And Now For A Little Night Music…

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I remember where I was when I first heard Kennedy was shot (waiting to picked up from third grade)… and where I was when I first heard John Lennon was shot (making lunch at the house I shared with three other musicians in the Hollywood Hills)… But sometimes it doesn’t take an infamous murder to recall something for a long, long time. Like the first time I heard Keith Jarrett. That was some 35 years ago. I don’t remember whose house it was – some friend of a college friend in Portland Oregon. But I do recall lots of irrelevant details: the interior of the house, the weather (no, it wasn’t raining), the hazy quality of the afternoon light. The album was Facing You, Keith Jarrett’s first collection of solo compositions/improvisations. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. It wasn’t so much the virtuosity of the performance as the incredible novelty of the rhythmic “feel”, unpredictable progressions, yet incredibly poignant melodies… I still return to that album when I need to “change the channel”. Other favorites include Staircase, My Song, and the recent Carnegie Hall Concert.

I’ve been fortunate enough to hear Jarrett live a few times, both solo and with his trio (with Jack De Johnette and Gary Peacocke). But I’ve found it’s very hard to find good examples of his work on YouTube or elsewhere. Here’s a piece from a Japan concert in 2002 that is well recorded and photographed. It might not rise to the level of his best work, but it does show one side of him very well: the sensitive balladeer.

UPDATE: for some reason the video in this clip is now upside down. The music, however, is still fine. Head-stands, anyone?

What Has Obama Not Been Smoking?

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By now you must have heard that President Obama “addressed” the question of marijuana decriminalization in his town hall meeting last week by, basically, laughing at those who propose it. A quick glance at the mainstream news blogs reveals that this strategy offended many people, including lots of non-users who favor decriminalization. While it didn’t offend me, it did irritate me, and given how strongly I supported Obama’s election (and continue to support his presidency), this suggests that he has some serious political fence-mending to do.

What bothered so many liberals and libertarians was not the specific position he took, which was very narrowly – and no doubt carefully – focused on the question of whether marijuana legalization would be a good way to grow the economy. Rather, it was his failure to address the decriminalization issue head on. According to NORML, in 2005 there were 786,545 arrests for violations of marijuana laws, and 88% of those were merely for possession or use. That’s a huge number of lives disrupted for indulging in an activity that, by almost all accounts, is less harmful – both to the individual and society – than either alcohol or tobacco use (at least if you subtract the negative effects of criminalization). If you add to the ledger the negative effects of criminalization, including the profits to organized crime and the social stigma that prevents genuine addicts from seeking medical help, you can see that this is not a laughing matter at all. It’s an important moral issue.

I’m hoping that all of the negative reaction to his comment will encourage Obama to take the matter more seriously in the future. And there is some reason to hope that he will do so. After all, he didn’t really say whether he favors decriminalization or not; like the conventional politicians he lambasted during the election, he simply dodged the issue.

Friday afternoon with Alan…

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Imagine for a moment it was your privilege to have a brief interview with God, in the course of which you were allowed to ask one question.

What would you ask?

Now you have to think this over very carefully, because this golden opportunity would come to you only once, and you would have to be most careful that you didn’t ask a silly question.

Well you might try God out with a Zen Buddhist koan… such as, “Beyond the positive and the negative, what is reality?”

And the Lord would turn to you and say, “My dear child, your question has no meaning.” …And you wouldn’t have the opportunity to think up a meaningful one and come back.

So perhaps you should have asked: “What question should I ask?”

And the Lord would say to you: “Why do want a question?”

Alan Watts
from the podcast, “Spiritual Authority #3″

L’Chaim!

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And now for something completely different…

Although the modern circumcision procedure is often credited to (or blamed on) the longstanding Jewish ritual, the practice was found in many ancient cultures. These days, 79% or so of American men are circumcised, but in recent years the procedure has been scrutinized by many who wondered about the rationale for such mutilation (let’s not mince words here). Two of my closest friends struggled mightily to decide whether to have their newborn son circumcised, and in the end decided to do so mainly because the father was circumcised, and didn’t want the son to feel different from the father. Not a particularly compelling reason, they realized, but a decision had to be made.

As the above article (and many others on the web) attests, the ancient ritual was done for all sorts of superstitious or otherwise misguided reasons. But recent studies have shown that there does seem to be a good medical reason for the practice, and this view was bolstered by an AP article today-

LOS ANGELES – Circumcision not only protects against HIV in heterosexual men, but it also helps prevent two other sexually transmitted infections, a large new study found. Circumcised males reduced their risk of infection with HPV, or human papillomavirus, by 35 percent and herpes by 28 percent. However, researchers found circumcision had no effect on the transmission of syphilis.

Landmark studies from three African countries including Uganda previously found circumcision lowered men’s chance of catching the AIDS virus by up to 60 percent. The new study stems from the Uganda research and looked at protection against three other STDs. The findings are reported in Thursday’s New England Journal of Medicine.

“Evidence now strongly suggests that circumcision offers an important prevention opportunity and should be widely available,” Drs. Matthew Golden and Judith Wasserheit of the University of Washington wrote in an accompanying editorial.

So if you are a circumcised heterosexual man who has wondered whether your parents made the right decision (and what circumcised heterosexual man hasn’t, at least in passing?), you can rest a little easier today. As I’ve previously pointed out, sometimes irrationality, superstition, or just plain tradition happens to get things right.

The End Of Conversation?

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Obviously, I’m an internet-phile. What I love about it, both in my work as a philosophy professor and in my personal life, is the information it puts at my fingertips, and the ability it gives me to keep in touch with people. That is what most people love about it, no doubt. But I’m hoping that the technology continues to evolve, because at this point it doesn’t even allow for something as basic as a good conversation (Skype and other audio/video chatting services aside).

I know of families in which a parent will be in one room, a child in another, and instead of talking to each other, they will instant message each other. In my classes, I occasionally see students obsessively “typing” instant messages, instead of making any effort to add to (or even to follow) the face-to-face discussion. More importantly, many seem less interested than students once might have been in debating important issues, or even in forming an opinion on them… Could it be that they fear the mass social ostracism with which any dissenting opinion is met in the echo-chambers of the political blogs? Or in this world of media distraction, have they simply lost the ability to concentrate on anything for more than five minutes?

Our current technology is very good for one-way communications. Either one is transmitting information, or one is receiving it. And these discrete transactions can be done on a massive scale, as twitter has proven. One can post on blogs, and sometimes receive a response to a question or comment in a few minutes, or a few hours. But I’m afraid that the richer experience of real-time face-to-face communication, where spontaneous give-and-take comes to fore, and one must think – and feel – on one’s feet, is suffering badly.

A Voice In The Wilderness

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You may have seen this before, but if you haven’t, it’s worth watching, if only to remind yourself of the amazing arrogance of ignorance. While self-styled pundits and stock-market cheerleaders like Arthur Laffer and Ben Stein helped to lead many off an economic cliff, financial advisor Peter Schiff was spot-on in predicting the current recession.

By the way, Ben Stein helps to confirm the theory that stupidity (or at least willful, ideologically-driven ignorance) is not “domain-specific”, unlike some forms of genius: in addition to having ridiculed the truth about the economy long after others had accepted it, he’s a major evolution-denier and “intelligent design” promoter, having been primarily responsible for the incredibly misleading “Expelled: no intelligence allowed“.

No Child Left Inside

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I heard an interesting discussion on Wisconsin Public Radio this morning with Richard Louv, the author of “Last Child in the Woods”. Having hardly any time for books unrelated to my profession, I probably won’t get around to reading it, but its theme seems important: the notion that children, particularly city-dwellers, are losing all personal connection with non-human nature. Louv coined the term “nature-deficit disorder” to describe the situation of kids who rarely see any wild, natural space, and who may partly as a result of this develop a host of increasingly common problems, including obesity, depression, and attention deficit disorder.

This happened to tie in closely with a discussion I had a couple of nights ago with several friends. We were sharing what we do to cope when times are tough. Many of us mentioned getting outside, particularly into wilderness of some sort, on land or on water, as one of the most reliable methods of improving our mood. My guess is that this works primarily for people who had a childhood in which non-human nature figured prominently.

In my own case, I spent my first twelve years on the outskirts of Gainesville, Florida, smack-dab in the middle of one of the most complex ecosystems in the world. Beyond my backyard was a big field, behind which was what seemed an endless stretch of moss-covered deciduous and pine-needle-floored coniferous forests, lakes, meandering streams, swamps (complete with quicksand), even a huge labyrinth of a bamboo forest. These habitats were overflowing with fauna: minnows, tadpoles, frogs, turtles, snakes, alligators, spiders, worms, caterpillars, centipedes, millipedes, beetles, birds, squirrels, armadillos, possums, raccoons… Sometimes with friends, but just as often alone, I’d explore these wild places with a wary eye, always careful not to step on a coral snake or blunder into the web of a huge spider. It was always an adventure. There was always a new stretch of trail to explore, and when the trails gave out, the explorer’s instinct would kick in.

Thinking back on it, I’m amazed that my parents permitted me – even as an 8 or 9-year-old – to traipse about in these environs, all by myself, for however long I cared to… All I had to do was to show up at the dinner table before sunset, and no questions were asked. Maybe it was because they had no interest in hiking through these wild places themselves, having been raised in big cities, and so had no idea of the potential dangers. But this freedom I was given, and the appreciation of the natural world it allowed me to develop, marked me indelibly. To this day, nature brings out the child in me. Maybe that’s why I always feel driven to return to it.

Welcome To Capitalism…

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This could be interesting: Reuters is reporting that “Edward Liddy, chief executive of AIG, is scheduled to appear with other witnesses before the House of Representatives capital markets subcommittee…” Will members of the committee ask the really deep questions? We’ll see.

As anyone with a t.v. or a browser surely knows by now, there’s been a big brouhaha in the news lately about the $165 million worth of bonuses the (notorious?) AIG is supposedly legally bound to pay members of its financial products division – the same folks who brought on the company’s downfall by selling lots and lots and lots of credit default swaps. Before we get too outraged about these bonuses, though, consider a couple of facts. First, as morally reprehensible as the bonuses are, they amount to less than 1/1000 of the roughly $180 BILLION bailout (which, if all goes according to plan, the government should be able to recoup anyway – these are loans, not grants). But more importantly, if the contracts promise bonuses for sales (rather than for profits), the salespeople over at AIG’s financial products division clearly did a bang-up job! They were wildly successful at selling their product – that’s why there’s a crisis! Of course, since sales usually lead to profits, it’s not surprising if businesses commonly “incentivize” sales per se. But it seems to me that what we’re currently witnessing (not just at AIG, but throughout the financial system) is the cost of incentivizing sales and profits independently of their broader social effects… or even independently of their broader corporate effects. The outrage should not be directed at a few executives and salespeople. It should be directed at the socially unconscious profit-motive itself (Adam Smith not withstanding; Smith’s “invisible hand” presupposed individual morality). But the politicians certainly aren’t ready to go there… yet.

By the way, I’m NOT suggesting that socialism or communism is the answer. But I do think that the capitalist world had better get down to the task of revamping the economic system so that producing socially responsible (that is, non-destructive on some reasonable social cost-benefit analysis) products is incentivized, rather than just sales and profits of any old product. Pushing for that, combined with regulation of the sorts of over-leveraging practices and complex derivative products that led us to this point, seems to me to be the most worthy outlet for outrage.

UPDATE 3-19-09: Well, I’ve watched part of Liddy’s testimony, and it turns out that none of those bonuses recently paid out to the financial products division of AIG were “performance bonuses”; rather, they were “retention bonuses”. That is, they were not rewards for sales or profits, but rather simply incentives for the employees to remain with the company… to undo the damage they had done. So here is a new way to make sure that you prolong your job, no matter how badly you do it: just design products that are so complex that no one else can understand them, and so destructive that your services will be needed indefinitely, if only to defuse them.

Is it just me, or has the world become one huge Dilbert cartoon?

Two Films Worth Seeing

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While I love watching a well-made film, most of the ones I see do not stay with me for more than a couple of days. Like most of my dreams, they hardly make a dent in my memory. Like jazz, they seem best appreciated in real time. So when a film sticks with me for more than a couple of days, I figure it’s worth recommending – especially given the lack of quality offerings this time of year.

The first is Two Lovers, directed by James Gray and starring Joaquin Phoenix and Gwyneth Paltrow. This is a deliciously uncomfortable story to watch, mostly due to Phoenix’s performance, which is the most interesting I’ve ever seen him give – a stark portrait of subtle neurosis. Similarly, Paltrow plays a vacant air-head with an authenticity that’s impressive, given that in “real-life” she’s anything but. Isabella Rossellini also does a fine job as Phoenix’s mother… you never quite know, until the end, whether she’s the source of Phoenix’s problems. And the choice that Phoenix makes at the end of the film is so ambiguous, you can simultaneously view it as both amazingly life-affirming and depressingly resigned – quite a writing job by Gray and his partner Ric Menello.

The other film that I can’t help but smile about every time I think of it is Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino. I’ve never been much of an Eastwood fan, although I liked “Million Dollar Baby” and “Mystic River”, and admired his Iwo Jima epics. I’ve also never much liked movies that self-consciously used the histories of their actors to make their thematic points. But here that strategy works beautifully. Eastwood’s previous characters – mostly purveyors of violence (for all the best reasons, of course) – reverberate throughout every frame of this film, and the climax is Eastwood’s very effective way of commenting slyly on his whole career. The effect of the whole is exponentially greater than the sum of the parts.

How Much Beauty Do We Ignore?

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Although the media covered this pretty well back in 2007 (you can read the Washington Post story here), I don’t remember hearing about it. My friend B. recently sent me some email considering its implications.

Apparently Joshua Bell – one of the world’s best violinists – played a 40 minute concert in a Metro station in Washington D.C., posing as a street musician. Only seven people stopped to listen (out of 1097 who passed by), and if you subtract the $20 donated by a woman who recognized him, he earned a total of $39 – actually, not a bad take for a street musician. Still, it raises interesting issues concerning how context can affect perception. Sure, most of the folks in the Metro were in hurry to get from points A to B, but does anyone doubt that if they had noticed the virtuosity before their ears, they wouldn’t have paused at least briefly to appreciate it?

The question is, given how much we all rush about in our lives, how much beauty do we miss on a daily basis?

Time For A Little Humor

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Remember Steven Wright, the disheveled comedian with a deep, sleepy voice whose act consists mostly of pithy one-liners? I recently received some email with a list of such “sayings” attributed to him. Here are a few of my favorites…

“Borrow money from pessimists – they don’t expect it back.”
“A conscience is what hurts when all your other parts feel so good.”
“A clear conscience is usually the sign of a bad memory.”
“All those who believe in psychokinesis, raise my hand.”
“OK, so what’s the speed of dark?”
“To steal ideas from one person is plagiarism; to steal from many is research.”
“The sooner you fall behind, the more time you’ll have to catch up.”

And the one that philosophers can most relate to:
“A conclusion is the place where you got tired of thinking.”