Chronological Archive • January 2003
January 29, 2003
The flat screen explosion

One of these decades I really must sort out how to put pictures up on my blogs. It's easy. It must be. Everyone else does it without apparent catastrophe. And how can I be doing a culture blog without making use of this elementary procedure, to illustrate my profound opinions? No doubt for several weeks, months or years you will be able to witness my answer.

In the meantime, these people seem to know how to display pictures. Try going here, and clicking on the picture to the right.

This kind of electronic picture displaying is only in its infancy. For consider this. One of the consumer toys now doing the Price Plummet is none other than the flat screen TV.

I've been pondering this, and I think we are about to witness something very interesting, domestic-decoration-wise.

Who says you only have to have one TV screen per room?

I can remember when it was assumed that you could only have one TV screen per house. Then, some brave soul said to himself, and more to the point to his pestilential teenage children: you know what, you brats can have your own TVs in your bedrooms, then we can all watch what we want.

But now with these flat screen TVs, we can soon have them hanging on our walls in great assemblages. If a really good flat screen TV cost £50 instead of a minimum of about a £1,000, I'd have a couple on my living room wall, where the print-outs of my digital photos now go. And since the market for these gizmos is going to be absolutely huge beyond belief, they'll probably be down to £20 in no time at all.

For years I missed the point of these things. I used to think: So? They save a bit of space? I can now put a bit of crap behind my TV screen and a bit more crap behind my computer screen. A total of about fifty books or so. But this is totally to miss the point, which is that a flat screen is a completely different and infinitely more flexible object. It's not that it saves space. It's that it doesn't take up any more space in the first place, except wall space. It's a replacement not only for your pregnant TV and computer screens. It's a replacement for all you pictures.

I will buy one and sort out how to display pictures (mine and Michelangelo's) on it, and who knows what else besides? Ultra favorite movies or movie scenes with the sound-track off? Silent movies? Then when they are really cheap, I'll turn my home into an art gallery. (Personal computers will have to learn how to control a hundred screens rather than just one, I think.)

Question: Will "art galleries" go the way of provincial repertory theatres when TV came along?

No. And I'll tell you all about why some other time.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:40 PM
Category: TVTechnology
January 22, 2003

Funny how great (in my opinion) minds think alike.

Alice Bachini has a little posting about the allegedly excessive use of the personal pronoun. Tim Blair complains that some other person says "I" far too much in something she's written, and Alice hopes Tim doesn't ever read her blog, because she says "I" a lot too.

On the face of it not a very important little notion, is it? Personally, speaking for myself, I like saying "I" quite a lot, for reasons which I explained in comment number one (and so far only) on Alice's posting. Here's what I've just put there:


This is me. Brian. I think that using the words "I" and "me" a lot can actually be a lot less evidence of egotism and self-obsession than is often assumed. Constantly saying "I think", or "in my opinion", is evidence that I understand the difference between what I think and what others might think, and above all between what I think and what is "objectively" true. Is it really any less self-absorbed for me to be simply announcing how things are, with no qualifier that this is only my own opinion?

In persuasive writing, it is often polite to distinguish between things that "I think" and things that you should also think. "Here's my opinion, obviously I want you to agree, but I realise that these are two distinct processes" is a good way to spread ideas, because you can then spread them without other people having to agree with them.

Denouncing constant use of "I" only makes sense if you think that writing should only state facts, never express opinions, or for that matter recount personal experiences.

That's what I think, anyway.

I got to that attitude from a background not in art criticism or cultural commentary but in political propaganda, in trying to spread political ideas (see this tactical essay - which is only a pdf file, I'm afraid, not yet html). But I believe that very similar considerations apply to discussions about art, and if anything even more so.

And on the very same day as Alice's little posting, what does Michael Blowhard have to say for himself? I encountered this essay, modestly entitle Artchat Survival Tips immediately after doing the comment above. Quote:

But are we obligated to love what has been deemed great? Absolutely not, no more than anyone or anybody has obligated you to, say, love Paris or Rome. Still, why not visit? Why not have that experience? But many people make the mistake of leaping from “I love it” to “It’s great” in the blink of an eye. This is understandable -- they’re both ways not just of saying something specific, but also of expressing a general enthusiasm. Nonetheless, doing so will tend to land you in hot and unpleasant waters. Say “It was great!” when what you really mean is “I loved it,” and someone might well respond, “Are you kidding? It’s not great!” Then you feel a little hurt and offended, and defensively/angrily say “Oh, yeah?” And pretty soon the two of you are saying “Sez who?” at each other -- when all you really wanted from the outset was a sympathetic and interested minute or two.

My trick for getting past this kind of pointless unpleasantness is to personalize my opinions and reactions: to say “I enjoyed it” or “I didn’t enjoy it” rather than “It was great” or “It stunk.” Doing so makes it much less likely that dumb arguments will erupt -- after all, all you’re doing is informing people about your reaction. Who can argue with that? There is no higher authority than you on the topic of your own reactions. If you encounter someone who disputes your account of your own reaction -- as in, “No you did not love it” -- leave quickly. There are a handful of bossy and intrusive people who will dispute your account of your reactions. (Most of them live not far from me here in New York City, as far as I can tell.) I do my best to avoid having conversations with them -- some people are simply impossible.

I urge you to read the entire piece. I'm thinking of asking Michael if I can reprint it as a Libertarian Alliance Cultural Note. In my opinion, his essay is a classic, and deserves to become part of the canon. My canon, anyway.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:37 AM
Category: This and that
January 18, 2003
In defence of specialist blogs

Assuming you ignore the comment from me checking that the comment machinery works, Steven Gallaher supplied the first proper comment on this blog yesterday. Thanks Steven. After saying nice things about it, he asked if perhaps the posting immediately below this one might more appropriately have been placed on my Education Blog, or even on Samizdata. And maybe that would have have made sense.

And now I've just done a posting about music teaching over at my education blog which might just as appropriately have been put here.

So the question does arise: if the boundaries between my two little blogs are so blurred – and they are blurred – why not just lump them together? Or, why not just fling everything onto Samizdata?

As to combining the education and culture blogs, pointing out the existence of the colour orange does not prove that there is no valid distinction to be made between red and yellow. There's a big overlap, but culture and education are nevertheless distinct concepts, each worthy of their own distinct attention.

I strongly believe in specialist blogs. Someone interested in education may be sufficiently diverted by the views of me and my friends on that topic to find a regular visit to my education blog worth the trouble, if only to find ammunition concerning what these wacky libertarians are saying about it. "Culture" is probably a looser term than education (and in future postings I intend to loosen it a lot more than I have so far), but nevertheless, similar considerations apply to that. Stir it all together, and I risk annoying educationists with my views on the movies, classical CDs, TV, paintings and architecture, and culture vultures with annoying references to British state schools and their travails and constant dronings-on about the glories of home-education.

As for those who want all these things stirred up, because they'll read anything I write, well, let them stir. Each blog is only a click away from the other (or it will be once I've got all that linking business sorted out), and I have no problem, as this posting shows, about cross-referring when it makes sense to do that. But to assume such devotion regardless of subject matter, from all my readers, would be excessive egotism such as even I shrink from.

There is an implied rebuke here, of all those political-personal blogs which have – or at any rate which promise – several more or less unrelated but nevertheless continuing threads of comment: heavy metal rock, Linux, and the infinitely fascinating behaviour of my dog, Goldwater – the denunciation of all enemies everywhere of the State of Israel, libertarian philosophy, and chocolate cakes – the goodness of guns, the badness of New Labour, Scrabble. These thread clutches often come in threes, with number three being an oh-so-artful and self-mocking descent from twin peaks of profundity to one shallow duck pond of (still quite profound – oh yes!) trivia. On old gag. Sometimes a mixture of themes of this sort is present, but not advertised at the top. The idea is that cake-persons will be dosed constantly with the truth about the Middle East, or some such propaganda coup combination. And indeed, if you happen to love the writer then you will want to read it all, the philosophy, the Middle East, the computer programmes, the dog, the cakes, everything. (In the case of the blogger I've just linked to it's more like: the philosophy, the Middle East, and nail varnish.) But the danger is that you may say to hell with it.

Blogs are not newspapers. Newspapers can be glanced over, and unwanted material can easily be navigated around. The headlines and the pictures draw you quickly to where you want to be. A newspaper is itself, and it is also a map of itself.

Blogs are not like that. Blogs are linear. They are not maps. Something you don't want to read gets in the way of what you do want to read. So if you have distinct kinds of things you want to say, keep the linear streams distinct also.

That's my hunch anyway.

Next question: going back to the idea of putting everything on Samizdata, do I not want very many readers? Do I not want to tell the Samizdata crowd (and it's quite a crowd compared to any trickle that materialises here) about the wonderfulness of string quartets? Well, I do, and I don't. It's complicated. And it will have to keep for later.

There have now been two consecutive bits of navel gazing here, so I promise to give that a rest for the next few postings.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:42 PM
Category: Blogging
January 17, 2003
A small attitude problemo

Soon after I got started writing for samizdata, I suffered a small tremor of – and I'm flailing about for the right kind of phrase – growth pain. Something like that. My pain was associated with, to resort to an ancient cliché, ceasing to be a big fish in a small pond (a libertarian activist in London) and becoming a small fish in a big pond (a blogger in the blogosphere). I got over it. I am now a blogger in the blogosphere. My problem was that at first I wasn't used to my altered status. My answer was to get used to it, which I did.

But somewhat to my surprise, I recently suffered a recurrence of this condition, in connection with running and writing for this, Brian's Culture Blog. The reason I was surprised was that I had suffered no such growth pains in connection with the other specialist blog I also run and write for, Brian's Education Blog. That all went smoothly, at any rate from the psychological point of view. One moment I was only writing for samizdata. Then I started Brian's Education Blog and started writing for that. And I carried on, and am carrying on. Some people seem to like it, while most of the world ignores it, which is just what I expected. No problemo, as samizdata boss Perry de Havilland would say.

But that transformation of my public status, from big blog contributor to big blog contributor plus small blog boss, happened smoothly because I was already acutely aware of my limitations as an education blogger. I have no children, and have very little experience of actual teaching as most people understand that word, that is to say of being paid to subjugate and dazzle rooms full of young educational conscripts. So already I knew that I was, and am, a very junior voice in that conversation.

But this culture blog thing has proved to be a very different experience. At first I thought: education? – culture? – what's the difference? I just sit down at the keyboard and start banging out culture, same as I've been doing education. No problemo. Well, the problemo is that until I seriously thought about it, during the last few days, I had been living in a false universe, a universe in which I was a leading cultural authority.

In my London libertarian social circle, there are many teachers of all imaginable levels of rank, to remind me of my limitations as an edu-blogger. But when it comes to "culture", I am one of a very few one-eyed commentators in the land of the blind. Most libertarians have their cultural tastes and can talk quite intelligently about them. Some of them even write quite intelligently about them. (I fully intend that this blog will link to just such writings on a regular basis.) But when it comes to "high" culture - the posh stuff, oil paintings, non-electronic music done with violins and cellos, posh novels of the sort they used to study at posh universities and I dare say to some small extent still do, Shakespeare, Milton, Michelangelo - well, who is there, in my circle, who has much of a clue? Sean Gabb for one, and he has two eyes, I would say. Maybe Antoine Clarke, who is bilingual in French and English, which gives him an edge. Some Eastern Europeans, who got taught more about English literature than we tend to get taught in England these days. And, er, that's about it.

More debilitatingly, even those of my friends who do know a bit about Michelangelo, Jane Austen, etc., have tended not to talk with me about such things, in any serious, "no you're wrong about that, he painted that before he painted that, you're muddling his Florence period with his Rome period" kind of way. (This, after all, is exactly the state of affairs that this blog is intended to help to correct.)

But now, writing for a culture blog, I enter a world in which a frighteningly large number of the citizenry actually know what a Koechel number is, or the exact circumstances surrounding Marcel Duschamp's urinal, or who were the most recent recipients of the Nobel Prize for Literature or the Turner Prize, and who will know at once if I have spelt "Koechel" incorrectly, which I dare say I have. Start a "culture blog", and some very scary and well-informed insects are liable to start buzzing around your head.

I dashed off that piece about late Beethoven string quartets a week or so ago, and felt very clever about it. And then it hit me. Christ almighty, there'll be people reading that who actually know as much about Beethoven string quartets as I do. More, in fact. Some of them may even have played in the things. I realised that from now on I was going to have to distinguish between matters of fact and matters of my own opinion with greater care.

The whole question of just what it means and does not mean to "know about" – to know lots of facts about – culture is, in particular, a very interesting one. It's not the same as knowing about science, for instance. Expect me to wield the insect spray from time to time. But I'll save all that for later. Suffice it to say here that I found that I needed a short period of mental adjustment before resuming my culture blogging, hence the hesitation which has surrounded the launch of this thing. It wasn't that I was too busy. My attitude was wrong. But my attitude has now, I hope, been sufficiently adjusted for normal service to begin.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:39 PM
Category: BloggingThis blog
January 08, 2003
Architectural modernism – evolved and imposed

There's an interesting discussion of modernist architecture by Michael over at 2 Blowhards:

And what a strange conception of architecture! In such fields as poetry, painting and movies, playing abstract, avant-garde, highly-aestheticized games is a pretty harmless activity. Why? Because no one has to read a poem or see a movie. But when it's a question of apartment buildings and office buildings, hundreds if not thousands of people have no choice but to interact with them, often on a daily basis. Modernist (po-mo, etc) architecture is telling these people that they've got to live with (and often live in and work in) buildings that are essentially aesthetically-driven. Ie.: "I am obligating you to live in, work in, and walk by my piece of sculpture."

What kind of ego and arrogance does it take to impose yourself, let alone your aesthetic preferences, in that way? No wonder the star architects are often said to be doing "egotechture." (And how many people actually share those aesthetic preferences -- abstraction, "clean lines," empty space, blankness, shimmer and dazzle -- anyway?) I'm shocked that more people don't react to the buildings they're made to work and live in as angrily as they did some years back to Richard Serra's "Tilted Arc."

Michael has a picture of the Farnsworth house above that, and when it comes to matters at ground level modern-ist architecture is indeed an arrogant derangement of the evolved, traditional and best way of doing things.

But when it comes to skyscrapers the situation is more complicated. Modern architecture itself is an evolved style. It is the traditional way - to build very tall American office blocks. The modern movement people adopted this style, keeping the skyscrapers but mucking about with the ground plan. So when Mies van der Rohe brought the style back to America, the fit, provided you forget ground level, was not half bad. The Farnsworth House and a normal house are a universe apart. The Chrysler building and a Mies tower are not nearly so different from each other as that.

The reason why Americans have such trouble shaking themselves free of modern-ism is that there is a baby in the bathwater, the baby being their own traditionally evolved way of doing things.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:10 PM
Category: Architecture
January 04, 2003
On recovering from illness

Recently I have been ill, and am not yet fully recovered, and this is an experience that does interesting things to one's aesthetic responses. Music is sometimes said to have curative powers. (I seem to remember a passage in King Lear, when the King is recovering from his little episode, to this effect.)

Music doesn't cure. This is to get it the wrong way around. But when one does recover (for all the usual dull medical reasons), one also recovers one's ability to respond to music. Chemicals, hormones, brain patterns, or things in the brain/mind/body now unkown, having been temporarily deficient or dormant, return with renewed strength, all the more wondrous for having been assumed permanently dead.

It so happens that one of my favourite pieces of music is one that was actually written to celebrate this same sense of renewed response and of renewed life, the Adagio - "Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit in der lydischen Tonart" – A restored one's holy song of thanksgiving to God, in Lydian Mode – from Beethoven's String Quartet in A minor op. 132. I'm not a godist myself, but I can entirely understand that desire to thank someone, rather than just one's own mere bodily functions, for that extraordinary feeling of wellbeing that recovery from illness bestows.

Beethoven's last few string quartets are delightful. Highly trained classical musicians, having spent several decades learning that proper music can't be composed this way, find them immensely difficult. They are deranged, yet they are late Beethoven and so must be great and cannot be dismissed as mere eccentricities. Therefore they must be brain-splittingly profound. Also, Beethoven was by then totally deaf, the ultimate personal disability in the whole of human history, and so God forbid that he might simply have been enjoying himself.

To the lucky hedonist like me, who loves classical music on the same basis that, and with no more profundity than, others love American Multiple Choice Icecream, the late quartets are no more difficult to understand or enjoy than the singing of a loved one in the shower. Delightful tunes come and go. Gorgeous harmonies (like that adagio) simply announce themselves without introduction. Movements merge into each other. Some movements are far too short. Others oscillate between pop song and academic mind-gaming. Busking in heaven.

Beethoven's sense of fun is under-represented in the official image of the man. Yes he stole fire from the Gods, but having done so he proceeded to juggle with sparklers as well as to forge ferocious pieces of tempered musical steel like the Fifth Symphony. The Ninth Symphony, remember, ends with an Ode to Joy.

I first listened to those late quartets in the recordings of them for Philips done by the Quartetto Italiano in the nineteen sixties, and I still particularly love and admire those performances, now available in two mid-price double-CD sets.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:17 PM
Category: Classical music
January 03, 2003
Lift off? - I hope so

After much to-ing and fro-ing it looks as if BRIAN's Culture Blog is finally arriving at lift-off.

As is usual with me starting a blog (see my early mumblings for my Education Blog) my early postings will be no more than throat clearing, establishing the channel of communication, achieving a degree of rapport - but without saying anything much. I'll be checking that it works, that the comments work, that I know how to delete things, add things, edit things, and other whatnottery.

But don't worry. There'll be plenty of Grand Cultural Pronouncements in the days, weeks, months and years to come.

One thing you must understand though. My Samizdata duties are just that, duties. And I am putting stuff up on my Education Blog on every week day, and not infrequently at the weekend also. But this thing will be added to only when the mood strikes. It will be up to me and the other BCBlog regulars to alert the blogosphere in general to any flashes of brilliance, as and when they strike, if any of us thinks it has, given that a large number of regulars seems an unlikely result of my creative attitude.

Which is not to say that I won't post lots of stuff day after day, merely that if I do that will be me being whimsically productive, not dutifully productive.

Well, that will do for now. As I said, just clearing the throat really.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 05:14 AM
Category: This blog