Origin of a famous literary put-down: not Balfour


I remember seeing the following priceless put-down in a review:

There is much here that is new, and much that is true. However, the true stuff is old hat, and the new stuff is false.

This appears to have been a paraphrase. Winston Churchill, in Great Contemporaries (London & New York, 1937) p. 250 quotes Arthur Balfour as having said:

…there were some things that were true, and some things that were trite; but what was true was trite, and what was not trite was not true…

Did Balfour actually say this? A similar phrase, in a different context, appears in an 1877 theological tract called “The Down Grade” by the English Baptist preacher Robert Shindler, published in his friend and mentor C. H. Spurgeon‘s journal The Sword and the Trowel (March 1887, p. 122):

But commonly it is found in theology that that which is true is not new, and that which is new is not true.

Tthe “Prince of Preachers” Spurgeon was legendary in his day and remains influential in Baptist circles to this day. It is quite possible that Balfour read the tract and absorbed the original phrase from there.

Happy Chanuka!



The embassy move to Jerusalem: less changes than you might think

“Sinterklaasdag” (December 6, St. Nicholas Day) presents are neither a Jewish nor an American tradition, but today US President Trump announced that the US recognizes Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and that he is instructing the State Department to start moving the embassy from Tel-Aviv to Jerusalem.


Predictably, doomsayers and useful idiots of the Caliphate are claiming the world will end—while in fact [sarcasm] this moves clearly proves collusion between Trump and the Russians, since Russia recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital six months ago.[/sarcasm]

But jokes aside, what does this move change? In practice, less than you might think.

(a) The US already has a pretty large diplomatic presence in Jerusalem, with at least four locations that I can think of: a consular office in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem; another on Agron Street in West Jerusalem (near the Great Synagogue); a third in the Arnona neighborhood, in what used to be “no man’s land” between the 1949 armistice and the 1967 Six-Day War; and an America House next to the YMCA. [State reportedly also owns a plot of land in the Talpiot neighborhood, which could be a potential embassy site.]

(b) The initial decision to move the embassy to Jerusalem was taken 22 years ago by Congress, in the Jerusalem Embassy Act, which was approved on October 24, 1995 by overwhelming bipartisan majorities of 374–37 in the House and 93–5 in the Senate.  (Roll call vote 734Roll call vote 496,) Then-President Clinton refused to sign the Act — which was an embarrassment for him as well as for the Rabin-Peres gov’t in Israel at the time — but with a veto-proof majority, it passed into law anyway on November 8, 1995.

According to the terms of the act, if the embassy had not been moved by a May 31, 1999 deadline, the State Department would see its construction and upkeep budget for overseas missions cut by 50%. The Act did leave one loophole: the President may sign a six-month waiver, renewable indefinitely, for the sake of national security interest. Clinton, Bush 43, 0bama, and Trump all have done so, Trump just once when the previous waiver expired.

Apparently, he will sign again in order to prevent State getting partially defunded, but he has given instructions to start the process of moving the embassy. Fox reports that “some 1,000 employees” will need to be moved: the mind wonders whether this was a blooper on Fox’s part, or whether the US truly needs such a massive mission in a relatively small country—any halfway competent spy novelist will of course nod in recognition.

(c) The Jerusalem consulate already operates at near-parity with the consular section of the Embassy in Tel-Aviv: certain consular services, for instance (such as those related to Social Security) have been centralized in Jerusalem, while certain others (such as visas) are only available in Tel-Aviv. (The US also maintains a smaller consular presence in Haifa, while some countries maintain consulates in smaller cities — e.g. France in Ashdod and Netanya, with their sizable French-Jewish communities.)

In short: while Presidential recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital (rather than Israel’s economic nerve center Tel-Aviv) is of great symbolic value for friend and foe alike, the practical implications on the ground are quite limited. Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat quipped that all the Americans needed to do is clear an office at the Consulate where the ambassador could sit; in practice, ambassadors don’t move alone, and the migration is likely to take years.

UPDATE: in the wake of Trump’s announcement, the Czech Republic followed suit

And here, at the website of the Mann/Shinar architectural bureau, are some architectural renderings of the Arnona ‘annex’ to the Consulate in Jerusalem.


Some little ‘annex’. Commissioned in 2003, during Bush 43’s first term.

UPDATE 2: Six months ago, Northwestern U. international law professor Eugene Kontorovich wrote in a prescient Wall Street Journal op-ed:

If Mr. Trump nonetheless signs the waiver, he could do two things to maintain his credibility in the peace process. First, formally recognize Jerusalem—the whole city—as the capital of Israel, and reflect that status in official documents. Second, make clear that unless the Palestinians get serious about peace within six months, his first waiver will be his last. He should set concrete benchmarks for the Palestinians to demonstrate their commitment to negotiations. These would include ending their campaign against Israel in international organizations and cutting off payments to terrorists and their relatives.






Why Romance languages aren’t “gender-neutral”

Somebody forwarded me a derposaurus item about the “sexism” of the French language. The argument, such as it was, primarily proves Orwell’s Law, but an interesting linguistic curiosum occurred to me. Why does French have no neuter gender, and neither do Spanish and Italian — while their common ancestor Latin clearly does?

English, of course, has three grammatical genders: masculine, feminine, and neuter. The gender of English nouns is also extremely regular: pretty much every inanimate object or concept is neuter. (In literary and poetic usage, countries or (star)ships can be female.) Compare German, which also has three genders. (Neuter gender is actually called sachlich, lit. thing-like, objective, business-like in German.) Who would have guessed that a carpet is male (der Teppich), a page is female (die Seite) — as is physics (die Physik) — while a boat is neuter (das Boot). [There are actually some, fairly complex, rules that allow you to guesstimate correctly about 4 out of 5 times. More here.]

In Hebrew (or Arabic), for instance, there is no neuter gender, so anything is male or female. As a rule, in Hebrew, unspecified gender defaults to male. So a dog is a kelev, plural klavim — except if you want to specifically point out it’s a she-dog, then kalba (which also can mean “bitch” as a pejorative), plural kalbot. A donkey is a khamor, except if you specifically mean a she-ass, atonAvot (the plural of av) literally means “fathers” but also can generally mean “ancestors” of both genders.

Back to French now, and Romance languages in general. Classical Latin obviously had three genders. In nouns of the second declension, they are quickly identified by the endings -us for male (dominus, domus), -a for female (domina, ancilla), -um for neuter (museum, ferrum). But of all the major Romance languages, only Rumanian seems to have a neuter gender at all — and even that is a strange beast that behaves like male in the singular and female in the plural. What gives?

The thing is: Latin existed in different “high”/formal/literary and “low”/informal register variants, and the differences were so pronounced that they amounted to two dialects of the same language. (Linguists call this situation diglossia. It is also seen with classical vs. demotic Greek, Sanskrit vs. Prakrit, and — in the modern era — literary Arabic vs. its regional dialects.) The classic Latin works we learned in high school were all written in easier or more difficult forms of classical Latin: the language spoken (and to some extent written) by the common people (Latin: vulgus) was called vulgar Latin. All Romance languages descend from vulgar Latin, rather than classical literary Latin.

Typically, the informal language variants have a simplified grammar compared to the literary form. For example, this is the case with spoken informal German (Mundart, lit. “the way of the mouth”) vs. the written language, and with “street Hebrew” vs. the formal language (e.g., the use of “[noun] sheli” for the possessive instead of inflecting the noun). Vulgar Latin was no exception to this rule: among other things, the neuter gender was absorbed into the masculine.


Et voilà. As vulgar Latin fragmented into dialects, which ultimately evolved into Old French etc., those descendants retained the binary gender.

In contrast, while classical Greek existed in a similar state of diglossia, both classical Attic Greek and demotic Greek had three genders —  and hence modern Greek (which descends from Demotic) retains the neuter gender.retains it as well, even if many other grammatical features of literary Greek were discarded.


Saturday musical delight: Well-Tempered Clavier in MuseScore animation

Via YouTube channel “gerubach”, which has been presenting “scrolling score” youtube videos of musical compositions for many years, I stumbled upon the following gem of a playlist:

All of Book I of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier is being rendered there in MuseScore animation: as you hear the audio, not only do you see the score on screen (two systems at a time) and a pointer scrolling across the notes being played, but at the bottom of the screen, you see the notes currently sounding displayed on a piano keyboard.

Especially in combination with YouTube’s ability to play back videos at reduced speed without altering the pitch, this is a marvelous self-tutoring tool for keyboard playing as well as music theory.

The audio is taken from the performance by pianist (and former competitive weight lifter!) Kimiko Ishizaka [official website]. The MuseScore team could legally do so as the (IMHO excellent) performance was released in the public domain (!)

The onetime child prodigy pre-funds her recordings through Kickstarter campaigns (most recently, she ran one for a “Libre”recording of Bach’s The Art of Fugue), then releases them online under PD or Creative Commons licenses. The word “Libre” she uses has some currency in the open source software developer community: It refers to one of the two words in French (and other Romance languages) that correspond to the English “free”, namely libre (without restrictions, “free as in speech”) vs. gratis (without cost, “free as in lunch”).  She does not work gratis, but on what I have been calling a “massively distributed commissioning” model, and what is becoming known as a “threshold pledge” model: she sets a funding goal, solicits pledges from patrons on Kickstarter, and if her threshold is met, the work is performed and the money collected. For her last campaign, the threshold she set was 20,000 Euro, and the minimum pledge was 10 Euro — the price of an album at a CD store (remember those). Larger pledge amounts (20 Euro, 50 Euro, 100 Euro) get various extra goodies, such as live recordings from recent concerts, a physical CD of the music, and admission to one of three “meatspace” live concerts.

D. Jason Fleming has been talking a lot about the “Open Culture Movement”. I believe this is an interesting example, and may actually point a way toward the future for classical performers. The big losers here, of course, are the classical music labels, who in this model are about as profitable as illegal CD bootleggers….


Guitars with more than six strings? What for? An overview

Following my Bach’s “Chaconne” on 11-string guitar post, a few people have asked me what else guitars with more than six strings are good for.  In response, here is a quick overview.

The standard guitar, of course, has six strings tuned (scientific notation) E2-A2-D3-G3-B3-E4. There are a variety of alternate tunings being used in especially nonclassical music, of which I will only cite a few examples:

  • Drop-D: D2-A2-D3-G3-B3-E4 as used by many metal and alternative rock outfits
  • Drop-C: C2-G2-C3-F3-A3-D4 as used by bands like Killswitch Engage
  • Open G tuning: D2-G2-D3-G3-B3-D4 as used by, e.g., Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones
  • “New Standard Tuning” C2-G2-D3-A3-E3-G4 as advocated by Robert Fripp of King Crimson

But those merit another article. Suffice to say that some of the more exotic tunings require restringing with lighter or heavier gauge strings.

“Baritone guitars” are standard six-string instruments with longer necks, tuned a fourth or fifth lower than standard.

Seven-string guitars come in both “classical”/acoustic and electric varieties

  • acoustic, Russian: open G tuning with extra top string tuned to high G4
  • acoustic, Brazilian: standard plus an extra bottom string tuned to low C2.
  • electric: typically with an added low B1 string. Somewhat popular in progressive rock and metal. Stevie Vai and Dream Theater’s John Petrucci are acknowledged virtuosi on the instrument. In heavier genres, the bottom string may be tuned down to A1 (Korn).

Eight-string guitars likewise come in classical and modern varieties

  • acoustic: “cello guitar” or Brahms guitar. Originally devised for playing Theme and Variations, Op. 21a by Brahms. Adds low A and high A strings to standard: A1E2A2D3G3B3E4A4
  • electric: either with extra bass and treble string), or with two low strings (“djent” guitars, as favored by “math-metal” band Meshuggah), which can be tuned F#1B1. Or E1B1, giving it the same low-end range as a standard bass. (e.g., Tosin Abasi of Animals As Leaders switches between guitar and bass parts thay way.)

Nine-string guitars are rare: the rare examples are like six-strings with the three upper strings (in pitch, not geometry) being doubled up into pairs. (“Courses” in guitar speak.)

Ten-string guitars exist in three types:

  • “harp guitars” (see below)
  • Narciso Yepes guitar: the famed classical guitarist played an all-frettable 10-string with the top six strings in standard, the remaining four chosen to maximize sympathetic resonance: F#2-Ab2-Bb2-C2-E2A2D3G3B3E4 Note that this tuning is “re-entrant”, i.e., the strings do not go from low to high in a neat row.
  • English guitar: C-E-GG-cc-ee-gg (two strings plus four courses)

Harp guitars exist in (at least) 11-string, 13-string, and 10-string variants. The idea of a “harp guitar” is that below your standard strings, you have a set of 5-7 bass strings that are tuned harp-style, on a diatonic scale. You can then use the thumb of your picking hand to strike bass notes as open strings, and accompany your fretted playing.

This was a common performance practice on the Baroque lute, and harp guitars are indeed used for this type of repertoire. The bass strings may be retuned half steps up or down to fit the scale of the piece being played. For instance, here is a piece by the lutenist and composer Sylvius Leopold Weiss, a contemporary of J. S. Bach:

Last but not least, we are left with twelve-string guitars, which have seen some notable use in folk, rock, and pop music. 12-strings are strung in six courses. The standard tuning has the bottom four courses in octave pairs, and the top two in unison pairs. In scientific notation:


Playing what would normally be single lines on the bottom four courses effectively turns your part into parallel octaves, and chords on a 12-string sound particularly rich and full, kind-of like double-fisted piano chord played Rachmaninoff-style 🙂

If one wishes to reproduce the 12-string sound in the studio without an actual 12-string guitar, the answer is to have two guitarists play the part on standard 6-strings, one tuned normally, the other strung with lighter-gauge strings and tuned E3—A3—D4—G4—B3—E4, i.e., to the upper half of each 12-string course. (This is known as “Nashville tuning” in guitar lingo.)

Many folk musicians use an open-chord variant of this tuning. Some jazz musicians tune courses to intervals other than unisons or octaves in order to generate more complex chords. For instance, on the album Twelve by Anthony Phillips (a personal favorite of mine), the erstwhile Genesis guitarist uses this tuning throughout


“June” is my favorite tune from that album. Here is a cover by “hyperboreal”: His instrument’s tuning is a little off, and he flubs a few runs, but you will get the idea.

Let me conclude with Anthony Phillips himself, in a rare on-camera performance since crippling stage fright made him quit the stage:

November 29, 1947: The Story of a Vote


Seventy years ago to this day, the United Nations voted on Resolution 181, the partitioning of the British Mandate into Jewish and Arab states as recommended by the UN’s special investigative commission (UNSCOP).

The story behind the scenes is told in this short movie, which combines historical footage with recent interviews of people who lived the event. The woman in the thumbnail is Suzy Eban, wife of Abba Eban.

A two-thirds majority was needed. In the end, thirty-three countries voted in favor:

• Latin American and Caribbean Group: Bolivia, Brazil, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Guatemala, Haiti, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay, Venezuela

• Western Europe and Others: Belgium, Denmark, France, Iceland, Luxemburg, Netherlands, Norway, Sweden

• Eastern Europe: Byelorussian SSR (Belarus), Ukrainian SSR (Ukraine), USSR, Czechoslovakia, Poland

• African: Liberia and South Africa

• Asia-Pacific: Australia, New Zealand, Philippines

• North America: USA and Canada

Ten countries abstained:

• Latin American and Caribbean Group: Argentina, Chile, Colombia, El Salvador, Honduras, Mexico

• Four other countries: UK (the outgoing mandate holder), China, Ethiopia, and Yugoslavia

Thailand was absent from the vote.

Thirteen countries voted against, ten of them Muslim:

•  Arab or Islamic countries: Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Yemen, Turkey, and Egypt

• Others: India, Cuba, and Greece. It should be noted that Greece then had a large diaspora in countries like Egypt, and was thus vulnerable to threats.

Voting happened by voice vote, alphabetically. The vote that put the resolution over the top was cast by the Philippines.

The day of the vote is remembered in Israel to this day as kaf-tet be-November  (from the Hebrew notation of the number 29, כ׳׳ט). The British Mandate was to end at midnight between May 14-15, 1948. On the afternoon of May 14, around 4pm, a hastily convened assembly gathered at a museum building in Tel-Aviv, and with a minimum of pomp and circumstance, David Ben-Gurion proclaimed the independent State of Israel.


Our hope is not yet lost

The hope of two thousand years

To be a free people in our land

The land of Zion, Jerusalem




Saturday delight: Bach’s “Chaconne” on 11-string guitar

I accidentally stumbled on Moran Wasser’s amazing performance of Bach’s Chaconne in D minor, BWV 1004, on an 11-string guitar, embedded below:

What’s the deal with an… 11-string guitar?! Sounds pretty scary, no? Actually, 11-string and 13-string guitars are similar to the Baroque lute in conception:  The top six or seven strings are played like a standard guitar, while the additional bass strings are typically tuned ad hoc to cover the bass notes of the piece, and plucked as open strings with the thumb as a harmonic foundation. I am sure that sympathetic vibration also adds a lot to the body of the sound when these strings are not explicitly struck.

But let’s talk about the piece now. Many instrumental jazz and rock improvisations are based on a repeated “riff” or bass line that forms the foundation. This is, however, not something invented in the modern era. Early Western classical music had a form called a “ground” where exactly the same was done: take, for example, William Byrd’s virginal/harpsichord piece “The Bells” (1580). During the early baroque period, two forms of Western art music evolved with a repeated-riff structure: the Passacaglia and the Chaconne. Significantly, both were originally slow, stately dances in 3/2 rhythm.

It seems nobody is quite sure what is the difference between the two: I remembered it as “in a chaconne, the repeated riff is always in the bass, while in a passacaglia, it can move through all voices” — but it appears this definition was too narrowly based on J. S. Bach’s monumental examples, the Passacaglia and Fugue for Organ in C minor, BWV 582, (about which I have blogged previously), and the Chaconne from the Partita for Solo Violin in D minor, BWV 1004.

This piece, which stretches the capabilities of violin and violinist to the very limit, has numerous times been arranged for other instruments: for piano (by Ferruccio Busoni and by Alexander Siloti), for piano left hand (by Brahms), for organ, and indeed for orchestra (by Leopold Stokowski). It is particularly often performed on guitar (either in Andres Segovia’s arrangement or directly from the original score).

Moran Wasser’s arrangement is transposed one half-step down from the original, i.e., to C# minor: this sounds equivalent to playing it in “baroque tuning” (A=415 Hz) in its original key. Note that he places a capo on the 2nd fret over the seven top strings.

For those who prefer a violin original, here is Hilary Hahn’s performance:

The piano arrangements for two hands both tend toward the flashy, but Siloti’s is to my ears the more musical of the two. Here is a surprisingly powerful recent performance by a young pianist named Tanya Gabrielian: