April 28, 2011

The Coming Meltdown of Cyberspace?

After the American Century

The sun may be shining brightly in the real world, but there are cloudy skies in cyberspace. At least once a month one hears about vast amounts of personal data, including codes that get one into bank accounts, being stolen from a server, or about a laptop being lost containing lots of sensitive information. Security is becoming a major problem, with identity theft on the rise and a black market in stolen credit card numbers.

I know, because my information was stolen last year, and one of my credit cards was used by someone in Florida for about a week before the bank realized it. (The good news is that almost all the money went back into my account, eventually.) 

But there are other problems, too, as every institution rushes to go on-line with as much as possible. I wrote a 30-page report a month ago as part of my work at the university, and then lost control over it, and could not even see it. The final editing was to take place on a new platform that was supposed to make it easier to nail down a final draft, as it let several people work on it in a common space. But I never could manage to open the document again, much less edit it, and I no longer feel that the document is mine. I send in specific changes for someone else to put in, but that is not the same as editing.

The problems of cyber-security and of retaining some rights over what one is writing, seem, to me at least, similar. The report has now passed into the control of well- meaning (really!) administrators. The money on that credit card passed into the control of an unknown cyber-thief. Obviously I can go and speak to the former but have no contact with the latter. But soon the report will move on into other realms of cyberspace, to be read, and perhaps edited again without my involvement. In this case, I am not much worried, but in other cases I might begin to feel that I had been robbed of my intellectual property. 

These are just clouds on the digital horizon, for now. But there seem to be more problems with a digital world than when it was mostly just a place to exchange emails.

April 14, 2011

The Cultural Value of Choirs

After the American Century  

Since I was seven years old I have been singing in choirs. There have been a few gap years, when for one reason or another I was not singing, and that was always a mistake. Because a person gets much more from being in a choir than the music itself, though that is sufficient reward.

Consider the difference between singing in a choir and being an athlete or working in a business. In both of these, the high priorities are winning and advancing.  Individualism is the main value. All too many things in life seem to be about beating the other fellow, coming out ahead, proving that you are better.

Choral singing is not about any of these things. The point is not to stand out, but to blend in. Not to get to the end of a phrase ahead of the others, but to get there at the same time. In a choir, you have to learn to listen to others and make small adjustments in order to create a common sound. All the tenors have to agree not just on the notes, but the dynamics (loud/soft, vibrato? staccato? bright/dark, etc.), the pronunciation of the words, and the phrasing of the lines. Only with such adjustments comes harmony, indeed, sometimes more than harmony: on good days you get overtones and harmonics.

In a choir, your age does not matter, and it really is not important whether you have an impressive job title or not. Pensioners sit alongside students, natives beside immigrants. What brings the group together is the music, and often I do not even know what someone does for a living, even after singing with them for years. It just isn't important.

Choirs teach people how to work with a group; how to blend in; how to compromise; how to listen and harmonize. In a well-functioning choir, the rehearsals are not only fun, they blot out your worries and problems. For a couple of hours a week, at least, you are living in the immediate moment, working to make the sound right and having a good time. There are usually a few laughs, too. 

In a choir, you learn (or re-learn) the pleasures of working together for a common goal. 

Unfortunately, not so many people are having this experience. Choirs seem to be having trouble recruiting new members. For some, karaoke singing to a mechanical accompaniment has taken its place. For others, no doubt, choral singing may just seem old fashioned. I am pleased, however, by the phenomenal success of "Glee" - a TV show which suggests the pleasures of being in a choir. although it mistakenly over-emphasizes the importance of choral competitions. 

The choirs I have been in have occasionally been in musical festivals or other events involving several groups. But the best thing about these occasions is not a competition to be the "best." Every choir has its own style and repertoire. I once heard a Bulgarian choir perform some of their national folk songs that would have been hard for anyone else to do in the same way. Give the same music to that choir and to some Norwegians, and their performances would be quite different. The pleasure is in hearing these differences, especially when choirs from several countries sing for each other. 

Each choir is different precisely because it works to create a common sound. Each choir becomes distinctive because it blends the particular voices it has and the musical traditions that it knows. under the direction of a particular conductor. Good choral singing is not about winning but about learning to value the special sound only you can make together. Echoes and audiences tell you when it is all coming together.

Want to live in the moment? Combine discipline with pleasure? Reduce the tensions of race and social class? Appreciate cultural differences? Shut off your electronic equipment and live in the NOW? And do all that as a secondary result of having a good time? Then go make some music. Join a choir.

April 07, 2011

The Coming US Government Shutdown

After the American Century

In another triumph of ideology over practicality, the Republicans are refusing the compromise on the budget, and seem now almost certain to force the United States government into a shutdown. What does this mean, for ordinary people?

For government employees, it means a forced vacation, for which they will be paid later. They may suffer a little bit if they have little cash on hand, but long-term they will be OK, financially speaking. But they will be frustrated knowing that important services are not being provided to the public.

For it is the public that suffers most in such a situation. Anyone who planned to travel to or from the US may be affected, because the passport and visa operations come to a halt. Anyone without a valid passport will just have to stay home. Foreigners, who typically do not apply for a visa to the US until shortly before traveling there, might be able to get a visa, but do not count on it. So the travel industry will be affected.

Suppose, however, that you are a foreign traveler who does get to the US. What will a government shutdown mean? All the national parks will be closed, for one thing, so forget the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Yellowstone, and all the others. You can still see Niagara Falls, however, as the best views are from the Canadian side. Virginia's Natural Bridge is privately owned, and therefore will be open. Quite likely all those Washington DC museums will be closed too, but you can still see dinosaurs wandering the halls of Congress, and various human oddities in federal office buildings. 

For a look at really strange evolutionary life forms, however, go by the headquarters of the Republican Party. There you may catch sight of such rarities as homo gingrichiensis, a grubby self-inflating hypocrite that almost became extinct in the 1990s, but has been reconstituted from DNA found in Georgia.

Another politically endangered species, once thought unable to survive in Washington is the candidatus mormonus. Once a polygamous rarity confined to Utah, this creature has been seen as far east as Massachusetts. Moreover, they are hard working and can be trained.

But perhaps the most interesting new life form on view at the Republican National Headquarters is a species of rodent that scientists have discovered subsists primarily on tea. These creatures are definitely worth seeing, but caution is advised as they can be extremely aggressive. Do not be deceived into assuming they are harmless by their careful grooming. A particularly venomous variety carries the Bachmann worm, which attacks the brain, and if not treated in time leads to imbecility.

Despite the possible shutdown of the US government, in short, there are still rare sights to be seen in Washington, even if the museums and parks will likely be closed.