Blur Circle

Steve Yost's weblog

June 30, 2002

Tom pinged me about not having QuickTopic discussions on my blog entries and I weakly replied that I only have about 30 people a day visiting my blog, so I wasn't sure it was worth it. What was I thinking? If one person as thoughtful and eloquent as Tom were to visit here any day, it's worth having a discussion.

Maybe this'll motivate me to make it even easier for bloggers to use QT too.


June 29, 2002
Bartok: multiplicity demands unity

Another quote from Paul Perry's weblog rings true with me this evening:

Klossowski proposes a complementary principle: he suggests that every intention is an external event, a modification of my being, and hence a sort of demonic possession. Each thought or desire is an alteration of my previous state; it is an intrusion of the outside, a whispering in my ear, a breath that I inhale and exhale, an alien spirit prompting me from offstage or insinuating itself within me.
I get a very practical sense of the "intrusion" part of this as I practice the piano. I'm nearly through Bartok's Mikrokosmos Book 1 after years of intermittent short spans of practice. After I've worked several days on a piece, long enough for me to know it fairly well, the main struggle is sometimes simply to keep a singular focus on it long enough to get through it. It seems like a simple enough task, but I realize how insistently other thoughts intrude. It's observing this process that interests me, almost more than the overt task of learning to play more complex things.

Bartok's clear goal in the progression of pieces in Mikrokosmos (at least in Book 1) is to teach independent working of the hands. He must also have wanted to teach attention, because he's a devious genius at never letting you relax it -- a pattern never repeats long enough to be played in a mechanical way, and something new is introduced in every piece. You can almost sense him chuckling a bit as he develops them. You can also sense your attention ever so slowly being split in two as the two hands' parts vary progressively more through the book. I'd love to get to the point where I also have a third attention that can listen to the the two parts as my hands play them. Taking this further, it's astounding to think of Bach spontaneously inventing and playing multi-part fugues.

So, what's demanded by this separation of attentions is a sort of overarching unity of attention, keeping out the stray noise. It seems to be a good goal to develop this.


June 25, 2002
Locked rooms

Paul Perry writes on June 20 of the mystery of the locked room. Last night I coincidentally read G.K. Chesterton's tale of a murder in an inaccessible garden. I learned of G.K. Chesterton through Borges, one of my favorite writers, whose stories Paul refers to frequently. Not much of a coincidence, really, considering it's these kinds of interests, however vaguely defined, that attract me to his weblog.

June 24, 2002
Hang that tail, sir

I say "trail that sunshine, sir", then Mike Golby blows all vestiges of un-called-for positivity to hell (quite literally) with a reference to his earlier post "Me, Myself, and Mike - An Argument in Hell", pointed to by the amazing Mark Woods. Mike's incredible writing makes me feel like a tiny speck of a blogger. The way I feel when I look at the stars.

Forgive me, dammit

David points here, so I should fill the void. I think the palm-to-recipient "forgive me" gesture has a much better chance of catching on than the back-of-the-hand gesture. "...quick upwards thrust"? I'm in my car at a red light, and the guy behind me honks for a reason I can't figure. I check my rearview mirror, and he gives me this unknown backhanded gesture with a quick upwards thrust? I'd be tempted to put it in reverse and accelerate. (My jalopy is just ready for the expression-of-rage-through-bent-metal stage.)

Forgive me David: Palm outward is the way to go. Like the Benedictions sculptures at the Park St subway stops in Boston. And for extra humility, touch your forefinger to your slightly bowed forehead.

[In looking up these scupltures, it was good to learn that the sculptor, Ralph Helmick, was the creator of the Arthur Fiedler memorial bust on the Esplanade. At the fireworks one year, people perched on it for a better view, but were brought down humbly by chants of "get off Arthur's head, get off Arthur's head...". The gesture would have come in handy then.]

An hour of desultory blogsurfing. I guess this is what I do when most people are watching TV. Found Paul Perry's Present Attention via Whiskey River's blogroll. Need to check out the rest.

June 23, 2002
Trail that sunshine, sir

The guy--I remember him with an old army coat and a scraggly beard--who'd been talking to himself, said "trail that sunshine, sir" to nobody in particular but loudly enough to take as a benediction, as Jeff and I left Gitsis Texas Hots after a late hungover breakfast in Rochester about 20 years ago. Between Jeff and me it's still email code for totally bonkers, insane happiness, like Kong riding the bomb to oblivion in Dr. Strangelove, waving his Stetson and bellowing "yahoo". For some reason it's what comes to mind reading Marek today. Why? Do I want to banish the alcoholic brother, shut out the day we screamed at each other, ignore the deaths and illnesses of friends that become more frequent as we get older, not think about the other stuff I can't talk to anyone about? No, I need to face all these things as much as I can, talk about them as much as I can prod my private self to with people I think I can talk to. But there's still a need for happiness that's completely whacked out in the face of everthing that hurts. Just to stop and smell the gorgeously rich, fecund night air and to notice the moon and stars for the ten thousandth time. I'm too poor a writer to go on. But, ohhh yes: remember those "moments of being human, the human - full of dreams", and do it again now and now and now.

June 20, 2002
Why the net is beautiful
Tom and I had an email exchange about the Robert H. Frank article in my previous post. He understandably doubted that Iowa had at one time been a bastion of opera and questioned the "1,200 opera houses" number. I thought I'd try to emulate Woody Allen from the scene in Annie Hall in which he has an argument about Marshall McLuhan with a stranger in a movie queue. "I happen to have Marshall McLuhan right here", he says, and Mr. McLuhan steps from behind the movie placard. So I emailed Dr. Frank about it. He was kind enough to reply with substantiation and qualification of the citation (below).

Tom still reasonably questions the result and notes the variance in usage of "opera house", but the whole of it was a defining 'net experience of wide connectivity. Thanks to everyone involved.

Robert Frank's email follows:
Dear Steve Yost,
        Below I've pasted in the transcript of the NPR segment on which I first heard the opera house figure.  I couldn't believe my ears when I first heard the segment so I tracked down the producer of it and he confirmed that the number was indeed correct, but that it referred not to classical opera houses but to live concert halls, just as you suspected.  Still, a hefty number.  Savor your McLuhan moment.
All best,
Bob Frank

Copyright 1995  National Public Radio

                     SHOW: Morning Edition (NPR 6:00 am ET)

                               September  12, 1995

                              Transcript # 1692-15

TYPE: Package

SECTION: News; Domestic

LENGTH: 1149 words

HEADLINE: Historic Theater Sound Makers Found in Old  Opera House

GUESTS: TONY RIVENBARG, Hall Manager; JOAN DILLON, League of Historic American

Aileen LeBlanc of WHQR reports on a rare, 19th Century speical effects tool
used in the theater. Called a thunder roll, the device was used to simulate
thunder in the absence of modern electronic devices.

   BOB EDWARDS, Host: Theater audiences love special effects, and producers try
to indulge them.  Even during the 19th Century, theater technicians were quite
adept at enhancing the action on stage.  One of their tools was called a thunder
run or thunder roll.  It was a long wooden trough through which stagehands
rolled cannonballs to mimic the sound of a thunderstorm.  Historians believe
that only one thunder run is left in this country.  It's in Wilmington, North
Carolina, and Aileen LeBlance of member station WHQR took a tour.

AILEEN LeBLANC, Reporter: Wilmington's Thalian [sp] Hall was built in the
mid-1800s.  Like many theaters of the time, it was the pride of the city, and
like many theaters, Thalian Hall had its own special effects devices.  The
hall's manager, Tony Rivenbarg [sp], explains that typically 19th Century
theaters were equipped with trap doors and elevators, turntables and treadmills,
rain machines and thunder runs.

TONY RIVENBARG, Hall Manager: It's just a different kind of medium.  Today we
can use a tape recorder, but in that day they were able to create the sound of a
thunderstorm with wood and metal and rope and possibly even canvas.  And in
those days when audiences did not have the access to media that we do today,
that was pretty special to go inside a building and hear a thunderstorm at will.

AILEEN LeBLANC: Most theaters built in the 19th Century have disappeared,
victims of fire or urban renewal.  If the theater did survive, chances are the
effects devices did not.  The area they took up was often converted to storage
space.  Joan Dillon [sp], a board member of the League of Historic American
Theaters, is completing a book on 19th Century theaters and has found that
Thalian Hall's thunder run is probably the only one left.

JOAN DILLON, League of Historic American Theaters: The only other one that I've
ever known about was at Nelsonville, Ohio, and it burned about five or six years

AILEEN LeBLANC: Nineteenth Century theaters were called operahouses, though very
few operas were ever staged.  Dillon says the  opera houses  were as common then
as movie houses are today.

JOAN DILLON: At one time, to give you a statistic on  opera houses,  and a lot
of these are very small, but  Iowa,  at the turn of the century, had 1,300
 opera houses  in the state of  Iowa.   Kansas City I know had 13 legitimate
theaters at the turn of the century and now has one left.  And probably
equipment like this would have been in maybe several of then, and then you could
multiply that around the country.

AILEEN LeBLANC: Thalian Hall's thunder run is hidden high above the ceiling of
the theater right over the orchestra pit about 70 feet above the stage floor.
Getting there is not easy.  A series of stairs leads to a tiny room filled with
boxes of dusty archived programs and such.  A narrow, old wooden slat door opens
to a dark stairway which he climbed to the even darker attic.  You straddle a
beam and crouch through a small tunnel.  A light is clamped near a brick wall
ahead.  Tony Rivenbarg leads the way.

TONY RIVENBARG: We are on a gangway in a sense it is over the thunder roll which
runs the entire width of the building twice.

AILEEN LeBLANC: The wooden trough of the thunder run starts high on one side of
the theater and slopes all the way to the other side of the building.  There's a
slight drop.  Then a second trough runs diagonally back across the building.

TONY RIVENBARG: And then there is a wooden contraption which would allow you to
load a cannonball, and then you would pull a rope which would be attached to a
pulley - you pull a rope and then it would release that cannonball.  And then as
it came back into place would load another one.  Then the first cannonball
would start rolling down the trough making a rumbling sound as if it was a
distant thunderstorm moving towards you.

AILEEN LeBLANC: Subsequent cannonballs would increase the sound and the storm
and the storm would seem to be getting closer until it was in full force
overhead.  Pieces of the release mechanism are missing, so stagehands drop a few
21-pound cannonballs into the trough for a demonstration.

AILEEN LeBLANC: The sound reverberated in the attic and was amplified naturally
by the huge cavernous space.  It rumbled down through the open area over the
stage and out into the audience.  But, in the 1950s during one of the theater's
renovations, a firewall was built that cut off the sound path.  After many idle
decades, the thunder run was shaken out of mothballs in 1983 for the 125th
anniversary of the theater and was last heard by audiences at a gala in 1990.
For both of those events, sound designer Paul Johnson [sp] gave the 150-year-old
sound effect device some modern electronic help.

PAUL JOHNSON, Sound Designer: If you operate it without any type of
amplification, from the seating area it sounds like maybe there's a couple of
people fighting up in the attic or something.  So I did some contact pickups
on it and amplified it, and then to try to re-create the original soundpath, I
flew huge speakers aimed down to the stage so that it would simulate the
original path.  Now whether it sounded like it originally did or not, I guess no
one is left alive to tell me, but it certainly sounded very much like thunder.

[sound of amplified thunder run]

AILEEN LeBLANC: In the center of the empty house, you can get an idea of what it
must have been like to attend a performance of The Tempest a hundred years ago.

[sound of amplified thunder run]

AILEEN LeBLANC: Paul Johnson has started fund-raising efforts to fully restore
the thunder run, and Thalian Hall theater manager Tony Rivenbarg hopes audiences
in the next century will get a chance to hear a real old-fashioned thunderstorm.

TONY RIVENBARG: There's something imminently theatrical about the 19th Century
that the 20th Century continues to try to imitate, but there's still something
special about turning the crank on a phonograph or a music box opening up and
the tune coming through.  Yes, you can record and listen to a tape, but it is
not the same thing.  It is a physical vibration by the presence being there.  We
certainly are not going to get rid of all the technological advances we've
made to the building, but at the same time, we're not going to throw out what
makes it terribly terribly unique and special.  I think the combination of the
two is what is exciting.

AILEEN LeBLANC: For  National Public Radio,  I'm Aileen LeBlanc in Wilmington,
North Carolina.

   The preceding text has been professionally transcribed.  However, although
the text has been checked against an audio track, in order to meet rigid
distribution and transmission deadlines, it may not have been proofread against


LOAD-DATE: September 13, 1995

June 18, 2002
Would Mozart be pro-Napster?

If you thought you've read everything worthwhile regarding Napsterish arguments, read Joe Mahoney's blog today. He eloquently delineates the balance between propagating music and feeding musicians.

I surmise that the article in question is Tom Matrullo's here, written in 2000 (it's the top result in Googling for "Napster Mozart"). I wonder if Tom's thoughts on the subject have changed since 2000.

One thing Tom said:

We used to need the corpses: CDs, vinyl, tape, etc. We, the sorry-assed multitudes who couldn't get to the Met, La Scala, or Ozzfest to bask in the unmediated presence of the Voice, the Artist.
This reminds me of the Robert H. Frank article Yes, the rich get richer, but there's more to the story, which begins with this paragraph:
At the turn of the twentieth century, when the state of Iowa alone had more than 1,200 opera houses, thousands of tenors earned adequate, if modest, livings performing before live audiences. Now that most music we listen to is pre-recorded, however, the world's best tenor can be everywhere at once. And since it costs no more to stamp out compact discs from Luciano Pavarotti's master recording than from a less renowned tenor's, most of us now listen to Pavarotti. Millions of us are each willing to pay a little extra to hear him rather than other singers who are only marginally less able or well known. And this helps explain why Pavarotti earns millions of dollars a year, even as other tenors nearly as talented struggle to get by.
So, before music was reproducible "product", we had a more even distribution of wealth. Also, variety in music was more geographically based than now (lamented in a recent NPR piece about radio homogeneity due to ClearChannel et al). Easily accessible reproduction created stars and rendered life harder for the rest, for two reasons: fame became magnified, and income became concentrated through record sales (not to mention higher ticket prices).

So what's happening with file sharing? What was commerce becomes just sharing.
[blog in progress...]

June 17, 2002
Collaboration: it has to be unanimous

I disagree with David's explanation for collaborative technology non-use in his blog post Hierarchy and Collaboration in the Globe . He says "The issue isn't business efficiency but the maintenance of power. Collaboration software does indeed hyperlink the hierarchy. And that's just plain scary to The Establishment, the status quo and/or The Man."

In fact, lots of organizations are extremely interested in collaborative tools now. The main reason they can't successfully adopt collaborative technology is because you can't get people to all go use new technology at once, yet in the face of simple email and browser use, that's what's necessary: the new technology usage has to be unanimous. If one person in a group can't or won't use the new tech, the forum reverts to the least common denominator -- ubiquitous email. The Boston Globe article David cites says just this:

But two big challenges face Boston's merchants of collaboration software. First is the need for the technology to show real business results real fast - rather than just ''greasing'' the way work gets done in an intangible way. Some people believe that e-mail will remain the dominant collaborative technology, and it will be hard for other, more complex software packages to supplant it.

Plug: that's why QuickTopic lets you collaborate using only email (if you want) or just email and a browser (and there's a new feature coming that integrates it even tighter with email). Working with email -- so well that people don't even need to know they're doing more than just emailing -- is the best way to get technology adopted. That way, if one person uses it, all are using it -- it's at the opposite end of the spectrum from tools that demand unanimous use to be useful.

June 13, 2002
Quotable Residents

Too long have my studies and research been for my own
Pleasures and distractions.
Civilization needs the minds of its people.
My first project will be the freeing of our underground workers.
There is no reason why technology cannot be called on
To meet this challenge.

- The Residents' Mark of the Mole (1981)

June 12, 2002
Sessum/Cabo Frio

Hey, wow! I just discovered that Jeneane Sessum's husband George used to play in Cabo Frio. I have some great memories of outdoor concerts they played in Rochester summer festivals when I lived there years ago.

June 10, 2002
Mark Buchanon: Ubiquity and Pareto's Distribution

I finally read Mark Buchanon's article Pareto's distribution noted in Rebecca's blog. It's a short summary of an interesting effect: wealth distribution curves tend to have the shape, though they have varying amounts of inequality of wealth.

The finding suggests that the basic inequality in wealth distribution seen in most societies may have little to do with differences in the backgrounds and talents of their citizens. Rather, the disparity appears to be something akin to a law of economic life that emerges naturally as an organizational feature of a network
This is one of many examples of networks of interaction causing this "power-law" distribution shape. Mark's book Ubiquity covers this in detail. I read it last year, after ordering it from because it was first released by a British publishing house, and found it very interesting.

June 07, 2002
Beginner's mind, beginner's blisters

After a 12 year hiatus, I started rowing in eights again on the Charles at Community Rowing. Because of my past experience, the organizer suggested I start with the level 2 crew where I'd been before. A lot of rust builds up in 12 years, so when I signed up it was with sweaty palms. The motivation to do well gets magnified with seven other rowers depending on your totally synchronized execution of each stroke. That's part of the attraction of rowing: the demand for pure attention while going all out physically; and the beauty of the result: the speed, the grace known as "swing", and the driving beyond yourself when it finally works.

At the first session, though, the coach sent a few of us who'd never been coxwains to the level 1 group to get that experience. (Coxwains are hard to come by, so rowers are rotating to that position, which demands its own training -- yes, they do a lot more than yell "stroke", and they hardly ever do that.) Some prideful part of me was crestfallen to go back a level, another part relieved. The people in level 1 are nice to be around, and the atmosphere is casual: very different from the almost-military rigor I remembered before, especially on the occasions when I was bumped into the competitive crew's boat to fill an empty seat.

So after one nice light rowing session, I did my stint as coxwain. It was miserable. As a coxwain, you need to exude confidence and authority, focusing eight wayward heads on you to bring this 32-limbed creature into sync. As a beginning coxwain, you have to utterly fake it and just bark loudly, especially when bringing the boat in and out of the water. I'm not good at faking it, but I somehow got through it without damaging anything.

Having paid these minimal coxing dues, I now thought I deserved the jump back to level 2. This chest-thumping beasty within trampled over the small voice that tried to remind me of a decade of encrustation. The next session, I talked my way back into level 2, feeling a little remorse at leaving the group of good people I'd just met. But because it was a fully attended day, there were more people than seats in the boat, so the coach had me sit in the launch with him for the first half of the workout as we buzzed alongside and watched the crew gradually build to full pace through a series of warmup drills. Halfway through the workout, he switched me into the shell, bringing out another rower. Oar handles finally in hand, I began the process of ripping off those chunks of rust and small shreds of palm skin.

Jumping smack into a fully warmed up boat of rowers and going full pace after years of inexperience, and on the opposite side of the boat from my habit (which threw off even the tiny remaining bits of muscle memory) was, let's say, humbling. "Three seat, are you having a problem? Do you want to persevere?", the seasoned coxwain intoned in his Scottish brogue after I'd caught a crab for the third time (a move feared by all rowers where the oar catches jarringly in the water), and we'd stopped. "Yes, if you can bear with me. It's been awhile." was all I could manage. "I can bear with you, but I don't want to go swimming." The goose-crap littered dock, when we finally approached it later, shown in the setting sun like sweet home.

All the next day, though I reminded myself of the obstacles I'd faced, there was continuosly a little part of my mind rehearsing to do better, and pretty nervous about the session to come.

Next time I was given the benefit of a full session in the boat. It was a big improvement starting at the beginning and warming up, and I avoided catching crabs. Just the same, I was clouded over by a lingering fear of bringing the boat to a halt again. But there were heartening moments of smoothness and swing. The coach's commendation at the end of the day, as we put away the oars, was this: "when you're good, you're very good, but when you're bad, you suck."

What I really want to get out of this is the conscious experience of being a beginner. That means a part of me needs to be just watching: watching the faults, the embarrassment, the pride getting in the way, the physical progress. And ready to be there when that swing happens again, even more than it was 12 years ago.

Now playing at the SPLJ Gang Blog: Kevin stirs the nest, Tom Matrullo asks what's the big deal about "writing ourselves into existence on the Web", and I ask the inevitable question "is blogging art?", though honestly, I prefer to just do the blog than blog about doing the blog.


How can an article that starts with "Punctuation absorbs more of my thought than seems healthy for a man who pretends to be well adjusted." be at all interesting?

As a strictly amateur writer who's never read his Strunk and White, I find it valuable and even entertaining. Imagine trying to do an entire essay with only commas and periods. I like that kind of simplicity. I'm tempted to go back through my blog entries and do some cleanup.

Absent audience

Jazz and a rainy drive: the grey sky, the sizzling asphalt mirror reflecting red taillights, the tshhh-ta-ta-tshhh of the cymbal, the muted Miles trumpet or round tone of the saxophone. This morning it's Syeeda's Song Flute and rain over 128.

It's a strange lack of connection: when a musician records, he can't know all the ways his music will be heard. Most of the time, it's maybe background music, but in the best cases it's an accompaniment so right that the music becomes a defining part of an experience. The same question of connection, I remember from experience, goes for the radio DJ, especially at the smaller stations where there's actually a human caring about the music: who's out there hearing my 5am Saturday show? Bagel makers, lovemakers, crazed late party-ers, just-awake mothers.