Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Requiem in wax.

My friend Rod Poole was murdered Sunday night.

I see him standing at the counter in the jazz room at the record store. His love was bootleg vinyl, and he would stand there with his stack while I opened them one by one, slicing the plastic bags with a box cutter. Out would come each plain black or white sleeve, often with the artist and concert written in cursive pen on the otherwise blank label. Rod would lift each one, and rotate them to find the best light, looking for any imperfection. He would find it, and his face would turn sour for a second. I would look and see nothing. He'd see the scepticism on my brow and would hold the vinyl up at just the right angle, until like an apparition the scratch or bump would appear.

"That'll make it pop."

Rod had the peculiar easy cynicism and sense of order that is only due the British. When I first knew him he had this long hair that fell in tight curls, that gave him the slightly ridiculous air of a member of Spinal Tap. Don't think he didn't know it. When he shaved it all off, it was a relief to see his face, but also a kind of defeat, like some long ago thing had given way in him. It took a while to adjust.

You would go to his apartment and he would make you tea and show you his records. He was a savant, a man of deep knowledge. His specialty was John Coltrane and Sun Ra and rare Led Zep bootlegs. At least that's what I talked about with him.

I didn't know Rod enough. I didn't know about his childhood, his school days, his long gone parents. I didn't know if he believed in god, though he didn't strike me as the type. I didn't know how he supported himself as a musician in Los Angeles, putting out an occasional rare vinyl pressing that might merit a small review in Wire, teaching others to manipulate a guitar with less talent then him. I didn't know what he really thought about America.

But I did know he loved his wife. And I did know his love of music. I saw him in his environment, in his temple, in the tabernacle of sound. I saw the way he held a record, and what it told me about his character. It takes a certain kind of character to love a vinyl record, a compulsion to love a thing that is destroyed a little bit every time you play it. The record collector is always looking for that one disc, that one perfect form of a disk, beyond even unplayed. Untouched by human hands, unsullied by this world. A record collector is looking for perfection.

Here's what the dusty words of the paper of record had to say:

Police have arrested a husband and wife on suspicion of stabbing a 45-year-old man to death in the parking lot of a well-known Hollywood eatery.

The incident occurred about 9:45 p.m. Sunday in the parking lot of Mel's Drive-In in the 1600 block of Highland Avenue. Officers answered a call of an assault with a deadly weapon and found Roderick Poole, 45, with multiple stab wounds. He was taken to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, where he died at 10:06 p.m.

Poole, of Hollywood, was walking with his wife when he got into an argument with a woman in a car, said Los Angeles Police Det. Larry Cameron. Witnesses told police the woman, with her husband, nearly ran over Poole.

They exchanged words and the couple allegedly attacked Poole, police said. Michael Sheridan, 25, allegedly stabbed Poole several times before the pair drove off, investigators said.

"This was incredibly dumb," said Cameron, referring to how a minor disagreement turned into a killing.

Detectives later arrested Sheridan and his wife, Angela Sheridan, 24, both of Los Angeles. They were being held in lieu of $1-million bail each.

Hollywood, among the city's safer areas, has seen a 5% increase in violent crime so far in 2007. Poole's killing was the sixth in the district this year.

Something tells me that Michael Sheridan doesn't own any vinyl records at all.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

No Coincedence.

Random headlines from today's NYTimes:

5 Dead and 3 Missing After Attack on U.S. Patrol in Iraq

Billions in Oil Missing in Iraq, U.S. Study Says

Ex-General Speaks Out Against Bush on Iraq

Majority of Iraq Lawmakers Seek Timetable for U.S. Exit

Crisis in Pakistan Over Judge Turns Violent

Civilian Deaths Undermine War on Taliban

So, how's that globalwaronterror going again?

You ponder the incompetence, you consider the abject history of failure, and you try to figure out how our nation went so very wrong. Then you see one additional headline:

Religious Groups Granted Millions for Pet Projects

Monday, May 07, 2007

Your Average Republican Voter.

This made me laugh and feel sick to my stomach at the same time. I love it when fascism is so damned cute!

The Last Remaining Superpower.

Andrew Sullivan points to this posting by a blogger from Baghdad who recently visited the United States. Where did he go?

New Orleans.

What shocked me the most in this trip was how the city looked like Baghdad. New Orleans looked like Baghdad after the war in 1991; I swear I kid you not. The devastation, empty houses, the people returning to their life in the city, the “rituals” people practice before they completely come back, the bumps in the streets and the smell of destruction [it has a distinctive smell people. Yes it does.]

I arrived to New Orleans Thursday. On the way to the hotel, I saw the same thing I saw on tv two years ago, destroyed buildings. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Two years later and the scene is the same? Where are we? A government that spent hundreds of billions of dollars on wars overseas is not capable of dealing with a crisis on its own soil! A crisis that all what it needed was money! (...)

In 1991, Iraq was destroyed, mainly Baghdad and other big cities like Mosul, Basra. The Americans made sure that the average Iraqis didn’t get water, electricity, or food. And they made sure to also bomb the communication buildings so the average Iraqis didn’t have a way to know about each other and what was going on. Within three months after the end of the war, most of the government building and services, including potable water, sewer system, paving bombed streets, phones and electricity. That was under the rule of Saddam Hussein, whom Bush’s administration accused of depriving his people from their share of oil revenues!

What about people in New Orleans. They don’t have a dictator to rebuild their city. They have a democracy that is fighting its way to spend 100 billion more dollars on wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Who will help the people of New Orleans?

Thursday, May 03, 2007

The Pythagorean Secret.

I’ve never been especially good at math. Numbers get lost in my head sometimes, and I’ve always had trouble grasping much beyond the most simple of formulas. Calculus was always a mystery, and I never felt any particular interest in exploring mathematical language and concepts in any length. That is, until I learned about the Pythagorean secret.
St. John’s College, where I spent my freshman and sophomore years, requires a full mathematics course every year. I feared it, but I was surprised to find that because of the way that math was taught, I was actually able to grasp concepts more deeply then before. Because the college used no textbooks, we would read original texts, say Euclid or Ptolemy, and work over and argue over the proofs at the blackboard. It was a method of learning that eschewed rote formulas and valued placing everything that we learned in the larger context of knowledge.
It was in the course of this liberal arts approach to math that I came across the idea of irrational ratios. The Pythagorean school of philosophy was famous throughout ancient Greece for the skill of its mathematicians. They believed in, one might almost say worshiped, numbers, holding that the mysteries of life could be explained by understanding the ratios that existed between whole numbers. But then something happened to them when one of their own, Hippasus of Metapontum,. stumbled across a devastating secret. He realized that there was simply no ratio to √2. Or if you will, take a square and divide it diagonally:

The Pythagoreans believed that it would normally be possible to come up with a ratio that identified the relation of the diagonal to the side of the square. But in fact, there is no such ratio. The ratio between the diagonal and the side will always change according to the length of the side of the square, thus creating an “irrational ratio”, an infinite number like π that has no stable end. It goes on forever.
This shook the Pythagorean worldview. It also shook mine. My first semester at St. John’s I had read Plato and been impressed by his idea of the perfect form, the belief that Socrates articulates that for everything in the material world there exists somewhere the perfect form, or εἶδος, and that all material manifestations are but copies of this form. As a consequence, decisions in life are simple. How do we most closely manifest the perfect form in what we do?
But contemplating an irrational ratio sent a shiver through me. I had always assumed math to be absolute. Like the Pythagoreans, I trusted in the idea that all math could be resolved into a perfect form. But if it wasn’t so, what consequences did such an idea have? I thought of the square, and how we measure it. We say the side is one inch, but if there is no perfect inch, then how can we know for sure what an inch is? We might eventually round off, we might come to a general agreement and design a model inch at some government bureau, and such estimations may be useful in building bridges, but in the end, the inch was an arbitrary idea. In the end, the solid foundation I had once assumed wasn’t there, just what we collectively agreed to believe based on the evidence we had.
It was an epiphany that fundamentally changed my understanding of ideas of science, evidence and proof. I understood for the first time the provisional nature of all proof, how explanations can evolve. I felt a new admiration for the scientific method. Instead of pursuing some perfect form, science claimed only to have a theory, supported by observed information. Sure, there were theories, like the idea that 2 plus 2 equals 4, for which there was a great deal of evidence in favor and little in opposition. But a true scientist would always accept the possibility that, with new data, 2 plus 2 might indeed someday be proven to be something other then 4.
That is, if the scientist really understood and believed in the limits of his knowledge, and was truly dedicated to always advancing those limits. The Pythagoreans did not. They reacted to their discovery out of fear, and in one of the famous episodes of scientific history, they murdered Hippasus of Metapontum for discovering the irrational ratio.
The question then came to me this way. How would I react when faced with evidence that contradicted something I held to be an absolute truth? Would I respond with a defensive reactionary posture, or with an open mind? One of the great misunderstandings about the nature of science is that imperfections in a particular scientific theory somehow devalue science. They don’t. Point out a flaw in a theory to a true scientist and he will react not with dismay, but with the excitement of new data, new knowledge to expand his understanding. The dogmatist might cry “your theory has gaps!”. The scientist will respond by saying “I know. Let’s fill them in.”
I am not a scientist in the traditional sense. But I have come to believe in the skeptical and rational evaluation that lies behind the scientific method. I try to apply this skepticism to whatever new information comes my way, to weigh and understand it in the context of all the evidence. This is what studying math in a liberal arts program taught me. My calculus isn’t any stronger yet, but my mind is more open then before.