Why is it so hard?

We may be stuck forever trying to appreciate the voice of Marian Anderson or Caruso through noisy, wobbly recordings. But for piano masters of the past there is, in theory, a remedy.

A human voice carries a continuous range of subtle inflection, tone color, intonation and volume from one moment to the next.  A clarinet or violin voice is able to express with just as much control and continuity.  But a piano sound, in theory, can be simply represented.  For each note there are just three numbers (1) the time of the attack, (2) the velocity of the hammer when it strikes the string, and (3) the time of the release (when the damper falls back to the string, stopping the sound).  If a typical 4-minute piano piece has 2,000 notes in it, then any performance with all its subtlety should be completely captured in a computer file of just 6,000 numbers.  For comparison, an mp3 file of this 4-minute performance might contain a million numbers.

Zenph is a company that has tried to take this idea and run with it.  There are many thousands of scratchy, noisy old mono recordings of the great pianists of the 20th Century - Prokofiev, Rachmaninoff, Rubenstein, Dohnanyi.  With computer analysis of the sound, it should be possible to extract from these recordings the times and velocity for each note, and to play them back on a modern Diskclavier, exactly as the original artist had performed them. A recording can be made of a 1920 performance, perfectly recreated in a modern sound studio.

The results are pretty good — but not perfect.  When I read Edward Rothstein’s review in the NYTimes, I thought his complaints must be at a finer level of nuance than I was capable of hearing.  But no — he’s correct.  There’s still something missing in the original pianist’s artistry that is not captured in these recordings.  Rothstein suggests that it is the feedback between artist and acoustic environment that is missing: every competent pianist — let a lone a master — continually adjusts his pressure on the key based on what he hears.  He automatically plays a piano more lightly when it is too loud, and shortens notes if the instrument and room are too resonant.  Could it be that this is what we are missing?

Watch Joshua Bell on YouTube, accompanied by ‘Rachmaninoff’

1 August 2011

Primary Wonder

Days pass when I forget the mystery.
Problems insoluble and problems offering
their own ignored solutions
jostle for my attention, they crowd its antechamber
along with a host of diversions, my courtiers, wearing
their colored clothes; cap and bells.
And then
once more the quiet mystery
is present to me, the throng’s clamor
recedes: the mystery
that there is anything, anything at all,
let alone cosmos, joy, memory, everything,
rather than void: and that, O Lord,
Creator, Hallowed One, You still,
hour by hour sustain it.

~ Denise Levertov

2 August 2011

Le premier qui, ayant enclos un terrain, s’avisa de dire: Ceci est à moi, et trouva des gens assez simples pour le croire, fut le vrai fondateur de la société civile. Que de crimes, de guerres, de meurtres, que de misères et d’horreurs n’eût point épargnés au genre humain celui qui, arrachant les pieux ou comblant le fossé, eût crié à ses semblables: Gardez-vous d’écouter cet imposteur; vous êtes perdus, si vous oubliez que les fruits sont à tous, et que la terre n’est à personne.

The first man who, having enclosed a piece of ground, bethought himself of saying: This is mine, and found people simple enough to believe him, was the real founder of civil society. From how many crimes, wars, and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not any one have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes, or filling up the ditch, and crying to his fellows: Beware of listening to this imposter; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody.

— Jean-Jacques Rousseau

3 August 2011

Holding for takeoff - turtles on the runway

On June 29, more than 150 diamondback terrapins scuttled across Runway No. 4 [at JFK airport], delaying landings, halting takeoffs, foiling air traffic controllers, crippling timetables and snarling traffic for hours...

The myth of our sprawly, paved-over cities and towns is that we’ve driven native animals out and stolen their habitat. Not entirely true. We may drain the marshes, level forests and replace meadows with malls, exiling some animals. But, because we also need nature, we create a new ecology that happens to be very hospitable to wild animals. In some ways, it’s more inviting than wilderness. We install ponds, lawns, groves of edible trees. We leave garbage on the curb and design flowerbeds that are well-watered and well-fed, serving a smorgasbord of delicacies.

We can’t help ourselves; we evolved to feel part of nature’s web.

— from an Op-ed by Diane Ackerman
NYTimes news article from June

4 August 2011

The Real Work

It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,

and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.

The mind that is not baffled is not employed.

The impeded stream is the one that sings.

~ Wendell Berry, 77 years old today

To be sane in a mad time is bad for the brain, worse for the heart. - WB

5 August 2011

The Fifth Precept

Do not accumulate wealth while millions are hungry. Do not take as the aim of your life fame, profit, wealth, or sensual pleasure. Live simply and share time, energy, and material resources with those who are in need.
Thich Nhat Hahn

This is an area of my life in which I have little clarity and much ambivalence.  I have a sense that not all the confusion is my own, because the rules and social organization around wealth in America are not conducive to peace of mind, and they complicate the cultivation of personal virtues. I give you Thich’s words without comment, and invite you to write and share stories of what has worked for you.

All of Thich’s precepts have the potential to be all-consuming if they are taken literally, but I don’t believe that they were written simply to hold out an unattainable ideal.

6 August 2011

The limits of reason

Does reason possess innate validity, or is it merely a human faculty among others, evolved for its usefulness in a historic domain of experience? What gives us confidence that correct reasoning about the world will lead to correct conclusions?

The story of science is that we have sought to apply our intelligence far outside the realm in which it was evolved to function, and it has served us unaccountably well. This has encouraged us to extend its application yet further, and well we might do so, full of hope and optimism until that day on which its limits become all too obvious.  At that point we may be glad that we have simultaneously nurtured within ourselves an appreciation of mystery.

— Josh Mitteldorf

7 August 2011

‘A man’s thoughts is like the winds, and nobody can’t answer for ’em for certain, any length of time together.’
— Charles Dickens, speaking through the character of Captain Cuttle, (Dombey & Son)

Quite often we find ourselves with many negative thoughts going through our mind. These trains of thoughts can become very powerful as we endlessly repeat them in our mind. The problem is that that the more we focus on the thoughts, the more powerful they become. Therefore, it can become very difficult to stop these endless cycles of thoughts.

However, it is definitely possible and these are a few tips to control our thoughts.

1. Make a conscious decision to Stop the thoughts
2. Look upon the Thoughts as being Outside of yourself.
3. Who is it who listens to thoughts?
         This is a technique to try and discover the origination of your thoughts. Whenever a
         thought appears, just ask yourself, who is it who is thinking this? What we do is to try
         and discover the source of thoughts.
4. Catch thoughts as soon as they appear.
5. Concentrate on Something else.
6. Meditation
“The mind has its own power, and right now this power is stronger than your present
         eagerness and determination to meditate. But if you can get help from your heart, then
         gradually you will be able to control your mind. The heart, in turn, gets constant
         assistance from the soul, which is all light and all power.”

Sri Chinmoy

8 August 2011

“The People demand social justice.”

That’s the slogan, the chant of more than 300,000 people in dozens of sites across Israel. And just maybe, the State of Israel is now entering the third chapter of its history as independent.

Read more

9 August 2011

Adapted to take shark bites in stride

Dolphins have frequent encounters with sharks, it turns out, and they are well-adapted to recover from them.  They don’t lose much blood, they don’t suffer a great deal of pain, and their mauled and mangled bodies recover within weeks to smooth, un-scarred perfection. 

We associate this kind of ability to regenerate new and healthy tissue with axolotls and zebrafish; but here is a ‘higher’ animal that can recover quickly and fully from devastating injuries.

World Science article
Research article by Michal Zasloff

...meanwhile 61-year-old Diana Nyad has abandoned her 104-mile swim across the Caribbean after swimming ‘only’ 52 miles.

10 August 2011

Words for departure

Be together; eat, dance, despair,
Sleep, be threatened, endure.
You will know the way of that.

But at the end, be insolent;
Be absurd—strike the thing short off;
Be mad—only do not let talk
Wear the bloom from silence.

Louise Bogan, born this day in 1897 (Entire poem here)

11 August 2011

The Varieties of Secular Experience

I have a friend, an analytic philosopher and convinced atheist, who told me that she sometimes wakes in the middle of the night, anxiously turning over a series of ultimate questions: “How can it be that this world is the result of an accidental big bang? How could there be no design, no metaphysical purpose? Can it be that every life—beginning with my own, my husband’s, my child’s, and spreading outward—is cosmically irrelevant?” In the current intellectual climate, atheists are not supposed to have such thoughts. We are locked into our rival certainties—religiosity on one side, secularism on the other—and to confess to weakness on this order is like a registered Democrat wondering if she is really a Republican, or vice versa.

These are theological questions without theological answers, and, if the atheist is not supposed to entertain them, then, for slightly different reasons, neither is the religious believer...

— read more from James Wood, writing in the New Yorker this week

12 August 2011


We are all together, but walk like orphans.

César Vallejo

13 August 2011


40 years ago, Thomas Nagel responded in an essay The Absurd  to the thrust of the French Existential movement. Life’s absurdity is the passion and inventive energy with which we go about pursuing temporary escapes from our mortality, or following the dictates of a logic built on arbitrary premises.

Camus maintains in The Myth of Sisyphus that the absurd arises because the world fails to meet our demands for meaning. This suggests that the world might satisfy those demands if it were different. But now we can see that this is not the case. There does not appear to be any conceivable world (containing us) about which unsettlable doubts could not arise...

In other words, every conceivable world must be absurd.

This seems to me to be a failure of imagination. Would we feel life was meaningless if our minds were engaged with multiple others in a never-ending intellectual expansion, merger and discovery? Would we take time to worry about absurdity if life served us continual orgasmic pleasure? Would we complain about insubstantial logical foundations if our intuitive faculties were continually being trained and developed to sense new dimensions of reality and ever finer subtleties of existence?

Running a marathon is one of the most absurd endeavors commonly undertaken by members of our species, and yet marathon runners are seldom paralyzed by existential concerns.

My hypothesis is that people feel ennui or despair, and intellectualize it as “absurdity”, when they are not engaged in a vibrant community that puts their resources to use for the commonwealth, challenges individual strength and skills and demands that they stretch their intellects. Above all, we feel absurd when we feel alone.

So, let’s get to work building community.

— Josh Mitteldorf

14 August 2011

Song of a man who has come through

Not I, not I, but the wind that blows through me!
A fine wind is blowing the new direction of Time.
If only I let it bear me, carry me, if only it carry me!
If only I am sensitive, subtle, oh, delicate, a winged gift!
If only, most lovely of all, I yield myself and am borrowed
By the fine, fine, wind that takes its course through the chaos of the world
Like a fine, an exquisite chisel, a wedge-blade inserted;
If only I am keen and hard like the sheer tip of a wedge
Driven by invisible blows,
The rock will split, we shall come at the wonder, we shall find the Hesperides*.

Oh, for the wonder that bubbles into my soul,
I would be a good fountain, a good well-head,
Would blur no whisper, spoil no expression.

What is the knocking?
What is the knocking at the door in the night?
It is somebody wants to do us harm.

No, no, it is the three strange angels.
Admit them, admit them.

D. H. Lawrence

* The Hesperides are three nymphs who tend a sacred garden at the edge of the world in the West. Their garden has a tree that produces magical golden apples of immortality. The three nymphs are usually associated with night, the mystery and magic of night. They embody all that the imagination envisions at the precipice of existence, the edge of the world, the edge of the night, the edge of life and death. It would take a heroic journey just to reach their garden, but it might open us to wonders.

15 August 2011


Definition: an eruption of the sacred into everyday realms

(thanks to Wendy Babiak)

16 August 2011

Born on a mountain top

I would rather be beaten and be a man than to be elected and be a little puppy dog. I have always supported measures and principles and not men. I have acted fearless[ly] and independent and I never will regret my course. I would rather be politically buried than to be hypocritically immortalized.

Davy Crockett, born this day in 1785, was not re-elected to Congress after he opposed President Andrew Jackson’s program of “removing” Native Americans from lands that American settlers wished to colonize.

I leave this rule for others when I’m dead:
Be always sure you’re right, then go ahead!

17 August 2011

Computer searches for drug applications

‘Bringing a new drug to market typically takes about $1 billion, and many years of research and development,’ said Rochelle M. Long, Ph.D., who directs the NIH Pharmacogenomics Research Network. ‘If we can find ways to repurpose drugs that are already approved, we could improve treatments and save both time and money.’  

For the first time ever, scientists are using computers and genomic information to predict new uses for existing medicines.  They’re using a database of gene expression associated with various diseases, matching that against the gene expression profile in response to known medications.  Where the two are nearly complementary, there is a good chance a new use will be found for an old drug.

So far, Long and her team have produced some candidate uses for drugs that pan out in animal tests and petri dishes.  ‘This work is still at an early stage, but it is a promising proof of principle for a creative, fast and affordable approach to discovering new uses for drugs we already have in our therapeutic arsenal,’ Long said.

Article at PhysOrg

18 August 2011

George Enescu

born this day in 1881, composed passionate, mysterious sounds characteristic of Romanian folk music.

Listen to his student, Yehudi Menuhin, and Menuhin’s sister Hepzibah play the Violin Sonata #3, Op 25.

19 August 2011


May we reveal our abundance without shame.
May we peel back our sleeping wintery layers
like snakeskins, like the silk chrysalis,
like clothing cast off during love.
May we unravel with abandon like lovers’ knots
before knitting ourselves back to the heart.
May we settle into our own rhythms as tides do-
within the borders of the moon’s calling.
May the music of our souls
be accompanied by grand gestures
and the persistent clapping of hummingbirds’ wings.
May the milky fingers of the moon
reach down nightly to cherish and unveil us.
May we turn our bodies generously in its light
like tranquil fish glinting underwater,
like precious stones.
When we open our mouths to sing
may the seasons pause in their long journey
to listen and applaud.

— Lisa Colt

20 August 2011

The source of all that is

The Second Law of Thermodynamics says that any isolated system becomes more and more disordered over time, until the available energy spreads out and animates every particle therein with its equal share. This state of undistinguished uniformity is called ‘thermodynamic equilibrium.’

How can it be that the universe started out in thermodynamic equilibrium with a maximum entropy, and yet entropy has grown larger and larger as the universe expands? In fact, the process of creating new entropy (in a universe that started out having as much as it was possible to have) is responsible for everything that’s interesting in our universe: stars, galaxies, chemistry, life...

The topic may sound too esoteric for you to be interested, but it is, in the end, the subject that offers deep insights into what is, and suggestions about the long-term future.  Physicists can’t agree on how to apply thermodynamic ideas in the presence of gravity. (This was the subject of a famous bet between uber-physicists Stephen Hawking and Kip Thorne.) The essential issue (as this unter-physicist sees it) is that the science of thermodynamics was developed in the context where there is a fixed total amount of energy. This is, in fact, called the ‘First Law of Thermodynamics.’ But with gravity, you can get more and more energy, the closer things approach to each other. The expansion of the universe is continually creating opportunities for things to come (back) together and create new, usable energy for free.

If classical physics held sway, the amount of this energy source would be infinite. Once any body of mass collapsed under its own gravitation beyond a certain point, there would be no force that could resist its further collapse, down to a point of zero size, yielding an infinity of free energy in the process. But with the modified law of gravitation discovered by Einstein, the collapse is to a black hole of finite size, and the total energy released is enormous but finite.

What is the entropy of a black hole? Can the mass/energy tied up in a black hole ever escape? And if it ever does, does it retain any memory whatever of its history before it fell into the black hole? These questions have become subject for obsessive rumination and meticulous computation by the dazzling and increasingly isolated mind of Stephen Hawking.

— Josh Mitteldorf

21 August 2011

Habit and surprise

“We are creatures of habit...If we were not such creatures of habit as we are, we shouldn’t have reason to be astonished half so often...It’s this same habit that confirms some of us, who are capable of better things, in Lucifer’s own pride and stubbornness—that confirms and deepens others of us in villainy—more of us in indifference—that hardens us from day to day, according to the temper of our clay, like images, and leaves us as susceptible as images to new impressions and convictions...

“How will many things that are familiar, and quite matters of course to us now, look, when we come to see them from that new and distant point of view which we must all take up, one day or other? ”

— Mr. Morfin of Dombey & Son, speaking words put in his mouth by Charles Dickens

22 August 2011

Ten ways to love your body more

  1. Think of your body as a brilliant tool. Create an inventory of all the things you can do with this body (e.g., lift furniture, carry heavy groceries, hike, carry babies, remove a splinter with a needle...) Impressive, huh?
  2.  Inhabit your body as a source of pleasure. What do you enjoy doing? What gives this body joy? Put on those sneaks and go for a five-minute walk.
  3.  Imagine being a little more okay with yourself right now. Know that you have your own style, your own verve, your own beauty. There is no one else exactly like you.
  4.  Count your blessings, not your blemishes. I saw a man with no legs yesterday, just after whining that mine were too fat.
  5. Start saying to yourself, “Life is too short to waste my time and energy disliking my body.”
  6.  Beauty is only skin deep. The most physically beautiful folks are often the most unhappy. Your true nature, your essence is divinely gorgeous. Your soul has no wrinkles.
  7.  Dance, sweat, shake, twirl, spin and release those negative beliefs. Shout and feel gratitude for this body that gets to experience so much joy! Get ouf of your head and into your feet.
  8.  Get out in nature. It’s hard to be miserable when we are inhabiting our true selves. Your body craves moments as well as weeks in the outdoors. Nourish yourself with green living.
  9.  You are perfect, loveable, stunning. We spend our lives believing what we have been told years ago by people we would trust for street directions today. Don’t believe the lies.
  10.  If you had a year to live, how important would your body image and appearance be? Know anyone who is dead now? How much did you care what they weighed?

    Celebrate being alive; breathing, resting, laughing. Notice all that this body gifts to you. And if all this reads as nonsense to you, call me. I care and I will not allow you to torture yourself. (415) 820-3223

— Rachel Fleischman http://dancingyourbliss.com

23 August 2011

How to learn math

It is an oddly well-kept secret that mathematical learning is a very active process, and almost always involves a struggle with ideas. To a large extent, this is due to the nature of mathematical intuition: grasping a mathematical idea involves seeing it from multiple angles, understanding why it’s true in a broader context and understanding its connections with neighboring ideas. And so, when you sit down to read through a proof or the description of an idea, you rarely do justthat. Instead, digestion more often involves settling down with a pen and a piece of paper and interrogating the concept in front of you: “What is this statement saying? Can I translate it into something else? Can I find a simpler case that will help me gain insight into this general context? What about this makes it true? What would be the consequences if this statement were false? What contradictions would I encounter if I tried to disprove it?

... proving a mathematical statement or solving a problem is an unfolding of false sallies and blind alleys, of ideas that seem to work but fail in very particular ways, of realizing that you don’t understand a problem or a concept as well as you thought. And again, these are not wasted. In almost every case, if someone were to just give you a proof or a solution and you didn’t either try to come up with it first or actively interrogate it once you had it (which is almost the same thing), you’d learn that the statement was true, but learn very little about why it was true or what it meant for that statement to be true.

Mathematics is also a very pure example of the pleasures of intellectual play. Large branches of math emerge from someone writing down a few rules and seeing what they can construct within those rules, asking what manner of objects a set of rules gives rise to, what conceptual universe they call into being, and how the objects interact within that universe. It feels like frolicking in some fantastical Borgesian garden.

Read more from Rishidev Chaudhuri at 3QuarksDaily

24 August 2011

Wild and woolly

Punchy, wild and happy music, full of wit, humor and surprise.  As an old man, Bernstein just sits back and lets his orchestra conduct themselves in this playful work from his youth.

Listen to the Candide Overture by Leonard Bernstein, born this day in 1918.

25 August 2011

What the brain is capable of

The fact that special mental, artistic and musical abilities are often associated with birth defects and mental deficiencies indicates that genius may be innate, and a matter of focus more than special ability.  To underscore this point: some people have been known to acquire special musical abilities as a result of trauma to the brain. The following is from a 2004 Scientific American article.

Leslie Lemke is a musical virtuoso. At the age of 14 he played, flawlessly and without hesitation, Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 after hearing it for the first time while listening to a television movie several hours earlier. Lemke had never had a piano lesson--and he still has not had one. He is blind and developmentally disabled, and he has cerebral palsy. Lemke plays and sings thousands of pieces at concerts in the U.S. and abroad, and he improvises and composes as well.

Richard Wawro’s artwork is internationally renowned, collected by Margaret Thatcher and Pope John Paul II, among others. A London art professor was "thunderstruck" by the oil crayon drawings that Wawro did as a child, describing them as an "incredible phenomenon rendered with the precision of a mechanic and the vision of a poet." Wawro, who lives in Scotland, is autistic.

Kim Peek is a walking encyclopedia. He has memorized more than 7,600 books. He can recite the highways that go to each American city, town or county, along with the area and zip codes, television stations and telephone networks that serve them. Peek can identify most classical compositions and knows the date the music was published or first performed as well as the composer’s birthplace and dates of birth and death. He is also developmentally disabled and depends on his father for many of his basic daily needs...  Link

26 August 2011

at Google Books

The one true religion

To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty, which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their primitive forms—this knowledge, this feeling, is at the center of true religiousness.

— Albert Einstein

27 August 2011

Das Gemüt einer herzlosen Welt

Bliss is your birthright. God is within.
You have but to unmask your light, and
Your power is vast. Perfection is
In your grasp: You create your world.

Pain is delusion; delusion is pain.
And all who attend will know:
Unsatisfactoriness is in the mind.
Feelings pass from one moment to the next.
Insight is liberation from a harsh world.

Tormented by your boss, drowning in bills unpaid,
Unable to afford a doctor... Your remedy
Is within yourself, alone and apart.
Bankers are not robbing you blind.
Just ask your guru. Pay him generously.
Pay for this poem. Pay with your last dollar.
Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.

— Karl Rove

28 August 2011

Civil disobedience

Tim DeChristopher is a creative, thoughtful felon, whose crime was that he refused to apologize for his activism.  He has spent much of his young life educating himself and the public about the nation’s irresponsible profligacy with fossil fuels, and the global dangers of environmental devastation.  In a creative protest in 2008, he participated in bidding on a government auction of oil drilling rights.  His crime was that he had no intention of drilling, and therefore was acting deceptively.

The judge at his trial forbade him to tell the jury his motivation for acting as he did.  He was convicted last month and sent to prison for two years.  He has remained resolutely calm, principled and focused on public education, going into appeal.

29 August 2011

If Mozart were alive today

He’d be all over YouTube for sure.

Today, Emily Bear has 10 candles* on her cake.

* Plus one to grow on.

30 August 2011

Dazzle gradually

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant—
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise

As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind

— Emily Dickinson

31 August 2011

Queen of Hearts — Archive of past entries. Bullfrog Design