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Festival of Books – politics April 29, 2008

Posted by Peter Hornby in currentaffairs.
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One of the major draws of the LA Times Festival of Books is the comprehensive collection of political panels available to attendees. Now, the Festival is all about selling books, so the panelists all have books to punt. Still, that doesn’t seem to diminish the quantity or quality of the panels – it doesn’t seem like we’ll ever run out of political books, or, indeed, political authors.

One amusing wrinkle is that the session audiences are, shall we say, almost uniformly liberal, in a very LA sense. Sometimes it seems as though the conservative panelists are sacrificial lambs. Audiences are very willing to hiss, boo, and call out brief editorial interpolations – “Rubbish!”, “Are you crazy!”, and the like. As Daniel Schnur said, after the panelist introductions had been completed – “I’d like to announce that, after the panel, David Frum and I will be hosting a meeting of our supporters – in my car”. The quip received a generous laugh, but there wasn’t much else for the conservative panelists to smile about.

So, who did we have? Unfortunately, Christopher Hitchens, who is a regular panelist here, was a notable absentee this year. He dominated a wonderful panel last year on religion, and I had been hoping, in vain as it turned out, for a return visit. No-one handles a hostile audience with Hitchens’ blend of superciliousness and intellectual combativeness. This year, the highlights for me were Eric Alterman, Ariana Huffington, John Dean and, especially, Amy Goodman, Nancy Snow and Robert Scheer. On the conservative side, I was impressed with Hugh Hewitt and, well, that was pretty much it.

Amy Goodman and Robert Scheer seem to be regarded as the Festival’s favourite children. Both were applauded loudly when they were introduced. In particular, Amy Goodman’s message seemed to resonate particularly strongly with her audience. Her central theme is one which is not unique to her. I heard it at the Festival a couple of years ago from John Dean, after he introduced what has turned into his “broken government” meme. Dean was asked “What can we do to fix this?”, and he was very clear and straightforward – my paraphrase would be “we need media who are prepared to speak the truth”. That’s Amy Goodman’s core message, I think, and it’s also what Nancy Snow was telling us in the “Can Government Work?” panel with John Dean. Nancy is a Professor in the Department of Communications at California State University, Fullerton, and she specialises in propaganda, and the way in which much of the broadcast and print media subordinates itself to the needs of power.

Naturally, the election, and in particular the fight for the Democratic nomination, was strongly represented, and there were some very interesting moments. It’s clear, of course, that the Republicans are enjoying every moment of the struggle between Senators Clinton and Obama, as David Frum made clear. What also seems to be clear is that they hope that Senator Obama wins the nomination, because they believe him to be unelectable as President. Hugh Hewitt made this point very strongly, and I think he caused the audience, normally not disposed to hear such things, to think for a moment. Hewitt’s point, one which was also made by Frum, was that you have to live with the electorate you have, and that, no matter how much Reverend Wrght comes across as a kindly old pastor, no matter how much Senator Obama backpedals from a tenuous association with a former member of the Weather Underground, a substantial, and probably definitive, fraction of American voters will simply not vote for him. Robert Scheer tried to point out that almost no-one had actually listened to Reverend Wright’s words, other than in inflammatory soundbite form, and that the full sermons, which were up on TruthDig, painted a very different story. “Doesn’t matter”, said Hewitt. Even the kindler, gentler Reverend Wright, he said, paints a picture of America that many Americans don’t recognise, won’t accept and, most importantly, won’t vote for.

One other fascinating insight was something which I hadn’t thought about before, and which horrifies me. The Democratic candidates, and Senator Obama in particular, have mobilised a huge number of people who have never been active in the political process before. Whoever wins the nomination, there will be many, many disaffected workers on the losing side who have vast amounts of emotional capital invested in their candidate, and that these people will not know how to deal with losing. Hugh Hewitt conducted a straw poll in the audience. “How many Clinton supporters are out there?”, he asked. A substantial minority of hands went up – this was big-time Obama-land. “How many of you”, he went on, “will not vote for Obama in the general election if he wins the nomination?” And, astonishingly, a good few hands went up. If Democratic voters are sufficiently suicidal that they would rather see a Republican win the election than the “wrong” Democratic candidate, then they deserve to lose, and the next four, or eight years will, I predict, pay them back in spades.


Los Angeles Times “Festival of Books” April 29, 2008

Posted by Peter Hornby in books.
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The LA Times “Festival of Books”, at the UCLA campus in Westwood, is one of the highlights of our year.  It’s a weekend-long celebration of the written word, encompassing panel sessions, interviews, writing workshops and publishers’ booths, all draped engagingly on the beautiful UCLA campus, and, amazingly, all free.  The LA Times says that it’s the largest book festival in the US, and I wouldn’t argue.  I remember a British author two or three years ago expressing his astonishment at the scale of the show.

I tend to gravitate to the science panels and those of a political nature.  Normally, the science panels focus on the finalists in the Science section of the LA TImes Book Prizes, which are awarded on Friday evening.  This year’s winner was none other than Douglas Hofstadter, for his new work “I Am a Strange Loop”, or, as the moderator described it, “I Is a Strange Loop”. (You’ll have to check the book to understand what he was getting at!)  Hofstadter was on a panel with Dava Sobel, who talked a little about her upcoming play about Copernicus, Brian Fagen. whose book “The Great Warming: Climate Change and the Rise and Fall of Civilisations” describes the Medieval Warming of 800-1300 and offers lessons this period can teach us about what might happen as the earth of our own period warms dramatically, and Gino Segrè, whose book “Faust in Copenhagen”, uses the device of a skit, based on Goethe’s Faust, and performed at a 1932 physics conference in Niels Bohr’s Copenhagen, to provide a human picture of the physics and physicists of the time, a period where physics was about to change the world, and be irrevocably changed by it.

The second science panel I attended was even more interesting.  The theme was “Mind Matters”, a title capable of multiple interpretations, in traditional Festival style.  The panelist were a seriously diverse bunch.  I’d seen two of them before, the mother and son combination of Sandy and Matt Blakeslee, but Christine Kenneally and Daniel Lord Smail, were new to me.  The Blakeslees seem to be an ideal combination – a kind of distributed science writer.  Sandy has been writing about science, mainly for the New York Times, for decades, whereas Matt is a trained cognitive scientist, now working as a freelance writer.  Their book “The Body Has a Mind Of Its Own”, describes new and arresting research into the way in which the neurological apparatus in the brain builds and rebuilds the idea of self.  The central idea is body mapping, and it seems as though there’s a lot happening in this area right now.

Christine Kenneally is an Australian science writer with a doctorate in linguistics from Cambridge.  Her book, “The First Word” is a comprehensive tour of the work going on in evolutionary linguistics – how language evolved, and the extent to which it’s a uniquely human capability.  And finally Daniel Lord Smail, who’s Professor of History at Harvard, described his work on bringing together the previously unconnected areas of history and neuroscience.  The book is “On Deep History and the Brain”.

It was fascinating, and very energising, to hear these authors talk about their work.  There’s something about bright, articulate people with stories to tell which really resonates with me.  So these books are now sitting on the top of my precariously balanced to-be-read pile.  Sometimes I actually get started on my Festival purchases before next year’s Festival comes around.  This year will be one of those years, I’m confident.

I’ll get to the political sessions – energising in a somewhat different way – in another post.

Moving more mail into Gmail April 25, 2008

Posted by Peter Hornby in Uncategorized, worklife.
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I spent a lot of time some months ago moving substantial quantities of mail from a work-based Outlook mailbox into Gmail. I started on the next step yesterday – moving mail from the Entourage 2004 mailbox on my wife’s Mac into GMail, using the technique written up by Zoli Erdos – configuring an IMAP connection to Gmail, and mapping local folders to Gmail labels.

This didn’t go desperately smoothly, but it seems to be working now. The technique is comprehensively written up by William Smith on the Entourage Help blog. Unfortunately, as noted by commenters, there’s something screwed up in the process, and the timestamp you get in Gmail is not the original Received-Date. So the first attempt didn’t work, and I deleted (in Gmail) the messages with the bad timestamps.

Commenters came to my aid, describing the workaround of using a third mail account, configured using IMAP, and then setting Gmail’s Mail Fetcher to get the messages from the third account using POP. So I set up a temporary Gmail account, and gave it a shot. Well, that didn’t work either. For some reason, my Entourage aborts the IMAP upload to Gmail, in an oddly random manner. Some small number of messages are uploaded (and the number is not the same each time), and then Entourage throws up an “Error 1025” (whatever that is), and a message of “Unable to append message to folder”.

So, back to my friends, William Smith’s commenters. There seemed to be evidence that Apple’s .Mac mail service could be used to supply the third mail account. So I signed up for a free trial, and tried again. This time, it all worked – almost. The messages uploaded to .Mac fine, and Google Mail Fetcher started pulling them in to Gmail. All went well – I transferred several thousand messages – until I got to a particular folder in Entourage’s mailfile. All the messages in this folder were uploaded to .Mac, Google Mail Fetcher reported, eventually (because this takes a serious while – no, I mean HOURS), that all the mails were fetched, but only half of them ended up in Gmail. Very odd.

This time, my buddies the commenters were no help, nor was the Gmail help system. I tried again, uploading the messages which had got lost to .Mac. Same thing. All uploaded OK, all pulled into Mail Fetcher OK, around half seemingly thrown on the Gmail floor. I spent most of this afternoon trying to work out what was going on, until, eventually, I had a forehead-slapping moment. I realised that the messages which were being thrown away were exactly the messages that I’d uploaded with bad timestamps way back in the first step, and which were still sitting in my Gmail Trash folder, waiting for the executioner’s axe. Gmail thought I already had these messages!

So, I emptied the Gmail trash, started over, and everything seems to be running sweetly.

Short answers to long questions April 19, 2008

Posted by Peter Hornby in currentaffairs.
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I don’t know who originally came up with the Internet meme : “Short Answers to Long Questions”. Anecdotal evidence suggests that it might have been The Poor Man. Whatever. The idea jumped back into my mind while I was reading a recent post in Robert Reich’s blog, referring to Tim Russert and his “Meet The Press” guests riffing on Barack Obama’s “bitter” quote:

Q: [Posed by Reich] : Does Russert really believe he’s doing the nation a service for this parade of spin doctors talking about potential spins and the spin-offs from the words Obama used to state what everyone knows is true? Or is Russert merely in the business of selling TV airtime for a network that doesn’t give a hoot about its supposed commitment to the public interest but wants to up its ratings by pandering to the nation’s ongoing desire for gladiator entertainment instead of real talk about real problems.

A: Regrettably, the second.

John Archibald Wheeler April 16, 2008

Posted by Peter Hornby in Science.
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I saw from the BBC yesterday that John Archibald Wheeler had died at the age of 96.  It seems to me, as someone with no professional standing in the area (but a healthy amateur interest), that Wheeler did three things extraordinarily well, two of them probably as well as anyone has ever done them.

First, he was, by any standards, a great physicist, over many, many decades, as far back as his groundbreaking work on nuclear fission with Niels Bohr in the late thirties.  He was probably the force behind the rehabilitation of general relativity and the study of gravity as an active, vibrant field of study in the late fifties and early sixties, leading to the great results of Penrose, Hawking and others. 

Second, he was a great teacher and adviser.  Some of the best physicists of the century spent time working with him and for him – Feynman, Misner, Thorne and many others – and all of them attest to the formative – and transformative – effect he had on them, even when, as in Feynman’s case, he was not much older than his student.

Third, he was an absolutely peerless writer about physics.  I don’t mean to classify him primarily as a populariser, although he did that uncommonly well too.  Rather, he was able to convery deep physical insights in a way which was transparently clear, deeply illuminating and instantly identifiable as his work.  Maybe the defining example of this characteristic is the monumental 1972 book “Gravitation“, written with Kip Thorne and Charles Misner and still available.  I’m not qualified to comment on how well “Gravitation” has held up over thirty-six years (although it did play a central role in my being able to survive the paper on General Relativity in my final examinations as a mathematics student at Oxford University in 1975!).  What I do know is that the style and approach were instantly clear and refreshing.  I still recall feeling a shock of understanding when I read the sentence on page 5 in the very first chapter – “Space acts on matter, telling it how to move. In turn, matter reacts back on space, telling it how to curve“.  That was John Archibald Wheeler at his incisive, intuitive, inspiring best.

Rest in peace.

The words of Robert Frost April 15, 2008

Posted by Peter Hornby in chorale.
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One of the pieces we performed on Sunday was a piece with a quite remarkable, if depressing, history.  The story is told by the composer, Eric Whitacre, in the introduction to the score.  The song is called “Sleep”, and it’s a wonderfully evocative piece.  However, the piece we sang is a long way from the way it started, back in 1999.

The piece was originally a commission.  The lady wanted a setting of Robert Frost’s poem “Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening”, in memory of her parents, who had died within weeks of each other after fifty years of marriage, and whose favourite piece it was.

Whitacre took on the commission, and the piece was premiered in 2001, to great acclaim.  He started getting requests from conductors across the country.  And then, the shock.  Whitacre discovered that the Robert Frost Estate, through their lawyers, had closed the door to all settings of Frost’s work.  He had, perhaps naively, thought that the existence of Randall Thompson’s “Frostiana” was a sign that Frost’s poetry could be set to music and performed. And, again, perhaps naively, he hadn’t checked.  But no, until Frost’s poems enter the public domain, in 2038, Eric Whitacre’s setting of “Stopping By Woods” has to sit in a chest under his bed.

And then, an astonishing brainwave.  Whitacre himself commissioned his friend, the poet Charles Anthony Silvestri, to write a new poem to fit the already existing musical setting.  To quote Whitacre:

I was asking him to not only write a poem that had the exact structure of the Frost poem, but that it would even incorporate key words from “Stopping By Woods, like ‘sleep’. Tony wrote an absolutely exquisite poem, finding a completely different (but equally beautiful) message in the music I had already written.

And it was the Whitacre/Silvestri piece “Sleep” that we performed on Sunday.  It’s just a stunning work – for me, one of the major highlights of the program.

To finish with Whitacre again, expressing a sentiment that’s hard to disagree with:

..my only regret in all of this was that I was way too innocent in my assumption that lawyers and heirs would understand something as simple and delicate as the choral art.

A Tribute To Our Poets April 15, 2008

Posted by Peter Hornby in chorale.
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Last Sunday, my choir, the Saddleback Master Chorale, performed a concert with the title of “A Tribute to Our Poets”.  The program was an interesting collection of settings of poems, from John Rutter’s beautiful setting of Shakespeare’s “Blow, Blow, Thou Winter Wind”, from “As You Like It”, to Randall Thompson’s lovely treatment of Robert Frost’s “Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening” and “The Road Not Taken”, from “Frostiana”.  There’s a story about another “Robert Frost” piece we – kind of – did, and I’ll get to that in the next post.

First, though, I wanted to describe an experience I had in the concert.  We’d decided to interleave the songs with some readings, and I volunteered to start the program with the opening lines of “Twelfth Night”. You know the speech – Duke Orsino and “If music be the food of love, play on…”.  Well, it’s only fifteen lines, so I decided to learn the speech and attempt to actually convey my sense of what was going on in Orsino’s head when he spoke it.  I spent a good deal of time committing the words to memory, and trying to get a sense of the intent of the speech.  I practiced and practiced in the privacy of my shower, and it started to sound pretty good, at least to my own ears.  I thought I was communicating what I saw as a kind of sardonic bitterness in the first few lines, followed by a dreamy reaction to the music (“O it came o’er my ear..”), followed by a reversion into his bitter depression with “O spirit of love…”.

So, what happpened when I got to the stage?  Well, the microphone didn’t help.  I didn’t want it, but was overruled by our Music Director.  That’s not the point, though.  The majority of my homework went out of the window as I just wanted to make sure that I remembered the words.  I don’t think I got across a quarter of what I meant to.

And the point of all this?  This was fifteen lines of poetry. FIFTEEN LINES!  I have always respected the actor’s craft, but never quite as much as I did after finishing my thirty second performance on Sunday, and realising just how much I had failed to get across to my audience.  The Shakespearean actor is a breed apart.


Four fours – 1453? April 4, 2008

Posted by Peter Hornby in Uncategorized.
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I’ve said this before, but it finally looks like the Four Fours quest has ground to a halt.  I made lots of good progress on our trip to the East Coast, but it looks, for now at any rate, as though 1453 is where it stops.  I’ve used all the tricks I know, and I’m stuck.