not totally make sense now, but hopefully will be helpful in my next few posts.

Back when I was a music assistant at St. John's, we would make the students in the class write a Gregorian chant.  That sounds more complicated than it is, because what it really means is "write a melody."  So students wrote melodies.  The problem is, students wrote melodies that didn't follow the rules of chant.  Rather, their melodies followed the rules of tonal harmony.  They would begin with a tonic, they would move to a subdominant, they would reach a tension point on a dominant, and they would return to the tonic.  Of course, the melodies didn't really do this, because they were melodies, but were you to write a harmony to those students' melodies, it would, almost always, be a I-IV-V-I chord progression.

What is interesting is not that this happens - after all, each and every one of us has heard thousands of I-IV-V-I progressions in our lives - but that it happened most with the people who didn't know the language of tonal harmony.  Completely non-musical (even tone-deaf) students would write perfectly prim and proper tonal harmonic melodies.  It was stunning.

The analogy, then, I'll phrase as a question.  What happens when young entrepreneurial people who don't know the language of business, but are trying to create a service based upon the perceived needs of people (and not their own desire for fame or profit, at least not first and foremost) actually go and build those services?  What, actually, ends up being the purpose of those projects?

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Where Does the Money Go?

A breakdown of US Government spending in 2010, from Wikipedia

I'm not going to offer much commentary, here, especially since my last post was a tad, um, long.  What I want to point out, though, is that our Congresspeople and President have recently been fighting over a budget for the coming year.  Mostly - as I understand it - the discussion about where to make cuts is focused on the upper-left quadrant of this graph.  My question is, what about that gigantic maroon section?  What about the 18.74% (in 2010, almost $700 billion) we're spending on our military every year?  In 2010 the USA's military operations  - that is, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan - budget ($283 billion) alone was larger than our Education, Justice, Agriculture, Energy, Labor, Commerce, and  Environmental (EPA and Interior) spending combined.  What does that say about our priorities, as a nation?  What does that say about the parties that we enthusiastically vote for?

Keep in mind, while you listen to the news talk about the vehement arguments between Democrats and Republicans over a hundred million dollars here and a hundred million there that neither party - including the President - supports a reduction in our military spending, even though a mere 10% cut therein would more than cover the total discrepancy between the Republican and Democratic budgets for 2012.  Keep in mind, while your state cuts pension programs for government employees, including teachers, and slashes non-core education programs like the arts and physical education, that most state budget shortfalls are dwarfed by our defense spending.  Keep in mind, when you go to vote in 2012, that neither major political party will do anything to change that.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Rethinking the Great Books


As a graduate of St. John's college, it's practically sacrilegious for me to suggest that there might be some flaw in the curriculum of the college.  "The Program" may not be sacred, per se, but it is founded upon the thinking of philosophers that the modern world - though perhaps not philosophy departments - largely ignores, and therefore there's a kind of internal sanctity to the whole thing.  You see, St. John's is an academic institution that shuns modern academia, a place where research - the modus operandi of every University in the world - is not frowned upon so much as regarded with a bemused detachment.  That is, it's taken very seriously, in a certain sense, but also challenged on the grounds that it cannot answer all of the questions it asks.  Where modern academia believes that the best questions are the ones that can be answered with rigorous experimental design and good implementation, St. John's rather tends towards the view that the best questions are the ones that cannot be answered, and, furthermore, that the process of dialogue around those questions might be more valuable to students - and to the world at large - than the more "practical" aims of research.

Perhaps "more valuable" is too much, there.  I should say, instead, that we live in a world overrun by research, largely devoid of dialogue (in its root sense*).  As Husserl might say - if he weren't such a terrible writer - we have plenty of answers, but we don't really know what any of them mean, or why they are important.  Perhaps we can't know, but at least we can ask, and we rarely do that anymore, either.

* OK, a parenthetical isn't enough here.  Dialogue comes from Greek, dia meaning through, logos meaning all kinds of stuff, such as language, words, logic, ratio, and so on.  So dialogue is kind of talking through, but also thinking through, or logic-ing through.  We do plenty of talking in the modern world, but how often do you see two (or more) people talk through the logic of a question, try to analyze it together and really build an answer, or at least a framework from which to understand that question?  I certainly don't see it often.

Not surprisingly, given its anachronistic concern with meaning, St. John's has been largely misunderstood by most of the academics I have met since my graduation.  Unfortunately, that misunderstanding has been for reasons I would never have guessed.  Rather than objecting to its philosophical purposes, I've heard time and again that the problem with St. John's is the Great Books, the hegemonic, conservative, rich-white-maleyness of the whole endeavor.  It matters not, it seems, what the books Johnnies read are about, or even the way in which those books are read, but rather what matters is who wrote the books in the first place.  Context, to the modern researcher's mind, is more important - or at least easier to pin down - than meaning, so St. John's is attacked on the basis of context.

It would be foolish to discount the criticisms of the Great Books, however, simply because they misunderstand the purposes of the college.  No, it is my belief that while St. John's itself may not be in need of any drastic reform, any program based on the principles of the college might benefit from an infusion of some of the modern research on learning, for one, and some of the great - or at least very good - works of the last hundred years.  With that in mind, I want to discuss the two distinct parts of the St. John's program, including whether they are interdependent or not, and what might be done differently.

The Great Books

It is certainly true that there is a preponderance of work from white males in the traditional Great Books curriculum, but that owes more to the vagaries of history, I would argue, than an innate bias from the founders of the program or the current faculty and administration at the college.  It is an unfortunate truth that, for much of the history of the western world, it has been only wealthy white males who have had access to the resources and means to print and distribute works widely and effectively enough that those works had a chance to survive to the modern day.  It is inevitably true and extremely frustrating that there were great thinkers who never had an opportunity to write among the oppressed women of Europe or the many foreign cultures that the Europeans subjugated, from the Islamic Northern Africans to the Arabic civilizations of the middle east (who did, incidentally, produce plenty of writing, much of which was lost to marauding crusaders) to the various islanders and tribal societies crushed under foot during the age of imperialism.

The fact of oppression, however, does not mean that we ought to ignore the works that are available to us, written by the oppressors though they may be.  Indeed, it is among what we now consider the "Great Books" that the most vocal opposition to said oppression can be found, where writers like Montaigne dare to suggest that the "savages" of the New World might be just as civilized - or moreso - than their European counterparts.  That, I know, does not excuse Europe any more than, say, American citizens who objected to Japanese internment camps during World War Two, but that's not the point.

No, the point is that history is valuable, and not just history as a retelling of the past.  The history of ideas is important, the history of science and philosophy and art and music and literature.  I, because I have read the Great Books, because I am white and male, have been accused of being a part of the hegemonic, oppressive culture that is still, in many ways, at work in the modern world.  But I would argue the opposite.  Because I have read Aristotle, Plato, Descartes, Aquinas, Kant, Hegel, Hume, and so on (and so on), I actually know that "oppressive" world from the inside out, and I can tell you that despite the context, the meaning was, more often than not, valuable.  Tracing the philosophical history of a patriarchal and oppressive West may come across as a worthless (at best) or even evil (at worst) project to the staunch multi-culturalist, but in fact it is remarkable and too easily overlooked how deeply, and often subtly, influenced by the authors and thinkers that comprise the Great Books curriculum our modern world is.*

* I don't have anything to add, here.  This is just a ploy to get you to re-read that sentence, especially the final clause.

The real distinction here, then, is the same as I mentioned above.  As a reader of the Great Books, I may have all kinds of hidden (or not so hidden, but potentially "dead white male" inspired) biases - like my insistence that meaning matters - but as a St. John's student I was never asked to read books from the perspective of a dead white male, or a European conquistador, or, for that matter, from any subaltern perspective either.  No, I was asked to read the works sans context, sometimes to the point of absurdity (ignoring, for example, collecting knowledge or interpretation of American colonial history while reading the Federalist Papers).  We were never asked to think about how Aristotle wrote, about what the condition of his Athens was, about who was oppressed and who wasn't, about his place in history.  While some of these things inevitably would come up, from time to time (and depending on the author), they were never the focus.  No, instead we were asked to think about what Aristotle was saying, why he was saying it, and why it mattered (or didn't).

Now there is a legitimate argument to be made that what St. John's tries to do is flawed, that meaning cannot be separated from context.  But I guess my argument is that context cannot be separated from meaning either, and that in a world where we are much better trained to think about context, thinking about meaning is more valuable precisely because it is rare.  To talk about context alone is to talk about nothing, and while I am amenable to discussing the flaws in the Great Books curriculum as a list of books worth reading, the perspective that something is wrong with the inherent process behind the way those books are read and discussed is, to me, a deeply flawed argument.

Unfortunately, the arguments I have heard against the Great Books do exactly that: they throw the whole thing out simply because it challenges the context-centric thinking that dominates modern academia, refusing to acknowledge that there might be something to be gained in such an education, at least for some students.  Without a hint of irony, the modern academic does to the Great Books curriculum exactly what they accuse the European authors of the Great Books of doing to other cultures throughout history.  I know, not a fair comparison, but worth pointing out because it underlines the main point: the kind of thinking that the St. John's curriculum is after is the kind of thinking that sees and understands how and why we think about questions and problems in the ways that we do.

The question is, where does that thinking really come from?  The Great Books themselves - the vast reading list - is only a part of the story.  Perhaps more important is the approach, which is much more than just the focus on meaning over context discussed above.  No, in spite of what is perceived as an anachronistic, conservative, and just generally stuffy curriculum, there's a pedagogy at St. John's so radical that it inspires the most progressive of educators.

A Dialogic Pedagogy

In the St. John's classroom there is no Professor.  Each class is led by a Tutor, a faculty member who is responsible for guiding and facilitating a conversation, but not for having mastery over the material or the ability to answer difficult questions about the reading in question.  Students and Tutors, in fact, use the same naming conventions, calling each other by "Mr." or "Ms." even when the Tutor holds a Doctorate.  Whereas the modern academic environment in the broader world, then, is extremely hierarchical, St. John's is not.

In addition to the somewhat superficial - but very telling - nomenclature of the college, there are other pedagogical policies that truly make St. John's radical.  For example:

- Instead of hiring experts in various fields and assigning them to Professorships in those fields, every St. John's Tutor is made to teach classes in every subject.  A Tutor with a PhD in Political Science will, in time, lead courses in Ancient Greek, Music, Science, and Math.  The result is that Tutors are often learning as much (or more) than the students in their classes, operating functionally as another member of the class - "model learners" - instead of teachers.

- All classes are discussion based.  There are no - or at least only very rarely - lectures at St. John's.  There is also, however, no hand raising.  The Tutor does not call on students, either.  "Discussion based" classes at St. John's are different from discussion based classes everywhere else I have been in this regard, because they depend upon the focus and listening of the members of the class, the experience that makes it possible to hold a dialogue with over a dozen people without some artificially imposed system to stop everyone from talking all at once.  While this may seem crazy in our modern world (on a political television show it's a miracle if three people can have a conversation without constantly interrupting each other), after the Freshman year actual interruption is fairly rare.  As much as Johnnies are learning to think about meaning, they are also learning to listen.

- There are no tests, no worksheets, few papers, and only superficial grades at St. John's.  Assessment remains the job of the Tutor, but only as a way of helping the student to learn to assess his or her own learning.  Tests would serve no purpose in a college where the effort to understand the material is more important than the material itself.  Moreover, tests notoriously do a better job assessing student ability in taking tests more than content knowledge anyway.  Instead, St. John's assesses based upon classroom participation and by means of the occasional writing assignments, which emphasize good ideas over good writing.  In the end, grades are awarded, but only because graduate schools demand that they be.  Philosophically, St. John's would not award grades if it did not have to.

- The classroom is only the beginning of the conversation.  While there is no requirement that Johnnies carry their philosophical musings outside the classroom, in inevitably happens.  In a small academic community where every single student shares the same reading list, the same pedagogical style in their classes, and many of the same questions about what the books they are reading mean, it is only natural that the conversations permeate throughout the life of the student.  Oh, college students are still college students, but there's something to be said for the drunk 21 year old who's arguing about Kant at a party.  Even conversations about things that are not on the reading list take on characteristics of the classroom conversation, and ideas are put through the same intellectual ringers.  In short, St. John's is a community of learning, a place where thinking, reading, and conversation happen constantly.  I have heard it compared to a military academy in terms of the level of discipline and the amount of single-minded focus on the curriculum that the students generally have.  The difference is, at St. John's that happens without students being required to have that discipline and focus.

The pedagogy of St. John's is unlike the pedagogy of any other school, university, or academic program I have encountered.*  Obviously there are a great many preconditions to creating such a culture: it has to be institution wide, it helps that students are old enough to take responsibility for their own learning, etc.  Nevertheless, the unique approach of the college towards how learning ought to happen contains lessons that are more widely applicable.  Particularly, it turns out, in multi-cultural, progressive classrooms.  Indeed, I was stunned to read Paolo Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed, only to discover that, ironically enough, the pedagogy he describes as being ideal is almost exactly what St. John's does.

* The closest thing, strangely enough, is the at Stanford, which holds many of the same philosophies about academic hierarchy, group participation, and learning assessment, despite the very different end-goal of producing things.

Curriculum and Pedagogy in the 21st Century

As much as I love the St. John's curriculum and its attendant pedagogy, I feel as though there is room for improvement.  Two areas, in particular, afford a great deal of potential for the college's approach to education, namely 1) a re-imaging of the curriculum with an eye towards incorporating more works from the last eighty or so years, and 2) incorporating appropriate technologies, where appropriate, to enhance what is already going on in the classroom.

A Multi-Cultural Great Books Curriculum

The first of these two possibilities is almost too obvious.  Of course St. John's should incorporate more works from the last eighty years!  How could they not?  Because the still in-use Great Books curriculum was founded and shaped around the 1930s, it has changed little since that time.  At its inception, then, it was modern, including works that were then contemporary and influential.  The core of the program has always been historical, but the finishing touches, I believe, were never meant to stagnate in the way they have.  The Great Books, in any time, ought to span from the earliest available writings to the most recently available, as long as those works are, by some measure, great.  That's a sticky distinction, of course, and difficult decisions have to be made at every turn (for example, focusing on the West in the core program of St. John's means that the great works of China, India, and Japan are largely ignored, though the college also offers an Eastern Classics Master's program).

Any re-imaging of the St. John's curriculum, then, would require sacrifices and compromises, which is unlikely to occur as long as faculty and staff each have their own and separate favorites.  When arguments for staying the same and for changing are equally valid, we tend to resist change, and so St. John's is slow to adapt to the modern world because there is - as seen above - a compelling case for the status quo.  Nevertheless, I do believe there are things which could be cut which would not ruin the curriculum or rob it of its heart, and which would allow for the inclusion of more modern works.  I won't bore you with details, especially because any one personal opinion need not be decisive in reforming or recreating the St. John's curriculum.

Instead, I see a new Great Books curriculum as a backwards design challenge.  If the ultimate core goal of St. John's is to produce critical thinkers, and the secondary goals are to acquaint students with the history of Western thought, to encourage students to learn to dialogue, and to ensure participation in a community of learning, then there are many legitimate curricular choices that might lead to those end goals.  Indeed, my argument boils down to this: I believe St. John's could actually do a better job acquainting students with the history of Western thought.

The danger of making the Great Books curriculum more multi-cultural is, of course, tokenism.  When you add, for example, a book by Toni Morrison, are you adding it because it's great, or because it was written by a black woman?  Even if the answer is the former, the problem remains in the perception of people looking at the program.  So it is even now, as when I tell people we do, in fact, read W.E.B DuBois and Virginia Woolf  (among a few other non-white men) at St. John's I'm told that we're just engaging in tokenism, and not really taking seriously the subaltern viewpoint.

What's more, in the multi-cultural world there are a preponderance of cultures and sub-cultures, so much so that the very notion of greatness has lost its perceived legitimacy, or at least its practicality.  It is simply impossible to read the seminal works of every single sub-culture of American society (much less world society), because there are just way too many sub-cultures with way too many seminal works.  To me, however, this is a challenge that a modern Great Books curriculum ought to rise to, rather than ignore.  If it is impossible to read the great Japanese-American, Korean-American, Chinese-American, Phillipino, Hawaiian, American Indian, African-American, Afro-European, Polish-American, Czech-American, Arab-American and so on and so on (and so on) great works, at least we can raise the question by picking those particularly influential academic works like the famous Can the Subaltern Speak? or by choosing (and even rotating?) important literary works like The Woman Warrior or Their Eyes Were Watching God (or so many others) from among the many wonderful options.

The explosion of excellent, provocative, and maybe even great writing in the modern world is not something that the Great Books should ignore.  There's an opportunity to shape an even better curriculum, here, if only the few people who are shaping such curricula would rise to the challenge.

Dialogic Pedagogy in the Digital Age

Perhaps even a bigger opportunity than reshaping the Great Books curriculum, however, is the chance to use technology to further the goals of the dialogic pedagogy of St. John's.  I do not believe that technology can significantly improve the classroom experience and discussion at the college - though certainly there are times when a quick Wikipedia check for factual information would be beneficial - but that does not mean that there's no place for it in the Great Books education.  Even when I was a student, the Internet had already become a source not just of news, but of contextual or biographical information.

"Now wait," you're saying.  "Didn't you say that you're not supposed to talk about context at St. John's?"  I did say that, but only because I was contrasting a focus on context with a focus on meaning.  Inevitably questions about context do arise, not as a central talking point, but as aids to understanding meaning.  Sometimes it is useful to know context not because it can explain, and not because we want to hide behind contextual connections between texts as a way to ignore talking about more difficult and more profound matters.  Rather, the value of context is in coloring meaning, in resolving a dispute about who came first, or who studied with whom.  The easy availability of something as simple as a timeline can radically transform a conversation not because era and meaning are innately interconnected, but simply because era does sometimes explain away things like simple lexicographical differences.

Beyond merely making more information available, however, I think there's another dimension to what St. John's could do with the Internet.  As social media have become increasingly prominent on the web - with Facebook (a social site) occasionally outranking Google (an information site) - it has become clear that we, as a society, need to understand how human interaction translates to the web.  Unfortunately, it seems to translate fairly directly; that is, where most person-to-person interactions are rife with people refusing to listen to each other, willfully misunderstanding, and generally being pigheaded and closed-minded, the same is doubly true on the Internet thanks to the added veil of anonymity and the security that affords.  It's all too easy to come to an Internet forum (whether a literal forum or a networking site like Facebook or Twitter) with an agenda and an opinion that never gets revised.  True, the availability of information means that opinions based upon faulty factual information can be easily proven wrong, but even then the pigheaded will not change their minds.

Now, obviously not all denizens of the net are guilty of closed-mindedness.  Like in the real, material world, there's a range, and some people use the Internet precisely because it's a way to expand one's exposure to ideas and cultures and ways of thinking.  I just think that's relatively rare, because it's much easier to use the Internet for pleasure of various kinds, whether carnal, social, or intellectual.  Technology easily fools us into thinking that everything should be easy and fun.  But good thinking is still hard, even with technology to help (though perhaps it is more fun), and doing things that are hard requires a certain discipline of mind.

So where does St. John's - or some other dialogic Great Books-y curriculum - fit in this picture?  Well, I believe that it can shape - perhaps only for its students, but perhaps more broadly - a more dialogic mode of digital interaction.  Perhaps true dialogue is impossible on the web (perhaps it's impossible, period), but a place as committed to dialogue as St. John's ought to at least explore the possibility that some of the ways of communicating that it holds dear might be transferable to an online space.

What does that look like?  That's a difficult question, the answer to which would require a careful effort to understand what good dialogue really is, and how it might be recreated in a web space.  Maybe, in the end, that looks like Twitter or a Facebook wall?  Maybe - and this is what I would guess, but can't know - it looks unlike anything currently available on the web.  The thing is, in order to get there someone needs to make the effort to design and create a real web (or other technology) based tool for real dialogue.

If such a thing existed, in whatever form it might take, the role in a modernized St. John's is at least partially obvious.  The classroom could be supplemented, yes, but the more valuable use would be in reaching beyond the 800 or so enrolled students at the college.  If the world desperately needs to learn to dialogue, why not make it possible to learn - at least in part - with technology


Not surprisingly, my suggestions and analysis here are based upon processes and not outcomes.  If I were tos summarize this essay, I'd say that the St. John's (or any other program with similar goals) could stand to reevaluate not what they do, but the way they do it.  How might St. John's better fit itself into the modern world, keeping its fundamental strengths intact?  How might St. John's reshape its curriculum to encompass Western thought not just from 1000 BC to 1935, but to 2011?  How might St. John's use technology to support its dialogic goals, both in the classroom and beyond?  Given that St. John's does do a good job - in my opinion - preparing it's students for life, how might St. John's do an even better job preparing its students for the modern, networked, distributed, changing, technological world?  In the end, the answer might be "stay the same," but it's a question worth asking, nonetheless.

Friday, April 22, 2011

10 Playoff Teams? No Thank You

Bud Selig has made it abundantly clear that, starting in 2012, Major League Baseball will expand its playoff structure to include ten teams.  At present, the MLB playoffs feature eight teams, four from each league.  Each division champion, along with a single wild card - the owner of the best non-division champion record in the league - advance to the playoffs.  In the first round, the best division champ plays the wild card while the other two division champs square off in best of five game series.  The second round features the winners of those series in a best of seven, and then the World Series, also best of seven, pits the champions of each league against each other.

I describe the system in detail because it's a good one.  It works.  The playoffs are compelling and entertaining, and, given how short they are relative to the season, completely non-indicative of who has the best team.  Adding another team to each league's playoff pool will do nothing to change that and, indeed, will only exacerbate the problem.

Of course, this move is all about money.  Bud is certain that more playoff games equals more cash for himself, his owners, and the league in general.  So the whole thing is a no-brainer, even though most baseball fans seem to despise the idea.  What few apologists there are, however, like to point out that deserving teams are often left out of the playoffs as they are currently constructed.  For example, in the National League in 2008, the Los Angeles Dodgers made the playoffs with a 84-78 record, while the Houston Astros (86-75), the St. Louis Cardinals (86-76), and the New York Mets (89-73) were all better.  Of course, Bud's solution to this problem isn't actually a solution, because Los Angeles won their division that season, and would have made the playoffs regardless.

Here's how the new system will work.  Before the best of five first round, the now two wild cards will play each other in a best of three (read, complete toss-up) series.  This punishes the wild card team for not winning its division, of course, but also rewards a team that previously wouldn't have made the playoffs with a non-trivial chance of winning the World Series.  In 2008, for example, the Dodgers still make the playoffs, but wild card Milwaukee would have to play New York in a first round three-gamer while all of the other teams sat and watched.

Rather than levying philosophical objections against this new system, I want to show what it would actually do.  So let's look at the MLB since the wild card first entered the league in 1995, and see how things would be different in this new system.  I'm not going to list division winners, just what that first round matchup would have been.  Listed first is the actual wild card from the season in question, with the new entry second.  I've also bolded the particularly egregious situations where the second wild card is more than five games behind the actual wild card, and thus, in my opinion, is a farce.

American League - New York Yankees (79-65) vs. California Angels (78-67) 
National LeagueColorado Rockies (77-67) vs. Houston Astros (76-68)

AL - Baltimore Orioles (88-74) vs. Seattle Marines (85-76)
NL - Los Angeles Dodgers (90-72) vs. Montreal Expos (88-74)

AL - New York Yankees (96-66) vs. Anaheim Angels (84-78)
NL - Florida Marlins (92-70) vs. New York Mets or Los Angeles Dodgers (88-74)

AL - Boston Red Sox (92-70) vs. Toronto Blue Jays (88-74)
NL - Chicago Cubs (89-73) vs. San Francisco Giants (89-73)

AL -  Boston Red Sox (94-68) vs. Oakland Athletics (87-75)
NL -  New York Mets (97-66) vs. Cincinnati Reds (96-67)

AL - Seattle Mariners (91-71) vs. Cleveland Indians (90-72)
NL - New York Mets (94-68) vs. Los Angeles Dodgers (86-76)

AL - Oakland Athletics (102-60) vs. Minnesota Twins (85-77) 
NL - St. Louis Cardinals (93-69) vs. San Francisco Giants (90-72)

AL - Anaheim Angels (99-63) vs. Seattle Mariners or Boston Red Sox (93-69)
NL - San Francisco Giants (95-66) vs. Los Angeles Dodgers (92-70)

AL - Boston Red Sox (95-67) vs. Seattle Mariners (93-69)
NL - Florida Marlins (91-71) vs. Houston Astros (87-75)

AL - Boston Red Sox (98-64) vs. Oakland Athletics (91-71)
NL - Houston Astros (92-70) vs. San Francisco Giants (91-71)

AL - Boston Red Sox (95-67) vs. Cleveland Indians (93-69)
NL - Houston Astros (89-73) vs. Philadelphia Phillies (88-74)

AL - Detroit Tigers (95-67) vs. Chicago White Sox (90-72)
NL - Los Angeles Dodgers (88-74) vs. Philadelphia Phillies (85-77)

AL - New York Yankees (94-68) vs. Detroit Tigers or Seattle Mariners (88-74)
NL - Colorado Rockies (89-73) vs. San Diego Padres (89-73)

AL - Boston Red Sox (95-67) vs. New York Yankees (89-73)
NL - Milwaukee Brewers (90-72) vs. New York Mets (89-73)

AL - Boston Red Sox (95-67) vs. Texas Rangers (87-75)
NL - Colorado Rockies (92-70) vs. San Francisco Giants (88-74)

AL - New York Yankees (95-67) vs. Boston Red Sox (89-73)
NL - Atlanta Braves (91-71) vs. San Diego Padres (90-72)

For those of you keeping score, that's ten times since 1995 that one of the wild cards would have a record over five games better than their first round opponent.  There are also a number of division-rival matchups here, which I'm sure MLB would love, but which complete defeats the point of finishing better than your division rivals during the season.  For example, just last year the Yankees finished 6 games better than the Red Sox, and yet Mr. Selig wants them to play each other in a three game playoff in the first round?

Crunching the numbers, here's what we're looking at (leaving out the strike-shortened 1995):

Average W-L of Wild Card: 93.2 - 68.8
Average W-L of Wilder Card:  88.9 - 71.1

So the second wild card would have been, on average, four games worse than the first wild card.  Whereas wild card have averaged 93 wins, the second wild card would have averaged under 90.

Two things to wrap this up, since I'm more interested in showing the data here than grinding my axe overmuch (too late!).  First, baseball isn't basketball or football.  The better team doesn't win every time.  Letting the 2001 Oakland A's (102 wins) play the Twins (85 wins) in a three game series would be a travesty, because there's every possibility that the Twins win that series.  Upsets may be fun and all, but we like to feel like they're at least somewhat deserved, right?

Second, why would baseball ruin all the goodwill it has accumulated in the last few years?  While the NFL just went and shot itself in the foot with a lockout, and the NBA is about to do the same, MLB has ironically become the most dependable American sports league (behind, maybe, the MLS; but despite its growth MLS remains a second-tier league).  Baseball is in a good place right now, why mess with it by adding an inferior (very inferior) second wild card to each league in the playoffs?

Monday, April 18, 2011

The Language of Degree and Kind in Baseball and Life

This post is also available - with pictures and dancing bears - at Pitchers and Poets.  I lied about the bears.

When we construct our little narratives to explain the strange things we see every day, we tend to lump our world into broad categories.  Actions are "good" or "bad," "smart" or "dumb."  People are "tall" or "short," "happy" or "sad."  Sporting events are "entertaining" or "boring."  Politicians are "liberal" or "conservative."  And so on, a veritable smörgåsbord* of quotated and contrary descriptors.  Here at Nicht Diese Tone, of course, we think this stuff is all hogwash.  Most of the time, when you're confronted with a duality, it's very probable that you're oversimplifying things.  While that oversimplification may be a real time saver - indeed, our ability to do so with such verve and expertise might very well be a key part of our relative evolutionary success - it can also be extremely dangerous.

* Much to my surprise and pleasure, my spell check added the umlaut and the circle thingy over the a.

Much as I'd love to illustrate the point with something profound and socially meaningful, my April-addled mind can't help but turn to baseball as a perfect locus for the issue.  The advantage of baseball over things like, say, politics or morality are numerous.  The chief reasons, however, are only two: 1) baseball is far less contentious than politics or morality* and 2) baseball is much, much, much easier to quantify, which will help to illustrate the point.

* This is not, strictly speaking, true, as the recent Dodgers-fan led assault against a Giants fan - leaving the man in a coma - attests.  Nevertheless, it's much easier for most of us to put aside our sporting-related differences than our political ones.

In particular I want to look at the beloved home of my beloved (and, as of this writing, 12-3) Colorado Rockies, the notorious Coors Field.  Coors Field is, in our dualistic narratives, a "hitter's haven."  It's a miraculous spa where batting averages go to recover and ERAs go to die, a slugger's wet dream and a scrappy, replacement-level slap hitter's salvation.  Otherwise insignificant careers have been forged (Neifi Perez, Juan Pierre), mediocre major leaguers have been saved (Preston Wilson, Kurt Manwaring), over-the-hill sluggers reborn (Jason Giambi), stars made into superstars (Todd Helton, Larry Walker), and aspiring pitchers wrecked (Mike Hampton, Denny Neagle, Pedro Astacio, Daryl Kile, Bret Saberhagen, Greg Harris, and on and on) by its thin air and its cavernous outfield.  In the popular narrative of Coors Field, it is an almost mystical place, one man's Heaven and another's Hell, a Miltonian paradox.

Until the advent - and advent is exactly the right word - of the capital-H Humidor, playing at Coors Field was like stepping into a video game.  Every decent hitter would hit .350 and slug 40 or 50 homers, as if controlled by some over-obsessive teenager on his X-Box.  It was so easy, scores were routinely closer to football (or even basketball) proportions than proper baseball ones.

The Humidor, of course, changed all of that, transforming Coors Field from Bichette's Paradiso to the upper echelons of Purgatorio instead.* No longer a panacea for ailing bats, it became, instead, a kind of minor boost along the lines of many other so-called hitter's parks.  Suddenly pitchers with mediocre stuff like Jason Jennings and Jeff Francis could throw complete game shutouts, and Rockies 8-hole hitters stopped hitting above .300.  The narrative transformed, enough that Coors Field and Humidor became opposing watchwords, simultaneously an excuse to disparage Rockies hitters for their advantages and mock pitchers for their crude, cigar-inspired handicap.

* I will not apologize for the Dante reference, even though it is also a terrible pun. 

Undoubtedly you can tell what I'm going to say, but I'll say it anyway.  It's all a bunch of sensationalist nonsense.  Because we like to explain the world through clean, discrete, and ultimately meaningless categories Coors Field is painted as a "hitter's park."  And it is.  The problem is, it's only a marginally better place to hit than anywhere else in baseball.  It is, by degree, a better environment for hitters than, say, the Ballpark at Arlington or Fenway Park, but we have created a narrative where it is fundamentally different in kind.  Coors Field is a magical place in that narrative, even if its (post-humidor) Park Factor of roughly 115 means that only 15% more runs are scored there than the average stadium (let alone other good hitter's parks).*

* The pre-humidor PF for Coors was, again roughly, 125.  Big?  Yes.  Infinite?  Not quite.

This "difference in kind" thinking is responsible for the hullabaloo about the Rockies cheating by storing some balls in the humidor, while keeping others in the dry mountain air in case of late-inning emergency.  The difference between the pre-humidor 25% increase in runs and the post-humidor 15% increase in runs is, of course, only 10%.  Since, even at Coors, most teams average less than one run an inning, the difference between using the non-humidor balls and the humidor balls in the final inning of a game comes out to somewhere around one extra Rockies run every month (which, we can assume, would lead to maybe one extra win over the course of the entire season).  That's a real difference in degree, of course, but that's not the narrative we hold dear.

Instead, as last season drew to a close, the Rockies were accused of cheating, their successes at home pinned on a vast late-inning conspiracy.  With humidorized baseballs, the story went, the Rockies were a normal baseball team, capable of scoring runs, yes, but also capable of striking out, hitting into double plays, and regularly stranding runners who reached third with no one out.  Bring out non-humidor balls, however, and the Rockies became unstoppable, a force not merely capable of destroying even the best of pitchers, but indeed destined to overcome any deficit, no matter how large.  To this way of thinking, the difference between the humidor and non-humidor baseballs was not 10% more runs, but rather "win" instead of "loss."  The whole picture became about differences in kind (wins and losses) instead of differences in degree (15% more runs than average and 25% more).

The same, of course, is true about pre-humidor Coors.  That Park Factor of 125 is big.  Really big.  Big enough that the Rockies routinely had one of the worst offenses in Major League Baseball during the early 2000s, and yet were mistakenly believed to have one of the best.  But, even with a Park Factor that large, the difference remains one of degree and not kind.  While the cumulative effect of a PF of 125 leads to the kind of mis-evaluation that makes Neifi Perez look like an actual Major League baseball player, that is only because the baseball season is 162 games long, and because the actual difference between Albert Pujols and, say, Aaron Miles is much, much, much, much smaller than we usually believe.*  Another way of reading, then, that Park Factor of 125 is this: teams that would score 4 runs a game elsewhere scored 5 at Coors.  Suddenly that doesn't seem nearly so insane as the narrative of "hitter's paradise" made it sound.

* While Pujols certainly hits more homers than scrappy middle infielders, and by a long shot, his unreal career high in Wins Above Replacement is 10.9.  That's epically, historically great.  It's also 11 wins out of 162 games, or about 6.8% of the season.  I'll let you decide: difference in kind, or difference in degree?

Once our narratives have been constructed, we reinforce them with the stainless steel of confirmation bias.  When the Mets come from behind by four in the bottom of the ninth at Shea Stadium (or their new digs, Citi Field), we think of it as a great comeback.  When the Rockies come from behind by four in the bottom of the ninth at Coors, we think of it as Coors Field up to its old tricks.  A 12-11 slugfest at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City is the result of bad outings from both teams' pitching staffs.  A 12-11 slugfest at Coors Field is the result of the absurd ballpark.  The special category of "Coors Field" explains and is the cause of all offense in the Mile High City, while elsewhere it's just normal baseball.

Now don't get me wrong, and allow me to reiterate my point one more time.  Coors Field does matter.  It used to inflate scoring by 25%, and now inflates scoring by 15%.  The Rockies, on the whole, will come from behind to win in the bottom of the ninth more often than other teams.  But only very, very slightly more often.  The difference is one of degree: the Rockies will score 23 late inning runs for every 20 that a comparable offensive team scores, thanks to playing at Coors.  The problem is, our narratives, our categories, our confirmation biases all conspire to make every single run we see at Coors a product of the park, and not of the million other things that go on in a baseball game.

But wait, I'm not done yet.  We can apply the same logic to steroids (gasp).  While there may be a categorical difference between Barry Bonds, All Time Home Run Champion and Barry Bonds, Great Hitter, we tend to forget that we don't even know exactly how many extra home runs Bonds hit because he used steroids.  And we can't know.  What's more, we don't know who else benefited, and to what degree.  What we do know, however, is that the easiest thing to do is to look at the picture and to discount any player who had a peak season during the "steroid era" as a "cheater," whose whole body of offensive work is attributable exclusively to his steroid use.  Rather than imagining that steroids help a player become X% better, we see steroids as being the difference between "good" and "bad," or "great" and "good."  We can't even begin to suppose, in our absolutist narrative, that Bonds may well have hit 700+ home runs even without steroids.  No, every single home run he mashed is tainted, cheap, unfair.  They categorically, absolutely, definitively do not count.

Is that right, though?  My answer is no.  Of course the steroids issue is a big deal precisely because we do not and cannot know exactly what the effect is, but to imagine that the effect is categorical instead of incremental is absurd.  Even if players hit twice as many home runs because of steroids, they didn't hit infinitely times as many.  And I think that would be easier to accept if our categories hadn't also been violated.  Barry Bonds is not merely a guy who hit X% more homers, but rather is the Home Run King, both in terms of career and single season jacks.  Those categories carry far more weight for us than numbers do.

To return to where we started, there's a good reason we think in categories instead of increments, kind instead of degree.  It helps us survive.  It's better to assume that the unusual ripple in the tall grass we see is dangerous (it might be a tiger) than to assume that said ripple is only marginally more pronounced than usual.  In nature, nuance leads to destruction.  That's no excuse to turn away from more nuanced thinking, however.  If anything, it's an exhortation towards the opposite.  That we like to see things as either categorically good or categorically bad makes us easy to persuade and, as a result, hoodwink.  If, for example, a politician speaks eloquently to our absolutist moral sensibilities, we're quick to cast our vote in his favor.  In the process, we forget that the difference between him and his opposition might not be categorical, but rather incremental, that there are perhaps a range of (non-linear) possible solutions to any given problem instead of two diametrically opposite ones.

The narrative of absolute, dichotomous categories is an extremely dangerous one exactly because it is beautiful.  Coors Field as "hitter's haven," human beings as fundamentally good (or bad, as the debate goes), politicians as liberal or conservative, such characterizations make it easier to think, easier to live, easier to write.  Poetry may owe itself to complexity, but on some level it also owes itself to simplicity: without a sense of Good and Evil, Joy and Misery, how do we understand No Second Troy?  Without the narrative of great plays or bad ones, how do we appreciate an unrepeatable Tulowitzki play in the hole?*  The possibility that the narrative value of categories is ultimately empty - of a kind of brute, practical use, but devoid of substantial, metaphysical meaning - is what drives the anti-statistics crowd of baseball fans mad.  The reliance upon and manipulation of categories is what makes so many religions so powerful, and - along with hefty doses of confirmation bias - it is what makes Fox News and MSNBC so persuasive to so many Americans.

* Another little pun for which I will not apologize.

Ah, there I go breaking my own rules.  You see, I too am talking in categories, in differences in kind instead of degree.  The notion of diametric opposites, the need for clear categories like Good and Bad cannot be, if we are to challenge it, innately and fundamentally Bad.  To say so would undermine the argument.  The problem is, every single word we read is a category, every single idea a kind of absolute.  We can deconstruct and deconstruct, and then reconstruct and reconstruct, and what we'll end up with is words that stand for something, some category.  Words that can never be truly specific, for true specificity would require a new word every second, every thought, every sentence.  Communication, as much as miscommunication, is built on categories.

So what is there to do?  Uncomfortable though it may be, I believe it remains useful to deconstruct, to analyze, to see where differences of kind actually are differences in degree, even though every difference is, in the end, actually both.  To my mind, we do not need to destroy the narratives of politics, religion, morality, or, most importantly (of course), baseball.  We need, instead, to dive into them, to see where they come from and why, and then to reconstruct them in some new form so that we can once again communicate.  Analysis and synthesis stand together, it turns out.  Like any set of supposed opposites, they actually are more alike than disparate.  Is there an endpoint to all of this analyzing and synthesizing, a point at which narrative and myth turn into Truth?  Maybe, but probably not.  Instead, it seems to me that the very act of trying to understand, of insisting upon being a learner, an asker of questions, a thinker, a skeptic (though we might also insist on being ignorant, a provider of answers, allowed to zone out, and a believer) is at the heart of what it is to be human.

Friday, April 15, 2011

A Lion's Mane

There is always so much to say, and none of it is quite right.  A poet knows this, but his words are not closer to the heart of the matter for that knowledge.  No, they are rather further, because they clothe a fundamental mystery inside an intractable but mundane one.  What good is that?

Perhaps it is best, instead, to shut up and listen?  Ah, but where is the joy in that?  Why read Kerouac, for example, if you'll only ever read him?  Isn't the point to talk, to live?  (Isn't talking living?)

While we're at it, what is a mystic anyway?  Am I one?  I am an astrologer, after all, and while I don't pretend to know why or how it works, sometimes a chart opens up like a flower, or the universe, and I feel aware.

There's no room for such talk these days, though.  Our life unfolds 140 characters at a time, our thoughts no longer ours, but distributed, collective.  Where is poetry in that?  Or is that all poetry is?  Where is Keroac, then?  Where is mysticism and where is the soul?

No matter how hard I try, I can only write about myself.  Whether I write in a private journal, or in an anonymous Internet forum, or on this blog, or even in an academic paper, the words I produce are a reflection of my soul.  A very selfish, myopic, and even arrogant reflection.

What's wrong with self-confidence?  Ah, it always comes with self-doubt, for one thing.  Confidence - the need to express one's own perceived greatness - is flanked by fear that one's greatness is an illusion.  The simple-minded will say "that's not confidence at all, then.  Confidence is silent."  Ah, but a lion still roars, does it not?  And its mane is ever visible.

Who gives a shit about confidence, though?  It doesn't matter at all.  What does?  Heh, that's what we in the question-asking business like to call "a good question."  Problem is, it isn't actually a good question at all.  It's a terrible question, in fact, because it's obvious and totally unanswerable.  Because of these two facts, men throughout history have killed and died because they believed someone knew the answer, and there was never a way to weigh the value of those answers other than through rhetoric, violence, or both.*

* And, really, is there any difference between rhetoric and violence?  One is to the mind what the other is to the body.  I'll let the reader choose which is which.

Of course I, too, am guilty.  Of rhetoric, of violence, presuming to know what is important and what is not.  And yet, as I get older (slowly at first, but faster and faster) I find myself more and more confused - yes, as the cliche goes - but also more and more bored with my confusion.

Oh, I will be forever curious, forever a leaner, forever joyful (forever does not mean what you think it means).  But the "complex" and "outside-the-box" (the most ironic cliche there is) thoughts, when they become commonplace, do not readily give way to something more complex and more interesting or innovative.  Having grasped paradox itself, the thrill of intellectual discovery is, if not crushed, at least transformed.

I suppose the real question is, then, what is my purpose?  Now that I have a direction, a job to do, a path to travel, I must strive to understand why I am traveling that, and what I might achieve (is the wrong word) while on it?

I might as well ask: "What is being?"

Monday, April 11, 2011

Listening to Beethoven's 3rd Symphony, Part Two: Themes and Structure

Here's a link to Part One.  You can also navigate through the series using the "Beethoven Project Posts" on the right bar of the blog.

In the opening movement of the Eroica Symphony, Beethoven introduces no less than three primary themes.  The third theme - which is really the most remarkable one - we're not going to talk about yet, except to mention that it will happen later on at a surprising place in the piece.  The first two, however, are fair game even at this early juncture in our listening, because that's where they occur.

A word, before we take a look at those two themes, about sonata form.  You've undoubtedly heard the word "sonata" before, but may have assumed it refers to those solo piano (or maybe piano with violin) pieces like the Moonlight, Tempest, or Hammerklavier sonatas by Beethoven.  The root of the word, however, refers not to instrumentation, but to formal structure within a piece.  That formal structure was, up to and beyond Beethoven's time - usually present in the first movement of a symphony.  Sometimes you may even hear an opening movement referred to as "the sonata," but this is rare except among musicologists because of the confusion it causes.

What is "sonata form?"  In short, it's an A-A-B-A structure.  That is, there's an introductory "A" section - called in classical music the "exposition" - in which themes are introduced and developed, and at least one initial modulation* occurs.  That A section is then repeated note-for-note, though some recordings of longer works like the Eroica skip this repeat (including, incidentally, the Dudamel recording in our first post).  After playing the A section twice, the B section, or "development," ensues.  This is not unlike a "bridge" in modern popular music, in that it usually differs substantially from the original A section, but is still related thematically.  Development sections (before Beethoven and the Eroica in particular) were often very short departures from the main ideas of the piece, designed to wedge apart the initial exposition from the recapitulation to follow.

* A modulation is a departure from the original key, accomplished by invoking a dominant feel relative to a key that is not the actual tonic.  As a result, modulations usually move around either the circle of fifths or the circle of fourths, because keys a fourth or fifth away are closely related (they share all but one note) with the original tonic, making it easy to suggest a movement to a new key.

The recapitulation, then, is what follows the development.  It is a restatement of the introductory A section, for a third time, but usually with modifications.  As we'll see in the Eroica, this means there will be a very different treatment of the opening theme.  Likewise, where an early modulation usually results in the exposition being played mostly in a key other than the tonic, the recapitulation usually is designed to allow the entire first section to appear in the original key.  The result - for a trained listener who can hear such large-scale harmonic motions - is that the recapitulation is the first time the piece really feels like it's in the "right" key.

Sonata form is often bracketed with an introduction and/or a coda.  The Eroica does not really have an introduction, per se, except for maybe the first two big Eb Major chords.  It does, however, have a lengthy coda that comes after the recapitulation.  Indeed, the coda might be the richest, most complex, and most engaging part of the entire piece, so we'll be spending some time there later.  The reason for this is that, traditionally, the coda was used as a place to wrap things up and bring a piece to a nice flourishing finish.  In the opening of the Eroica, the coda is actually used almost as a second development section.  Material is reworked and reintroduced, developed in new ways, and synthesized unexpectedly.

Before we get there, however, we have to understand Beethoven's use of thematic material.  As mentioned, the Eroica has three primary themes, two of which appear early in the piece.  The first you've already hear, because it appears at the very beginning.  I've left in the opening chords, but they aren't properly part of the theme:

The second theme occurs not that much further in, and it sounds like this:

In contrast to the opening theme, it is, well, melodic.  Rather than overwhelming the whole orchestra - as the opening theme does after its initial statement* - this theme actually employs a variety of instruments, including winds and strings.  It is not quite sweet, and it is followed by, of course, further intensity (including the "horse galloping motif shortly afterwards), but it is still a departure from the rough, militant opening.

* I encourage you to go back to the first post and re-listen to the movement as a whole.  You'll see that, shortly before the second theme is introduced, this first theme is played by basically the entire orchestra all at once.

Which calls to mind one of the inherent contradictions of this first movement.  These first two themes - introduced a mere minute apart from each other - are so vastly, wildly, different for a reason.  That reason is related, furthermore, to the time signature of the piece.  We're in 3/4, the tempo of waltzes and minuets.  Listen to that second theme again.  Doesn't it sound a little like a waltz?  What is a dance doing in our little military march?

But, really, what is our military march doing in 3/4 time?  Marches - like the second movement - are usually written in 2/4.  The Eroica, however, is somewhere in between war-march and courtly-dance, between chaotic battle and refined elegance.  There is no question that it comes down, in the end, further on the side of tumult than tranquility, but it nevertheless has these moments, these spontaneous outbursts of simple joy amidst such momentous, revolutionary conflict.

Perhaps some light is shed on this strange duality by the form of the piece.  Despite the stretching and bending that Beethoven makes the sonata form do in this movement - pushing each part to its limit - we're still in sonata form.  If we take up, once again, questions about meaning and narrative, we might ask what it means to have a revolution that, nevertheless, maintains at least a semblance of the old order.  We might also ask who our waltzes are, whether they're Viennese noblemen and noblewomen who simply don't see and won't acknowledge the battles raging outside their courtly walls, or whether they're, instead, maybe the revolutionaries themselves, joyful at the prospect of victory.

As in the first post, I won't commit myself to a single interpretation, but I do want to start to forward a psychological angle here.  Beethoven's hero - regardless of his political and social intent - is above all Beethoven himself.  The Eroica, famously, is one of the first major pieces Beethoven composed after he learned definitively of his oncoming deafness.  It is a piece he intended to write as an affront to musical sensibilities of his time.  The revolution, then, is a musical one.  It's hero is Beethoven.  The themes, the quirks, the tumult and battle, and the sweetness are Beethoven's own.

It is so easy to picture Beethoven as he is in movies like Immortal Beloved, a surly, overwrought archetype of human suffering.  Beethoven was not that.*  Beethoven was extremely intelligent and witty, fundamentally kind-hearted, if a bit short-tempered, and above all intensely hard-working and devoted to his art.  That he found joy in music is unquestionable, as the Ninth Symphony undoubtedly proves, but even here in the third the beginnings of that project are visible.  We'll see much more of Beethoven's joy as we move through the other movements (especially the finale), but even here it begins to be present.

* That was Chopin.

The second theme, in this listening, is the dance of Beethoven's spirit, a waltz that - under the oppressive weight of his oncoming deafness and the isolation that will inevitably bring - is brushed aside too easily.  While it appears again and again in this first movement, it always feels secondary, so much so that I recall many arguments in my music classes at St. John's as to whether it should really count as the "second theme" at all, it feels so weak and out of place.  But that, I suppose, is exactly the point.  Unassertive and transitory as it is, this second theme is a linchpin for the piece as a whole, an answer to the roaring questions the first theme asks about the purpose and meaning of human life.

Is it a satisfactory answer to those questions?  Maybe, maybe not.  Regardless, it certainly isn't acknowledged as such in this movement.  And yet it's still there, dancing along throughout the battle, in spite of the battle, or maybe even because of the battle.

And to think, this isn't even the interesting theme.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Art and Abstraction in Waterston's "Clearing"

As someone who has spent a lot of time thinking, reading, and writing about (and listening to) music, I've always struggled to understand the visual arts.  Actually, my problem does not stem from music, but from language.  I'm a linguistic thinker, a slave to narrative and context, a conversationalist and - to the occasional chagrin of companions - a deliverer of monologues that resemble my blog posts.  In short, I am in love with language, with words, with how sentences are constructed and how stories are told and how arguments are made.  Little wonder, then, that I struggle to uncover the meaning of pictures.  "What," I ask, "Does meaning even have to do with it?  Meaning is a linguistic concept, and much art - especially abstract art - is not linguistic.  Whither meaning?"

A part of me wants to believe that modern art isn't supposed to have meaning, but that's clearly not true.  While I certainly cannot penetrate into the hidden meanings of giant blue spots next to giant orange spots, or little red rectangles, or massive canvases painted in a single glossy shade of pink, obviously some people can to the extent that there is a massive modern art community, complete with critics, connoisseurs, and museums sufficient to fuel the careers of a good many artists.  What do those people see, then, in the abstractions of abstract art?  What dialogues do they have?  What narrative is present?  And if not narrative, what emotional content?

You see, much as I am a linguistic thinker, my problem ultimately is musical.  In music - and especially in, for example, Beethoven - there is an undeniable narrative arc, simply because music takes place in time.  Every listener, no matter how tone deaf and/or untrained hears the same fundamental thing in the same order.  The same is true in a novel or a play.*  The story, whether literary or musical, unfolds in a certain way, as determined by the artist.

* Granted, in both music and literature it is possible to get things out of order, but that is not the intent of the composer/writer, usually.  Exceptions like Joyce's Finnegan's Wake - which is just as confusing no matter where one begins or ends - only further support the rule: there is a strong temporal, narrative sense in literature.

In a painting, on the other hand, the experience of the viewer is much more haphazard.  While we have certain tendencies (left to right, top to bottom), any given painting might strike us differently.  Where you might be attracted to the white splotches, I'm drawn to the blue "stars," for example.  While the black spindly branches might strike you as the key to the painting, I might not even regard them as important on first glance.

Being out of time, paintings allow the viewer to revise their initial impressions, of course, but that doesn't change that we remain subtly and heavily influenced by that first brush with the work.  Add in the propensity for art museums to contextualize art with neighboring pieces, with biographical information, or with descriptions of the work in question, and the process of constructing a personal narrative gets very muddled.

Which is not to say that doesn't happen in other media.  Indeed, it happens very much, and such shaping of the narrative is exactly the point of, for example, the Beethoven project that I've undertaken in this space.  What differs, then, is where that narrative comes from, and thus what "understanding" a piece of visual art even means.  Whereas the Eroica Symphony, in my opinion anyway, speaks for itself once you know enough about music theory and a little about history, I'm not necessarily convinced that the same is true in visual arts.

That's not totally fair.  I think that, if I knew more about composition and technique and so on, that works like the one that we are, slowly, coming to would speak to me much more directly.  I suspect, however, that a lot of what they would say would be "this is the style used here, this is the technique, this is the skill," and not "this is the meaning."  Again, this is my bias as a musician, but I feel as though music theory is a way to unlock, yes, compositional techniques, but more importantly, emotional, spiritual, and even political meaning in music.  Is the same true in visual arts, especially the more abstract works of modernity?*  I don't know, but I struggle with the possibility that either answer to that question might be true.

* To be fair, again, we might ask the same question of music, where modern composition has been divided into music for the movies (and TV and commercials and so on) and music that is extremely strange and abstracted.  Maybe the question I'm asking here isn't about art at all, but about modernity (or, I suppose, "post-modernity").  Hmm...

Without further ado - since we've adone enough already - here's the particular painting I want to share and discuss, briefly.  Briefly because I'll struggle to know what to say, for all of the reasons highlighted above.  Nevertheless, I want to share the work because, of all of the many hundreds of pieces of art I say during my recent visit to the bay area, this was the one particular piece that most caught my eye.  Why?  Well, that's the question I want to try to answer.  Here it is:

"Clearing" by Darren Waterston.  Displayed at Cantor Art Museum, Stanford, CA.
The title of the work goes a long way towards shaping the narrative that the viewer - in this case me - constructs.  "Clearing" may be a word with multiple meanings, but it has one particular meaning that strikes me as being the primary - though probably not the only - one intended here.  The black tendrils in this piece are reminiscent enough of branches, and the background enough of a kind of abstracted night sky that, at first blush, "clearing" seems to indicate where you are metaphorically standing as you look at this piece.  The space in the middle of the canvas - with the nebular/amoeba-ish mass and the little blue star-like dots are the night sky from a spot in the forest where the branches part.

I particularly like the sky analogy here because of the figure that looks like a nebula.  While we, perhaps, don't see those massive gas clouds when we look at the night sky, they are there, and this painting in that sense reminds me that, while behind the trees there are stars, behind the stars there are still more things that I do not perceive.  The clearing is, in that sense, only a partial one.

Of course, we still see the branches on either side of the clearing, which further remind us that our view of the space between is constrained.  Consider the second nebula behind the largest of the branches, and you'll see that, though it is just as large, just as complex, and perhaps even more aesthetically pleasing than the more fully visible one, it is also muddled and unimportant thanks to its backgrounding.  Only looking closer do you see that, actually, it is prominent in the narrative of the painting principally because it is partially obscured.

What strikes me most, however, about the painting is the ambiguity of meaning in the symbols.  This work is somewhere in between abstract and representational.  The branches are only just barely reminiscent, the stars not quite the right color, the nebulae a bit too much like water stains.  The random white, blue, and black spots that occupy other spaces in the work may suggest - in the case of the largest one in particular - a not-quite-right moon or other satellites, but they could also be the splotches that occur in a camera when looking near, but not at the sun.

Then again, the painting is too dark to be daytime, but too light to be nighttime.  Dawn or twilight perhaps makes sense, especially with the reddish "cloud" that hands across the top of the painting, but placing the piece temporally almost seems unfair.

It also is unfair to leave the ambiguous symbols with only one interpretation.  The branches could also be briars, I suppose, but are also not unlike the tendrils of a neuron.  Nebula, amoeba, water stain... Why not a ginger root?  And so on.  At a certain point, the representational value starts to break down, and while there are hints and suggestions here, there is clearly no single interpretation that does the painting justice.

Perhaps this is too obvious a point to make, but I'm going to make it anyway: if Waterston wanted to paint a clearing in a forest, with the night sky shining above, I'm sure he could have.  Perhaps, in our sophisticated artistic age, we take for granted that we're not supposed to paint that way (we're not supposed to write music in the romantic style or Petrarchan Sonnets), but that doesn't answer the question at the heart of this post.  What is it that work like this is trying to capture?  Is ambiguity, as such, really the point?  How many works can be about mystery and absence or nebulous meaning before it gets old?  Doesn't art about art have a limit?

In short, the question is "so what?"

And yet maybe that question misses the point, and therefore answers itself.  For some reason this painting spoke to me, not in words, music, emotions, or any other structure that I can access linguistically.  Maybe I'm missing the words, but maybe there simply aren't any, and the "meaning" of art is a nonsensical thing to look for, an artifice we construct because we so much predicate the linguistic.  Understanding isn't what one does with a painting because "understanding" is a word, and words need not apply.  Of course, paintings are (usually) still titled and described, but is that maybe because we're afraid to acknowledge that they might have something profoundly powerful about them that we can't access?

As I've said, I don't know the answers to these questions.  In many ways, writing about art is almost as pointless as writing about language.  If you try hard enough, you're either reduced to talking about structure and technique or you start traveling in logical circles.  In some ways, I think, art drives you there even quicker, because it is so much more urgent than language, so much more removed from our mundane day-to-day experiences.  Looking at a piece like "Clearing," then may not tell me anything, but it certainly disrupts something, and I don't know what.  Maybe that's all that "meaning" means?

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Why I Chose Stanford

It's official, I've accepted Stanford's offer to attend their Learning Sciences and Technology Design PhD program starting next fall.  Initially I'll be studying under Roy Pea and Hilda Borko, both - since we're talking about, you know, Stanford - renowned researchers and well-respected in their field.  I know Roy from my time as a Master's student, during which my friend and co-conspirator Coram and I consulted Professor Pea as often as we felt we could get away with while working on our project.  As a result, I'm certain I'll be able to work with him and learn from him.

Ultimately, this decision was not an easy one, even though Stanford is an "obvious choice."  To the common layperson, the name Stanford alone is worth so much that, when I have posed my conundrum to certain people the response has been a resounding, "you mean there's actually a question?"  My answer is, yes, there is (or was) a question.  You see, PhD work is less about prestige and more about fit.  My decision, then, was not about trying to find the "best" program, but to find the program that most matched my own learning style, research interests, pedagogical biases, and general outlook on the world in general.

The Communications department at the University of California, San Diego matches me very well in almost all of those areas.  Their pedagogical model is highly discussion driven, the amount of reading and writing that students do their lines up well with the amount of reading and writing I do of my own volition, their conversations are lofty and philosophical, and the people are quirky, critical, and equal parts cynical and optimistic.  In short, a lot like me.  Indeed, had I chosen to attend UCSD I'm sure I'd be having a number of conversations with a variety of people right now in which I would be pointing out exactly that: I definitely fit at UCSD, and that's the most important thing.

So why not UCSD?  Well, I also fit at Stanford.  In fact, I think I fit better at Stanford.

While the people at UCSD are a perfect match for me, and while I would have the freedom to pursue my research interests, I'm actually not convinced that the general outlook of the department matches my own and that, even more importantly, the pedagogical bent of the program would suit me.  I don't mean to say I think there's anything wrong with the outlook or pedagogy at UCSD, I just think they wouldn't work for me.

As a graduate of St. John's College, I come from a strange academic tradition.  I'm a student of the so-called "Western Canon" at a time when a lot of the academic world - and places like UCSD in particular - seriously doubt whether there really ought to be such a thing as a canon.  The questions at the heart of this objection are valid, and look like this: How can you determine which books are Great, or even if there is such a thing as Greatness?  Isn't that a hegemonic, colonial tool to marginalize the values and cultures of all of those people who are not white male Europeans?

By themselves, these are important questions that, frankly, St. John's probably doesn't do a good enough job answering.*  The problem, to me, is the double-reversal jiu-jitsu that comes next.  Because those are good questions, the answers are assumed to be, basically, that there is no such thing as Greatness, that the Great Books are a total sham, and that any curriculum that reads them and takes them seriously on their own merits (instead of through alternative cultural and contextual lenses) is itself an instrument of intellectual and cultural tyranny.  The result, of course, is the laissez-faire, anything goes attitude towards ideas that pervades the post-modern world.  That attitude says, "your ideas and my ideas are equally valid, because they each come from our own perspectives.  Right and wrong are relative, and meaning is personally constructed, and if we all just agree to disagree and get along the world will be all right."  To me, that's a shameful intellectual surrender.  Maybe this is a hegemonic idea, but I like to think that there's more value in consensus - and, even more so, the effort to get there - than there is in tolerance.**

* Of course, any graduate of the college who continues in academia will inevitably have to confront these questions anyway, and will be - I think St. John's would argue - equipped to do so because of the critical thinking skills they've gained as Johnnies.  I suspect a great many St. John's graduates end up being heavily critical of the curricular content of the Great Books program precisely because it is so Anglo-European centric.  So it's hard to criticize the college for picking a narrower curricular goal that it can achieve in four years, instead of trying to bite off more than it can chew when it knows students will get there after-the-fact anyway.  That's just good curriculum design.

** That the position of tolerance for differing ideas is also held be many self-proclaimed radicals - many of whom are only actually tolerant up to a point - only serves to remind me of this Eva Brann (St. John's Dean, not wife of Hitler) quotation: "To the radicals we might say: you don't begin to know what radical is; we are the ones who go to the roots."

Now that's not to say that I know anything like enough about UCSD to say where the institution as a whole stands relative to this issue.  In reality, I'm sure there are a range of opinions.  I did, however, get the sense from the brief time I spent there and the one class I visited that I would likely end up very frustrated by the "make connections" instead of "find meaning" model that goes with their post-modernist academic culture.  That each week's reading on the syllabi I saw included multiple and intentionally disparate authors in order to build background and force cross-cutting interpretations rubs against my Johnnie sensibilities, in which those things are not exactly bad, but nevertheless can undercut the effort to actually understand a given text's content, instead of just its context or impact.

Again, I'm not sure that there's anything wrong with the way UCSD is doing things, I just don't think it's right for me.

Now you might be thinking that Stanford is vastly different.  It isn't.  If anything, it's less discussion and dialogue oriented than UCSD, and it is just as much concerned with post-modernist questions and processes.  The difference, then, is that Stanford is not just talking and reading and dancing around the theories and philosophies of these issues, but is, in fact, actually out in the world doing.  My experience as an LDT student was one of project-based classes and practice-oriented learning, which lines up well with modern learning theory.  While not every professor I had was a brilliant teacher using the more cutting edge pedagogy and technology, many - including Roy, incidentally* - were just that.  For all of its stuffy, privileged, businessy, ivory tower reputation, Stanford really does strive to practice what it preaches.

*Or not incidentally at all.

Being political (in the root, Greek sense of dealing with society) has its drawbacks.  It can be frustrating to try to make a difference.  But as much as I'm sure I'll have days and nights when I feel like I'm just a small, insignificant part of a broken system, and I can't do much to improve the situation, I think that Stanford will encourage and support (and, really, actively enlist) me in fighting the good fight.  The potential for myopia at UCSD, on the other hand - the ability to remove myself from the world and just do whatever I want - frightens me much more than the frustrations I'm sure I'll feel at Stanford sometimes do.  I am, despite myself, equal parts idealism and practicality, and I feel like Stanford understands that dichotomy (and supports both sides of it) better than UCSD does, at least in my case.

There are, I suspect, a great many other things I could say about what draws me to Stanford (including my previous experience there compared to the relative unknown of UCSD), but they would be variations on the theme from above.  The truth of the matter is, both programs were the "right decision," but in different ways, and I was fortunate to have an opportunity to pick between the two, even if it meant the decision was a difficult one.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

My Heart is in the Slaughterhouse

Quick background: This poem is inspired by (and titled after) something I heard someone say while visiting UCSD.  It was a great moment in unintentional poetry, and I felt compelled to turn it into a full-blown poem.  Reader beware, this is the first poem I've written in, well, quite some time.

My heart is in the slaughterhouse,
My soul is on a plate.
My eyes are in the lumber mill,
My mind is in a crate.
My arms are being mined for ore,
My senses shelved at every store,
“What will be left?” My lips implore,
Until they too are shaped and scored.

My heart was in the slaughterhouse,
And now it’s on a plate.
My soul, my mind, my very self
Are gone, and shipped first rate.
Commodity has offered me
The greatest gifts and lowest fees.
I buy and sell in twos and threes,
An existential potpourri!

My heart, myself, my slaughterhouse,
My mind, my soul, my arms, my lips,
Receding hair, decaying teeth,
Unbending knees, replacement hips.
What once I thought I could acquire
Has proven fake in the entire.
What’s left I thus commit to fire,
And watch the flames climb higher, higher.

My heart is in the dying embers,
My slaughterhouse is gone.
My eyes are in the dying embers,
My lumber mill is gone.
My arms are in the dying embers,
My stores, my shelves and selves are gone.
My lips, the last of the dying embers,
And when the embers die,
The ashes of my entire being
Will settle, will disperse, will lie.
And why?