Friday essay: the art of the pinch – popular music and appropriation

The Rolling Stones performing in Hamburg during the ‘No Filter’ European tour: the band’s legacy is entwined with the pioneers of black American music. Morris Mac Matzen/Reuters

Everything old is new again. Today the Rolling Stones release On Air, a collection of much-bootlegged BBC live studio broadcasts taped for a variety of programs between 1963 and 1965. The remastered set provides a rare glimpse of the young musicians playing to order the songs that defined their early hybrid sound and telegraphed – much like The Beatles – their love for African-American music.

The recently restored archival recordings map their transition from astute performers of seminal black American blues and roots music to legitimate codifiers of its (mostly white) bastard offspring. From I Can’t Be Satisfied to (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction, from Route 66 to 2120 South Michigan Avenue. Full circle, full steam ahead.


The release of these archival recordings, following on from last year’s bristling Blue & Lonesome set and the recent nostalgia-laden #NoFilter tour are a reminder of how entwined the band’s legacy is with the pioneers of black American music. From their Delta roots to their electric spirit animal offspring – Chicago and West Coast blues, Stax and Motown soul and early Sun and Chess rock ‘n roll – the old masters had cast a wicked spell over the young lads from Dartford. This, of course, is in stark contrast to the saccharine radio programming Mick Jagger and Keith Richards had grown up with in the 1950s in which appropriating another person’s culture and creative output had turned an artistic endeavour into a form of soft-manufacturing.

Music production became a lucrative industry with straight-edge white performers like Bill Hayley, Perry Como and Pat Boone cutting sanitised versions of Little Richard, Big Joe Turner and Fats Domino records when the original renditions were still fighting their way up the pop charts. As Richard explained in the Chuck Berry documentary Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll:

Then here come Pat Boone. The white kids wanted mine, ’cause it was real rough and raw, and Pat Boone had this smooth version. And so, the white kids would take mine and put it in the drawer and put his on top of the dresser. I was mad. When Pat Boone covered my record, I was mad, I wanted to get him. I said, ‘I’m goin’ to Nashville to find him’.

Cultural appropriation in a musical context doesn’t have to be at the exclusion of the original artist or the culture from which they carved their path. Pinching musical phrases and stylistic approaches – when done thoughtfully and with a desire to connect with the original work’s unique properties – has always been a part of the art making process.

And yet, as artists like the Stones and the Beatles have demonstrated, it should not be a closed circuit. It should manifest itself as a social and artistic conversation across languages, across media, and across generations – a form of cultural exchange. Although, as Keith Richards discovered when working with Chuck Berry in the late 1980s, getting it right ain’t always easy. There is inevitably a price to pay, and Richards more than anyone knows the score. For every lift, there is a link to the past – a debt owed and a palm to grease. With every lick comes a nod and a cheeky wink.


A medium of social exchange

The production of culture is very much informed by the technology that enables it. The Philadelphia and New York disco movement, for instance, were as much a technological evolution as a dance floor phenomena. Legendary DJs such as Frankie Knuckles and Larry Levan would isolate, cut, loop and layer sounds using reel-to-reel tapes to create extended remixes to maximise a track’s dancefloor credentials.

In much the same way, hip hop culture helped facilitate the emergence of the remix as a technological act via turntablism, scratching and later sampling. Inevitably, pinching the break or the intro or a signature moment and re-purposing it would evolve into an art form. By dropping musical fragments into new material arrangements, disco and hip-hop DJs from the Bay to the Island devised an accessible production methodology that would translate seamlessly into the post-analogue world.

Producers like Danger Mouse (The Grey Album) and The Avalanches (Since I Left You) and mash-up artists like Girl Talk (Feed the Animals) and Tom Caruana (Black Gold) are the millennial cut and paste inheritors of this practice.


The digital remix not only accelerated modes of cultural exchange but made possible an almost infinite splintering of sub genres and associated sub cultures. What makes hip hop culture so important – and this is analogous to the Stones – is that in the beginning, DJs like DJ Kool Herc borrowed from music that was not only underrepresented on mainstream radio, but was made by revered funk and soul artists – the so called “the sacred crates. Kool Herc championed records by James Brown, The Jimmy Castor Bunch, Cymande (UK), The Incredible Bongo Band and Baby Huey & The Babysitters.

Music is also a medium of social exchange, we can see (and hear) this in the evolution of not only disco and hip hop but also in Jamaican sound system culture of the 1950s. Sound clashes were inherently socio-political events organised as mass gatherings around big speakers and big sounds and big ideas. In essence, a sound clash was a competition between sound system crews who marshalled speaker stacks, often on the back of trucks, spinning imported American R&B records and later dub plates of exclusive Ska and Rocksteady mixes. It was sonic warfare. DJs and MCs – like Count Machuki and Clement "Coxsone” Dodd – became local superstars who cultivated their own sounds. From Jamaican Sound System culture we can mark the emergence of brand new sonic techniques like scratching (Lee “Scratch” Perry), beat boxing (Machuki), the break (Kool Herc) and the remix (King Tubby).

These musical innovations became statements of Caribbean identity. Like African and Cuban rhythms that migrated to the Americas, these sounds became migratory too, travelling with West Indian migrants to the UK, leaking into the sonic palette of predominately white groups such as Madness, The Pretenders, The Specials, The Police and of course The Clash. These would later mutate into more distilled contemporary forms such as Dub, Jungle and Drum & Bass.


A cultural awakening

The release of On Air by the Rolling Stones is indicative of a recurrent theme of the group not only appropriating African American musical stylings, lyrical patterns and performative techniques but pointing audiences to the source. Whether it be in the mimicry of Chuck Berry guitar phrases, the jungle rhythms of Bo Diddley, the vocal mannerisms of Jimmy Reed or the lyrical misogyny of Sonny Boy Williamson, the band has always worn its passion for the source material like a badge of honour.


The Stones’ breakout tours of the US and Europe (1967-72) are indicative of this dogged commitment to the form. They stacked their support act packages with African American artists such as Taj Mahal (1968), Ike and Tina Turner (upon whom Jagger is rumoured to have based his raunchy stage persona), BB King (1969), Buddy Guy (1970), and Stevie Wonder (1972). As Guy remarked recently

They were bigger than bubble-gum … when they came to America, they recognized some of the greatest musicians that I had admired – Ike and Tina Turner, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf – and let America know who we were. They let white America know what the blues is. We owe those guys all the thanks in the world.

The American tours of the early 1970s took place in a politically charged atmosphere of racial division, sexual awakening and inter-generational conflict. A time when white American audiences were still reconciling with the notion that culture was a form of identification, of exchange, a mode of storytelling rooted in race, identity, faith, sex and – after Dylan via Guthrie – politics.

It was also a period of cultural awakening, as a rich lineage of African American music – which had given the world fiercely original artists such as Robert Johnson, Billy Holiday, John Coltrane, Miles Davis and Chuck Berry – was now being commodified for new audiences by a new industry and a new genre of musical expression.

An open source ‘cookbook of rock’

The musical tool kit the latter artists laid bare – open tunings, a swinging back-beat, bending notes, long form improvisation, call and response, vocal phrasings, urban storytelling, spiritual empowerment, stage theatrics and of course overt sexual bravado were all mutated into this musical progression.

Bands like the Stones, The Animals, Fleetwood Mac, Cream and later Led Zeppelin, The Allman Brothers Band and the Grateful Dead appropriated many of these elements to design an open source Cookbook of Rock – flexible enough that it would facilitate decades of experimentation and manipulation, yet well-enough defined so that it would require devotion and authenticity to pull off a lick with your chops and dignity still intact.

Bo Diddley, the original “guitar slinger” – and by his own admission, “the man” – was one of rock and roll’s true technical innovators who has a very different take on this.

Speaking to the New York Times in 2003, he made it quite clear who were the beneficiaries of this process: “I opened the door for a lot of people, and they just ran through and left me holding the knob”.

Accusations of appropriation have, of course, dogged Led Zeppelin, with several claims that they lifted song parts and lyrics without accreditation or acknowledgement (although a court cleared the band of plagiarism in relation to Stairway to Heaven in 2016). The argument they proffer in their defence, that the pinch was more like a sample and that the result was a considerable transformation of the original, is consistent with the conceit of musical appropriation as an artistic prerogative. Yet it would seem that Zeppelin were more brazen than most.

Cultural forms as fashion accessories

The brashness of Page and Plant displays a degree of insensitivity and perhaps white privilege that lies at the heart of the contemporary cultural appropriation debate.

We have seen recently – from bindis at Coachella to American Indian regalia at Burning Man – how racial and cultural forms have been commodified and trashed as fashion accessories to serve bizarre notions of connectedness, freedom and belonging. Most prominently, this is exploited by art directors and marketing departments to window dress pop music by highly visible major label music acts who probably should know better in the Twenty-Teens.


Indian and Hindu culture gets the full treatment in the ethno-confused art direction of Coldplay and Beyoncé’s promo clip for the song, Hymn for the Weekend, that portrays Indian stereotypes – like “levitating gurus, slum dogs, and throwing coloured powder” – in a manner that, according to Rashmee Kumar, stifles critical thinking about India’s social and political climate.

Coldplay’s video romanticizes Hinduism to further exoticize India as a westerners’ paradise unsullied by harsh realities.

We see this time and again in the mish-mash of Asian referencing in productions featuring Major Lazer & DJ Snake (India), Iggy Azalea (India, again) and Katy Perry’s bizarre appearance as a Geisha at the American Music Awards.

Epitomising this trend is John Mayer’s video clip, Still Feel Like Your Man, a musical performance he confusingly labels “disco dojo” and “ancient Japanese R&B”. Although the clip is emblematic of this creative clumsiness by major artists, the music press at the time went along for the ride. Rolling Stone magazine called the clip “colourful” while Billboard magazine repeated Mayer’s mixed Japanese metaphor, adding that the Mister Whitmore directed clip is “decorated with kimonos, dancers in panda bear costumes, swordfighting and bamboo trees” despite the obvious contradiction that Panda bears are traditionally from China.


Music journalist Touré cuts to the chase saying Mayer is “not racist, he is dumb on race”. In just one tweet Touré calls out Mayer’s ill-informed approach to not only the video’s production design but even the song’s origins, which evidently have more to do with Katy Perry’s old shampoo bottles than the origins of global Asian culture. The West’s colonial view of the East however has always been perverted, as Malek Alloula wrote in The Colonial Harem back in 1981, the Orient

has fascinated and disturbed Europe for a long time. It has been its glittering imaginary and its mirage.

Pop culture is the messiness between the concentric orbits of personal identity and collective history. When appropriation is done well, with a quest for knowledge or to seek out an emotional core or a narrative truth, this messiness can create new meanings and new partnerships. It might even construct new narratives and spawn new beginnings.

When it is done in an ill-informed, shallow, tokenistic manner, it only serves to perpetuate tired yet stubbornly persistent colonial, racial and patriarchal stereotypes.

An informed practitioner

Jagger and Richards are not alone in their quest for authenticity and musical integrity. Many productive relationships were forged between African American musicians and their British disciples in the Sixties. Studious artists such as The Beatles, Eric Burdon, Ray Davies, Eric Clapton, John Mayall and Peter Green well understood the burden of institutional oppression and the insult of segregation that framed the Blues narrative. Eric Clapton in particular, when not flirting with radio schmaltz, has spent a large part of his career trying to perfect the performance stylings and musical arrangements of artists such as Freddy King, Robert Johnson and Lowell Fulson.

Listen for instance to Clapton’s extraordinary vocal performance and brutal guitar playing on his late career electric blues covers album From the Cradle.


In the swinging London of the Sixties, Clapton’s chariot swung low, he understood better than anyone the importance of cultural exchange – of being in the moment, of finding the sound, of going deep. For Clapton, the moment had to be real. He devised his own version of the power-trio band format after seeing the Buddy Guy trio tear up a club in London in 1965.

A year later, at the Regent Street Polytechnic, the roles were reversed when he witnessed the Hendrix phenomena first hand. At the bequest of manager Chas Chandler, Hendrix was invited to jam with Clapton’s new outfit, The Cream. However, Hendrix’s incendiary version of Killing Floor shocked Clapton so completely that he retreated backstage, later confronting Chandler with the immortal line: “You never told me he was that fucking good.”


Clapton was knowledgeable enough, however, to understand the lineage back to Buddy Guy and to Otis Rush and the rarefied realm within which these artists operated. Like Clapton before him, Hendrix’s brief London period was very much about research and experimentation. He grabbed what he could – sounds, rooms, gadgets, people, the air itself – to create the colours he saw in his head and by doing so blowing everyone’s mind in the process.

Keith Altham a writer for the New Musical Express at the time, remembers Hendrix as

a magpie. He would take from blues, jazz – only Coltrane could play in that way – and Dylan was the greatest influence. But he’d listen to Mozart, he’d read sci-fi and Asimov and it would all go through his head and come out as Jimi Hendrix.

Today, if Hendrix were to be studying his Masters at the Melbourne Conservatorium, we would call him an informed practitioner. Back then he was a seasoned professional working in relative anonymity in the hotbed of London with the support of Misters Clapton, Chandler, Jones and McCartney.

Today, magpie extraordinaire Bob Dylan – rock’s first poet Laureate, pirate, cowboy, the joker and the thief in the night – has spent the last two decades reverting to the ramshackle rhythm and blues template of the old masters. His Never Ending tour has become a quest for authenticity via a re-imagining of his back catalogue through the DNA of rhythm and blues. Purists take note.


So, it comes down to this notion of being informed and knowledgeable about the origins of cultural idioms that are being appropriated that defines music making and performance. Its evolution is an often lawless and contested process of cultural and technical mutation – a hack of the circuits, a pinch of the code.

In the first instance, something has to be identified as being worthy of emulation or adaptation, and in turn, something then has to be gained from the act of appropriating it. The art form must evolve, diversify, move forward, or – as the case is with Hendrix – take a giant leap into the future.

The Conversation

Mitch Goodwin does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Source: http://ift.tt/10p9N0X

On the Tranquility of Mind: Seneca on Resilience, the Trap of Power and Prestige, and How to Calibrate Our Ambitions for Maximum Contentment

“That man lives badly who does not know how to die well.”


On the Tranquility of Mind: Seneca on Resilience, the Trap of Power and Prestige, and How to Calibrate Our Ambitions for Maximum Contentment

“Wherever life can grow, it will. It will sprout out, and do the best it can,” the poet Gwendolyn Brooks wrote in her abiding ode to perseverance. But in our quest to do the best we can, we are apt to defeat ourselves by pushing against life with the brute force of uncalibrated ambition, razing our peace of mind on the sharp-edged sense that there is always more to achieve. If the object of life is not mere resilience but flourishing, attaining it may be less a matter of wild pursuit of favorable outcomes that leave us perpetually dissatisfied and reaching for more than of wise acceptance that allows us to do the best we can with the cards we’ve been dealt.

That is what the great first-century Roman philosopher Seneca examines in a dialogue titled “On the Tranquility of Mind,” included in the indispensable 1968 volume Stoic Philosophy of Seneca: Essays and Letters (public library).

seneca

Seneca, translated here by classics scholar Moses Hadas, admonishes against the trap of power and prestige:

We are all chained to fortune: the chain of one is made of gold, and wide, while that of another is short and rusty. But what difference does it make? The same prison surrounds all of us, and even those who have bound others are bound themselves; unless perchance you think that a chain on the left side is lighter. Honors bind one man, wealth another; nobility oppresses some, humility others; some are held in subjection by an external power, while others obey the tyrant within; banishments keep some in one place, the priesthood others. All life is slavery. Therefore each one must accustom himself to his own condition and complain about it as little as possible, and lay hold of whatever good is to be found near him.

Illustration from Six Dots, the illustrated story of how blind child inventor Louis Braille changed the world

Two millennia before Holocaust survivor and humanitarian Viktor Frankl proffered his hard-earned conviction that “everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances,” Seneca writes:

Nothing is so bitter that a calm mind cannot find comfort in it. Small tablets, because of the writer’s skill, have often served for many purposes, and a clever arrangement has often made a very narrow piece of land habitable. Apply reason to difficulties; harsh circumstances can be softened, narrow limits can be widened, and burdensome things can be made to press less severely on those who bear them cleverly.

In a complement to his famous advice on our mightiest self-defense against misfortune, Seneca highlights the other side to this notion of not letting ill fortune dispirit us — the importance of also not letting our desire for good fortune imprison us into a state of endless striving:

With the omission of those things which either cannot be done, or can only be done with difficulty, let us follow the things which are placed near at hand and which offer encouragement to our hopes; but let us remember that all things are equally unimportant, presenting a different appearance on the outside, but equally empty within.

Art by Olivier Tallec from Louis I, King of the Sheep
Art from Louis I, King of the Sheep, an illustrated parable of how power corrupts.

He cautions against envying those who rank higher than we do and who hold positions of power, for power is its own trap and ambition, as David Foster Wallace observed two thousand years later, a double-edged sword:

Whatever seems lofty is dangerous… Those whom an unfavorable fortune has placed in a critical position will be safer if they eliminate pride from their proud circumstances and bring down their fortune as much as possible to a lowly state. Indeed there are many who must of necessity cling to their high position, from which they cannot descend except by falling: but they testify that … they are not raised to their high position, but chained to it: let them prepare, by means of justice and human clemency, with a kind and liberal hand, many means of assistance for a safe descent, on the hope of which they can rest more securely. Yet nothing will free us from these disturbances of the mind so well as always fixing some limit to our advancement.

Art from Beastly Verse by JooHee Yoon

Untamed ambition, Seneca admonishes, stands in the way of meeting life on its own terms with calm consent — acceptance that is the supreme prerequisite for tranquility of mind. The most we can do, he argues, is accept every card life deals us, be it winning or losing, as temporarily borrowed from the deck to which it must ultimately return. The measure of wisdom and the key to peace of mind is the nonresistance and graciousness with which we return what we have borrowed when the time of our loan is up:

The wise man … does not need to walk about timidly or cautiously: for he possesses such self-confidence that he does not hesitate to go to meet fortune nor will he ever yield his position to her: nor has he any reason to fear her, because he considers not only slaves, property, and positions of honor, but also his body, his eyes, his hands, — everything which can make life dearer, even his very self, as among uncertain things, and lives as if he had borrowed them for his own use and was prepared to return them without sadness whenever claimed. Nor does he appear worthless in his own eyes because he knows that he is not his own, but he will do everything as diligently and carefully as a conscientious and pious man is accustomed to guard that which is entrusted in his care. Yet whenever he is ordered to return them, he will not complain to fortune, but will say: “I thank you for this which I have had in my possession. I have indeed cared for your property, — even to my great disadvantage, — but, since you command it, I give it back to you and restore it thankfully and willingly…” If nature should demand of us that which she has previously entrusted to us, we will also say to her: “Take back a better mind than you gave: I seek no way of escape nor flee: I have voluntarily improved for you what you gave me without my knowledge; take it away.” What hardship is there in returning to the place whence one has come? That man lives badly who does not know how to die well.

Complement the altogether magnificent Stoic Philosophy of Seneca with Seneca on the antidote to anxiety, his insightful advice on distinguishing between true and false friendship, and Marcus Aurelius — another Stoic sage of timeless wisdom — on the key to living fully.


donating = loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes me hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.


newsletter

Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s most unmissable reads. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

Source: http://ift.tt/1LkXywO

Here We Are: Oliver Jeffers’s Warm Illustrated Field Guide to Living Together on Our Pale Blue Dot

A tender invitation to fathom the shared cosmic destiny behind our glorious differences.


Here We Are: Oliver Jeffers’s Warm Illustrated Field Guide to Living Together on Our Pale Blue Dot

When the Voyager 1 spacecraft turned its camera back on the Solar System for one last look after taking its pioneering photographs of our planetary neighborhood, it captured a now-iconic image of Earth — a tiny pixel in a tiny slice of an incomprehensibly vast universe. The photograph was christened the “Pale Blue Dot” thanks to Carl Sagan, who immortalized the moment in his timeless monologue on our place in the cosmos:

From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But for us, it’s different. Consider again that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there — on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

Forty years after the Voyager sailed into space, we seem to have lost sight of this beautiful and sobering perspective, drifting further and further into our divides, fragmenting our fragile home pixel into more and more warring factions, and forgetting that we are bound together by the improbable miracle of life on this Pale Blue Dot and a shared cosmic destiny.

A mighty antidote to this civilizational impoverishment of imagination comes from Oliver Jeffers, one of the great visual storytellers of our time, in Here We Are: Notes for Living on Planet Earth (public library) — Jeffers’s most personal picture-book yet, dedicated to his firstborn child. (The subtitle, Jeffers said, was inspired by The Universe in Verse, which he attended with his own father.) With expressive illustrations and spare, warm words, Jeffers extends an invitation to all humans, new and old, to fathom the beautiful unity of beings, so gloriously different, orbiting a shared Sun on a common cosmic voyage.

Taking an approach evocative of Charles and Ray Eames’s iconic Powers of Ten, Jeffers zooms from the Solar System to Earth to the city to its living kaleidoscope of inhabitants to the single home where a newborn is meeting the world for the first time, illustrating the intricate interconnectedness of life across all scales of existence.

On our planet, there are people.
One people is a person.
You are a person. You have a body.

[…]

People come in many shapes, sizes and colors.

We may all look different, act different and sound different … but don’t be fooled, we are all people.

In the final pages, we see the new father embrace his cocooned child as the whole of humanity stretches into infinity in a colorful waiting line of helpers, reminding us that it takes a village — our global village — to nurture any one life on Earth.

Complement the charming Here We Are with Jeffers’s illustrated love letter to books and his imaginative celebration of the alphabet, then revisit Carl Sagan on why reading is essential to a just world.

Illustrations courtesy of Oliver Jeffers


donating = loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes me hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.


newsletter

Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s most unmissable reads. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

Source: http://ift.tt/1LkXywO

Pioneering Physicist Enrico Fermi on the “Utility” of Science, the Aim of Knowledge, and Our Ultimate Responsibility to Nature

“Scientific advances in basic understanding have sooner or later led to technical and industrial applications that have revolutionized our way of life.”


Pioneering Physicist Enrico Fermi on the “Utility” of Science, the Aim of Knowledge, and Our Ultimate Responsibility to Nature

On the train ride home from Thanksgiving with my makeshift family, I sat next to a middle-aged man animated by the barely repressed urge to talk. In that woeful way we have of mistaking other human beings for interruptions, I was at first vexed by this violation of my solitude — sorely needed recovery for this introvert after days in a human beehive, however beloved. But his enthusiasm was irresistible — we eventually struck up a conversation. Within minutes, he had told me his life-story: He was born to an alcoholic mother who killed one of his sisters by throwing the baby into the bathtub in a drunken rage. The remaining children were scattered across foster homes and eventually adopted into different families. Bereft of a formal education, he now lived in Long Island, working a blue collar job, having always believed he had four biological sisters — until he took a genetic test and discovered a fifth sister of whom none of the other siblings knew. After connecting via Facebook, they had just met for the first time. He was now traveling home from Utah, where she lived — a thirty-hour train journey he had taken because he couldn’t afford airfare and had a mortal fear of flying anyway, he told me.

I asked how he felt about such a major existential recalibration — after having gained something so extraordinary in this world of losses. “Like a million dollars,” he beamed. He had also discovered that, although he had always thought he was Irish, Eastern European, North African, and Spanish blood coursed through his veins, which made him feel like a proud “citizen of the world.”

This simple, kind man, who looked to be in his mid-sixties — born right around the discovery of the double helix — was a living testament to the perennial and perennially misguided question as to the practical utility of scientific breakthroughs. When Rosalind Franklin, James Watson, and Francis Crick were laboring to discern the molecular structure of DNA, they didn’t envision — they couldn’t have envisioned — that a man in Long Island would one day spit into a plastic tube he could afford on his meager salary and find his long-lost sister in Utah, returning home with a new lease on life. As he told me the story of meeting his newfound kin, he showed me photos of them — how astoundingly alike they looked — on his smartphone, which compresses data into digital images with the help of imaginary numbers — Euler’s eighteenth-century feat of abstract mathematics with roots in Ancient Greece. Those digital images are encoded with location data based on the phone’s GPS function, which puts into practice Einstein’s relativity theory. None of these scientists imagined, much less planned for, these applications of their discoveries, at once utterly mundane in the general context of today and utterly miraculous in the particular context of my train companion’s life.

Enrico Fermi

The pioneering Italian-American physicist Enrico Fermi (September 29, 1901–November 28, 1954) addressed this civilizational short-sightedness about the practical returns of scientific research in a lecture he delivered in January of 1952, cited in Fermi Remembered (public library).

Focusing on his particular interest in particle physics, Fermi — who was erroneously awarded the Nobel Prize in 1938 for a discovery Lise Meitner would soon invalidate but was nonetheless a brilliant physicist of profound and lasting contribution to science — wrote:

Some of you may ask what is the good of working so hard merely to collect a few facts which will bring no pleasure except to a few long hairs who love to collect such things and will be of no use to anybody, because only few specialists at beast will be able to understand them? In answer to such question I may venture a fairly safe prediction. [The] history of science and technology has constantly taught us that scientific advances in basic understanding have sooner or later led to technical and industrial applications that have revolutionized our way of life. It seems to me improbable that this effort to get at the structure of matter should be an exception to the rule — what is less certain, and what we fervently hope, is that man will soon grow sufficiently adult to make good use of the powers that he acquires over nature.

Complement with Abraham Flexner’s timeless case for the usefulness of useless knowledge and pioneering biochemist Erwin Chargaff on the value of unremembered work, then revisit the story of Marie Curie’s little-known humanitarian work with X-ray ambulances, which saved countless lives also using technology based on science the utility of which could not have been envisioned at the time of discovery.


donating = loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes me hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.


newsletter

Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s most unmissable reads. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

Source: http://ift.tt/1LkXywO

Neuroscientist Christof Koch on Free Will

“Freedom is always a question of degree rather than an absolute good that we do or do not possess.”


Neuroscientist Christof Koch on Free Will

“I want to be free,” seventeen-year-old Sylvia Plath declared in a letter to her mother — a yearning that hurled her in the inevitable logical direction of the larger question of what freedom really means and to what extent it is in our possession at all. Several months later, Plath contemplated that question in her diary: “As for free will, there is such a narrow crack of it for man to move in, crushed as he is from birth by environment, heredity, time and event and local convention.”

For any sensitive and reasoning person, this bifurcation between the desire to be free and the awareness that we might not be is the source of immense and lifelong existential disquiet. “Freedom,” wrote the psychologist Rollo May “is the capacity to pause in the face of stimuli from many directions at once and, in this pause, to throw one’s weight toward this response rather than that one.” But are we really the ones who do the throwing, or is our weight moved between responses by the same impartial forces that propel the planets along their orbits? Is what we call choice really just the illusion of choice in a universe governed by immutable laws of physics and a large measure of randomness?

Neuroscientist Christof Koch offers a lucid yet palliative perspective in a portion of Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist (public library) — his fascinating inquiry into the central fact of our lives.

A 1573 painting by Portuguese artist, historian, and philosopher Francisco de Holanda, a student of Michelangelo’s, found in Cosmigraphics by Michael Benson.

Koch begins with the commonest, most populist definition of free will, unevolved since the days of Descartes and the clockwork universe:

You are free if, under identical circumstances, you could have acted otherwise. Identical circumstances refer to not only the same external conditions but also the same brain states. This is the strong, libertarian, or Cartesian position, as it was articulated by Descartes, whom we keep encountering. Will with a capital “W,” the real thing.

But such a stringent definition, Koch notes, only lends itself to problems with binary, black-and-white answers — it begins to lose relevance and utility as the degree of complexity and nuance increases. Instead, he proffers a looser model of free will known as compatibilism, commonly endorsed by biologists, psychologists, physicians, and lawmakers:

You are free if you can follow your own desires and preferences. Determinism and free will can coexist. They are compatible with each other. Provided you are not in the throes of some inner compulsion, nor acting under the undue influence of other persons or powers, you are the master of your destiny. A long-term smoker who wants to quit but who lights up, again and again, is not free. His desire is thwarted by his addiction. Under this definition, few of us are completely free. Compatibilism does not appeal to otherworldly entities such as souls. It is all of this earth.

Thich Quang Duc during his self-immolation. Photograph by Malcolm Browne.

For an extreme example of compatibilism in action, Koch points to the Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc, who famously set himself on fire in 1963 to protest the tyrannical regime in South Vietnam and burned to his own death with silent composure, not once flinching from his lotus position. Koch considers the universal truth within the fact of this particular action:

For the rest of us, who struggle to avoid going for dessert, freedom is always a question of degree rather than an absolute good that we do or do not possess.

Koch goes on to explore how the problem of free will changed as we moved from the clockwork universe of Newton’s day, wound out of any freedom by fixed physical laws that have pre-determined every future outcome since the beginning of time, to the conditional causalities of chaos theory and the ultimate death-blow to determinism in the uncertainty principle of quantum physics. Complement this particular fragment of Consciousness with neuroscientist Sam Harris on how acknowledging the illusoriness of free will liberates us and astrophysicist Janna Levin on living with moral responsibility in a universe bereft of free will.


donating = loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes me hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.


newsletter

Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s most unmissable reads. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

Source: http://ift.tt/1LkXywO

Inside Grand Seiko: The Master Craftsman

3h0a3688 copy.jpg?ixlib=rails 1.1

This has been something of a watershed year for Grand Seiko. For the first time in the history of Grand Seiko, it’s no longer a subcategory of Seiko watches in general, but rather, a brand in its own right. The change reflects a long-standing reality, which is that Grand Seiko watches are made in a very particular way, and in very specific places. 

Mechanical Grand Seiko watches are all assembled at the Shizuku-ishi Watch Studio, in the city of Morioka, which is located in Iwate Prefecture in northern Japan. This is well known to Grand Seiko enthusiasts. What’s perhaps less well known is that quartz and Spring Drive Grand Seiko watches also have their own separate home in Japan, the Shinshu Watch Studio, which is located in Shiojiri, Nagano Prefecture. Shinshu Watch Studio houses not only the manufacturing and assembly facilities for quartz and Spring Drive Grand Seiko, but also workshops for crafting Grand Seiko cases, hands, and dials for all Grand Seiko models.

In this three-part series, we’ll be taking you inside the Shinshu Watch Studio in Shiojiri for a detailed look at the techniques, methods, and above all, the craftspeople whose skills make the creation of Grand Seiko watches possible. We’ll also be taking an especially close look – naturally, since for the making of this series, the Shinshu Watch Studio was our home – at the creation of Grand Seiko Spring Drive watches, and the long and sometimes quite arduous process of development that led to the unveiling of the first Spring Drive watches, in 1999.

One of the most essential characteristics of Grand Seiko watches, is that whether quartz, mechanical, or Spring Drive, each is assembled by a single watchmaker. At the Shinshu Watch Studio, a master is in residence: Yoshifusa Nakazawa, who is the master craftsman at the Micro Artist Studio. This small workshop is where the most complex, as well as the most technically and aesthetically sophisticated, Spring Drive watches are hand-finished and hand assembled, by a small team led by Nakazawa (who is training a single apprentice in the painstakingly acquired skills he possesses).

Though very few Spring Drive minute repeaters, sonneries, and Eichi watches are made each year, the philosophy expressed by Nakazawa in the creation of these timepieces illuminates the special properties of Spring Drive as a whole, as both a technically unique and distinctly Japanese approach to the art of watchmaking.

For more information on the Grand Seiko collections, visit Grand Seiko online.

Source: http://ift.tt/1IiKaDm

Inside Grand Seiko: The Master Craftsman

3h0a3688 copy.jpg?ixlib=rails 1.1

This has been something of a watershed year for Grand Seiko. For the first time in the history of Grand Seiko, it’s no longer a subcategory of Seiko watches in general, but rather, a brand in its own right. The change reflects a long-standing reality, which is that Grand Seiko watches are made in a very particular way, and in very specific places. 

Mechanical Grand Seiko watches are all assembled at the Shizuku-ishi Watch Studio, in the city of Morioka, which is located in Iwate Prefecture in northern Japan. This is well known to Grand Seiko enthusiasts. What’s perhaps less well known is that quartz and Spring Drive Grand Seiko watches also have their own separate home in Japan, the Shinshu Watch Studio, which is located in Shiojiri, Nagano Prefecture. Shinshu Watch Studio houses not only the manufacturing and assembly facilities for quartz and Spring Drive Grand Seiko, but also workshops for crafting Grand Seiko cases, hands, and dials for all Grand Seiko models.

In this three-part series, we’ll be taking you inside the Shinshu Watch Studio in Shiojiri for a detailed look at the techniques, methods, and above all, the craftspeople whose skills make the creation of Grand Seiko watches possible. We’ll also be taking an especially close look – naturally, since for the making of this series, the Shinshu Watch Studio was our home – at the creation of Grand Seiko Spring Drive watches, and the long and sometimes quite arduous process of development that led to the unveiling of the first Spring Drive watches, in 1999.

One of the most essential characteristics of Grand Seiko watches, is that whether quartz, mechanical, or Spring Drive, each is assembled by a single watchmaker. At the Shinshu Watch Studio, a master is in residence: Yoshifusa Nakazawa, who is the master craftsman at the Micro Artist Studio. This small workshop is where the most complex, as well as the most technically and aesthetically sophisticated, Spring Drive watches are hand-finished and hand assembled, by a small team led by Nakazawa (who is training a single apprentice in the painstakingly acquired skills he possesses).

Though very few Spring Drive minute repeaters, sonneries, and Eichi watches are made each year, the philosophy expressed by Nakazawa in the creation of these timepieces illuminates the special properties of Spring Drive as a whole, as both a technically unique and distinctly Japanese approach to the art of watchmaking.

For more information on the Grand Seiko collections, visit Grand Seiko online.

Source: http://ift.tt/1IiKaDm

Inside Grand Seiko: The Master Craftsman

3h0a3688 copy.jpg?ixlib=rails 1.1

This has been something of a watershed year for Grand Seiko. For the first time in the history of Grand Seiko, it’s no longer a subcategory of Seiko watches in general, but rather, a brand in its own right. The change reflects a long-standing reality, which is that Grand Seiko watches are made in a very particular way, and in very specific places. 

Mechanical Grand Seiko watches are all assembled at the Shizuku-ishi Watch Studio, in the city of Morioka, which is located in Iwate Prefecture in northern Japan. This is well known to Grand Seiko enthusiasts. What’s perhaps less well known is that quartz and Spring Drive Grand Seiko watches also have their own separate home in Japan, the Shinshu Watch Studio, which is located in Shiojiri, Nagano Prefecture. Shinshu Watch Studio houses not only the manufacturing and assembly facilities for quartz and Spring Drive Grand Seiko, but also workshops for crafting Grand Seiko cases, hands, and dials for all Grand Seiko models.

In this three-part series, we’ll be taking you inside the Shinshu Watch Studio in Shiojiri for a detailed look at the techniques, methods, and above all, the craftspeople whose skills make the creation of Grand Seiko watches possible. We’ll also be taking an especially close look – naturally, since for the making of this series, the Shinshu Watch Studio was our home – at the creation of Grand Seiko Spring Drive watches, and the long and sometimes quite arduous process of development that led to the unveiling of the first Spring Drive watches, in 1999.

One of the most essential characteristics of Grand Seiko watches, is that whether quartz, mechanical, or Spring Drive, each is assembled by a single watchmaker. At the Shinshu Watch Studio, a master is in residence: Yoshifusa Nakazawa, who is the master craftsman at the Micro Artist Studio. This small workshop is where the most complex, as well as the most technically and aesthetically sophisticated, Spring Drive watches are hand-finished and hand assembled, by a small team led by Nakazawa (who is training a single apprentice in the painstakingly acquired skills he possesses).

Though very few Spring Drive minute repeaters, sonneries, and Eichi watches are made each year, the philosophy expressed by Nakazawa in the creation of these timepieces illuminates the special properties of Spring Drive as a whole, as both a technically unique and distinctly Japanese approach to the art of watchmaking.

For more information on the Grand Seiko collections, visit Grand Seiko online.

Source: http://ift.tt/1IiKaDm

Inside Grand Seiko: The Master Craftsman

3h0a3688 copy.jpg?ixlib=rails 1.1

This has been something of a watershed year for Grand Seiko. For the first time in the history of Grand Seiko, it’s no longer a subcategory of Seiko watches in general, but rather, a brand in its own right. The change reflects a long-standing reality, which is that Grand Seiko watches are made in a very particular way, and in very specific places. 

Mechanical Grand Seiko watches are all assembled at the Shizuku-ishi Watch Studio, in the city of Morioka, which is located in Iwate Prefecture in northern Japan. This is well known to Grand Seiko enthusiasts. What’s perhaps less well known is that quartz and Spring Drive Grand Seiko watches also have their own separate home in Japan, the Shinshu Watch Studio, which is located in Shiojiri, Nagano Prefecture. Shinshu Watch Studio houses not only the manufacturing and assembly facilities for quartz and Spring Drive Grand Seiko, but also workshops for crafting Grand Seiko cases, hands, and dials for all Grand Seiko models.

In this three-part series, we’ll be taking you inside the Shinshu Watch Studio in Shiojiri for a detailed look at the techniques, methods, and above all, the craftspeople whose skills make the creation of Grand Seiko watches possible. We’ll also be taking an especially close look – naturally, since for the making of this series, the Shinshu Watch Studio was our home – at the creation of Grand Seiko Spring Drive watches, and the long and sometimes quite arduous process of development that led to the unveiling of the first Spring Drive watches, in 1999.

One of the most essential characteristics of Grand Seiko watches, is that whether quartz, mechanical, or Spring Drive, each is assembled by a single watchmaker. At the Shinshu Watch Studio, a master is in residence: Yoshifusa Nakazawa, who is the master craftsman at the Micro Artist Studio. This small workshop is where the most complex, as well as the most technically and aesthetically sophisticated, Spring Drive watches are hand-finished and hand assembled, by a small team led by Nakazawa (who is training a single apprentice in the painstakingly acquired skills he possesses).

Though very few Spring Drive minute repeaters, sonneries, and Eichi watches are made each year, the philosophy expressed by Nakazawa in the creation of these timepieces illuminates the special properties of Spring Drive as a whole, as both a technically unique and distinctly Japanese approach to the art of watchmaking.

For more information on the Grand Seiko collections, visit Grand Seiko online.

Source: http://ift.tt/1IiKaDm

Inside Grand Seiko: The Master Craftsman

3h0a3688 copy.jpg?ixlib=rails 1.1

This has been something of a watershed year for Grand Seiko. For the first time in the history of Grand Seiko, it’s no longer a subcategory of Seiko watches in general, but rather, a brand in its own right. The change reflects a long-standing reality, which is that Grand Seiko watches are made in a very particular way, and in very specific places. 

Mechanical Grand Seiko watches are all assembled at the Shizuku-ishi Watch Studio, in the city of Morioka, which is located in Iwate Prefecture in northern Japan. This is well known to Grand Seiko enthusiasts. What’s perhaps less well known is that quartz and Spring Drive Grand Seiko watches also have their own separate home in Japan, the Shinshu Watch Studio, which is located in Shiojiri, Nagano Prefecture. Shinshu Watch Studio houses not only the manufacturing and assembly facilities for quartz and Spring Drive Grand Seiko, but also workshops for crafting Grand Seiko cases, hands, and dials for all Grand Seiko models.

In this three-part series, we’ll be taking you inside the Shinshu Watch Studio in Shiojiri for a detailed look at the techniques, methods, and above all, the craftspeople whose skills make the creation of Grand Seiko watches possible. We’ll also be taking an especially close look – naturally, since for the making of this series, the Shinshu Watch Studio was our home – at the creation of Grand Seiko Spring Drive watches, and the long and sometimes quite arduous process of development that led to the unveiling of the first Spring Drive watches, in 1999.

One of the most essential characteristics of Grand Seiko watches, is that whether quartz, mechanical, or Spring Drive, each is assembled by a single watchmaker. At the Shinshu Watch Studio, a master is in residence: Yoshifusa Nakazawa, who is the master craftsman at the Micro Artist Studio. This small workshop is where the most complex, as well as the most technically and aesthetically sophisticated, Spring Drive watches are hand-finished and hand assembled, by a small team led by Nakazawa (who is training a single apprentice in the painstakingly acquired skills he possesses).

Though very few Spring Drive minute repeaters, sonneries, and Eichi watches are made each year, the philosophy expressed by Nakazawa in the creation of these timepieces illuminates the special properties of Spring Drive as a whole, as both a technically unique and distinctly Japanese approach to the art of watchmaking.

For more information on the Grand Seiko collections, visit Grand Seiko online.

Source: http://ift.tt/1IiKaDm