Saturday, April 28, 2007

Reinterpreting Failure

Blogging live today from Ogden, UT, where my barbershop quartet, Baseline, went belly up last night in the semi-finals of the Rocky Mountain District preliminary competition. We were a little shakier than usual on our first song ("Listen to that Dixie Band"), but then halfway through the second ("Each Time I Fall in Love"), we inexplicably segued into four different keys, and couldn't pull it back together until the very end. We tied for 17th out of 18 quartets.

Afterwards we went out to Dee's, one of the only restaurants in Ogden that stays open after the sun goes down. We drank hot chocolate, ate hash browns with gobs ranch dressing and pepper, analyzed our performance, and discussed the breasts of other late-night restaurant patrons.

The barbershop world is strangely numerical and anal retentive: although there are no time limits on quartet or chorus performances, the contests are scheduled to the minute, and every deviation is lamented by the MC. Scores from 1-100 are assigned by a panel of 6-8 judges, where a 50 means you officially don't suck (you can sing in public with the blessing of the society), and a 76 means you "qualify" (you can compete at the international competition in Denver in July)

Well, we scored a 51.5 overall, and a 56.5 on "Dixie". I suspect that one and a half points is not statistically significant, so, strictly speaking, it is impossible to conclusively determine whether we suck or not. However I would like to mention that one of the judges said that we looked very sharp in our tuxes.

I really like this group of guys I'm singing with and I'm sorry to be leaving them soon to move out of state. We were all pretty philosophical about the results, trying to find what we could learn from the experience, willing to share the blame about what went wrong, and the credit for what went right. I think we've gotten to the point where we're really singing approximately the right notes with confidence (except last night, of course), and we're ready to pay closer attention to musicality and presentation issues. I'd be pretty excited about that if I were staying; but sadly they'll be needing to bring a new baritone up to speed, and I'll be back to singing in the shower for a while (where I sound great, I should mention, but I don't look so sharp without the tux hiding 40 years of gravity).

We get what will probably be our last chance to sing together tonight at the afterglow party. For me, that's the fun part; I like the supportive camaraderie of the afterglow far more than the competitive spirit of the prelims. I think we'll claim the ancient right of do-overs on Each Time I Fall; then we've got a couple other songs that are sounding pretty good, so I think we'll be able to redeem ourselves a little bit.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Teaching a soldier to escalate violence

It's true, as everyone is saying, that this video of a German soldier being trained shows racism and Bronxism. The guy tells the trainee to imagine that a bunch of black guys have gotten out of a van in the Bronx, and are insulting his mother, and that he's should shoot them and yell obscenities at them.

But there's something else offensive about it that no one seems to be taking note of: Soldiers ought to be trained not to escalate situations. If someone is yelling insults about your mother, it's not appropriate to shoot them. Am I naive to think that army training ought to include some skills about staying cool and rational in difficult situations, so you can make judicious decisions about when to use deadly force? This is exactly the kind of macho, video game attitude that the good guys should be discouraging in recruits. Why isn't that part of the scandal?

(Thanks to dariuszka for the image!)

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Why we need hate and ignorance on the radio

One of my favorite bloggers, Brad Warner, (whose blog happens to be posted on a non-explicit section of a porn site, so maybe don't click on this at work:) talks about the Imus affair. Imus was a radio talk show host who got fired for saying some racist stuff on the air.

Warner, to summarize, is basically saying that he doesn't care much about what Imus said on the air, and that we should take responsibility for ourselves rather than fretting about what other people say. Many of his commenters are disagreeing, saying that Imus is perpetuating racist attitudes in society, and he's rightfully being held responsible for his words by being fired.

I think there's a deeper point here, that hopefully Warner is getting at. When we stop people from saying offensive things on the grounds that it will have some general effect on the "public mind", we're encouraging people to value the state of this "public mind", rather than being skeptical of it. It's vitally important for the health of a society, for people to think skeptically. They must be able to hold onto their beliefs and opinions despite appeals to mob mentality, despite crazes and manias, despite panic and terror and lies and promises. We have to know that the "public mind" is untrustworthy, so we will never be tempted to use it to excuse ourselves from moral behavior.

When we attempt to scrub the airwaves of any bad ideas that might influence people, we cause the same sort of problem as overuse of antibiotics. People accustomed to hearing only socially acceptable stuff on the radio will not get much practice in distinguishing what they hear from what they have seen to be true with their own eyes. Their defenses will be down. But people who are used to hearing a lot of bullshit on the radio will get practice at questioning everything they hear.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Advice to Any Random Tourist

Advice to Any Random Tourist
Instead of trying to understand
or the scent of everything

keep trying to magnify
your soul lost and little
like a mustard bean
soft and little

set ever so carefully
in the center
of a lone placemat
scuffed and brittle

--Nicole Marie Beatty

(Wow -- ain't the internet great? I saw this poem on a bus, years ago, as a tourist in San Francisco, and jotted it down because I liked it. I just found that piece of paper and decided to type it up so I could throw out the paper. But I googled the title, and found it here!)

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Sports Rivalry -- I don't get it

There is a great article on The Situationist about March Madness and sports fandom.

For some reason, this enthusiasm for one team over another is something I don't experience very strongly. I occasionally go to a football game with my boyfriend, and once I identify what colors "our" team's uniform is, I do find myself watching the game from their perspective and hoping they win. But it's just not a very strong preference -- I'll find myself cheering after an impressive run or something by the other team.

I'm not sure why I'm like that. Seems like a pretty normal thing for people to strongly identify with a team, nation, university, or any other in-group that presents itself. It's obviously irrational, and my boyfriend, for example, will happily admit that it's irrational but that it's fun to get caught up in it anyway. But he's pretty balanced about it, compared to some other fans I see. We sat behind a guy at a Crush game the other night who was on his feet the whole time, yelling, red in the face, looking genuinely upset and angry with every referee call that went against the Crush. He was disturbing for two reasons: he seemed incapable of believing that his team was capable of an error; and he wasn't equally gleeful when things went his way. I wonder if for a guy like that, his whole life isn't just one bad day after another.

Must be some personality trait that you just kind of have or don't have, and I come up deficient. I guess I sometimes get a little smug about thinking I'm more rational that everyone else, but the fact is most of the sanest, most rational people I know are sports fans, and they can easily separate the fun of boosterism from rational analysis of a situation. I wonder if there's some benefit to that mental trait, that I'm missing out on.