Friday, October 16, 2009

October Hodgepodge

There's quite a few unrelated strains of thought coursing through me at the moment. Allow me to share:

England, My England

I've been having issues with this country lately. The first year went quite smoothly: we marveled at the healthcare system, the postal system, the transport system. Here is a nation, we thought, that has things figured out. But lately, it seems to be slowly unraveling.

Maybe it's a simple answer: the little quirks that at first I found charming have worn their charm thin over time. After all, this is the nation in which a few environmentalists were able to climb onto the — need I say it? strictly forbidden — roof of the Houses of Parliament with a very tall ladder. If you think I'm kidding, read this; can you imagine some yahoos making it to the top of the Capitol in Washington? It just wouldn't happen.

Or perhaps it is that there is tangible change afoot: the postal service is on strike, nearly every week a different rail operator union goes on strike (this week most services out of Paddington are not running or delayed), and now British Airways (who we are flying home with in December) is threatening a strike.

[Let me make something clear: these unions do not have a historical understanding of why unions were formed in the first place. Workers did not organize so that no one would ever lose their job; they were created for bargaining power to ensure their rights were upheld. Every one of these recent strikes is based not on reason or justice or even greed, only a lack of historical understanding.]

I think the main sea change, however, is that recently I have become more aware of a vein in British thought and society that is bitterly aware of their nation's decline since the Second World War. They see far more acutely than I how far downhill their rail system has slidden since privatization; they lament how their wealth built up the fledgling states of the European Union, an institution that now dwarfs them in financial and political power. Nowhere was this course of thought more blatantly exposed to me than in a film I recently saw, England, My England. Ostensibly about the life of Henry Purcell, the script seemed more bent on mourning post-imperial Britain than documenting the great composer.

I'm not saying, of course, that America — or any country — has it completely figured out. And without a doubt there is much to love and admire in the UK. Still, I feel that my sketched view of it in these past few weeks has perhaps been colored in a bit more accurately.

My Big Project

I'm working on my first actual 'big' piece of music, a piano concerto. It's based on Steven Millhauser's short story, Cathay. I'm trying to finish the first movement within the next two weeks for a competition, but it's not going smoothly. Usually I love writing music, but I have to be careful that my stress at the moment doesn't quash the overall inspiration.


For a reason unknown to myself or anyone else, I decided to read Rudolf Carnap's Introduction to the Philosophy of Science. It's not what I thought it would be, and I didn't finish it.

However, in the opening chapters, it introduces a concept advocated by Hans Driesch called entelechy (a term he adopted from Aristotle). I'll spare you the technical bits (in fact, in the book it is faulted for lack of technical bits), but in essence, Driesch said that one won't ever understand a biological organism if one examines it as a machine only. There's an unidentifiable other present, a force not currently measurable but that nonetheless separates life from death. He's not talking about God; Driesch likens it to science's early understanding (and misunderstanding) of magnetism and electrical fields.

My money's on this, actually. Though already it's an old (and I think mostly discarded) theory, I think he's right and that a few years down the road (who knows how many?) he'll be regarded as having guessed correctly — albeit with some discrepancies, of course. The history of science is full of people who, without the information or equipment we have today, guessed mostly correctly about the presence of something they did not yet understand. If anyone has any info about how this has (or hasn't) developed, I'd be both interested and grateful.

The Glass Bead Game

I finished it at last. Life-changing. Absolutely devastating. By a mile it's my favorite book of all time. Like his more famous and accessible Siddhartha, the end of the book turns toward the idea of renewal, the cycle of youth and age, and how man can achieve some semblance of immortality through passing down their ideas, discoveries, and advancements.

"With a strange, sorrowful tug at his heart he sensed the recurrence and reversal of the great experience of his youth, and at the same time had that austere feeling, at once constricting and stirring, that afternoon had set in, that youth was gone and noonday passed, that the blossom had become a fruit."

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Riviera

It's mid-October, the time of year when the weather finally makes Phoenix a pleasant place. Turns out that it's about the same time of year the weather starts to make London unpleasant. So this weekend we chased the last remaining bit of summer down to the south of France.

If Ibiza is Europe's Las Vegas, than Nice and the French Riviera is Europe's Southern California. Beaches alternate with rolling hills and craggy outcroppings, creating bay after bay, and all richly carpeted with lush flora. It's the kind of place that when you step off the plane, the walkway to the terminal building is glass so you can see the pinkish resort town in the distance sweeping towards the deep blue Mediterranean. Mind you this is before you even get to the terminal building.

The coastline is dotted with dozens of towns, each with a different flavor and claim to fame (Cannes for its film festival, St. Tropez for its beach). Since we had two days, we picked out three towns: Eze, Monaco, and Nice.

Eze is really three places. East of Nice, there's a little cluster of buildings down by the ocean with a train station; up over the cliff and inland, there's a nondescript town where the bus let us off; but perched high on the peak between them is the medieval village of Eze. Eze is like nothing I've ever seen. It's less of a village than it is an enormous, rambling castle. Shops are carved into nooks wherever they can fit, and the paths that serve as roads roam here and there, up and down stairs, through archways.

After a quick bite to eat, we headed off to Monaco. At this point, I should explain that because we left London so early in the morning, we only had 2 hours of sleep the night before. So when we got to our hotel in Monaco, we were pretty exhausted. We settled in for a little nap around 3:00, I set the alarm for about 4:00, and we woke up at... 7:15. Crap.

Oh well. We set out to find dinner and found the city surprisingly empty. I know October isn't exactly the high season, but it was early October and the weather was still pretty hot. Even the area around the famed Casino wasn't too hoppin'. We eventually found a nice place to eat, but our overall impression of the city was: where are all the people?

Also, for a place so notorious as a stomping ground of the rich and famous, it's surprisingly plain. It could be any coastal town built up in the 1960s heyday of bland architecture. Oh yeah, except for those yachts in the harbor.

The next morning we took the train back to Nice, which is more colorful and has far more character. We started the day with a bit of a dud, the Russian Orthodox Cathedral.

Looks great, right? Well, turns out it's in a pretty lousy part of town and is, on Sunday mornings at least, closed for services.

The rest of Nice, though, is quite wonderful. There are both modern open spaces

and a great Old Town that feels more like neighbors Spain or Italy than France. Here, winding, narrow alleyways suddenly let out onto squares; in such heavy sunlight, the effects are dramatic.

My favorite thing, though, was the walk up the mountain to a park and man-made waterfall; with your back to a rushing waterfall, this is the view.

Also while on the mountain, I discovered why the view from the airport is so impressive. It's right at the edge of the bay's natural arc. I thought this photo was one of the best I had ever taken until I realized that I had framed, with exotic foliage, the Nice airport.

We spent the evening lounging, which given the laid-back attitude towards everything in this beach town, seemed a good way to while away our last few hours.

See the facebook photo album here.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

London Off the Beaten Track

For October's photo series, I'd like to show you around some lesser-known places in London. Places that don't exactly have the grandeur of, say, Westminster Abbey, but that don't have the crowds or the notoriety either.

The pelicans in St. James' Park: they're not your typical ducks or geese, and the entire setting is an absolute oasis. Can you believe that this is only a few steps away from the dreary government buildings of Whitehall?

The Lido in Hyde Park is my favorite place to get lunch in London. It looks rather dreary in this February photo, but on a sunny day, a table by the water is the place to be.

The World Food Cafe in Neal's Yard, Covent Garden is a close second. Everything is vegetarian, but that doesn't stop it from being delicious!

Hampstead Heath is a massive park in northern London, but it feels further away. Over the centuries, it has been a haven for artists and writers. It's an odd mix of expansive fields and dense forests, making it easy to see why C.S. Lewis used it as his inspiration for Narnia.

The Mineral Room in Harrod's, the world's largest store, offers everything from fossils and dinosaur bones to this incredible malachite table.

The Hammersmith Bridge spans the river Thames west of town. On the nearby bank is the most British bankside imaginable: a row of pubs.

Southbank Beach. Yes, there is a beach (of sorts) right in the center of town, stretching along the south bank of the river from Royal Festival Hall all the way down to the Globe Theatre. Admittedly it's no white-sand paradise, but at low tide there are sand castle builders and the sheer oddity of standing on a beach crowded in by familiar landmarks makes it worth a look.

Oh yeah, and happy 100th post :)