A different kind of classical music #2

The extraordinary physical and mental demands of performing Sichuan opera
With origins deep in southern China’s folk storytelling and music customs, Sichuan opera is characterised by traditional instrumentation, a distinctive singing style, elaborate, colourful costumes, changing masks that reflect characters’ emotional states, and daring stunts including martial arts, acrobatics and fire-breathing.

Another video from Noah Sheldon, who made that documentary about the styrofoam collector from Shanghai. Other people’s lives can be extraordinary, can’t they?

See also this post about Indian classical music.

Borges box trees

Because you can never have enough Borges.

The Borges Labyrinth
The Borges Maze: 1 kilometer maze made up of 3,200 box trees, designed by Randall Coate. Look closely and you’ll see it is shaped like a colossal open book, with BORGES spelled out and reflected among his favorite symbols: a stick, an hourglass, a tiger, a question mark, all infoliated in a labyrinth.

Everything is out to get us

Following on from that post about how technology is deliberately addictive and seemingly out to get us, here’s a wider view of the problems we face and “the price we have to pay for being born in modern times”.

How the modern world makes us mentally ill
The modern world is wonderful in many ways (dentistry is good, cars are reliable, we can so easily keep in touch from Mexico with our grandmother in Scotland) – but it’s also powerfully and tragically geared to causing a high background level of anxiety and widespread low-level depression.

Thankfully, for each area of concern there’s a solution of sorts. For instance:

The media has immense prestige and a huge place in our lives – but routinely directs our attention to things that scare, worry, panic and enrage us, while denying us agency or any chance for effective personal action. It typically attends to the least admirable sides of human nature, without a balancing exposure to normal good intentions, responsibility and decency. At its worst, it edges us towards mob justice.

The cure would be news that concentrated on presenting solutions rather than generating outrage, that was alive to systemic problems rather than gleefully emphasizing scapegoats and emblematic monsters – and that would regularly remind us that the news we most need to focus on comes from our own lives and direct experiences.

It can all seem quite overwhelming, but we need to stay positive.

The forces of psychological distress in our world are – currently – much wealthier and more active than the needed cures. We deserve tender pity for the price we have to pay for being born in modern times. But more hopefully, cures are now open to us individually and collectively if only we recognise, with sufficient clarity, the sources of our true anxieties and sorrows.

The trick is remembering all this when we’re caught up in the moment and wrapped up in our day-to-day troubles. They ought to produce and sell a little cheatsheet we can carry around in our wallets or something.

Left on the shelf

I’m not alone in having unread books on my bookshelf. (Sometimes they don’t even get that far.)

“Tsundoku,” the Japanese word for the new books that pile up on our shelves, should enter the English language
There are some words out there that are brilliantly evocative and at the same time impossible to fully translate. Yiddish has the word shlimazl, which basically means a perpetually unlucky person. German has the word Backpfeifengesicht, which roughly means a face that is badly in need of a fist. And then there’s the Japanese word tsundoku, which perfectly describes the state of my apartment. It means buying books and letting them pile up unread.

We readers all have books we can’t seem to finish, but the same seems to be true of authors.

In praise of unfinished novels
…A more accurate term, I think, is “agony.” Although the word now denotes intense mental suffering, the Greek word agonia originally meant a “struggle for victory,” and the combatant who did the struggling was called an agonist. The agony of authors like Ellison, Twain, and Wallace, along with others like Truman Capote, combined these senses. In their unfinished novels, we bear witness to a contest between an author and their work beneath which flows a current of psychological anguish. This palpable sense of friction is one of the chief beauties of unfinished novels.

[…]

In my ambles through the history of literary failure, I discovered that not every unfinishable novel is as tortured as Ellison’s was. Indeed, many embrace unfinishability as an aesthetic virtue. This is certainly true of postmodern novels like Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, which revel in their potential endlessness, but earlier centuries had their partisans of the unfinished, too. Herman Melville concludes a chapter of Moby-Dick, for instance, with the declaration, “God keep me from ever completing anything. This whole book is but a draught—nay, but the draught of a draught.”

Not so much left on the shelf as never made it to the shelf in the first place.

Speaking of not reading books though, here’s a great passage from Umberto Eco’s review of Pierre Bayard’s book, How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read.

On unread books
But the most interesting thing is that Bayard has failed to notice that, in admitting his three intentional errors, he implicitly assumes that one way of reading is more correct than others, so that he carries out a meticulous study of the books he quotes in order to support his theory about not reading them. The contradiction is so apparent that it makes one wonder whether Bayard has actually read the book he’s written.

Any second now

I’m so pleased to see this is making great progress. I’ve been a fan of it since first reading about it in Wired all those years ago, and have been spurred on to re-read the book again.

The Long Now Foundation begins the installation of the monumental 10,000 year clock in West Texas
The clock is designed to run for ten millennia without any required human intervention to keep it going. Inventor Danny Hillis, who came up with the idea of the clock, proposed for it to be “an icon to long-term thinking”. A number of parts are still being fabricated as of this date, but now the 10,000 year clock is getting closer and closer to keeping time for a long time. We’re all excited.

Clock of the Long Now – Installation Begins (Vimeo)
After over a decade of design and fabrication, we have begun installing the first parts of the Clock of the Long Now on site in West Texas. In this video you can see the first elements to be assembled underground, the drive weight, winder and main gearing. This is the first of many stages to be installed, and we continue to fabricate parts for the rest of the Clock in several shops along the west coast.

It’s taken a long time to get to this point though, appropriately enough. This, from 2011.

How to make a clock run for 10,000 years
At first, Hillis and Rose and other members of the foundation figured the organization’s primary job would be building the clock. They even purchased a remote site, in Nevada, which met their geographic, geological and meteorological needs.

But then progress seemed to stop — at least from the outside. Although the Long Now Foundation continued working on prototypes, materials testing, design and other projects, media attention faded after the turn of the millennium. To anyone not part of the project, the clock seemed to have become one of those ideas that are good to think about, but impractical in reality.

Then Bezos and Hillis, already good friends, got to talking.

I wasn’t very keen on this take on it, however, from The Verge.

Construction begins on Jeff Bezos’ $42 million 10,000-year clock
Installation has finally begun on Jeff Bezos’ 10,000-year clock, a project that the Amazon CEO has invested $42 million in (along with a hollowed-out mountain in Texas that Bezos intends for a Blue Origin spaceport), with the goal of building a mechanical clock that will run for 10 millennia.

They keep calling it Bezos’s clock, which makes it sound like a billionaire CEO’s crazy vanity project. Yes he’s heavily invested in it, I get that, but it’s more than that, right?

The Clock of the Long Now (Vimeo)
The Clock of the Long Now is a portrait of Danny Hillis and his brilliant team of inventors, futurists, and engineers as they build The 10,000 Year Clock—a grand, Stone Henge-like monolith, being constructed in a mountain in West Texas. The film, like the clock itself, celebrates the power of long-term thinking and mankind’s insatiable thirst to solve life’s biggest problems.

Happy to put my money where my mouth it. (As I write this, they have 9,142 members currently. I thought about waiting to join till they get to 9,999, but I’m just not that patient.)

Become a Long Now member
Join Long Now to help us foster long-term thinking and support our projects: the 10,000 Year Clock, Seminars About Long-term Thinking, The Rosetta Project, Revive & Restore, The Interval and more.

Mii, myself and I

Our kids are getting a little older now, and are happy to let the Wii gather dust, so we don’t hear this catchy little tune half as much as we used to.

Mii Channel Music but it’s played by a saxophone quartet
My arrangement of the Mii Channel Music for a saxophone quartet. Uses one soprano, one alto, one tenor, and one bari. Video was compiled in Premiere Pro and audio was compiled in Audition.

Compare that with this, something that can generate random variations on the original Mii theme. Not quite Elgar, but fun nonetheless.

Mii Channel Theme Markov
Made with Band.js and my own markov generator, Markov.js. All transcribing of the original music was done by hand, with help from Pianoletternotes. Not completed yet.

And here’s how it sounds with a fuller orchestra.

Mii Channel Theme Band Prank
The Liberty University Wind Symphony decided to prank our band director by playing the Mii Channel Theme instead of a Bach Chorale.

You think your work life balance is tough?

You start off expecting to be amused by the ridiculously overburdened bike, but end up saddened by that overburdened mum.

A migrant worker’s daily circus-like balancing act is a surreal reflection of China’s economy
As China shifted from a small-farm economy to an industrial powerhouse over the past generation, there’s been an enormous demographic shift, with some 282 million migrant labourers splitting their time between cities and their rural homes. For Wo Guo Jie, who makes her living in Shanghai collecting styrofoam boxes from markets and reselling them to a seafood wholesale market, this transformation has meant spending as many as three years at a time away from her family farm, where her children sometimes barely recognise her when she returns.

For want of a comma, $5 million was lost

See? I told you these kinds of things were important.

Oxford comma dispute is settled as Maine drivers get $5 million
Ending a case that electrified punctuation pedants, grammar goons and comma connoisseurs, Oakhurst Dairy settled an overtime dispute with its drivers that hinged entirely on the lack of an Oxford comma in state law.

The dairy company in Portland, Me., agreed to pay $5 million to the drivers, according to court documents filed on Thursday.

The relatively small-scale dispute gained international notoriety last year when the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit ruled that the missing comma created enough uncertainty to side with the drivers, granting those who love the Oxford comma a chance to run a victory lap across the internet.

And now read this poem on the importance of the Oxford comma, from Brian Bilston.

Rethinking colour and country

I liked the synchronicity of these stories. (And yes, I’m deliberately linking to the Mail’s version of the first one.)

First ancient Britons had black skin and blue eyes
Dr Tom Booth, a scientist from the museum said that the findings that there was a 76 per cent chance that Cheddar Man was ‘dark to black’ – was ‘extraordinary’. He said in the documentary: ‘If a human with that colour skin wandered around now, we’d call him black, and a lot darker than we’d expect for Europe as well. He added: ‘It really shows up that these imaginary racial categories that we have are really very modern constructions, or very recent constructions that are really not applicable to the past at all.’ Dr Rick Schulting, an archaeology professor at Oxford University said: ‘It may be that we may have to rethink some of our notions of what it is to be British, what we expect a Briton to look like at this time.’

Do the limbo! How the Windrush brought a dance revolution to Britain
Windrush: Movement of the People is based partly on Watson’s own parents’ journey from Jamaica to Leeds in the 1950s, emphasising the loyalty that motivated them to go through such an upheaval. It felt horribly poignant to Watson that, having set out for the UK with such high-minded hopes, her parents encountered so much cruelty. The racism of 1950s Britain was brutal, Watson says. “My mother wept and wept once she started telling me about it: ‘When the call came out we answered it. But we arrived to all these notices saying: No dogs, no blacks, no Irish. That really hurt.’”

And here’s a photo of my grandad on the cover of the Windrush 65th Anniversary edition of The Voice.