Orchestral Turbulence

I was asked by a Springer editor in New York, Elizabeth Lowe, to consider contributing to volume she was creating during these pandemic times. The volume would contain contributions by mathematicians concerning what they are doing in this time of COVID.

This is the Boulder Philharmonic logo

It could be something whimsical, humorous, or just something that was happening at this time.  The editor of the volume will have the name Alice Wonders, indeed a whimsical name of an editor of a volume. I decided to write an article concerning the fact that I became president of an orchestra in Boulder in June of 2020, right in the middle of this pandemic. The article is entitled Orchestral Turbulence, and it dries to show how a particular orchestra is trying to cope with this very complex situation. As I am writing these lines, the turbulence does continue, but I won’t go into any additional complexities at the moment. You can find a copy of the article in my list of published articles and essays

Edward Gibbon

After a long hiatus, I have decided to take up my blog that I started some time ago.  Here is my new contribution.

I have been reading for a couple of months now a very well-known and much less read today book by Edward Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which he published in six volumes during 1776—1788. I am reading it on a Kindle, so it is not easy to really grasp the full magnitude of this amazing set of books as I am reading.  Six volumes would take up some space on a shelf and one can purchase them today for only $2,235.36.

My Kindle edition is an old one from the early 19th century (1845), edited by Rev. H. H. Milman. The language of both the text and the notes, most from Gibbon and some from Milman is quite old-fashioned and quaint at times. I have learned much from this reading and here are a few notes of items that I wasn’t really aware of.

When Rome, the city, fell to the Barbarians in 476AD, the Eastern Roman Empire, based in Constantinople, continued to flourish for about 1000 more years until the Turks conquered this city at the crossroads of Europe and Asia in 1453.  The city of Rome was recaptured by the eastern empire several more times more as there was a continuing see-saw over the control of Italy and other parts of the classic Western Roman Empire.

The Eastern Empire became what is known as Byzantium with its contributions to the arts and culture.  The writing down of a code of Roman law by Emperor Justinian in the 6th century became the foundation of law for continental Europe over the centuries following. The Decline of the Roman Empire coincided with the growth of the Christian Empire, which through the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches came to dominate religious thought in Europe.  The Gothic kings who took over Italy after the fall of Rome were all Catholic and the power of the Vatican was never impeded by the fall of Rome but continued to wield more and more power as the centuries evolved.

What is coming on the horizon in Gibbon’s book for me is the creation and growth of the Muslim religion by Muhammad and his followers, which I am looking forward to. One of the things that Gibbon does well is to describe the other cultures which surrounded the Roman empire throughout its history (he begins his history of the decline in about the second century AD, referring only briefly to the earlier Roman Republic which was followed by Julius Caesar, Augustus and the other earlier caesars). This includes the various Germanic tribes, the cultures of the Middle East and of northern Africa, and others. Of particular note is the continual evolution during this time of the Persian culture, which was always on the border of the Roman Empire and continues to this day in Iran, having been converted to a Muslim country sometime after the rise of Muslim culture in the Arabian Peninsula.

The iPad

The iPad seems to be an amazing device. I’m writing this blog using the microphone system on the iPad. I bought this iPad some months ago because I could read PDF files on the iPad with the Kindle reader, which I also installed on the iPad to read my Kindle books. I have a number of PDF files which represent books from the 18th and 19th-century for the research I’m doing for the book I’m trying to write. It is much nicer to read these books on the iPad than on my computer. At first glance it looked like the iPad was more of a toy than a working device. However with time, I’m learning that it seems to The iPad seems to be an amazing device. I’m writing this blog using the microphone system on the iPad, a very powerful computer. And it is much more useful than I had known or thought. One problem that I’ve been dealing with is that I have a large collection of movie files on four hard drives that I had copied from DVDs. The only way I knew how to play these movies was by attaching a PC computer to these drives in our living room(with a USB connection) and using Windows Media Center (a part of Windows 7) for playing the movies. Yesterday I discovered some software which allows me to play my movies on the hard drive attached to my PC which is upstairs in my study here in Boulder, and play the movies on either my iPad or on the AppleTV attached to our high-definition television in our living room.  This is not perfect and has bandwidth problems, dependning on the speed of the wireless system.

When we traveled to Houston recently, I only took my iPad. It turns out that I needed to type some serious emails, so I went to an Apple store and bought a keyboard for the iPad. It attaches with the Bluetooth connection and works very well.
I have learned that I can see files from the cloud from dropbox, Google Docs, or Microsoft’s SkyDrive. These files are all synced with my PC, and this is gives one great deal of flexibility.
I had thought that I was going to have to buy a new computer for living room in order to play our movie collection, but it seems that the iPad can do what I need, and this will save me a substantive amount of money.  We will see.
I presume I could do many of these things with other tablet computers that have come out, but the hyperbole concerning the iPad was quite intense, and for the first time in my life I bought an Apple product.  Having just read the biography of Steve Jobs this past week, it is fascinating to see how an Apple product does indeed work very well. Well done Steve!

Steve Jobs

Last night I finished reading a recently published biography “Steve Jobs” written by Walter Isaacson.  This book appeared shortly after Jobs’ death in October 2011 at the young age of 56.  I have read Isaacson’s other biographies of prominent individuals (Henry Kissinger, Benjamin Franklin, and Albert Einstein).  He is a superb writer and takes the time to really understand the people he is writing about.  In the case of Albert Einstein, that has to have been difficult because of the highly technical nature of what Einstein did as a theoretical physicist, but he succeeded so very well.  I had read previous biographies of Einstein, but this was as good as it got, so to speak.  With Henry Kissinger and Steve Jobs there were many contemporary people available who knew both of these individuals well, and whose interviews played a major role in both of these biographies, in contrast with the historic figures of Franklin and Einstein whose contemporaries are no longer around (for the most part), and one was dependent upon the written sources.

Steve Jobs, Apple; PC Forum, 1985 Photograph © Ann Yow-Dyson.

With Steve Jobs, Isaacson spent several years interviewing him and many of his business and personal acquaintances.  What came out, in my view, was a picture of a not so very nice person, who accomplished great things.  I refer you to the biographer’s own words telling the story of a very complicated personality that affected the world so much.  It would be inappropriate for me to try to summarize any of the story here. It is a very complicated one.  I recommend the book very much to everyone. 
I recently finished reading a biography of Frederick the Great by Thomas Carlyle.  This was a multivolume biography which included the whole history of Prussia and its predecessors over more than 1000 years.  It took me several months to finish this book, which is very outstanding in its own way  (reading the Jobs biography is a matter of days; much easier).  In a biography of the past, like this one about Frederick II of Prussia, one learns so much about the culture and the time in which the biographee is living, most of which is completely different from our modern culture.  This is true, it seems to me, of most biographies of figures from earlier than the 20th century.  The Steve Jobs biography that we have here is completely different in this regard.  All of the 20th and 21st century events and circumstances that shaped Jobs’ life seem quite familiar to the contemporary reader (either by personal experience or having learned about them in the contemporary media).  Reading this kind of biography is more a confirmation of what each of us knows about our society rather than learning something new about an older way of life. 
In summary, Frederick was trying to build a modern Europe, and Jobs was trying to build a new way of life.  They both accomplished many things that they set out to do, and were both driven by their own internal forces to achieve things that would have been impossible for most, if not all, of their contemporaries. 

On Being Human

It’s been a while since I have posted anything, and there’s no excuse!

I read three books recently that I wanted tell you all about. As we all know the human species has gone from a small offshoot of a specific part of the mammalian family to the dominant biological species in the world today (discounting the huge range of bacteria and other micro world beings).  What makes us unique?  What capacity do we have that other species don’t have (e.g., our not too distant cousins, the chimpanzees, etc.).  It turns out that there are at least three characteristics which seem unique to humankind and which have played a major role in our evolutionary development.  These are, in no particular order, our ability to run, our capacity for language, and our use of fire to cook food.  All three we take for granted, and they are all unique to our species (not running, just that we are better at this than anything else!).

The first, and most surprising to me, is our capacity to run.  According to the popular book Born to Run by Christopher McDougall, we humans can run better than anything else on our planet.  This doesn’t mean faster, but it does mean we have the capacity for running longer than anything else, and the book explains why and its significance for our evolutionary development. One of the vivid heroes in this great book about running, known in the book as Caballo Blanco, and who in reality was a part-time resident of boulder by the name of Micah True, died last week on a solitary run in the Gila wilderness of New Mexico.  The cause is still uncertain, but there is speculation about a heart attack or something similar.
The second book, Adam’s Tongue: How Humans Made Language, How Language Made Humans by Derek Bickerton, asks the provocative question: what came first, humans or language.  His very enlightening and often very entertaining book gives a vivid answer to this intriguing question and explains a lot about our culinary habits some million years ago or so and how that led to the development of language and how this interacted with our evolutionary development.
The third book, Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human by Richard Wrangham, and which I read most recently, describes how we uniquely use fire for cooking and how this dramatically affected our evolutionary development. The development of cooking and eating around a common hearth played a significant role in the emergence of many of our social structures which are as true today as they were millennia ago.
I learned a great deal from all three of these books, and although they were written independently and from different points of view, they all contribute significantly to partially answering the question of where we humans come from and what makes us different.