Amélie Nothomb on Fukushima

On March 11th, 2011, there was Fukushima. Since then, few have dared to visit Japan. Many of my friends have cancelled their trips. When I tell them that now is precisely the time when one should go to the archipelago, out of solidarity and to prove that it isn’t a plagued land, they reply that the risk is too high. “But the Japanese haven’t fled their country!” I have said repeatedly. With a sideways glance, they reply that those poor people are the target of misinformation. It seems like any excuse will do in order to doubt not only the intelligence of the Japanese, but also their courage.

—- Amélie Nothomb, March 2012 (original text is in French).


When I was a child I heard about how Tuareg people had something like 40 different words to say “camel” (depending on whether the camel is standing, sleeping, camel poo used for fires, etc.), and how that meant something about how important camels are in their society. Now I’m trying to come up with all the ways to say “money” (in all its forms).
  • money
  • capital
  • asset
  • rent
  • fund
  • cash
  • coin
  • bill
  • check
  • note
  • stock
  • equity
  • interest
  • investment
  • debt
  • currency
  • change
  • coinage
  • dosh
  • greenbacks
  • dough
  • bread
  • bucks
  • wealth
  • fortune
  • affluence
  • wage
  • earnings
  • bonds
  • shares
  • (to be continued)

I wonder what that tells us about the importance of money in our modern society.

Twenty Six Golden Rules of Ensemble Playing


by Walter Bergman (1903-1988)


1.  Never worry whether you play the same piece as the others;  they will soon find out.
2.  Stop at every repeat sign and enter into a palaver about whether you should, should not, would, would not, could, could not, want, or want not, to repeat.
3.  Which is the most important part in an ensemble?  The other one.
4.  Always aim for the highest number of n.p.s. (notes per second).
5.  If you play a wrong note, give your partner a dirty look.
6.  Always keep your fingering chart handy.  If, in the middle of the piece, you don’t know the fingering of a note, look it up, try the note, and then catch up with the others.
7.  If a passage is difficult, slow down; if it’s easy, speed up.  In the long run it all evens out.
8.  A right note, at the wrong time, is a wrong note (and vice versa).
9.  Do take your time turning a page – it gives everyone a nice rest.
10. Rests are difficult, especially on the recorder.  If you are not sure of their lengths, ignore them.
11. If you alone are right and everyone else is wrong, follow the wrong.
12. If you have irretrievably lost your place in the music, stop everyone and say, ‘I think you need to retune.’
13. Blessed are the poor in intonation, for theirs is the kingdom of music.
14. Memorize the following line, which you can have ready for a variety of situations: ‘I alway play in tune, because I play a Moeck (Coolsma, Aulos, Dolmetsch, Koch, Kung, von Huene, etc.) recorder.’
15. Tune carefully before playing, and then you can safely play out of tune for the entire evening.
16. Your conductor has been paid.  There is no need to look at him.
17. But be sure to _follow_ the conductor (don’t be together with him).
18. Spare the breath and spoil the tune!
19. Remember, vibrato _always_ starts on the upper frequency.
20. An ornament should be an embellishment and not an embarrassment.
21. Remember Shakespeare’s immortal lines:
“A rest is silence” (Hamlet)
“My kingdom for a semiquaver.” (Richard III)
“My foot my tutor?”  (The Tempest)
22. Pick out of old books (Quantz, etc.) what you like, and bypass what does not suit your preconceived ideas.
23. Authentic interpretation is not achieved until not a note of the original is left.
24. Do be careful to select the right edition. The best editor is he who writes _forte_ at the beginning of a fast movement, and _piano_ at the beginning of a slow one.  He puts breath marks over rests and omits them where they could be helpful. He also write prefaces that make the performance of a piece completely unnecessary and sometimes even undesirable.
25. Remember, _forte_ and _piano_ marks, dots, and crescendos and decrescendos are not there to be observed.  They are decorations for the eye, invented by frustrated engravers, and they have no special musical meaning. As communications from the composer they are equally unimportant, because composers are mostly dead and don’t understand their own compositions, anyhow.
There are, however, three exceptions to this rule:
a)  A dot over a note prolongs its duration by one half-step.
b)  Crescendo and decrescendo hairpins are essential over rests.
c)  In examples like the following, adhere carefully to directions: [six measures of tied whole notes, marked ‘Nicht schleppen (do not drag)’]
26. Thou shalt not play the little bit left over at the end… [Here there should be the little musical example. The little bit left over is the 2nd entrance of a repeat.]

Market for Virtual Presence

A while ago I was looking into virtual presence with small robots. The only two serious options I found were Rovio and Spykee, two robots equipped with webcams that one can control/move through a web interface, and that have a microphone and speakers to talk to people. The good points is that they’re pretty cheap now. But they have very big shortcomings:

  • Rovio can’t get away from its base more than a few meters, or you need to buy extra beacons (come on, do you guys know about this thing called WiFi?).
  • Spykee comes in so many pieces in its box that you probably need half a day to assemble it. Which I guess makes sense if the primary users are kids who want a toy, as the robot’s look seem to suggest.
  • Rovio’s webcam can look at the floor, even lower, or the ceiling (three discrete positions).
  • Etc.

With all the hype about working from home or from remote places it seems like there’s a growing market for this in companies; how come we don’t see more of those little gizmos? I wonder if I missed an obvious choice. But if your company makes one of these that I can seriously use as my “virtual presence” and it costs under $300-400, I’m in. Bonus points for an open application programming interface so that anyone can create clever plugins for it.

Organ donors

Some articles report that in Israel, people who have already subscribed to be voluntary organ donors can get priority over others should they need an organ themselves.

It struck me how obvious this solution is in its simplicity and fairness.

Of course there needs to be a secure way to know that the donors were volunteers before getting sick themselves, and I would still think we should consider how urgent and serious the cases are, but all else being equal, giving priority to volunteer donors makes a lot of sense.

When can we see this implemented in other countries? I’m pretty sure it would raise the number of organ donors pretty significantly and save more lives in the long term.

Cutting down on information

Many of us like to get our news stream delivered to us every minute of every hour of every day: RSS feeds, Twitter or Buzz messages, Facebook statuses, emails from mailing lists, etc. That’s just the way we like to stay up to date with the world around us.

The amount of information we get each day from such sources grows little by little as more “content” gets produced, more bloggers appear, more friends get an account on Twitter, etc. More information is better: “let’s subscribe to this as well, just in case”.

Personally I’m starting to feel that staying “up to date with the world” really takes more time than I’d like, and that it’s getting less and less different from some kind of drug addiction, except too much information won’t directly hurt my physical health (note the use of the word “physical”). More information and less knowledge: at the end of the day, after getting my daily fix of RSS content, most of the time I’m not any smarter. Quite the contrary.

What if I stopped taking the time to read/like/comment on all those Facebook statuses from my friends and, instead, took the time to have more real discussions over a dinner, or a drink, with all these friends that I’m following more and more, but actually seeing less than I used to?

What if you didn’t really need to know that your one-time classmate had a bad hangover this morning, that version 2.37.9 of some software you were once interested in just came out, or that some new picture of a super-cute yawning cat just got into your daily news stream’s tubes?

You know what, there’s no way you’ll ever be able to catch up with every single meaningful thing that happens every day; that’s just too much information. What if, instead of spending all this time reading “important” updates, you considered reading more books, doing more “offline” creation yourself, hanging out with real people, spending more time with you family, reading only genuinely insightful articles and blogs (in which case, stop reading this very blog at once)?

I’m starting an information cure right now. Unsubscribe from RSS feeds that deliver information that I wouldn’t *really* be sorry to miss. Stop checking on Facebook statuses and go read a book, play or compose some music. Un-“follow” people I don’t *really* care about, and instead drop them an email about having dinner over the next few weeks. 10 minutes per day reading this particular feed, that’s 60 hours per year. Is this content valuable enough to me that I’d rather not do anything else in those 60 hours?

I feel like the web allowed us to boost our ears’ range from a few meters to thousands of kilometers, and we spend hours per day listening to everything in that range, just because we can, and our instinct tells us we really shouldn’t miss any word of it, just in case. Artificially limiting that listening power may look like burying one’s head into the sand and becoming close-minded; I believe however that the re-gained time can be used to stay sane, creative and human.