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I am posting this as a benchmark, not because I think I'm playing very well yet.  The idea would be post a video every month for a ye...

Thursday, December 31, 2015


What if there were a briliant.org for the humanities? What would it look like?

Saturday, December 26, 2015


People don't realize this, but "diversity" was the catch-word involved in the abolishing of affirmative action. In the Bakke case from around '78, the SCOTUS ruled that you couldn't favor applicants by race, explicitly. However, you could construct a freshman class (or a 1st year med school class, since Bakke had applied to UCD Med school) and take into account all the different ways people are different from one another: what state they came from, whether they are rural or urban, whether they had special talents or characteristics, etc... This emphasis on diversity honored the notion of academic freedom: that the university might want to enhance the education of everyone by bringing different kind of people together.

I remember because I was a student at UCD at the time, and my father who taught there as well explained the case to me.

"Diversity" wasn't targeted at urm groups anymore (underrepresented minorities), but a university certainly could use it that way as well. Well, of course, universities began to use "diversity" only to mean urm groups. Because the problem was never to get enough White Idaho farmers or Jewish violinists to go to Harvard. Also, although international students automatically bring diversity (of culture, language, race, religion, and a whole host of other factors) somehow only domestic diversity counts.

(Logically, an all black school is not racially "diverse." By the same token, an individual cannot be diverse, only a population.)

So "diversity" is a blunt and inappropriate tool if what you are looking for is a racial mix reflective of US domestic populations. The reason is the tension between the original AA goal of compensating for past discrimination and the goal of diversity, which in actuality targets only two minority groups but sounds like it should strive for a much wider panoply of people. My department, for example, has faculty from Mexico, Puerto Rico, the Netherlands, Spain, Brazil, the US, etc... but yet we still aren't very diverse in terms of the representation of the under-represented US populations.

The Two-Hour Work Session

Two hours seems about right. It is substantial enough to get a lot of work done, even with a few distractions. It's not so long that you need to get to make coffee or go to the bathroom. You have time to warm up and then cool down at the end, and switch focus a few times. If you don't get through the whole two hours, you're likely to have worked at least an hour fifteen.

String these together on successive days over a week or a month and and you will be unstoppable.

The 5th Song

The 5th song is taking shape. It is is Bb and begins there in the tonic, with a sixth and ninth. It goes up to the subdominant Eb, then to the II chord Cmin7, with a flatted 5th and back to the tonic.

Then it goes to IV again, V7, then III (Dmin), a C#7, and a Cmaj7. I don't know if that is permissible, because I'm doing a II/V/I progression in another key. No matter, it sounds ok to me.

The next four measures will repeat the first four. Then the last four measure of the second A section will have to be slightly different, resolving on the tonic rather than on II.

It only took two days to learn to do chords in this key, so that's not so bad.

The melody so far goes like this: La, la, la, la, la // la la / la / la la. Well, I guess you have to be here to hear it. I always need chords first, then melody, then lyrics.

Lyrics seem infinitely perfectible to me, whereas the song (harmony / melody) just is what it. Perhaps that is a feature of my method.

The next step, logically, is to write down and record my songs. I've started to do both. But I think I need an album of 8 songs.

I am painfully aware of my limitations, yet my songs sound ok, even beautiful at times, to me. Toward the end of a part the other night I sat down and played one of them instrumentally and nobody complained.

I think, naturally, that I should set poems to music.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

The Fallacy Behind David and Goliath

1. We know the favorite wins more often than the underdog. Here, favorite is defined as the team more likely to win, in almost everyone's opinion. When the favorite wins, no explanation is needed, and the story behind their win is not interesting. There is no "story" there; no narrative impulse. There is not story in which the hare beats the tortoise, because, well, that is too obvious. A story must have some twist to it. The story of David and Goliath where Goliath wins is a story that doesn't get passed on in David's family. The reason David beats Goliath is that that is the raison d'être of the damned story. It's a story that exists for the sole reason of having David to do something improbably heroic.

2. So when the expected does not happen, then there must be some explanation, because the result is puzzling by its very nature. These explanations can be interesting (almost by definition), involving factors that people did not see ahead of time. But they usually have little predictive value. Why not? Well, because the underdog still loses more often than it doesn't, and the factors that can foul up predictions are unforeseeable by their very nature. A predictable upset is not an upset at all. If we factored in the factors that make certain underdogs win more often than not, then they would no longer be underdogs: those factors would just, from now on, be included in future predictions. Put another way, we can't use Gladwell's insights to win bets on football games. We can't say the underdog will always beat the point spread, or that favorite will always cover it. Of course, ex post facto reasoning is always wonderful. That's why, after the event, we can also give lists of reasons why things happened the way they did.

3. Since upsets are more interesting narratively, than expected results, and spectacular insights are even more interesting, they are more memorable. The explanations thus seem more significant. But really, they are not; unless they fall into some significant patterns, that can be made the basis of predictions. It is not particularly predictive to say: sometimes the underdog wins, because, say the chances of a 2% event occurring are still 2%, not zero. We don't remember the 98% of times when things happened like we thought they would.

[After reading some comments on Thomas's blog today I was thinking of Gladwell's book on this subject, in which he goes to great lengths to explain why things don't always occur the way we think they would.]

Sunday, December 20, 2015


Here's the problem. An ideology is like a filter to tell you what to think about a number of issues.

The idiocy of right-wing ideology is like a scape-goat. Since the right is idiotic, it must mean that we, the non-right, have the answers: just the opposite of what they think. Very easy.

But most things you might want to know don't break down that easily. So the ideological response to the right is likely to be wrong, not because the right is right, but because the answer to the right is reactive. It is reactionary.

The absence of conservatives in certain fields of academia is not bad because the conservative ideas are so great and we should listen to them. It is bad because ideas themselves should not be so easily categorized. Even about political issues. If no conservative people are part of the conversation at all, then a complacency sets in. They are idiots, horrible people.


Someone on a Facebook group, "teaching with a sociological lens," posted a New York Times article about why there should be more conservatives in academia. Of course, everyone in the group piled on, with the usual canards: reality has a liberal bias, etc... and with some caricatures of conservative thought as racist and simplistic. Very unhelpful and very simplistic itself. It was as though the stupidity of conservatism had made the group more stupid as well.


An example might be watered-down po-mo in composition studies. The idea behind it is a good one: authority and hierarchy are bad; epistemology is uncertain. But the result is that the real virtues of poststructuralist thought, any rigor it might have, devolves into base caricature, as Thomas Basbøll has shown. Another example: skepticism toward American foreign policy might make people more sympathetic to Putin or regimes in Venezuela or Cuba.


Conservatism becomes the scapegoat, a garbage pail where we throw all the idea we don't like. Misogyny, racism, free-market capitalism, gun violence. Everything in the pail smells equally bad, because all that garbage is in there. But the mechanism ends up protecting liberal thought from its own idiocies, weaker in the end, less nuanced.


A social psychologist named Jonathan Haidt, who is a brother of a former colleague of mine from when I taught at Ohio State, has developed some interesting ideas about this in his recent work. Since I am not right-wing, I recognize this scapegoating in myself. It makes life easier in some sense, but in my own work I have to figure things out myself rather than thinking that a left-right dichotomy resolves relevant issues.

My own idea is that reality has a reality bias. In other words, things are not that simple, and adherence to the idea that you just have to look at the conservative view and think the opposite is intellectually lazy.

Friday, December 18, 2015


I'd like to compose and play in a few other keys. I'm hoping this will come as I begin to use a lot of extra chords in the keys I am comfortable in. So if I know C major then I have to know the chords that go along with this key (F, G, A minor, etc..).

I'd like to play well enough to accompany myself singing my own songs, confidently. And also be able to sing while I play.

I'd like to master music notation software to the point I can put my intentions down on paper with some facility.

I'd like to record my songs with myself playing a drum track and a piano track and have Julia add a trumpet part and produce an amateur cd.

Hitting the Ground

When I read a poem in the New Yorker, I get frustrated by the lack of verbal economy. I think of Larry Hart:

Have you met Miss Jones, someone said as we shook hands
She was just Miss Jones to me
Then I said Miss Jones, you're a girl who understands
I'm a man who must be free

Then all at once I lost my breath
Then all at once was scared to death
Then all at once I owned the earth and sky

Now I've met Miss Jones, and we'll keep on meeting til we die
Miss Jones and I

That's like 90 words or so, and ten are "Miss Jones." Take the first 90 words of a New Yorker poem and nothing has happened yet. Even in a shorter one.

Prose should be concentrated in the same way. Every page must have worthwhile ideas. Even the presentation of background material must do so with a sense of urgency. In other words, it's not "here's what you should know before you understand my argument," but: this is how my argument shapes our understanding of what you might already know by way of background.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Breaking down the chords

So here's the little that I know... I wouldn't write just a major triad (CEG). Usually there would be a 7th too (CEGB). Then, usually, I would omit the 5th, or flat it, and add some upper extensions like a 9th(CEBD). So the chord sounds richer, with more color, but not too fat (with 5 or 6 notes), unless you want that effect. You can even omit the root, which give the chord a more ethereal feel. Moving from one chord to the next, you can keep some of the same notes too, and make sure the hands and ears don't have to move around too much. Transitions sound smoother. The upper note especially should not leap around too much. This, I'm told, is called "voice leading."

Factoring in substitutions, inversions, extensions, and the like, every chord has about a billion possible variations, but not all will sound good.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Writing it Down

So I am half-way through writing down three of my four songs. It is arduous--writing a measure of music might take me an hour or so. The music notation software is cumbersome, and I am clumsy with the mouse and not a particularly adept musician for that matter. What the MIDI file plays back to me is not what I intended to write, so I have to do it over again and again.

Yet this is the most fun I've had in a while.

What I can play more or less fluently on the keyboard takes me much longer to get right on th page. Then, of course, I can always improve on it. I can make the piano chords richer and more complex, and change the rhythms up to make them less boring and predictable.


What does it mean to write our prose down? The software is less cumbersome. We still must obey conventions, and know how to write in sentences and paragraphs. Writing a sentence should not take an hour.

Yet the precision of the notation must still be there. The attention to detail.


My four songs:

1. This is pick-up line song. Let's get together. With a jaunty rhythm.

2. This one is a let's live our life together song. We've already fallen in love, but haven't made the commitment. A beautiful melody.

3. The third one is a reconnecting song. We've loved each other in the past and will continue to do so. Another pleasing melody.

4. The last one is a break-up song: our love has taken its course and is no longer. The melody is catchy despite the negativity.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

4th song

I wrote my fourth song, with the express aim of not having it sound like the others. It doesn't... and yet it does.

It goes from Amin7 to Cmin7 to Fmin7, then to Dmin, Cmin, Amin7, G7

The next line is Amin7 to Cmin7 to Fmin7, then to Dmin, Cmin, Amin7, Cmaj7

The bridge goes Fmin7, Emin7, Fmin7, Dmin7, C#min7, Cmaj7 again

And the final 8 bars repeat the second phrase again.

It has some organic coherence, to be sure, and sounds bluesy without being a blues. Kind of Gershwinny,

I don't have to count measures, since I think naturally in unites of 4 and 8. I'd say the song has to almost dictate itself over the chord structure. For some reason I always start with chords and then put a melody to that, and then the lyrics come last.

For some reason I always want to use the subdominant minor in the bridge.

I realized that if I'm derivative that's a good thing: that means I'm actually able to imitate something. Imagine if I couldn't even be derivative.

Another thing: practicing the song and composing it are the same activity. In other words, I have to learn my own songs, teach them to myself, and in the process make adjustments.

Another realization: this is why I'm taking voice lessons. I didn't know why when I started.

UPDATE: Yet another factor: composing songs gives me persistent ear worm. I have to play them so much that they end up playing all day and night in my head.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Involuntary & Deliberative

Some decisions or impulses seem somewhat out of our control. For example, I began to write songs in September of this year. This arose from simply staying at my girlfriend's house for a few weeks to take care of dog and chickens while she was in Japan, and fooling around on the piano. Soon, I had a song, then another one. Then I began writing the lyrics for them, naturally enough.

This is still voluntary, in the sense that I wasn't forced to do it against my will. Rather, I felt as though I should listen to this impulse, that it was coming from somewhere significant that I would ignore to my detriment. It isn't a scholarly impulse per se, since I am not in the Songwriting Department, though I did develop a proposal for the discipline of song studies" at one point in the recent past.

It is also deliberative, in the sense that I take deliberate, self-conscious steps, to compose what I feel is a good song, and to educate myself enough to do. I have to write the next song without a tritone substitution or using III instead of I, and not beginning the song on II.

Perhaps the relation between the deliberative and the involuntary is similar to that between the routine and the improvisatory. In both cases, we can understand human creativity as mysterious in its workings. It requires both conscious and unconscious effort, and we don't really understand the relations between these two things.


Although I don't think much of Malcolm Gladwell, the 10,000 hour principle he popularized is useful. I'm thinking, for example, of spending 10,000 hours watching television, a seemingly passive activity, or listening to songs and singers in the tradition of the great American song-book for countless hours, as I have done. Many of us are intuitive experts on many things that we have done over and over. I know (in the sense of recognizing) hundreds of songs by Gershwin, Arlen, etc... My songs are likely to be amateurish, yet I feel that must teach myself to write them.

Mulberry Lane

I had written something about Mulberry Lane, a street in Davis near where I grew up. It involved the calculation 11 x 7 = 77. That was correct, but the original data was faulty and I was accused of research misconduct. The New York Times criticized me harshly, though I felt it was not my fault: someone else had publicized my findings before I had released them.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Back Surgery

I was in a hospital awaiting lower back surgery. I was looking for an empty hospital bed in which to have it. I thought that my back barely hurt, and thought to myself: "After this operation I might never be the same again." I was trying to get out of this ill-advised procedure in some way, and this happened when I woke up and realized it had been a dream.

Monday, December 7, 2015

King Nuance

Despite the brilliance of the critique of nuance in Healy's "Fuck Nuance," I still think that for my field, nuance is king. In other words, the vast majority of work could be improved by more attention to nuance and detail.

I accept that in sociology, the call for nuance might be a cheap move. In fact, it not a nuanced approach to call for more nuance in a facile way, when what is really meant is the introduction of missing category of analysis. So if you say, "what about class?" in an analysis focused on gender, that is not necessarily a call for more nuance per se. It more like an unnuanced attempt to outflank someone politically.

What I mean by "king nuance" is that

suppose someone were to talk about the postmodern death of the subject. There are a million ways of formulating that, a thousand applications, so a cliché version of that would not be very helpful, would it?


So I wrote this sappy song lyric. It is completely and utterly different from my poetry (my poetry poetry). It is supposed to be a Johnny Mercer type song:

Sleepless Hours

Though sleepless hours turn into days of regret
I won’t forget you’ll always be with me
Gone are the days of youth but still I remember
Smiles from a woman’s tender heart

When sorrows haunt my dreams and trouble my days
I feel your face smiling upon me
Then we’re together once again and the music
Echoes across the boundless years

I wrote the music too, though I didn't write it down yet, and unfortunately the first seven notes are the same melody as "I'll remember April." If you can get past that then the song is very original. I decided this lyric didn't need consistent rhyme. I also decided it didn't need a bridge. It is just a 16-bar song, kind of in an ABAB form.

It could be an older guy remembering his late wife, or a son or daughter remembering a mother or grandmother, or whatever you want it to be about, really.

This is a disturbing development in my life, that I would want to write a song like this, and be capable of doing it, composing, playing, and singing it.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

When you are old and grey
I have eaten the plums
and full of sleep
that were in the icebox

and nodding by the fire
and that you were probably
take down this book
saving for breakfast

and slowly read
forgive me
and dream of the soft look
they were delicious

your eyes had once
so sweet and so cold


Like stars ascending on a cloudless night
We got together and it felt so right
Let’s share a life together
In sweet harmony

And now I’m working on the second part
If you could hear it it would touch your heart
Let’s sing this song together
Our sweet melody

But if you say
Our love is not real
That I’m a fool for you
I’ll walk away
and never say what I feel
What’s a poor guy to do?

But when you want to hold my hand so tight
I’ll know that everything will be all right
Let’s share our life together
In sweet harmony

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Finding One's Voice

Ron Padgett has a facetious poem about the idea of the poet's "voice." He hears people talking about finding their voice and wonders if they have literally lost their voice. Where is it? etc... Funny poem.

Anyway, I've often disliked my speaking and singing voices, but my friend Bob Basil recently commented to me that he liked both: I had sent him a homemade recording of a song I wrote called "Cloudless Night." Anyway, this comment made me want to embrace my two voices rather than dismiss them. I can more confidently speak and sing now because I have an outside perspective. Of course, Bob might think I'm better than I really am in many respects because he is my friend, but that doesn't really matter. Isn't that one thing, one of the major things, a friend is for, to like one's uniqueness?

And actually the idea of not liking one's voice played back from outside one's own head is almost universal. Who likes their own voice? It is only by listening to it and tweaking it from outside that one can even embrace it unapologetically, as I am trying to do, partly by taking voice lessons.

One's writing "voice," in the metaphorical sense that Padgett was making fun of, is also a real thing to be cultivated. I think my writing sounds like me in its exact balance of earnestness and facetiousness. In one sense voice is exactly what writing doesn't ever have, but in the metaphorical sense it is exactly what writing needs. Voiceless writing is crap.

Routine, ritual, and improvisation

Routine is beneficial: it provides efficiency, safety, and comfort.

Efficiency because you don't have to think about the order in which you do something. Routine tasks are quick and efficient.

Safety, because you can avoid error. Always put your car keys in the same place, they will not be lost. Never transcribe someone else's words into your document without at the same time noting whose words they are and marking them off as separate, and you won't commit certain kinds of plagiarism.

Comfort, because a routine provides familiarity.

Ritual is the sacralization of routine, on top of its utilitarian benefits. It is a kind of "magical thinking" applied to routine. "This routine is not only efficient, but it will make everything else work right as well. It will make me safe not just from certain kind of errors, but from ERROR itself."

The problem with routine is that breaks from routine provide opportunity for creative thinking. Drive a different route to work, or do a routine task in a different way, work in a different space, or at a different time of day, and you might have an idea you never had before.

So the question becomes knowing what to approach "routinely," and what to approach creatively. Placing your car keys in the refrigerator is a creative move you might not need to take. Doing the same thing in the exact same way every day, though, will deaden the mind.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Chicken Asparagus

I took some chicken breast and cut it up, marinating it in a mixture of vermouth and corn starch. I prepared a sauce of more corn starch, tamari, sesame oil, garlic chili sauce. I cooked the asparagus spears to perfection, with a little ginger and onions, then removed them from the wok. I cooked the chicken until it was almost done, added the sauce and put the asparagus back in, mixing it all together. The trick is not to overcook the asparagus and not to undercook the chicken. Asparagus in this dish should be limp yet still crunchy, never soggy. The chicken should be cooked through but no more, so that it remains tender.

My plan for student evaluations

Here's how it would work. Students would have to compete to get into my program: I would accept the top ten students that applied. I would also have the option of dropping an underperforming student. I would coach the students to compile a portfolio of materials.

Some judges I do not know would judge, blindly, what my students have accompished against students at other universities. My teaching effectiveness would be judged solely by what I was able to make the students do.

Students' grades would also be determined by the same criterion. Their incentive is to come out on top as well. Student learning and faculty evaluation would be identical. The consumerist model of how well I am liked would fall by the wayside. I would be more like the basketball coach, recruiting students who will do well and cutting those who can't hack it.

Suppose all ten of my students place in the top 10%. Then they all get A's and I do too. If my class average is a C, then I get that as my evaluation too.

The problem here is that it gives the professor too much incentive to cheat, helping the students too much. I suppose the students would have to sit for an examination proctored by a third party.

Another problem is that my university might not have great students in the first place: how could I compete against the Ivies with what I have to work with?

Why does the right [seem to] care more about free speech?

1. Everyone cares more about free speech for opinions they themselves hold. So a defense of free speech might be merely opportunistic. This is the same for the left and the right. So a free-speech issue involving a faculty's right to insult a right-wing group like the NRA will rally left-wing professors to it. An affront to free speech that prohibits certain kind of conservative speech will arouse the ire of the right-wing outrage machine. For example, suppose political opposition to affirmative action might count as a "micro-aggression." We only know if someone is really devoted to free speech per se if sh/e defends the right to express distasteful opinions.

2. A free-speech issue only arises with an unpopular opinion. In some sense, then, the fact that the right has more issues might have to do with the fact that certain conservative opinions have become unpopular. This is a good thing, right? I'm not saying that nobody is racist, but racism is publicly unpopular, in the sense that almost nobody wants to be perceived as a racist anymore.

3. So the right "seems to care" more about free speech in the academic context, because academia skews left. Most of the left-skewing of administrators is simply a response to legalistic matters and public opinion. If they were really left-wing the world would be a much different place.

4. Just because the right has an outrage machine designed to magnify any perceived threat to free speech or the censuring of conservative opinion does not mean that these threats are not real.