Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Monkeying Around

As I mentioned previously, my first Chinese novel reading project was 西遊記 Journey to the West (1592).  Attributed to 吳承恩 Wú Chéng'ēn, it is considered one of the four great classic novels of Chinese vernacular literature.  Serious Chinese literature was not to be written in Vernacular Chinese, or 白話 báihuà, which literally means clear speech, but in Classical Chinese, or 文言文 wényánwén.  Classical Chinese is to Vernacular Chinese what Classical Latin (e.g., what Virgil wrote in) was to Vulgar Latin, the ancestor of all the modern Romance languages like Spanish, French, and Italian.  That is to say, if you wanted to be taken seriously, you wrote in the Classical form, which was terse and dignified; if you wanted to reach the masses, you wrote in the Vernacular form, which was what the people spoke and could read—the literate people, at any rate.

Journey to the West is so famous, as a result, that there's almost no point in critically assessing it.  No critique takes place in a vacuum; it all relies on some aesthetic basis as a foundation.  In this case, though, Journey to the West is part of that foundation, so firmly that judging it is tantamount to judging Chinese literature as a whole.  I won't even bother.

It will suffice, instead, to give a general sense of the novel.  I don't have a firm handle on its character count, but it's probably in the neighborhood of half a million characters, which puts it firmly in the "lengthy epic" category.  It spans a hundred characters, and is a highly fictionalized account of the exploits of 唐玄奘 Táng Xuánzàng, known in Buddhist lore as Tripitaka, after the Buddhist scriptures that he went from China to India to gather.  In the novel, he is accompanied by three mythical creatures, the homely and sincere 沙悟淨 Shā Wùjìng, a river-dwelling sand demon; the avaricious 豬八戒 Zhū Bājiè, a pig-human; and the star of the show, the trickster hero 孫悟空 Sūn Wùkōng, the monkey king.  Though Tripitaka is the nominal main character, he appears in the novel as so ineffectual and so cowering that he needs his three attendants just to get through each day.  (The real Tripitaka was in contrast well educated, not flighty, and was of course not accompanied by three mythical creatures.)  Sun Wukong is so much the real main character that when Arthur Waley published in 1942 what for a long time was the only substantial English language translation of Journey, he called it simply Monkey.

In fact, Waley's translation covers only about a quarter to a third of the novel.  The first section of the novel, a sort of prologue that covers the background of Sun Wukong, is translated almost in full, but the rest of the novel, which is a long sequence of adventures of mostly supernatural character, is translated only selectively.

In some sense, this is justified, because the episodes (lasting a few chapters each) are self-contained and somewhat repetitive.  Nonetheless, the novel could stand to have a complete, unabridged translation, if only because of its historic place in Chinese literature.  Thus it was that Anthony Yu, born in Hong Kong and eventually to become a professor of Chinese literature (among other things) at the University of Chicago, made it his life project to produce the definitive translation of Journey.

Make no mistake about it; this is a monumental task.  The novel is mostly prose, but contains hundreds of poems in various forms, all of which were elided by Waley (because he was not really that well grounded in Chinese literature); Yu made sure to translate all of them faithfully, which mired him in all of the usual challenges involved in translation, plus the unique obstacles imposed by the brevity of classic Chinese poetry.  The novel is so long that Yu's translation is published in four volumes, each of which is rigorously researched and copiously annotated.  He also includes a lengthy introduction in which he discusses the publication history of the novel, and the specific textual issues he contended with while translating it.

Because this was my first really substantial reading project, I read both the original Chinese novel and Yu's translation on my tablet, with the original in the Pleco app, and the translation in the Kindle app.  I would go back and forth between the two, at first alternating almost sentence by sentence, and then, as I steadily became more proficient, a few sentences at a time, and finally paragraph by paragraph (they're long paragraphs) or even passage by passage.

It took me quite a while to get going, and at first, it took me perhaps a week or two (or three) to get through a single chapter.  By the end, with growing facility at reading Chinese and an increased familiarity with the characters and the flow of the story, I was able to get through a chapter every day or two.  In all, it took me about a year and a half to read through the entire book.

Wu's prose—assuming he really is the author—is puckish, but dated, a feel that I'm sure I have only a partial sense for.  He uses turns of phrase that are evidently out of step with current usage.  Some of that was apparent even to me, but other parts I could only detect because Pleco called them out as dated, or because I asked native speakers.  Still, enough of the playful nature comes through that I could feel it, if a little hesitantly.  I would liken it to Don Quijote (which I haven't read in the original Spanish, so I'm going by a translation).  Yu captures the cavalier style of writing quite well.  From time to time, there are a few stilted turns of English phrase, which I attribute to him not being quite a fully native English speaker, but these are truly few and don't really detract from the overall feel of the translation.  Of the four novels I read, this one probably has the best translation.

Friday, December 2, 2016

A Novel Way to Read Chinese

For me, anyway.

This is, likely, the first in a series of posts, and ironically, one I'm writing as I come to the end, temporarily, of a reading program that has covered a couple of years.  You see, over that time, I've read four Chinese novels of varying era, genre, and style, in the original Chinese: 西遊記 Journey to the West (1592), 生死疲勞 Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out (2006), 邊城 Border Town (1934), and 圍城 Fortress Besieged (1947).  I'll be discussing those works in later posts.

This program is something that I could not realistically have considered more than a few years ago, because at the start of this reading program, my Chinese reading skills were not to the point where I could have attempted to even begin any of these novels.  To explain that, and the evolution of my literacy since then, I have to explain a little about my own background, as well as a remarkable little application called Pleco.

I call myself, among other things, a first-generation Chinese American, by which I mean that I was born in the United States, but my parents immigrated here.  (Some people call that second generation, but I think it's somewhat more common to call it first generation.)  As is common in children with my background, my parents spoke to me in Chinese, and I spoke to them in Chinese...and English.  Technically, in fact, Chinese is my first language, but it has been a long time since it was my best language, and my parents have stories of me speaking in a kind of pidgin with Chinese vocabulary but English grammar.

As is also common, my parents shuttled me off to Chinese school every Saturday morning (as a matter of fact, they and their friends started the darned thing), which was a real hardship, you had better believe, because (a) cartoons were better then (they reran all the theatrical shorts they used to show before movies in the theatres), and (b) this was before DVRs or even VCRs.  Time shifting was not even a twinkle in any commoner's eye yet.

For two hours every weekend, rather than watching Bugs Bunny, my friends and I learned to read and write Chinese and a smattering of Chinese culture as well (we also got that at home, to be sure).  I don't want to make it seem as though it was some kind of prison camp, for we enjoyed the company and I, at least, always found the idea of being bilingual in English and a totally different language such as Chinese rather interesting.

I went to this Chinese school—which is still a going concern, by the way, forty years later—from age six all the way through high school, and finished with a vocabulary of maybe 1000 to 1500 characters.  To give that some context, a child growing up in China or Taiwan has that kind of written vocabulary probably by the age of about eight or so.  Since Chinese characters have to be more or less memorized one by one, as opposed to spelled with an alphabet of tens of letters, this is no mean achievement, at age eight or eighteen.

I should add, incidentally, that this does not mean that I had the fluency of an eight-year-old.  A native eight-year-old Chinese speaker would have spoken circles around me.  Chinese characters, though perhaps the most outwardly obvious representation of the challenge of Chinese fluency, are only one aspect.  The grammar is another, and plain practice using the language is another.

Then, too, the 1000 to 1500 characters I knew were not necessarily those that a native eight-year-old would know.  There were some interesting gaps that I now attribute to the sometimes inconsistent attention of the Taiwan Ministry of Foreign Affairs (I think?) who issued the teaching materials we worked with.  It's a little as though you learned how to write "chocolate" but not "however"; both are common words, but "however" as a function word is more important than "chocolate" is as a concrete noun.  (And in fact, although I knew how to say it, I didn't learn how to write "however" until later, and partly in consequence, rarely used it in conversation.)  What's more, although Chinese looks like a long sequence of distinct characters, it is actually organized into words of mostly two or more characters, and there are some tens of thousands of those, and I knew a much smaller fraction of them.

The bluntest indication of my limited literacy was that I simply could not read a newspaper, which in Chinese as well as in English requires the vocabulary of about a twelve-year-old—about 2500 or so characters and probably ten to twenty thousand words.  It had taken me (and my teachers) about twelve years of fairly dedicated effort to get me halfway there.  On my own, it would take much longer than another twelve years to get the rest of the way there.  I considered taking Chinese language courses at college, but they met for an hour once a day at eight in the morning, and even I, who found the idea of becoming literate in Chinese more than a little intriguing, was not quite ready to make that level of commitment.

So at the end of college, I still had more or less those same 1000 to 1500 characters in my vocabulary when I went on the Taiwan Study Tour, which is known informally (and rather hoarily) as the Love Boat, for all of the extracurricular activities that go on there.  I don't really know about that, because in line with my rather generally nerdish outlook, I went there to learn Chinese and so I did.  I might have picked up a hundred or two hundred additional characters, but what really changed was my broadened awareness of Chinese literature.

The program spanned six weeks, of which most of the mornings and the early part of the afternoons were spent in language and culture classes.  In the latter part of the afternoons, and the early evenings after dinner, we were pretty much free to do what we liked.  I liked to play basketball, so I tried that once or twice, but Taiwan is in the tropics and the court was outdoors, and it was both hot and humid, so that was a no-go.  I already felt like I had to take a shower every four hours as it was.

So instead, I went out onto the street and browsed in stores, especially bookstores.  I've always loved going into bookstores and just browsing, from the time that my dad would take me to a department store and leave me in the book department while he went to do errands, back when you could do such a thing without having child services pick you up.  It was no different now, even though I couldn't read most of the books.  I just liked the look of the books—the typefaces (much more creative than for English, generally speaking), the arrangement of the text, even the cheap flimsy paper that many books used to save on cost.

It did irk me, though, that I couldn't read most of the books, though.  I finally found a book, though, that had pronunciation marked in for some of the text—not pinyin, which is used on the mainland, and more recently now in Taiwan as well, but zhuyin fuhao, which was the Taiwan standard at the time.  I still didn't know a lot of the characters, but it still helped that I could sound the characters out.  I didn't recognize it at the time, but this was the first time I really felt the benefit of having grown up hearing a lot of Chinese.

The book looked like it was a compendium of a few hundred mostly short poems (short helped!) with some explication after each one: a glossary and a synopsis, neither of which, notably, came with pronunciation keys.  Anyway, it looked interesting, so I bought it.  Only later, after I brought it home and showed it to my father, did I discover that it was possibly the most famous collection of Chinese poetry, 唐詩三百首 Three Hundred Tang Dynasty Poems.  (There are actually 310 in this edition, perhaps on the same principle as the baker's dozen.)  The poems are from the Tang Dynasty, from the seventh through ninth centuries.  These people were writing over a thousand years ago, and through the accident of my selection in some minor bookstore in Taiwan, I was touched by them.  I still have that same book on my bookcase right now, not ten feet to my left as I write this.

Learning to read through them, however, was still a daunting challenge.  A lot of this has to do with the process of looking up a Chinese character in the dictionary.  Looking up an English word is straightforward once you learn the alphabet; words are assembled in alphabetical order, which is sort of like numerical order for letters.

Chinese, not being an alphabetic language, has no such easy method for looking up characters.  There are dozens of ways to look up characters, some of which require you to know how to pronounce the character, which is useful if you're already literate but just want to know some fine nuance of definition, but useless for a learner like myself.  The rest are based more or less on some notion of how to break the character down into parts and looking the character up by those parts, but since characters are organized every which way, it's still not straightforward.  Someone in my position would take a couple of minutes to look up a single character.

Enter, at this point, Pleco.  At this stage, ten or so years ago, the earliest smartphone were just then making it onto the market, which was still dominated by the personal digital assistant (PDA).  These had touch screens but no phone.  It occurred to Mike Love, Pleco's founder, that that touch screen could make looking Chinese characters up a lot easier for language learners.  The one thing anyone knows who's trying to look up an unfamiliar character, is what that character looks like.  The touch screen made it possible to enter that character in directly into the device.

I downloaded the free app onto my Palm Pilot (remember those?), and bought the handwriting recognizer and a couple of the (inexpensive) dictionary packs, and for the first time, looking up a character took seconds rather than minutes.  I decided to start learning Chinese anew, and within a couple of months had added a couple of dozen more characters to my vocabulary.

But the real sea change happened when Pleco added a reader to their dictionary.  By this time, I had gotten an iPad (Pleco has used iOS as its flagship platform for several years now) and the larger screen made it more comfortable to use Pleco.  The new Pleco reader also made it possible to read online newspapers and books in Chinese, and if one encountered a new character, one simply tapped it on the screen, and Pleco popped up a definition, so that looking characters up was now essentially instantaneous.  What's more I didn't need to read something on one device or book, and look it up in another.  I was not interrupted in the process of reading beyond the minimal step of apprehending the meaning of the new character.

What followed was simply an explosion of new characters added to my vocabulary, at an average rate of dozens of characters per week, to the point that I probably now have a vocabulary of about 3000 characters, and I can (at last!) read a newspaper without needing to look something up more than pretty occasionally—not because I don't recognize a character, but because its use in a word is something I can't figure out on its own.  It's a bit like seeing the word "prevaricate" and knowing the Latin roots pre- "before" and varicari "straddle" and not being able to recognize the meaning "to lie".

At any rate, I got to the stage where I could reasonably attempt to read a novel, and the first one I tried (because it was available for free online) was the sixteenth-century Journey to the West.  Understandably, the language has a dated feel to it (sort of like reading Shakespeare has for English readers), which made it possibly not the best first choice, but it was still an instructive project.  I'll discuss this in my next post in this series.

But before I end this rather long article, I want to make one more plug for Pleco.  It's really an outstanding dictionary.  The app is still free (though the handwriting recognition costs a small fee), and I've spent probably over a hundred dollars on the dozen or so dictionaries and extra features I've added to it over the years, and I don't regret any of that.  The founder, Mike Love, is incredibly responsive and listens to all of the user feedback.  The user base is tremendously loyal and that's returned by the Pleco team.  If you're at all interested in learning Chinese, and you have a supported device, I can't recommend Pleco highly enough.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Rating the Droughts

Although I live in California, this actually has nothing to do with rainfall.

Earlier this month, the Chicago Cubs ended a century-long drought—that is to say, they hadn't won the World Series since 1908, a span of 108 years.  (I suppose it's really 107 years without a title, since there's a span of a year even between consecutive titles.)  In so doing, they defeated a team that has now gone 68 years without a title, the Cleveland Indians.  The combined droughts of those two teams was a large part of what made the 2016 World Series matchup so compelling (not to mention the twists and turns of Game 7, one of the all-time great baseball games in history).

Joining them in Major League Baseball's version of the Final Four were the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Toronto Blue Jays.  The Dodgers have now gone 28 years without winning the title, and the Blue Jays have gone 23 years.  Those seem like long-ish times, although obviously nothing like the waits the Cubs endured and the Indians continue to endure.

Consider, though, that there are currently 30 teams in MLB, and if they each had an equal chance of winning each year (which they obviously don't), you'd expect each one to win one out of every 30, which also means that the expected wait between titles, for any given team, is 30 years.  So, by that measure, the Dodgers and Blue Jays haven't yet waited as long as they should expect to, the Indians have waited over twice as long as they should have, and the Cubs waited about three-and-a-half times as long as they should have.


But wait!  That assumes that there have always been 30 teams in MLB, which there certainly hasn't.  The major leagues started out with just 16 teams in 1901, which is when modern baseball is reckoned to have started: eight in the National League, and eight in the American League.  There were 16 teams still when the Cubs last won in 1908, and also when the Indians last won in 1948.  In those days, teams should have won the title every 16 years, on average, not every 30.  When assessing the severity of title droughts, years in the early days of baseball should count for nearly twice as much as they do now.

We can reflect that insight by adding title expectations per year, rather than years.  Presently, for instance, each team can expect to win 1/30 of a title each year.  Of course, that's on average.  What happens in reality, of course, is that 1/30 of the teams win one title, and the other 29/30 of the teams win no title.  But the magic of mathematics is that by adding the average, you get a measure of how long you've waited for a title, compared to how long you should wait.  In the early years, you would have added 1/16 of a title, and in intermediate years, the value would also be intermediate—more than 1/30, but less than 1/16.

To make things a bit more manageable, let's narrow our focus to those teams that haven't won in the last 50 years (and to give a basis for comparison, we'll depict the situation as it was this fall, before the Cubs won):

Chicago Cubs: No titles in 1909–
Cleveland Indians: No titles in 1949–
Texas Rangers: No titles in 1961–
Houston Astros: No titles in 1962–

Now, let's take a look at the expansion history of baseball, setting aside situations where teams just moved from one town to another:

1901–1960: 16 teams
1961: 18 teams (American League added two teams)
1962–1968: 20 teams (National League added two teams)
1969–1976: 24 teams (Both leagues added two teams)
1977–1992: 26 teams (American League added two teams)
1993–1997: 28 teams (National League added two teams)
1998–2012: 30 teams (Both leagues added one team, but the Milwaukee Brewers moved from AL to NL)
2013–present: No change in total team count, but the Astros moved from NL to AL

Thus, the Astros have played seven years with title expectations of 1/20, eight years with title expectations of 1/24, 16 years with title expectations of 1/26, five years with title expectations of 1/28, and 18 years (remember, we're looking at the situation before the Cubs won) with title expectations of 1/30.  Add those all up and you get about 2.08; the Astros have waited more than twice as long as they should have.  We might call this the waiting factor.

The Rangers are almost in the same boat, but they played a single extra year with a title expectation of 1/18, so their waiting factor is just a little bit higher, at about 2.13.  The Indians have played 12 more years without a title than the Rangers, all with a title expectation of 1/16, so their waiting factor is 2.88.

And the Cubs, those grand old lovable losers, had, as of this October, played an extra 40 years, all with title expectations of 1/16, so their waiting factor was a whopping 5.38.  They had waited, effectively, nearly twice as long as the Indians have, and compared to the average team, over five times as long as they should have.  To put it another way, if you had substituted a merely average team for the Chicago Cubs back in 1908, those alternate-universe Chicagoans would have won an extra five or so World Series.  By comparison, the Yankees won all 27 of their World Series during that time.

Holy cow indeed!

Actually, it's just a little more complicated than that, even, since (as you can tell from the brief expansion history above) the two leagues have on occasion had different numbers of teams.  The World Series always pits one National League team against one American League team, and if the National League had 12 teams that year, the chances of any given National League team winning should be 1/24, no matter how many American League teams there were.  If we take that into account, the numbers change ever so slightly:

Astros waiting factor = 2.10
Rangers waiting factor = 2.12
Indians waiting factor = 2.87
Cubs waiting factor = 5.41

For the Cubs, of course, their waiting factor has reset.  For everyone else, the wait continues.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

A Few Thoughts on the Election and Exit Polls

Whether you're pleased or dejected this morning, I think there's very few of us who aren't stunned by the result in the general election yesterday.  In particular, polling was way off—even exit polls, which are supposed to take the pulse of voters as they leave the booth.  How did they get the result so badly wrong?  (Pre-count models showed Clinton with an average of about 300 electoral votes, and winning about 80 percent of the time.)

I'd guess that there are a number of factors (aside from the conspiracy theories, GOP or Dems):
  1. People were embarrassed to admit voting for Trump (i.e., he was viewed as the less respectable candidate), but that shame didn't translate to the actual ballot. That doesn't mean that people voted for Trump on a whim; it just means that they weren't keen on admitting that to someone else, even a pollster they'd never see again.
     
  2. Exit polling was not done at all locations, for obvious reasons. So projections were based on a regression analysis that fits estimates to the sampled locations. That regression assumes, among other things, a certain degree of polarization between demographics. It looks like that polarization was even more extreme than expected (which was already significant).
     
  3. Trump was simply a higher-variance candidate than the traditional Republican. This strategy makes sense in any contest where you're the underdog (as Trump was for most of the time)—if he were to play a low-risk strategy, he was almost guaranteed to lose. Employing a high-risk strategy increases the probability of a blowout loss, but it also increases the probability of a close win, which is what happened. We're seeing this all the time in sports, where endgame strategies by the trailing team are becoming more aggressive. That increase in variance translated to the polls. Five thirty-eight was very open about this—they pointed out that their model, though predicting a Clinton win, had about three times more variation (by some metric) in it than in past years.
I don't think fraud played any significant role in this election. We're seeing real disquiet with the state of the nation. Whether that disquiet has a basis in fact is immaterial as regards the result of the election.

I may have more to say about the election results themselves, but I'll save that for another post. 

[Most of this post was drawn from a Facebook comment.]

Monday, August 3, 2015

Reasons Why I Use the Mutt Mailreader

My favored mailreader is mutt.

The running joke is that I like it because it's conspicuously antediluvian.  Well, I don't dislike it for that reason, but there are better and more accurate reasons for why I actually like it.

The first and most important reason is that it has support (after a fashion) for tagging of mail messages.  I grew up (so to speak) on the Berkeley mailreader, which stored old messages into an array of files within an archive directory.  Although it's the term "directory" and not "file" that implies "folder" in a post-Windows world, these files are the moral equivalent of modern mail folders.

And folders are a distinctly sub-optimal way of organizing mail.  Suppose I have a folder for bills and statements, and a separate folder for medical.  So an e-mail receipt for the gas bill goes in the bills-and-statements folder, and an eyeglass prescription goes in the medical folder.  But what happens if I get a medical statement?  Where does that go?  Either I have to choose a folder to go in, or I save it in both folders.  The former makes it more difficult for me to find the message later on, and the latter is more tedious (some mailreaders consciously resist any attempts to store multiple copies) and causes consistency problems in case you want to go in and edit messages (for example, to make notes).

The proper solution to this problem is to support mail tagging, a la Gmail.  In Gmail, one creates tags, not folders, and then any number of tags can be attached to a given message.  One can put both the bills-and-statements tag and the medical tag on a medical statement e-mail, and then it will show up whenever you search either.  More usefully, you can search for both tags together, and then only medical statements (and anything else that has both tags simultaneously) will show up.  When I started using my Gmail account, I was blown away by how powerful an organizing mechanism tags were.  They basically implement multiple inheritance.  I never wanted to go back to folders for my personal e-mail.  I mean, social networking (including this blog) relies critically on tagging, why shouldn't e-mail?

Work e-mail, alas, was a different matter.  Understandably, they wanted people to use the company e-mail address and not a Gmail address, and the corporate IT infrastructure didn't support using the Gmail interface (at either of the places I worked at)—until, that is, I discovered mutt's tagging support.

To be sure, it is support after a fashion: It provides support for the X-Label header field, in terms of displaying it, but scripts have to be added in order to support adding the tags yourselves (because tags aren't very useful if you have to manually add them into the e-mail).  There's a certain amount of, ahh, customization needed to make the experience minimally unpleasant, but it's worth it.  The corporate-approved mailreader doesn't support tagging, and I won't (willingly) switch to it until it does.  We recently switched to an Exchange server, and that threatened to coerce me into the corporate mailreader, but I found a solution, Davmail, that provides an IMAP interface to an Exchange server, and that has permitted me to happily continue tagging my e-mail.

But that's only the most important reason I cleave to mutt.  Among others:
  • It can be used on any dumb text terminal you can think of, as long as it can log into my machine.  I occasionally have to check my mail on some remarkably incapable devices, and mutt will work on all of them.
  • It is blindingly fast, meaning that I can access and search my entire mail archive from years back and expect results back effectively the moment I hit the enter key.
  • It is remarkably configurable.  That's not a bonus for some people, but I like tinkering with my e-mail interface, and this suits me.
  • A somewhat backhanded compliment of mutt is that it prevents me from being exposed to e-mail attacks that depend on code being automatically loaded and executed within the e-mail message.  Well, OK, I do like that, but it's really a way of admitting that mutt can't possibly support the same kind of message display interface that a graphical mailreader can.
Mutt's slogan sums it up nicely: "All mail clients suck. This one just sucks less."

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Harmolodics and Holomorphy

Ornette Coleman died today.

And with him died any chance for an authoritative version of his treatise on harmolodics, which he had reportedly been working on for decades.  Oh, I daresay we may eventually see some fractured notes (pun intended) about harmolodics, but we will not see the definitive statement of what it is.

To be sure, it's entirely possible that any treatise about harmolodics would have been allusive and telegraphic at best.  Coleman was notoriously cagey about describing harmolodics, and players in Prime Time, Coleman's group, were obviously fearful of being pinned down to any concrete statement that might get back to Coleman (who understandably might be upset about his creation being characterized in a way not to his liking).

Practically speaking, harmolodics was what Coleman played with Prime Time, or at least aimed at playing.  He was said to have denied that any of his albums actually achieved harmolodic playing.  So we have no guarantee that any particular piece was exemplary of his musical philosophy.  In some sense, then, there might not be any ironclad difference between harmolodics and entirely free jazz.

Nonetheless, the nagging suspicion of many a listener was that there was something to harmolodics, that it didn't sound entirely free, that there was some structure lurking in there somewhere.  We might even imagine Ornette himself, driven by inspirations even he couldn't completely articulate, nonetheless moving the music in directions that felt "right" to him, if not specified or unique.  It's a tantalizing task to try to describe what that structure might be like.

If any authoritative vision of harmolodics died with him, so however did the possibility of being declared definitively wrong.  Musicology is in a sense freer now to come up with a descriptive notion of harmolodics, as opposed to what might have been Coleman's own more prescriptive one.  So here are my personal thoughts on harmolodics, based on a moderate amount of listening to Ornette Coleman recordings.

It's an odd idea, the concept of Coleman prescribing what harmolodics was, because even if it wasn't entirely free, he still viewed it as being freer than traditional jazz.  Still, he did seem to consistently assert that harmolodics was about denying the hegemony of harmony.  He viewed harmolodic music as equal parts harmony, melody, rhythm, dynamics, articulation, etc., all acknowledged as parts of a musical performance.  Granted, it's probably not possible to say precisely what "equal" means in this context (can you imagine measuring a particular piece to be exactly 75 percent harmony and 25 percent melody?), but it's hard to deny that traditional jazz performance is driven more by harmony—the chord changes—than by the melody in the head.  Presumably, that dominance is what Coleman wanted to counter; he frequently alluded to a "democracy" amongst the performers and the music they created.

One of the things that strikes me when listening to Prime Time and other ostensibly harmolodic groups play is that although any piece may seem to meander along aimlessly, individual segments of it typically do not.  That is, if you were to listen to any one-second snippet of a harmolodic piece, it "makes sense" in a way that we don't usually associate with harmolodics.  It sounds like it could come out of many a jazz piece.  So perhaps one thing that distinguishes harmolodics from other jazz forms is that the parts that make sense don't persist as long in harmolodics.

Let me try to make that more explicit by reference to traditional jazz pieces.  Suppose we're looking at a twelve-bar blues, the most traditional of the traditional jazz forms.  Everyone plays this at some point.  Even in a jazz setting, with its penchant for alteration, a fairly standard chord progression runs

| C7    | F7    | C7    | %     |
| F7    | %     | C7    | Em A7 |
| Dm7   | G7    | C7 A7 | D7 G7 |


Because everyone is playing to the same chart, whenever the bass is playing G7, so is the piano, so is the horn, etc.  It all "makes sense," because each performer is playing notes in the same scale.  We might characterize such playing as all taking place along the same line, or "linear."

What's more, the transition from, say, G7 to C7, although it's not exactly the same scale, is very nearly the same.  It differs in exactly one spot: The position occupied by B in the G7 scale becomes a Bb in the C7 scale.  So although it's not exactly on the same line, it's still diatonic.  We might say that it's in the same plane, to stretch (ever so slightly) a mathematical metaphor.  Thus it's not very surprising to hear.  Most of the other transitions in these changes are like that, and even those that aren't, are so familiar to our ears that we don't find them jarring at all.  On the contrary, those transitions are so familiar that it becomes jarring when we don't follow them.

It occurs to me that there is an analogue to be made here between the familiar plane of traditional jazz and harmolodics on one hand, and the familiar plane of Euclidean geometry and curved space on the other hand.

I've talked about curved space in other contexts before, where it's directly related to gravitation.  Here, obviously, the application is less precise, but I'll try to keep it from being wholly vacuous.  The idea is that when we say a section of music is diatonic, that's like saying it's flat—and I don't mean "flat" as in opposite of "sharp," or even that it's uninspired.  It simply means that it obeys the familiar rules of traditional jazz.

When it came time to specify what curved space means in physics, one of the central motivating tenets is that although it's globally curved, locally it's flat, in the limit.  That's why wherever you are in the universe, as long as you're relatively small (small compared to the curvature of spacetime), things behave more or less the way you're used to.  That's relativity.


In the same way, when you're listening to a piece of harmolodic music, although the whole of it doesn't constrain itself to any single musical plane, locally (that is, at any immediate moment), it does.  In particular, that means there aren't any immediately jarring transitions, but changes smoothly (differentiably, we might say!) from one moment to the next.  That's what gives harmolodic music the feel of being unanchored, and yet not having any moments of discontinuity, where what happens next is wholly divorced from what came before.

And how does one arrive at what comes next?  To my ear, that's where the democracy that Coleman was striving for comes in.  In traditional jazz, the lead chart—the chord sequence—dictates what comes next.  When I listen to harmolodic music, what I hear is an instantaneous bending of the musical fabric, where at any moment, any performer might play the note, or the rhythm, or even the articulation that changes the direction of the group and the music as a whole.  Maybe, if the recent actions of the rhythm section have pointed toward a C major scale, the horn might begin C-E-D-F—

—but then continue E-G#-F#-A-Ab-C-Bb-Db, following the intervallic motive of up a major third, down a major second, up a minor third, down a minor second, and then repeating a major third higher.  The bass and piano might follow suit—perhaps playing in double time for a moment to match the speed of the melodic line—but only for the moment, before one or the other of them again takes the lead in steering the music in yet another direction.

Obviously, carrying such an idea to fruition requires the performers to listen intently to each other, and to develop an almost preternatural intuition about their fellow musicians and their likely directions.  It's an interesting balance, though, since too little anticipation means that the music won't make sense for long stretches, while too much anticipation means implicitly restricting where the music can and can't go, and paradoxically limiting the very freedom that the approach was meant to foster.  Still, properly handled, it could enable a group to produce music that sounds cohesive and yet is freed from much of the shackles of traditional jazz.  To put it in the vernacular of the time in which harmolodics started, it would allow the music to ascend to a higher dimension.

I hope to make some time in the future to look at specific recordings and use them to substantiate the general framework I've described here.  (Also, I realize there's precious little reference to holomorphy here, other than the one mention of differentiability, but I couldn't resist the alliteration.)

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

No More Dirty Looks

This article makes for interesting reading, and I love the introductory comic. But despite making some insightful points, this open letter tends to put up a barrier to progress—a barrier that could be resolved with a more conciliatory approach, I believe.

Some of the problems are minor:
  • The letter is repetitive. Homework creates a burden for parents. It also takes away time. It also causes conflict for families. All placed in separate bullets that can't help but overwhelm the reader into thinking the conclusion is right along so many different directions.
  • He also believes that a single anecdotal piece of evidence (the educational background of his daughter) is compelling.  I'm sure it is to him, because she's his daughter, but that's an advantage that her teachers don't have.  They are beholden to many more people than that.
  • The letter places any objection in a belittling light.  This is a "(hopefully minor) conflict."  The implication is that it's minor, unless the teacher makes it major.  (That won't happen, so long as the teacher simply acquiesces, perhaps.)
But some of the other flaws run deeper. In an attempt to bring the teacher on board, the writer also commiserates about the burden that assigning homework places on them. Well, homework may well create a burden for teachers. Sometimes they may complain about it. Nonetheless, it was a burden they knew was there when they decided to become teachers.  That burden is still there, and is now accompanied by the burdens of coming up with new ways to ensure that Johnny is figuring out what he needs to figure out now that he's a homework Conscientious Objector. Oh, not to mention the letters and phone calls from parents who (quite rightly) wonder why their kids should have to do homework when Johnny doesn't. Or worrying about keeping their job under administrators who aren't particularly sympathetic.

This letter doesn't much recognize these additional pressures that its unilateral declaration imposes on the teacher. (One of the problems with such an open letter is that it biases the discussion—the open letter becomes the presumed position, from which opponents must come to dislodge the writer, rather than the position arising out of a balanced dialogue.)  That might be because the writer is also writing school administrators, city council members, legislators, etc., in a broad campaign aimed at reforming the way homework is assigned and managed in the school curriculum.  Or it might be because the writer recognizes that any such acknowledgement will weaken support for this position and therefore chooses to omit it.  Without further elaboration, one simply can't tell.

As a reader, and as a parent, I think that the conclusion (that homework should mostly be done away with) is appealing, and should therefore be viewed with the greatest suspicion.  The notion that homework is an outmoded relic is enticing on so many different levels that we are predisposed to accept it.  But one of the lessons of science is that one can so easily convince oneself to accept imperfect arguments and insufficient evidence on behalf of a position one is inclined to believe in the first place.  We sometimes hear that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.  Attractive claims should be added to that maxim.

To be sure, some of the observations do occasionally fit the bill.  Sometimes, homework is just busy work.  It's excessive.  It's misguided.  It's boring.  Does that mean that the inevitable solution is to jettison practically everything with the bathwater, except (here are the writer's two exceptions) reading and other homework that the kids find engaging?  Instead of getting rid of homework because it's broken (if indeed it is), why not figure out what's broken about it, and how to fix it?  And while there'll be no objection from me about requiring reading, who's to say what kids find engaging?  The kids themselves?  The writer?  As human beings, we often find grass-roots approaches like this engaging because they feel organic, natural, unforced, and while there may be something to that, it's one thing for an approach to work at a family or even a single-school level, quite another for it to scale to the district level, let alone the state.

Despite a perfunctory invitation to discussion at the end of this letter, its tone brooks no debate, and therefore runs the risk of setting the interaction on an oppositional edge practically before it begins.  It seems to me that whatever change the writer hopes to make could be achieved less confrontationally (if less social-networkily) by making a series of observations to educators about what he finds flawed about homework.  That could progress to a discussion of what the aim of homework (whatever form it might take) should be, and at what levels change should take place in order to benefit children most pervasively.  Interested parents and teachers could support each other.  Instead, the writer chooses a direct and public we-will-not-actively-support-you-on-any-homework-we-don't-approve-of line.  An interesting approach to public consensus, but I can think of better.