Sunday, May 31, 2015

The Inevitability of Radical Climate Change: A Short Assessment

   Among those who are professionally qualified to make such judgments, there is virtual unanimity that human activity causes the earth’s climate to increase to the point when it will make far larger and more devastating changes than warming has so far. Dissenters from these predictions don’t put forward evidence refuting those claims, but simply assert “I’m not a scientist,” as if that dubious status entitles them to disagree with those who have actually studied the mechanisms of climate change.  If things are left to go as they now are, the second half of the 21st century will see extended droughts, vast increases in deaths caused by heat, devastating flooding in coastal areas that will not be respecters of important cities, and much more, including undesirable effects on virtually all living things on land and sea. I feel sorry for my grandchildren’s grandchildren who will be living during the period when things get really bad.    But surely, you say, these horrible effects can be forestalled. Just as it is known what horrors will be brought on by climate warming, it is known what needs to be done to sharply reduce if not eliminate it altogether. Moreover, that warming is not brought on by natural processes over which humans have no control, but by human activities that take place everywhere on the globe—to be sure to sharply varying degrees. Stop them or at least decrease them notably and those disasters won’t happen.
   But there is a fateful wrinkle. What needs to be done is costly and where they are enacted virtually everyone is affected either by increased living costs or decreased income or both. This dual effect of countermeasures makes me totally pessimistic that very much will be done until the worst effects of warming have begun to make their appearance and when its effects, moreover, have become irreversible.
  What is the basis of this gloomy prediction? To a greater or lesser degree—and nowhere to so small a degree that it can be ignored—those who rule are dependent on the good will of the populations over which they preside. How that is so in democracies—in Western Europe and the United States—is obvious. But it is equally true, just different, in China and Russia. Putin and Xi Jinping may certainly have considerably greater latitude than Obama in the treatment of the populations they govern, but they too must pay heed to the warning Machiavelli issues in The Prince: people will forgive you for killing their fathers, but they will not forgive you for taking their patrimony.
   To take effective measures against global warming is to making present sacrifices for a future goal, indeed a goal that lies considerably beyond the lifetimes of those who would be paying now. People, some anyway, may be willing to give up something for the benefit of their grandchildren, but the more remote they are from such family beneficiaries, the less inclined they will be to make sacrifices.
   Take just a single real life example. Mitch McConnell, a senator  from Kentucky for thirty years and now majority leader, surely smart, professes to hold that there is no global warming and if there is, human activities are not a cause. Of course I don’t know what he actually believes; but what I do know is that he is the senior senator of a coal-mining state and measures to reduce future global warming would, with certainty, have a negative effect on the economy of the senator’s state and its citizens.
   I’m pessimistic because today just about always trumps tomorrow and acting to save oneself surely trumps saving others—not to mention unknown others. In short, significant (and costly) measures will be taken when significant damage has already been done. I won’t be around when that happens.

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Monday, May 25, 2015

This Navy letter is one of several in which I mention singing in a choir; see
 the passage in bold.

September 2, 1945
This letter is in German: the following is the published translation:
Hello ladies and gentlemen,
    Only a routine letter since there is not much to report. Yesterday afternoon I washed as never before – all this moving! And today I am more or less free. Since tomorrow is Labor Day, there will also not much be going on.
   Even though the choir is not in the least bit good, we will nevertheless sing on the radio on Sunday morning, December 16. If you listen you will surely hear me stand out, because I sing loud enough to hold those deaf baritones together.
   Father’s letter came yesterday. The only question in it is to be answered in the negative, namely that no boot leaves the camp, holiday or not. But we will be excused from duties and can probably attend Reform services.
   Well. We’ll see.
   Junior will now have ended his vacation, since school will soon start in again.
   Here there is nothing further to report, so I had best conclude.
   The choir in the Navy was not my first and certainly not the last. In high school, Brooklyn Tech, we had a very competent person in charge of music. His name, when I arrived at Tech in 1941, was Mr. Bardonsky, but he became Mr. Bardon by the time I graduated. The chorus he conducted sang real music, two works I still remember: the Brahms Schicksalslied and a work by Randall Thompson called Do you Remember an Inn, Miranda.
   Indeed, choral singing became my musical outlet, the substitute for the professional musician I might have become but did not. With choral singing, however, I was pretty lucky. Columbia’s chorus, in my day, was conducted by Jacob Avshalomov, a first rate musician and interesting composer. I did no singing during my San Francisco and Poughkeepsie years (1959-1973), but became the only dean in the Northwestern University chorus, singing a considerable variety of works under a number of different conductors. I was amusingly distinguished by the fact that when we were asked whether we wanted to sing the Carmina Burana, mine was the only hand to go up for NO. If there is such a thing, I think the piece is fascist music, grabbing you by the shoulders and shaking you, and I was not persuaded otherwise when I shouted my way through it in rehearsals and performance. 
   My last singing years were by far the best; I’m tempted to say “the most glorious.” Early in his Pittsburgh career, Mariss Jansons scheduled Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms, a composition I thought to be one of the truly great choral works of the 20th century. I asked Bob Page, the conductor of the Mendelssohn Choir, to let me sing with them. While he was prepared right then to say “yes” (having been provost of Pitt had an unwarranted influence), I insisted on being auditioned like everyone else. To the aria I had prepared, he merely said: “you’re rusty, but you’ll be all right.” With the sight reading—not a forte of mine—I was just lucky. He asked me to sing a chunk of the Buxtehude Missa Brevis which I had sung at Columbia 45 years or so before. Luckily, I have a much better memory for music than for anything else.
   The result of all this was that I sang in every choral work that Mariss Jansons or a guest conducted during the Jansons years. That included the Mahler's Second Symphony, Beethoven's Ninth (both of these more than once), even Schoenberg’s Gurre Lieder and of course the Mozart Requiem. The Stravinsky was the hardest work I ever sang. I even “hired” a pianist friend to pound it into my head, with the pay a big bottle of gin. I loved Jansons’ conducting (and not just when I was singing: we subscribed to the season). He was ur-musical; his interpretations were always interesting but never eccentric; he let the score speak; he didn’t have a shtick.
   Pittsburgh took the Mozart Requiem to its Carnegie Hall concert. There I was placed on the top riser of the chorus, dead center—that is, directly opposite the conductor. When, after our one Carnegie Hall rehearsal, Mariss and I ran into each other in the lobby of our hotel, he said to me, grinning, “I heard you, I heard you!” Since individual voices are surely not supposed to stand out in a chorus (and most certainly mine did not), all I could say, “I hope not, I certainly hope not.”

   When I said to my son-in-law, an orchestral musician, that Jansons was not only a splendid musician, but a nice guy. His response was “that’s unusual in a conductor.”  Sad but plausible. Why?

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Monday, May 18, 2015

O Brave New World

   In a book published in 1899, the social scientist, Thorsten Veblen, put forward a mini-theory he called conspicuous consumption. To quote from the indispensible Wikipedia article, it concerned “the men, women, and families of the upper class who applied their great wealth as a means of publicly manifesting their social power and prestige.” I want here to look at a considerable variety of conspicuous consumers and conclude by identifying a class of consumers of particularly expensive luxuries most inconspiculously.
   The kind of examples that Veblen surely had in mind are twinkling diamond rings the size of an
olive on the fingers of the wife or a triple chain of gorgeously matched pearls, large ones. For the husband (at least some years later) a “modest” Bentley or a more showy Rolls Royce, membership in the most exclusive (and expensive) golf club and much much more. Needless to say, there has to be a splendid house, a veritable villa, in an exclusive neighborhood and at least a cabin at a fashionable beach.
   These purchases and many more like it are of course visibly enjoyed by their owners. But to be enjoyed also—perhaps even more—is the fact that the members of their class could see and admire what they could afford, while the much larger population of the merely washed would envy them. No satisfaction was to be gained from the jealousy of the unwashed.
   The conspicuous consumption phenomenon is very widespread, based as it is on virtually universal psychological, perhaps even biological, traits. What varies from culture to culture and (and even sub-culture) and from era to era are the acquisitions that are effectively conspicuous. In part, the reader has surely noted, this kind of consumption is a branch of  show biz.
   Now, as every follower of the news knows (via internet or perusing printed sources) the rich are getting ever richer and there are ever more of them (while the merely washed are making no headway.) Looking just at the chief executives of large American corporations, we find that the 2014 compensation of two hundred of them went from the “low” of 12.6 million dollars to the top of 156.1 million.1 If we move on to another category we also move into a much higher region of the stratosphere. That same year, the top five Hedge Fund managers brought home from a mere 900 million dollars to 1.3 billion (yes, $1,300,000,000).2 Mind you, in all of the above we are speaking of the “earnings” of a single year,
   What these folks brought home in 2014 we know, because the companies they lead are required by law to publish that information. I don’t want to say that this group constitutes a drop in the bucket, but there are many more super-earners in America, whose main income does not come from publicly held corporations, so that it does not have to be revealed—though I have no idea how many such there are. However, there is Forbes’ most visible enterprise: listing the world’s billionaires. There were 1,826 of them in 2015, with wealth adding up to $7.05 trillion, written, I think, as $7,000,500,000,000. The largest number on that list, by a good bit, are Americans, but there is also a sizeable crew that is Chinese and not far behind a cadre of Russians.
    I am sure that many of these rich and super-rich consume conspicuously in the manner described, while some, mostly those whose wealth is older, do not so flaunt their huge capacity to consume. There is, however, another way of exhibiting great wealth conspicuously. Bill Gates, the richest of them all (in 2015), is doing so by funding and heading a mega-foundation that engages in good work around the globe, following in the footsteps of Andrew Carnegie and the Rockefellers. Carlos Slim Helu, number two, has created two art museums in Mexico City, stocked with works he has collected, while Alice Walton, number eight, had a world-renowned architect design a museum built in Bentonville, Arkansas, in a region not otherwise blessed with exhibitions of art. None of these three museums charges admission fees.
   These are not cases of consumption, but of philanthropy. And there are very many such. To point to just three New York City examples, there is the building with two lions in front on Fifth Avenue, there is the theater that is the home of the New York City Ballet, and there is the medical school on York Avenue. But note, that building on Fifth now carries the name of Stephen A. Schwarzman, that ballet company is at home in the David H. Koch Theater, and those physicians are trained at the Weill Cornell Medical College. Philanthropy for sure, but emphatically conspicuous.
   Now, finally, let us look at the denizens of that brave new world.  On May 11, 2015, Picasso’s Les Femmes d’Alger (Version ‘O’) set a record for a work of art sold at auction, a tidy $179.4 million dollars. That same evening, Giacometti’s bronze sculpture, L’homme au doigt, cost its buyer $141.3 million, the highest sum ever reached by a work of sculpture at an auction. The art market is clearly booming. 
   But so is that of New York real estate. New buildings are going up in Manhattan, skyscrapers affording views, with condominiums costing sums that are breaking all records. Here is a sample:
“Last December a long-anticipated threshold was crossed when a duplex penthouse atop the . . .       new One57 condominium, on Manhattan’s West 57th Street . . . sold for an unprecedented $100,471,452.77. In 2014 seven more apartments at that address . . . changed hands for between $32 million and $56 million each . . . . This January, another duplex there fetched $90 million.”3     And it is only a sample; older New York condominiums are being bought for unheard of sums. But why do I bring this up? In an examination by the New York Times, it was revealed that “Nearly half of the most expensive residential properties in the United States are now purchased anonymously through shell companies.”4
   So we don’t know who owns these luxury condominiums nor does the public know who successfully bid on that Picasso or on the Giacometti sculpture. Indeed the new owners of many other expensive works of art sold during last few years are not known. As is the case with those condominiums, it is likely that only a small circle of friends and acquaintances of those owners will know what they have purchased.
   This is the new class of people that is being created, a class of people who consume very costly commodities—if not altogether in secret, certainly not conspicuously. While Miranda had quite different creatures in mind, we can exclaim with her
How many goodly creatures are there here! . . .
O brave new world,
That has such people in it!

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Monday, May 11, 2015

Politics. Here is an OpEd I wrote for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on November 19, 2008, just after  Obama’s election to his first term. The piece was not printed because by talking about national politics I was “tresspassing” on the territory of the paper’s syndicated columnists. That was more than seven years ago. Much has happened since and much has not happened.

Obama and the African-American Community: Promise and Delivery

   I had many reasons to be an early supporter of Barack Obama: his nondoctrinaire liberal policies; his considerable intelligence; the possession of a temperament capable of listening to advice from strong people; a superior ability, clearly, to serve as effective CEO of a huge campaign organization, together with a persuading eloquence that makes “bringing different sides together” more than a clever campaign slogan
   But if that list had not included so many superlatives, there remains one trump-almost-all reasons for voting for Obama:  the effect of the election of an African-American (and to whom does that rubric better apply?) on approximately 13% of the population or 39 million souls, as the census takers used to say.  That Obama was elected showed something, if not everything, about changing attitudes of whites toward African-Americans, but it was remarkable, above all, how it energized the black population.
   Give another meaning to that Obama slogan: yes we can!  Ambitions that seemed out of reach to most blacks became plausible over night: I, my buddies, my children can be somebody, do something worthwhile, both for myself and for society.  Such a belief can have an immense effect on younger African-Americans.  It may become cool to be smart; no longer traitorously white to study and work hard—all because ambition may no longer seem futile.           
   The mere fact of Obama’s election has engendered a kind of moral revolution by making striving plausible; that is the promise.  But to fulfill that promise, his administration must also deliver.  Obama has said that he proposes to be the president of all Americans, in contrast to the reign of Bush who has been above all president of his “race”—rich folk, evangelicals, and corporations.  But if the gains achieved by the promise are not to wither away, the policies and practices of the next four years must be such that striving on the part of African-Americans is rewarded by favorable outcomes.
   I will single out two domains: jobs and education.  The easy one—conceptually, but certainly not in the real world—is jobs.  A necessary condition for progress is the sharp reduction of the high rate of black unemployment, especially among younger men.  If the promise increases the willingness to work, it will come to naught without opportunities to do so.  Initially, moreover, and it is an “initially” that will last for many years, there must be jobs that can be performed by relatively unskilled workers—precisely the sort of berths that have been disappearing from our economy.  To get started on an upward curve, it will be necessary to go from little to a lot more in the creation of jobs for the unskilled and semi-skilled.
   That leads directly into the conceptually more complex topic of education.  Both for better and for worse, education in this country is largely under local control.  Ways must be found for the federal establishment to help localities, especially the neediest, to provide a first class education from kindergarten on up.  No Child Left Behind is an example of Washington intervention in the country’s schools, but hardly a model.  It is difficult to think of a method that is less imaginative: requiring tests and punishing schools that don’t get a passing grade.  A better model, if a more difficult one, is the way in which Michelle Rhee, the spunky young chancellor of the DC school district, is digging down to the foundation of education by tackling the issue of the quality of teachers.  Much higher salaries with merit pay, attenuating job security, misleadingly called tenure—moves that call for considerable funds, tackling unions, and administrative sophistication.  Money, guts, and good judgment, none of these grow on the trees in the gardens of America’s school districts.
   And in the 21st century, K through 12 is only a foundation—to be sure, a necessary one.  Real jobs call for higher education.  More money, well used, will of course help: additional financial aid to what used to be called the underprivileged will increase the size of the population that has access to college.  But that is not enough.  For many, attending the local community college is the next step in education.  For some such enrollment is a first step into higher education; for others it is at best K through 12 become K through 13.  The large number of two-year colleges—by my count almost 1600 of them—constitutes a mixed bag.  Since they are significant portals to higher education and into twenty-first century jobs, it becomes an important enterprise for the Obama administration to markedly improve the mixture in that bag.

   These are suggestions of things that might be done to have the released energy in the African-American community bear fruit.  In his long campaign and by his success Obama has awakened many expectations; there is no way that his administration can do justice to all of them.  But every failure runs headlong into an unhappy truth:  thanks given when the Lord giveth is nowhere near as fervent as resentment when He taketh away.  The tasks that confront president-elect Obama are multiple and difficult.  I fervently hope that he will succeed in fulfilling the promise his candidacy and election has meant for a sizeable proportion of our population, our African-American fellow citizens.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

 “Marital Relations” in Wagner’s Operas

   Prompted by a recent very good concert performance of the second act of Tristan und Isolde (Orquesta Filarmónica de la UNAM with a group of soloists from everwhichwhere), I got to thinking about marital relations—or quasi-such—in Wagner. There were the opera’s title characters having what on American streets is called a one-night-stand. In the first act they fall in love, having been tricked by Brangäne’s potion, and in Act III they both die, Tristan of the wound he received in the fight that took place when the lovers were discovered and Isolde, arriving in time to see her lover die, expires at the conclusion of the glorious Liebestod.
   Mulling, I then thought of another high-profile Wagnerian one-night-stand, this time with the music—equally great but quite different—leading up to the off-stage consummation. Siegmund, pursued, stumbles into Sieglinde’s house while Hunding, her husband, was away. In a long duet (Walküre, Act I, Scene 3), they discover [1] that they are brother and sister and [2] that they love each other. That great duet ends with Siegmund’s triumphant, “So blühe denn Wälsungen Blut.” (“So let the blood of the Wälsung flourish!”) They run out of Hunding’s hut to the last bars of Act I, out into the spring.
   And that encounter yielded Siegfried. Indeed, that flourishing of the blood of the Wälsung is a necessary step that makes the second two operas of the Ring possible, that is, Siegfried and Götterdämmerung. But while the demise of Siegmund the next morning (Act II) is depicted in the opera, Sieglinde’s death, soon after Siegfried’s birth, is told of but not shown.
   If these are the important one-night liaisons in two Wagner operas, there are betrothals, so to speak, that are never consummated. Senta, in the Fliegende Holländer, promises to be forever faithful to the Dutchman. But when he and his crew take off, Senta propels herself into the sea to die.
   The second case is that of an actual marriage that remains unconsummated, that of Lohengrin and Elsa von Brabant. Lohengrin arrives on the scene just in time to fight successfully for Elsa. As a result, Lohengrin and Elsa marry, an event introduced by the familiar wedding march.
   But there is a fly in the ointment: Lohengrin had told Elsa never to ask him his name nor where he came from: “Woher ich kam der Fahrt, noch was mein Nam’ und Art.” Alas, Elsa can’t resist. Before the wedding night really begins, it comes to an end. Elsa asks the forbidden questions and Lohengrin leaves her.
   In what is in effect the opera’s final scene, Lohengrin tells all in the so-called Grals Erzählung, ending with “Mein Vater Parsifal trägt seine Krone, sein Ritter ich, bin Lohengrin genannt.”  (“My father Parsifal wears his crown, I, his knight, am named Lohengrin.”) Upon being called, a swan pulling a small boat shows up to take our hero away. It is never revealed why Lohengrin wanted to remain anonymous in the first place.

   Tannheuser makes up for all these very limited sexual encounters. While the opera concludes with an unconsummated love affair of Tannheuser and Elizabeth, it begins with our hero spending more than a year on Venusberg, where abstinence was hardly the practice.  In a Peter Sellars version of Tannheuser at Chicago’s Lyric Opera some years ago the opera’s hero shacked up, instead, with an airline stewardess in a nearby motel. Venusberg seems vastly more attractive.  

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Here is a Navy letter that mentions my playing chess—one of many such; see the
passage in bold.

Aug. 23, 1945
Good afternoon everyone!
   Besides drill nothing much happened today. We had knot tying and this afternoon we had “Regimental Work Detail.” I was lucky to get the job of picking up paper (Ground Police) in a certain area which took just about 15 minutes. Tough work!
   I also played an exceedingly interesting game of chess (I lost it too – the first one I lost in quite a while) that took about three hours.
   Though there’s no official statement as yet, it is almost positive that unless we sign up for 4 years (which I don’t want to do!) R.T is out. That means General Sea Duty – which I don’t mind at all. Most of us think we’ll get out earlier – in any case – whether they did close R.T. or not, and no one is sad about it.
   Anyway – there was no announcement and all of this is scuttlebutt.
   Since nothing but scuttlebutt can be dug up, with this page –
                                    Au revoir

   Chess is a recurring theme in these letters. I had a pocket set, “decorated” with my name in large letters, produced with the same stamp I used for more standard Navy gear. Since my colleagues in boot camp were all RT and hence almost certainly high school graduates, I had more than one chess partner to play with. When I reached China I badly wanted to buy one of those “realistic” carved chess sets that looked as if the pieces were made of ivory—though they were surely just made of bone. While those sets were not cheap, they were not horribly expensive. However, I never had enough money to buy one because, as you will see in later letters, “my” LST did not have a paymaster and we were never in port long enough to get to the head of the line to be paid. We had to make do with the few bucks they doled out now and then.
   My interest in chess persisted for quite some years. While I was teaching at San Francisco State College (1959-1968) I played quite regularly with Daniel Gerould, a colleague who had founded the Department of Comparative Literature. Indeed, I made a quite handsome chess table for our games which, a bit worn, is standing at right angles to the desk I am now using. We both left San Francisco at the same time, Dan for the Graduate Center of the City University of New York where he became a distinguished professor of theater arts.
   That was almost half a century ago and I have played very little chess since then. (The last time was a few years ago when I taught the game to my teenaged grandson. Max learned the game, but hasn’t become a player.) In retrospect I see why my playing petered out the way it did. I had enjoyed playing in the sense that I found it an agreeable way to spend a couple of hours. But while my playing wasn’t hopeless, it never really improved; I did not take the game seriously enough to read about it, not to mention studying important games so as to move up into the next category.
   I did once find out about that “higher” level when a college friend came to our house, then in New York City, before we were all to head for dinner and for the ballet (Those were the glorious Balanchine years.) Fannia, home from work, wanted to take a shower and change before heading out, so I asked Doug Davis (now an employee of IBM) to play a game of chess while we were waiting. Doug was very reluctant to play, but finally yielded to my entreaties. I was mate in ten minutes, not knowing what had hit me.    

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