False dichotomies and art education

In Hyrum, Utah, an art teacher at an elementary school has been fired for showing two artworks featuring female nudity to fifth- and sixth-graders. The artworks in question (images somewhat unsafe in some workplaces) are “Odalisque” by François Boucher (a partial nude) and “Female Nude” (a.k.a. Iris Tree) by Amedeo Modigliani (which features full frontal nudity).

I am torn here. On the one hand, I do not consider artistic, tasteful classical nude paintings to be offensive at all and have even written a long blog post about Renoir’s models. On the other hand, know your audience: it would not occur to me to display this type of painting to elementary schoolers in a very religious community, be it LDS or Orthodox Jewish—and the teacher ought to have displayed better judgment. On the third hand, the school’s reaction — firing the teacher where a friendly admonition would have done the job just fine been quite adequate — is a classic example of “shooting mosquitos with a cannon”. Especially since the material came from the school’s own library collection.

derp to full potato

There are those who try to present the treatment of sexual matters as a false dichotomy: either Old Order Amish or Teen Vogue’s “teenage girl’s guide to [back door breaking and entering” (barf). Those of us who seek a sensible middle ground will be called libertines by one side and prudes by the other. Be it as it may: false dichotomies are a beloved cheap trick of propagandists everywhere.

If you believe (as I do) that sex is something beautiful to be shared and enjoyed between people who love each other; that pleasuring your partner is a skill worth acquiring for your partner’s sake as well as your own; but that sexuality is not something to be “hung out in public”  in and out of season; then you will run afoul of jaded hedonist “sophisticates” and neo-Puritans alike. As the Iron Lady put it: being in the middle of the road means you will get hit by the traffic from both sides.

This polarization extends to fiction, by the way. “Contemporary romances” increasingly are either very explicit for the sake of being explicit (if those same books were marketed as erotica, this would at least be “truth in advertising”) or (for certain religious markets) squeaky-clean at a level where even a kiss on the mouth is considered too racy. I personally do not mind even very graphic scenes if they move the story forward or deepen the characters, but in most situations, I do believe that it is best to leave something to the imagination, that usually “less is more”, and that usually off-camera, or at most soft-focus are as effective as technicolor, or indeed more so. As for how “spicy” to paint an amorous relationship in fiction: I would go by what feels authentic for the characters and their environment. A romance in which two students at a Northeastern liberal arts college spend four years hand-holding and kissing each other on the cheek until their wedding day would generally be very implausible unless you came up with a very convincing backstory. At the same time, in some very religious milieus, a couple getting physical on their first meeting would be equally preposterous. “Don’t throw the reader out of the story” applies to these matters as well.



Preference cascades and the fall of the Ceaucescu regime

The protests in Iran seem to be getting bigger. I can’t help being reminded (though this may be wishful thinking) of the 1989 protests in Rumania and the subsequent downfall of its dictator Nicolae CarpathiaCeaucescu.

The regime was deeply unpopular following an austerity program that had Rumanians scrambling for the most basic necessities, while the Inner Party, of course, enjoyed everything imaginable. Yet the Securitate (the Romanian secret police) maintained the most repressive police state of all the Eastern European regimes, and its grip on the people was supposed to be unassailable.

Then protests broke out in the Transylvanian town of Timisoara, in support of a Protestant pastor named László Tökés who belonged to the Hungarian minority of Transylvania. At the time, I did not think this would be a cause for the Rumanian majority — but it triggered a “preference cascade“. Suddenly, all sorts of people who loathed the regime and their circumstances, but feared to speak up realized they were not alone — and that the others around them had just been keeping their heads down. Thus one regional protest, not immediately suppressed, lit off a firestorm.

It’s unclear when exactly the tipping point occurred, but apparently, the defense minister was fired by Ceaucescu for not having issued live ammunition to the troops sent to suppress the Timisoara protests. His successor either did not care to sully his hands with mass slaughter to contain what had meanwhile grown to national protests, or he realized that the troops had changed allegiance and would disobey orders to fire on protesters — or perhaps both.

At any rate, second-tier elements of the regime then realized Ceaucescu was doomed, had no desire to share his fate, and made a deal with one of the protest leaders (a hydro-engineer and former head of a technical publishing house named Ion Iliescu). Within days, the grotesque dictator and his even more grotesque wife ignominiously escaped in a helicopter, then in a commandeered private vehicle, then ultimately handed over for arrest. Following a brief kangaroo court session, they were executed by firing squad on Christmas Day. Earlier, propaganda slogans had been aimed at the protesters to go home and enjoy the Christmas repast — whether these admonitions were more cynical or pathetic is hard to decide. At any rate, the Rumanian people did thus get their Christmas gift.

The transition to democracy (at first under Iliescu) was messy, but eventually, Romania left the nightmarish regime behind and has recently achieved a modest measure of prosperity, though much remains to be done.

Incidentally, what became of László Tökés? As it turns out, he had a political career later, and eventually became deputy chair of the European Parliament.

Will elements in Iran at some point similarly realize the mullahcracy is unsustainable, and engineer its downfall? Will this pit the army against the Revolutionary Guard? The mind wonders…

On consciously and unconsciously knowing


A Facebook friend of mine, very articulate, a sharp thinker, and with multiple academic degrees in “hard” subjects, was discussing his frustration with only speaking one language, and even so, “don’t ask me about the rules of grammar. On good days, I know what a gerund is.”

Now his written communication is always flawless in spelling and grammar, so he clearly knows how to apply grammar — which illustrates the difference between knowing something and knowing the words for it. Or, if you like, between having internalized a skill and being able to explain it.

Richard Feynman, in “Surely you’re joking, Mr. Feynman!” recalls how his father taught him that knowing the name of, say, a species of bird in several languages still doesn’t teach you anything about  the bird. That is true enough, of course, except for one thing — if I know what the bird is called, I can go look it up — trudge to the library for the Britannica or a handbook of ornithology when I was young, or just search in Google or Wikipedia nowadays.

I write a fair amount of highly technical nonfiction in my day job — well enough that I’ve been asked to teach others — and frankly didn’t consciously know any of the grammatical rules until I realized I was able to teach people how something was done, but not why. “This is how it goes, it just sounds wrong otherwise, don’t ask  why,” isn’t how thinking people like to be taught. Consequently, I was forced to hit the textbooks myself just so I could “tell people what the bird was called so they could look it up”. I imagine this is a similar situation to people who are self-taught as jazz or rock musician but need to go learn theory just so they can be more effective teachers.

In an interview shortly before he passed away, the legendary jazz trumpeter and bandleader Miles Davis reminisced about a meeting with Jimi Hendrix, planning a recording session that sadly never came to pass due to Jimi’s untimely death. He recalled mentioning a “diminished seventh chord”, and Jimi looking blank. He then took his trumpet and arpeggiated the four notes — Jimi of course immediately played the chord that he’d never known the name of. In fact, Jimi would have stared the same way at the mention of a “major-minor chord”, a.k.a. “dominant seventh-sharp ninth chord” — even though it’s nowadays often referred to as the “Purple Haze chord” or “Hendrix chord” due to its prominent use in one of Jimi’s best-known compositions.

Hendrix “spoke music like a native”, but didn’t consciously know the grammar, if you like — he just could apply it in his sleep. A very different intuitive musician, Evangelos Papathanassiou — world-famous among electronica and soundtrack lovers by the Greek nickname Vangelis — had classical piano lessons but never properly learned to read music: blessed with a prodigal ear and memory, he could reproduce what his teacher showed him just fine. While he apparently took some college classes in music (as did his more meditative German college, Klaus Schulze), he kept an intuitive, “feel” attitude toward music his whole life. When an interviewer in Keyboard magazine asked him how he composed, he answered tellingly: “it’s like breathing: if you think about how to breathe, you choke”.

Now while some of Vangelis’s more ambitious compositions (such as “Heaven and Hell”) clearly draw inspiration from Western classical music (Klaus Schulze even wrote a brief orchestral fugue in the studio version of “Ludwig II”), it would be hard for a musician to “function” in the classical world without the musical equivalent of “knowing your grammar”. (To be sure, at least one famous classical organist needed to learn most of his repertoire by ear — Helmut Walcha had been totally blind since age twelve — but he surely knew his theory, and taught for many years at the Frankfurt Conservatory.) Likewise, in some of the more ambitious, through-composed realms of jazz and progressive rock, a thorough conscious knowledge of music theory is a great asset—though you may be able to get by just fine with an unconscious one, as long as your fellow band members are comfortable learning by ear.

Conversely, knowing the rules without being able to apply them in real time may get you a job as a critic, but won’t get you far as a musician — or a writer.



Of light and banishing SAD

In honor of the holiday (Christmas if you’re a Western Communion Christian, Isaac Newton Day for everyone else), our Beautiful but Evil Space Mistress has a post up about “living in the light”. She mentions some of the more tasteful and tacky Christmas decorations in her neighborhood, but particularly the abundance of light. (Note that all major winter festivals involve light — be it the pagan Julfest, Christian Christmas, or the Jewish Chanukah/Festival of Lights.)

Our BbESM grew up outside Porto, Portugal, with a single 60W incandescent bulb hanging off the ceiling of her room, plus a 30W lampshade — and even that was a luxury by historical standards. In fact, her editor notes that, adjusted for inflation, a given amount of luminosity has gotten a whopping 500,000 times cheaper in the past few centuries. Just in the past few decades alone, we’ve gone from 60W incandescent to 8 W LED for the same luminosity.

Sarah also notes that she suffered from mild SAD (seasonal affective disorder) and hence appreciated the light. Now actually, while incandescents (with their very “reddish” light — not to mention most of their energy output being infrared, i.e., heat) are probably still better than darkness, they do not help a whole lot with SAD except at very high luminosities. Why?

We actually have three types of photoreceptors: rod cells, cone cells in three colors, and ipRGCs (intrinsically photosensitive retinal ganglion cells). The absorption maxima of rod cells (night vision) and cone cells (daytime color vision) are illustrated below:


(Fish and birds have a fourth “color” of cones in the near-ultraviolet region, with an absorption maximum around 370 nm.)

The ipRGC’s task, on the other hand, is not vision per se but the regulation of circadian rhythm. Their pigment, melanopsin, has an absorption maximum around 480nm, in the bluish region. (Mutations in the gene that expresses melanopsin are one cause for SAD.) SAD is a major issue in arctic countries (close to 10% of the population in Finland, for example). The traditional treatment (review article here) involves full-spectrum lamps at high intensity (10,000 lux and more). However, it was recently found that blue-enriched light sources at more modest luminosities of 750 lux — or even narrow-band blue light at just 100 lux — yield equally good results, as they selectively stimulate the ipRGCs.

Merry Christmas, happy belated Chanukah/Festival of Lights, or happy Isaac Newton Day, as applicable!


Abstraction layers and learning

The other day I heard an interview (in French) with electronic music megastar Jean-Michel Jarre (who is, incidentally, the estranged son of film composer Maurice Jarre and the ex-husband of actress Charlotte Rampling).

Paraphrasing one segment of the interview from memory: “Some people tell me that electronic music is abstract. On the contrary! Especially with analog instruments, it’s visceral, hands-on. I twist this knob or push that pedal, and I immediately hear the sound change in response. It’s classical music that is more abstract! They play off a score, which is an abstract representation of the music.”

Bingo. To borrow a term from information technology, the score is one “abstraction layer” above the music. A jazz music “lead sheet” would be one more abstraction layer above: it specifies the lead melody, the chord progression, and the meter — and the details on how to translate the progression into notes are left to the performer!
The next higher abstraction level is sometimes seen when experienced musicians are jamming together, and all the lead player needs to say is “slow 12/8 blues in G minor”: everybody else knows what to do and fills in the details on the fly, according to their best musical judgment. (Fixed chord progressions like “the blues” as improvisational frameworks are not a recent invention: suffice to mention “La Folia” in Renaissance and Baroque contexts.) An Indian raga is, likewise, a meta-structure for improvisation.

A paradigmatic example of abstraction layers in information technology — one that many readers will be familiar with — are network addresses. Individual network cards have a permanent, unique “MAC address” or “hardware address”, six bytes in hexadecimal notation: something like 4c:33:73:9d:40:42 We do not use such addresses directly to send Email or access web servers though, since everytime a server or even network card would go on the fritz, you’d have to update directories.
So one abstraction layer above that, we have the numerical addresses of the form These can be defined manually on a device, or (this is what happens in most home WiFi networks) assigned using a DHCP (dynamic host configuration protocol) service. You replace a server or swap out a network card? Update the DHCP configuration table, and you’re good to go.
But if you moved to another provider, you’d still have to change addresses. Or you may have so much traffic that you need to deploy multiple servers, and load-balance traffic between them. Which is why we have yet another abstraction layer above that: the more conventional, human-readable addresses like www.pjmedia.com or www.berkeley.edu A domain name server (DNS) keeps track of which name corresponds to which number (or knows which other DNS to ask if it can’t resolve the query from cache), and hence you only need to deal with the “link”: you can leave the concrete details on how to translate this into an actual connection to the “abstraction layers” below.

The above puts me in mind of the laments of a friend of mine (a college lecturer in a humanities subject) about the atrocious writing of his students. Effectively, he says, the students have only learned the English language by imitation: they parrot words and phrases, rely on their spelling checker to fix spellings (sometimes coming up with unintentionally hilarious malapropisms as they do so), and often display a disregard for grammar and syntax that has non-native speakers like myself flabbergasted. The thing is, grammar and syntax are abstraction levels above the words: they can be learned by immersion — but that would have to be by “neural network training” from a very large corpus of high-quality written text. (I frankly didn’t know most of the grammatical rules in English consciously — but could apply them just fine on autopilot, as I’d been a voracious reader from a young age. Only when I found myself needing to explain edits to scientific papers — and of course learned that “it sounds wrong otherwise” is not an acceptable answer to thinking people — did I end up hitting the grammar and usage books.)
Prose style and essay structure are, of course, yet further abstraction levels above. But the problem is much broader than language: at one research institution where I was a guest faculty member, I saw distressing levels of learning by imitation in the lab — newer grad students basically being shown “this is how it goes” by the older ones. Now if this is just a matter of “kickstarting” then this is fine — the real problem was that only a few had any desire to actually understand what they were doing. (This became painfully clear when they attempted to write a paper — which in practice usually boiled down to compiling tables and graphs as required, and the professor or his amanuensis writing the actual paper—or rewriting the sorry excuse for a manuscript so thoroughly as to qualify as writing from scratch.)

Pretty much everybody who lives near a Jewish community has heard of Chabad (a.k.a. the Lubavitch movement): Chabad (חב׳׳ד) is, however, originally the Hebrew acronym for a much broader concept: the three levels of understanding. This is how I see them outside a religious context.
D (ד) stands for the lowest layer: da’at ([factual] “knowledge”)
B (ב) stands for the layer above: bina (“insight”) or, if you like, analytical understanding. That which is required for the higher “abstraction layers” of learning.
Ch (ח) stands for the highest layer: chochma (“wisdom”), or, if you like, synthetic understanding, creativity. The levels of “meta-insight” that allow you to apply the structural principles of that which exists, for creating something new.

Our current educational system effectively sacrifices insight on the altar of creativity (or, worse, the students’ self-esteem) — while at the same time, perversely, ensuring that students only have quite shallow knowlegde by declaring a kind-of war on memorization at exactly the ages children most easily learn by rote. The end products are students that have never progressed beyond some nuts-and-bolts knowledge picked up by imitation—and even that is not to be taken for granted.

The system stunts students while claiming to empower them, and it boosts a brittle, hollow self-esteem that shatters on the first contact with reality. It “creates a desert, and calls it peace.” Or self-esteem, “or something”

Saturday delight, Chanukah edition: Rami Kleinstein, “All your wonders have not yet ceased”

Happy Festival of Lights/Chag urim sameach!
Happy Festival of Dedication/Chag Chanuka sameach

In honor of the holiday, not my usual classical, prog-rock, or electronica fare. but an Israeli pop song that is a paean to this small, weird, and wonderful country: Rami Kleinstein’s “Od lo tamu pela’ich” —”All your wonders have not yet ceased”.

“Ulpan la-inyan” has a pretty accurate translation, which I’m quoting here:

ארצנו הקטנטונת, ארצנו היפה
מולדת בלי כותונת, מולדת יחפה
קבליני אל שירייך, כלה יפהפייה
פתחי לי שערייך אבוא בם אודה יה.

בצל עצי החורש, הרחק מאור חמה
יחדיו נכה פה שורש אל לב האדמה
אל מעיינות הזוהר, אל בארות התום
מולדת ללא תואר וצועני יתום.


Our little land, our beautiful land
Homeland without robes, homeland barefoot
Accept me among your songs, beautiful bride
Open your gates, I’ll come forth and praise G-d.

In the clearing trees’ shade, far from sun’s light
Together shall we plant into the earth’s heart
To the shining springs, to the groundwater wells
Homeland without figure, orphan gypsy.

עוד לא תמו כל פלאייך
עוד הזמר לו שט
עוד לבי מכה עם ליל
ולוחש לו בלאט:
את לי את האחת
את לי את, אם ובת
את לי את המעט
המעט שנותר.

Your wonders have not ceased
The song has yet to sail
My heart still strokes at night
And whispers in the dark:
You are for me the one
You are for me mother and daughter
You are for me the little,
little that remains.

נביאה בבגדינו את ריח הכפרים
בפעמון ליבנו יכו העדרים,
ישנה דממה רוגעת
וקרן אור יפה,
ולאורה נפסעה ברגל יחפה.

עוד לא תמו כל פלאייך…

We bring with our clothing the village scent
To our heart’s bell shall the flocks stride
There is a calming silence
And a pretty ray of light,
And to its light we tread barefoot.

Your wonders have not ceased…

And since it’s also the Sabbath, another song by Kleinstein, “Small gifts,” which is an ode to the Sabbath and to the transmission of Jewish heritage:

[Translation by the YouTube poster, with a few slight corrections.]
Another Friday, breathing the air,
Light and shadow are playing “tag” again.
The table is set, childhood photos on the wall,
Processions in white are returning from shul,
And that smell which scratches my heart-
Sneaking in and opening doors
To a small joy,
To the same old song which is being passed along the generations.
Small gifts
Someone has sent me small gifts
Shards of intent, circles of belief
Small gifts
Such as the strength to accept what I lack and what I possess
What more can one ask for?
Another Friday, a balcony, and a newspaper,
The sun, like worries, is slowly being erased,
Simple melodies crawl through the window
and there is no longer any storm which can hide the silence.
To a small joy
To the same old song which is being passed along for generations.

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!