Brian Micklethwait's Blog
In which I continue to seek part time employment as the ruler of the world.Home
Michael Jennings on Only with a computer
Friday Night Smoke on Godot nearly ready
Simon Gibbs on Bald bloke taking a photo
6000 on Bald bloke taking a photo
Tatyana on The "colorful and curvilinear forms" of Herr Hundertwasser
Brian Micklethwait on Driverless open-plan tube trains for London
Friday Night Smoke on Driverless open-plan tube trains for London
Brian Micklethwait on Driverless open-plan tube trains for London
Friday Night Smoke on Driverless open-plan tube trains for London
Friday Night Smoke on Sunshine - construction work - artificial rain
Most recent entries
- At the Libertarian Home cost of living debate
- The death of email?
- Only with a computer
- Godot nearly ready
- Bald bloke taking a photo
- Halloween buckets
- Strange bread
- Battersea flats are about to be sold and therefore are about to be built
- The “colorful and curvilinear forms” of Herr Hundertwasser
- How Bill Bryson on white and black paint helps to explain the Modern Movement in Architecture
- Two guys on Westminster Bridge photoing their icecreams in front of the Houses of Parliament with their iPhones
- Big cat advertises guide dogs
Other Blogs I write for
6000 Miles from Civilisation
A Decent Muesli
Adventures in Capitalism
Alex Ross: The Rest Is Noise
Another Food Blog
Antoine Clarke's Election Watch
Armed and Dangerous
Art Of The State Blog
Boatang & Demetriou
Burning Our Money
Chase me ladies, I'm in the cavalry
China Law Blog
Civilian Gun Self-Defense Blog
Coffee & Complexity
Communities Dominate Brands
Confused of Calcutta
Conservative Party Reptile
Counting Cats in Zanzibar
Deleted by tomorrow
Don't Hold Your Breath
Douglas Carswell Blog
Dr Robert Lefever
Englands Freedome, Souldiers Rights
Everything I Say is Right
Fat Man on a Keyboard
Ferraris for all
Freedom and Whisky
From The Barrel of a Gun
Gates of Vienna
Global Warming Politics
Greg Mankiw's Blog
Guido Fawkes' blog
Here Comes Everybody
Hit & Run
House of Dumb
Iain Dale's Diary
Jeffrey Archer's Official Blog
Jessica Duchen's classical music blog
Laissez Faire Books
Last of the Few
Libertarian Alliance: Blog
Liberty Dad - a World Without Dictators
Lib on the United Kingdom
Little Man, What Now?
Loic Le Meur Blog
L'Ombre de l'Olivier
London Daily Photo
Metamagician and the Hellfire Club
Michael J. Totten's Middle East Journal
More Than Mind Games
Mutualist Blog: Free Market Anti-Capitalism
My Boyfriend Is A Twat
My Other Stuff
Nation of Shopkeepers
Never Trust a Hippy
Non Diet Weight Loss
Nurses for Reform blog
Obnoxio The Clown
On an Overgrown Path
One Man & His Blog
Owlthoughts of a peripatetic pedant
Oxford Libertarian Society /blog
Patri's Peripatetic Peregrinations
Police Inspector Blog
Private Sector Development blog
Remember I'm the Bloody Architect
Setting The World To Rights
SimonHewittJones.com The Violin Blog
Sky Watching My World
Social Affairs Unit
Squander Two Blog
Stuff White People Like
Stumbling and Mumbling
Technology Liberation Front
The Adam Smith Institute Blog
The Becker-Posner Blog
The Belgravia Dispatch
The Belmont Club
The Big Blog Company
The Big Picture
the blog of dave cole
The Corridor of Uncertainty (a Cricket blog)
The Daily Ablution
The Devil's Advocate
The Devil's Kitchen
The Dissident Frogman
The Distributed Republic
The Early Days of a Better Nation
The Examined Life
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The Future of Music
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The Jarndyce Blog
The London Fog
The Long Tail
The Lumber Room
The Online Photographer
The Only Winning Move
The Policeman's Blog
The Road to Surfdom
The Wedding Photography Blog
The Welfare State We're In
UK Commentators - Laban Tall's Blog
UK Libertarian Party
Violins and Starships
we make money not art
What Do I Know?
What's Up With That?
Where the grass is greener
White Sun of the Desert
Why Evolution Is True
Your Freedom and Ours
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Butterflies and Wheels
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Digital Photography Review
Ghana Centre for Democratic Reform
Global Warming and the Climate
History According to Bob
Institut économique Molinari
Institute of Economic Affairs
Ludwig von Mises Institute
Oxford Libertarian Society
The Christopher Hitchens Web
The Space Review
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This is Local London
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Victor Davis Hanson
WSJ.com Opinion Journal
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How the mind works
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Category archive: How the mind works
Did the junk mail phenomenon always exist? Or is it relatively new? What I have in mind is the way that an entire category of communication becomes broken because it is overused by semi or total crooks shouting rubbish at you, thus overwhelming the actual human persons sending you individually useful messages. Even real messages just sound like arseholes yelling at you. The signal-to-noise ratio becomes so stupid that eventually, no genuine signals get through.
A few days ago, I received an email from something called Macmillan Distribution (MDL). A package was due. There were various buttons for me to press so that I could track the package, or tell them where else to deliver it, or some such thing. I immediately assumed that this was an industrialised garbage message, the purpose of which was for me to tell crooks about myself by pressing one of the buttons. Having received many junk messages just like this in the recent past, I assumed that this one was similarly fraudulent.
I noted that they had my name and address, and this might have supplied me with the clue that this was actually a genuine message about a genuine delivery, from a genuine enterprise, with buttons for me to press which actually did what they said they would do. But instead, I merely thought: oh dear, now the international conglomeration of bastard junk emailer fraudsters knows my name and address. Oh well, more crap to delete.
But this morning, the package actually arrived, at a time that the emails had been referring to. The emails from Macmillan Distribution (MDL) (there were three emails in total) had all been genuine. It was a book that I had already paid for and wanted to read. So, good.
The actual delivery was a mess. Some arsehole just smacked the door of my flat (sounding like when the cleaners vacuum the landings and bang their machines into our doors), and then just stuffed the package through my mail flap (which very luckily was big enough). No electronic buzzing from outside and downstairs, to get my attention while I slumbered, like a proper delivery. And how the hell did this arsehole contrive to get through the downstairs front door in the first place? (We’ve had robberies from people claiming to be delivering things, but actually hoovering up the deliveries of others from our (unlocked and wide open) cubby holes.) So, very unsatisfactory, as home deliveries so often are. But, the thing itself did arrive, which means the delivery scored one out of one on the one measure that really counts.
And, as I say, those emails were all for real.
No doubt there are various twenty first century, social media like methods that I could have used to track this parcel and its delivery, methods which screen out junk and preserve a benign signal-to-noise ratio. Maybe, any decade now, I will have to get with the twenty first century and dump email completely.
I vividly recall when having email first became a necessity, when you suddenly started getting dirty looks at parties if you didn’t have it. And when fax numbers ceased mattering. (Remember those?)
As of now, regular twenty first century people half my age still seem to do email, or so it says on those little cards they give me. But how long will this last?
More about package delivering from 6k, here. “Wumdrop” sounds sort of like Uber, only for things.
There I was, lying in the bath, listening to Radio 3. Some music had ended, and I was now being subjected to a programme which I do not usually listen to, called Words and Music. And I heard the actor Jim Broadbent saying these words, by Michel de Montaigne:
I take the first subject that chance offers. They are all equally good to me. And I never plan to develop them completely. For I do not see the whole of anything. (Nor do those who promise to show it to us.) Of a hundred members and faces that each thing has, I take one, sometimes only to lick it, sometimes to brush the surface, sometimes to pinch it to the bone. I give it a stab, not as wide, but as deep as I know how. And most often, I like to take them from some unaccustomed point of view. Scattering a word here, there another, samples separated from their context, dispersed, without a plan and without a promise, I am not bound to make something of them, or to adhere to them myself, without varying when I please, and giving myself up to doubt and uncertainty, and my ruling quality, which is ignorance.
Sounds like a blogger, doesn’t he? A blogger, that is to say, like me. Especially where he says “without a promise”. I keep saying that. Above all there is that “this is what it is and if you don’t like it you know just what you can do about it” vibe that so many bloggers give off. With Montaigne, we are arriving at that first moment in history when writing and publishing new stuff had become easy. Not as easy as it is when you blog, but a whole lot easier than it had been.
I transcribed the above quote from Broadbent’s reading of it. The punctuation is somewhat uncertain, and at one point assertively creative on my part. I added some brackets, around what is clearly a diversion from his main line of thought to which he immediately returns. It’s a sideswipe at others and it is then forgotten.
Such is the wonder that is the internet that I had little difficulty in tracking down the quote. It is near the beginning of Montaigne’s essay entitled “Of Democritus and Heraclitus”, in volume three of his essays.
The BBC used a more recent translation, which I much prefer the sound of, it being less antique and long-winded. And if Montaigne himself was also antique and long-winded, then I still prefer intelligibility to stylistic accuracy.
LATER: More about Montaigne, also emphasising the modern social media angle, here.
I sympathise with whoever wrote this:
West Brom can hardly believe their luck. Being denied a win at the death by Manchester United is one thing, but having teased a previously woeful Marouane Fellaini back to life must really does takes the biscuit.
“Must really does takes the biscuit.” I reckon he was choosing between, not two, but three different ways of saying what he was saying, but managed to combine all three.
This is the kind of mistake that can only happen with a computer. If you were merely writing, or typing with an old school typewriter, there is no way you would have put that.
When I perpetrate something like that, and I frequently do, and if I later spot the mistake, I then allow myself to correct it, no matter how long ago I made the mistake. Is this wrong? My blog, my rules.
A subsection of Sod’s Law states that whenever you mention someone else’s mistake in something you say on the www, you will make a similar sort of error yourself. If I do this in this posting, I will not correct my error, but will add something “LATER”, in which I identify my error.
Computers. New ways to screw things up.
I attended a talk this evening at Christian Michel’s about robots. The point was made the robot cars probably will be safer, but every once in a Blue Moon, there will be a truly spectacular disaster, of a sort impossible to perpetrate with old school cars.
It’s that time of the year when I go into one of my local supermarkets and immediately start taking photos, like that, or like this:
Yes it’s Halloween. And the shops, in this case Sainsbury’s, are full of Halloween crap. And I photo it. I wouldn’t buy any of it. Oh no. I am far above that sort of thing. But, I photo it.
Except, how about these rather cute buckets? Just the thing for my Last Friday of the Month meetings, to put crappy food in:
Only 50p per bucket! I got two. And I just might go back for more.
Not that. I wouldn’t want one of them. That’s my picture of Sainsbury’s, having the last laugh.
I have already quoted a couple of interesting bits from Bill Bryson’s excellent book, At Home. I have now finished reading this, but just before I did, I encountered some interesting stuff about paint (pp. 453-5):
When paints became popular, people wanted them to be as vivid as they could possibly be made. The restrained colours that we associate with the Georgian period in Britain, or Colonial period in America, are a consequence of fading, not decorative restraint. In 1979, when Mount Vernon began a programme of repainting the interiors in faithful colours, ‘people came and just yelled at us’, Dennis Pogue, the curator, told me with a grin when I visited. ‘They told us we were making Mount Vernon garish. They were right - we were. But that’s just because that’s the way it was. It was hard for a lot of people to accept that what we were doing was faithful restoration.
‘Even now paint charts for Colonial-style paints virtually always show the colours from the period as muted. In fact, colours were actually nearly always quite deep and sometimes even startling. The richer a colour you could get, the more you tended to be admired. For one thing, rich colours generally denoted expense, since you needed a lot of pigment to make them. Also, you need to remember that often these colours were seen by candlelight, so they needed to be more forceful to have any kind of impact in muted light.’
The effect is now repeated at Monticello, where several of the rooms are of the most vivid yellows and greens. Suddenly George Washington and Thomas Jefferson come across as having the decorative instincts of hippies. In fact, however, compared with what followed they were exceedingly restrained.
When the first ready-mixed paints came on to the market in the second half of the nineteenth century, people slapped them on with something like wild abandon. It became fashionable not just to have powerfully bright colours in the home, but to have as many as seven or eight colours in a single room.
If we looked closely, however, we would be surprised to note that two very basic colours didn’t exist at all in Mr Marsham’s day: a good white and a good black. The brightest white available was a rather dull off-white, and although whites improved through the nineteenth century, it wasn’t until the 1940s, with the addition of titanium dioxide to paints, that really strong, lasting whites became available. The absence of a good white paint would have been doubly noticeable in early New England, for the Puritans not only had no white paint but didn’t believe in painting anyway. (They thought it was showy.) So all those gleaming white churches we associate with New England towns are in fact a comparatively recent phenomenon.
Also missing from the painter’s palette was a strong black. Permanent black paint, distilled from tar and pitch, wasn’t popularly available until the late nineteenth century. So all the glossy black front doors, railings, gates, lampposts, gutters, downpipes and other fittings that are such an elemental feature of London’s streets today are actually quite recent. If we were to be thrust back intime to Dickens’s London, one of the most startling differences to greet us would be the absence of black painted surfaces. In the time of Dickens, almost all ironwork was green, light blue or dull grey.
Famously, the rise of the Modern Movement in Architecture was triggered by, among many other things, a revulsion against the excesses of Victorian-era decoration, especially architectural decoration. Decoration became mechanised, and thus both much more common and much less meaningful. What did all this mechanised decoration prove, what did it mean, when you could thrash it out with no more difficulty than you could erect a plain wall?
What the above Bryson quote strongly suggests, at any rate to me, is that something rather similar happened with colour.
Why is the overwhelming atmosphere of Modernist architecture and architectural propaganda so very monochrome, still. Part of the answer is that it was only recently learned how to do monochrome. Monochrome looked modern, from about 1900-ish onwards, because it was modern. Monochrome was the latest thing. Colour, meanwhile, had become much cheaper and had been used with garish nouveau riche excess, and there was a reaction to that also, just as there was to excessive decoration.
While rootling around in the www like it was about 2003, I found this piece, dating from 2009, which was all about this apparently pretty but otherwise unremarkable abstract picture:
In case you don’t already know what is going on here, the big story here is that the blue bits and the green bits are the same colour. What colour your eyes see something as depends on the other colours in the immediate vicinity.
The writer linked to above found this graphic here, which you can too if you do a bit of scrolling down.
If you saw this around 2009, or something similar around 2003, then apologies for the repetition. That early period of blogging, just after 2000, will always seem to me like a fleeting golden age, when everything of this sort was being discovered and passed on for the very first time. Because we could. Before, we couldn’t. Now, we could. But now (as in now), most of this sort of trivia has been in circulation for a decade, and it lacks the impact it once had. We bloggers must find new things to say, to cover for the fact that blogging itself is no longer new. This is not a bad thing.
My best (worst?) experience of this was probably the occasion when my 3 year old son was crying because he didn’t know why he was crying.
My attitude to parents is that they outrank me, and they do this almost no matter how badly they are doing their parenting. They are at least doing it. If I see a mad welfare mother screaming at her mad kids in a supermarket (her kids are mad because she has driven them mad), I still say to myself: respect. She is there, in the female trenches, fighting the good fight. I have chosen not to stand by and pay the bills for such a person. Thanks to her and her husband (in her case that’s probably the government), homo sapiens (in her case homo a bit madens) will be around in a hundred years from now. If that task had been left to me, it would not have been accomplished.
I’m not saying 6k is a bad parent, you understand. Merely that even if he was a bad parent, he would still be a better parent than me. And I also agree that some children are driven so crazy by their parents that they must be rescued, or at least they should have been. (Few civilised principles are absolute.) I mean things like if they murder them, or imprison them and torture them for years on end. Yes, I’m probably doing better than that. But such exceptional extremities aside, like I say: respect.
Taking the first question first: is it practise or practice?
This is the kind of question that, in the days before the www, used to rattle about inside several million heads for decades on end. As it so happens, it did so rattle in mine. But for a decade and more now, such questions could and can be answered, and today I answered this question for myself, by finding my way, very quickly, pretty much as soon as I started trying, to this site. I’d been meaning to do this for a long time. Today, I did. What it says at the other end of that link, assuming I read it right, is that practice is the noun and practise is the verb, as with advice and advise. I know, you knew that. I must be an uneducated pillock not to know it. But, although in many ways not an uneducated pillock, I was for many decades just that, in this particular way. Besides which, the essence of educatedness is not mere knowledge, it is knowing that one needs to acquire this or that further item of further knowledge, and if far later than is dignified, well so be it.
I’m not saying that this answer is correct. I’m just saying that from now on, this is the answer I will try to apply whenever the practice/practise dilemma presents itself to me.
Moving on to the question in the brackets above. Answer: no. The site where I found this answer (right or wrong) is called “Future Perfect”, and its subtitle is “Improving Written Communications”. Like, that’s all it would take to make the future perfect. I do not believe this. I get it. Future perfect is also a piece of grammar, and grammar is (along with spelling) one of the things this place is about. Ho ho. But, future perfect?
Perfect communication could just mean perfectly expressed abuse. Remember that fish in Hitchhiker’s Guide, which enabled everyone to communicate perfectly with everyone else, and which started terrible wars, because now everyone could understood everyone else’s insults. Perfect communication is indeed, maybe, part of the perfect future, but saying perfectly nice things is also an important part of perfection, I would say. And that’s quite aside from the fact that actual perfection would also be terrible, for other reasons.
Earlier I showed you a old facade being carefully preserved. Here is another:
But where exactly is this facade. The photo was taken in May 2012, and I didn’t take any note-taking shots of where this was. And I cannot now find any mention of it on the www, only a website of the enterprise that constructed it. (This I learned by taking a closer look at the stuff at the bottom of the picture than I am according to you. My original pictures are really very large.)
I like to think that I am becoming a better photographer as the years go by. What I mean by this is not so much that the photos are getting technically better. They are, but that is largely down to the cameras I use getting better. What I mean is that I am, I hope, getting better at deciding what to photo, and better at recording what I photoed.
Maybe that is an idle boast. But maybe what is now only a boast will, because I have here written it down, will become an influence on actual practice in the future.
From early in the afternoon of Tuesday, yesterday, until early this morning, this blog was out of action. I couldn’t read it myself, let alone post anything:
The non-functioning of BrianMicklethwaitDotCom took out my emailing abilities as well. If anyone tried to email and got told to get stuffed, please try again - especially if it concerned the meeting at my home this coming Friday evening, at which Priya Dutta is going to speak about education.
I don’t suppose many people suffered much, but I did, because I didn’t know if and when BMDC was ever going to come back to life.
The problem was something to do with the internet provider (which has recently changed hands) for my Hoster. But spare a thought for Hoster. I wasn’t his only client ringing up in a state. He had lots of others doing the exact same thing. He told me that he will be changing his internet provider asap, but that he couldn’t do that until his internet provider came back on line and he was able to make the necessary arrangements.
Meanwhile, I really need to change how I do email.
More times like these. I have had a great deal too many and too much of these sorts of times lately.
This morning, I finally finished a big old piece for Samizdata about the benefits to the old of superpowerful computers, at the end of which I linked to these two pieces here. (There is already a comment up, from Paul Marks, saying that computers have been bad for him, by keeping him indoors, and also confused.)
This piece has not only ended a long Samizdata silence by me; it also explained it. I can’t quite explain why this makes it feel so much easier to put lots of stuff up there again, like I used to until this last month or more. But, it does.
LATER: Quotulated, even if it’s only the preamble.
Here. They may not have intended it to be sarcastic, but that’s how it reads.
Inevitably, in some of these cross-examinations, this blog came up, with me saying that I write here about whatever I feel like writing about, with very little thought for the interests of my readers. Cats on Fridays, general trivia, etc. I do Big Issues at Samizdata and trivia here. Blah blah.
However, an American lady friend, whom I had not met in quite a while and whom I was very pleased to meet again, told me that she quite liked my trivia stuff, and that she even read my postings about cricket (this being the most recent one). I thought that only I and Michael Jennings and Darren the Surrey Member were at all interested in those. It seems not.
I’m guessing that this interest on her part is partly actual interest, but also partly that a principle is at stake here. Which is: that the trivia that other people are interested in, but not you, is not actually an entirely trivial matter. Life is not only Big Issues. It is the small pleasures that give colour and texture and individuality to life. Watever matters, to someone, matters. Your opinion about what the Big Issues are should not be allowed to drive a tank or a government bureaucracy over my trivial pleasures.
So, her reading about the trivial pleasures of others is her asserting this Big Issue to herself, as well as maybe learning something about other little parts of the world, like the world of cricket (actually quite big of course, as I daresay are the worlds of embroidery and gardening and croquet and rap music and all the other little things in life that I don’t personally care about, other than to believe that tanks or government bureaucracies should not be driven over them).
Me being me, my way of asserting the importance of trivia, in general, to people, in general, is me writing about the trivia that interests me.
Her way of asserting the importance of trivia to people generally is her reading about the trivia that others write about. But we are both making the same point.
I don’t want to say that I have entirely described why my American lady friend likes to read what I write about cricket. I merely speculate that the above speculations might be a quite small part of why she does this.
(She, like me, probably also thinks that thinking about trivia can often lead to interesting angles on Big Issues, of the sort that merely looking straight at the Big Issues might cause you to miss. Pointless fun and truly original insight are often delightfully close neighbours, I think. But that’s a tangent for another time, hence this paragraph being in brackets.)
New Yorker classical music critic Alex Ross writes about how he still loves his classical CDs. Partly, he admits, it’s nostalgia. CDs were such a huge leap forward when they first arrived that that moment of pure joy is very hard to turn your back on. I can still remember what my first CDs were: Nielsen 3, Brahms Sextets, Barenboim complete Beethoven piano sonatas, Strauss Alpine Symphony … Then there was the realisation that classical CDs would just get cheaper and cheaper and abundanter and abundanter, and then very soon the reality of that happy circumstance. Gramex Boss Hewland prices his stuff with more than half an eye to what Amazon charges, and it remains worthwhile to visit Gramex from time to time, even as all the other central London second hand CD emporia have faded away. He piles them high and sells them cheap.
Yes, the physical space occupied by CDs is a problem. Those piles can get very high. (Visit my home to see that problem on an enormous scale.) But, for me, the internet remains an unenticing place to purchase and play classical music. I have accumulated some virtual titles, as a result of buying them new on Amazon and having an additional “cloud” version of the same thing piped into my computer. But I wouldn’t want to be without the CDs whose purchase provoked this additional twenty first century response.
I wrote recently about the value of keeping things separate, in my case my big home computer and my music making equipment. Even as my big home computer continues not to materialise, I still have music as good as ever, with no messing with some new kind of system to make it work.
But the central problem with classical music on the internet is that it remains, I believe, a mess. Pop music having overwhelmed classical music economically during the last hundred years or so, pop music is the big driver of internet music, and internet music is entirely organised for the benefit of pop fans, and their discreet tracks. We classicists are liable, as Alex Ross explains, to get lumbered with such things as John Eliot Gardiner’s Beethoven Nine labelled as being the work of Lyuba Organosova, merely because she tops of the list of soloists for the final movement. The labelling of classical tracks on Amazon, where they offer you little snippets to listen to, is routinely done by naming the pieces with such things as their tempo or loudness markings, while neglecting to tell you what the piece is or what number movement it is. They just can’t be bothered to get it right. Fair enough. I understand why they can’t be bothered. We classicists aren’t worth bothering with. Buy the CD or don’t and consider yourself lucky, is the message. Until someone really big and well organised does bother about it, classical music on the internet will remain an off-putting afterthought, piggybacking systems devised for something else, rather than an enticing attraction.
When things get reissued, the labelling is liable to go completely to buggery. I, for instance, have that Barenboim set of Beethoven sonatas on EMI from way back, long before the internet, when it first came out as a set of CDs. Since then it has been reissued. So, when the internet tries to assist me in cataloguing recordings I myself have made of it onto my hard disc, it gets it all wrong. Useless.
Classical music on the internet will eventually get sorted out. And when it does, I will, if not dead, presumably hear about it from my classical music mags. A consensus will be announced, saying things like “Classical CDs really are pointless nowadays”, and when you read such articles, it will, after about a decade of premature enthusiasm of the geek-bollocks sort ("all you have to do is blah blah dance on the head of twenty seven pins blah blah blah turn seventy three cartwheels blah blah blah what could be easier? … yes it might all crash but to solve that blah blah blah ..."), eventually become true. A actual, real world majority of Classical freaks will be using this single, best arrangement, and it will work, all the time, like email. Or not.
Even when such a new classical dispensation does emerge, I will probably not bother to switch. It’s not just sunk costs; it will also be declining costs. As internet classical music becomes ever more appealing, so the price of mere CDs will sink and sink, until all of them can be purchased by me from Amazon, for £0.01 plus postage.
Meanwhile, I like that my CD filing system (aka my CD collection) is always accurate. When I dig up a CD that says it is so-and-so’s recording of Brahms 4, it is, and then when I play it, it will be played in the right order. Notes will be to hand to read about this recording if I want to, conveniently stored right next to the CD.
I do have lots of virtual music, as an addendum to my CDs, like those files that Amazon spontaneously volunteers, and like stuff I have recorded from the radio. But the latter starts out being called something like DAB002, and I have never sorted out how to file it conveniently, or even to edit it into individual performances. Life is too short to be bothering. Why edit, when CDs are already edited. Virtual music is strictly an afterthought for me. Plastic music remains the thing itself, for me. And (see above) I don’t believe I’m just being sentimental, even if I am somewhat.
That posting I did the other day about how a really fast computer perfectly fills in for the imperfections of my own deteriorating mental processes may not have impressed anyone else, but it impressed me. And now I am listening to Beethoven symphonies on my CD player, and I am thinking that something similar may happen between a really good symphony orchestra and a conductor.
“Great conductors” are famous for carrying on into their dotage. Lots of people have written and talked about this. The Great Conductor’s grasp of everyday life and its processes collapses, yet the great man’s ability to go on conducting seems mysteriously unimpaired. Why?
This only applies to “great conductors”. Merely good conductors have to jack it in. Again, why? Why this difference? Why do only the Great Conductors often keep going so long?
The usual answers to questions about why this happens tend to focus on the mental processes of the Great Man himself, and upon the magical power of music to improve the brain, or in this case prevent its collapse. But how about considering also the musicians whom they conduct, and the general situation that conductors in generally tend to find themselves in as they get old, and how about also the essence of what a conductor does and does not do, when he is conducting.
A merely good conductor doesn’t get to conduct a Great Orchestra, and accordingly, his job is to make merely good orchestras, or even not that good orchestras play better. Lots of instructions and arguments are involved. You’re doing this, you ought to be doing it like this, and so on. So our merely good conductor finds himself in circumstances where his declining mental abilities are often cruelly exposed. He forgets what he said to the first oboist ten seconds ago, and so so. And, being merely good, and there being plenty of other merely good conductors available, our merely good conductor in due course gets a free transfer into conducting retirement.
But now consider the Great Conductor. He is conducting a Great Orchestra. Because he can. Two circumstances now prevail which are absent when a merely good conductor conducts a merely good orchestra. First, the concert is a sell-out, every time. The CDs continue to sell, no matter how much bodging and stitching and patching up the engineers have to do afterwords. (All sorts of rumours circulate in classical music about this kind of thing.) But second, crucially, the Great Conductor is not called upon to do anything except conduct the Great Orchestra that he is still able to be put at the front of.
I surmise that if you are conducting a Great Orchestra, the effect is rather similar to the effect I described of me sitting at the keyboard of a super-fast state-of-the-art computer (such as I am still being deprived of as I type this). I type and the computer reacts immediately. I switch from one thing to another, and the computer follows me, instantaneously. Well, does not rather the same thing apply when a Great Conductor conducts a Great Orchestra? I suspect it does.
What goes ragged and unreliable when you get old is memory, short-term being especially embarrassing, but basically all varieties of it. But what remains, typically, is your senses, your grasp of right now. And conducting is all about being, as modern parlance has it, “in the moment”, “in the now”. What matters is what you are telling the orchestra to do, right now, and they do it, right now, in the same moment. This, we oldies can still be a part of. What we can’t do is always remember precisely how things went ten seconds ago, or yesterday, or a week ago. But guess what, when you are conducing, you don’t need to think about that! In fact, it may even be an advantage if you make a habit of not thinking about that. Insofar as you do need to be reminded of where you’ve got to, the orchestra does this, by playing what must now be played.
What I am surmising is: it’s not that the Great Conductors are “kept young” by the process of conducting an orchestra and by the gloriousness of the music itself. What is happening here is that as a Great Conductor gets old, at much the same rate and in much the same way that the rest of us do, he finds himself in a situation where the kinds of deteriorations that happen to us all do not matter. The show is able to go on for about another decade or more beyond when you would think it should have ground to an embarrassing halt. His wife has to butter his toast and remind him which symphony he is about to conduct and tell him which city they are in. But once the playing begins, all is well. Any conducting mistakes, and the orchestra irons them out, which may even keep them more alert and awake.
For yes, being conducted by a really old Great Conductor may even work better than usual. A sixty year old Great Conductor may have all kinds of tyrannical and complicated ideas about how to interpret the music which he may insist on talking about at insulting length during rehearsals. He may want to rearrange the orchestra’s membership. He may be a bully and a tyrant. And he may still be quite good at all this, as in: able to make life hell for the orchestra. But all that one of these ninety five year old Great Conductors is able to do is wave a stick in front of the orchestra on the night. The occasional unclear wobble of that stick is not a problem. A great orchestra just takes its cue from its leader and its various section leaders. They know how to play well, no matter what idiocy is going on on the podium, especially if they have played the piece lots of times before with the Great Conductor.
The key variable may simply be: do they like the Great Conductor, or do they not? Perhaps fifteen years ago he was a sadistic bastard, in which case as soon as he starts forgetting people’s names or forgetting what he was trying to say a moment ago in rehearsal, then he is gently but firmly told to stop. But, if they like the old geezer, then all he has to do is stand in front of them on the night, and they are easily able to turn his increasingly vague wavings into a performance of genuine substance and distinction.
Don’t get me wrong. The Great Conductor is still truly great. He is still contributing that certain special something that even the greatest orchestras – perhaps especially the greatest orchestras – do truly need. But that’s now all that the Great Conductor is contributing. And that, if you think about it, could be just about the perfect arrangement for all concerned.
Scrub all of the above if the conductor goes deaf, as Beethoven did quite early in his life. He had to give up performing altogether, and concentrate entirely on composing. Poor old Beethoven. Lucky old us.