August 2008 Archives

Georgia on my mind

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In case you're unclear on what just happened in South Ossetia, here is Gary Brecher to explain it all to you.  I'm a big fan of the little creep (oh, come on, that's what he'd call himself), and I love, for instance, his breakdown of why the Pentagon condemned the Russian response as "disproportionate":

If you want a translation, luckily I speak fluent Pentagon. So what “disproportionate” means is—well, imagine that you’re watching some little hanger-on who tags along with you get his ass whipped by a bully, and you say, “That’s inappropriate!” I mean, instead of actually helping him. That’s what “disproportionate” means from the Pentagon: “We’re not going to lift a finger to help you, but hey, we’re with you in spirit, little buddy!”
Less comprehensive (and funny), but no less informative, is Mark Ames's take on things, and in particular John McCain's delusional reaction to them.

By the way, I don't know if you were watching, but the Russians shut down The Exile back in June.  Oh, I'm sorry, they didn't shut it down.  They have a free press in Russia, after all.  They conducted a surprise audit of the newspaper and scared its investors into backing out.  First time they'd done that to an English-language publication, so there's another landmark. 

Anyway, Ames was the editor of The Exile, so if there's anyone who'd be likely to take a less than sanguine view of the Russian government, it's him.  You'll note he's not cheering for Georgia in this affair.

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Nancarrow? Nancarrow!

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I'm putting this story up because I just told it to someone the Sunday night, and then today Teresa Nielsen Hayden linked to one of Stephen Malinowski’s music animations on Making Light.  Okay, so the universe wants me to tell this story.  Here it is.  It’s both pointless and kind of wonderful.

About 8 years ago, I was in Paris with a bunch of people including my friend Kay.  Kay has friends who live in Paris, an American woman married to a French man.  I should say a Parisian man, or more specifically a man of the 13th arrondisement, because that’s where he holds court.  Fabienne is one of those people who knows everyone, and whom everyone knows.  He’s big and bearded and jolly, like a character in a Marcel Pagnol movie, and people love him.  In the entire time I’ve known him, I’ve never been in a public place with him and not had two or three people walk up to him to say hello.

Fabienne is a tinkerer, and his neighborhood is full of workshops.  One afternoon, he took us to visit his friend Pierre.  Pierre was an intense little guy whose enormous workshop was an utter shambles of boxes and old furniture and the kind of detritus that you see at the Marche des Puces - mountains of discarded ephemera that look perfectly ordinary if you’re French, but alien and magical if you’re not.

 In the middle of this mess was his creation.  It was an old computer, connected to a cutting machine.  The cutting machine, which was driven by software he’d written, produced paper rolls for a hurdy-gurdy.  It took Fabienne (whose English is not terrific, though it is enchantingly weird) some time to get the point across, which was that Pierre had made this entire elaborate setup to make it easier for him to compose music for his favorite instrument.

At which point a switch closed in my head and I said “Oh!  Like Conlon Nancarrow!”

Pierre looked up eagerly.  “Nancarrow?”

“Nancarrow!” I said.

“Nancarrow!” he said. 

"Nancarrow," I affirmed.  It was beginning to dawn on both of us that neither of us could speak a word of the other’s language.  This was as much conversation as we were going to be able to have.  We were crestfallen.

When I got back to the US, I dropped Stephen (who I’ve known from the WELL for a long time) an email message telling him about the man who composed for the hurdy-gurdy.  Pierre’s strips of paper, where the boxes tell the instrument what notes to play, are doing almost exactly the same thing as the rectangles in Stephen’s animations, which tell the viewer what notes are playing.  Their pitch is a function of the vertical position, and their duration is a function of the horizontal length.   Both men had turned to software to implement these oddly similar visions, though Stephen’s notes are bars on the screen and Pierre’s are holes in paper.

Stephen wondered if Pierre would like one of his animations.  Of course he would, I said.  Just be aware that Pierre doesn’t speak a word of English.

So Stephen sent Pierre a tape.  And he included this note with it:

Stephen --> Robert --> Kay --> Fabienne --> Pierre

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