Donald's Blog

  This old house was only a few blocks from the state Capitol in Madison, Wisconsin. All the neighborhood cats lived in the basement during the winter. The house has long since been torn down, but in 1972 there were AR2ax speakers in the front room, and a lot of good music was heard there.

«Aug 2014»

In the 21st century I am just as opinionated as ever, and I now have an outlet. I shall pontificate here about anything that catches my fancy; I hope I will not make too great a fool of myself. You may comment yea or nay about anything on the site; I may quote you here, or I may not. Send brickbats etc. to:


June 20, 2014

Jazz at the baseball stadium

Horace Silver, a founder member of the Jazz Messengers over 60 years ago, died the other day, aged 85. Organist Fred Costello has a steady gig playing at the local Rochester Red Wings games, which might be the last minor league franchise still to have live music in its stadium; a big Silver fan, he played a quote from "Sister Sadie" for the jazz fans in the crowd.

David Demsey, in the jazz department at William Paterson University of New Jersey, is a saxophonist who studied music in Rochester and played with Costello a time or two. David writes that Fred had a great sense of humor with his repertoire. On one occasion, when a player from the opposing team made a truly horrible error, Fred observed it with "What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life", a Burton Lane ballad from a 1944 film that a lot of jazzmen have played.

"Nobody got it except the bunch of us there from Eastman," David wrote. But Horace would no doubt have enjoyed it too.


June 12, 2014

The highway fund

Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) said in a memo to members of the Budget Committee Wednesday that the consequences of a transportation funding bankruptcy would be catastrophic.

“A shortfall in the Highway Trust Fund would hurt workers who depend on jobs on highway construction and public transportation projects, and it would add to the uncertainty that states and local governments already feel in planning for future transportation projects,” Murray said.  

“Both Democrats and Republicans have put forward proposals to resolve a Highway Trust Fund crisis, including plans to use revenues from corporate and international tax reform, to address the shortfall,” she continued. “At this critical stage, with less than three months before a crisis, failing to act in Congress to shore up the Highway Trust Fund would be damaging for families, businesses, and the economy.”


This was a longish news item on the Internet. Nowhere is there any suggestion of raising the gasoline tax, which hasn't been raised in over 20 years.

You can't fix stupid.


June 12, 2014

Jascha Horenstein's Mahler 5th

Jascha Horenstein's Mahler 5th

Horenstein fans always regretted that he never recorded Mahler's 2nd or his 5th symphonies. There were at least broadcast performances of the 6th, 7th and 8th symphonies, and studio recordings of the others; there will probably never be a 2nd, the Resurrection symphony, because Horenstein conducted it only twice, once in Johannesburg and once in Trieste [not only once in Australia, as I had said earlier], and neither performance was broadcast as far as we know, and no recording is known to exist.

But finally, over 40 years after JH's death, no fewer than three of his broadcast performances of the Mahler 5th have come to light. It is arguably Mahler's best known and most "popular" symphony, because of the famous Adagietto movement, but also perhaps his most ambitious symphony up to that point.

There is one with the London Symphony Orchestra, which is locked up in the British national sound archive: they will let you listen to it on headphones if you can find it (the archive has moved last we knew). And there is one with the Göteborgs Symfoniker in Sweden: that venerable orchestra had been going through a rough patch when Horenstein was invited in to help bring it back up to the stature it deserved. The performance is a bit rough and the sound isn't very good. The best one was made at the Edinburgh Festival in Usher Hall in 1961 with the Berlin Philharmonic, but again the broadcast sound was pretty ropey. 

Now Andrew Rose at Pristine in France has done a superb restoration job on the Edinburgh performance, revealing its power and its excitement: it's become one of those broadcasts that sweeps you away, so that if there's a little distortion here and there you don't even notice. It's the second or third restoration I have heard, and by far the best.

Download it here:


June 10, 2014


For years I thought that President Clinton had said that his favorite saxophonist was Peter Brötzmann, which I found very impressive. Now I find that it was a Russian called Igor Butman, who I had never heard of until now.

Maybe that's even more impressive. I do not know.


June 4, 2014

Words to live by

Don't face the facts or you'll never get out of bed in the morning.

--Ruth Gordon, actor and writer


June 2, 2014


I am reading a marvelous book called Nothin' But Blue Skies, by Edward McClelland, about the time and place where I grew up: the American Midwest, which astonished the world during WWII with its ability to crank out ships and tanks and bombers, and was the engine of American prosperity for many years thereafter. I worked the entire decade of the 1960s in a car factory in Wisconsin: I wore overalls, punched a timeclock, belonged to unions, but I had a mortgage and I drove a late-model car. I was joining the middle class. That is how it was done, and McClelland's book is about how the engine got started, and how it sputtered to a stop as the Midwest became the Rust Belt.

McClelland is a very good writer, perhaps the ideal chronicler of all this, because his sympathy is not in doubt, but nor does he pull any punches. He has interviewed a great many people and their personalities come through, but he calls both the workers and the bosses on their foolishnesses, and there are a few laugh-out-loud spots too. The varous chapters in his book are about Flint Michigan, East Chicago, Cleveland ("the Mistake on the Lake"), Homestead Pennsylvania, Decatur Illinois, and several other places where working people earned a living and raised families until it all started to unravel. I was never on strike in my whole ten years at American Motors, but there were plenty of strikes in the Midwest, and a lot of bitterness in the end, because it had all started more than a century ago with George Pullman and Andrew Carnegie and the other bosses treating the workers like children, and sometimes hiring goons to murder them if they got uppity, so naturally there were still chips on shoulders a few decades later. But I won't go on; read the book. It's about America, and how we allowed it to run down.

And in today's Wall Street Journal there's a special section on "Why U.S. Manufacturing Is Poised for a Comeback [Maybe]", written by James H. Hagerty, who describes a cause for optimism and a rebuttal in each of several areas. For me the key point was in the first rebuttal. "U.S. Costs Are Getting More Competitive" because wages are going up in other countries; for example, one study says that China's overall manufacturing-cost advantage has shrunk to 4%. Ah, but Euro-Pro Operating designs its Shark vacuum cleaners and Ninja blenders in the USA, but has them made in China.

The issue isn't labor costs [says Euro-Pro's CEO]. It's about the profusion of suppliers in China for such things as small motors and electronic parts, and the speed with which Chinese factories and suppliers can gear up to make new or redesigned products.
      Replicating those skills and supply chains in the U.S. is conceivable, but it would require many years of heavy investment. The big question is whether U.S. companies, which are typically focused on pleasing Wall Street with quarterly results, will make those long-term investments.

And there we have it. Wall Street runs the country through their satraps in Congress and various government departments; the quick and cheap profit is all that is wanted, and Main Street hasn't a chance. When I was working in a car factory, there were three or four machine shops within walking distance that could have turned out a tub of small parts in an emergency: Orrick Howard comes to mind; he lived across the street from us at one point, and raised a family of five boys operating his Kenosha Armature Works. But such shops no longer exist, any more than the big factory does, so if all you want to do is work for a living in exchange for a decent paycheck, you'll have to go somewhere else. The Arsenal of Democracy is closed.


June 2, 2014

Hmm...are there any more in here?

Hmm...are there any more in here?

We like Herr's wavy potato chips. And Louie does too.


May 28, 2014

My Struggle

The only kind of novels I enjoy nowadays are stories about ordinary people and what happens to them while they are making plans: Stoner, by John Williams (1965); Train Dreams, by Denis Johnson (2002); Tinkers, by Paul Harding (2009). I've only just started Andrew's Brain, by E.L. Doctorow, published this year, and it's a little unusual. I must get back to it.

Earlier this year I was intrigued by the reviews of My Struggle, a Norwegian saga of six fat autobiographical volumes by Karl Ove Knausgaard, a publishing sensation in Norway. Three volumes have been published in English so far. I'm not usually interested in anything 3,600 pages long, but I lashed out on the first volume, and after I read over 140 pages of an insufferably boring teenager describing his life, I gave up. Not that he has a life. You can only read so many times about opening the refrigerator door, sneaking a cigarette, or hiding a six-pack of beer in a snowbank, and I thought it unlikely that his life was going to become any more interesting.

Today there is another review, in the Wall Street Journal, by Sam Sacks, who says that we are used to sensation-mongering confessional memoirs nowadays, but the "autobiographical epic...seems to belong to a more confidently heroic past." Other reviewers have reached for the obvious comparison, to Proust, but Proust probably transcends the category to become literature, and Sacks sensibly aims lower, mentioning Cellini, Casanova, Chateaubriand, "or rare 20th-century examples like T.H. Lawrence's war memoir or Henry Miller's novelistic paeans to his libido."  

"By publishing such a book, an author is in effect declaring his candidacy for immortality." But Sacks goes on to describe, in Knausgaard, "tortured ambivalence"..."sometimes tawdry discosures"..."comprehensive portrait of the largely ordinary life of a Gen-X Norwegian." The ambivalence means the author is aware of an "oddly gripping conflict between [his] old-fashioned impulse toward self-aggrandizement and his altogether contemporary sense of jittery self-awareness." The "mountainous mass of realistic description" exposes the "hero of our craven, inconsequential, maudlin and absurd". 

Sacks concludes, "On the question of his work's lasting genius, Mr. Knausgaard is both its unflagging prophet and its loudest Doubting Thomas." I don't find the conflict gripping. I think the word "absurd" is key, and that's already been done for all time by Samuel Beckett, who didn't need 3,600 words.

Simultanously and coincidentally, my old high school friend Fritz Plous asks me why Scandinavia is so big on heavy metal music, which is all about death, violence, satanism and so on. An Atlantic magazine blogger called Richard Florida has calculated the number of heavy metal bands per 100,000 population, and come to the conclusion that "This music of disillusion and despair is, strangely, biggest in countries with very high quality of life." He has got it wrong right off the bat: he means "standard of living", not "quality of life."

I firmly believe that if you are afraid, as Knausgaard seems to be, that life may ultimately be meaningless, all you have to do is grab a recording of a Beethoven string quartet and listen to it over and over until you know it as well as your name, and your life will be transformed, unless you are tone-deaf. Karl Ove's teenager is probably getting a good education as far as passing exams is concerned, but he is listening to the rubbishy pop music of his time (he name-checks pop albums in his volume one).

Art is the only thing that matters, especially if we are prosperous enough so that we don't really have to worry about anything. Florida concludes that Scandinavians are so prosperous that they can afford to buy musical instruments and practice them until they have enough technique to play heavy metal (I guess he means super-fast guitar solos), and again he has missed the point. If you have that much leisure time, you can at last study the big philosophical questions: Is there life after birth? You might find some answers in art, but not in rubbish.

I have about 20 CDs of Scandinavian string quartets; those countries have certainly turned out great artists in every category, but most people there have probably never heard a string quartet, or seen a Bergman film. They are bored. Plus they live in a place where it's dark six months of the year. That may be why they have high rates of alcoholism, and why they will watch, we are told, a film of a fire in a fireplace on television; and why they like music that is extremely loud. It keeps them awake.


May 22, 2014

From the Times Lit Supp

England, Where Did You Go?

England of the burrow-in green, chalk galvanised giant,
undulating earth-bank fortress, flinted Roman wall,
full flair gorse, messy hay-trails waiting
to be bin-bag-baled by steel mandibles:

you unroll through the window of a train,
but should I get out in search of you, you'd be off
and I'd be left wandering down dual carriageways,
looking across bean fields and filthy ditches.

--Holly Hopkins


May 21, 2014

Cheer up!

A kid takes a message: "Mom, the Gyna Colleges called. They said the Pabst beer is normal. I didn't even know you liked beer!"

 A Russian stand-up comedian who emigrated to the USA many years ago, interviewed on NPR: "Yes, there are comedians in Russia. Of course, they're all dead...In Russia, we had freedom of speech. Here we have freedom after we speak."
      A joke that didn't pass the Russian censor: a man wants to buy a car. In the Soviet Union it took 20 years to get a car, so he has to come back in 20 years.
     "Should I come back in the morning or the afternoon?"
     "It's 20 years from now; what does it matter?"
     "Well, the plumber's coming in the morning..."


May 19, 2014


One reason I'm not blogging more is that there's not a lot worth blogging about, and I've got better things to do, like playing with my music files, or walking the dogs.

Mallard Fillmore is not a funny comic strip. It's just dyspeptic, like Dick Cheney or Karl Rove. I think newspapers just carry it to provide "balance" with Doonesbury, which is not only funny but affectionate, sending up its own cohort as well as everything else.
      One day recently Mallard Fillmore consisted of a notice that we were supposed to cut out and display:

WARNING: This facility contains persons who are under the impression that you've never heard anyone say "May the fourth be with you" before. Proceed with caution.

I don't get it. I've never heard anyone say that. What does it mean? Happy Fourth of July? Fourth dithering president in a row? What?? "Obscure dyspeptic" does not compute.

I have a lovely set of the complete string quartets of Shostakovich's friend Weinberg. I load up my Sony 5-CD changer and play it whenever I'm downstairs, reading the papers, fixing a snack, feeding the dogs. Then I pause it when I go out or upstairs or downstairs. But this doesn't work because the Sony then shuts itself off. Why does it have a pause button if I'm not to be allowed to use it?

All my problems are first-world problems, and not worth blogging about. Yet the first world has really big problems.


May 19, 2014

Hello? Anybody there?

I am still spellbound by Philip K. Howard's book, The Rule of Nobody, about how we are so hamstrung by regulations that we can't accomplish anything, which I wrote about last time, on May 2.

Last week on the TV news, the back of a row-house had fallen off in a poor neighborhood in Philadelphia. The structural integrity of nearby houses is now threatened. The city is said to have at least 500 houses that are unfit to live in, and 2500 more deemed to be structurally unsound. Tenants and landlords (of houses that are not falling down) complain to the city about the danger. They complain about trees on a steep slope in front of a row of houses that are constantly threatening to cause problems; they are shunted to the power company, to the cable company, to this office and to that office, and nothing is ever done.

On the most dangerous highway in Pennsylvania last week, a stretch of 78, a tractor-trailer slammed into cars that had stopped or slowed down; three people were burned to death. This road has been claiming victims for years; nothing is being done by the most expensive and corrupt state government in the USA.

Meanwhile, the biggest success story of our lifetimes has been the unregulated permissionless Internet, which has enabled the innovations of Microsoft, Apple, Google, Facebook, Cisco, and countless more. About a hundred years ago American broadcasting was handed to commercial interests on a plate; subsequently the railroads and the best telephone service in the world were regulated out of existence, and now it is proposed to regulate the Internet. Some lobbyists want the FCC to subject the Internet to a 1934 law regulating telephone service: that's the kind of telephone, the landline, which, the last time I had one, had to remain unplugged, because it rang constantly with cold callers trying to sell me insurance. These are no doubt the same lobbyists who make it possible for CEOs to be paid hundreds or even thousands of times as much as their employees. But perhaps it won't matter; the President of the United States says he is in favor of giving up oversight of the Internet, the one undoubted American success story of modern times, so that the likes of Vladimir Putin can have a crack at censoring our Internet as well as Russia's.

The truth is simply that America is broken. There are a great many things that progressives, libertarians and tea party types should be able to agree on, but the dislike and distrust is such, and the cult of greed so entrenched, that the country is foundering.

An interesting irony is that more than a thousand years ago, China had the best government in the world, because the Imperial Chinese sought out the brightest youngsters and trained them to be civil servants. Then China was overtaken in the good government stakes by Europe and North America, and now the tables are turning again. True, the Chinese Communist government is profoundly authoritarian, paranoid, capricious and capable of cruelty, but it is no more Communist than my grandma; meanwhile China has terrible environmental, economic and demographic problems, and it appears to be doing whatever is necessary to solve them: for example, Chinese industrial regions are inventing and enforcing their own carbon caps, while the so-called "first world" dithers.


May 19, 2014


Marx admired the dynamism of capitalism; he saw that it was the best way to bring prosperity to as many people as possible as quickly as possible. But some people are always going to be left out, and he also saw that untrammeled capitalism would dig traps for itself, inventing nonsense like gambling on tulip bulbs, trading on tiny margins, credit default swaps and bundles of toxic mortgages, causing itself to collapse from time to time. So he assumed that capitalism would have to be superceded, and went on blot his copybook by inventing communism, which was pie in the sky. We are stuck with capitalism, the worst form of economy except for all the others.

A French economist, Thomas Piketty, has published an unlikely best-seller, a big tough book called Capital in the Twenty-First Century. He studied economic statistics going back centuries (possible because France, for example, kept meticulous records for the purpose of collecting taxes). The 20th century was distorted by two world wars and the Great Depression, but over the long haul the problem with capitalism is that the return from investment outpaces that from labour. In other words, it really is true that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.

We could of course do something about this. If the national minimum wage had been indexed from the beginning, today we might be as prosperous as Switzerland and Scandinavia, with almost no poverty at all. If we raise the minimum wage now, it is said, jobs will be lost: but we have fast-food joints on every street corner, often several in one block; would it be such a bad thing is half of them closed? And the remaining ones would be paying decent wages so that people could support familes, and they would spend the money, which would create new jobs.

Ah, but that would be against the law. Martin Feldstein, writing about Piketty's book in the Wall Street Journal, says that "The changes in tax rules since 1980 create a false impression of rising inequality." So if today's middle class, for the first time in American history, does not believe that its children will be better off, it must be because they're all smoking crack.

The mind doesn't boggle; it just goes to sleep.


May 2, 2014

Disgustipated (excuse)

Russia collapsed in 1917, again in 1989, and the criminal Vladimir Putin is setting it up for another collapse sometime soon. (This morning's papers say that he now has the nerve to demand that Ukraine should pull back its forces from its own territory.) But this is the 21st century: In the Soviet Union, were there filthy rich crooks stashing their cash and buying mansions in London, New York, Miami, the south of France? I think not. In today's world the Russian economy could be crippled overnight and Putin would be out of a job, but President Obama and our European allies wring their hands and do almost nothing. Is this "Peace in our time?" Syrian children are living in the streets in refugee camps while Bashar drops bombs on civilians in his own cities, and runs for re-election, and CNN talked about nothing but a missing airplane for more than a month. All the news is bad, but even worse, it is boring. That's why I'm not blogging like I should be.

All I've got to brag about is downloading 50 or 60 or 70 CDs worth of free classical music in the last few weeks: for example, dozens of string quartet concerts from Europe broadcast by French Radio, featuring wonderful groups we've hardly heard of, some of them because they were based behind the Iron Curtain, some only available on high-priced imported labels: the Amati, Arditti, Auryn, Diotima, Hába, Hagen, Harmony, Jack, Klenke, Kocian, Kuss, Leipziger, Petersen, Prazák, Johannes, Quiroga, Rubin, Shanghai, Zemlinsky, Zwiebel quartets are among them. It's like having the Wigmore Hall in my music room, and that's just the chamber music. It's time-consuming sorting all these music files, but much more rewarding than reading the papers.

Now I've quit my job at Barnes & Noble. Again. This time for good. I'm not "seasonal", I'm gone. It's just no fun working there any more. I've never liked the store or the mall I worked in for over four years; one of my colleagues, who has a second job in the same mall, said "It's not the mall; it's the store." I am undecided about whether to write more about it. Perhaps not, because I still hope for the best for the company, and I'll miss my customers and my co-workers. But anyway I came home from work -- a week ago last night, as it happens -- and Ethne and I were telling each other about our day, as we do, and instead of saying "Why don't you quit?" she said "QUIT." And I know an order when I hear one. After nearly 16 years with Barnes & Noble I have happy memories, especially of the Jordan Creek Mall in West Des Moines, but enough is enough. 


May 2, 2014

Who's in charge? Nobody.

The Morning Call reported this week that a widow in western Pennsylvania has had her home sold to a stranger for less than half what it is worth because she owed the local authority $6.30. Her husband had always taken care of the financial stuff, and after he died she discovered that she owed back taxes, twice, so she paid them. Twice. She did not know that the tax bureau had added some interest at one point. The article by Amy McConnell Schaarsmith of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette is full of juicy quotes: "the judge could only follow the letter of the strictly written tax law...this case is no different from any other case...Tax sale law is pretty clear that if you don't pay your taxes for a two-year period, the sale must proceed..."

Beaver County's chief solicitor, Joe Askar, said that the county's tax claim bureau had followed proper procedure and can provide evidence that the homeowner received notices. A few paragraphs later, Schaarsmith writes, quoting Askar again, it seems that two certified letters were returned as undeliverable, but at least two first-class letters were not returned. "The law is clear that if a first-class letter goes out and doesn't return, it's deemed received", said Askar. Some evidence.

The real problem here is that there was nobody with the authority, the guts or the brains to say, "Hey! This is stupid! We're not going to do this!" And this is the reason why the United States of America doesn't work any more, as Philip K. Howard shows in his new book, The Rule of Nobody. We deregulated the savings & loans and got the worst financial scandal in American history in the years around 1990. We deregulated electricity, and we got Enron in 2001, the biggest bankruptcy reorganization and the biggest audit failure in history. We deregulated the mortgage business (I first heard about "no doc" mortgages after I returned to the USA in 1998) and in 2008 we got the biggest national financial collapse since the Great Depression. But those were the kinds of deregulations that Wall Street types want, and that's not what Howard is writing about. While we allow the CEO of Yum, the company that operates Taco Bell, McDonalds and other fast food joints, to be paid more than 2000 times what a kid flipping burgers gets paid, every year the Congress of the Unites States and the state legislatures, Democrats and Republicans alike, pass more rules and regulations that affect everybody, every day.

The Bayonne Bridge between New York and New Jersey needs to have its roadbed raised about 120 feet, so that the port of Newark, the biggest port on the East Coast, will be able to admit the larger container ships that will be passing through the rebuilt Panama Canal starting next year. Otherwise the economy of the entire Eastern seaboard will suffer. The long span of the bridge is very highly regarded as architecture, and the Port Authority's engineers have figured out that they can raise the roadbed on the existing bridge for far less money than building a new bridge or digging a tunnel for the traffic. But it's been ten years now and the project hasn't got started, because the dedicated public servants at the Port Authority (not the clowns who helped Chris Christy play with his cones) have to satisfy thousands of pages of requirements, many of them obsolete or irrelevant, for example a historical and geological survey of every building within a radius of a mile of each end of the bridge, even through there will be no new foundations required; all the East Coast Indian tribes had to be consulted, even though there will be no digging to speak of, and so on and on.

A tree fell into a creek in New Jersey, and the local authority set out immediately to remove it, but they had to spend thousands of dollars and allow weeks of flooding in order to satisfy the law regarding alterations to this particular type of creek. An enormous amount of money was appropriated to weatherize hundreds of thousands of houses, as part of the economic stimulus, making jobs and eventually saving energy, but after several years almost nothing has been done, because each local project has to satisfy rules about federal employment going back to the 1930s. (No wonder there are never any "shovel-ready" projects.) In several states, children setting up lemonade stands on their sidewalks (what an American thing to do!) have been shut down because they didn't have vending permits. 

Our wonderful Founding Fathers made it difficult to pass laws, but gave no thought at all to repealing laws that don't work. Meanwhile the easiest thing for a bureaucrat to do is to say "no" and pass the buck, nobody wants to make a decision, and the USA is rusting away like a 1957 Plymouth. 


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