The Success of Smaller Cities

Traveling the world, I find myself drawn not the megapolis, but to the smaller cities where life seems so much more reasonable. The year 2018 included travel to Bulgaria, where I enjoyed Stara Zagora, an old place in the less-traveled center of the county, and in Slovenia, the charms of wandering around Ljubljana made me want to spend more time in sidewalk cafes along the old river bed. I really enjoyed my time in both Sheffield and Manchester, England, too.. And in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Certainly, the charms of London and Paris, and New York City (we’re exploring Brooklyn like tourists) are abundant, but there is something hopeful and forward-thinking about smaller cities that have found their way in the faster-paced, deeply complicated, economically confounding 21st century.

Given endless time and money, I would explore every small city I could, and maybe that’s what I’m doing. Along the way, I’ve become quite jealous of James and Deborah Fallows, who managed not only to do the trip by traveling in their own small plane, but also visiting about two dozen small cities and writing a popular new book about their adventures. It’s called Our Towns: A 100,000 Mile Journey into the Heart of America.

What have I learned from my travels? What did they learn from their travels? Did we learn any of the same things?

  • Most of these cities have a bona-fide downtown district where people shop, visit and hang out during the day, on weekends, and even at night. There are cafes, restaurants, retail open into the evening and sometimes later. I love finding the bookstore/cafe/bar that used to be a bank, the place where Tuesdays are open mic night, and people just sit around on comfy couches. One such place, the Book and Bar in Portsmouth, used to be a customs house and post office. It’s now open until midnight on Wednesday and Thursday nights, and until 1AM on Friday and Saturday nights. And it’s a great place to buy books. Food and drink are good, too.
  • They are very open to people from other places, and welcome these people as neighbors. Yes, this runs counter to the nationalist thinking that dominates the national conversation. Fallows: “Cities as different as Sioux Falls, Burlington (VT), and Fresno have gone to extraordinary lengths to assimilate refugees from recent wars. Greenville (SC)’s mayor asked us to listen for how many languages we heard spoken on the streets from residents or from visitors.
  • There is a research university nearby. Often, but not always. Why does this matter? The international students and faculty, which leads to international restaurants, and smart families demanding more from the community and local schools, too. This is usually tied to an appreciation of the importance of public libraries, children’s programs, and similarly positive activities and enterprises. In Manchester, there is a substantial university community. Ditto for Rochester, NY, which struggles with a proper downtown (it faded away in the 1970s, and never returned), but benefits from several neighborhoods that may qualify because of the restaurant, music, club and other activities nearly every night of the week. In this category, I would probably add a good independent film theater that sometimes shows foreign films, and, a good vinyl record store (or, several good vintage clothing shops, I guess).
  • And a good community college, too. In the words of the Fallows: “Not every city can have a research university. Any ambitious one can have a community college…Just about every other world-historical trend is pushing the United States (and other countries) toward a less equal, more polarized existence: labor replacing technology, globalized trade, self-segregated residential housing patterns, and the American practice of unequal district-based funding for public schools. Community colleges are the main exception, potentially offering a a connection to higher-wage technical jobs for people who might otherwise be left with no job or one at minimum wage. East Mississippi Community College has taken people from welfare and prepared them for jobs in nearby factories that pay twice as much as local median household income. Fresno City College works with tech firms and California State University, to train the children of farmworker families (among others) for higher-tech agribusiness jobs…we saw a number of such schools that were clearly forces in the right direction. The more often and the more specifically people talk about their community college, the better we ended up feeling about the direction of that town.”
  • They support several innovative schools. The specific approach or content associated with innovation seems to matter less than the imagination and bold decisions that make the school possible and allow it to thrive. It may be a specialty in technology, or mental health, or a maker culture, or it may celebrate the richness of local traditions, or global competence. The important idea here is the willingness of the community to take the time and the initiative to understand its responsibilities to the next generations, and to play an active role in their education. The Fallows celebrate “the intensity of experimentation.” As I spend time in schools throughout the world, the ones that stand out are the ones that want to stand out. For them, there is no crisis in education. There is opportunity and often success–accompanied by tremendous community involvement and authentic civic pride. You can see it on the children’s faces, you can easily observe it by watching behavior in the hallways and listening to the chatter, and, almost always, you can measure it (even with the over-the-top evaluation tools that many schools must use, regardless of their relevance to the ultimate goal of raising empowered kids).
  • People share a common mythology, and most people tell the same story about their town. I first noticed this in Bulgaria–every school child knew all seven of their city’s previous names (Bulgaria has been ruled by the Turkish and other peoples for a very long time). They know the history. They use the same words and phrases to describe what is meaningful and beautiful. It’s a delightful sort of local propaganda, but it certainly builds unity and identity in a way that feels authentic. I saw this in Ljubljana, in Manchester, and in so many other places. Big city folks may treat these stories with skepticism as they point out inconsistencies and ironies, but these local belief systems are very important, and often guide small cities to do the right thing.
  • National politics is over-rated, overwrought, and less interesting on a local level than national news would have us believe. In this country, coverage of ordinary people is lackluster and spotty. When you spend time in a cafe, or another public setting, you find good and decent people who care about one another and about their communities. They are concerned about what’s happening in the nation’s capital (I visited Whitesburg, Kentucky on the day of the Kavanaugh hearings, and that was a concern, but hardly the overriding concern of the day).
  • A small number of people “make this town go.” They may or may not be politically ambitious. They may be educators, or religious leaders, or people in the community who care. So they build fire department buildings, make sure the hospitals are well-funded, and help people in need. They also make sure the community is engaged, and see one another at events that are both fun and meaningful. I met some of these people. The Fallows met a lot of them. We both saw the same thing–and this is probably a small city phenomenon, more difficult to achieve and sustain in a larger city. Often, the strength of partnerships between private companies and public service providers is just plain normal–not special, so it doesn’t get much attention. But it works.
  •  They drink local craft beer. Increasingly, according to James Fallows, the local craft brewery and its popularity is a useful indicator of city pride and city progress. Not sure I agree because we’re now seeing remote ownership of these enterprises–maybe ten or fifteen years ago, he was right. And in the places where local beer in a local brewpub is owned by, managed by, and lovingly nurtured by local dreamers, he’s spot on. Me, I look for a local maker culture, a local music culture, a local food culture (farm to table, etc.), and anything resembling a new independent bookstore. I want to see the old city bar transformed into an extremely popular and fairly priced breakfast place where college students, day workers, and politicians all order muffins, pancakes, fresh juice and fresher coffee from the same blackboard menu. That’s the place I ate breakfast in Cumberland, Maryland, a city whose history was so captivating, I spend over $20 on a picture book about its history, even though my time as a visitor was under four hours.

Muffin and Friend, Cafe Mark, Cumberland, Maryland, USA

A Credible Faker–and A Future of Journalism

I’ve never been a fan of the term “fake news” because it over-simplifies the problem of poor instruction in critical thinking and media literacy. News stories have always been fabricated, and always constructed to persuade, disrupt, or otherwise confuse the audience or the reader. And honest journalism has long existed on the far side of the spectrum. Most of what’s in between is the mediocrity that describes most of the contents of a 24-hour news cycle.

It’s always been easy to print and publish truth or nonsense under an assumed or otherwise made-up identity. The now-esteemed Alexander Hamilton did it, and so did founding fathers James Madison and John Jay. In my early days of magazine writing, I sometimes wrote under an assumed name.

And, of course, we’ve been enjoying doctored photographs for a long time. If a friend cannot attend a wedding, he or she can be Photoshopped (a new verb?) into the image. We add sunrises and sunsets, make photographic models that much prettier, and so on. Many of us are now learning to do this with video as well. “I can’t believe my eyes” seems like a good way of thinking about what we see, especially on screens.

And that brings us to the fake news anchor, with the adjective fake referring not to the news itself, but to the anchor who is confidently delivering information as a kind of digital puppet (lots of connotations for puppet in that scenario). He can be programmed to read just about anything, from any source, but he looks quite human and his delivery, which will only improve, is already pretty darned good.

Have a look. And consider the possibilities for teachers, professors, and politicians, all programmed to say what you, or somebody else, wants them to say.

Most Americans Won’t Vote Next Week–But You Can Change That!

In theory, Americans know a lot about how we elect our leaders. In practice, we may not. Returning to basics, here’s a quick rundown on what we need to know for Tuesday.

I’m hoping you will forward this information to every American who may or may not vote in next week’s election:

  • We are voting for every seat in the U.S. House of Representatives (435 seats).
  • We are voting for 1 in 3 seats in the U.S. Senate (35 of 100 seats).
  • We are voting for 2 in 3 state governors (36 of 50 governors).

Clearly, this is not a minor election. At best, about half of Americans will vote, and half will not. However, voters are not equally distributed among age groups (these numbers are based upon the actual results of the most recent mid-term election, in 2014):

  • 1 in 2 voters over age 60+ did not vote
  • 2 in 3 voters age 30-44 did not vote
  • 5 in 6 voters age 18-29 did not vote

If you care deeply about the future of the United States, your job is straightforward and simple.

Pass this blog post along to everyone you know, and ask them to please vote in this election. This goes double for people who are in the 60s, 70s, 80s or 90s, triple for those in their 30s and 40s–but the most important thing you can do is to motivate people under 30 years to set the course of the nation for the next 2 years or more.

Please share.

 

Source of voting info: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2018/08/01/are-young-voters-going-to-sway-the-midterms-new-data-show-thats-not-very-likely/?utm_term=.62c73e888ecf

Begin with a Single Step

“Hiking in the tropics is not everyone’s cup of mango juice. Here, humidity, sweat, jungles, mud, mosquitoes, and the possibility of meeting creatures ranging from jaguars to the venomous fer-de-lance viper are all part of the fun of attempting to cross Panama from its border with Colombia to its border with Costa Rica.” – TransPanama Trail, Panama

“Wallabies hop through the tall grass. A burrawong grasps a backpack zipper in his beak and starts to undo it. A snake slithers by: there’s a 100 percent chance it’s venomous.” — Overland Track, Australia

“It would not be an exaggeration to say that recreational mountain hiking was born in the Alps. Once the shroud of medieval superstition was lifted, the mountains exerted an almost magical pull on scientists and adventurers alike…. Some of the routes and passes have been used as corridors of transportation since the Middle ages, and even before, when they allowed people from one valley to cross over into the next.” — The Haute Route, France and Switzerland

“It is a network of trails, a funnel of routes that leads to the Cathedral…where a daily mass announces and celebrates the pilgrims who flow in, sometimes at a rate of thousands a day.” — Camino de Santiago de Compostela, Spain

“The view from Mackinnon Pass is certainly up there in ‘the finest walk in the world’ category. If, that is, you get a chance to see the snow-covered peaks and the hovering clouds that create their patchwork of light and shadow…Waist-high water flooding the trail and waterfalls blowing sideways may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but the sheer power of the experience eclipses so many others. It’s the kind of adventure that sticks with you, years later, when you are spinning stories and mining memories. — Milford Track, New Zealand

Maybe it’s possible to everywhere you want to go in a single lifetime. Certainly, there is no shortage of great walks, pleasant strolls, and world-class hikes at our disposal. Getting there costs money, and it’s not as if you can limit your adventure to a day (often a week, or a month, is insufficient), but most of the great hikes of the world are free. Some require reservations because the routes can become overloaded, but only during peak season, which, of course, varies depending upon where you are in the world.

Karen Berger is one of the lucky people–she has hiked nearly 20,000 miles “including thru-hikes of America’s triple crown (Appalachian, Pacific Crest and Continental Divide). And now, I think of myself as one of the lucky people, too (armchair division) because I’ve studied the pictures and read her inviting prose in a terrific not-quite-coffee-table book published with the American Hiking Society. It’s called Great Hiking Trails of the World–and I love the sub-title: “80 Trails, 75,000 Miles, 38 Countries, 6 Continents.”

More than two dozen of the hikes are in the United States (which is a bit disappointing because I would have liked to see more in South America, Africa, and Asia). There are nine in England, Scotland and Wales, and someday, I hope to walk at least a few of them. The dream is the walk from northern to southern Europe, just because the transverse looks kind of cool, but the most interesting candidate is probably the Pyrenees High Route, one of the few wilderness courses in Europe.

As much as I enjoyed reading what Karen wrote, it’s the photographs that draw me in. The book is about the size of a vinyl record album cover, and most of the images are full-page (or two-page spreads), so the flowery valley and the distant mountains and the thick clouds on Sweden’s Kungsleden are full of life, and the cliffs of the Wales Coast Path are very much as I remembered them in real life. That path will soon be connected with the England Coastal Path, and together they’ll keep a hiker busy for 3,670 miles. If you’re hiking 2 miles per hour, that’s 1,835 hours–basically, a full year’s walk should you decide to devote a year of your life to nothing but hiking. Most people are day hikers, perhaps devoting a few days or as much as a week to a really good walk. (In case you’re curious, The Appalachian Trail publishes historical stats on its website–long hikes are gaining popularity).

Overall, this is a wonderful book about adventure–but it’s accessible, enjoyable and easily appreciated by anyone who dreams of where they might go someday. For that reason, I’ll nominate Great Hiking Trails of the World as one of the best ideas for a holiday gift this year. Second best gift: take somebody on a really long, spectacular hike. Maybe next year.

Behold the Bookstore

“The store was often empty for a couple of hours at a time, and then, when somebody did come in, it would be to ask about a book remembered from the Sunday-school library, or a grandmother’s bookcase, or left behind twenty years ago in a foreign hotel. The title was usually forgotten, but the person would tell me the story….Then, they would leave without a glance at the riches around them….A few people did explain in gratitude, said what a glorious addition to the town. They would browse for a half an hour, an hour, before spending seventy-five cents.”

The words were written by Alice Munro and published in a novella called The Albanian Virgin” by the New Yorker magazine in 1994. They came to mind because Penelope Fitzgerald’s brief 1978 novel about an unwanted bookshop, The Bookshop, was recently released in as a film starring Emily Mortimer (familiar to US audiences from her role in Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom series).

Roaming around Manhattan yesterday, and wandering into a wonderful neighborhood shop called The Corner Bookstore on the Upper East Side. It was a pleasant place to spend an hour, and spend money on two books (one about architecture for me, one about birds as a gift). Perhaps pleasant is the wrong word. It was an irresistible place to spend an hour because the books were fetchingly arranged to capture my imagination.

The role of the contemporary bookstore isn’t very different from its role a century ago. It’s a fine place to explore ideas and stories, to examine the cover art and the typography, to physically handle the books and enjoy their new-ness. Certainly, Amazon has changed the plumbing, but the relationship between book and consumer, and book and reader, would be familiar to Dickens, or for that matter, Mao (who once was a bookseller).

I know that because of Jorge Carrión, who published a book last year called Bookshops: A Reader’s History, a product best enjoyed when and if purchased from a local bookseller. It’s fun to travel the world with Carrión, and to travel through history, too. There is no true beginning to the journey, but the author contemplates the importance of the great library at Alexandria as a kind of starting place for available collections of printed works. He’s unsure whether Librarie Kauffmann in Athens is still in business, but he tells the story anyway: it grew from a book stall selling second-hand goods, then became the center of thought, literacy and enlightenment for French speaking families, scholars, and intellectuals in Athens in the 20th century. He describes it as “one of those bookshops to get a stamp on your imaginary bookshop passport.”

William Thackery probably shopped at 1 Trinity Street in Cambridge, a site that has sold books for about 600 years, but necessarily to the public. In Krakow, there’s Matras, which used to be called Gebether and Wolf, and it dates back to the 1610, though not with an entirely continuous history. P&G Wells is probably the oldest bookstore in England–this Winchester shop can show you receipts dating back to 1729. Click on the picture to visit their modern website.

History is well-captured in this September 26, 1786 bit from Goethe, written in his journal published as Italian Journey:

“I had entered a bookshop which, in Italy, is a peculiar place. The books are all in stitched covers, and at any time of the day, you can find good company int he shop. Everyone who is in any way connected with literature–secular clergy, nobility, artists–drop in. You ask for a book, browse in it, or take part in a conversation as the occasional arises. There were about a half dozen people there when I entered, and when I asked for the work of Palladio, they all focused their attention on me. While the proprietor was looking for the book, they spoke highly of it and gave me all kinds of information about the original edition and the reprint. They were all acquainted with the work, and with the merits of the author.”

What fun–it’s easy to imagine finding myself in the very same situation.

There is now an assortment of books about bookstores on my home shelves. One illustrates favorite bookstore facades in pen-and-ink and watercolor. Another describes favorite booksellers with stories about the stores and the people who inhabit them. I haven’t started to list or photograph bookstores that happen along the way as I travel, but Aqua Alta in Venice would certainly deserve a mention because you can climb a pile of books for a look at the adjacent canal. Scrivener’s in Derbyshire is probably worth a trip to England just to browse a few tens of thousands of volumes, but that should probably be scheduled to coincide with a day or a week in Hay-en-Wye, in Wales, which is an entire town devoted to bookshops and things literary. It’s now one of several book towns around the world. And yes, there is a book about these book towns–I very nearly bought it yesterday at The Corner Bookstore–and for course it’s called Book Towns. Someday, because I am now reading far too many books and articles about books and the places where you can bu them–I will visit Argentina. That’s because Jorge Carrión, and others, have told me about a spectacular old movie theater that is now a bookstore called Ateneo. Between now and my visit, I will need to learn to read Spanish, but that won’t stop me from browsing.

Give the Gift of Power (and Light)

Sure, you could buy friends and family member an Amazon gift card, or a pair of gloves, but it’s fun to think beyond the obvious. Here’s a fresh idea:

Get a Yeti

Sure, Yeti has done an amazing job with their line of pricy coolers that now seem to be available in a great many retail stores. They’re terrific for camping trips, tailgating, and long car trips. However, that’s not the Yeti I mean. I suppose it might be interesting to give someone an abominable snowman, which is the origin of the term Yeti. What I mean is the kind of Yeti that’s made by Goal Zero, a company that specializes in portable power.

The front panel looks a bit complicated, but that’s because the Yeti does a lot of different things. Basically, you’re looking at a big battery that can power all sorts of things. Model 1000, which costs about $1,300, is new for this season. You charge the battery by either plugging it into an AC outlet (18 hours for a full charge), or attaching a set of solar panels, also made by Goal Zero, available separately (in a variety of sizes and capacities). When you need the power, you discharge the battery in a number of different ways: you can recharge a laptop computer more than fifteen times, or a mid-sized LCD television about a dozen times, or your smart phone more than fifty times, or any combination. On this particular model, there are two AC outlets for output, five USB slots, and a 12-volt (car charger), and more. The Yeti 1000 weighs about 40 pounds.

You can spend less money for a lighter, simpler Yeti: the 12-pound Model 150 costs about $200, and you can use it charge a laptop once or twice, or a smart phone about ten times. There is one AC output and there are two USB outlets. There are seven different models; if you are considering a purchase, aim higher than your current needs.

Go Smaller

When I traveled this summer, I insisted upon reliable portable power for my flashlight, tablet and smart phone, but I wasn’t about to carry a Yeti. Fortunately, Goal Zero offers a nifty small battery and charger that makes an ideal gift. No AC power, but the USB system is very well designed. I especially like the Venture 70 Recharger because it will charge a tablet once or twice, or a phone a half dozen times. And, it comes with a built-in (very bright) flashlight. The USB cables frame the device and never get lost. You can charge the device via an AC/USB combination overnight. The Venture 70 costs $150, and you can add a Nomad 20 portable Solar Panel for another $200. The combination allows you to operate, and recharge, just about anywhere. A smaller version, the $99 Venture 30, can be purchased as part of a pre-packaged kit.

For the car

I’ve got my eyes on a combination flashlight, solar panel and floodlight called the Goal Zero Torch 250. I feel more secure because the light can be lit by hand crank, an increasingly popular option for flashlights used in vehicles (crank it for a minute and get two minutes of light). I like the built-in solar panel: it’s modest, and it requires 24 hours of sunlight to fully charge. This clever, well-built device is priced right at $80.

Get a Flashlight

If you haven’t shopped for a flashlight in a while, you may be surprised. I was. Today’s flashlights are high-tech, high power devices that cost $100 or more–and provide a remarkable amount of light. I’ve had good luck with LEDLenser, a German company now controlled by Oregon-based Leatherman, which makes pocket multi-tools. I especially like the model P7-2, which costs $70. It operates on three AAA batteries, and if you press the special button, it will provide 320 lumens–a great deal of light if you are, for example, walking a dog at night. It’s small enough to fit into your hand, or into a purse (or a man bag). I tried some of LEDLenser’s lesser lights because they’re smaller, lighter and less expensive, but I’ve come back around to the P7.2. There are options for flashlights that operate with button batteries, and also flashlights that can be recharged via USB. Lots of options here.

LEDLenser competes in a crowded field, but I like their products and I prefer shopping on their website. Nitecore and Fenix are among the quality competitors. And if you would like to do some serious research about innovative flashlights and features, here’s the place to go.

The Other Sam (The Record Man)

For many years, the very best place on planet earth to shop for LPs (or, if you prefer, records), was Yonge Street in Toronto, Canada. As it happens, Yonge (pronounced “Young”) is one of the world’s longest streets, but that’s not why I visited as often as possible. There were two very large record stores on Yonge Street around Gould and Dundas Streets — A&A Records, and my multi-floor, multi-building favorite, the flagship store for what became a 140-store chain, Sam the Record Man. The stores are long gone. And that’s why I was so surprised to see an advertisement on the mobile phone provided by my hotel in Hong Kong–an advertisement that encouraged me to visit–who else?–Sam the Record Man in Hong Kong. My curiosity got the better of me, so I devoted an afternoon abroad to unravel the mystery.

I found Sam’s place in the Causeway Bay neighborhood, a few blocks from the very large and modern Times Square mall (which, of course, has nothing whatsoever to do with NYC’s Times Square). But this version of Sam’s was not a giant record store at all. It wasn’t even a storefront. It was located on the fifth floor of a nondescript old office building, and Sam is not Sam at all. His name is James Tang. And he is a very smart guy who cares a lot about recorded music. That’s why he opened what may be the world’s first record museum.

And no, I didn’t understand what that means, either. Briefly, here’s the theory. Just as the original version of, say, Leonardo DaVinci’s Mona Lisa, or Vincent Van Gogh’s The Starry Night are available for public inspection at museums, so too should be the original versions of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, or Carlos Kleiber’s recordings of Beethoven’s Symphonies 5 and 7 with the Vienna Philharmonic (which many critics include on their top ten list of all time best). But these master tapes are not available to the general public–decades after they were created, they are locked away in the vaults of large corporations. Sam/James believes that’s the wrong thing to do. But that’s the just the beginning.

After some tea and conversation, he asked me if I’d like to listen to some music. I never say no to that type of offer. So we begin to listen to “Strawberry Fields Forever” and it sounds just wonderful. Better than any recording of the song I have ever heard, and not by a small margin. He explains that I am listening to a studio master tape. Voices are alive, instruments sound instinctively right, the mix holds each sound in its own distinctive space. In short, I feel as though I am in the studio with The Beatles.

He then asks me to listen to another rendition of the same recording. This time, I’m listening to a very clean vinyl copy, but it doesn’t sound nearly as good as the first recording. We go through various renditions, one on reel-to-reel tape, another on cassette tape, and more. We keep returning to the master tape, and there is no question that these renditions sound very different from one another. Then, we try some classical music, some jazz, and other pieces. The effect is more and less pronounced, but the pattern is clear, and I am absolutely certain that the differences are profound. But why?

He offers what I believe to be a very good explanation. First, he explains why the tape recordings sound better than the records or CDs. James shows me the first of several charts.

From the start, James explains that the ratings are completely subjective, but the more I listen, the more I respect both his ability to appreciate sound quality and his ability to place a reasonable numerical rating to describe the experience. Pegging the master at 100 percent, the reel-to-reel version sounded excellent, but the master sounded better. I experienced something similar when listening to the ultra-high-end systems, powered by the best professional reel-to-reel recorders with second generation master tapes (the original are in a private vault) at VPI, maker of superior turntables. And, despite my misgivings, I had to agree that cassette tapes really did sound a lot better than the CDs (he rates them at 50-55% vs. 30%; I cannot rate my experiences with this level of precision, but the difference was profound).

Where does vinyl fit into the matrix? Yeah, there’s a problem with vinyl. You see, vinyl is not struck from a master tape. Instead, the master tape goes through several steps before a consumer LP becomes available.

The process begins with the master tape, but the metal stamper used to make the vinyl record is already second generation (“grandson” to the master tape), and the first pressing of the consumer record is the third generation, or great grandson. To James’s ears, you’re hearing less than half of the sound, and sound quality, that you would hear on the master tape. And that’s with a first pressing, under ideal conditions, listening to product from a record label that took the time and spent the money to get things right. Of course, most record companies don’t, or did not, lavish so much attention, which is why even the best used vinyl recordings from the golden age (say, 1960s and early 1970s before the oil crisis) don’t score much more than a 40 percent.

How about newer vinyl? You know, 180 gram special pressings worth $30 or $40 or more? To James’s thinking–and I keep hearing this from others I respect–you are better off buying a used version of the original record. Or, much better, tracking down a collectible first pressing from one of the labels that did lavish the necessary attention (say, Japan Toshiba’s Red Vinyl line from 1958-1974), and you may be very pleased with what you hear (on a very good two-channel stereo system).

James does sell the very highest quality collectibles in his shop, and for some people, that’s just plain heaven. For the rest of us, James initially sounds like he has taken an interesting theory a bit too far, but then, you listen. First you listen to the music, then you listen to James, then you listen to the music again and begin to realize that what he says makes a whole lot of sense. And then you realize that two or three hours of your time in Hong Kong isn’t nearly enough because he is so hospitable, so passionate, and so much the believer that you become one, too.

I have not stopped wondering whether, somehow, it would be possible to listen to the master tapes of the recordings I love. Sure, I’m happy with my growing collection of vinyl (typically used, typically in very good shape, typically $4 or so per disc, typically pressed in the UK or Germany under the good to very conditions), but James insists that there is more enjoyment on those master tapes, and I am fairly certain that he’s right.

The question, which is, for him, a quest, is how to gain the opportunity to listen to those master tapes. He is one man fighting the good fight, but he’s not doing to do it alone.

If you visit Hong Kong, do contact James Tang and ask for a tour of his museum and a demonstration of what I heard. I believe you, too, will become a believer.

There is lots and lots and lots more on his website.

 

Reform School

The memory is hazy, but the term is familiar from childhood. Kids who behaved badly were threatened with reform school. I just read up on the term. Sure enough, it was a teacher’s idle threat—reform schools were popular beginning just before the Civil War, and mostly fell apart nearly a hundred years ago. Reform school was a place to send incorrigible boys while keeping them out a adult prisons, where they were abused, transformed into criminals, and often, both.

“Reform school” is one of the few English phrases that might be a tesseract—a multidimensional geometric shape (square is to cube as cube is to tesseract). When the word “reform” is used as a verb, not an adjective, it leads the way to the school reform.

We can flip that term on its head, too. Like reform school, public schooling is an ingenious idea born of a far away period when families were in need of literacy, and citified behavior. Learn to read, write, speak and behave properly, and, odds were, you would find worthwhile, long term employment and economic success.

Looking at the term today, school reform feels anachronistic. Henry Ford’s comment about faster horses comes to mind (“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses”), even though he never said or wrote those words. We accept school as a permanent institution because we cannot imagine a better modern solution. What else would we do with 50-55 million kids every day? Our economic system is now based upon parents who, by and large, work every day to support increasingly expensive lives. So we think in terms of constantly improving, perhaps even reforming (that is, re-forming, or forming in a new way) our schools.

Perhaps the phrase, and the concept, or reformed schools are too limiting. Perhaps the generation of children and teenagers are as diverse in their interests as they are in their heritage. Perhaps their insistence upon trusting the video and social media on their cell phones is, in fact, a very powerful tool for customized learning.

Perhaps children and teenagers have already bypassed their concerned parents’ desire or need to reform school. Instead, many are already pursuing the divergent, often disruptive, path to learning on their own. Or, perhaps, reformation into classrooms with rows of permanent desks, all eyes on the teacher in the front of the room, really is the best way to train young minds.

Or should we be concerned, instead, with learning reform, or, more clearly, learning reorganized, recontextualized, re-formed, or just plain reformed? How might that look? Would we move from the well-intentioned IEP to a celebration of well-organized self-directed learning?

How does any of that marry the once all powerful needs of industry? Or is everything just moving too darned fast for those needs to matter in a world where digital changes everything much faster than contemporary educators can teach? Are students reforming the beliefs, knowledge and understanding in their minds with a reformulated version of a teacher? Perhaps the key is teacher reform?

Finally, there are the strange bedfellows, curiosity and education. The former is associated independent thinking—parents encourage children to “think for yourself.” The latter is concerned with consistent results for the good of society—teachers encourage children to “learn the curriculum” which allows limited opportunity and encouragement for individual thinking, self-expression, divergent paths, and imagination. We certainly need to regenerate the curiosity and creative thinking that becomes lost in so many students, so many children, as the education system helps them to mature. In short, we ought to re-form or reconstitute curiosity in every grade and in every way. So we might be attempting to reform curiosity, and maybe that’s wise because reforming education sounds like something that might be impossible to do because school boards, principals, teachers and other educators are not trained to think or behave as reformers in any sense of the term.

Reform school? Sure, but let’s not spend all of our intellectual capital on a movement that digital transformation will eradicate with or without our help. Reform learning? Sure, and if we don’t get to it soon, Google will take care of the problem for us, or a Facebook might. And, in any case, kids are already reforming learning, on a massive scale, without adult supervision. Reform the teachers? Their own political solidity may assure the demise of a once noble profession. Reform education? Read your Clayton Christensen—this is an industry ripe for a massive disruption because the incremental variety almost always leads to a forgotten enterprise. Re-form curiosity? You bet! Encourage students to pursue their own paths, albeit in an organized way! Sounds good. Also sounds like, well, like college on a very good day.

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Above, John Dewey, who was doing a lot of writing and thinking about these ideas long before I was born. He wasn’t the only one, of course, and there have been many since, but some of Dewey’s ideas continue to resonate. From PBS: “To Dewey, the central ethical imperative in education was democracy. Every school, as he wrote in The School and Society, must become “an embryonic community life, active with types of occupations that reflect the life of the larger society and permeated throughout with the spirit of art, history and science. When the school introduces and trains each child of society into membership within such a little community, saturating him with the spirit of service, and providing him with instruments of effective self-direction, we shall have the deepest and best guarantee of a larger society which is worthy, lovely and harmonious.”

The Future of Television (in Black & White)

9-14-17 NYer

As reported in a magazine that will soon celebrate its 100th birthday.

The Respect She Deserves

Perhaps it was just a whimsical idea that takes shape on vacation, when the mind is free, the ocean breeze is blowing, and a violin shop appears out of nowhere. Or maybe I really will learn to play the violin. Without any musical experience or proper knowledge, I wandered into the shop and asked a few silly questions about buying a proper violin and learning to play. The shopkeeper, who also fixes violins and other stringed instruments in a workshop above the store, was patient with me, and suggested that I read a book to learn more. He recommended a book. I bought it, read it, and found myself not much smarter than before. I put the thought of a violin aside, then focused on where we might eat dinner that night.

Exhausted from far too much driving, we completed the next day’s drive with a visit to a favorite bookstore. And there, nearly forgotten on a bottom shelf, was hardcover book with an illustration of a violin on the cover. It was not a how-to-play or how-to-buy book, but some sort of story that combined music, science, and biography. It was late, I was toting a basketful of books, and tossed American Luthier onto the pile. (And recalled that a luthier made guitars, but I was not so sure they also made violins. They do.) The subtitle was appealing: “The Art & Science of the Violin”–this was more the book I had in mind. The author is Quincy Whitney, formerly of the Boston Globe. The subject of the book: the extraordinary work of Carleen Hutchins, an extraordinary scientist and craftsperson who did nothing less than reinvent the violin (and, along the way, a family of eight violin-like instruments, including one of the coolest upright string basses the world has ever known).

From the start, it’s clear that Ms. Hutchins is an extraordinary human being. She begins as a most curious child, then a teen who can build all sorts of things, then finds her way first into science as the kind of teacher who keeps a menagerie and a small farm in her classroom, then meets the right person at the right time and begins to play the viola, then decides she’ll build one. (Her whole life is like that.)

Well, the violins we know, the ones that are played by nearly all classical violinists and nearly all contemporary fiddlers, are all based upon designs developed in the 1550s by Andrea Amati. Two generations later, grandson Niccolo Amati continued the family tradition, but lost his kin in the plague. He taught two apprentices whose work continues to define the contemporary design of violins. Both are revered: Guarneri and, of course, Stradivari. When the latter died in 1727, the art, science and craftsmanship associated with Cremona violin-making was nearly lost, but two hundred years later, a new violin-making school was begun, apparently initiated in a fit of nationalism by Benito Mussolini in 1937. Stradivari made over a thousand violins, and half of them survive.

For hundreds of years, the violin has been a standard instrument for classical musicians, and, of course, for chamber groups, chamber orchestras and symphony orchestras. The past is revered, the classic instruments are revered, and the tradition is revered. But Carleen Hutchins asked the obvious question: was it possible to improve upon a design that was five hundred years old? Working initially as a craftsperson–always in her kitchen (her home in Montclair, NJ was always her workshop)–she developed a deep understanding of the science of acoustics and surrounded herself with friends who played in chamber groups. She learned to solve problems by testing (her basement was elaborately soundproofed to allow for extremely careful measurement in the wee hours when traffic and other sounds in her suburban neighborhood were least obtrusive), then by tinkering, making the tiniest adjustments by reshaping the fine contours of the plates, sound post, and other component parts. What began with an improved viola became a family of eight violins, each one sensibly placed within a range that would be familiar as soprano, alto, tenor, contrabass, etc. What began as a personal curiosity found itself on the cover of Scientific American magazine (1962, 1981), and also, the cover of the New Yorker (1989).

A violin is not invented or perfected in a moment. It must be played, enjoyed, improved, adjusted, and sometimes, rebuilt, often over years, decades or centuries. In fact, many high quality violins are antiques that been rebuilt and rebuilt so often that little of their original material remains. Still, this is the way the culture has evolved. And that culture is not especially welcoming to an inventor with a better mousetrap. That’s why so many of Hutchins’ instruments ended up in musical instrument museums, and so few have been heard on stage in performance. Happily, there is the Hutchins Consort, and they perform on Dr. Hutchins’ instruments. You can also watch some video, however limited, including part of a documentary in progress called Second Fiddle.

For the moment, my interest in the art and science of violin is sated. Author Quincy Whitney did a terrific job in telling a complicated story about art, science, music, social trends–I devoured the book in less than 36 hours. Will my path lead to learning the violin? For the moment, I’m curious but undecided, but much smarter than I was on Saturday afternoon before the book found me.

 

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