Monday, June 30, 2008

Daily Mass

The last day of the month is traditionally the most important day of the month in my business. It gets so crazyhectic here that you’re on the go when you punch in until you punch out; your phone rings repetitively; and you’re bombarded with crises that you didn’t create but have to clear up as soon as possible – which means drop everything immediately now! Normally, I’d order from a deli, have my lunch delivered, and eat at my desk, but today I just threw my hands up in the air and decided to take my full lunch hour off-site.

I went to daily mass at the church a few blocks down the road. It’s the first time I went since my first heart surgery back in November (how fickle we imperfect humans are!). I’ve gone quite frequently in the past and received great comfort and benefit from it, but like most things in my life, I’m highly inconsistent. I’d go ten times in one month, then not go for three or four months. I think my attendance peaked around the time of the birth of my first child (how fickle we imperfect humans are!). And yes, I know, we go to mass not to get something out of it, no matter how comforted or benefitted we are, but to pay homage to Our Lord.

I enjoy daily mass so much more than our obligated Sundays. For one, there’s none of the horrible singing so prevalent in the Catholic liturgy. And there’s no monkeying around with – horror of horrors! – saying the pronoun “He” or “Him.” (Ex. We are thankful to God that He gave Himself … becomes We are thankful to God that God gave Godself – yuck.) The church is only filled with a handful of worshippers, who are genuinely more reverent than all but a small percentage of Sunday Catholics. The homilies are intimate, shorter, to the point, and more often than not actually expand on Catholic teaching. Yes, I need to make this a more consistent habit.

Does this affect me the rest of the day? You bet. I meditate on the Eucharist, what it really is, what it really means, as I walk out those doors and walk back to my office, once again, back into the breach. Which is real and which is not? That’s what we need to remember.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Prime Obsession

Since we’re on the subject of mathematics, let me post a short review of an excellent book, the aforementioned Prime Obsession. It’s written by John Derbyshire, a conservative commentator at National Review Online who trained as a mathematician, and I read it mostly watching the sun rise off the coast of Puerto Rico. While I don’t always agree with the Derb’s positions on politics (and almost never when it comes to religion), the man has produced a very readable, highly enjoyable book for non-mathematicians.

Prime Obsession is subtitled "Bernhard Riemann and the Greatest Unsolved Problem in Mathematics." The book’s got a twist I like: the odd-numbered chapters introduce us to the math behind the unproved Riemann Hypothesis, gently and vividly, and the even-numbered ones bring this poor brilliant man’s history and times to life. What a refreshing change of pace! I enjoy history, and always like to research the history of any topic I’m interested in. Derbyshire really did a good job, here, and I looked forward to the switching of gears that the alternating chapters provided.

So what is the Greatest Unsolved Problem in Mathematics? Simply put, it has to do with a rule or formula for calculating how many prime numbers there are in a given sample of numbers. How many primes are there less than a hundred? A million? A billion? Is there a way to know the answer to these questions without actually having to count and test each and every number in a sample? A clue was first formulated in a paper Riemann wrote in 1859, in which he made a guess (known as the Riemann Hypothesis). The proof of this guess is now, as Derbyshire calls it, the "great white whale" of mathematical research.

The character of Bernhard Riemann really moved me. Terribly shy, always in poor health to primarily to poverty, philosophically- and religiously-minded (his father was a Lutheran minister and Bernhard came to college with the intent of studying theology). Yet undoubtedly brilliant and bold, and greatly admired by his friends and colleagues. Like too many geniuses, Bernhard was doomed to an early death (tuberculosis, at age 39). Also in the mix are the colorful personalities that are revealed when one studies any subject in depth: Euler, Gauss, Dirichlet, Dedekind, and a handful of others, Riemann’s predecessors and contemporaries, all leading up to the quest to solve the hypothesis.

The math is handled in a very easy and gradual way. It’s half-way through the book before we even get to the Hypothesis; the first half’s odd-numbered chapters laying down the necessary background. I’m no expert and can’t provide a satisfactory concise explanation of the Problem off the cuff here, but suffice it to say I understand where the Derb was leading me, and it fired my imagination. Plus, it made me want to explore what I’d learned, especially series, a topic I’ve never formally studied in school. That alone, for an author, is probably the best praise one can get.

Bottom line: Prime Obsession is a superb introduction to the greatest unsolved problem in mathematics today. Grade: A.

Saturday, June 28, 2008


I've been wanting to write a topic or two about math since I started this blog, but I was unsure of how to do it without turning off completely any of the two or three people who actually read it. I like numbers, I don't know why. I always did well in math in school; it just came naturally to me. At a college level I've taken probably a dozen mathematics courses - a couple of calculi (is that a real word?), statistics, probabilty, physics-related applications. Since this goes back fifteen or twenty years, and I don't use it everyday, I've forgotten much of it. But it still interests me, and every now and then my wife looks at me with incredulous disbelief when she sees me "wasting" my time reading a math book.

Oh, and words like "nerd" and "geek" are often thrown my way.

Anyway, the past two years or so I've read a half-dozen books on number theory. That interests me. Funny, I never took a course in it (actually, in my late teens and early twenties it didn't even occur to me to do something with math as a career). My family was lucky to get a paid week vacation to Puerto Rico last year, and what was my poolside reading down there? The Riemann Hypothesis book Prime Obsession by John Derbyshire.

So I really don't know how to write about this stuff in a way that will convey what makes it so interesting and enjoyable. Then, I realized, why not just throw out some trivia and the like, stuff I would claim to be "neat," for your consideration? Very well. In the field of number theory, how 'bout this?

Did you know every even number can be written as the sum of two prime numbers? It's called Goldbach's Conjecture, and though it's not technically proven, math geeks have confirmed it up to something like a gazillion or two. Some random examples? 2 = 1 + 1. 66 = 23 + 43. 102 = 5 + 97.

How can you tell if a number is divisible by 3? (This is handy in finding prime factors of a number.) Add up all the digits in the number, and if that number is divisible by 3, the original number is. Example? 128. 1 + 2 + 8 = 11, 11 is not divisible by 3, so 128 ain't, either. 129. 1 + 2 + 9 = 12, which is divisible by 3, so 129 is (the answer is, of course, 43).

Palindrome numbers are just like palindrome words. What's a palindrome word? A word spelled the same backwards and forwards, such as racecar. See? So what's an example of a palindrome number? I don't know, how about 5,487,845. Got it? Now for some trivia. The number 11 is, technically, a palindrome number. Raising it to some powers yields the following results:

11 ^ 0 = 1
11 ^ 1 = 11
11 ^ 2 = 121
11 ^ 3 = 1,331
11 ^ 4 = 14,641

The palindrome pattern breaks down when 11 is raised to the fifth power.

What's special about the number 17? Well, it's a prime number, true, but there's an (unproven but assumed) infinite number of primes. It's the only prime that's the sum of four consecutive primes (because the number 2, technically also a prime, is involved). 17 = 2 + 3 + 5 + 7.

A little interesting equation with a bunch of squares:

10 ^ 2 + 11 ^ 2 + 12 ^ 2 = 13 ^ 2 + 14 ^ 2

A "myriad" is actually a definite number; it's Greek for 10,000. Sven faces a myriad of problems means that Sven is really confronting 10,000 difficult situations.

There's a mathematical oddity called the Collatz Problem (also called Ulam's Problem, the Hailstone Sequence, the Haase Algorithm and the Kakutani Problem). Take any positive integer. If it's even, divide it by 2. If it's odd, multiply it by 3, add 1, and divide that by 2. Keep going until you reach the number 1 as a solution. No matter what positive original integer you start with, you will eventually end with the number 1. Why? No one knows.

There's a really cool proof of the Pythagorean Theorem, some interesting facts about pi and e, and the most beautiful equation ever discovered (see the diagram at the top of the post) that I'd love to post further about, but I think I need to figure out how to get math notation into blogger so it's easier on the eyes.
To hold you math lovers over, here's a neat little exercise. By using four 4s and any mathematical notation you wish (addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, exponents, roots) arrange them into simple equations that solve for the numbers 1 through 20. Example: 4 / 4 - 4 / 4 = 0. Now find answers for 1 to 20. Time limit: 20 minutes. GO!!!

Friday, June 27, 2008

Heart Update

Went to my cardiologist yesterday and got a thumbs-up. Excellent! He’s taking me gradually off the four drugs I’ve been on for the past two years. Joy! I can now eat what I want. By this, I mean spinach and broccoli and romaine lettuce and other dark leafy greens that perversely I was restricted from due to the meds. Fabulous! But I still need to be vigilant and monitor my heart to make sure it keeps beating correctly.

I’ve posted a couple of times on health, both mental and physical, here and here. While I haven’t been gung-ho super-disciplined about all these changes and habits, there have been a few I’ve done with regularity since my second surgery three months ago that I feel have kept me in good shape. My blood pressure, for instance, was 120 / 80 – perfect, and this measured in a hospital nonetheless! (My BP always rises five to fifteen points just being in a medical facility – it’s common in most people.) And while my heart was beating a little fast, probably due to excitement or anxiety, it was beating normally.

I’ve been coming in to work a few minutes early each day and doing a little meditating in the conference room where I can have some privacy. Just ten or twelve minutes a day of calming my muscles, my heart rate, my thoughts, in a pure quiet environment. Trust me, it does wonders.

My attitude, while not exactly consistently 100% positive, has improved with some willpower, and that too, I believe, has helped me stay healthy. I’m making small efforts to watch less TV, especially the news (perhaps THE worst thing you could watch on television), and to surf the web less, especially news sites. In the car I’ve been listening to a bit more classical (conventional classical music as well as classic rock) instead of listening to talk radio. And it pays off.

Diet-wise I’m eating much, much better. Again, I’m not a full-fledged vegan, but I’ve managed to implement some healthy strategies that will be good for my heart in the long run. For instance, my breakfast is now something like puffed rice or kamut (no chemicals added at all – it’s purely natural) with a teaspoon of cinnamon and soy milk. I eat at least two fruits a day. My soda consumption is down at least by half, and I’ve replaced it with inexpensive bottled water bought by the case at the grocery store. My alcohol consumption, except for three small, teeny incidents, ah-hem, barely compares to the pre-surgery partying LE. I’m striving towards two glasses of red wine once a week on the weekends, but man, a cold beer on a hot summer day is the closest one can get to …

I’ve been doing the workout thing for three-and-a-half weeks consistently. Weightlifting, that is, which I truly dig. Cardio’s just as important, so I need to work that in to my program. Originally I was going to lift Monday-Wednesday-Friday and ride my exercise bike Tuesday-Thursday-Saturday, but on my doctor’s advice I’m going to include cardio on the days I lift and rest on the intervening days. Due to the heart regulation medicine I’m still going to be on for another four weeks.

So, at least something’s looking up for me. I got my health back, or rather, I’m almost there to getting it all back. Trust me, if you haven’t been there yourself, your health is one of your most important assets. If you don’t have it, all the money, all the possessions, all the power in the world, that you can have or imagine having, is meaningless.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

The Destruction of Sennacherib

by Lord Byron, first published in 1815

The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold,
And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold;
And the sheen of their spears was like stars on the sea,
When the blue wave rolls nightly on deep Galilee.

Like the leaves of the forest when Summer is green,
That host with their banners at sunset were seen:
Like the leaves of the forest when Autumn hath blown,
That host on the morrow lay withered and strown.

For the Angel of Death spread his wings on the blast,
And breathed in the face of the foe as he passed;
And the eyes of the sleepers waxed deadly and chill,
And their hearts but once heaved, and for ever grew still!

And there lay the steed with his nostril all wide,
But through it there rolled not the breath of his pride;
And the foam of his gasping lay white on the turf,
And cold as the spray of the rock-beating surf.

And there lay the rider distorted and pale,
With the dew on his brow, and the rust on his mail:
And the tents were all silent, the banners alone,
The lances unlifted, the trumpet unblown.

And the widows of Ashur are loud in their wail,
And the idols are broke in the temple of Baal;
And the might of the Gentile, unsmote by the sword,
Hath melted like snow in the glance of the Lord!

One of my all-time favorite poems. What imagery! Can you close your eyes and see vividly the Angel of Death? Feel the breeze off the ocean and the heat of the wind? What movement; it just gallops off the page with a fast reading. Actually, the poetic meter it’s written in, called an anapest, literally sounds like a horse galloping. Say the lines in this style: two short unstressed syllables followed by a longer stressed syllable. Like this:

The AsSYRian came DOWN like the WOLF on the FOLD



As an interesting little aside, Mark Twain was also enamoured with this work of Byron’s, referencing it often in his works and newspaper writings.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The Aesthetic Argument

In Peter’s Kreeft’s essential book A Handbook of Christian Apologetics, there’s a chapter entitled Twenty Arguments for the Existence of God, and he and his co-author delve deep into them. Some of the arguments are ancient, some modern. Some have a more satisfying weight to them than others. Some are perhaps a little difficult to follow, mostly due to the rigorous logic they entail that our current least-common-denominator culture has no patience for. None in itself, Kreeft admits, will convince a strident atheist to rethink his position. However, all twenty, taken as a group, a whole, are quite persuasive.

One argument I found of considerable interest he calls the Aesthetic Argument. It’s really quite simple. Paraphrasing:

The musical works of Johann Sebastian Bach exist;
Therefore, God exists.

You either see this right away or you don’t.

This is philosophy I can understand (winks).

I suppose you could substitute whoever’s name for Bach’s, but the music has to have that almost indescribable quality of being sublime or transcendent. What type of music is sublime or transcendent? I don’t know, but I know it when I hear it. You don’t know either, but you know it when you hear it. And when you do hear it, you’re bound to experience such a strange combined feeling of awe and wonder that floods your body and, I assume, your soul. These overwhelming feelings of awe and wonder made me realize: This must be the human body’s way of realizing that there is a God.

The first piece of music that came to my mind writing this is Jean Sibelius’ Symphony No. 2 in D, particularly the first movement. I’d need to take a little while to create a thoughtful list, though. What music is sublime and transcendent to you?

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Hegel, Interrupted

Just made a difficult decision. After four months of consistent yet somehow oddly inconsistent study, I am closing the book on Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. At least for now. I think it’s a sanity thing.

I accomplished about 50% of what I set out to do with Hegel. I concentrated on him for four months, from mid-February to mid-June. I read my 540-page abridged anthology of his major works. I read Singer’s 100-page mini-summary of Hegel’s work, along with selections of material from Robert Solomon, Walter Kaufmann, Will Durant, T. Z. Lavine, and skimmed through two other slim books on Hegel’s metaphysics.

Did I understand what I read?

Mostly, somes. This weekend I’ll write up a report on my overall encounter with Hegel and what I took away from his philosophy. Forgive me in advance for any errors; this was never intended to be a self-study course, merely an exercise to overcome my hoppingness. And to a certain extent, it did work. I spent 90% of my philosophical reading time on Hegel. Yeah, I strayed to other philosophers and other topics, but not in the major, scatterbrained way I used to do. Yeah, I put Hegel down twice for a week at a time each time. But I did the mental work and hacked my way through some dense nineteenth-century translated German philosophical prose.

What didn’t work? Well, instead of easing my hopping, I stubbornly kept all those other distracting projects I do (writing, blogging, reading science fiction, various nonfiction reading, exercising, housekeeping, unimportant extended family and friend obligations, and, lastly, work). So Hegel became just another project of the too-many I have to hop back and forth to. That didn’t work.

I also did not structure the project well. Or rather, I didn’t stick to my gameplan. For the first two months I read only the anthology, and I grade myself an A. Superb. Reading the Durant and Singer books – A. Good. Then I started reading a couple of those secondary books simultaneously, not sticking with one all the way through but shuffling about, hopping and more hopping, and quickly started getting headaches whenever I opened any book with the word “Hegel” on the cover. Yeah, I really started getting headaches.

So, I am moving on. Retooling. Aquinas is next, and I think I might have a better experience with him. One, I’ve read him the past, and though he is a tough read, at least it makes sense to me. Second, as a Catholic, I am intensely interested in learning Thomistic philosophy. And third, something tells me it will help me in my search for meaning in this life.

But I need to cut back on the extraneous readings. Two books at a time, a fiction and a nonfiction. That’s it. One to read at lunch and one to read before bed. Two books only. Anything else is a distraction and must be triaged. These experiments cannot truly be called successful unless and until my focus comes under my strict discipline.

Now (rubs his hands together, excited) – onward to St. Thomas!

Monday, June 23, 2008

George Carlin, RIP

My wife told me early this morning that George Carlin died last night of a heart attack. I’m truly saddened; shocked but not surprised. The man had a history of heart disease, going back at least twenty-five years, due primarily to self-destructive behavior in the form of drug abuse. As the first host of SNL in 1975, he admitted to being on cocaine for a whole week straight. Actually, I am surprised that he survived this long. I read that he had worked the previous weekend.

I found him hilarious; I even owned a CD of his that brought me to tears whenever I listened to it. I kick myself that I passed on an opportunity to see him live a few years back. In the 80s my brother and I would tape his HBO specials – they were always, always side-splitting funny. Until recently, however. I remember watching one of his last specials about two years ago with a buddy who was not quite a fan (I had to convince him to watch it with me) and was really disappointed. Sad, actually; my jaw dropped in disbelief. Carlin was extremely depressed, bitter, and angry without an ounce of satirical humor behind it. He spent the majority of the special making what I suppose he thought were jokes about death and suicide. When my wife told me of his demise, I actually wondered if he took his own life.

He was a sharp critic of the Catholic Church. I don’t hold that against him; I still listened to him or watched him on TV whenever I could. Whenever he did get on an anti-Catholic rant, I merely tuned him out. He was entitled to his opinion, just as much as I’m entitled to disregard it (a disturbingly large amount of men do not understand this sentence). I am reminded of a quote by Fulton Sheen: “There are not a hundred people in America who hate the Catholic Church. There are millions of people who hate what they wrongly believe to be the Catholic Church – which is, of course, quite a different thing.” I do think Carlin falls into this category. Religion and liberal politics aside, most of his work was brilliant; his commentaries on the English language is some of the most fascinating and entertaining stuff I’ve ever heard.

I do sincerely hope that he reconciled himself with his Maker in the hours, or days, or weeks, months, years – whatever, no one can truly know the state of another’s soul – before he was called home.

Rest in peace.

Sunday, June 22, 2008


Winton Marsalis has been quoted as saying:

Jazz has seldom been learned except by patient listening and practice. But no one practices much anymore. Nobody wants to do what's necessary to learn to play well - I mean learning what music in all its forms has to offer and then the long hours of practice and improving. Youngsters today are too impatient.

(William Raspberry, "Laziness Is Killing Writing and Jazz," Washington Post syndicated column, June 23, 1994.)

What a wonderful quote! I need to print it out and frame it and hang it on the wall by my writing desk. I also need to see this column to see what is said about the art of writing. I agree with Mr. Marsalis' assessment and understand what he says needs to be done to become a complete, authentic artist. I believe I do a little bit of what he's asking - albeit at a glacial, scatterbrained pace, hampered with self-consciousness. But one day I shall be the better for it, and perhaps, then, a small segment of this world will be, too.

By the way, I saw Winton live at Lincoln Center in NYC almost three years ago. Such a fantastic performer and a charismatic man. His jazz band played with a small orchestral ensemble and we listened to over two hours of some very eclectic but downright entertaining music. An appealing hybrid of jazz and classical. Imagine saxophones, trumpets and drums snaking over and through the atmospheric sound paintings of violins, cellos, basses and woodwinds. It was a great night and a great experience.

Do what's necessary to learn to play well! Start now!!

Saturday, June 21, 2008

The Value of Dread

Level 7 by Mordecai Roshwald © 1959

*** SPOILERS ***

My experience with this short pseudo-diary could be symbolized as a cloud-shrouded mountain. You stand at the bottom, staring up, not knowing how high or how difficult the ascent may be. Two or three passers-by mention that it’s well-worth the climb, but say nothing more, give no detail. Okay. But still, something holds you back. After much deliberation, and because your quest is never-ending, you put it on your list of "things to get to," and you get going to other things.

Now, after all other distractions have been exhausted, the mountain confronts you. There is nothing left but to take that first step. You take a deep breath, wondering not will this book change me somehow, but rather, will this be a giant waste of time.

You begin the climb.

It’s tough, no lie. Several times you weigh the pros and cons of quitting, of seeking out another mountain. Often you stop, but, jaw set, you never turn back and descend. While constantly evaluating, you keep putting one foot in front of the other, keep moving forward and upward. Before long, you’re in the midst of cloud and fog, dense gray mist, but every now and then you catch a glimpse of something terrible and terrifying above the clouds. Overwhelmed by curiosity, you find in yourself a new-found strength.

Finally, you reach the uppermost cliffs of the mountain, and your mouth drops open and a shiver, a true shiver, runs up and down and back and forth along your spine.

The value of dread. That’s what Level 7 has to teach.

As I noted earlier, it’s written in the form of a diary over a six-and-a-half month period, by an officer who gets recruited, coerced when you consider the details, into becoming an operative in Level 7. This is a bunker built four thousand feet below the earth’s surface, holding five hundred men and women, and is responsible for our reprisal to a nuclear attack by our enemy.

The author of the diary is a push-button officer, who simply sits at a console six hours a day (there are four such officers in Level 7) and awaits the command to push the button.

Roshwald attempts to universalize the experience of this man by removing all extraneous detail, such as the officer’s nationality, the enemy’s nationality, and all proper place names. The military, in its somewhat dubious wisdom, even removes the birth names of the denizens of this level, giving each a code for his occupation and a number. The author of the diary is known to us only as X-127.

X-127 fills the early part of his journal explaining the routine of Level 7, which quickly grows tedious, and then the attempts by unseen masters to create a more utopian society underground. Because, once you go down to Level 7, to avoid compromise that could result in the deaths of millions, you don’t come back up to the surface.

Then one day, X-127 is ordered to push the button.

It is over in three hours. The surface has been annihilated in a nuclear war. Our hero remains oddly unaffected (as do most – all occupants of Level 7 have been psychologically screened and very few have relatives surfaceside). His partner, however, X-107, hangs himself.

Now: dread. There are other levels, the more larger the more closer to the surface and thus occupied with whoever the government deems as lesser in importance. Level 7 can communicate with these levels, as well as surviving enemy levels.

Once such level decides to send a husband-and-wife volunteer team to the surface to describe and experience the carnage. And describe they do. Death by radiation sickness, while not violent, is truly a horrifying way to die. After a few days, the team is no longer strong enough to transmit reports, and then we realize: silence equals death.

Daily life, mundane and pointless, continues on Level 7.

Then, one by one, the other levels fall silent.

The lethal radiation on the surface is seeping downward, dripping into waterways, overcoming air filtration systems and poisoning food supplies. The levels closest to the surface, panicking, broadcast their death spasms as they fall silent, one by one. Some, such as the enemy’s levels and Level 6, fall silent without any explanation whatsoever.

But Level 7 should be safe, no? The designers saw to it that it would. They have a 10,000 year supply of food and water somehow; they’re almost cocooned off from the entire world. Besides, babies are beginning to be born. Life is returning to normal, at least in a superficial way. The author occupies himself with writing jokes and crafting a new mythology to teach the children.

Then, a person in Level 7 succombs to radiation poisoning. And the problem with radiation poisoning seems to be its tendency to spread exponentially.

A day or so later, half the level is experiencing sickness. The first fatalities occur when it is realized that it is not the surface radiation that is killing the level. No, it is true that Level 7 is safe from outside radiation. This problem is much worse.

It’s the level’s own nuclear reactor, its only source of power, that is leaking. Somehow, some random stab of fate, something went wrong. Men risk their lives to repair it, without success. A few agonizing hours later, most are too weak to even think of a solution. Most die where they fall.

The author is able to get into his bunk, where he scrawls his final entry, his final, heart-rending entry, and dies as the last person alive on the planet earth.

Dread. That sickening feeling, perhaps too much like radiation poisoning, that conviction that something nasty is coming for you, relentless and unstoppable. Roshwald here is a master of dread. If any author wished his words to be etched in the reader’s memory, dread, a perverted aphrodisiac, is a very potent tool.

Level 7 is the most dreadful book I’ve ever read. And that is the terrible and terrifying vision I saw at the top of the mountain. It is one you won’t easily forget.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Composers Pt 3

Is classical music hazardous to your health?

Skimming though my Dictionary of Composers, I was really amazed to see so many talented composers have died at an early age. There are eight alone that died in their thirties. And these eight are some of the best and brightest. That shocked me. Here, take a look:

* Franz Schubert died at age 31, possibly from typhoid fever or mercury poisoning, which was used to treat syphilis, which he had since the age of 22. He composed nine symphonies (one Unfinished), over 600 ‘songs’, opera and chamber music. Extremely productive during his short life.

* Vincenzo Bellini died at 33 from an inflammation of the intestine. Known mainly for his operas. I’ve listened to La Sonnambula and Norma, and though they’re not exactly what I look for in opera, I recognize that they are very, very good for their style.

* Mozart died at age 35. No further comment except that this could be the greatest injustice in the history of Music.

* Henry Purcell died at age 36 of most likely tuberculosis, though other theories, such as chocolate poisoning, have been advanced. He was England’s greatest baroque composer.

* Georges Bizet died at age 36 (on his third wedding anniversary). Another truly tragic loss. Most famous for Carmen, my first opera. But I also enjoy L’Arlesienne Suites 1 and 2 as well as the Symphony in C, written when Georges was all but 16.

* Felix Mendelssohn died at age 38 after a series of strokes. Due to stress and overwork, he spent the last five years of his life ailing, but the final blow came after the death of his beloved sister. Many, many, many superb works by this man. Among my favorites: Hebrides Overture (aka Fingal’s Cave), Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture, Symphony No. 4 in A (Italian, but I call it the Indiana Jones symphony – listen, you’ll see why).

* George Gershwin died at age 38 following surgery on a brain tumor. Not quite classical nor romantic nor modern with the huge jazzy influx into his music, but counted here nonetheless. Again, a true loss. In addition to Rhapsody in Blue and An American in Paris, I find the Cuban Overture to be phenomenal.

* Frederic Chopin died at age 39 of tuberculosis. Though I prefer the flashy flamboyance of Liszt at the keyboards over Chopin, the latter is an undeniable genius. The one CD I have of his music contain some of the most moody, melodic, moving piano music I’ve heard.

But on further inspection of my Dictionary, I see that I am somewhat alarmist. Eight early deaths in a sampling of 180 individuals is not statistically notable. This is, after all, an occupation known for its longevity. Another quick tally and I note that 26 have reached an age past 75; that number swells to 40 if you include those men who reached at least 70. My all-time favorite, Jean Sibelius, attained his tenth decade, dying at age 91. And the great Verdi lived to see 87. Verdi composed one of his greatest operas (and my favorite of his), Falstaff, at age 80, and the Stabat Mater at age 84 – as well as founding an old-age Home for Musicians.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Composers Pt 2

I was thinking about my post yesterday on the massive amount of classical music to sample and I don’t think I conveyed what I originally wished to. Yes, there are thousands of hours of listening in the genre of classical music. But isn’t there also for rock? For jazz? For country, and just about any other fairly-well established musical taste? What exactly was my point in the post yesterday?

There’s no way to measure how many hours of listening there is for any genre – indeed, it’s probably impossible to satisfactorily define any particular genre. I used ‘classical music’ to encompass baroque, classical, romantic, and modern instrumental orchestral music, as well as opera and other various forms of vocal music. That’s a huge umbrella. Equally huge would be all the numerous styles covered under ‘jazz’ and ‘rock’ and other genres of music.

So, let’s stay away from the pure quantitative. That’s an impossible route to go, and yesterday I talked about that before my mind really understood where it wanted to go. What I did want to say, I think, is that I compare classical music to a vast, unexplored and open frontier.

In 21st century America we are exposed to a lot of music. Day to day, we mostly hear stuff that falls into the rock-hiphop-country umbrella, sometimes jazz, and occasionally, in movies particularly, classical. Advertising, I’ve noticed, tends to use a lot of classical music, at least for producers that want to push a “sophisticated” or “upper-end” vibe. On the whole I don’t think my culture is really exposed substantially to classical music. And that’s what really excited me a little over ten years ago when I made my first forays into the field. The exploration of the unknown.

It’s really quite overwhelming when you decide to truly investigate classical music. See this post on my tips for beginners. Now, the point I want to get across is that it doesn’t end there. It can never really end. There’s so much. There’s five hundred years of music there. There’s at least 180 composers, representing at least two continents and probably two dozen nations, to explore. There’s a whole slew of styles – symphonies, concerti, opera, and choral to name the most obvious. After a decade of getting firmly established in the basics, I could move on and spend a year investigating the works of Dvorak, then the next year the compositions of Sibelius, then Haydn, then Puccini, Verdi, Wagner, Tchaikovsky, etc, etc, for the rest of my life, and never grow bored.

That’s why ‘classical’ music attracts me so.

Oh, and those stuffy-sounding names above are really quite interesting. Tragic, inspirational, crazy, enlightened, those composers run the gamut from intensely shy school teachers to suicidal manic-depressives to master showmen to millionaire wheelers and dealers. Many died young before their promise was fulfilled, many lived colorfully well into their 80s. But more on these men who fascinate me to no end in the next few days …

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Composers Pt 1

One simple fact I find amazing about ‘classical music’ is that you really can’t exhaust it in this lifetime. You can make a dent in it, as I have, but it seems that you can’t really listen to everything that’s ever been recorded. Here’s what I mean: In my Dictionary of Composers (ed. by Charles Osborne), there are listings for about 180 composers. Assume each has five popular pieces of music to his name. By ‘popular’ I mean that you’d hear such a piece on a classical music radio station with some degree of regularity, or you can buy it on CD with a fair amount of ease, or your local philharmonic orchestra will perform it at least once every couple of years. This estimate I think is conservative; some of the major players as Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven easily have twenty or thirty or more such ‘popular’ pieces.

So, if you take the 180 composers and multiply that by 5 popular pieces per, that gives you 900 selections to choose from. Classical pieces tend to be fairly longer than contemporary music. Again, let’s be conservative and assume an average running time of 15 minutes per piece. After all, quite a few symphonies, such as those by Bruckner and Mahler, are well over an hour in length. 900 musical pieces times an average length of 15 minutes yields 13,500 minutes of listening enjoyment, or 225 hours. If your day job was simply to listen to music, eight hours a day, Monday through Friday, it would take you nearly six full weeks to get through all the ‘popular’ stuff once.

Say you really dig a particular composer. And say he really only has five ‘popular’ pieces. With a little bit of searching at your local libraries, or at online music sites, you can explore easily twenty or thirty more selections by that composer. Heck, Haydn alone wrote 104 symphonies. And you’re not going to want to listen to a piece just once. I have just under 200 CDs of classical music, a pretty good sample of the most popular stuff, I would think, as well as some eclectic pieces, and I still hear music on the radio that I jot down for future purchase. And of those 200 CDs, each has at least an hour of music, giving me 200 hours, or about five weeks’ worth of listening if I listened to everything once as a full-time job. Obviously I don't listen this way, so those 200 CDs form a good base that in reality provides a years' worth of listening without getting boring or redundant.

Some perspective? From 1963 to 1970 the Beatles released 13 studio albums – let’s say about 15 hours of music. From 1964 to 2005 the Rolling Stones released about 30 albums – perhaps 40 hours of music. Who else? Led Zeppelin, from 1969 to 2003 released 12 live and studio albums – let’s put it at 15 hours. Oh, forgot, Elvis. According to Wikipedia, the official number of albums released by the King is 71. So let’s put that at about 75 hours. If you listened to nothing but those four acts, that’s about 145 hours of listening, or, three and a half weeks doing it as a full-time job.

See what I mean about the seemingly-endless amount of classical material you have to explore? Yeah, I don’t like everything. Probably two-thirds of the stuff I do listen to on the radio or borrowed from a library I don’t really enjoy enough to buy. But the remainder are completely phenomenal, mind-blowing, shivers-producing stuff. Some of the symphonies alone of Sibelius, Dvorak, Bruckner, Beethoven, Haydn, and Brahms are worth the investment in time. Holst’s Planets, Wagner’s Ring music, Tristan und Isolde, Liszt piano work as well as his orchestrations, Charles Ives tone poems, Bizet, just about everything and anything from Tchaikovsky – again, all are well-worth your trouble. This morning I drove to my daughter's day care playing Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf for her, and it absolutely enraptured her as she asked one question after another. Hearing that was easily worth ten times whatever I paid for the CD.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Mental Workouts

Learned something useful yesterday. As I left work, I was feeling more than a little depressed. No, depressed is not the best word. More like, despairing. Bleak despair. Negative. Pure negativity. Wanting to escape, to do something, anything, to ease the pain. What pain, you ask? Well, how about a life regulated by a biometric hand clock (punch in, punch out), pointless work, constant distractions and interruptions, babysitters that chew my ear off with gab, financial difficulties that seem to always get worse before getting better, day after day after week after month after year of not being able to get paid for doing anything that I love to do.

I’m quite familiar with these feelings. My first instinct is to get a beer and chill out in the quiet, peaceful comfort of my writing office in my basement. However, in light of my recent heart surgeries, this may not be the healthiest response to a bad situation. Pros and cons played endlessly in my mind on the ride home. It was a toss-up, but it came down to the fact that I had $51.00 in my wallet – a one and a fifty. Not enough and too much to buy a Fosters oil can. So, some other option was called for.

Got home, and fortunately my wife had salmon and brown rice just about on the table for dinner. I ate, digested, then went to the basement – but this time, I lifted some weights. I did my workouts, but I turned up the intensity a bit – three sets of each exercise, instead of two, and the whole workout done in the same amount of time. I popped on Zappa's Shut Up and Play Yer Guitar, stripped down to shorts, and blasted through the workout. And, by the way, totally reinvigorated my mindset.

This got me thinking. The physical affects the mental, and vice versa. I think most of us recognize that. I had a crappy mental attitude, and I wanted to drink, or eat junk. Anything to change my mental state through these (poor) physical actions. Instead, I was forced to do something positive physically, and as a result my mental state improved exponentially. I now wonder – is there something one can do mentally, some sort of interior mental exercise, a mental workout if you will, that can instantly change one’s state of mind?

I’m not sure. I’ve never read anything convincing to this effect. And what few mental tricks I have learned and read about – affirmations, visualizations, mirror pep talks – don’t seem to work for me. I’ve spent quite a good deal of time meditating in the Eastern tradition; again, true to my m.o., never consistent enough to see any real benefits. But when I do practice it with some regularity, I notice some pluses. I’m slightly more relaxed, physically as well as mentally, more energetic, and more upbeat.

Yet I’m not ready to give up the idea of this mental workout. Let’s say you’re having the mother of all bad days. You’re pissed, upset, ready to rip someone’s heart out. You’re ready to fake your own death and disappear, to resurface a few years later as a poet-boat operator in Algiers. Whatever. You’d agree that this very moment you’re not in the most productive of states. You may even realize you need to change your attitude but feel powerless to do so. Here’s where the exercises would be perfect.

First, I think, you’d need to immediately interrupt your negative mindset. This would have to be something physical. Get up, walk out of the room, escape your environment. Perhaps a large glass of ice cold water would startle you out of your negativity. Stretch or do push-ups if you’re able to (if you have the privacy). That’s kind of what I did yesterday.

Second, how to change your mindset? You need to take charge of your thoughts, the sooner the better. Hmmm. Here’s where I’m kind of winging it. Affirmations, visualizations, mirror pep talks – none of that worked for me. But how about if you did all three, and kept it short, simple, and energetic? Get thee to a bathroom mirror, and affirm! Visualize! Talk pep! I have no idea whether this’ll work or not, whether it has promise or is just plain silly, but it can’t be as bad as my black dog episode yesterday.

Another bit of wisdom to keep in mind is to “kill the monster while it’s little.” I forget whether this was first stated by St. Augustine or St. Francis de Sales or St. Alphonse Ligouri, but something tells me it was by some Catholic saint who coined the phrase in reference to combating habitual sin. Simply, as soon as you notice those little tiny negative thoughts creeping into your thinking, most likely in the form of that little tiny negative interior voice that constantly runs through everyone’s head, do the pattern interrupt and start those mental exercises!

So, to summarize:

Step 1 – Interrupt those negative thoughts AS SOON AS YOU DETECT THEM! Leave! Stretch! Do push-ups! Chug ice water!

Step 2 – Get in front of a mirror, affirm how great you are and how great a time you’re having, visualize what you really want, what you really are like, and convince yourself you’ll get it and you are that awe-inspiring person, all in five minutes or less.

I had such a bad day yesterday that I would gladly pay someone, say a hypnotist, a thousand dollars to never experience that again. Well, in lieu of this hypnotic messiah, and because I don’t have one thousand discretionary dollars, I’ll put these exercises into effect the next time the storm of negativity erupts. Which will probably be sometime later today (wink-wink). Evaluation to follow in a later post.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Black Dog

Been afflicted with a serious case of the black dog all day today, so I really can’t contribute much. Revving and overheating in neutral, I had but no choice except slip out of work at lunch to motor to the park, and read for a bit.

I’m about 20 percent done with Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon, and so far I have mixed feelings. It’s an ambling mammoth of a novel, over a thousand meandering pages. At page 225 I still can’t tell you what it’s about, not really knowing for sure. We seem to be transitioning back and forth between three storylines: Lawrence Waterhouse, a mathematician working with Alan Turing during World War II in breaking Germany’s secret Enigma codes; Corporal Bobby Shaftoe, a battle-hardened marine commando in the South Pacific theater of the war; and Randy Waterhouse, a 21st-century programmer working on some sort of revolutionary internet startup company in the Philippines. How they are related, I have no idea, but I’m interested in finding out, and I hope Stephenson does not disappoint.

You can’t read this book in a rush; you have to sit back and enjoy the way the story comes at you, the images, the metaphors and similes, the intricate details, like wave after wave upon the seashore. It’s a vacation book, something to drink deeply of and savor, and as such it requires a massive investment of time. I’m learning a lot about the craft of writing through reading this book, and I’m anxious to put such learning to the test: Relax. See the scene in your mind, and write it. Relax. No rushing allowed, just be the conduit for the scene in your mind. Find the detail that speaks to you, and bring it to the reader. Oh, and did I say do it all while relaxing in a relaxed mood?

Hegel’s proving to be quite the pebble in my shoe. I have two-and-a-half short books to get through, then back to the philosopher’s own words as I reread the anthology. But time (or lack thereof), family and work demands, other readings and writings, and ye old black dog, are all conspiring to make it a quite formidable task. Also noticed I tend to get headaches whenever I start to concentrate on this philosophy thang. And I really can’t wait to find something else to hop onto, like Aquinas.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

The Manuscript

Grobes: (enters, carrying satchel filled with hundreds of papers) Well, here it is. Exhibit A.

Thomas: (at desk; swivels in chair to face Grobes; turns off fluorescent lamp) So this is what you think will help us unravel the Library.

Grobes: Yes. Here, just look through these copies. They’re the best I could do on such short notice. (Thomas examines the papers from the satchel) Find the key to this document, and you find the key to the Library.

Thomas: Still don’t see the connection, my good man. But please …

Grobes: Now you can see it in the manuscript for yourself. Or at least a Photostat replica. What do you think?

Thomas: (after a moment) The drawings are what amaze me most, I think. They look –

Grobes: Authentic?

Thomas: Unreal is a better choice of word. And … was the fifteenth century really so obsessed with women’s breasts?

Grobes: (laughing) What century wasn’t?

Thomas: These plants are other-worldly.

Grobes: Speaking of other-worldly, wait till you get to the last section.

Thomas: The sixth?

Grobes: Yes.

Thomas: (flipping through pages until he nears the end of the manuscript) Good Lord … it almost resembles a modern astronomical sky chart. An elliptical galaxy, perhaps.

Grobes: Indeed. Other theories are that the diagrams resemble cells seen through a microscope. Or a pool of water. Or even sea urchins.

Thomas: I see. And look – are these astronomical, er, astrological symbols, notations, here, written in Latin?

Grobes: Yes. But most theories posit that they were added at a later date.

Thomas: So when was the manuscript originally created?

Grobes: It was first brought to the world’s attention by Gregor Voskovich, a Polish rare book dealer, in 1911. He only allowed the barest minimal tests to be done to it to establish its age, and only for selling valuation purposes, of course. Ink and parchment analysis, that sort of thing. I’m afraid I’m ignorant of the exact processes. But it was initially placed as produced in the early-to-mid 1400s. A date of 1420 AD is commonly accepted.

Thomas: And was the same analyses done on the Latin inscriptions?

Grobes: To my knowledge, no.

Thomas: And we can’t chemically test it now, right?

Grobes: No. It’s under lock and key at Yale. We could try to take it, but I’m not sure what the point would be at this early stage. I suggest we see how far we can get with these copies, and then we can decide later what to do about … obtaining the original.

Thomas: Funes and Montag will be pleased. What do you think their chances of success with this manuscript are?

Grobes: (long pause: pours himself a drink and sits down, loosening his tie) There’s really very little we know about this manuscript. Very little we know for certain. We don’t even know who wrote it, or why, or in what language. Some of the top cryptographers from World War II have worked on it, professionals and amateurs alike, without cracking a single word. But if anyone can do it, it has to be those two. Funes’ theories and Montag’s machine …

Thomas: (puts manuscript back in satchel) But Roger Bacon did not write it.

Grobes: No. It’s at least a hundred-and-fifty years younger than Bacon. Dee or Edward Kelley may have been its author, and there’s always the fact that each had extensive libraries containing Bacon manuscripts. So, if it’s Dee or Kelley –

Thomas: There’s the mystical connection to the Library.

Grobes: Exactly, my good man!

Thomas: And all these squiggles … it’s a real language?

Grobes: Oh yes. Well, at least that’s the majority expert opinion. Statistical analyses of the kinds of things one finds with real languages correspond to this language. Something called Zipf’s law reveals it to be similar to English or Latin. But the Voscovich language is quite unlike most Western languages.

Thomas: In what way?

Grobes: For one, there are practically no words longer than ten letters. And at the same time there’s very few words of one or two letters. (finishes his drink) And sometimes a word is repeated three times in a sentence.

Thomas: So? What’s the big deal there? Tell me something really, really, really amazing. (lights a cigarette) Notice what I just did there?

Grobes: Yes, you used a word three times in the middle of your sentence. I’m just telling you, this will be a tough nut to crack. But it’ll be worth our while, I’m sure. (darkly) My friends tell me so.

Thomas: (dismisses Grobe’s comment with a wave of his cigarette) So the authorial connection to the Library may be there. These pictures in the manuscript … strange plants, naked women, astrological charts, possible star charts. What’s the purpose of the whole damn thing?

Grobes: That won’t be known for certain until we have a translation. But there have been guesses.

Thomas: Such as?

Grobes: Think, man, think!

Thomas: Plants. Herbs. Perhaps pharmacology. Ingredients, recipes. Hmmm. Naked women … wait. The naked women are mere garnish, punctuation, or a distraction. And the astrological symbols …

Grobes: What was the big rage in medieval literature? What was every self-respecting Renaissance man always on the make for?

Thomas: Dee and Kelley. They were … court magicians …

Grobes: More than that, good sir. They were –

Grobes and Thomas, together: Alchemists.

Grobes: Exactly!

Thomas: And the philosopher’s stone, the elixir of life – could not both be somehow described in this manuscript?

Grobes: (grinning) It’s not an unreasonable possibility, Tom.

Thomas: And – you know what I feel about that bunk. But – both will lead us to the Library!

Grobes: That is what I meant by a “connection.”

Thomas: (thinking a moment). Grobes, send for Funes and Montag immediately. And place a call to Mr. Jeremiah. I think our sticky-fingered friend needs a tour of the medieval museum at Yale University.

Saturday, June 14, 2008


For a good portion of my life I’ve been lifting weights. Now, I’m not bulky or muscle-bound by any stretch of the imagination, but that’s not really why I lift. Yeah, the increased muscle mass, no matter how hidden under fat, increases my resting metabolism, which enables me to eat more (though increasing age is chipping away at this). Yeah, it’s a good stress reliever, especially as I’m gritting my teeth banging out the final reps of a set. But what I like about it most is the confidence it instills in me.

My father was a math teacher and a high-school football coach. When I was about eleven or twelve, he took me and my brother down into the basement and taught us how to lift. He would sit there, spotting us, nodding approval or correcting mistakes in form immediately, as we went through a half-dozen or so exercises. When we were done, we’d parade upstairs and (at my father’s command) flex in front of my mother, who ooh’d and aah’d with pride. That felt foolish to me, but a lingering feeling of confidence sprouted deep down within me.

The main problem I have is consistency. As a youth, I’d lift mainly by myself, mainly after school, no doubt with incorrect form and a completely horrible diet, a diet at odds with my goals at the time. But that didn’t stop me. Laziness did. I always had trouble being consistent: working out every other day (and one day a week off), working in some cardio, eating properly (high protein and good carbs, plenty of water), and plenty of rest. To illustrate: once, in my early twenties, my friend and I did a full heavy-duty workout. Two hours of heavy lifting followed by a two-mile jog. Then, being still early on a warm summer night, we went out and each bought a six-pack of beer and a pack of cigarettes. Is it any wonder I don’t look like Arnold?

In my early thirties I relocated with my then-fiancée to Maryland and had to find a job. I found working out instilled much more confidence in myself than anything else, such as pep talks or affirmations or goal lists, whatever. Two years later we came back up north, and I continued lifting as I progressed through three more jobs. I was devoted, and was dieting much more effectively to aid my workouts. By 2003 I was lifting five days a week, each day working an alternate upper and lower body part. Also, I starting running with a buddy and did my first 5K in twenty years. At 35, I was definitely in the best shape of my life since I was half as old.

Then, life happened.

We bought a house, we had a baby. I fractured my tibia, had a hernia, and had two procedures to correct atrial fibrillation. I’ve been on serious medication for the past two years. Bills piled up, as did stress. I stopped lifting, and my body promptly reflected it. I gained twenty flabby pounds, lost all my stamina, succumbed to insomnia and emotional eating. It was official: I was a physical wreck.

Back in the end of March I had my second ablation therapy, and that very night in the hospital I knew I was cured. I still have a little three- or four-second flutter in my heart once a week, but it’s nothing compared to what it used to be. Nothing at all. So, I started lifting again. And after only four workouts (of the type I would have laughed at five years ago) I’m seeing immediate results.

Immediate results.

I feel extremely confident, happy, buoyant almost, like I can reach out and do just about anything. True, this feeling only lasts a moment or so until my retrobrain reaches out and squashes it with negativity, but at least it’s there. And after only a little over a week I look better and feel stronger, more flexible, more powerful. I’ve had a couple of good nights of sleep this past week, and I’m a more relaxed person.

This is a trend I’d like to continue.

My “re-acquaintance” workouts are short and simple. They only take me twenty minutes. I go to the basement, put on a CD, and do two sets of six exercises. Every workout I go up one rep, that’s it. No pressure to break any records here. After all, I’m no longer an immortal teenager and don’t want to bust a limb. So I do some one-arm curls, pushups, leg dips and calf raises, wrist extensions and crunches. That’s all. Five more weeks of this and I’ll revise the workout to cover six different exercises for the same body parts, and continue again for another six weeks.

That’ll take me to Labor Day. What I’ll do then, I don’t know, as we’ll have a baby soon after. But even with a crying Really Little One, I still need to keep doing this. I’m granting YOU the authority to keep me honest. Really. I’d rather trudge down to the basement, sleep deprived, and swing some weights around than devour a bag of cookies or slug down two Foster’s oil cans. At least, in theory (winks).

[Why did I title this entry Iron? See here.]

Friday, June 13, 2008

Who Did You Come To See?

"What did you come out into the desert to see? A reed shaken with the wind? A man clothed in soft garments? A prophet?

What did you come out to see?

Maybe a man counting coins at a table, one stack to another, as you watch waiting for a piece of silver to drop in your lap –

Or one prancing on a stage, telling you what must be done to become like gods –

Or a woman dressed in plastic, selling desire and fantasy, mutating herself into your dreams –

Perhaps an old man with whiskers, etching words into a scroll as he bends the world to his whim, and you ache to read it –

Or a group of soldiers leading faceless men out to slaughter –

What did you come out into the desert to see?

A prophet who speaks the truth …

Here before you stands more than a prophet. I am the measure of everything else; everything that you can conceive of must be contrasted against Me.

Me or the man counting coins
Me or the one prancing upon the stage
Me or the woman changing for your desires
Me or the old man with whiskers
Me or the soldiers

Who did you come out into the desert to see? "

Thursday, June 12, 2008


(Here's an old review of mine ...)

© 1974 by John Brunner

I was very excited to begin reading John Brunner’s Polymath. I’d started reading Stand on Zanzibar and was so impressed I found myself overwhelmed and could not get past the first twenty-or-so pages. Polymath seemed more accessible, shorter in length, more restrained in story, and I hoped to be wowed by the Nebula Award winner.

Well, what analogy best applies here? The caterpillar transformation to the butterfly? Or the myth of Sisyphus? I suppose that really depends on whether the payoff in the story actually pays off. To me, it did, but I can understand if other fans of good SF finish the novel wondering what exactly was the point.

Because Polymath is not good SF. It’s a good castaway story, a good survivalist story. One that tries to examine whether a Christ-like Platonic philosopher-king, still nascent in his powers, can rise up and save stranded men and women before their inner savage rises up and finishes them off. Sure, there are elements of a futuristic society, rockets, energy guns, and a new, albeit unnamed, planet, but Brunner could have set the novel in 18th century maritime England and replaced rockets with schooners, energy guns with muskets, the unnamed planet with the deserted South Seas island. The message would be the same.

This is not to say there’s nothing of interest in Polymath from an SF point of view. The colonial star Zarathustra (a great choice of name) goes nova, leaving those cities opposite the “sun-baked side” of the home planet scrambling to put as many rockets with survivors off-world as possible. Ships are thrown out of the system in every direction. Two happen to crash on the new world, with its convenient O2 atmosphere, when their suffocating crew and passengers are but mere hours from death.

The story opens a year and a half after the crash landing. A brutal year-long winter has pared a good portion of the survivors down to 800 or so. One ship is two-thirds under water, sinking in the ocean mud, and a salvage attempt is being made. Brunner does a very good job bringing an alien ecosystem and the lethal dangers it presents to man to life. Less successful are the social frictions that lead to a regression to the primitive state he describes the castaways undergoing.

Many of the characters are caricatures, boring and mostly one-dimensional. The eponymous polymath is not named until halfway through the novel, and I found this character uninvolving. In fact, the only character that had a spark was “Doctor Jerode,” a cantankerous and slightly-cliched country doctor straight out of a Heinlein teenage novel.

After the brief episode of the failed salvage attempt, the book settles down into its main storyline: the eventual triumph of the polymath and the conflict between the first group of castaways with those from the second ship. That group, led by the Eeevil Captain Gomes, have fully descended, in eighteen short months, into a barbaric dictatorship fueled solely by a slave economy.

However, the ending redeems the story in a completely unexpected way, raising the novel’s overall grade two whole points to B-minus. First contact between the two parties does not go well; in fact, the mental trickery inflicted by the polymath results in an armed invasion by Gomes and his men. Rather than continuing such genius to defeat the invaders, which I expected, or even an armed resistance, which is what the Hollywood dumbed-down version of the novel would portray, Brunner’s polymath takes an unanticipated course of action: a literal implementation of the teaching of Jesus. What happens, then, ultimately, is obvious, but how it unfolds not as much.

I would have liked to see the novel more fleshed-out, the characters breathed to life, and a valid reason for placing the story in the distant future. But any polymath, whether philosopher-king or gentle messiah, remains a figure of intense interest in our world. Brunner only scratches the surface.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Band Resume

Been having a lot of dreams of my old band days. I started playing guitar in bands when I was eighteen; this period of my life lasted a decade or so. I haven’t been on a stage in over fifteen years; same since I was in a recording studio. Heck, I haven’t even played an electric guitar in the past five years (I do have an acoustic that I strum every now and then).

But for some reason, I’ve been dreaming a lot about those days. I’m playing guitar, with my old bandmates, in a variety of situations. When I think about those days, I normally feel a mixture of ambivalence and melancholy. I lost many good friends over petty arguments and sheer acts of stupidity; others just drifted away from me for no good reason. However, when I have these dreams, I feel only confident, overflowing with excitement and enjoyment. It’s the kind of dream you don’t want to end, because you’re almost convinced it’s reality, and you’re having a whole lotta fun.

So, on the off-chance someone I played with or hung out with will do a google-search or something similar, here’s the names of some of the bands I was in. I don’t want to directly publish anyone’s name (mine included), so if you know anything about anything in this post, kindly email me here (click on my photo to the left to be taken to my contact info). Thanks!

1986 - The Outpatients

I don’t remember who came up with this name; we never really used it. Just needed to come up with a name for copywriting purposes. Some of the original tunes we were playing were: “Will and Won’t Care,” “Kicked in the Face,” “Backstabber,” “Lonely” (pleasant-sounding ditties, eh?), and “White Lightning.”

1987 - Pumpkinskum or Pumpkinscum

For Halloween, our singer’s brother filled our rehearsal studio with stolen pumpkins. After Halloween, he smashed them all, right there among our amps and instruments. Rather than cleaning everything up, we just laid down plywood and played on top of them. My lead guitarist cried out, “I’ve pumpkin scum on my wire!” and a name was born.

There may or may not have been umlauts involved in this name.

Songs from this time are “Cold Hell,” “Black on Pink,” “Do You Want Me?”

1988 - Free Reign

I played my first two live shows with this new line-up. I switched to bass guitar and surprisingly enjoyed it. We didn’t do a demo tape but we made a very high-quality rehearsal tape that I still listen to today. Some originals were simply titled “In Vain” and “She’s Mine.” However, I had more fun on the covers we played, such as “Down By the River,” and “Let It Rain.”

1990-92 - Subtle Hint

This is my one and only “successful” band, in that we played about two dozen gigs, played a couple of times in NYC, and made a couple of demo tapes to send out. The after-show parties kept getting larger and larger. Never made any money, and it was extremely hard work, but in retrospect, I had fun. Withered under a rather prolonged death when we decided to fire our singer and could not find an acceptable replacement.

Once, when booking a show, the promoter asked about our band name and the ubiquitous umlauts of those heady times. “You know,” he said, “maybe two dots over the U?” My singer said, “Nah. Just one dot over the I.”

There were a lot of fresh, exciting songs from this time. Unfortunately, I have no demos from this line-up, and the only new titles I can remember are “Endless Line” “Money” or “Power” (I forget which) and “Driving Me Crazy.”

After this, I played with some other guys for the next four or five years, in various permutations, but never attained the level of “success” of Subtle Hint. I think we were on the verge of playing a show and even had a name, but cold feet on the part of others killed it.

I quit, or was let go, I’m not sure exactly which, but it was welcomed. I was tired of it all. I put my Les Paul away. A few years later it was stolen, and I haven’t played an electric guitar since. Except, apparently, once or twice a week in my dreams.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Movie Night

One of my favorite blogs is Libertas, a conservative commentary site on film. Their theme is simply that Hollywood tends to belittle and slap-in-the-face 50% of this nation’s population through their left-tilting movies (the majority of movies produced today). I agree. I mean, when’s the last time you saw the Christian religion portrayed positively in a Hollywood movie in the past thirty years? Maybe a handful. And how many films portray Christians as weird, evil, backward? How many times must we watch a movie set in a dark, theocratic dystopia? Well, I’m not here to argue for this one way or the other. If you’re interested, check out their site. I tend to agree with them about 90% of the time.

Yesterday, I read this post on their site. I have a three-and-a-half year old, and another child on the way, and I do worry about the influence of MTV-style filmmaking on what they see and process. Let’s take out the content of your average motion picture for a moment (see Libertas for discussions on that), and let’s focus primarily on the craft of making a film: shooting and editing. Most movies today are created as if we are deaf and attention-deficit-disordered. Minutes and minutes of split-second edit cuts, fast-moving and zoom shots, loud booms from the loudspeakers … I really am concerned about the possibility that a low attention span is being cultivated in my child by our entertainment culture. I mean, how will she ever read a cool science fiction book, let alone a philosophy book? (half-wink)

My wife and I were discussing this last night. She’s on the same page as me; however, she stressed that there are indeed good movies made today. I strenuously agree. There are very well-made films today, at least one or two a year (another half-wink). However, on the whole, I think our culture today produces everything with more violence, more sex, more moral relativism, more speed and glitter, none of which is good for those questioning little minds. None. So, in reading the Libertas post, I really connected with one commentator’s suggestion of a movie night with your children. Lights out, all around the DVD player, a bowl of popcorn, and a classic movie dating before, say, 1960. Make it special, so their minds can soak in the message, the characterizations, the story and themes, and let the drug-like cravings for those split-second edits and loud explosions fade. Make it a fun-family event. It can be done; we did it this past Saturday as the Little One recuperated from her injury of a few days ago. She loved it so much she immediately wanted to know when we’ll do it again.

Now, what to watch? Obviously, the age of the child and his emotional development have to be taken into account. We made two lists on the assumption of watching with an eight-year-old. There’ll be four years’ difference between our children, so viewing will have to take the youngest one into account. These aren’t set-in-stone; more like guidelines for us as our children grow older. Here’s my wife’s list:

- Roman Holiday
- My Fair Lady
- His Girl Friday
- Breakfast at Tiffany’s
- National Velvet
- Giant
- Jailhouse Rock

Her selections seem, on balance, more innocent, more family-friendly, than mine will. To me they're geared more to a girl than a boy, but I’d have no problem with a son watching them. For further movie nights, she’d include a Gene Kelly and/or Fred Astaire film, as well as one featuring Sinatra.

My list is appeals more to a boy, I think, but similarly, I’d watch every one with my daughter. They’re more violent, but I think it’s not just violence to be titillating, but to convey important messages. That there is evil in the world, for one. My list would have to be viewed by children a little older than those watching my wife’s selections. Here is mine:

- Ben-Hur
- Bridge on the River Kwai
- Mutiny on the Bounty
(Brando version)
- Notorious
- Casablanca
- The Quiet Man
- Citizen Kane

Following up on my list will be the “monster movie Saturday” blowout extravaganza. This will have to be once they’re past the nightmare stage, however, since I treasure whatever precious hours of sleep I get every night. (toothy grin with squinty eyes, nodding head)

Monday, June 9, 2008

The Definition of Cool

If you’re a guitarist, you know, whether you admit it or not, deep down, that this, the Gibson SG, is one of the coolest instruments ever created by man:

Even cooler is the subgenus of the Gibson SG, the double-neck variety:

But the defintion of Cool, the zenith of Coolness, the apotheosis of Cool, is this man:

(Listened extensively to The Song Remains the Same yesterday. Still gives me goosebumps after all these years.)

Sunday, June 8, 2008


Oh, and "Ain’t too incompatible with the Catechism of the Catholic Church."

That’s not too hard to ask for, is it? I really don’t want to have to do the legwork for this. Surely someone’s thought this up before, right?

Saturday, June 7, 2008

For the Little One

Who's doing remarkably well. Children just have an amazing ability to promptly forget the episodes of pain in their joyful experience of life. The Little One is no exception to that rule. To her, it's almost as if the crazy events of yesterday never ever happened. When we speak of it, guardedly, she looks at us without comprehension, and I'm glad for that. We're treating her like a true princess today, with videos on deck (High School Musical 1, Happy Feet), three exciting new books from the library (My Pretty Pony, Island Princess Barbie, and Scooby Doo), and indoor camping tonight with popcorn. Tomorrow the inflatable pool gets filled with cool water.

So, this poem's for her. It's one of my favorites of Walt Whitman's, and even as the Little One was in her mama's womb I was looking forward to the day I could give this to her and she would understand it all.


On the beach at night,
Stands a child with her father,
Watching the east, the autumn sky.

Up through the darkness,
While ravening clouds, the burial clouds, in black masses spreading,
Lower sullen and fast athwart and down the sky,
Amid a transparent clear belt of ether yet left in the east,
Ascends large and calm the lord-star Jupiter,
And nigh at hand, only a very little above,
Swim the delicate sisters the Pleiades.

From the beach the child holding the hand of her father,
Those burial clouds that lower victorious soon to devour all,
Watching, silently weeps.

Weep not, child,
Weep not, my darling,
With these kisses let me remove your tears,
The ravening clouds shall not long be victorious,
They shall not long possess the sky, they devour the stars only in apparition,
Jupiter shall emerge, be patient, watch again another night, the Pleiades shall emerge,
They are immortal, all those stars both silvery and golden shall shine out again,
The great stars and the little ones shall shine out again, they endure,
The vast immortal suns and the long-enduring pensive moons shall again shine.

Then dearest child mournest thou only for Jupiter?
Considerest thou alone the burial of the stars?

Something there is,
(With my lips soothing thee, adding I whisper,
I give thee the first suggestion, the problem and indirection,)
Something there is more immortal even than the stars,
(Many the burials, many the days and nights, passing away,)
Something that shall endure longer even than lustrous Jupiter,
Longer than sun or any revolving satellite,
Or the radiant sisters the Pleiades.

Friday, June 6, 2008

The Little One

I had to do the most difficult thing of my life this morning.

The Little One fell at pre-school, fifteen minutes after I dropped her off, tripping and banging her head on the corner of a table. The wound was about an inch, gaping and vertical, in the exact center of her forehead, and bleeding profusely. Police and paramedics were called; my wife was notified by the school (like an idiot I had my cell phone turned off). The Little One’s head was bandaged, and on recommendation from a parent who just happened to be there, my wife opted not to send her to the hospital but to the woman’s husband, who is a plastic surgeon in the town next to the one where I work.

I met them there two hours later, after tying up some meaningless – I mean, important – loose ends at my job. Horrible thoughts ran through my mind, primarily focusing on how my daughter would suffer if she turned out to be permanently scarred. My wife informed me that there had been no loss of consciousness, or dizziness, and the bleeding slowed. When I got to the doctor’s office, my daughter was running around, drawing, giggling … being a normal three-and-a-half year old. To the school’s wonderful credit, the headmistress and my daughter’s teacher came, too, and waited with us.

The doctor was absolutely phenomenal. He was charming, informative, great with the Little One, and went out of his way to put us and our daughter at ease. He’d just come back from surgery, and the room would be prepped and ready in a few minutes.

Now, the hard part.

I guess every parent has done it. I just haven’t, until now.

I had to carry my daughter into the operating room. I could feel her tense against me; I could feel her fear growing. Try as I might, my words of consolation sounded hollow to her ears. She knew something bad was going to happen. My wife, the headmistress, the teacher, the two doctors, we were all soothing and reassuring, but the Little One wasn’t buying it. She was scared, and nothing I could do or say allayed those fears.

When we put her on the table, she lost it. When she has emotional outbursts, she gets red, hot and sweaty. This time was no exception. She felt the cold in the room, saw the metallic instruments, saw our funny hats and masks, and with the hot bright light beaming down on her she began heart-rending pleas that we had to ignore. Tears spilled off her face, and her eyes darted back and forth between my eyes and those of my wife. Occasionally her eyes would roll back into her head and I thought she would pass out. We had to wrap her arms in a blanket to immobilize them; I had to hold her legs by pressing down hard on her knees. My wife held her face.

The surgeon gave her ten injections of painkiller in and around the wound. I know the Little One felt those. After that, she shouldn’t have felt the stitches going in. But she fought, physically as well as verbally, she tried every trick she learned in her short life to get off that table. Our hearts broke in that room, and, once, my wife made eye contact with me, and I understood perfectly the heartbreak she was going through.

It was all over in a half hour. Chances of permanent scarring were low. We were given instructions, and the surgeon himself would stop by our house in four days to check on the Little One, after she was asleep. Talk about house calls! And after a couple of balloons (from blown-up latex gloves), my daughter was jumping about, laughing and giggling, trying to wrangle some candy. I hope that she never recalls what went on in that operating room.

Good luck, and a speedy recovery, Little One! I love you more than any words can ever convey!

Thursday, June 5, 2008

The On-Deck Circle: Science Fiction

I’m a book junkie. I even read books about books. One such book, The Ultimate Guide to Science Fiction, gives short, paragraph-length summaries of over 3,000 science fiction novels and collections, complete with star ratings. I pored through it over the course of a month, and recorded the titles and authors of 240-plus books that I want to read.

I read SF for two reasons: pleasure, and improvement. I’ve been reading the genre since I was a little boy, and now I enjoy writing in the field. My first book’s aimed at a younger audience, kind of like the ten or twelve Heinlein young adult novels, while the second is an attempt to explore some philosophical-religious ideas in an SF atmosphere. So I read either stuff that I’ve heard is superior (four stars in the Ultimate Guide) or anything that really fires up my interest from those short, paragraph-length summaries.

I’m currently reading the 1,000-plus page Cryptonomicon, so I won’t get to any of these probably until after my second child’s born in September. But I’m always on the hunt, chipping away at the 240-plus book list, so the On-Deck Circle always grows. Without further ado, here it is, in no particular order:

Short story collections:

The Star Diaries by Stanislaw Lem
Nine Hundred Grandmothers by R. A. Lafferty
A Hole in Space by Larry Niven
The 57th Franz Kafka by Rudy Rucker
Selected Stories of Adolfo Bioy Casares (not necessarily SF)


The Fountains of Paradise by Arthur C. Clarke
Anthem by Ayn Rand (for the influence on Neil Peart of Rush)
Rogue Moon by Algis Budrys
Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock (more fantasy than SF)
The Man Who Fell to Earth by Walter Tevis
Eon by Greg Bear
When Worlds Collide by Philip Wylie
Destination Void by Frank Herbert
The Jesus Incident by Frank Herbert
Dorsai! by Gordon R. Dickson
More Than Human by Theodore Sturgeon
The Guns of Avalon by Roger Zelazny
Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson
Envoy to New Worlds by Keith Laumer
October the First is Too Late by Fred Hoyle
The Godwhale by T. J. Bass
The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson (classic horror)

Assuming under normal conditions I can read an average-size novel in ten hours, there’s currently 220 hours of reading ahead – seven months at an hour-a-day pace. I also like to read something fairly substantial by Poe or Lovecraft every year around October 31st. So along with my sadistic half-completed Hegel project and a newborn infant, I have my task cut out for me. Prob’ly take me a year, year-and-a-half to plow through that list. Now: No more browsing in used book stores!!!

Wednesday, June 4, 2008


We all view ‘life’, our millions of present-moment experiences over the course of seventy-five or so years, through metaphor. Some see ‘life’ as a ‘bowl of cherries.’ Some see it as ‘the pits.’ We talk of ‘floating on air,’ or ‘reaching a dead end.’ ‘Stuck at a crossroads.’ ‘At the end of my rope.’ Or ‘on top of the world.’ You get the picture. A metaphor can define a mood, or it can define an entire lifetime.

The long-range metaphor I’ve found myself using for so long now is that life is something that has to be figured out. A riddle to be solved. In fact, I view it as a riddle given to each individual by God along with the responsibility to discover the solution. So, a day without seeking, searching, reading, asking, learning, or doing something to solve this riddle is a day ill spent. Wasted. Never to be had again. There’s a Big Answer somewhere, and if I keep looking for it hard enough, long enough, smart enough, eventually I’ll find it.

I am so sick of that metaphor.

Really. I have a pile of sixty books I need to get through, because the Big Answer might be somewhere in those 15,000 pages. I waste huge chunks of my discretionary time surfing the internet, link by link by link, hunting for a clue to the Big Answer. It’s to the point where it’s difficult to maintain focus. It’s impossible to stop hopping from one thing to another. It’s so hard to have that inner quiet and just enjoy the simpler things that are currently passing me by.

Metaphors are super-powerful. Jose Ortega y Gasset called them “a tool for creation which God forgot inside one of His creatures when He made him.” So it behooves anyone stuck in a rut to examine the big and little metaphors he habitually uses. Remember, metaphors are essentially symbols, and symbols powerfully influence our feelings. My ‘life-is-a-riddle-to-be-solved’ metaphor, while initially appealing to my positive virtues of curiosity and perseverance, has now become a symbol for something terribly dreary and ultimately unattainable. It’s what addiction feels like.

Is life a war? A test? A competition? A grind? Or is it a game? A garden? Something sacred? Instead of thinking of life as a riddle, how about thinking that the riddle has been solved? That’s it. The riddle has been solved. It’s been solved. Case closed. No more neverendingmustbesearchingness. No more.


But if the riddle’s been solved, what’s next? Well, fill the void with a positive metaphor, of course. I already have one that I’ve been pondering off and on for a long while now, but it’s a bit too personal to write about just yet. The new metaphor probably will require its own future post. Perhaps in a month or so I’ll write a follow-up tracking my progress, however great or small it may be. Stay tuned, and examine your life metaphors!

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Earth vs. the Flying Saucers

So Doctor Marvin and his beautiful secretary, Carol, are cruising through the Arizona desert, fresh from their honeymoon. Sure, he bloviates by second nature and tends to use four or five big-sounding words where one will do, but she fell in love with him anyway. She’s the General’s daughter and works the office pool at the Research Lab: how could you blame her?

Carol’s driving and Marvin’s recording a bit of pompous exposition about his latest satellite space program as a Flying Saucer swoops down upon them, gyrates to and fro, then zooms off straight up into the air. They’re confounded, shell-shocked, really … but this is the mid-fifties, and Strange Sightings are more common than undercover communists.

Back at the lab, the General’s pleased with the kids, basking in their marital bliss. Marv is a bit peeved, however, as his satellites keep plunging back to earth ablaze. Is there a connection between their strange sighting and the swansong satellites? Will the latest rocket launch proceed without hitch?

There is, and it doesn’t.

Saucers attack, annihilating the base, kidnapping the General, and leaving Doctor Marvin and the fetching Carol buried alive in their underground bunker. A lull in power reveals the saucermen’s secret message (sped up on the tape recorder) and it seems Earth’s been given a 60-day ultimatum. Marvin contacts the strange visitors, and along with Carol and a hapless motorcycle cop they’re chauffeured over the East Coast in a saucer. However, our guests aren’t placated, and more carnage ensues. The General and the Cop are chucked out a porthole, forests burn and our heroes barely escape with their lives.

Well this really ticks off the Doctor, who rolls up his sleeves and sets to work on a secret weapon to fight the invaders. At a secret location, with a secret gaggle of fellow eggheads, they discover that the saucermen, in their suits of “solidified electricity,” are vulnerable to sound waves. After dispatching a fireball that’s some sort of tv-technology for spying, and an assassination by the aliens of a limping egghead, Earthmen are ready to kick some alien ass.

And what a spectacular kicking it is! On our home turf, Washington DC is the main sight of battle. Presumably, the other citizens of the world are doing battle in their capital cities (saucers are seen flying past the Eiffel Tower, Big Ben, the Pyramids, etc). The saucers destroy our landmarks with abandon, and Marvin’s men shoot their sonic superguns with equal abandon, causing saucers to further destroy our landmarks. The Washington Monument – crash! The capital building – crash! Jeeps and infantry blitz about – zapped and zapping. Who will win the battle of the Earth versus the Flying Saucers?

In the end, finally, Doctor Marvin is victorious. Our foes are vanquished, and Marv celebrates by taking Carol to the black-and-white beach. We’re treated to the sight of the Scientist-Warrior shirtless, revealing a bear-rug bed of hair, and after some portentous pontifications, he plunges into the Atlantic.

The previous scenes may or may not have taken place in the movie Earth vs. the Flying Saucers. The order of events I described may or may not be correct. But - I love this movie! This was my favorite as a kid, and I bought it on DVD and have watched it close to twenty times. Ray Harryhausen simply created the most evil, surreal, visceral death machines this side of H. G. Wells. His stop-motion models, combined with their ominous metallic hum, have stayed with me all through these years. I may be mocking in my tone in the summation, but I mock with true love and affection.