Monday, May 30, 2011

d'Indy: High on Mountain Air

I've been listening to Vincent d'Indy's Symphony on a French Mountain Air over and over lately. Here is the classic 1958 RCA recording of the first movement with Nicole Henriot-Schweitzer at the piano and the Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Charles Munch.

What an adorable work it is! And it's not just pretty -- it has some depths to it!

I'm prejudiced, here, I must admit, because this work is about something that's dear to my heart: mountains, life in the mountains, and mountain-people.

All three movements are based on a single mountain folk song, though the first movement, roughly in sonata allegro form, has a secondary theme as well -- listen for it at 3:10, above. Liner notes sometimes quote music historian Julien Tiersnot concerning this body of traditional music:
The high mountains give to folk that become acclimated to their altitude something of the purity of their atmosphere. It seems as though there were in these mountain songs - they were generally songs of shepherds - something fluid, ethereal, a gentleness that is not found in folk songs of the plains.
I think I hear these qualities in this music. There is a another quality that d'Indy captures brilliantly: mountain life is tremendously stimulating. This comes out especially in the third and last movement (see below).

There are probably several reasons for this. The accelerated heartbeat caused by the thin air might be one. The spicy resinous tang in the air from coniferous trees is clearly another. And the air itself! It is thinner, and like the man said, is more pure: it holds less moisture and dust. There is less in it to filter out the sun's rays, so more of them hit you. On the other hand, water evaporates faster in the thin dry air. That is why mountain plants often have leaves that have evolved into thick pads or dwindled into needles -- like desert plants, and for the same reason: the plant is trying to avoid evaporation. On you, the effect of greater evaporation is a bracing feeling of coolness, at least on the parts of your skin that are shielded from the sun. Those that are not, are roasted with radiant energy. As you move about in the mountain light and air you experience a tingling barrage of sharp, shifting contrasts, so different from the muffling, lulling air of the plains. It wakes you up and raises your consciousness.

Is it a coincidence that the great drug producing regions of the world, whether the opium fields of Afghanistan or the marijuana patches of the Sierra Madre Occidental, are typically in the mountains? My friends the Tarahumara, famous for their use of peyote, are mountain folk. Mountains are naturally high, in both senses.

Here are the other two movements of the symphony:

Photos of d'Indy suggest, by the way, that, like Abraham Lincoln, Oscar Wilde, and this man, he was mildly acromegalic.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Morel Feast!

Its Morel (Morchella esculenta) season here in southern Wisconsin – in fact, it’s already winding down, so unless you live north of us, this may be your last chance for a year to enjoy the smoky, beefy goodness of these fabulous fungi!

Last weekend we had our annual Morel feast. It was great fun!

On the menu: rib eye steak with a Morel red wine reduction sauce (for the sauce I adapt this recipe). Side dishes were: orange-marinated charcoal grilled asparagus, and a yam puree I invented myself. Here is the recipe for the puree (it is both paleo and can easily be made vegan):

Paleo Yam Puree with Pecans and Maple:


6 medium yams

½ cup (approx) real maple syrup

½ cup (approx) coconut milk

½ cup (approx) chicken stock

¾ teaspoon curry powder

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

¼ cup pecan chips (finely chopped but not ground)

additional maple syrup to coat the chips

Heat oven to 400 degrees. Peel and coarsely cube yams. Sprinkle with salt, pepper, and curry powder. Drizzle with sufficient maple syrup to coat, and stir. Place in a cooking pan with raised sides, so that the yams are about two inches deep. Roast yam mixture for 1 hour, or long enough to get some browning (but not burning) on the material at the bottom of the pan. Open the oven and stir the mixture, scraping the bottom of the pan if needed, every 20 minutes.

For pecan topping: Place pecan chips in a small, non-stick pan (I used a miniature bread loaf pan). Stir in sufficient maple syrup to coat chips. Place in oven with yams and cook for about 10 minutes, stirring at least once. (This has to be watched closely or it will burn.) Most of the moisture should cook out, so that the pecans are covered with a maple glaze. Cool and harden in the freezer. A sort of pecan brittle will form, which you can break into individual chips with your fingers.

Take the yams out of the oven and add enough coconut milk and stock to be able to puree it with a blender (I use and immersion blender because I think it’s fun). Puree until smooth. Sprinkle each serving with the glazed separated pecan chips.

Serves 6 paleo eaters or 8 regular people.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Mixed Feelings about the Kochs and Florida State University

So there is another kerfuffle about the Koch brothers. (Charles Koch pictured here.) They have donated $1.5 million to Florida State University to (here it gets fuzzy - the screechy "reporting" I have managed to find does not treat these sorts of details as important) fund an academic position with a string attached: Though the economics department will make the final hiring decision, a representative of the Koch Foundation will in effect have a veto power over candidates.

The academic left is enraged, while others, like libertarian James S. Taylor, defend the arrangement. I guess I have to say, boring as this might be, that my own response is mixed. On the one hand, I can't think of another arrangement in which a donor has this sort of influence over hiring decisions. On the other, I think Taylor is right in claiming that this is not a threat to academic freedom.

Both FSU and its econ department have freely agreed to this arrangement. How can this violate their freedom? Rather it is the people who are pressuring them to cancel the deal that are attempting to violate someone's freedom.

That's on the one hand. On the other hand, I think there is a principle involved that is one of the elements of academic freedom (though I also think it is useful to distinguish it from academic freedom itself). I think it of as "the principle of disciplinary autonomy." It is the idea that decisions about departmental matters that are based on principles and ideas that are internal to the discipline (eg., what is a proper methodology for the study of X-ology? may it have an ideological coloring and if so what sort might it have? etc.) must be made by the department itself. External agents such as deans, divisional committees, etc. must oversee departmental decisions (eg., in hiring and promotion) but their decisions must be based on considerations that are external to the discipline, in that they apply equally to all disciplines: mainly, such considerations as professional competence and area coverage (eg., does the philosophy department really need another person in ancient?). If they think that some trends in X-ology are promising while others are a passing fad and a waste of time, they must not interfere with departmental decisions based on such considerations. The only people who should be deciding which trends in X-ology ought to be pursued by the department are the people in the department.

Accepting an endowment that has ideological strings or external ideologically motivated oversight attached seems to compromise this principle. I think this is why most departments would reject a gift of this sort. They do not want donors to have this sort of influence.

And yet I don't mind what FSU and the Kochs are doing here. Why not? Mainly because the picture I have just painted, of donors who put money into a process in which their own ideological preferences play no role, is, if you will pardon my French, almost complete bullshit. Leftist donors can easily fund positions that promote their own ideology. All they have to do is endow a chair in environmental ethics, women's studies, or any other discipline with the word "studies" in its title. There is no doubt in anyone's mind about the point of view that they will be promoting by doing so. The principle of disciplinary autonomy offers freedom of choice to leftist donors, while offering non-leftists the pretense of a liberty that they do not possess.

The principle of disciplinary autonomy covers this situation with an appearance of legitimacy that is not completely honest.

The libertarian Koch brothers are trying to beat a system that is rigged against them and in favor of others. Part of me says "good! -- it's a system that deserves an occasional beating."

Monday, May 16, 2011

Commencement High Jinx

This is my favorite commencement address so far. No, not the one above. That's my second favorite. It's the one I've pasted in below.

This was actually a column written by Chicago Trib writer Mary Schmich, meant to show what sort of commencement speech she would give, were she ever invited to give one (gee, I wonder why that never did happen?):

Ladies and gentlemen of the class of 1997:

Wear sunscreen.

If I could offer you only one tip for the future, sunscreen would be it. The long-term benefits of sunscreen have been proved by scientists, whereas the rest of my advice has no basis more reliable than my own meandering experience. I will dispense this advice now.

Enjoy the power and beauty of your youth. Oh, never mind. You will not understand the power and beauty of your youth until they've faded. But trust me, in 20 years, you'll look back at photos of yourself and recall in a way you can't grasp now how much possibility lay before you and how fabulous you really looked. You are not as fat as you imagine.

Don't worry about the future. Oh worry, but know that worrying is as effective as trying to solve an algebra equation by chewing bubble gum. The real troubles in your life are apt to be things that never crossed your worried mind, the kind that blindside you at 4 P.M. on some idle Tuesday.

Do one thing every day that scares you.


Don't be reckless with other people's hearts. Don't put up with people who are reckless with yours.


Don't waste your time on jealousy. Sometimes you're ahead, sometimes you're behind. The race is long and, in the end, it's only with yourself.

Remember compliments you receive. Forget the insults. If you succeed in doing this, tell me how.

Keep your old love letters. Throw away your old bank statements.


Don't feel guilty if you don't know what you want to do with your life. The most interesting people I know didn't know at 22 what they wanted to do with their lives. Some of the most interesting 40-year-olds I know still don't.

Get plenty of calcium. Be kind to your knees. You'll miss them when they're gone.

Maybe you'll marry, maybe you won't. Maybe you'll have children, maybe you won't. Maybe you'll divorce at 40, maybe you'll dance the funky chicken on your 75th wedding anniversary. Whatever you do, don't congratulate yourself too much, or berate yourself, either. Your choices are half chance. So are everybody else's.

Enjoy your body. Use it every way you can. Don't be afraid of it or of what other people think of it. It's the greatest instrument you'll ever own.

Dance, even if you have nowhere to do it but your living room.

Read the directions, even if you don't follow them.

Goodbye to Fat City!

I have such warm memories of the Stockton California Public Library. The dingy old building had a separate, gleaming remodeled room for kid's books. In the main library, there was a dim. secluded mezzanine alcove with a whole shelf of scientific books about spiders. Nerd heaven! Sprinkled here and there were old men in trench coats muttering to themselves about how "the CIA did this to me." The building was on Market St., said to be "the longest Skid Row in America." This street was the setting and location of the book and film, Fat City. One of these pathetic souls once waylaid me and warned me that if I did not do my homework I would end up like him. I told him that I did do my homework but thank you sir for your advice.

Well, if the Joe and Rika Mansueto Library is indeed the library of the future, I guess we can say goodbye to all that. No more browsing, and no more muttering freaks. Everything will be done for you by robots and computers in surroundings of wholesome antiseptic sterility!

This rather creepy dystopian setup seems to combine ideas from several different university libraries that I have used over the last 4.5 decades. The Milton Eisenhower Library at The Johns Hopkins University is seven stories -- except that they are negative stories, all but one being below ground. At U. C. Berkeley back in the sixties, undergraduates were already not allowed in the stacks. You requested a book and employees (fellow undergraduates on starvation wages) brought it to you. What's new about this setup is replacing shelves with these "bins," an innovation made possible by the advent of computers and bar codes.

This is one solution to a real problem: the sheer number of books, which, like the size of the national debt, only seems to go in one direction. Unlike the other evils men do, books to not disappear when they have been inflicted on us. They accumulate. Mέγα βιβλίον μέγα κακόν, a big book is a great evil, as Kallimachos said. And so are many books. What to do with them all? Here, I suppose, is one answer.

(Hat-tip to Ray Sawhill for the link.)

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Conspiracism is not Freedom Friendly

A propos of the conspiracy theories swarming like pestiferous gnats around the death of bin Laden, John Derbyshire had this to say:
I speak here as a person just temperamentally allergic to conspiracy theories. They belong, in my mind, to that much bigger continent of ideas whose central organizing doctrine is that things are other than they seem, the continent of gnosticism.

Now I know of course that things sometimes are other than what they seem. As a connoisseur of mathematical paradoxes and sometime student of relativity theory and quantum mechanics, I'm very well aware of that.

In human affairs, however, it's not the way to bet. Furthermore, it engenders a suspicious, mistrustful cast of mind that can all too easily tip over into paranoid insanity.

It's especially not the way to bet when discussing government action. Government, most of the time, is a great blind blundering beast, incapable of any kind of subtlety. What you see is what you get, with due allowance for stupidity and incompetence.

This last point is the one that strikes me at the moment. It continues to amaze me that so many libertarians are also conspiracists. True enough, the conspiracy theories they like are not the Nazi kind (It's all a Jewish plot!), nor the Communist kind (It's all a capitalist plot!). They like the kind that, like Huck Finn's Pap, are "agin the gummint".

But that does not mean that these theories are liberty friendly. In fact they are the opposite. One thing that distinguishes conspiracism from serious scholarly thinking about real-world conspiracies (eg., the 19 religious nut-jobs who destroyed the World Trade Center) is that it attributes what I call "superpowers" to the villains of its narratives, capacities that are well beyond the abilities of normal human beings. At the very least, they attribute to the conspiracy the ability to change history by coordinating the efforts of an disparate array of people, without any leaks, without the thing unraveling in mid-process, with no death-bed confessions, and all of this invisible, inaudible -- undetectable to everyone but the conspiracist.

This violates a central tenet of enlightened libertarianism: the proposition that, in the immortal words of Dave Barry, government is stupid.

[For my earlier jottings on the cognitive illness I call "conspiracism," see this.]

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The Ethics of the bin Laden Killing

Note: This post supersedes anything I have previously written on this subject. In case of any inconsistencies, this represents my present view of the matter:

First of all, we do not know exactly what happened at the Abbottabad compound on May 1, and in these matters details are important. In a covert operation, the deception does not cease when the operation in the field is over. Your enemy is eager to know how you operate, and you are equally anxious that they learn all the wrong lessons. Fraud is as essential to the functioning of the state as force is. In the present case, this is complicated by this administration’s inability to get its story straight and its deliberate destruction of or refusal to publish evidence as to what actually happened. However, it is an interesting academic question to ask whether, if the official version is true, the killing of Osama bin Laden was ethically problematic or not.

The official version of the events now seems to include the following allegations and admissions: 1) Special US operatives (SEALs and possibly CIA) went there specifically to kill or capture bin Laden. 2) Only one enemy ever offered armed resistance, and he was killed at the beginning of the operation. 3) Bin Laden was unarmed when he was killed. 4) He was not actively attempting to surrender. 4) The operatives did not request or demand that he surrender. 5) At time he was killed, bin Laden was not living in retirement, but was in fact actively the supreme enemy commander.

Was this justified?

The following plausible ethical principles are relevant: a) In war, there is nothing wrong with targeting an individual enemy. If, during World War II, special forces had invaded the home of a German military commander and killed him, few would deny that this was justified. Further: b) Fighters do not have an obligation to expose themselves to risk for the sole purpose of sparing the lives of legitimate enemy targets. c) There is nothing per se wrong with shooting unarmed enemy combatants. Warfare would be impossible if one could only fire on enemy who were in possession of their weapons at the time. (a), (b), and (c) obviously speak in favor of this operation. However, there are two more principles that are more problematic and seem to me eminently plausible: d) Pure revenge is not a justification, either in war or at any other time. Acts of destruction must be reasonably thought to be the best available way to advance a legitimate military objective (generally, to influence future enemy behavior). e) Other things being equal, taking enemy prisoner is to be preferred to killing them.

(d) and (e) could imply an obligation to ask bin Laden to surrender. It depends on what was actually happening at the time. Suppose that the operatives were reasonably certain that the only people in the compound were wives, children, dead bodies, and enemy who were completely in their control at the time. In that case, I would say, clearly the killing of bin Laden was simply an act of murder and not justified. The same would be true if they went there with orders to kill him, or to prefer killing him to taking him prisoner. Of course, we can imagine other scenarios, also consistent with the alleged facts, that imply a different result. At the moment the operatives confronted and shot bin Laden, there was probably a good deal of chaos at the compound. Did any of this chaos constitute a threat to the operatives? We do not know. It is possible to fill in details in ways that indicate the shooting was a justifiable act of war. What you ought to think of this operation, in my opinion, depends on what you think was happening at the time, on the nature of the risks that the operatives still faced, and on the role shooting bin Laden might have played in controlling these risks.

Sunday, May 08, 2011

How bin Laden Won

In the transcript for John Derbyshire's Friday podcast, you can find some wise observations on the War on Terror. I can do no better than simply quote him. I think of them as a succinct explanation of how bin Laden won. Here are his words (I hope it goes without saying that this does not constitute an endorsement of John's views on any other subject):

Mid-morning on September 11th 2001, as I was watching the Twin Towers burn on my TV screen, I got a phone call from Kathy Lopez at NRO. Could I give her eight hundred words on what had happened? I said I sure could, and went to my computer and knocked out a column, and emailed it in to Kathy. It's there in the NRO archives somewhere, and on my own website.

Here's part of what I wrote, quote:

This is not an easy enemy to confront. This will not be a matter of great troop movements, of trenches and fleets and squadrons and massed charges. This will be small teams of inconceivably brave men and women, working in strange places, unknown and unacknowledged. But is the same enemy, the same truth, of which Kipling spoke: evil, naked and proud: "a crazed and driven foe." This is what humanity has faced before, since our story began to be written down. This is civilization versus barbarism.

Last Sunday's mission, the mission to kill Osama bin Laden, was precisely the kind of thing I was predicting: "small teams of inconceivably brave men and women, working in strange places, unknown and unacknowledged." That's the right way to conduct a War on Terror.

Our government had other ideas. We sent great armies into Afghanistan and Iraq. We spent colossal sums of money — well over a trillion dollars to date. We sacrificed thousands of our military personnel — four and a half thousand in Iraq, one and a half thousand in Afghanistan. Still it goes on: we've had eight combat deaths in Iraq this year, seventy-two in Afghanistan.

Osama bin Laden once boasted that his 9/11 operation was the most highly leveraged investment in history. It cost him $500,000, he said, but it had cost the American economy $500 billion — a return on investment of 99,999,900 percent. He was speaking of the operation's effect on Wall Street, on the stock of airline companies and so on.

If you look at the numbers I quoted a moment ago, though, they are just as embarrassing. Those 19 dead martyrs of his led to three thousand American civilian deaths and six thousand military. That's a rate of return of nearly fifty thousand percent. Taking the cost of Iraq and Afghanistan so far as one and a half trillion dollars, that's a return on investment of three hundred million percent. You see why I'm not cheering?

If we had stuck with operations like last Sunday's— the operations I foresaw on 9/11 — supplemented by the kind of diligent intelligence work that makes such operations possible, and further supplemented by the kind of remote drone attacks that have decimated Al Qaeda's senior ranks, there'd be cause for unrestrained jubilation at our victories. As it is, those victories are glowing lights in the shadow of much waste and folly.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Obama, the Kindly Killer

For centuries, "unlawful combatants" captured in the field, including captured spies and others who pass through military lines out of uniform, were summarily executed in the field. Then civilization progressed further and we developed other procedures for dealing with such foes. On Sunday, the US took a step backwards. After days of garbled, contradictory, and possibly mendacious versions of the events, the administration has admitted that Osama bin Laden was unarmed when he was shot (in view of his young daughter, I might add). Further, the three shots, one to the chest and two to the head, do not sound like they were administered to someone who was putting up any sort of resistance.

So we have gone back to the good old days of summary execution. This, truly, is change I can believe in.

Obama's more hawkish supporters have often pointed out that he has killed more al Qaida than G. W. Bush did in a similar period of time. Everyone is familiar with his fondness for killing people with predator drones (and even joking about it in public).

I have a theory that explains all this -- both the drones and the execution of bin Laden. If Bush killed fewer al Qaida, that is because he wanted to capture them, hold them indefinitely, torture them, extract information, and go after more of these people. Obama on the other hand takes no prisoners. Why? Because he is a ruthless fascist thug? No, for liberal reasons.

His ideology requires him to put combatants who have committed war crimes overseas on civilian trial, with the lavish array of civil liberties that American citizens possess. That doesn't seem to work very well. What to do, then? Well, everyone agrees you can kill enemy in the field so ... What the Hell? Let's just kill them!

Some years ago, Johathan Rauch wrote a great book, Kindly Inquisitors, in which he argued that liberal attitudes (concern for the hurt feeling of oppressed groups) can lead to illiberal policies (censoring speech). We see here another instance of the same phenomenon.

I have long argued that there is a middle ground between the brutality of killing in the field and civilian trials: it is a suitably reformed version of military tribunals. Military tribunals handled Japanese war criminals after World War II. Maybe the US will consider stopping (some of) the killing and trying this method again -- suitably updated, as I've said.

Update: Since I wrote the above, the official version of the raid has "evolved" some more. It now is perfectly consistent with my "Obama does not know what to do with prisoners" theory. Note that the participants do not claim that more than one person ever fired on them, and they say they killed this person at the beginning of the raid. They also do not allege that bin Laden offered any resistance at all. (I like the way, as more embarrassing details emerge, the government's servants in the media have to say things like "none of this diminishes the courage and accomplishment of those blah blah blah...." That is so cute!) Here is NBC's account:

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Sunday, May 01, 2011

Rhapsody in Blue

The other night we watched Rhapsody in Blue (dir. Irving Rapper, 1945). It was really quite good.

It was a special treat to see Oscar Levant playing himself. He must have written many of his own lines: "I've got a date with my insomnia [trans.: it's time to go to bed]" "If it wasn't for Gershwin I could've been a pretty good mediocre composer." And then there is:
Oscar: If I had your talent, I'd be a pretty obnoxious fella. What do you call yourself?
George: George Gershwin. It's my real name.
Oscar: Mine's Oscar Levant. I'm thinking of changing it.
Levant's style of humor is unique. Generally, it's the sort of thing that is usually called "self-deprecating," but with a difference. Usually one deprecates one's own intelligence and virtue. In his case, it is mainly his own happiness and health that he deprecates. His trademark is the wry comment on his multitudinous neuroses.

A few years ago I purchased a copy of his autobiographical A Smattering of Ignorance. Maybe I'll read it now!

The musical numbers were beautifully done. As you can see in the above clip, they perform "Rhapsody in Blue" whole! I can't think of another studio-era Hollywood movie that depicts an entire performance of a symphonic movement. True, they seem to have cut some of it (this version is three minutes longer) but even Bernstein sometimes did this piece with cuts, so I am still impressed.

The storyline was less impressive, even though the great Howard Koch, author of my favorite movie ever, was involved. But I can't blame the writers that much. Gershwin was this workaholic who wrote a lot of memorable music, had a decade-long romantic relationship with a female composer whom he never married, and died suddenly at 38 of a brain tumor. Not a lot of a story there. Worse yet, he had a happy childhood and was a nice person who didn't quarrel with people. To get some kind of a story going, they invent a mentor for him, a wise old composer who dies during the Rapsody concert, and two fictional women, both of whom he loves. That, plus worries about whether he will offend both the critics and the public by combining jazz with classical music, and painful symptoms presaging his early death, are about all the dramatic conflict we get.

Robert Alda's performance as Gershwin is sincere and affecting. But what makes is all worth watching is the music -- and the lovably crotchety Oscar.