Glasgow Art School Fire

This is a terrible, terrible loss.  I never saw the building in person, but we studied it in school and even from photos you can see an elegant, original work of enormous presence and competence.  It was probably well documented, as it’s a major monument of modern architecture, so it can be restored.  All the student work and library, not so much…

What I don’t understand is how this happened.  Buildings with sprinklers don’t burn this way, even if (as is likely) they’re full of dangerous stuff like paint and solvents, and paper.  Heads need to roll; did some nitwit nix sprinkler installation because the pipes would be ugly?

UPDATE 25/V: a “fire suppression system” but not sprinklers “due to the risk of water damage” was due to be installed in three weeks.  “In buildings completely protected by fire sprinkler systems, over 99% of fires were controlled by fire sprinklers alone”, says this interesting entry, along with  “In Scotland, all new schools are sprinklered.” Canny Scots, indeed, to know the value of the lives of their children so precisely: right in between the cost of new-construction and retrofit sprinklers! If a few students and profs had been incinerated in the art school, I wonder if its flack would have been as insouciant as this: “Early speculation about a water sprinkler system either not working or yet to be installed was brushed away by a spokesman for the school, who said: ‘There has never been a sprinkler system here because of the risk of water damage to fragile artefacts if it were activated in error.’”

In any case, they now have (personal safety aside) the worst possible outcome. In 2004, retrofit sprinkler costs were about $3/ft.2 at the high end, and dry-pipe systems for locations where water damage is a concern are well-developed. If this building had been sprinklered, it would have had a small fire in the basement, promptly extinguished by sprinklers, and one room full of wet stuff. Instead the fire propagated up to the roof while the fire department was en route, the latter pumped a Niagara of water throughout the building, and taxpayers will pay tens of millions for restoration.

Fires happen. Sprinklers are ugly (though they can be hidden at a price); secondary means of egress are expensive, fire doors are a nuisance.  Right; now lets hear it for those commie oppressive job-killing thug regulators, writing and enforcing codes, that have saved us so much blood and treasure (and the firefighters who go into harm’s way when things go bad, even when the bean-counters and building owners have set them up).

By the way, do you have a nice red 5ABC extinguisher in your kitchen in plain view, near the way out? Is it in date and fully charged? Does everyone in the house know how to use it (aim at the base of the flames!)?

Two girl groups

My wife’s mixed chorus gave its spring concert this weekend and performed Randall Thompson’s Choose Something Like a Star. This is an exquisite, choke-up beautiful, number that I had first heard performed as SSAA, but it seems that SATB arrangement is the original, and the piece has been rearranged so that women’s groups can enjoy it too.  Revising a paper last night, I teed up a Spotify station from a Patrick Saussois song and after a while,  along came a cut from Christine Tassan et les Imposteures that brought work to a stop.  This is a Montréal quartet in the middle of widespread revival of the “gypsy” jazz form that traces back to Django Reinhardt and has popped up all in the usual, and some unlikely, places with some really fine musicians.  A gang of Scots that call themselves Havana Swing, for example, and the Canadian group The Lost Fingers.  The jazz manouche  crowd likes to blur the boundaries, cover songs from all over, and bring in straight-ahead jazz musicians, and people like Peter Beets and David Langlois are happy to jam with Dorado Schmitt at Birdland every year or so.
But I digress, even from the threadlike theme of this post.  Tassan’s quartet combines drop-dead instrumental chops with a really good set of pipes, and they have the kind of radiant delight performing that illuminates the most watchable baseball players, like Willie Mays and Dustin Pedroia. Women jazz musicians have always been scarce except for “the ladies who sing with the band” that Fats dissed; someone like Deanna Bogart consequently has to be two of them (tenor sax too, indeed three, if you count vocals).  This group is mainly instrumental; the rhythm guitarist, bass player and fiddler mostly sing as backup for Tassan, like the golden-era rock and roll girl groups, though they have some fine four-part riffs.  They have three CDs out, two on Spotify; the latest one doesn’t seem to be available in the US.  Come on, Amazon!
Listening to them I was reminded of what may be the best ever, the Quarteto em Cy, four sisters who have recorded and performed, alone and with the top Brazilian talent, over four decades.  They’ll probably be back in the next samba post. Listening to them is a time machine that will remind you of voice qualities impossible to discern in the mechanized, processed popular music of today, stuff like, um, intonation and rhythm…and ensemble, hoo boy.  This is really difficult harmony, and only works if the singers are in complete control and together.  No melismatic shopping around for a note here, either; they’re very exposed, and punch every one.  One of my favorite cuts on the linked album is the charming Loura ou Morena, about a guy who can’t decide if he likes blondes or brunettes more, that Tassan’s Les Blondes reminded me of in tone.

Real Death Panels

Remember those death panels, how the ACA was going to kill lots of Americans (especially your grandmother)? I’m still enraged at the idea, goverment just killing old people. Terrible thing, and the outrage about them on the right was a wonder to behold, one of Sarah Palin’s heroic fact-free moments.
Killing young people, though, is another story, and Republicans are generally fine with it.   About 13 million people under 65 would be eligible for expanded Medicaid in the states that are refusing it (9 million live in the states that have signed up).   Since Massachusetts expanded health insurance to everyone, the death rate there, already below the national average, has fallen by about 3%, and the finding (attributing it mainly to health insurance expansion) seems pretty solid, especially as it makes sense theoretically.  After all, what people do when they have insurance is get health care when they’re sick, and what health care does when you’re sick is usually to make you better, and being sick is what most people die from, duh.   The national death rate is about 3% per year for ages 20-64 (the Medicaid expansion potential beneficiaries), so a 3% reduction would save about one in a thousand of those people.
Now there’s a real bunch of death panels: Republican state governments. The people denying their citizens this insurance are happy to kill 130,000 people over the next ten years to prove how conservative and grownup and serious they are (not to mention improving the character and self-reliance of the survivors and anyway, a lot of those poor people vote Democratic every extra year they’re alive).  That’s probably an underestimate, because being insured gains more life-years among the poor, and the non-expansion states are mostly poor, like the whole South.  Haven’t heard from Sarah about this, but I’m sure she’ll be on the case with all four grizzly bear feet.

Moral hazard

One of the nice things about living in a civilized society is being able share the risk of catastrophe across populations larger than your family and close friends.  We have all sorts of machinery for this, private and public, from welfare to fire insurance to fire departments, arrangements that protect each of us, for example, from either needing savings accounts large enough to pay for a whole new house (or a triple bypass heart operation) with cash, or being on the street, or dead, if chance rolls us snake eyes or boxcars.

Republicans are much exercised over the incentives to laziness and fecklessness these programs breed in poor people; as Oscar Wilde’s Lady Bracknell observed, if the lower classes don’t set us a good moral example, what’s the use of them?  Continue Reading…

Five centuries of misrule

A three-week vacation in southern Spain and Portugal is a bittersweet experience. Both countries are clean, picturesque, and full of nice people who were helpful, and patient with my Spanish and Portuguese.  The roads are good and public transit a rebuke to every American city.  Lots of old city centers have been preserved and remain lively and populated, and the architecture, monuments, and museums, are well-presented and worth a lot of attention. Hotels are cheap, food reasonable, service is excellent, and it’s easy to find live fado in dozens of Lisbon restaurants…wait a minute, why is that? It’s because unemployment is 26% in Spain and 15% in Portugal; much worse for people under 25.

These countries are really hurting. The streets are not full of beggars and homeless people, but José and Rosita are living with their parents instead of getting married and having kids; the fertility rate in Spain is about 1.3. In Andalusia, hillsides almost too steep to stand on are being terraced for avocado trees and almonds. We drove through endless stretches of low-grade pasture dotted with cork oak trees.  This is not a high-grade, efficient agricultural sector (granted that a lot of both countries is sub-prime ag land, and dry).  I can’t think of anything I own other than a bottle of olive oil or wine that was made in either place.  Tourism is nice for the rest of us, but the jobs it generates are mostly making beds and serving food.

These are people whose ancestors used to command international empires, and Spain had a couple of centuries as a heavyweight European power.  How did they wind up so badly, when other European countries with past golden ages like the Netherlands and the UK are so much better off now? The history that all those churches, palaces, and museums lay out seems to me to have a lot to do with it.  Spain, particularly, is only a few decades out of a half a millenium of unrelenting, insistent, across-the-board failed governance, not only incompetent but aggressively wrong-headed.

Continue Reading…

Brazilian Music 2: Early sambistas

We might as well start a tour of the most famous and distinctive music of Brazil with the wonderful recipe and hagiology in Samba da Bénção (“Blessings Samba”) by Vinicius de Moraes.   Vinicius was a remarkable figure: poet, diplomat, and songwriter who partnered with Jobim and (as in this song) the guitarist Baden Powell.   I think de Moraes has it right in emphasizing that samba, even without lyrics, is not just party dance music, but weaves together (in various proportions), sadness, joy, and resignation. There’s a good English translation here.  He also gives us a sort of hall of fame, thanking a constellation of great sambistas from early days to the present. You could skip this whole post and just hop across tracks by the masters called out in this song, and you should anyway, because I will not hit more than a third of them. Continue Reading…

Learning from Michael Sam

Jonathan Vilma is an NFL player who is not afraid of colliding with great, big, strong guys in fiberglass armor on the field. He is not afraid to sell his post-career lucidity for money.  He is courage on the hoof, is Jonathan Vilma, and yet he is afraid of someone looking at him with sexual interest that he does not requite.  Good for Jonathan! That diffidence, and his heartbreaking plea for our sympathy should he ever to face that challenge, expresses the chivalrous culture of his sport.  It is why every woman knows she is never at risk of sexual assault — or even a moment’s embarrassment — if a football player should look at her with sexual interest that she does not requite. Every one of these paragons understands how she feels, respects that feeling in word and deed, and in fact they are known to avoid bars and parties with women, lest they put one in that impossible “how am I supposed to respond?” state of anxiety that terrifies Jonathan.  Good for Jonathan, and shame on Michael Sam for threatening him with a situation Jon, and his peers, would never inflict on anyone.


Readers may have noticed some teething problems with our new comments system. No, Mark did not get fed up with the odd ill-mannered reader and erase everything.  Our wonks are on it: sorry, patience!

Employment and freedom

Kevin Drum, who had the nerve to suggest that leaded gasoline that  was bad for people (as though that mattered next to the admirable and meritorious fortunes it made for GM, DuPont and Standard Oil!) has finally posted a graphic even I can understand.

However, Kevin completely misses what’s before his eyes. See, the Republican/American private sector jobs (red, of course) are going up while the Democrat/Socialist jobs are going down.  When something goes up while something else is going down, you don’t need a stinkin’ PhD to understand the situation: as any fool can see — I can see! — the government jobs we’re finally clearing out are not just parasites, but the jackbooted regulatory oppressors with their feet on the throats of our job creators! Teachers making kids do boring homework, librarians saying “shush!”, cops writing speeding tickets, weights and measures guys telling Safeway they can’t call 14 oz a pound if they want to, EPA busybodies telling entrepreneurs what they can and can’t dump in the river and the air, ATF thugs after my personal machine gun.

Fortunes are being made selling  bottled water in West Virginia right now because those proud, independent mountain people kept the government from messing with Freedom Industries.

Fire ‘em all and we’ll be rich.

Also, Benghazi.


Authorship and authenticity

Mamoru Samuragochi, until yesterday, was a deaf composer widely admired in Japan.  It now appears he is not deaf, and most of his works were ghostwritten for two decades by Takashi Niigaki, a music teacher with no public presence at least until now.  The story, including the world’s reaction to it, highlights interesting issues in aesthetic theory and the psychology of art.  In particular, it is another nail in the coffin of the idea that the experience of art can be examined by attending to a score, a performance, a painting, or any other work  by itself.

OK, the Samuragochis are actually Niigakis and not a note of them has changed: now what? Western critical tradition is much concerned to link works of art with the identity of the artist, so a largish industry exists to find and authenticate the authorship of paintings, music and other work.  If we find out that the Earl of Oxford wrote the plays we ascribe to Shakespeare, the plays won’t be any different, but people (not just English profs) really want to know the truth. This is a little odd, because we know so little about the historical Shakespeare that his biography can’t really affect our experience of the work much, but there are real insights to be gained about lots of art by knowing more about the artist and his milieu.  Fritz Kreisler, whose talent  as a violinist and a minor composer are not in any doubt, attributed a bunch of his small pieces to early composers like Tartini and Vivaldi, and later took credit for them unapologetically, saying they were just as good as people thought they were when mislabeled. How different did they sound after listeners knew who really wrote them?  What was their “real” artistic merit before and after?

Continue Reading…