Music Monday: Schoolhouse Rock

July 4, 2016

It’s July 4th, which is a pretty big holiday in the US. Just another day here in the UK.

But the 4th! A perfect time to share jingoistic, if catchy, propaganda such as The Shot Heard Round the World:

And, of course, No More Kings:

(This was running through my head when I gave my citizenship oath in Manchester.)

These are so catchy and so…wrong. In so many details and in the basic spirit.

But Elbow Room really causes me some cognitive dissonance…its content is awful but it’s so catchy!

I mean:

The way was opened up for folks with bravery.
There were plenty of fights
To win land rights,
But the West was meant to be;
It was our Manifest Destiny!

I guess that’s one way to gloss over genocide!

However, the chorus of the Preamble is really pretty:

We the people,
In order to form a more perfect union,
Establish justice, insure domestic tranquility,
Provide for the common defense,
Promote the general welfare and
Secure the blessings of liberty
To ourselves and our posterity
Do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

The Preamble is great, of course, but setting it to music so that it even scans is pretty tough! (It gets a bit rough at the end.

But, I would be remiss if I didn’t include the best musical cartoon about US history:

In addition to being slick as mustard, it’s not wildly less accurate than the others!

Cosmopolis lost

June 29, 2016

Farewel happy Fields
Where Joy for ever dwells: Hail horrours, hail
Infernal world, and thou profoundest Hell
Receive thy new Possessor: One who brings
A mind not to be chang’d by Place or Time.
The mind is its own place, and in it self
Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.
What matter where, if I be still the same,
And what I should be, all but less then he
Whom Thunder hath made greater? Here at least
We shall be free; th’ Almighty hath not built
Here for his envy, will not drive us hence:
Here we may reign secure, and in my choyce
To reign is worth ambition though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell, then serve in Heav’n.

— John Milton, Paradise Lost, Book I

The EU is not heaven, nor a severed UK hell, but we have, indeed, sacrificed a favourable place and position for the sake of pride, for want of a better word. The fact that the chains that bound us were not chains at all and were of our own making and continual renewal doesn’t matter. At a deep level, the UK was offended, and that offence had a price.

We haven’t fallen from paradise, but we have left the larger cosmopolis (a nation of many peoples) and  probably have broken our smaller one. We rejected blending with many peoples, however around the edges and the majority demands that we pull back at whatever the cost. The many flares of overt xenophobic racism before and especially right after the decision are worrisome. We’re heading into difficult times: Our economy will shrink. The clowns that pretend to be leaders will try to wiggle out of the worst consequences. But such wriggling may well be met by revulsion and revolt. Once things break a little, the risk of catastrophic failure goes up.

I hope we can salvage some measures of sanity, dignity, and kindness. In my most optimistic moments, I imagine we can stay cosmopolitan, either by staying in the EU (though there are prices to be paid there) or staying sane somewhat outside it (with different prices).

Even that is just gripping tightly to the facade of a society. Increasing economic inequality is probably at the heart of matters. I’d long been wondering why various peoples around the world didn’t rise up harder after the Great Recession wherein there was so much unnecessary suffering and loss. Wherein the people most responsible paid almost not price at all, or even flourished, smug and condescending in their undeserved riches. Something will give, and it won’t be nice, or rational, or effective.

We on the left might think this is fertile ground for a new leftist politics where social and economic justice can be furthered.

We would be wrong.

The propaganda and political ironworks that dominate our societies do not wholly prevent outcomes that the rich elites favour (at least, not those that most favour), but they aren’t channeled against root causes. Austerity is popular in the UK populace. Blame is directed toward mirages and the people who suffer are those living there.

While personal failures are not the sole cause of this crises, the petty politicking of Cameron, Johnson, and various lesser figures in the Conservative Party have let the fires out while Corbyn, the Labour Party Members, and the Labour MPs Just Fall Down.

In the end, stuff will happen. We will muddle to a new normal. I don’t think the issues that motivated the Great Breaking are going to be anything but worsened by it and now we have new ones. Half the populace is alienated, perhaps enraged, by the other half.

E pluribus unum; ex uno multa.

Après nous le déluge.

But the mind is its own place. Perhaps by thinking and feeling together, we can make a just city from this fractured landscape.

Music Monday (backdated): The Musical Museum in London

June 27, 2016

We’re post-brexitpocolypes, which I’ve mostly been bemoaning on my Facebook feed. I have thoughts about various aspects which I might post at some point.

But, I had a musical experience well worth sharing! We are were in London on Sunday with Zoe’s father (who came over for a friends’ 50th wedding anniversary) and after visiting the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew (well worth exploring!), we wanted a quick hit museum and found that the Musical Museum was close and open. When in Brussels to see the flower carpet, we very much enjoyed the Musical Instruments Museum, so the Musical Museum seemed like a no brainer. Which it was! It was wonderful.

The Musical Museum is a collection of automated, mostly mechanical instruments. Think music boxes and player pianos, but also a player organ which takes up several rooms, lots of mechanical orchestras, and a machine that plays two violins! The tour guide plays the instruments, so you get to hear them and see their guts moving. Our guide, Roy, was wonderful with lots of personal touches.

Mechanical music box/toy videos are cool, but the real things are just amazing. Complex, delicate, and beautiful, while often being able to produce tremendous sounds. Well worth your visit!

Yet Another Strike Day

June 22, 2016

A university is a community: staff and students, graduates and families, people in the town and people around the world. The university is its people. Buildings are more iconic; the physical environment conditions all our experiences and memories; but a university’s mission is the creation and dissemination of knowledge, and all knowledge exists in the people and communities that know it.

My union, the University and College Union (UCU), is in dispute with a large number of universities, and my local and my university (the University of Manchester) are part of that dispute. We are on strike today.

Strikers stand by the UCU banner with the slogans "Knowledge is Power" and "Unity is Strength".

Strikers by the UCU banner.

The Reason

It’s a pay dispute. The capsule UCU summary:

The dispute has arisen following a pay offer of just 1.1% from the universities’ employers, the Universities and Colleges Employers Association. UCU said universities could afford to pay more and the latest offer did little to address the real terms pay cut of 14.5% that its members have suffered since 2009. The squeeze on staff salaries comes despite vice-chancellors enjoying a 6.1% pay hike.

The union has also called for universities to commit to closing the gender pay gap and reducing the proportion of staff on casual and zero-hour contracts. On average, female academics across the sector are paid £6,103 per year less than male counterparts while 49% of university teachers are on insecure contracts.

Since 2010 the amount spent on staff by universities as a percentage of total income has dropped by 3%. However the total of cash in reserves has rocketed by 72% to stand at over £21bn.

(It started as a 1% offer. We pushed back. The Universities came back with a 1.1% offer. The faith is not good here.)

Note that we are in the midst of a £1 billion building spree  (after spending £750 million since 2004 on 10 buildings some of which are already falling apart and were hideous and misdesigned in the first place.

Now, I know not all money is the same, yadda yadda yadda. However, where is the billion pound effort to improve staff? Staff development, better pay, better recruitment…these are things that are not part of a giant, well funded master plan. Instead we get stagnant pay, increasing work loads, onerous busywork, metrics, targets, punitive measures, pensions slashed, etc. etc. etc. Less academic freedom and more centralisation of functions for the sake of centralisation.

The administrations should be actively figuring out how to “build up” staff which includes building up staff pay instead of having every drop wrung from them by disruptive action. Until they do, they are failing at their jobs.

The Tactics

This is part of a second round of targeted strikes after a national two day strike. Each local is picking a day designed to be maximally disruptive for their university. We are focused on exam boards (where we make final decisions on student grades). Oxford is targeting honorary degree and graduation ceremonies.

This is serious stuff. Disruption is disruptive. Student degrees may be delayed, complicating their job starts. Ceremonies that normally generate cherished memories are marred. It’s not something the union takes lightly. But there is really little choice. The administrations are not negotiating with us. Nor are they performing the basic function of nurturing the university. Neglecting staff issues is neglecting the foundations of the university.

It’s disruptive to staff. It’s not a “day off”. People are picketing. There’s work that’s delayed or created. Our pay is docked by the university. It costs us to go on strike (though often that is returned as a negotiation sweetener). It’s emotionally draining both to be faced by this situation and to engage in the action.

Simon Harper et al picketing one of the entrances to University Place.

Simon Harper et al picketing one of the entrances to University Place.

It is in the power of the adminstrations to prevent this disruption, to have prevented the risk of it. Coming in with 1% and “moving” to 1.1% isn’t a opening move in a sincere negotiation. Having no long range plan to address wage declines is not the background of this “discussion”.

As I often do, I look to Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail

You may well ask: “Why direct action? Why sit ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?” You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.

MLK was fighting a much, much more serious fight with dramatically greater stakes. but his description of direct action is applicable in a wide range of circumstances, including labour disputes.

(Read the whole thing! Read his books! It repays the effort many times in many circumstances. It is not merely of historical interest. King’s thinking is live, complex, theoretically interesting, and practically helpful.)

What you can do if you aren’t staff

Students and families can show solidarity. Write your university in support. Call for administrations to look toward staff development as the central part of their job, worthy of big efforts and active work. Stop and say hi to picketers!

Place the blame for the disruption where it belongs, with the administrations. Turn the situation into an opportunity to stand with others in your community. Instead of a marred experience, make it a proud moment.

Music Monday: Midsummer Hymn

June 20, 2016

One of my favourite things about the Zoe songbook is the set of holiday songs. Aside from being wonderful, she’s quirky in her holidays (and obviously, I share and/or live with such quirks!).

Today’s the summer solstice and she has a song for it:

Now the days are long and pleasant
Do not waste the light
Take these moments as a present
offered up for our delight
Take the gifts the Summer brings us
early dawn and dusk that lingers
Let them not slip through our fingers
Do not waste the light

Now the earth is rich with plenty
Do not waste the light
Gather in the Summer’s bounty
ere the season takes her flight
Mow the hay and seek the berry,
tread the grape and pluck the cherry
Once she’s done, she will not tarry
Do not waste the light

Lovely words, lovely thoughts, and a lovely tune! (Berry/cherry/tarry is a great rhyme sequence!)

At some point, I’ll do a full compendium of her holiday and seasonal songs.

Of course, in the (mid) north of the UK, the summer days are insanely long. I used to complain that my productivity dropped in summer because the all-nighters were too short! But…after 10 years, I’ve gotten used to it. Indeed, the shorter summer days in the Philly area feel sort of weird.

The biggest gain of summer in Manchester: NO HORRIBLE HEAT AND HUMIDITY PITS! I don’t use air conditioning in the UK. Enough said.

The biggest loss: Fireflies. We ain’t got ’em and I love ’em.

Jo Cox: RIP

June 16, 2016

Jo Cox, member of parliament, was murdered today. She was Labour and a strong Remain champion.

Both sides of the referendum suspended their campaigns for the day.

I never heard of her before today. We don’t have any certain knowledge of the motive behind her murder, thought there’s some reports that her killer was mentally ill and may have shouted “Britain First” (which would suggest Leave sympathies). It’s really too early to draw any firm conclusions about it. It may be political violence, but I really hope not. Regardless, it may be that the campaigns both pull back from some of their more extreme rhetoric (though, obviously, I think the Leave campaign has been worse). That would be some small good salvaged.

She seems to have been a really wonderful person. Her husband’s statement is very moving and measured.

I now know to miss her.

Music Monday: Zoe’s Kickstarter SUCCESS!

June 6, 2016

The Kickstarter campaign is now over and not only was it fully funded, but we met two stretch goals ($1500 for US radio promotion and $1500 for UK radio promotion). Thanks to all 196 backers and indeed to all the people who put up with my nagging and pleading about it. The results should be well worth it.

One of the songs forthcoming is a cover of the Red Clay Rambler’s “The Queen Of Skye” from their absolutely wonderful album Rambler(You can listen to a snippet of the original from the AllMusic page. Check out “Cotten-eyed Joe”, “One Rose/Hot Buttered Rum”, and “Black Smoke Train” as stand outs, but really the whole album is worth a listen.)

Interestingly, Zoe’s vocal line tracks the harmony rather than the melody, since the harmony fits her voice better. I find it rather striking and strange coming off a million listens of the Rambler’s version (and having heard her cover the melody before). (Strange in a good way!)

Other notable Zoecovers, Vincent Black Lightening:

She also does a very nifty version of Blackbird (for which I don’t believe there’s a video…here’s Paul doing it):

She uses banjo and interleaves a story about waiting for the last train back to Manchester. The story and song engage in a kind of lyrical counterpoint: The story is funny, literal, and personal. The song is melancholy, metaphorical, and impersonal. in a certain way. That is, it’s not about any specific person or situation. It’s perhaps universal via the metaphor, but I think it’s more a kind of de-personalised fiction as well as a metaphor. Indeed, the metaphor is contested.

However, juxtaposing the two allows the qualities of each side to inform the other.

Music Monday: 71 hours to go in Zoe’s Kickstarter

May 30, 2016

The new album Kickstarter campaign is in it’s last three days! It’s done really well:

156 pledges for $8,625 which is 123% of the original goal! Yay!

This even meets the first stretch goal of $1500 for US radio promotion! Also yay!

The next stretch goal is to fund UK radio promotion, which will be new territory for Zoe.

Thanks again to everyone who has pledged. Zoe’s had a bubbly quality to her voice when she talks about the campaign and the new album which makes me happy to hear.

The EU’s all open access by 2020 push

May 30, 2016
The EU is going to push for all articles to be open access by 2020:

This week was a revolutionary week in the sciences—not because we discovered a new fundamental particle or had a new breakthrough in quantum computing—but because some of the most prominent world leaders announced an initiative which asserts that European scientific papers should be made freely available to all by 2020.

This would legally only impact research supported by public and public-private funds, which are a vast portion of the papers produced annually; however, the goal is to make all science freely available. Ultimately, the commitment rests on three main tenets: “Sharing knowledge freely,” “open access,” and “reusing research data.”

This is a big deal, but I’ve some mixed feelings about it.
  1. Academic publishers are grotesque rentiers for the most part. Just awful. It’s embarrassing that we don’t fix this problem.
  2.  Most open access stuff doesn’t fix this problem. Instead we have NEW classes of rentiers and scammers cropping up. Now every individual author has to keep an eye on which of the new pay to play journals are real and which aren’t. Individual authors have to find cash to pay the open access fee <–TYPICALLY PURE RENT!!! Ridiculous.
  3. I’m inclined to think that we’re pretty much solving a non-problem. Most people in places with richish universities can get access one way or another (most universities I’ve been affiliated with have community memberships). Most people don’t use most papers and, more importantly, most papers don’t get used.I don’t see the same push for open access monographs and textbooks by the funding agencies. The latter is a particular disgraces that hits millions of people every semester.
  4. It does solve one real problem: Access for people around poor universities. That’s a big deal and good show.
  5. It does nothing to solve the over-publication and publication bias problems. Nor does it help with reproducibility.

“But the public paid for the research, they should have access to it.” If we’re going down this route then Universities should take out no patents, open source all their software, and businesses that get any public money should release their stuff for free. It’s a coherent position, but it’s nowhere the general policy nor is this a step toward it. Heck, cf monographs. It feels like a lot of lip service, but more disruption for disruption’s sake.

Shorten the term of copyright and you’ll have a bigger impact. Easier to administer too, in a lot of ways. Never going to happen!

4 is important though. That probably balances everything else.

Music Monday: Zoe’s New Album Kickstarter #3

May 17, 2016

Well, today I finally got antibiotics for the respiratory/other body part infection that’s plagued me for over a month. I had a good initial reaction so I’m hopeful. The last couple of days have been horrible and horribly exhausting.

But the good news: Zoe’s “Small Brown Birds” Kickstarter campaign is now fully funded! Woohoo! We made it in 10 days, which is really nice. This has been by far the easiest fundraising for an album with the best result that we ever did. Yay!

As is natural, the campaign has gone into a bit of a lull (Zoe’s travelling and I’ve been bed ridden). Just because we made our nut doesn’t mean that further pledges aren’t useful! We now have stretch goals which aim at publicity. From the updated campaign description:

Now that we’ve met the initial goal, further pledges will go toward radio promotion. In addition to the cost of mailing physical CD’s, this is an area where it really pays to hire someone who is good at it.

  • $1500 will cover the very targeted promotion, mostly in the US, that I have had for my previous albums.
  • $3000 will allow me to add targeted promotion in the UK.
  • $4500 will allow me to more than double the number of stations that receive the CD and get better exposure in Europe.

Zoe actually gets a fair bit of radio play on the strength of these mailings. She regularly hits the FolkDJ top 10 in years with a CD release. These bring new listeners and sometimes new gigs in new areas.

Zoe has produced a video with one of the new songs on it! Share and enjoy! And if you like it, pledge!


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