Sunday, March 24, 2019

What's Your Angle?


Native English speakers grow up with an edge, but the edge is one of two on the same sword. English is not the most common first language in the world. Mandarin Chinese and Spanish both have more native speakers. As a second language, however, English is unmatched with some 1 billion speakers and they are spread around the world. Largely as a legacy of the colonial aptitude of the British in the 18th and 19th centuries, and then of American influence in the 20th century, nations in which English is at least one of the official languages exist on every continent – even Antarctica if you count the scientific outposts – as well as numerous island outposts. Knowing the language is a big asset, so it is widely studied elsewhere. It has become the language of international commerce and air travel. The internet has hastened its global spread: some 60% of the content is in English. While that percentage surely will diminish as net access spreads, the role of English will remain outsized on the net for the foreseeable future.

The downside to being native speakers of English is something that can be overcome but, due to normal human laziness, commonly isn’t. Not needing to become at least marginally fluent in another language in order to get by at home and (in most cases) abroad, most Anglophones don’t. Even though another language is a requirement in high school and (generally) college, without regular use the skills (if any) acquired by students soon fade. My own high school Spanish evaporated long ago; my Latin, strangely, has fared somewhat better, but that is not as useful as one might imagine. Hence the common joke:

Q: If a polyglot is someone who speaks many languages, what do you call a person who speaks only one?
A: An American.

(I’ve heard the same joke with “Englishman” as the answer.)

The history of any language is interesting in its own way. Lithuanian, for example, is interesting for having evolved less than most: it is believed to be closer to proto-Indo-European than any extant language and shares some grammatical forms with Sanskrit that have vanished from other European tongues. The history of English couldn’t be more different from that. The accidents of history remolded it time and again while expanding it from a minor regional dialect to its current global reach. A readable and compendious book on the subject is The Story of English by Joseph Piercy.

The language has been an unlikely survivor, in large part because of its ability to absorb and transform. Britain had been highly Latinized during the centuries as a Roman province, but the Angle, Saxon, and Jute invaders brushed all that aside with surprising speed. Their North Germanic tongue became what we now call Old English, which then survived (while absorbing vocabulary from) the Viking invasions. It survived in turn (while transforming into Middle English) the Norman Conquest despite the aristocracy speaking French for many years afterward. It survived and was enriched by the deliberate Latinization of the early Modern English period. It survived and thrived in the turbulent history that followed. Given its 184 page length, Piercy's book contains a lot of information, citations, and quotes about all this. Recommended.

A good complement to Piercy is The Vulgar Tongue: Green’s History of Slang by Jonathan Green. Slang, after all, is the leading edge of language. It is notoriously hard to define, but we know it when we hear it – at least until it becomes part of the “legitimate” language, if it ever does. Some slang has survived yet remained slang for centuries. Some is absorbed into polite speech. Most comes and goes in a few decades. There are few people who know the subject better than Jonathon Green, author of Green’s Dictionary of Slang (with 110,000 entries and 415,000 citations) and consultant for the OED. In The Vulgar Tongue he relates the history of slang rather than compiling definitions, though naturally this requires numerous examples. There are side excursions into regional (e.g. Australian), ethnic, and social group (e.g. jazz and beatnik) slang. The subject has attracted scholars from the time English became a literary enough language to have a polite form along with a vulgar one. (During the Norman period, arguably there was no slang: all English was the common tongue.) In the 18th century, for example, along with Samuel Johnson’s landmark dictionary was Francis Grose’ A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1785). The word “slang,” which of course is not slang, first appears in a dictionary title in 1859. Green’s book is also recommended, especially in conjunction with Piercy.

The core of literary English actually has been remarkably stable since the 17th century. Shakespeare remains easily readable, much as high school students might demur to that assessment. His style might not be simple, but beyond a small percentage of archaic words the content poses no real obstructions. The language has added numerous words and phrases since then but has subtracted relatively few. It would be fun to hear English spoken in a century to find out if polite speech remains the same, what current slang still infuses everyday speech, what sounds laughably archaic to the then speakers, and what has been added and from where. I suspect that for me this is an unlikely prospect.


Clip from Ball of Fire (1941). Gary Cooper is an ivory tower English Professor tasked with writing an article on slang for a new encyclopedia. He wishes to interview nightclub performer Barbara Stanwyck (who mistakes him at first for a detective) for her expertise on modern slang.


Sunday, March 17, 2019

The Time of Our Lives


A week has passed, which is long enough for most of us to have adjusted to the annoying spring ritual of Daylight Savings Time. Even the stray cat that daily cadged food at my door all winter at 8 a.m. Eastern Savings Time (and not before) now shows up at 8 a.m. Eastern Standard Time and not later. People (and apparently stray cats) are adaptable creatures, so why fuss about a simple clock change? Because the time change wreaks havoc on everything from personal health to train schedules, and it doesn’t accomplish the supposed goal of saving energy more than negligibly if at all. It’s not clear that it did anything useful back in 1916 when it was instituted as a wartime measure to conserve coal. Even if it did save a few lumps back then, which is uncertain, a wartime mandate to open schools, government offices, and factories an hour earlier would have served just as well. Today, anyone who might wish to make use of an earlier sunrise could get up earlier with or without changing the nominal time. Businesses can change their hours, too if they choose.

Older than I am, my wall clock has been
adjusted to DST 70 times and ST 69. It
never complains.
The negative effects of Daylight Savings are far from negligible. Most of them derive directly or indirectly from sleep deprivation. According to Popular Science workplace injuries rise 5.7% on the Monday after the switch. This is not matched by a decline when the clocks turn back in autumn. Fatal car crashes in the US rise 5.4% for the entire week after the springtime change as tired drivers make mistakes. There is a whopping 24% increase in heart attacks on the Monday after the start of DST but this is nearly balanced by a 21% drop on the Monday after the switch back to Standard Time, so we’ll call that one a wash. Try to avoid having a court date on the Monday after the start of DST though; cranky judges sentence convicts to 5% longer terms on that day. Crime rates drop slightly during DST, it is true, but this probably has nothing to do with the nominal time and everything to do with the natural phenomenon of more daylight hours that time of year. Darkness is simply better for crime, and there is less of it in spring and summer.

So why don’t we just give up on the whole idea? Inertia is the only plausible answer. It is hard for people to stop doing what they habitually do. It is why Americans stubbornly use English measurements despite metric having been official in the US (yes, it really is) since the Metric Act of 1866. Besides, Congress would have to act on abandoning DST, and Congress no longer can act on anything even in a bad cause much less a good one.

This is as good a place as any to absolve poor old Benjamin Franklin of the frequently heard charge of having come up with the idea for Daylight Savings. Ben was an early victim of Poe’s Law, which reads, “Without a clear indication of the author's intent, it is difficult or impossible to tell the difference between an expression of sincere extremism and a parody of extremism.” In other words, no matter how obvious your satire might seem to you, someone will take you seriously. Franklin was joking.

The source of the charge is a letter written by Ben in the spring of 1784 to The Journal of Paris. Ben was in Paris as a diplomat for the fledgling United States. He and his companions (and, one may guess, the editors of The Paris Journal) enjoyed the nightlife. They went to bed late and arose late. In the letter he relates his remarkable discovery. One night, as usual, he “went home, and to bed, three or four hours after midnight” but on this occasion neglected to close the shutters on the window. He was awakened at six o’clock by sunlight streaming through the un-shuttered window and thought it “extraordinary that the sun should rise so early.” He realizes the editors of the journal might be skeptical: “Yet it so happens, that when I speak of this discovery to others, I can easily perceive by their countenances, though they forbear expressing it in words, that they do not quite believe me.” After reiterating the truth of the matter, he goes on to explain how all that unused sunlight can be exploited, because “a discovery which can be applied to no use, or is not good for something, is good for nothing.” He estimates the number of candles used by 100,000 Parisian families at night and calculates that shifting their schedules earlier would save 96,075,000 livres in the six months between the spring and autumnal equinoxes: “An immense sum! that the city of Paris might save every year, by the economy of using sunshine instead of candles.”

“All the difficulty will be in the first two or three days,” he opines, after which people would adjust. To help them make the adjustment he recommends imposing taxes on candles, regulations on candle shops, and fines on homeowners with closed shutters, while letting “cannon be fired in every street, to wake the sluggards effectually, and make them open their eyes to see their true interest.”

I’ve heard sillier proposals, and (Nathan Poe’s admonition notwithstanding) not as satire.


The Chambers Brothers – Time Has Come Today

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Second Law


The likelihood of a light bulb burning out is inversely related to its accessibility. That is probably untrue even though it somehow seems right. The first household light bulb I need to replace in 2019 is near the peak of a cathedral ceiling. No big deal, of course, though it means getting the extension ladder, which is half-buried in snow next to the barn. Winter is lingering in this region this year. (“Barn” probably evokes a grander image than to which the structure is entitled.)  The LED replacement should last a while – in fact it might be sensible to replace the other three incandescent bulbs with LEDs while I’m up there. It is a tiny harbinger of things to come, for, despite appearances, spring approaches. That is good in a general way (I’m not especially fond of winter), but it is a season for repairs and maintenance largely neglected in the winter months.


On average, an untended house will self-destruct in about 40 years. My house is 40 years old. It is not untended, but – just as in the case of a typical 40-year-old human – entropy is outpacing rehabilitation. It is possible to build for the ages, and we have much ancient monumental architecture still standing (more or less) to prove it. But unless you have the financial resources of an empire and a workforce of thousands at your disposal to build your home, it is more likely that before four decades are out you will be fighting a losing battle with entropy along with the rest of us. It is probably no coincidence that humans and their homes enter middle-age in about the same length of time. Anything that happens four decades from now is likely to be Somebody Else’s Problem. We certainly don’t want to spend present-day money on Somebody Else’s Problem, so we don’t. My own house was built by my parents for themselves and it served them well with negligible trouble in the 22 years they had to enjoy it. (If I can keep it four more years from today I’ll have owned it longer than they did, which is somehow unsettling.) Middle-age aches and pains crept into the property (and me) since then.

The barn
What happens in four decades? Roof shingles curl, window caulking dries, fogging between the panes of double-glazed windows occurs, siding rots, furnaces fail, water heaters leak, garage door openers quit, locks seize, etc. Even masonry is at risk as moisture seeps into it and freezes. Water in one form or other is always the single biggest threat. Regular readers of this blog (there are a few) have seen mentions in it of re-shingling, wall repairs, window replacement, and so on at my place. I haven’t mentioned a myriad other problems including worn-out central air units, plumbing issues, loose bathroom tiles, bad fixtures, stripped tiles in the pool, and malfunctioning mechanicals of various types. Along with essential repairs (e.g. roof shingles) I make genuinely useful repairs (e.g. water heaters) while tending to put off unimportant ones such as a bad recessed closet light fixture accessible only from an awkward corner of the attic. I don’t expensively update the interior just for esthetic reasons, so my countertops are the same as those in The Brady Bunch kitchen while my bathroom tiles scream 1970s. We are often told that we can recover 70% of the cost of remodeling kitchens and baths through the increase they bring to the value of the house, but 1) that is true only if we sell the house before the remodeled kitchen and baths in turn age noticeably and 2) 70% is not 100% so from a purely economic standpoint we’re better off leaving those remodels to the next owner. If you have enough money to make these upgrades for the personal enjoyment of it, that is, of course, another matter. Perhaps if the next Pick-6 numbers go my way I’ll say goodbye to the Bradys, but not before.

My strategy for personal aging is similar. I tend to issues that would accelerate decline if I don’t tend to them (e.g. dental upkeep), but accept the small stuff (e.g. thinning hair) without fighting it. There are differences between entropy of lumber and flesh, of course. A proper diet and workout routine can put you in better shape this decade than you were last decade. (It won’t put you in better shape than you would have been a decade earlier had you followed the routine then, but still…) Giving your house a workout doesn’t help. It hurts. On the other hand, if you have the resources you can strip a house down to the studs and rebuild it so it is effectively new. We can’t (as yet anyway) strip ourselves down to the skeleton and slap a new body on it, and I’m not so sure that would be a good idea if we could.

Anyway, starting in a few weeks I’ll return to fixing up what I can while the forces of nature lean inexorably the other way. Camus said Sisyphus is happy, and I suppose I am, too, on balance. Besides, even assuming I hang onto this place until the end (a mighty big assumption), soon enough it will be Somebody Else’s Problem.


R.L. Burnside – Everything is Broken



Sunday, March 3, 2019

It’s a Mystery


The answer to what is the most popular genre of fiction in the US depends on how you define popular. In pure number of copies sold, children’s literature is far and away the most popular, but the total page count (never mind word count) puts it well down the list. What about adult fiction? According to surveys the mystery/detective/thriller genre is most popular, and about half of all regular fiction readers (who are a minority of the adult population) have read at least one mystery novel in the past year. Yet sales figures from publishers show that “adult general fiction” sells more copies than mysteries. Are the respondents lying? Maybe, though it is entirely possible that they buy more general fiction but actually like the mysteries they read better, so in their minds they are telling the truth. The most profitable genre for publishers is neither mysteries nor general fiction but romance literature including some types of erotica such as Fifty Shades of Grey. Romance fiction (surprisingly, given the state of the real thing at present) is the second most popular adult genre according to surveys. Fantasy and science fiction aren’t far behind, trailed by historical fiction and various niche categories. (Considering Young Adult fiction as a separate category confuses matters further since it overlaps each of the other genres.) However you crunch the numbers though, the mystery/detective/thriller genre is high on the list as it has been for the better part of two centuries. It is high on my list as well. My own taste in mysteries includes classic noir-ish fare from the likes of Raymond Chandler, darker fare from the likes of Jeff Lindsay (the Dexter novels), and crossover historical-mysteries from the likes of Lindsey Davis (the Falco stories set in ancient Rome). Then there is Boris Akunin, whose novel Black City I just finished.

Anyone who is a fan of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes but hasn’t met Boris Akunin’s Erast Fandorin needs to do so now. Boris Akunin is the pen name of Grigory Shalvovich Chkhartishvili, who was born in Tbilisi in 1956 but grew up in Moscow after 1958. After university he was not an instant success as a writer, but by the late 1990s his crime fiction had found its audience. His best-known recurring character is the fictional detective Erast Petrovich Fandorin, a contemporary of Sherlock Holmes. (One novella by Akunin is a crossover story featuring both Holmes and Fandorin who find themselves on the same case in France.) There are 15 books (12 in English) featuring the detective Erast Fandorin starting with The Winter Queen set in 1876 when Fandorin is a 20-y.o. clerk in the police department. Black City is the most recent when Fandorin is a 58-y.o. experienced private detective with imperial connections. There might or might not be a 16th book later this year or next year. The Fandorin stories have an underlying ominousness to them since we all know what happens in Russia after July 1914. The events in Black City take place (mostly) in the oil city of Baku in July 1914. All the books are enjoyable detective fiction, but for anyone new to the series I’d recommend both The Winter Queen and Black City (English translation published 2018), which bookend Fandorin’s career and personal life nicely.

The novel takes us first to Yalta where Fandorin is tricked into exposing the Tsar’s security chief to an assassin. He has reason to believe the plot was the work of a Bolshevik terrorist mastermind known as the Woodpecker. Fandorin, insulted and embarrassed by being used this way, follows a slim lead that the Woodpecker may be in the colorfully diverse oil city of Baku where a strike by petroleum workers is underway that could cripple Russia at time of diplomatic crisis while also possibly triggering wider revolution. As it happens, Fandorin’s actress wife is also in Baku where a movie starring her is being made. The thrill long since has gone from their marriage. Fandorin encounters intrigue, seduction, and betrayal involving ruthless oil magnates, bandits, terrorists, corrupt officials, foreign agents, moviemakers, and revolutionaries. Meantime there is the matter of an incident far away in Sarajevo. Russia without the calamity of World War One and its Revolutionary consequences is one of the great might-have-beens of history, and there seems a chance that Fandorin’s activities might just incidentally prevent the war. Even though we know in advance that they don’t, the reader can’t help hoping somehow they do.

This is a solid entry in the Fandorin series as a mystery novel, as a period piece, and as an adventure tale. Thumbs Up.

Akunin talks briefly about Fandorin

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Triple Play


An Evening with Beverly Luff Linn (2018)

Starring Craig Robinson as the title character Beverly Luff Linn and Aubrey Plaza as Lulu Danger, Jim Hoskin’s An Evening with Beverly Luff Linn repeatedly made me ask, “Why was this film made?” I’ve yet to come up with a satisfactory answer.

I like Aubrey Plaza whose usual deadpan style only strengthens the emotional moments in her screen roles. I like that she is willing to take chances with offbeat characters, which has paid off nicely in films such as Safety Not Guaranteed, Ingrid Goes West, and even (to a degree) Life after Beth. But they wouldn’t be “chances” if they didn’t sometimes turn up snake eyes. This time was craps (final “s” optional). The problem was not Aubrey or the other actors. It was the material.

I also like “quirky” when done right. Wes Anderson has a habit of doing it right, but he didn’t make this film. This film was a ham-handed attempt at quirky. A movie is not automatically artistic or amusing just because it has characters who talk oddly, behave weirdly, and dance awkwardly.

Plot: Lulu Danger is married to the total jerk (and thief) Shane (Emile Hirsch). In the company of would-be errant knight Colin (Jemaine Clement), Lulu leaves Shane. Lulu and Colin stop in a hotel where Beverly Luff Linn (a fellow with whom Lulu has an unresolved history) will be giving a performance. Beverly’s assistant (Matt Berry) is in love with Beverly. The relationships shake themselves out over a few days. That’s pretty much it, which in the right hands could be enough. The wrong hands were at work here.

In fairness to the filmmakers. I’ll mention that the positive critic and audience scores on Rotten Tomatoes are 52% and 56% respectively, though I can’t imagine what those slight majorities saw in it. Whatever it was, I missed it.

Thumbs Down.

**** ****

The Conspiracy against the Human Race: A Contrivance of Horror
by Thomas Ligotti

The plots, themes, and characters of every fiction writer are informed by that that writer’s philosophy and world view, acknowledged or otherwise. Joss Whedon comes to mind for reasons that will be obvious in the next segment. He rather famously infuses his scripts with existentialist notions about choices: about how we always have them (even if none are good) and about how our choices ultimately are who we are. (If you look closely in one episode of Buffy, you may notice the character Angel reading Sartre’s La Nausée.) Ligotti is a very good writer of especially creepy horror fiction. In 2010 he decided to be explicit about his own philosophy and how it relates to his fiction in The Conspiracy against the Human Race. Last year he published an updated new edition of the book. Ligotti is a philosophical pessimist, Schopenhauer being the best known proponent though Ligotti references many.

To the extent that Pessimism as a coherent philosophy has something to offer beyond “realism,” it is the observation that if you always expect the worst you won’t be much disappointed. There are some who find that comforting. Pessimists view life as a painful experience that inevitably ends in death. They argue that our struggle against death (even though it offers escape from pain) is merely an inherited instinct that makes no sense but is nonetheless real. Existence is accidental and without any inherent meaning. Consciousness is regarded as a catastrophe since it allows humans (unlike most creatures) to be fully aware of pain, anxiety, and mortality. People distract themselves from the awful realities with fantasies of “meaning,” with intoxicants, with physical or intellectual activities, and with made-up romantic notions. Ligotti quotes William S. Burroughs: “Love? What is it? The most natural painkiller there is.” (Woody Allen, another pessimist, said something similar in Annie Hall.)

Ligotti gives us a run-down on the evolution of various forms of horror fiction and tells us how they generate frisson by turning our eyes to the terrible while simultaneously distracting us from the terrible in real life.

Ligotti’s vision is not mine, but I do understand it. It is an interesting take on horror fiction in general and on his own in particular. Overall, though, I’d recommend his fiction itself rather than his analysis of it.

Thumbs cautiously and modestly Up.

**** ****

Buffy the Vampire Slayer No. 1: Buffy Summers (2019)
Story by Jordie Bellaire, illustrated by Dan Mora, created by Joss Whedon.

Into the life of every long-lived comic book character must come the reboot. This happens quickly and repeatedly for characters intended to be a particular age (e.g. the teenager Peter Parker), but eventually it happens to all. One can’t very well have a geriatric Batman, after all. Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer had a longer first run than most. The TV show lasted for 7 seasons starting in the spring of 1997. It was followed by 5 more “seasons” (elsewhere known as volumes) of comic books that didn’t come out every year. The Season 12 grand finale (The Reckoning) was published late in 2018. The timeline of the comics is not the same as for our world (i.e. not the same as the publication dates), but in Season 12 Buffy says she is age 30, which makes the year 2011 for the events in the comic. That date is too long ago and the protagonist is too adult for the series’ target demographic. Time for new boots.

Fans of any original series always have trepidation about a reboot. This is especially so in recent years when our socio-political divisions have infiltrated our popular culture to a degree that can impede (or replace) good storytelling, and all too often do. Older fans can relax: Buffy No. 1 is a suitably good yarn. Buffy is back again in Sunnydale High at age 16, but in the year 2019. The familiar cast of characters is back, albeit with some differences as one expects in a reboot, such as Anya already running the magic shop.

Older fans might question some of the changes. Buffy, for example, has her act more together than in her 1997 incarnation. The whole theme of the original series is about growing up and (in an unsubtle metaphor) about fighting one’s demons in the process, so 1997 Buffy is full of promise but as yet literally sophomoric. 2019 Buffy is savvier, but she is still fundamentally teen Buffy with plenty of room to grow, so the original theme presumably is not thrown entirely out the window. The biggest change is to Willow. Willow grows more over the course of the TV series than any other character, Buffy included; in 1997 she starts out painfully self-conscious, nerdy, and shy but develops (despite some lapses into bad behavior) into the most formidable of Buffy’s allies. 2019 teenage Willow, on the other hand, already is self-assured and apparently already settled in her orientation, too. As that may be, the point of the reboot is not to satisfy old fans but to win new ones who are themselves experiencing the hellmouth that is high school. It should succeed at that. The new fans won’t be aware of the changes unless they choose to visit the original series, which finished its TV run before most of them were born.

I won’t be buying No.2 (this reboot is definitely not aimed at me) but Thumbs Up nonetheless.


Trailer for An Evening with Beverly Luff Lin


Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Rousseau and Hobbes, Sitting in a Tree…


Rousseau thought that people by nature were peaceful unless corrupted by civilization. Hobbes thought people were violent unless civilized by society.  Both were right. Evolutionary biologist and Harvard professor Richard Wrangham addresses this duality in his book The Goodness Paradox: The Strange Relationship between Virtue and Violence in Human Evolution. Wrangham, who had studied in the field with Jane Goodall, is also the author of Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human and is co-director of the Kibale Chimpanzee Project. He sees the key to the paradox in the distinction between between proactive and reactive aggression.

Reactive aggression is the tendency to respond with threats (such as hisses, growls, and roars) and violence when approached, whether by a member of another species or one’s own. Most animals including our cousins the chimpanzees – particularly (but not exclusively) males – typically act this way not just to strangers but to members of their own pack or social group. Humans rarely do. He notes that 300 chimpanzees never would sit quietly side by side for hours; fights would break out and (with nowhere to run) fatalities would be likely. Yet humans do that on planes and in movie houses all the time. However often bar fights and physical assaults may be on the news, the remarkable thing is how rare they are among humans. We are more tolerant even than bonobos, the mild-tempered close relatives of chimpanzees. We share this level of tolerance only with domestic animals, which have been deliberately bred for this temperament.

People domesticated animals, but who domesticated people? Wrangham argues (as others have before him) that our ancestors did it to themselves by ganging up on any overly violent, dominant, or annoying individual, who was then killed or ostracized and thereby removed from the gene pool. (Remaining hunter-gatherers still do this.) Sociality became a reproductive advantage. Bonobos, whose environmental pressures differ from those on chimps by favoring more social tolerance, did something similar to themselves. Not having language, the capacity of bonobos to stir up conspiracies against bullies is much more limited and the results therefore less extreme than among humans. This ganging up is, of course, proactive aggression. The extensive planning permitted by language made humans’ proactive aggression deadly on an unprecedented scale whether against actual outsiders (e.g. World War One: see my recent review of the documentary They Shall Not Grow Old) or against undesired members of their own social groups.

Domestic animals share a large number of traits that are incidentally related to the primary one of social tolerance, including neoteny, smaller teeth, and smaller brains. This is true even of relatively smart domestic animals; dogs, for instance, have smaller brains than their wolf ancestors of comparable size. Humans, too, have those traits. After millions of years of growing larger, human brains shrank some 15% from their Stone Age peak, reaching their current size many thousands of years before farming (so the reduction was unrelated to it). Apparently, beyond a certain level of population density (still extraordinarily sparse by modern standards), being social conferred more reproductive benefits than being smart.

There remain people who are violent for the fun of it (i.e. criminals), of course, but they are few by ape standards. However, humans are unmatched (in fact, unique) in our capacity for moralistic violence: our intelligence and our language skills let us identify as “other” those with the wrong ideology, religion, accent, or whatever, and enable us to whip up moral outrage against them. The most horrific mass killings are by moralists who think that they are doing the right thing – even the obligatory thing. They are not criminals in the usual sense, and are likely to be kind and polite people in everyday life. As an example, Wrangham relates the story of anthropologist Alexander Hinton who investigated the ideologically driven Cambodian massacres of the 1970s that killed nearly 2,000,000 people. Hinton was disconcerted by a former Khmer Rouge named Lor who openly stated he had killed many men, women, and children: “I saw before me a poor farmer in his late thirties, who greeted me with the broad smile and polite manner that one so often encounters in Cambodia.” Says Wrangham, “So the definition of morality that I will follow here is not limited to altruism or cooperation. I take moral behavior to be behavior guided by a sense of right and wrong… We sometimes think that cooperation is always a worthwhile goal. But just like morality, it can be for good or bad.”
Mae West: “What is this, propaganda?”

So, our better natures have their roots in aggression. However, Wrangham does not suggest that we need to continue a social strategy just because it has evolutionary roots. He opposes capital punishment, for example, as no longer necessary even though we may well owe our peaceful natures to it. We are big brained creatures, after all, (despite the late Paleolithic shrinkage) and we can choose to be better. Most of the time we do. “The one guarantee that an evolutionary analysis can offer, however, is that it will not be easy for fairer and more peaceful societies to emerge.” Fortunately, our harsh ancestors gave us the cooperative skills to make that possible.


Bessie Smith - A Good Man is Hard to Find (1927)


Friday, February 15, 2019

Still Kickin’


Popular musicians have existed for all of history, but until recorded music came along (invented in 1877 but not commercialized until 1892), only a small portion of the population ever heard them, and there was no way (other than memory) to compare them to who came before. So, it wasn’t until the 1910s that a younger generation was really able to dismiss their parents music as old-fashioned tripe and for parents to decry their offspring’s preferred music as newfangled trash – and decadent to boot. Both are always right. And wrong. Every era’s popular music is a mix of wonderful and awful with little obvious relationship between one or the other and sales. However, they are more right at some times than others. Some decades really do have something special.

The 40s was a decade with something special – so was the 60s. The 40s had much more than the Big Band sound, but that was the most iconic 40s music. Arguably it was killed by taxes. In 1944 the U.S. imposed a 30% cabaret tax on clubs hiring live bands – a tax not on the profits but on gross receipts. This made hiring large bands uneconomical for most clubs. Perhaps the sound was on its out anyway, but the words “nail” and “coffin” might be relevant. To be sure Big Bands still exist, but no one goes to a Glenn Miller Orchestra concert (yes, it still tours) to hear new music; they go to hear 40s classics. New music is still written for Big Bands, but the audience for it is scarcely large enough to qualify as a niche. The sound is no longer living popular music: it is a nostalgia act.

Rock and roll (particularly in the 60s variants, which my parents hated or at least pretended to hate) fared better for longer. After decades of dominance, however, rock hasn’t cracked the top ten in the singles charts for the past several years. Hip hop and pop dominate instead. (I now know how my parents felt.) So, “rock is dead” as it so often has been before. Or not. Nowadays most music is downloaded digitally (often for free, legally or otherwise) as singles. Rock may not be among the top singles downloads, but rock albums (new as well as classic) still sell strongly, especially as cds and vinyl. Rock bands in toto still sell more tickets for live performances than other genres. Classic bands (those that yet totter on stage) have fans who buy tickets largely to hear them play classic numbers, it is true, yet the genre has not been relegated to nostalgia gigs. 21st century bands (e.g. The Cadillac Three, Broken Witt Rebels, Greta Van Fleet, etc.) regularly form and win audiences with new material. So, rock remains living popular music, and not just a niche in manner of jazz.

One of the 21st century bands is Dorothy, who released their impressive debut album Rock Is Dead in 2016 and followed it up convincingly last year with 28 Days in the Valley. The band’s live shows are among the best currently on the road that feature (mostly) blues-based power rock with unapologetic infusions of psychedelia and even (in spots) country. The lyrics contain a full range of passions in an age that too often devalues every one of them but self-righteous anger (the emptiest). I caught the band last night at Irving Plaza, one of the better concert venues in NYC. Amid a crowd of fans overwhelmingly young enough to be my grandchildren (had I any grandchildren), I was pleased for once to be outside the demographic. I don’t even mind that 20 hours later my hearing has yet fully to recover.

It’s possible that rock truly is on its way out, but it is not dead yet. Judging by last night it does not go gentle into that good night.


One of their more mellow numbers: Pretty When You’re High