Friday, May 31, 2013

The Book of Knowing What You Don't Know

Karen L. Mulder, guest blogger
Dimensionally, it’s about 5.2 times larger than an iPhone in size and about 25 times as heavy. Its search engine is at the tip of your fingers and probably floating about luminously somewhere in one of your frontal lobes. There is not a single visual image included in its 1,368 pages. (Well, the cover features an apple…but not that kind of Apple.) Finding anything in it will require the ability to skim a) a table of contents and b) an index. (All conditions that scream 'anathema!' to the wired generation.) This is the revised, expanded, third edition of The New YorkTimes Guide to Essential Knowledge: A Desk Reference for Curious Minds (2011), descended from the 2004 original.
This is not the party favor you purchase for your great niece or grandson, nor the Christmas stocking stuffer you surprise your youngest relatives with unless they are seeking a hefty doorstop, or have very huge feet. But it is a reminder: it recalls the cumulative efforts of a great newspaper with more than 160 years of experience and 95 Pulitzers to its credit, and it also serves as the contemporary expression of that great 18th-century human endeavor—to corral all ‘known’ knowledge into a comprehensive form—a task that gave Denis Diderot a reason to get up every morning, which historians eventually labeled the French Enlightenment (which is, incidentally, only indexed in the Guide’s section on “Law,” though it appears elsewhere). 
Diderot: Ahh, sacré bleu, eez zee tomato zee vechuteble o zee fruwt?
It’s the kind of weighty tome you stash somewhere handy, like, near a landline phone where you know you’ll be on hold a lot, or in your car if you have to wait for someone to finish their violin lesson or Little League game, or well, in the bathroom, where it would be a perfect brain teaser. It's the resource you brandishly proudly if you are averse to computery.
Moreover, it’s not only virtually guaranteed to keep your brain primed, but also provides a respectable upper body workout. But here’s the most salient point: the NYT Guide is truly ‘written,’ not just cobbled together from a bunch of random facts. It has a sleek intelligence all its own, because its compilers and essayists still respect the sanctity of proper spelling, grammar and descriptive finesse. It is a paean to the kind of reputable English that some of us still care about, deeply. Even so, on p.865 you will find that in 2010 the New York Times placed third in circulation (876,638), after the Wall Street Journal (2,061,142) and USA Today (1,830,029). That’s a lotta fish wrap! (see “Green Revolution” and “Environmentalism” to deal with that).
So, just to determine whether you really need this sturdy resource as you prep to appear on Jeopardy, or to jumpstart the cockles of your gray matter before a competitive game of Trivial Pursuit with those rabid players from across the street, here are a few quiz-like questions gleaned from the segments on the arts, sciences, humanities, economics, media, sports and food. Some come out of a handy reference segment that includes “Nations of the World,” biographies, special dates, and those troublesome metric to inches or pounds conversions in “Weights and Measures.

Who was the first African-American baseball player in the American League?
(Hint: Not Jackie Robinson, who was in the Major League).
 What is considered the finest example of Hindu architecture?
Temple of Angkor Wat, Cambodia, c.1150
And on p. 1163, you can learn that Cambodia had a population of 14,701,717, a budget of about $30 billion, and a national G.D.P. of $2,000 per capita.

What Polish-born author is thought to be the ‘first great 20th-century English novelist?
Josef Konrad Korzeniowski, aka Joseph Conrad (1857-1924)
How many plays do we think Sophocles wrote, and which of his plays did Aristotle consider the ultimate example of tragedy? 
Of an estimated 123 plays, Oedipus Rex proved supreme. Freud liked its 'complex' plot too!
What woman is considered one of the three most important Soviet composers of the post-Shostakovich period?
Sofia Gubaidulina (b.1931), Two Paths (1999), Light of the End (2003), and In Tempus Praesens (2007)
In the contemporary periodic table of the [how many?] elements, do Einsteinium (Es) and Fermium (Fm) occur naturally?
Something like 125 and no, these appeared after the first thermonuclear explosion at the Eniwetok atoll in 1952.
So c’mon, is “irregardless” acceptable or NOT?
NOT, say the NYT “Writer’s Guide editors.
(But what about eggs? Can I have eggs or not?!)  
Alex: You can eat eggs; in fact, I KNOW you can. I have my sources.
Incidentally, Jeopardy is still one of the hardest game shows to finesse; they tell everyone who doesn’t answer the passing number of 50 questions correctly to tell the folks at home that they ‘missed it by one’ and send you packing without even a buzzer trial. For people cramming, ridiculously, right before they enter the studio to compete in the first round, this would definitely be an essential resource. Don’t ask me how I know this.

Karen L. Mulder, Ph.D., only answered one of the questions above correctly despite her erudition and extensive travel experience.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Bird Brained: Avian Interests

Karen L. Mulder, guest blogger
Barnett Newman, the ‘zip’ master from the New York School of abstract expressionism, made a famously wry comment to the effect that art history is to artists what ornithology is to the birds. Bummer for art historians, but for those who enjoy the art of ornithology, what an endless world of feathered fascinations.
Remember the national stir about “Pale Male,” the dad of the red-tailed hawk family nesting on an upscale Fifth Avenue penthouse ledge next to Central Park? The hawks’ reappearance on the skyline is considered no less than proof of the city’s improving health, which is one reason for their continuing celebrity. “Birds are indicators of the environment,” Roger Tory Peterson concluded. “If they are in trouble, we know we’ll soon be in trouble.” Trouble is one euphemism for extinction.
Woody Woodpecker, or "Elvis in Feathers"
An unconfirmed sighting of the rare ivory-billed woodpecker in Arkansas in 2004 prompted Cornell biologists to ante up $50,000 in award money to anyone who can lead them to an actual nest, seeing as that bird may have permanently flown the coop three decades ago.
If you are of the bird watching persuasion—in other words, one of an estimated 70 million in America alone—you may cherish your favs, from Sibley to those good ol’ portable $5 Golden Books paperbacks. But the inventor of the truly modern field guide, credited with educating America about the flappable species, is Roger Tory Peterson (1908-1996), celebrated in the spiffy centennial tribute, Birdwatcher (2008). Elizabeth Rosenthal, with chops in both journalism and law, emphasizes how Peterson’s aims transcended mere documentation, identification and illustration of the feathered set by making some of the earliest waves in the environmental protection movement, alongside the likes of John Muir, Gifford Pinchot, or Rachel Carson.
Peterson’s personal trajectory is especially poignant considering that his family’s misfortunes landed him in a New York state mill by the age of ten. Following his bliss with a lot of dogged footwork led him to hobnob with the greatest avian illustrators and ornithologists of the early 20th century—until he became one of them. Ultimately, Peterson received every major American natural science award, several Nobel Prize nominations, a Presidential Medal of Freedom, a slew of honorary doctorates, and yes, his own institute. Peterson’s passion fueled a determination to improve the dense, poorly detailed guides available during his youth, eventually revolutionizing the conception of field guides that served the general public as well as professionals with a practical identification system. In turn, Peterson’s ceaseless field trips brought the plight of our disappearing avians, and their habitats, to the fore.
Roger Tory Peterson: Close up and personal
Accurate identification is perhaps the greatest bugaboo for professional, scientific birders, let alone amateurs: how does anyone manage all the infinite variations, or notate in print the many distinctions in songs, in one bird alone? The enterprise is aided by the fact that the contemporary ornithological community fostered by Peterson and others may be one of the most organized and expansive sectors in the natural sciences, according to Valerie Chansigaud, an environmental scientist. Her History of Ornithology (2009) is a profusely illustrated, snappily designed chronological review that moves along trippingly, from Antiquity to the 20th Century, with interesting marginalia and brief profiles of all the major players—starting with Ari (Aristotle, the first and ultimate organizer of things natural, who reputedly described as many as 140 species but lacked an iPhone app to record his avian revelations).
(If you get a macaw you have to buy 70 years' worth of feed)
"New" 19th century ways of presenting bird samples
Chansigaud’s efficient biographical sketches often morph into stories—think of Darwin’s eye-opening experiences on the Beagle in the Galapagos and elsewhere—but with equal fascination, she also explains shifts in perception and technology that advance the field in a spritely narrative tone (translated from the 2007 French version, mais oui!). Significant discoveries, books, societies, and institutions appear throughout the author’s respectful narrative, underscored in an illustrated timeline section at the back. I thought this History delivered a lot of fun facts, augmenting such a great array of bird books offered by Daedalus that they cannot all be celebrated here.
Of course, if you’re on the opposite end of the birding spectrum and just want to enjoy them rather than notate the frequencies of their appearance, treat yourself to Dawn Light: Dancing with Cranes and Other Ways to Start the Day (2009). a poet, essayist and naturalist, Diane Ackerman has contributed a steady stream of poetry books, non-fictions, and kid’s books since 1976, as well as a Cornell dissertation overseen in part by the scientist Carl Sagan, and various opinion pieces in the New York Times and the New Yorker. In recent years, much of her effort has gone into caring for her husband after his stroke, and learning how to meditate on the showstoppers in nature, history, literature and religion during the quieter moments. Amidst several dozen short meditative reflections in Dawn Light, organized by the seasons, Ackerman contemplates the pleasures of field guides, woodpecker tattoos, and the metaphors revealed in the simple formation of words, or the migratory habits of each season’s birds. Her writing, at once exacting and luxurious, is as freed and as familiar as, well, a crane’s dance.

Roger Tory Peterson's tools and trade

Karen L. Mulder is an equal opportunity historian, even if history is for the birds, and recently spotted an indigo bunting on her deck in Virginia. Exceedingly rare and beautiful!

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Post Memorial Day Philippic

Karen L. Mulder, guest blogger

Some vets, though their number shrinks daily, may still recall the visceral feeling of cold leaden fear in the pit of their stomachs as they anticipated the D-Day attacks on the Normandy coast. As that complicated, violent maneuver unfolded, on June 6, 1944, Eleanor Roosevelt addressed an audience back home with her fervent hope that perhaps “this time, the sacrifices—whatever they are—will bring results that will justify in the eyes of those who fight whatever they have gone through.” Thinking back to her exchanges with the mangled survivors of the so-called Great War, she added a cautionary finial: “It is not enough to win the fight. We must win that for which we fight—the triumph of all people who believe that the people of this world are worthy of freedom.”
 My father, a bombardier/navigator on a Flying Fortress over Germany, never spoke in such elevated terms, but he understands them in a fundamental way. Like his generational compatriots, he hardly ever mentioned the nine months he endured, strafed out of his plane over Berlin, as a starving 21-year-old POW in a stalag.

If you’re still in a reflective mood about the nobler link between the military and the pursuit of freedom after the usual Memorial Day holiday distractions, there are several unusual, enlightening reads that address the origins, effects and moral aftermath of the European front in particular. For starters, a relatively economical explanation of the rise of Hitler’s party emerges in Martyn Whittock’s The Third Reich: The Rise and Fall of the Nazis (2011). Whittock, who wrote out of his passion for the topic, is a 'brief history' kinda guy who regularly contributes to BBC programs, so even though he collaborated with a group of British dons, his descriptions don’t get too bogged down with detail, and he provides an c skim-worthy accounting of the Nazi rise.
For a more personal, therefore eerie eyewitness view covering the same time period, there is Hitler: The Memoir of a Nazi Insider Who Turned Against the Führer (2011). Its Harvard-educated author, Ernst Hanfstaengl, became mesmerized by Hitler’s speechifying in 1922. As a relative of Civil War generals through his American mother’s lineage, his knowledge of American ways enticed Hitler, in turn. Ultimately, he became not only one of Hitler’s few close friends during the formative decade of the Nazi party, but eventually served the Reich as Press Secretary, hoping in part to stem some of Hitler’s mounting excesses regarding racial purity. By 1936, however, Hitler’s wholehearted acceptance of Aryan German superiority made Hanfstaengl’s life untenable. He escaped to Zürich during a press trip, and then London, where he was eventually imprisoned as a radical alien until the Allies permanently exiled him to Germany after the war. His view of events, while inescapably self-justifying at times, is extremely unusual.

Finally, what retribution for the massive atrocity of genocide could possibly make anything ‘right’ again? Neal Bascomb’s bestselling Hunting Eichmann (2009), currently optioned for movie rights, pursues the almost mythological escapes of Adolf Eichmann, the operational head of the Final Solution, over 15 years, from POW camps in Europe to Buenos Aires. Eichmann, the quintessential ‘crazy old Nazi’ archetype, deftly eluded Israel’s newly-formed Mossad spy agency, Simon Wiesenthal’s international network, and suspicious Argentinian acquaintances. Although it’s footnoted and responsibly compiled, Hunting Eichmann reads as thrillingly as a Ludlow or Le Carré spy novel. Eichmann’s capture, trial and execution in Israel ultimately contributed to the new nation’s solidarity, inspiring philosopher Hannah Arendt’s stirring indictment of evil in her 1963 Eichmann in Jerusalem. In some small way, Eichmann’s hanging provided a scintilla of justifiable retribution after one of the darkest episodes in human history. While Wiesenthal received the lion’s share of credit for apprehending Eichmann, the Mossad operated in secret and kept its role undercover for years. Bascomb uses newly released documents to construct a more accurate and balanced account of the case’s complications.  
While it’s true that these offerings certainly couldn’t be called light reading of the summer variety, such books remind us about one of the greatest moral campaigns, and possibly the last one, that justified the use of might in an unmuddied way for the sake of freedom. Subsequent ‘police actions,’ or war by any other name, including the harried skirmishes that occupy our armed forces today, have been judged against this standard and have sometimes been found wanting. What mere mortal can accurately justify, however, the cost of freedom for the oppressed?

Monday, May 27, 2013

America grows up on oranges (and on their labels)

The celebrations and observances of Memorial Day put me in mind of how the iconography of American patriotism was depicted in the colorful food labels of days gone by. Here are some samples, focused solely on ones designed for oranges. Beyond the overtly nationalistic images featuring Uncle Sam and the flag, one can see various mythologies reflected, such as transcontinental expansion and the Old West.

Friday, May 24, 2013

There's an app for that: new ways to experience the music of Beethoven et al.

Hello Gleaners! A long, holiday weekend is upon us. Will it be filled with leisure pursuits or projects you've been procrastinating about? First up, I'm so happy about Lydia Davis being chosen for the Man Booker International Prize of 2013. Well done, jury!
"Ach, why was I born too early for the coclear implant? And what's all this hoo ha about lead-based paint?"
Gramophone reports that a new app from Touchpress allows you to view a scrolling manuscript of the score of Beethoven's Ninth while listening to one of four recordings (Ferenc Fricsay with the Berlin Philharmonic, 1958; Herbert von Karajan with the BPO, 1962; Leonard Bernstein and the Vienna Philharmonic  [a 1979 film]; and Sir John Eliot Gardiner with his Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, 1992). Alternatively, you can enjoy one of the recordings while watching the ‘BeatMap’—"a diagrammatic aerial view of the orchestra, with spots representing musicians that pulse as they play."
Fittingly, the article gives Lenny the last word: "After all this in-depth insight into manuscript choices, pitch considerations and metronome markings, comes a remarkable excerpt of Bernstein talking about the symphony in 1979. He roots the symphony in philosophy and faith in a deeply personal, open-hearted manner that I simply can’t imagine any of today’s musicians matching. Contrasting the hopes and prayers of prophets and poets with the 20th-century world around him, Bernstein concludes:
‘David, Isaiah, Aristophanes, Jesus, Schiller, Beethoven – how you must be suffering. Forgive me for getting carried away, I had meant to stick to the subject of dates and of Beethoven. But it is all one. Beethoven is struggle, the struggle for peace, for fulfilment of spirit, for serenity and triumphal joy. He achieved it in his music – not only in his Ninth but in all his symphonies, and in his quartets and piano sonatas, and trios and concertos. Somehow it must be possible for us to learn from his music by hearing it: no, not hearing but listening to it, with all our power of attention and concentration.’"
Beethoven's Ninth ends with a sublime and stirring choral movement that has inspired people the world over. Somewhat lesser known but equally uplifting is his only opera, Fidelio, of which we have the complete score.

"Tell me the truth, Alma, does this hat make me look soigné?"
It was the 200th anniversary of his birth last Wednesday, and poor old Richard Wagner didn't get so much as a Google doodle, despite revolutionizing the world of opera. Not that he was the life of the party. "He spoke incredibly much – and fast" wrote his contemporary Eduard Hanslick, "in a monotonous sing-song Saxon dialect and always of himself, his works, his reforms, his plans. If he mentioned the name of another composer it was always in a tone of disparagement." Luckily, Wagner's musical legacy outweighs his abrasive personality. (Today he would have about 14 friends on Facebook—or someone like me would be ghostwriting it.)
We currently have Die Walküre on CD and on DVD ("Ho jo to ho!") as well as Lohengrin on DVD—all of which make it easy to forget his quirks in the face of his musical genius.
Coda: Here's a fine video with Lenny talking about and performing the 9th's finale... for when you have a little time on your hands. What a cadre of soloists!

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Laura Mvula's 'Sing to the Moon': multilayered pop in a class by itself

All today I've been busy "blurbing" a boxful of new CD releases and reissues, both for the web and upcoming catalogs. Here's the title track from Laura Mvula's Sing to the Moon, which had NPR raving and caught my fancy as well.

As I wrote in the blurb, it's hard to fathom that this arresting and authoritative debut comes from a singer-songwriter still in her '20s, but its easy to be swept along as you absorb the wonders of each new song. Her music is so sophisticated and exhilarating, it's as if a mid-career Joni Mitchell had suddenly sprung out of Birmingham, England.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Outsider fashion in old Nuremberg

Well, 'sumer is Icumin in', as the old poem goes, and in the face of global warming people are divesting themselves of as many garments as decency allows. However, today I want to share with you some full-body suits so delighfully bizarre they beggar belief. In the 16th century, Nuremberg’s Schembart Carnival—like the April Feast of Fools in other parts of Europe—was a way for the common folk to bust loose, thumb their noses at the elite, and in general let their freak flag fly. In remarkably elaborate costumes (many reflecting their guilds or occupations) they paraded through the streets, brandishing lances and bunches of leaves that concealed fireworks.
This costume seems to be composed of doll-like figures.
With cargoes of subversive and satiric effigies, large ships on runners known as “Hells” were drawn through the thoroughfares  (a preacher named Osiander was depicted on one such float, playing backgammon surrounded by fools and devils).
Richly illustrated manuscripts known as “Schembartbücher” preserved examples of this fantastical, whimsical attire, and it is from one of these (housed in UCLA library's digital collections) that these images come.

Which is your favorite? I kind of go for the peacock man. Do you think the person depicted at left has a womanly mein? Women (and children) were involved, as attested by the somewhat perplexing images below.
I hope you have enjoyed this brief glimpse of a late Medieval "Project Runway"!