Stuck in the Middle

100bannertransIt might not mean much to people who don’t buy paint to create artwork, or ink to make prints, but Dan Smith’s company went ahead with a big decision this month. They stopped selling art supplies. That is, they stopped selling art supplies made by others, and decided to bet the farm on the paints, inks and other supplies that they make and sell under their own name.

Leisel Lund PrimTek Paintouts by LiesalPutting this another way, Daniel Smith Art Supply decided to leave the business of being a middleman. The company didn’t have much to say about the change, apart from the warehouse clearance notices that now arrive in my email box every day. On their website, one statement clearly expresses the company’s purpose: “Daniel Smith is a leading manufacturer of superior-quality lines of watercolor paints, sticks & grounds, acrylic paints & gesso, oil & water-soluble oil paints. Our products are available worldwide.” This is not a new idea: when Brooks Brothers has been selling its own clothing, in its own stores, Zachary Taylor was our 12th President.Brooks-Brothers-History-600x270

And that made me start wondering about Ken Burns, and a guy who worked for me twenty years ago who just showed up with his own documentary. If the connections are not immediately clear, please bear with me.

UnknownThis week, millions of Americans are spending their evenings with the Roosevelts. That is, they are watching a series of documentaries made by Ken Burns and his Florentine Films staff, a series that tells the story of Theodore, Franklin, Eleanor, their families, and their political careers. Burns is closely aligned with WETA, a public television station in Washington, DC, but neither Burns nor WETA is the distributor. Instead, that job first falls to PBS, and then, to nearly 200 local television stations. That’s the way it has worked since The Civil War, or, at least, since around 1990. I didn’t think much about that until someone I know ranted about missing the first half hour of one of the episodes. I figured the episode was available online, did a bit of exploring, and found that all of the episodes were available online, even before they were released on television. And that made me wonder about the chain of distribution. Quite reasonably, there is a website devoted entirely to The Roosevelts. The site’s logo is the show’s logo. The top menu items seem to be focused on the project, not on the distribution. Scroll down to the bottom and the site is copyrighted by WETA and Florentine Films. In fact, there is a modest PBS presence, and in fact, there is no real need for a middleman here at all. Ken Burns has made a fine series of films, and now, with the miracle of web distribution, he can distribute those films directly to his (admiring) public. Something feels right about PBS’s relationship with Ken Burns and his work, but look closely, and it’s clear that PBS, Burns, Florentine, WETA, and PBS’s member stations are taking this new digital distribution idea one step at a time.

And that made me think about the guy who used to work for me who produced an independent documentary. It’s a lovely documentary about the nasty behavior of a big company, and, of all things, a public passion for a particular soda pop. The produce and I were exploring how this documentary gain some exposure. In essence, the producer was seeking a middleman, a Netflix, an exhibitor to bring the film to the public. Old habits die hard. New thinking would probably involve, somehow, contacting every person passionate about the soft drink, and encouraging them to (a) watch the film, and (b) tell their friends. This is a new kind of magic, and it only works sometimes.

And that made me think about a friend who is wondering about the future of the music business. In times past, record labels signed and marketed artists. Now, artists communicate directly with fans, and many record labels are struggling to find their way. At the same time, authors are publishing their own books while dreaming of the money and marketing clout that a large publisher could provide (no more crates of books in the garage, no more handling every detail).

neon051-580x326UnknownSo here we are, caught between two ideas, two eras. In the former, large fortunes were made by the middleman. In the latter, there is no middleman. Make what you sell—the old American way (and, in fact, the way that many people in undeveloped nations continue to operate, with no clear path to a digital future). And then I think about Macy’s, Wal-Mart, and going back a bit, the much-criticized market domination of A&P and Rexall Drug. All of them hawking their self-branded merchandise, all of them making a fortune by selling other companies’ stuff.

Usually, I finish an article with a sense of direction. This time, it’s more complicated. Kudos to Dan Smith for doing something that makes sense instead of doing too many things that don’t. Kudos to the musicians and the authors and the documentary producers who have figured it out, and to Ken Burns and WETA for working within and beside and around the system as they invent a future that sustains everyone in their food chain. Let’s not pretend that this is easy, and let’s accept our era as the mass of contradictions that our world has become. In fact, some of our greatest internet success stories have been stories of middlemen with eBay and Amazon leading the way, and plenty of successful companies including Pinterest, Etsy, and Netflix populating a very long list of middleman enterprises.

At first, I thought I’d be writing an article entitled “Death of the Middleman,” but as I wrote, I realized that my initial approach was naive. Now, I suspect there will always be a role for the middleman. That’s the reason why the altogether excellent Brattleboro Food Co-op exists, to create a marketplace for local farmers and small time operators who make, but cannot directly market, their local cheeses (imagine visiting every creamery for every block of cheese, every week). And thank goodness for the local artisinal ice cream makers who have opened small shops nearby, more than compensating for the closing of the century-old country dairy that closed before its time (and sold only its own ice cream).

Has the digital revolution washed over the middleman? Nope. Not yet. He’s still traveling from town to town, still making the same sales calls he did a century or so ago. Looks a bit different now, made and lost a few fortunes along the way, but he’s still a part of the landscape, not about to give it up any time soon, near as I can see.

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The Right Dog for the Job

This article was published in Education Week in January, 2009. I think it’s terrific. The author is Marion Brady, “a retired high school teacher, college professor, and textbook author who writes frequently on education. He lives in Cocoa, Fla.”

220px-Bordercollie-ankc-agilityDriving the rural roads of Scotland, Ireland, and Wales, I’ve occasionally been fortunate enough to be blocked by sheep being moved from one pasture to another.

I say “fortunate” because I’ve gotten to watch an impressive performance by a dog—a border collie.

And what a performance! A single, midsize dog herding two or three hundred sheep, keeping them moving in the right direction, rounding up strays, knowing how to intimidate but not cause panic, funneling them all through a gate, and obviously enjoying the challenge.

Why a border collie? Why not an Airedale or Zuchon, or another of about 400 breeds listed on the Internet?

Because, among those for whom herding sheep is serious business, there’s general agreement that border collies are better than any other dog at doing what needs to be done. They have “the knack.” That knack is so important, those who care most about border collies even oppose their being entered in dog shows. They’re certain that would lead to border collies being bred to look good, and looking good isn’t the point. What counts is talent, interest, innate ability, performance.

Other breeds are no less impressive in other ways. If you’re lost in a snowstorm in the Alps, you don’t need a border collie. You need a big, strong dog with a good nose, lots of fur, wide feet, and a great sense of direction for returning with help. You need a Saint Bernard.

If varmints are sneaking into your henhouse, killing your chickens, and escaping down a little hole in a nearby field, you don’t need a border collie or a Saint Bernard. You need a fox terrier.

Want to sniff luggage for bombs? Chase felons? Stand guard duty? Retrieve downed game birds? Guide the blind? Detect certain diseases? Locate earthquake survivors? Entertain audiences? Play nice with little kids? Go for help if Little Nell falls down a well? With training, dogs can do those jobs well.

So, let’s set performance standards and train all dogs to meet them. All 400 breeds. Leave no dog behind. Two-hundred-pound mastiffs may have a little trouble with the chase-the-fox-into-the-little-hole standard, and Chihuahuas will probably have difficulty with the tackle-the-felon-and-pin-him-to-the-ground standard. But, hey, standards are standards! No excuses! No giving in to the soft bigotry of low expectations. Hold dogs accountable.

220px-Mastif_angielski_pregowany_768Here’s a question: Why are one-size-fits-all performance standards inappropriate to the point of silliness when applied to dogs, but accepted without question when applied to kids? If someone tried to set up a national program to teach every dog to do everything that various breeds are able to do, the Humane Society and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals would have them in court in a New York minute. But when authorities mandate one-size-fits-all performance standards for kids, and the standards aren’t met, it’s the kids and teachers, not the standards, that get blamed.

Consider, for example, what’s happening in math “reform.” School systems across the country are upping both the number of required courses and their level of difficulty. Why? Is it because math teaches transferable thinking skills? There’s no research supporting that contention. Is it because advanced math is required for college work? Where’s the evidence that colleges have a clear grasp of America’s educational challenge and therefore should be leading the education parade? Is it because most adults make routine use of higher math? No. Is it because American industry is begging for more mathematicians? Not according to statistics on available job opportunities. Is it because math has played an important role in America’s technological achievements, and if we’re to continue to be pre-eminent, a full range of math courses needs to be taught?

Bingo! And true. But how much sense does it make to run every kid in America through the same math regimen, when only a small percentage has enough mathematical ability to make productive use of it? How much sense does it make to put a math whiz in an Algebra 2 classroom with 25 or 30 aspiring lawyers, dancers, automatic-transmission specialists, social workers, surgeons, artists, hairdressers, language teachers? How much sense does it make to put hundreds of thousands of kids on the street because they can’t jump through a particular math hoop?

Some suggestions:

One: Stop fixating on the American economy. Trying to shape kids to fit the needs of business and industry rather than the other way around is immoral.

Two: Stop massive, standardized testing. For a fraction of the cost of high-stakes subject-matter tests, every kid’s strengths and weaknesses can be identified using inexpensive inventories of interests, abilities, and learning styles.

Three: Eliminate grade levels. Start with where kids are, help them go as far as they can go as fast as they can go, then give them a paper describing what they can do, or a Web site where they can do it for themselves.

Four: When kids are ready for work, push responsibility for teaching specialized skills and knowledge onto users of those skills and knowledge—employers. Occupation-related instruction such as that now being offered in magnet schools will never keep up with the variety of skills needed or their rates of change. Apprenticeships and intern arrangements will go a long way toward smoothing the transition into responsible adulthood.

Five: Abandon the assumption that spending the day “covering the material” in a random mix of five or six subjects educates well. Only one course of study is absolutely essential. Societal cohesion and effective functioning require participation in a broad conversation about values, beliefs, and patterns of action, their origins, and their probable and possible future consequences. The young need to engage in that conversation, and a single, comprehensive, systemically integrated course of study could prepare them for it. It should be the only required course.

Six: Limiting required study to a single course would result in an explosion of educational options (and save a lot of money). We say we respect individual differences, say we value initiative, spontaneity, and creativity, say we admire the independent thinker, say every person should be helped to realize her or his full potential, say the young need to be introduced to the real world—then we spend a half-trillion dollars a year on a system of education at odds with our rhetoric. Aligning the institution with our core values would give it the legitimacy and generate the excitement it now lacks.

Alternatively, we can continue on our present course. For almost 20 years, “reform” has been driven by the assumption that “the system”—the math, science, language arts, and social studies curriculum in near-universal use in America’s schools and colleges since 1892—is sound, from which it follows that poor performance must be the fault of the teachers and kids. This, of course, calls for tough love—standards, accountability, raised bars, rigor, competitive challenges, public shaming, pay for performance, penalties for nonperformance.

Wrong diagnosis, so wrong cure. The problem isn’t the kids and the teachers; it’s the system. More than a century of failed attempts to drive square pegs into round holes suggests it’s past time to stop treating human variability as a problem rather than as an evolutionary triumph, and begin making the most of it.

Marion Brady is a retired high school teacher, college professor, and textbook author who writes frequently on education. He lives in Cocoa, Fla.

Education Week, 28 January 2009

Geri Allen: Smart and Wonderful

Geri-Allen-2-by-Dean-C.-Jones-copyGeri Allen is one of those extraordinary jazz musicians whose influence runs wide and deep, but somehow, has not become as well-known as it ought to be. She’s a pianist with a resume that begins with a serious educational foundation: a master’s degree in ethnomusicology that has served her well (easy for me to see this because I’m approaching her life’s work some 35 years into a very good story). Her professional work begins with Mary Wilson and the Supremes in the early 1980s, and Brooklyn’s M-Base movement not long after (here, she established a reputation beside Steve Coleman, Cassandra Wilson, Greg Osby and other talented players). M-Base was a kind of updating of a jazz form, a structured modernist approach to improvisation. In 1988, she recorded a wonderful album entitled “Etudes” with Charlie Haden and Paul Motian, followed by several more trio records with her two extraordinary (now, sadly, gone) creative partners, including Segments and Live at the Village Vanguard. (The best discography I could find appears on Wikipedia, part of a more complete story worth reading.)

UnknownThe awards began to roll in. Allen was in and out of the remaining avant-garde, which sounds much less radical now than in 1996 when she recorded “Hidden Man” with Ornette Coleman’s Sound Museum. In fact, by 1999, she was sounding very comfortable in a commercial setting, recording her popular CD, The Gathering, with Wallace Roney on flugelhorn and trumpet, Robin Eubanks on trombone, Buster Williams on bass, and Lenny White on drums, and others whose names are well-known from mainstream jazz records. A 2010 record, “Flying Toward the Sound,” made it to the top of many critic’s best-of-the-year lists.

So that’s the beginning of the story. A very solid player, well-connected and well-regarded, a talented composer, comfortable in the mainstream and in the more experimental forms of jazz. Somewhat unusual to find a female musician in that role, but things are changing, and, well, it’s about time.

For much of this past summer, Ms. Allen has served as the Artistic Director of a special project at the NJPAC, New Jersey’s Performing Arts Center (and center of cultural life and city rebuilding) in Newark, New Jersey. The project is an All-Female Jazz Residency with a wonderful array of inspiring special guests including Marcus Belgrave on trumpet, Carmen Lundy on voice, and more. Ms. Allen has been Professor Allen for some time now; she is the Director of Jazz Studies for her alma mater, the University of Pittsburgh. She recently received an honorary doctorate from the Berklee School of Music. She’s got the performance chops, the compositional excellence and nowadays, it would be fair to say that Geri Allen is one of our nation’s most distinguished jazz educators.

Photo by Dean C. Jones

Photo by Dean C. Jones

As impressive as her professional accomplishments may be, there’s nothing quite like listening. Her latest work, recorded in 2012 and released last year, takes the pianist back to her home town, Detroit, Michigan (actually, she was born in nearby Pontiac but grew up in Detroit). Grand River Avenue was the big street that she crossed when she was old enough to do so. She describes “three years of intensive training by master teachers and Detroit artists in residence” at Cass Tech, on Grand River Avenue, then one of “the nation’s premiere high schools.” The CD entitled “Grand River Crossings: Motown and Motor City Inspirations” is the third in a trilogy that began with “Flying Toward the Sound,” and continued with “A Child is Born.” In this case, the liner notes call her work “the new classical music” and state, quite reasonably and truthfully, that the music on the CD is “an exquisitely beautiful collection” based, largely, upon the Motown spirit. There are songs by Steve Wonder (“That Girl”), Smokey Robinson (“Tears of a Clown”), and Marvin Gaye (“Save the Children,” and “Inner City Blues”) and Holland-Dozier-Holland (“Baby I Need Your Lovin’”) but this is not an album of jazz versions of Motown standards. Instead, it is an intricate meditation on the musical themes and ideas that those composers expressed long ago.

Unknown-2Geri Allen has been one of those artists that I’ve wanted to know more about. Now that I’ve written this article, now that I’ve done some concentrated listening, I’m realizing that I am just beginning to understand what she’s all about. The latest album is elegant and wonderful, soulful and reflective, sophisticated and consistently interesting, but my collection is now woefully incomplete. I have listened to the two predecessors in the trilogy, but I want them for my very own. The same is true for the work she did with Paul Motian and Charlie Haden, and for the work she did in 2010 with her group, Timeline.

Another discovery. I keep falling in love. There is no better way to listen to music.

BTW: Don’t miss this NPR conversation between two beloved jazz pianists: Geri Allen and Marian McPartland.

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The Warmth of Isabel Wilkerson

cover_bookBeginning around 1915, six million people left their native land hoping for a better life. Nearly all of them were Americans, but they were poor, without prospects. For the next half century, they left the South, many for northern cities where they knew a relative or felt they could find work, some for the west, where they hoped Jim Crow would not be a factor in their lives. They left in faith, and without much information. Three of them were fortunate because their stories were told, in considerable detail, by a compassionate, literate, well-informed journalist named Isabel Wilkerson. Her work, which she completed in 2010, involved thirteen years of her life and over a thousand interviews. the book is a solid ten-hour read (it’s over 500 pages), and you won’t want to miss a single story about her chosen few, the Americans whose stories she tells so well. They are: Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, Robert Joseph Pershing Foster and George Swanson Starling. Ida Mae starts out in Van Vleet, Mississippi in 1928, and survives the completion of the book. Leaving Monroe, Louisiana far behind, Robert survives a punishing trip to the California of his dreams, and becomes a wealthy doctor in Los Angeles with a soft spot for people in need. George is a bit of troublemaker in his native Florida, and ends up working on a New York-Florida train while living a new life in Harlem. (I use their first names because of the kinship that the author kindled in me; I feel as though I knew them from the neighborhood.)

Ida Mae, with flowers in her hair, sharecroppers’ daughter, living in Chicago in the 1930s

Ida Mae, with flowers in her hair, sharecroppers’ daughter, living in Chicago in the 1930s

Wilkerson takes care to paint a full picture of these people, their lives back down South, their struggles in making the decision to leave, the tough times they endured during their period of relocation, family and friends who weave in and out of their lives. The sense of never quite being at home is a constant companion; so is the the sense that they don’t completely belong where they ended up. They resolve these conflicts in their own minds, sometimes rationalizing, sometimes considering just how fortunate their lives became, sometimes trying to untangle the equally tangled thoughts and behaviors of others.

Young Doctor Robert Foster in the years before he made enough money to do anything he pleased.

Young Doctor Robert Foster in the years before he made enough money to do anything he pleased.

George was known as “schoolboy” because he was among the few citrus workers in his area who had attended any college at all. His father talked him out of the idea, and George spent the rest of his life wondering what might have been.

George was known as “schoolboy” because he was among the few citrus workers in his area who had attended any college at all. His father talked him out of the idea, and George spent the rest of his life wondering what might have been.

Wilkerson also scores scholarly points by resolving not to accept common knowledge. Her responsibility to Ida Mae, Robert and George is powerful, and she insists on providing commentary and context to keep the reader on track and clear about what actually happened, and why it matters.

Intrigued? Watch an excellent hour-plus interview with Ms. Wilkerson on the award-winning public affairs series that survived the old New Jersey Network and now resides at Rutgers University. Find it here.

Lincoln Wins! – The Story According to Fergus

220px-George_B_McClellan_-_retouched

Presidential wannabe George McClellan

Buried on the bottom of a back page in Saturday’s Wall Street Journal, a fairly amazing story worth retelling. The author is historical Fergus Bordewich. The place is the United States, right around this time of year, 150 years ago. You may remember the name George McClellan. “Handsome and self-confident,” he had utterly failed in his role as the General in charge of President Lincoln’s Union Army. At the time, the charismatic McClellan was running against Lincoln in the 1864 election, and everyone (including Lincoln) was certain that McClellan would become the next president (Lincoln’s Republicans considered re-election “an impossibility”). According to Bordewich, “In practical terms McClellan’s victory would likely have led to European recognition of the Confederacy, Southern Independence and the forcible return to slavery of hundreds of thousands of former slaves who had fled to the Union armies for safety.” To make matters worse, the current Union General, Ulysses Grant, was making a habit of losing battle after battle.

Vice President Hannibal Hamlin

Vice President Hannibal Hamlin

So here’s the staunch abolitionist Hannibal Hamlin of Maine, then-current Vice President of the United States, a man who would have been President (after Lincoln’s passing) if history had played out differently. The party decides that what Lincoln really needs is a “deep-dyed racist” as his replacement running mate, and they choose a Democrat, the Governor of Tennessee (which was controlled by the Union), Andrew Johnson. Lincoln hoped that Johnson would swing some Democrats over to his side. Then, Lincoln got lucky. The North started winning his battles, and Union Admiral Farragut took over Mobile, Alabama (and said, “damn the torpedoes—full speed ahead!). Sherman captured Atlanta. (Grant was still struggling, but generally heading in a positive direction).

Lincoln wins. He carries every state except Kentucky (makes sense, right?), Delaware (kind of southern), and New Jersey (huh?).

President Andrew Johnson, whose extensive political career included time as a Senator and Congressman from Tennessee, and its  governor. He also reached the rank of Brigadier General in the Union Army.

President Andrew Johnson, whose extensive political career included time as a Senator and Congressman from Tennessee, and its governor. He also reached the rank of Brigadier General in the Union Army.

The aftermath: Lincoln in April, 1865. If Hamlin had remained on the ticket, he would have become President and, according to Bordewich, he would have gotten reconstruction underway in a thorough and meaningful way, and probably would have ignited the Civil Rights movement some eighty years before it finally came together. Instead, we had the unexpected President Johnson, in place for purely political reasons—without him, McClellan would have won. Johnson did his job for his Southern friends—he did everything he could to restore the pre-war status quo, and “tolerated horrific reprisals against blacks to attempted to exercise their newly run freedoms.” Congress was so unhappy with Johnson’s defiant ways, they did something they had never done before: they impeached the President of the United States.

Here’s the original WSJ article written by Fergus Bordewich.

 

Studying Funny

There is a dead frog with its guts all over the place. More about this unfunny amphibian later.

HumorCode52GfQLFor now, the challenge is to figure out what’s funny, why it’s funny, how funny is constructed, what happens inside our brains when funny is happening, how funny works in different countries and why funny often misfires. Although I want to believe that this is a fascinating intellectual and scholarly pursuit, the whole idea of studying funny seems, to me, to be an odd pursuit that’s not likely to yield meaningful results. And yet, there are these two books, each with an embarrassingly unfunny cover, that have been staring at me all summer long. One puts Groucho glasses on a globe and calls itself The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny and the other has a big goofy grin with the word “Ha!” writ large with “The Science of When We Laugh and Why” down below. The former was written by a University of Colorado professor named Peter McGraw; he runs the Humor Research Lab (or, “HuRL”) and promises to be “a leading expert in the interdisciplinary fields of emotion and behavioral economics.” His co-author us a free-lance writer named Joel Warner. HA! was written by Scott Weems, whose Ph.D. is in cognitive neuroscience.

Weems taught me that it’s possible to make a rat laugh. How? Tickling works pretty well—scratch its belly and a rat will emit a high pitched screech at around 50kHz (which other rats can hear, but humans cannot). If you stroke a rat, it doesn’t laugh. Young rats are more likely to laugh, and laugh bigger, and more often, than older rats. Apparently, humans are the same way. If you leave a rat alone for an extended period, then tickle him, the rat is more likely to laugh a lot.

And then, things get weird. A rat scientist named Burgdorf (I’m sure there’s a better title) inserted electrodes into each rat’s dopamine-producing center and “achieved the same result.” Then, Burgdorf taught his rats to tap a metal bar to administer the dopamine provocation on their own. Similar result. All of which leads Weems to this conclusion, “Apparently, rats aren’t so different from humans, which suggests that laughter might have been around for a very long time.”

Yeah, you’re seeing the same problem I am. It’s cool that we can make rats emit a sound by tickling them, but there’s a pretty large gap between explaining that screech—which may or may not be laughter—and, say, what Richard Pryor or Robin Williams could do on their least productive days. Or why, when I’m bored, I will try (and often succeed) in making others laugh and lose focus (I’ve been doing this since fourth grade). Or why elephant jokes are still funny.

Q: Why did the Elephant stand on the marshmallow? 
A: So she wouldn’t fall in the hot chocolate.

Men and women seem to laugh at different things, at different times, in different ways. We don’t yet understand how computers might make us laugh. Research related to laughter, short-term health and longevity is inconclusive (but it couldn’t hurt). Ethic humor remains popular (throughout the world), but the 21st century’s political correctness limits its use in polite company. We’re still okay making fun of animals, and even in our enlightened world, nothing succeeds like a good poop joke:

never-think-outside-the-box1

 

All in all, I didn’t learn much, but I did find out that scientists are taking an interest. That’s nice, but frankly, I’d rather watch a funny movie.

The comedy team of McGraw and Warner trekked a lot further (“two guys…19 experiments…five continents… 91,000 miles…”) but didn’t manage to cover any more ground. Studying humor is exceedingly difficult, probably because we’re not smart enough to understand what’s happening, which is why scientists come up with theory and do their thing, but the process is not much fun to watch. McGraw’s intrepid performance at a comedy club—these guys really are trying—is a flop. Their Venn diagrams are promising (one circle: “vomit in church” and the other “causing mass vomit in church” with the intersection marked, simply, “funny”). Both books tell the story of the girls in Tanzania who couldn’t stop laughing and comedian Gilbert Gottfried’s “too soon?” excuse to roll into the Aristocrats schtick shortly after NYC’s towers came down; and, sure enough, on page 81, the authors are talking about tickling rate here, too.

Their world tour is interesting, mostly for people who don’t usually follow the comedy business. This book attempts to be a global comedy road trip, and it’s interesting to visit Yoshimoto Kogyo in Japan: a comedy school that also manages 800 Japanese comedians (not sure why, but the image of 800 Japanese comedians makes me laugh). The company owns many of Japan’s comedy clubs and used to own a comedy theme park, too. There are Yoshimoto Kogyo golf balls, and instant ramen meals, too. The authors make good use of their travel budget, visiting Scandinavia where their obsession with the Danish cartoons that rattled Islam sensibility tends to overshadow the warmth and classy outrage that has been part of Danish humor since the days of Victor Borge (don’t miss this!). Humor on the Gaza Strip (conflict and humor are often linked), and in a chapter about the Amazon (where the inevitable Norman Cousins story about laughter as medicine is told, along with some notes on Patch Adams).

In the Montreal chapter—which is about the world’s largest comedy festival, the authors summarize what seems to be a list of items that didn’t require a full volume:

- Make fun of yourself before others get the chance to do so.

- Laughter is disarming. Make light of the stuff everyone’s worried about and you’ll negate its power.

- Create a safe, playful space where folks are free to laugh.

And so on.

I read these two books because I was hoping that the state of the science had greatly advanced (two books from two major publishers in the same year), but I was mostly wrong. We don’t know much more than we did before. And after thinking about that on a rainy weekend afternoon, I came to the conclusion that there is no problem in not understanding comedy. Maybe there is a point in studying it—or, at least, continuing to study laughter—but in some ways, I hope we never figure it out. I don’t think I want a science of humor. And I certainly don’t want a funny robot to be programmed into my brain to provoke dopamine provocation. Really, I’m good not knowing, I’m great knowing that Robin Williams and Victor Borge were funny, and not knowing or caring how or why that happened or how to replicate his magic.

So what about the frog? For that answer, everyone seems to refer to what E.B. White wrote in 1941:

“Humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but

the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging

to any but the our scientific mind.”

Frog

 

 

 

 

The Art of a Fine Magazine

The Art of Waterolour Magazine: The Art Magazine for Watercolourists, Issue 15 is now available. Race to your Barnes & Noble bookstore to have a look; copies are always in limited supply.

The Art of Waterolour Magazine: The Art Magazine for Watercolourists, Issue 15 is now available. Race to your Barnes & Noble bookstore to have a look; copies are always in limited supply.

Note the “u” in “watercolour” — this is an article about an extraordinary magazine published in Europe. If I happen to show up at a well-stocked Barnes & Noble store in the U.S., I might catch the 15th issue, but so far, my success rate has been inconsistent. Yes, $15 is a lot to pay for a magazine, and no, this magazine is not printed on special paper or especially thick (about 100 pages per issue). It’s just, well, a very good magazine about a subject that interests me. It was interesting to write that sentence because I am interested in lots of different things, but this is among the few magazines (in the world, I guess) that would win that kind of recognition. (I enjoy Pastel Journal, for example, but I would rate it only “good” in comparison with The Art of Watercolour’s “very good.” As a rule, The New Yorker is very good, but most weekly issues would probably score a “good-plus” if there was such a rating.

So what makes a magazine “very” good? Of course, it’s helpful to offer an abundance of good stories and wonderful illustrations that are specifically intended to delight a very distinct target audience, in this case, the thousands of artists who call themselves “watercolourists.” The magazine assumes a relatively high level of familiarity with the medium, the artists with a national reputation, and a high level of interest in the work of many different types of watercolour artists throughout the world.

Take, for example, the recent issue #14. It begins with a report on the very first World Watercolour Competition which drew nearly 2,000 participants and 82 nationalities. Turn the page and there’s a spread about the Narbonne 2014 Watercolour Biennial (the magazine’s home base is France, so that country gets more attention that others, which makes me feel very international when I have the magazine in my hands). I love finding out about U.S. watercolor events in a French magazine—a blurb about the IWS competition coming up in May (now past), for example. Letters that matter—questions about the leading watercolour paint brand (Winsor & Newton) and whether it has changed its formulation; how to sign a painting; the Munsell color system. Serious discussion, nicely presented, far more up market and smarter than the discussions in, for example, Watercolor Artist in the U.S.

Here’s the cover of Issue 14 with a good painting by Stephen Scott Young on the cover.

Here’s the cover of Issue 14 with a good painting by Stephen Scott Young on the cover.

And then, there are feature stories about artists. The warm-up is called Revelations, and several artists are featured, each with his or her own page. Turn the next page and there’s a fabulous spread, a watercolour of an old New York City apartment building complete with fireplaces and elaborate window wells, a six-page spread including an artist’s career timeline, lots of juicy images, and a demonstration, by American-born Sandra Walker. Next is a four-page spread celebrating Australian painter Ron Muller’s atmospheric landscapes, followed by the Japanese artist working en plein air in Venice. And then, the extraordinary portrait work of Stephen Scott Young, Hawaiian-born, with an extraordinarily eye and a sensitive, realistic way of painting the lives of dark-skinned people living in the Bahamas and Florida. The next profile—the profiles are worth the price of each issue—is a feature about an abstract artist named Mark Mehaffey, which includes some very useful guidance about the composition and building of a nontraditional painting. I have a friend who paints cityscapes and especially enjoys the challenge of reflections and store windows—and in this issue, there’s a feature about David Stickel, whose opening pages attest to his abilities with his nearly realistic image of the clear box Apple store on Fifth Avenue near Central Park.

I’m still going—and this is a typical issue. There’s an instructional piece by American art teacher about color harmonies, followed by another long instructional piece about getting colors right (not easy because some colors are native and some are affected by light and nearby objects, and by the way the eye perceives contrast). And then, another meaty instructional feature, again dealing with a fairly sophisticated topic in an elevated way: it’s all about shadows, light and reflection. The consideration of these tricky issues as a single idea makes the article work, but it goes further, allowing for a sidebar about color temperature and the nuances of semi-transparent surfaces. Finally, there’s yet another instructional piece on the very difficult challenges associated with all prima watercolour portraiture (that is, capturing the human face—here, a young child) created by dabbing color onto wet paper which is notoriously impossible to control without extreme practice and polished technique.

So there! I just wrote hundreds of words about a magazine. I don’t think I’ve done that before. In fact, I’m so taken with what I’ve been browsing for the past hour, I’m going to order some back issues, direct from Europe.

To close, something more from Stephen Scott Young, from his website.

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Heads Up for Everyone

NavdyMaybe twenty years ago, I remember my friend Harry, who knows a lot about cars, telling me about a magical idea called a “heads up display.” Harry explained that data and images would be projected on every car windshield, and if I understood him correctly, instrumentation would move from the dashboard to an ultra-simple visual presentation directly in the driver’s field of view. No more looking down, no more looking away from the road. I became vaguely aware that some truck drivers were using this technology, but I wondered whatever happened to the consumer side of the idea.

Next year, we can all buy a dashboard mounted video projector called a Navdy. It costs less than $30o, and it does what Harry promised, and more. Navdy projects very simple graphics and just a few words directly on the windshield, directly above the steering wheel. The projector is set up so that your point of focus on the data is also your point of focus while driving, so the information is always easy to see (I’m curious how those with bi- or trifocals will respond).

We all know that picking up a phone while driving (or stopped at a light) to read a text message is a bad idea, and that sending a text is an even worse idea. So now, the text shows up immediately in front of you, perhaps with a little iconic picture of your texting buddy (who is, hopefully, on a coach, not driving a big rig while texting). To reply, you either speak (Navdy will recognize what you have to say) or gesture (a favorite but simple way to interact with Navdy).

You can use your existing cell phone (Android or iPhone). There is no monthly service fee. You only need to buy the device.

So what else does Navdy do? It can display your fuel level, speed, and other information about your car. It allows you to make phone calls and to respond to them without touching a telephone. Ditto for text messages. If your phone is playing music, you can stop and start the stream. It responds to voice control, just as Siri does (hopefully, it’s better than Siri).

New idea? As an add-on, sure. But those who follow the car industry report several million HUDs (Heads-Up Displays) already in cars that are on the road, and have been for several years.

Although there are lots of questions about what we should and should not be doing while driving, whether Navdy is a help or a hindrance or something else entirely, whether this sort of thing will become standard in every vehicle, and, of course, whether most of us will actually be driving a car in a future where cars are probably going to be driving themselves. In the mean time—there’s at least a ten year gap between today and the future—this is a device that will become a buzz item in 2015.

Do watch the video. It’s irreverent and fun.

 

 

Creepy Tale in an Lovely Setting

In 1905, Grace Brown drowned in Big Moose Lake. In 2005, the Metropolitan Opera debuted an opera about what happened to her. This past weekend, just about 100 miles from the tragedy, I watched the story come back to life, at my leisure, on the shores of nearby Lake Otsego. In fact, the whole sad affair took place in Cortland (75 miles away) and Utica (40 miles away). To this day, nobody is completely sure what happened to Grace Brown, but her story is as captivating today as it was when her love letters to Chester Gillette were revealed in connection with his 1906 trial. Did Chester Gillette lure his pregnant fiancé up to the Big Moose Lake to kill her? Probably. Did he swat her with an oar and send her to the depths; or did he lose faith in his plan at the final moment and lose his wife-to-be in an unfortunate accident? Whatever happened, it was kind of cool and kind of creepy to sit through a retelling of the story not far from where the real thing captivated newspaper readers a century (or so) ago.

You may recall that journalist-novelist Theodore Dreiser wrote a very fat novel called “An American Tragedy” about this unfortunate turn of events. Chester was hired by his uncle to supervise a skirt factory in Cortland, NY; got one of the worker girls pregnant and promised to marry her; captured the attention and the heart of a wealthy and pretty socialite; got himself all confused; and figured out that the best way to solve the problem was to end Grace’s life.

i-ftZBWGQ-LThe next character in what turned out to a fascinating Saturday night at the Glimmerglass Festival just north of Cooperstown NY is Tobias Picker. If you don’t know the name, you should. “An American Tragedy” is his fourth opera (and one of several he has written with Gene Scheer’s libretto—you may know Scheer from 1998’s “American Anthem”). Picker’s other operas include “Emmeline,” which is excellent and available on CD, originally a Judith (“Looking for Mr. Goodbar”) novel; “The Fantastic Mr. Fox” (same Roald Dahl story that gave us the animated film); and “Dolores Claiborne”) based upon the Stephen King novel. Which is to say: Tobias Picker is writing contemporary American operas about American stories (not many people are doing this, so it’s well worth noting).

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Two wonderful women—what’s a guy to do? Keep the one with the money, and kill off the other. His downfall: he kept the working girl’s love letters.

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As for this particular performance, a good solid brava! A solid cast of about fifty performers benefitted from very articulate direction (and especially good lighting design). The production was lifted by several nice turns by Vanessa Isiguen as the most unfortunate (and richly voiced) Roberta Alden (the Grace character, renamed, and shown in the blue frock, above), a fetching Cynthia Cook as the socialite who owns the bad guy’s heart (the blonde, appropriately placed above our Grace), and an impressive final act performance by the bad guy’s God-fearing, God-loving mother, Elvira, by Patricia Schuman. I should note that Glimmerglass is well-known for a superior Young Artists program, and many of the performers in this production are among this year’s class. BTW: Lots more photos of the performance here.

How to stage a death by drowning? With brilliant simplicity and clever use of lighting and materials. This is one reason why I like the Glimmerglass so much—they are clever!

How to stage a death by drowning? With brilliant simplicity and clever use of lighting and materials. This is one reason why I like the Glimmerglass so much—they are clever!

I believe Glimmerglass is one of my favorite places to enjoy opera in the United States. The opera house (built in 1987 but still looking new) is about eight miles (and another world) north of baseball-crazy Cooperstown: peaceful, easy, civilized. The Alice Busch Opera Theater is handsome and easily navigated, a tremendous relief for the seniors who may find other opera halls far less sensibly designed. The acoustics are wonderful, the seats are comfortable,  and the dedicated musicians, performers, and staging staff do a great deal with a budget that would be a fraction of some big city companies. When the weather is hot, the exterior walls open up to cool the place down during intermission (how great it that?!).

Every summer, the  Glimmerglass Festival produces three operas and one musical. This year, I missed “Carousel” (the musical), almost managed “Madame Butterfly,” and “Ariadne in Naxos.” Next year—I vow to make plans early—the bill will be “The Magic Flute,” “Macbeth,” “Candide,” and the far more obscure, “Cato in Utica” (by Vivaldi). And I learned a very important lesson: if you are planning to go to Glimmerglass, do not assume that it’s easy to arrange for a hotel room (unless you are working well ahead of the desired date). Tickets for next year are available now—and presumably, you can arrange for a room long before next season begins.

And in case you’re curious, the name Glimmerglass comes from a James Fennimore Cooper novel involving Lake Otsego. Cooper’s father founded the town that bears the family name. It’s a beautiful place, as lush and green and perfect as a summer’s day. I’m sure Grace was thinking the same thing when she and her husband-to-be floated out on July 11, 1906. Creepy enough that I almost drove up to Big Moose Lake to see what there was to see. But I thought better of it, and spent just a bit more time hanging around Lake Otsego, probably all for the best.

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Karin, Hard to Find

karin_forsideIn 1969, most people, even those who were following the progression from jazz to fusion, hadn’t yet heard the work of a British guitar player named John McLaughlin. That was the year that he recorded his first album, “Extrapolation.” At the time, it was wildly experimental, but as I listen to it in the background while writing this article, it’s really delightful, gentle, meditative, not at all explosive. McLaughlin is a gifted guitar player and composer. He shares the stage with an another young British musician, a man who plays the somewhat unusual combination of soprano and baritone sax. His name is John Surman. At the time, Surman was already recording on his own for the Deram label (later famous for Moody Blues LPs). As a guy who tended to read album liner notes, I probably made a mental note about how much I enjoyed Surman’s work, but that’s didn’t amount to much.

Jumping far forward in time, all the way to 1995, I was writing a book for Billboard about the story of jazz, told through about 500 of the best jazz CDs. I worked with every jazz label, and welcomed their suggestions. Some of the most intriguing jazz CDs came from a European label, ECM Records. The music on ECM differed from the work on other labels: it was sophisticated, experimental, as much a soundscape work of art as a record album. One of the most intriguing of the ECM recordings was made by the Nordic Quartet, led by John Surman. I’m listening to the first track, and I can easily understand why it caught and captured my attention. Surman and his electric guitar partner Terje Rypdal had so thoroughly updated the explorations of the “Extrapolation” era. Weaving through the first track, UnknownTraces, there is a deep female voice whose sound more closely resembles an instrument than an upfront vocalist—and she’s singing phrases that feel more like poetry than lyrics. She was not credited as a singer, but instead, as “voice.” Her name is Karin Krog.

By this time, I was very well organized, and my note about finding more Karin Krog music stayed with me for (yikes) nearly twenty years. I liked what I heard, but in time, I forgot where I heard her voice. I’d visit my favorite deep inventory record stores, and nobody had ever heard of her.

Over time, I continued to collect John Surman CDs, and loved most of them. (Note to myself: I need to update my Surman collection because all of the CDs I just fetched from the shelf pre-date 2003), but there was no mention of Karin Krog on any of them.

Krog_4_lresEarlier this year, late at night, I decided to do a Google Search on Karin Krog. Bingo! She released her first single in 1963! (Clearly, I have missed a very good story that spans lots of decades.) We connected, and she was kind enough to send a few CDs. While the package was in transit from Europe, I found an LP called “Some Other Spring” in a used record store, copyright 1970, by Karin Krog and the brilliant Dexter Gordon (with the equally formidable Kenny Drew on keyboards, Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen on bass—they were working together in a Copenhagen jazz club). I was impressed by the good company, but I was a initially disappointed because the magical soundscape I had so enjoyed on Nordic Quartet was absent here; then, I listened more carefully, and with more of an open mind, and began to understand her versatility (it was her plaintive version of Jobim’s “How Insensitive” that won me over). As the CDs were making their way to me, I explored the depth and breadth of a discography that includes dozens of albums.

The CDs arrived. I decided to listen in chronological order, so I started with what I now understand to be a work from the mid-1970s (fitting nicely into my story), an album called “Cloud Nine Blue.” Gosh, it’s rich! (The liner notes from the modern re-release mention something about remixing—completely unnecessary!). So here’s the incredible depth of John’s bass clarinet intermingled with lines of synthesizer and the siren qualities of Karin’s voice, accents and filagree from John’s soprano sax, a kind of avant-garde meets religious exaltation on “Eyeless in Movement,” no lyrics, just sonic expression, then a half-spoken, half-sung song from Karin. Gee, this is interesting music, the kind of work that makes a top-quality sound system worth the investment so each of the artists’ ideas are allowed to fully show themselves (listening on a lesser system is fine, but you’re missing half the show).

Karin-Krog-Oslo-CallingJumping to “Oslo Calling,” it’s now 2008. The execution is cleaner, more modern (heck, it’s more than thirty years later!), somewhat more traditional in its jazz arrangements. Karin’s voice has gained luster in the lower ranges, and boundless confidence. When a song is a soundscape, it’s slicker, less experimental, and I miss the freer thinking of the earlier work (but musicians must evolve, and the range of both John and Karin has been remarkable, over so many years). I especially enjoyed “Three Little Words,” a Kalmar-Ruby tune that’s been forgotten by too many performers—her interpretation is sassier than the others I’ve heard.

mr20_smallKarin_5_tbnOf the three CDs, the most interesting is also the most experimental, a cycle of songs originally composed for a 2010 jazz festival. It’s called “Songs About This and That,” and I like it because it recalls my earlier interest in their exuberant experimental side, but places it in a more artful, more carefully arranged setting. There is a sense of open time and space to explore, to allow for long lines, an ease with the maturation of Karin’s voice. On this CD, I think my favorite track may be “Cherry Tree Song” because the poetic lyrics wind so gracefully around John’s baritone sax and bass clarinet, a warm combination of electric guitar, vibraphone, and John’s bass recorder. In fact, I jotted down some other favorite tracks, and found the list was too long to manage, but I will mention the vibe solo that begins “Moonlight Song” and Karin’s waking-up voice, looking backward on memory. Wrapping up an article I’ve so enjoyed writing, I happened to notice that Karin’s credit on this CD is what it was so many years before, not “vocals” but simply, “voice.”

A lifetime of work. So much fun to discover, to listen attentively because there is so much to hear.Thanks, John, thanks, Karin. I want to hear more.

 

 

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