Why are classical music supporters obsessed with symphonies?

I was just reading this New Republic article about the financial crisis in US symphony orchestras, and it reminded me of a question that I’ve had for a very long time: Why do people who enjoy  classical music lavish so much attention on gigantic symphony orchestras? Symphony orchestras have gotten polished to an extraordinary perfection, and suck up vast amounts of public and private subsidy, but chamber music performances are few and far between. There’s nothing in the nature of this musical tradition that requires emphasising the repertoire for huge ensembles. To put it differently, rock music would also be in crisis if it depended on putting together ensembles of around 100 musicians that would play to audiences of several thousand. Of course, there are a few bands that play to stadium crowds, but most of the professional activity in the most popular music genres is in small venues, with a handful of musicians and little or no support staff.

The same might be said of music in the schools. Most high schools manage to organise a school orchestra, but there’s rarely much effort put into chamber music. There, at least, the economics make sense, since dozens of children can be supervised by a single orchestra leader. On the other hand, the learning value is greatly reduced as well.

Christmas Demography

Whereever I have lived in my adult life, the city has been extraordinarily quiet from Christmas to New Year’s — indeed, the quiet starts somewhat before Christmas. The natural explanation is that people go away for the holidays. (Students obviously do, but it’s far quieter than even at other times when students are on vacation.) The problem is, they must go somewhere, so it can’t be that every place empties out. (Obviously, some of the apparent quiet is simply the absence of traffic from people going to work, shopping, etc. When shops and restaurants close down in late December because of lack of customers it’s a bit self-fulfilling.) So why is it that I’m always in the places that people flee for the holidays?

A common pattern is that younger people with children travel to their parents, in their old home towns. In general, if there is a pattern of migration from some places X to other places Y, the sort of people who move around (like myself) will tend to be living at Y. At Christmas, then, the migration is temporarily reversed, and people travel from Y to X. For a brief time, Y empties out and X gets full.  (Even 2000 years ago Joseph and Mary had to go back to their home town for Christmas. And, as we know, the town was full up.) So, people like me notice that whereever they happen to be living is one of the places that empties out, because of the selection bias. People of my parents’ generation are generally living in places that take in visitors at Christmas, and so perhaps seem livelier than at other times of the year.

Plus ça change — post-feminist edition

One of the most useful nuggets of compressed wisdom that I absorbed from the humanities portion of my university education was an off-hand remark by a teaching assistant, Paul Leopold, that “each generation rejects its parents and rediscovers its grandparents.” Implicit was that the rediscovery is often unintentional and even unwitting. It’s just that there is very little scope for real novelty, so those who are both eager to be new will turn away from what is familiar, and can then hardly help — particularly if they think they are avoiding influence by remaining ignorant of the past — but recapitulate an earlier generation.

feminism survey

It has commonly been observed that many women who came of age in the late 1980s and 1990s, heirs to all the accomplishments of 1970s feminism, who take for granted that they are free to shape their own careers and relationships, reject the word “feminism”. They associate the word with sins of their mothers (even if not their own literal mothers), and identify with various sorts of vaguely defined “post-feminist” ideologies, if they are the sort of people inclined to care about ideologies rather than just living their lives. A recent survey of American women found that among women aged 30-44, only 32% identify themselves as feminists, barely more than in the oldest (pre-baby Boom) age group. Among women aged 45-64 feminism has 41% support; interestingly (and confirming Leopold’s dictum) support seems to have revived among the youngest women.

My impression, from occasional glances at journalism on the issue, is that women wish to separate themselves from the “feminist” label, which they associate with negative attitudes toward family, men, and sex, and a generally rigid view of life, and denial of femininity. This is supported by research finding that current undergraduates were most likely to associate a random feminist with the following adjectives: man-hating, lesbian, unhygienic, angry, behaves like a man, unattractive.

I was reminded by all this by a remark in the chapter on women’s issues in Dominic Sandbrook’s history of Britain in the early 1970s:

For most of the 1950s and 1960s, feminism was widely supposed to have disappeared… On the left, it was often seen as divisive, distracting, and self-indulgent… Even articulate outspoken young women like Shirlie Williams, the daughter of the pioneering women’s rights campaigner Vera Britain, rejected the “feminist” label, which was thought to belong to the lost age of the suffragists. “it was,” she said, “a matter of generations.”

And the young Sheila Rowbotham, who… later became one of Britain’s best-known feminist writers, thought that feminists were “shadowy figures in long, old-fashioned clothes, who were somehow connected with headmistresses, who said you shouldn’t wear high heels and makeup. It was all very prim and stiff, and mainly concerned with keeping you away from boys.”

So, right before what now appear as the glory days of militant feminism, a post-feminist malaise had already set in, rejecting the word “feminist” and what was perceived as the joyless feminism of an earlier generation. I suppose it’s cause for hope.

Who is Santa?

Do adults struggle to distinguish reality from fantasy?

Growing up in New York, and attending a Jewish primary school, I don’t have a very intimate relationship with Santa Claus. Of course, I knew the story — fat man, presents, chimneys, reindeer — from television, and from Rudolf the Red-nosed Reindeer, but it was more or less of a piece with the tooth fairy, Spiderman, and Mickey Mouse. That is, when you’re 7, you may have a heated discussion over the details of Spiderman’s backstory, and which other characters he knows (he may know Captain America; probably doesn’t know Santa or Mickey Mouse), and what he might do in the future, but that doesn’t mean he’s real, in the sense of inhabiting the same world that we do. Magical beings are something you play make-believe with, tell stories about, act out stories about.

(I remember when I was 3, my brother told me that there used to be a Santa Claus, but he was killed falling off a roof. I guess that did seem plausible to me at the time.)

What I only learned much later that for many (perhaps most?) in the US (and the UK, apparently) Santa Claus (Father Christmas) is a different sort of magical being. Children seem to genuinely believe he exists, and, even more strangely, adults seem to think it important to encourage them in that belief. It’s not just, “Let’s pretend on Christmas that a magical man comes and brings your gifts”, but “No, really. He really does come.” And making significant effort to prevent anyone from revealing the wicked truth. I was reading about a weird spat on American television, about an online article that suggested portraying Santa not as a white man, but as a penguin. The article was criticised on right-wing Fox News, but what I found most interesting was that the television reporter Megyn Kelly apparently began the discussion by announcing “By the way, for all you kids watching at home, Santa just is white but this person is just arguing that maybe we should also have a black Santa.” She was heavily criticised for prejudging the issue of the skin colour of a fictional character, but she was just following the prescribed line of pretending publicly (whenever children might be listening) that Santa Claus is real. Not “real” in the “let’s pretend” way that the child’s mudpie is really a cake. Really really real.

Continue reading “Who is Santa?”

On-street parking

Matthew Yglesias has given a pithy summary of the case against free on-street parking:

Obviously people who currently get to occupy valuable urban space with their private vehicles would like to keep that privilege. But by the same token, I’d love it for the city government to just give me a free car or stop charging me property tax. That doesn’t mean it would be a good idea. There may be an argument that 30 to 40 parking spaces for cars is a better use for a given piece of land than protected bicycle lanes, but “Waaaah, don’t affect my parking” is not a very persuasive argument. The streets are public spaces and they need to be used for public benefit, not just the benefit of whoever happens to own a car on the block.

This is even more of an issue here in Oxford, where people with private cars get to take up not only the streets, but also substantial portions of the already quite narrow sidewalks. (Yglesias was discussing the debate over installing a new bicycle lane in Washington DC. I’m not sure if it would be quite so contentious here, since — as I discussed here — drivers don’t hesitate to park in bicycle lanes, and so far as I can tell the enforcement is zero. See, for example, the photograph below, of a typical local cycle lane.) [Update 5 Oct, 2013: Not quite zero. I actually saw a car in the cycle lane with a fixed-penalty notice on the windscreen. So there.]

People clearly have ideas about things that by right and nature ought to be free. Perhaps because I don’t drive a car myself, I cannot imagine why parking spaces should be one of them, particularly not residents’ parking. To be sure, residents’ parking is not free here. It’s £50 a car — just enough to create a sense of entitlement among those who have paid for it, not enough to come anywhere close to covering the real costs of providing

It’s not at all clear why people have any more right to 6 square metres of public road to semi-permanently store their automobiles than I have to store my surplus books. I would not be permitted to set out a storage shed by the side of the road. (I suppose I could use an automobile as a storage facility — some people clearly do, at least in Berkeley — but I would at least need a driver’s license and a car that was sufficiently functional to be registered.)

Bicycle lane on Iffley Road
Bicycle lane on Iffley Road

Is bleating shrill?

Having taken on the controversial question of the significance of ascribing shrillness (shrillity? shrillth?) to ones opponents, I feel obliged to wade in on the pressing issue of “bleating”.

The occasion is an open letter by a group of British education experts, pointing out the well-established fact that the UK obsession with getting children learning arithmetic and reading at ever earlier ages — formal schooling starts at age 3 1/2 — is counterproductive, and that children would be better off with age-appropriate education. The education ministry has responded with an extraordinarily unprofessional (shrill, or perhaps “spittle-flecked” would be the vernacular description) ejaculation of mostly generic insults, including the charge that

We need a system that aims to prepare pupils to solve hard problems in calculus or be a poet or engineer – a system freed from the grip of those who bleat bogus pop-psychology about ‘self image’, which is an excuse for not teaching poor children how to add up.

I can’t fault the alliteration of “those who bleat bogus pop-psychology”, but what does it mean? It sounds like an insult, but I’m not sure what is insulting about it. Presumably it’s supposed to make you think of a flock of sheep, dumbly repeating some meaningless sounds. And, bleating is sort of a shrill sound, so maybe it also is meant to have effeminate overtones.

The term “pop-psychology” is interesting in this context. Given that the letter is signed by professors and senior lecturers in psychology and education, I have to assume that, right or wrong, what they’re talking about is real psychology, not “pop”.  So it’s interesting that the bureaucrats felt that they couldn’t take on the reputation of academic psychology directly, but only by insinuating that it is all just self-help pablum. (And is “bogus” a modifier of pop-psychology — to say, this isn’t even the top-drawer pop — or a redundant intensifier, as when one refers to “disingenuous government propaganda”?) Continue reading “Is bleating shrill?”

Richard Dawkins says child molestation is no longer acceptable

But it’s still not as bad as Catholicism.

Regular readers of this blog are already aware that Richard Dawkins thinks that, among the crimes perpetrated upon children by Catholic priests, sexual molestation is less bad than teaching religion. (The quote is here.) Now he has given an interview to the Times magazine (reported by Katie McDonough here) in which he describes a schoolteacher who “pulled me on his knee and put his hand inside my shorts”, and says this “mild touching up” and “mild pedophilia” is something he “can’t find it in me to condemn… by the same standards as I or anyone would today.” Being an expert on something or other, Dawkins opines that “I don’t think he did any of us any harm.”

Some of those school masters presumably also taught religion, but it’s sadly too late (by several centuries) to bring them to justice for that crime.

I find myself wondering why this man keeps coming back to publicly trivialising child abuse. Maybe the Bible can provide some insight.

Schools, socialisation, Socrates and circumcision

Another unusual juxtaposition. This one was inspired by a thought-provoking rant by Alison Benedikt at Slate, titled “If You Send Your Kid to Private School, You Are a Bad Person”. It’s a commendably forthright statement of an extreme position in an argument in which all sides usually beat wildly around every possible bush. (It’s not the most extreme possible position, which I take to be the position of the makers of this film. Benedikt specifically opposes even banning private schools.)

I have some sympathy for her argument, which can basically be summarised (I hope I’m doing it justice; the article is definitely worth reading in full) in two major points:

  1. Wealthy and well-educated parents have an obligation to all children, not just to their own. Keeping their children in state schools will induce them to apply their power and learning to improve those schools for everyone.
  2. As regards your own children, they’ll be all right even in a crappy school. You’ll make up for the deficits at home. And the crappy public school will teach them lessons about society and citizenship that they can’t get anywhere else.

I don’t think either of these statements are entirely wrong. But in arguing for point 2, Benedikt writes

I went K–12 to a terrible public school. My high school didn’t offer AP classes, and in four years, I only had to read one book. There wasn’t even soccer... I left home woefully unprepared for college, and without that preparation, I left college without having learned much there either. But guess what the horrible result is? I’m doing fine. I’m not saying it’s a good thing that I got a lame education. I’m saying that I survived it, and so will your child, who must endure having no AP calculus so that in 25 years there will be AP calculus for all…

Is the argument here that the economic game (or, at least, journalism) in America is so badly rigged, that a child of middle-class parents doesn’t actually need an education to get a decent job as a journalist. All she needs is a college degree, and there are plenty of institutions who will happy to hand her one, despite the fact that she arrived woefully unprepared, and left having learned almost nothing. Or is she exaggerating? Or is she an exceptional autodidact, whose experience doesn’t necessarily translate well to the vast majority of other children. Continue reading “Schools, socialisation, Socrates and circumcision”

On foot and cycle in Berkeley and Oxford

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Berkeley bicycle boulevard.
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Wide Berkeley sidewalk.

I’ve just returned from my sabbatical in Berkeley, and while I’ve written some harsh criticism of life in the US when it unfortunately intersects with the medical system, as long as you can stay healthy there are some conspicuous advantages to life in Berkeley. Particularly if you walk or ride a bicycle.

Some of it is no one’s fault: There’s obviously more space in Berkeley for wide sidewalks, and the crush of tourists on a few major boulevards, particularly in summer, is peculiar to Oxford. On the other hand, Oxford city council chooses to allow merchants to block half of the narrow pavement with advertising signs. Still, with the narrow, often one-way streets, Oxford is no paradise for drivers either.

And maybe that’s part of the reason why Oxford drivers are, there’s no way to prettify this, hateful toward non-drivers. (Presumably toward other drivers as well, but I haven’t had that experience.) Not all of them, of course, and not all the time, but enough to make cycling something I avoid when I have time to walk, and makes me feel on edge much of the time even when I’m walking. Berkeley drivers are sometimes thoughtless, of course, but the threatening incidents of recklessness still seem less frequent in Berkeley than the incidents of active aggression and rage in Oxford.

Cycle lanes are occasional and intermittent, and the average Oxford driver considers “cycle lane” to be just a fancy word for “free parking”. We don’t have as much of a problem with restaurants or constructions sites parking their dumpsters on the cycle lanes as they apparently have in Belfast, but here’s a cheeky comment on their difficulties.

I suspect that the better conditions in Berkeley are a good example of the civilising influence of the law. California law requires that drivers stop for pedestrians in any crosswalk, whether or not it is marked. And they do. Nearly always, except on high-speed highway-like urban roads, and even there if you make yourself conspicuous you’ll usually get someone to stop pretty quickly. This gets people into the habit of paying attention to slower travellers using the road, and frequently they’ll stop even when they are not required to, for instance, for pedestrians crossing in the middle of a block, or for cyclists on a cross-street.

In Oxford, as in all of England (I have been informed), cars are required to stop only at elaborately constructed official zebra-striped crosswalks with huge flashing lights overhead. Because of the elaborate construction these are rare, and even so are often ignored. And I can certainly count on the fingers of one hand the number of times in five years that any driver has stopped to let me cross the street as a pedestrian when it was not strictly required by law. It didn’t matter if it was snowing or pouring rain and I was out walking with a small child. In Berkeley I was more likely to be embarrassed by a car stopping for me to cross when I was merely loitering near to the crosswalk.

Obama to the American people: You’re beautiful when you’re angry!

Back in 2008 I remember being amused by the accusations of arrogance levelled at then-candidate Barack Obama. It seemed to me a mere expression of anti-intellectualism. Of course you don’t become a top politician, even within reach of the presidency, without being pathologically arrogant, but no one really wants a shrinking violet as president.

But the Republican He’s a smart, educated guy, and the Republicans think (I supposed) they can gain an advantage by playing to the common fear that any such person must hold the average citizen in contempt.

I must now admit to having experienced a failure of empathy. Only now, when I (and those like me) am the object of the great BO’s contempt, do I appreciate how peculiarly infuriating this man’s ego is. This idiosyncratic blend of openness and narrow-mindedness, his willingness to discuss anything with anyone, undertaken with the absolute self-assurance that his intellect already encompasses any argument we might make.

Basically, Obama tells the American people, “You’re beautiful when you’re angry”.

In his recent remarks on l’affaire Snowden, Barry said

And if you look at the reports — even the disclosures that Mr. Snowden has put forward — all the stories that have been written, what you’re not reading about is the government actually abusing these programs and listening in on people’s phone calls or inappropriately reading people’s emails. What you’re hearing about is the prospect that these could be abused. Now, part of the reason they’re not abused is because these checks are in place, and those abuses would be against the law and would be against the orders of the FISC.

Having said that, though, if you are outside of the intelligence community, if you are the ordinary person and you start seeing a bunch of headlines saying, U.S.-Big Brother looking down on you, collecting telephone records, et cetera, well, understandably, people would be concerned. I would be, too, if I wasn’t inside the government…

But people may have better ideas and people may want to jigger slightly sort of the balance between the information that we can get versus the incremental encroachments on privacy that if haven’t already taken place might take place in a future administration, or as technologies develop further….

And so those are the kinds of things that I’m looking forward to having a conversation about.

Speaking as one of those “ordinary persons”, I am disgusted by the president offering to start a “conversation” about what I and many others who have thought deeply about these matters consider to be already huge violations of our civil liberties, an injury to the rule of law, and laying the groundwork for the complete evacuation of democracy, with the caveat right up front that the only possible result could be “to jigger slightly sort of the balance”. Because Obama the Omniscient couldn’t possibly have gotten the whole policy wrong. He’s an (adjunct) constitutional scholar, ferchrissake!

He ridicules our concerns, because we’re not well informed like the people in the “intelligence community”, but he has been withholding the information, and taking extreme measures against anyone who tries to inform us.

But he loves having these heated conversations with us. We ordinary folks are so beautiful when we’re angry!