George Hunka

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Thursday, March 07, 2019

Simplify, simplify, simplify

Two things quickly become clear from a re-read of Henry David Thoreau's Walden: First, that the man never had a job; second, that the man never had children. It's all well and good that he enjoyed the leisure to hang out at the edge of a Massachusetts pond for a full two years, and I admire his carpentry and gardening skills (neither of which I share), but it takes a certain kind of arrogance to declare, as he does,

The greater part of what my neighbors call good I believe in my soul to be bad, and if I repent of anything, it is very likely to be my good behavior. What demon possessed me that I behaved so well? You may say the wisest thing you can, old man, — you who have lived seventy years, not without honor of a kind, — I hear an irresistible voice which invites me away from all that. One generation abandons the enterprises of another like stranded vessels.

To which this old man, nearer 70 than the 37 at which Thoreau cobbled together his screed, must respond with a phrase unprintable in family newspapers. In any event, if I were to take Thoreau at his word and regret my behaving in a way that allows me to keep my job, raise my kids, and pay my bills — well, you can feel that way when you're 37. Bad behavior before 40 is at worst embarrassing and can be marked up to the zest and excesses of youth; after the age of 50, bad behavior is catastrophic at best. Fortunately one doesn't have the desire or the energy for it.

On the other hand, Thoreau did have a point when he said, "Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, simplify, simplify! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb-nail." What you see here today, on this journal, is my own small way of simplifying one or two things — my writing and its dissemination in particular.

Two other writers born in the 19th century suggested that I turn my attention to that. Sam Clemens and H.L. Mencken, unlike Thoreau, did not attend college or university (Thoreau was a Harvard man) and chose fairly early on to make their way in the field of journalism. To that end, they spent their apprenticeships not in writing or higher education but in the art and craft of print. Both men worked for newspapers when there were hundreds more newspapers than there are today, learning the technical intricacies of setting type and running a printing press. This practical knowledge formed a background to the ways in which they thought about the writing they did in their maturity. In his youth, Mencken was given a small toy printing press with which he published a household newspaper; Twain in his youth worked with the real things. (Even in his maturity Twain remained enamored of the mechanics of publishing, pouring a disastrous amount of money into an impossibly complicated new typesetting system — which led, in the end, to his declaring bankruptcy.)

In Philadelphia during my early 20s, I too worked for a newspaper — a legal newspaper, but a newspaper nonetheless — in a building that housed both the editorial and production plants for that publication, so I also learned a little bit about hot and cold type, page composition, layout, and the rest. The emergence of the world wide web, and especially blogging, meant that publishing technologies were newly democratized. Instead of a printing press and typesetting machine, all you really needed to publish your own work was a computer and some kind of software.

Among the earliest blogging applications, and one which appealed to the computer tinkerer in me, was Blosxom, released in 2003. Unlike Blogger or WordPress, blogging programs that emerged at the same time, Blosxom was a pared-down, simple program that ran from a command-line interface. Unlike Blogger or WordPress, too, Blosxom was released without a great many features except for the display of short texts in reverse chronological order (although Blosxom was highly extensible through a plugin repository). It was left to the enduser to design the web site through HTML and CSS and extend the basic Blosxom script as he or she saw fit.

Just as Clemens and Mencken received mechanical training in 19th-century publishing machines, I picked up some technical training in using Blosxom — and not just how to use Blosxom. WordPress is a fine program, but the more you use it, you only learn about WordPress. Because Blosxom is a CGI script, learning and using it means that you learn and use the Unix operating system, HTML, CSS, and even a bit of CGI scripting, a much broader educational experience than learning only one application. It permits you to poke around into the innards of computing technology itself, and through poking around how to control it, how to tell it to do what you want.

I've taken a bit of Thoreau's advice to heart. I have "let [my computer] affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand"; instead of maintaining a blog at one place, my email at another, I've brought everything together at my internet service provider Panix. (As it turns out I'll be saving some money too — a matter of a few dollars and some cents, but also I don't have to deal with Google mail, with its data fishing and advertising, among other more esoteric concerns.) And in doing so, I'm going back to the application with which my writing this journal began. It's a first step towards that simplification of my everyday life. I'm fully aware that simplicity can quickly shade into negligence. On the other hand, it means that there will be fewer details with which I'll be frittering away my life.

I do maintain an archive of my old posts, and from time to time will be republishing a few of them here (though many of these can be described as fritters too).

Posted on March 07, 2019, in /Simplicity
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Wednesday, March 06, 2019

Marilyn plays Murail and Messiaen this March

Alliteration aside, you should join me for Marilyn Nonken's Miller Theatre pop-up concert "Spectral Salon" next Tuesday, March 12. Marilyn will be playing Tristan Murail's Les Travaux et les jours (which was written for her and which she premiered at Miller Theatre 16 years ago) and two shorter works by Olivier Messiaen, Regard du Fils sur le Fils from Vingt regards sur l'Enfant Jesus (1944) and Prelude No. 6: Cloches d'angoisse et larmes d'adieu (1929). The curtain goes up at 6.00pm and admission is free. More information about the concert is here. The web page for the event invites you to "bring a friend" and "grab a drink" — I think I'll do just that.

Posted on March 06, 2019, in /Music
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As bad as we say it is

Written in May 2017

When in the early 1970s the Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce needed a slogan to promote the city to businesses and tourists, the best it could come up with was "Philadelphia isn't as bad as Philadelphians say it is." It's hard to determine exactly what the Chamber of Commerce expected as a result. In the ten years following the slogan's launch, the population of Philadelphia dipped by 13.4 percent, from 1,948,609 to 1,688,210. And on the eve of the city's Bicentennial celebrations in 1976, then-Mayor Frank Rizzo requested 15,000 federal troops to maintain order in Philadelphia that summer, fearing violence from political demonstrations. Tourists stayed away in droves. The total number of visitors to Philadelphia in 1976 was estimated to be between 14 and 20 million, which fell far short of the planners expectations, Madison Eggert-Crowe and Scott Gabriel Knowles write in the online Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia. Much of the shortfall may be attributed to fear of violence spread by media attention to the protests and the mayor's reaction to it. During the Bicentennial there was also an outbreak of Legionnaire's Disease. Hundreds of members of the American Legion staying at the Bellevue Stratford Hotel contracted an infectious disease through the hotels air conditioning system, killing more than thirty of the Legionnaires. Local wags inclined to punnery called the city Filthydelphia, and the same wags, referring to the main artery into town, the deteriorating high-speed Schuylkill Expressway, were prone to call it the Surekill Distressway. We regularly booed our sports teams, which inevitably found themselves in the basement of the standings a few weeks after the opening of the season, at their home games. Philadelphia was, at the time, the self-loathing Larry David of American cities. It remains so in some respects. It may be no coincidence that the phrase "We have met the enemy and he is us" was popularized in the 1970s (though not coined) by Walt Kelly, the creator of the comic strip Pogo and a Philadelphia native.

I consider myself a native Philadelphian too — I was born at Pennsylvania Hospital at 8th and Spruce Streets in 1962, in the heart of Center City — and I remain one, though I've lived in New York since the early 1990s. I spent quite a bit of time in Philadelphia in the 1970s (I must have passed that billboard many times myself) and remember this period well. But then, Philadelphia was never one to curry favor with outsiders, or with ourselves. Compare Philadelphia's slogan of the 1970s with, for example, New York's "I Love New York" advertising campaign, which launched in 1977 — a screaming success. A success, at least, when it came to the city's self-image, if little else; New York's population also suffered a 10 percent decrease during the 1970s. Nonetheless, the contrast between the two slogans reveals about Philadelphians their steadfast refusal to believe their own bullshit.

Bullshit is a fine fertilizer, and like other fertilizers it's a compound, its individual elements consisting of hyperbole, publicity, half-truths, whole-lies, arrogance, exaggeration, conceit, egotism, self-delusion, greed, and a narcissism verging on religious mania. The danger is in believing your own bullshit, and if anybody believes their own bullshit, it's New Yorkers. The sentence "Philadelphia is not as bad as Philadelphians say it is" unintentionally reveals a more laudable modesty and humility at the heart of its civic and urban culture. That modesty and humility have done damage to the city and its reputation, no doubt. But they have also done the city and its inhabitants more good than may be evident at first glance, and it obscures the far greater civic and urban damage that bullshitters who believe their own bullshit can accomplish.

The roots of this difference between New York and Philadelphia may lie in their histories. William Penn, the founder of the city whose statue looks down from the top of Philadelphia's City Hall, deliberately established Philadelphia on the Quaker values of tolerance, piety, pacifism, and order in its original prospectus. (Though the statue itself is solemn and dignified, from the right angle, when it's raining, it looks like Penn is peeing in the general direction of North Philadelphia. Thanks to my late father for this rather surprisingly relevant insight, though I'm sure he was hardly the first to notice it.) He envisioned it as a greene country towne, a city of brotherly love that would disdain excessive commerce and business activity in the pursuit of a prosperous (within reason) but civilized community of compassionate, like-minded citizens. Within fifty years of its 1682 establishment, of course, these ideals had fallen by the wayside as the non-Quaker population — diverse and heterogenous as it was in terms of religious, social, and racial composition, a diversity and heterogeneity ironically encouraged by Penn himself — displaced the original Quaker settlers, forming a more practical and commercial population, personified by no less than Benjamin Franklin, inventor, entrepreneur, and civic leader. On a recent walk through Olde City Philadelphia, I counted no fewer than fifteen statues and historical references to the inimitable Franklin — he's hard to miss — but above it all, Penn and his memory still look down over the city. There is, no doubt, some bullshit in Penn and rather more in Franklin; the capacity for bullshit is something that differentiates the human race from the animals, after all, and none of us is entirely devoid of it, even and perhaps especially seemingly benign visionaries like Penn. New York, on the other hand, was founded as a trading post. And New York is still a trading post — magnified a millionfold, and powered by the latest in technology, but a trading post nonetheless. And there's no better fertilizer for business, commerce, and publicity than bullshit. I hate to say it, but if Benjamin Franklin may be the personification of colonial Philadelphia, Donald Trump may be the personification of contemporary New York.

That Philadelphia isn't as bad as Philadelphians say it is also suggests a bit of a desire to be left alone. In these more connected and networked days, a Facebook intimacy, in which we can be friends with hundreds, if not thousands, of people that we never meet, undermines traditional conceptions of community and friendship, which traditionally required us to actually meet, talk, and enjoy each other's real-world presence. Such traditional conceptions themselves undermine the ability of bullshitters to successfully bullshit us; we can see the deceptive glint in their eye as they spew it.

About twenty years ago, Philadelphia got around to hiring a rather more adept publicity firm, which came up with the slogan "The Place That Loves You Back." This might be interpreted as a somewhat sarcastic response to New York's "I Love New York," which doesn't love anyone, apparently. In 2012, Prof. Richardson Dilworth, Director of Drexel University's Center for Public Policy, compared the two Philadelphia slogans in an insightful essay for NewsWorks, seeing in the later slogan something of a betrayal of the Quaker ideal of universal love. (Dilworth is something of an insider and so has a particular insight; his namesake grandfather was the Mayor of Philadelphia from 1952 to 1956.) The claim that Philadelphia loves you is really the opposite of Quaker-inspired universal love. The slogan suggested intimacy, while universal love is cold and impersonal, Dilworth noted. If I love everyone, I love no one in particular. And Philadelphia has indeed often been perceived as a uniquely cold and unwelcoming place. Cold and impersonal, perhaps — but also cautious, and, befitting the essentially conservative (with a small c) nature of the city, fonder of and more comfortable with the devil it knows rather than the devil it doesn't.

Dilworth cites Digby Baltzell's landmark 1979 study Puritan Boston and Quaker Philadelphia as he continues:

According to Baltzell, the radical equality and antiauthoritarianism of the city's Quaker leaders fostered a uniquely individualistic culture that was more tolerant of dissent than the more paternalistic culture fostered by the authoritarian Puritan leaders of Boston. ... Though generally considered a negative characteristic, Philadelphia's antisocial reputation was intimately connected to the city's perceived virtues — the opposite side of the coin of tolerance and acceptance is indifference and disregard. ...

Since the city's antisocial reputation also defined some of the city's perceived virtues of tolerance and acceptance, it seems worth asking what shared sense of community we gave up in selling ourselves more successfully to tourists.

"The Place that Loves You Back" suggests that we offered to welcome tourists into a warm and intimate community. We want you to have fun; in fact, we're going to insist that you have fun, because we love you and we care.

But in making this new offer, have we forsaken the mixed history of tolerance and indifference that allowed anyone to come here and do what they wanted? And in exchange, we really wouldn't care?

There's a reason that one of the more significant studies of Philadelphia of recent years is titled The Private City.

The more years I spend away from Philadelphia, the more I come to appreciate its eccentricities, including its reserve, self-deprecation, and modesty. I find in these qualities more realism than skepticism, more honesty than self-hatred. Naturally, I'm not blind to its many deficiencies. I'm glad that my daughters are enrolled in public schools in New York, given the worrisome condition of the public school system in Philadelphia today; its arts community, compared to that of New York, is less vibrant and less daring, though there's enough vibrancy and daring in Philadelphia if you know where to look. Its newspapers are a shadow of what they once were. And very little of Philadelphia's urban cuisine — those cheesesteaks, the pulled pork sandwiches at DeNic's — will end up on the cover of Eating Well magazine anytime soon; five minutes in the Reading Terminal Market will send any vegan or health-conscious eater screaming to the exits. On the other hand, Philadelphia, for many reasons, encourages an individual to come to private terms with a history — his own, as well as his culture's — that's worth preserving. Perhaps that's the bullshit I believe, and perhaps it's the bullshit Philadelphia believes, too. In which case, to each his own.

Posted on March 06, 2019, in /Philadelphia
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