Monday, May 29, 2017

Producer vs. User

The User Comes Second 
In the past, I have occasionally fulminated about the distinct advantage that is often given to the packager of whatever, as compared to the consumer of the package. Good examples, if strictly only an analogy, are those envelopes sent out by various governmental agencies: messages that require the recipient to carefully insert a knife on three sides of an envelope to get at some trite message thus revealed. Euch mach ihr’s leicht; mir macht ihr’s schwer, as Hans Sachs would have it in the Meistersinger. There is nothing surprising about that package, since basically, it shoves the work from the “producer” to the consumer. (What else is new?)
   I’ve now come across an analogous example of a rarer sort. As previously mentioned, I am now reading Robert Caro’s book on Robert Moses. If ever there was such a thing, it’s a mega-book of nearly 1300 pages; big pages.

   But its bulk makes it a nuisance to read. Over two inches thick and weighing maybe five pounds. It’s OK to have reference text come in big packages, since they are usually just consulted in bits and pieces, but it is not equally suitable for a book to be read through from beginning to end to be so huge. To put it bluntly, a monster book like that is a nuisance to read. The “user”—that is reader—would have been better off with two volumes, even though that would be slightly more costly (it’s only a paperback). An e-book version would have even be better, but, surprisingly, none such is available. The user is not the first considered in the book’s design.                                                                                                                                                         

Tuesday, May 23, 2017


   I’m done with Katharine Graham’s autobiography. A very long, well written, and immensely interesting book. When I now read of the deeds of the Washington Post I wish there were a narrative that bridges the Graham period to that of Jeff Bezos, the current owner. Unlike some of my friends, I’ve never followed the Post, being a NYTimes addict from way back, while also trying to keep my newspaper reading within limits.
  I was rummaging Kindle possibles, when I clicked on Kory Stamper’s “The Secret Life of Dictionaries” a subtitle, instead of the “Sample” I was aiming to get. So, I’m reading it. Interesting enough: I’m learning quite a bit. The future will tell whether I stick with it to the end. (It is no doubt an age phenomenon, but while in earlier years, I felt that I had to read a book to the end—though I did not always do so, always with feelings of guilt—I have gotten over that inhibition.

   So much so, that I have now interrupted that reading with Robert Caro’s The Power Broker, which just arrived in the mail. This book about New York’s fabulous (take that label literally) Robert Moses mimics its subject in being just short of two inches thick—and immensely heavy. It’s a good thing I don’t read in bed these days. I’ll no doubt report—eventually.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Trump's Sins

Is it Curious? I don’t think so.
   I read a great many articles about Trump, almost all of them negative, many of them exceedingly so. I am sure everyone who is awake to the current scene is having the same experience: being constantly apprised of our president’s stupidities, ignorance, impulsiveness, and more of the same—no doubt all true.
   What surprises me is that as far as I know, there are no rebuttals issued by the Trump camp. These attacks that would be slander if they weren’t true are simply being absorbed, so to speak.

   I have a simple, two-part, explanation and wonder whether any readers have a more complex one.  [1] Trump himself doesn’t read these attacks and, for the most part, is ignorant of them. And [2], his aids and hangers-on have no motive to rebut them, even when on occasion they don’t agree. For them, in the language of game theory: high risk, no gain.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Katharine Graham’s Book

   I have let more than the usual amount of time go by for adding a post on my blog, because I have simply been too busy. I am reading an utterly fascinating book—and a long one. It is Personal History by Katharine Graham (née Meyer, 1917-2001). I’m not done, though probably not all that far from the end. (There are no page numbers in a Kindle text and the percentage read, given at the bottom of each page is of the entire book, before you know how much there is after the end of the text, by way  of appendices, end notes, illustrations, etc. and of course an often sizeable index.)
   I may yet do a post or two, but right now I will only put forward a plug for this remarkable achievement. It is very well written and consistently interesting. It is not only about a time to varying degrees familiar to most readers will be familiar with, but its cast of characters includes a great many familiar names, not excluding Presidents Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. They and many others are not casual acquaintances, but friends who saw each other with some frequency. Katharine’s father was a very wealthy financier with entrée into many worlds, assisted by many servants in a variety of houses. He bought the Washington Post which came to play a signal role in Katharine’s life.
   Personal History is extremely well-composed and well- written; there is not a dull page in a long text. It won a Pulitzer Prize. If there were a prize for a life well-lived, Katharine should get that too. Read the book.

Friday, May 5, 2017


Active and Passive Vocabulary
   I’ve been reading a miscellany of books and articles, now that I am mostly free of duties, more  than in recent years. That’s part of the reason why recently I’ve become more conscious than before of my relationship to language. The other cause of that phenomenon is that during times I’m awake during the night and first thing in the morning, German, my first and only language until we came to America at my age twelve, keeps popping into my head, mostly in the form of the opening verses of maybe half a dozen German children’s songs. I take this quasi-return to childhood to be one of the more benign age phenomena, since I’ve had little occasion to use German in some years.
   I have always realized that there was little if any difference between my active and passive vocabulary. This, it has been said, is not unusual when a second language has been acquired. It contrasts with an alleged norm that, as I understand it has the vocabulary one is able to use when expressing oneself be nowhere near as large as the one that is understood.
   Now, for some reason I have recently become self-conscious about the words of which my reading was composed. I came across quite a few words that I could not recall ever having used when writing. Mind you, I am not talking of an esoteric vocabulary or bits of technical language, not to mention slang or “indecent” words, but of perfectly ordinary English ones that I have just never employed in written sentences I have constructed.
    I had always thought that the difference between an active and a passive vocabulary is essentially a difference of knowledge: one can correctly deploy one’s active vocabulary in every appropriate context. One can understand—make out the meaning of—one’s passive vocabulary, on the other hand, when coming across it in someone else’s writing or speech, though without being sure as to how to use it.
   If my recent spate of self-consciousness has revealed anything at all it is that there is another sense of the pair of active and passive that is more idiosyncratic and somewhat mysterious.


Monday, May 1, 2017

Carl Maria von Weber’s Der Freischütz
The Sinfonica Nacional, Ellie’s orchestra, just performed a concert version of Weber’s Freischütz, leaving out the extensive spoken dialogue. Mercifully so, even if it meant not quite getting the opera’s story. While I couldn’t follow the Spanish of the supertitles, I also didn’t get much of the German of the singers. I hasten to add that that’s neither the fault of chorus and soloists, but just an example of the problematic relationship between music and text in just about most, if not quite all, of standard operas. While spoken dialogue would have been more intelligible, my elderly hearing would not have helped.
  Freischütz is the first opera I ever saw, age ten or so, in Heidelberg (where I  was born), about eighty years ago. Some of its melodies also became familiar because they were included in my first piano lessons around the same time.
   So what about the version in 2017 Mexico City? A most credible performance that managed to preserve the opera’s most Germanic character. It is not surprising that it is seldom performed outside Germany, because it is not only German in language and story line, but also in its musical shape. While not consistently so, its structure is strophic, suggestive of a Wanderlied; the inventiveness of its tunes lifts it above the mundane, as well as the extensive use of a chorus and some clever orchestration.

   Is it a great opera? Eminently worth hearing, but not “great.” It is different from what was going at the time—Rossini operas were much performed and Weber—sort of—anticipates Wagner. Mozart is the ancestor of the Freischütz, though it doesn’t measure up to the Zauberflöte, not even to the earlier Mozart German opera with spoken dialogue, the Entführung aus dem Serail. I felt slightly guilty when, while listening to Weber’s music, now and then the thought popped into my mind: well done, but not in Wolfgang Amadeus’s class.