Plain Talk for free

For those of you with the bandwidth, you can now download the Plain Talk conversations for free. Just go to the individual catalog page for a conversation and you’ll find links to both a large, high quality mp3 file and a smaller, low quality mp3 file.

Advertisements

Sharing knowledge publicly

In the beginning I didn’t think Wikipedia would amount to much, so my opinion about sharing knowledge publicly may not be worth much. But I like this new approach just announced by Google, since it does several things better than Wikipedia:

  • Articles are bylined, i.e. the authors are known, which not only gives you their credentials to write on a topic but allows you to find other pieces they have written.

  • All editorial responsibilities and control will rest with the authors.

  • There will be ways for the community to contribute (comments, questions, proposed edits or additional content) while still maintaining the integrity of the original piece.

  • There can be multiple pieces on a given topic.

  • The community can rate both authors and pieces.

Those features strike me as real improvements. One other feature is that authors can elect to include targeted ads with their piece; I’m not sure that will be an improvement, but I think it is worth testing out.

(If you read the piece linked above, be sure to click on the screenshot at the end of the piece and study the prototype page they have provided.)

Singing naturally

Not being a natural singer, but being a natural learner, I have ranged far and wide in search of material that can teach me about singing. There isn’t much, at least about the kind of folk singing I try to do. There is some about art singing (e.g. opera), but much of it is focused on techniques that aren’t directly applicable to folk singing—in fact, some of them are antithetical to it. Periodically I will pore through that material, trying to glean deeper truths about song and singing that might be helpful.

Imagine how intrigued I was when I ran across an article by Bruce Schoonmaker, a fellow who teaches operatic singing, entitled Singing Without Technique. The bulk of what he has to say has been hard for me to digest, but I’m intrigued by his idea of singing by not singing:

The student arrives for his lesson. He has prepared his voice to the best of his ability, and now he desires his teacher to take him beyond what he can do on his own. He starts to sing. “Don’t vocalize,” says the teacher, and the student responds by making sounds more naturally, more colorfully, less mechanically. “Don’t sing,” says the teacher, and the student forgets his technique, forgets his tone, forgets himself, and becomes engrossed in the drama of the moment. “More,” says the teacher, and the student steps beyond his dearly held limitations, infusing his voice with more feeling, more beauty, and more strength.

I’ve heard things like this from my real-life teachers, but I don’t think I understood the reasoning behind it. They usually focus on what you need to be doing as you sing (i.e. telling the listeners the story of the song), and I took that as meaning that I should do something in addition to the technical work I was already doing to make musical sounds.

What I hear Schoonmaker saying is that I should tell the story instead of singing the song, trusting unconscious mechanisms to take care of the technical part. This makes sense to me, especially because I often find myself getting caught up in technique and its results (e.g. a sung note that is particularly resonant, or a tastily rhythmic phrase), which leads to singing that sounds affected rather than natural.

The article ends with a pretty cool Eastern proverb:

To the ignorant singer a song is a song;
To the intelligent singer, a song is not a song. It is technique and interpretation and musicality; it is the high notes and proper pronunciation, etc.;
To the wise singer, a song is a song, but it is not the same song that the ignorant singer sang.

In another article, The Meaning of Vocal Technique, Schoonmaker says that there is something beyond technical excellence that is required in performance:

There is a sense of beautiful singing that demands something else. There is a sense of beautiful singing that demands something be added to it. I own a recording of Kiri Te Kanawa singing Strauss songs. She performs them with beautiful vocalism, exquisite breath control, and adequate musicality, yet something is missing–call it passion, spontaneity, or risking. Her singing lacks this special dramatic quality, this rendering oneself emotionally naked before the microphone. She sings a beautiful rehearsal.

And then this anecdote:

Horowitz was asked if the number of extremely talented young pianists concerned him. Did he fear losing his position among the stellar performers? He responded no, that he didn’t fear them. They are very talented, he agreed, and they practice like demons, making high demands of themselves, and then they go on stage before an audience and practice some more.

Surgery

Surgery was in large part what tipped the balance in people’s attitudes towards hospitals. Until the late 1800s hospitals were largely places where the poor and indigent went to die from lingering diseases, at least in the public mind. And surgery was limited to treating a narrow range of conditions that could be fixed with minimally invasive techniques; there was no reason not to perform it in the home or at a doctor’s office:

Like nursing, but even more so, surgery enjoyed a spectacular rise in prestige and accomplishment in the late 1800s. Before anesthesia, surgery was brutal work; physical strength and speed were at a premium, so important was it to get in and out of the body as fast as possible. After Morton’s demonstration of ether at the Massachusetts General Hospital in 1846, anesthesia came quickly into use, and slower and more careful operations became possible.

But the range and volume of surgery remained extremely limited. Infections took a heavy toll in all “capital operations,” as major surgery was so justly called: the mortality rate for amputations was about 40 percent. Very rarely did the surgeons penetrate the major body cavities, and then only in desperation, when every other hope had been exhausted. Operations were so infrequent that a surgeon’s colleagues considered it a privilege to be brought along to help out even in the minor chores. Surgery had a small repertoire and it stood far behind medicine in the therapeutic arsenal.

Change came slowly after Lister’s work on antisepsis was published in 1867 because it was inherently difficult to reproduce. Many surgeons tested out his carbolic acid spray but found they were still plagued by fatal infections; carrying out antiseptic procedures demanded a strictness—an “antiseptic conscience” it would later be called—they could not at first appreciate. Lister’s method was not generally adopted until around 1880, soon after which it was superseded by aseptic techniques. (While antisepsis called for use of disinfectants during surgery to kill microorganisms, asepsis relied on sterile procedure to exclude them from the field of operation.)

With control over infection, surgeons could begin to explore the abdomen, chest, and skull, but before they could do much good a variety of new techniques had to be developed and mastered by the profession. It was not actually until the 1890s and early 1900s that surgery began to take off. Then, in a burst of creative excitement, the amount, scope, and daring of surgery enormously increased.

Now the stage was set for the shift:

Growth in the volume of surgical work provided the basis for expansion and profit in hospital care. But first certain impediments to the use of hospitals had to be removed. Before 1900 the hospital had no special advantages over the home, and the infections that periodically swept through hospital wards made physicians cautious about sending patients there. Even after the dangers of cross-infection had been reduced, the lingering image of the hospital as a house of death and its status as a charity interfered with its growth. Both patients and physicians had grounds to be wary of hospitals. Many people objected to losing the privacy and control that they might have had at home; as ward patients, the poor had no say in choosing their physicians. And though practitioners might have liked to refer more patients to hospitals, they were often afraid that doing so would mean losing the fee, and perhaps the case, because the staff might offer treatment without charge on the hospital ward.

It took time to establish new understandings about professional fees and control over patients. So at first, ether and antisepsis were adapted to the home and “kitchen surgery” continued. But performing surgery in the home became steadily more inconvenient for both the surgeon and the family, as the procedures became more demanding and more people moved into apartments. And the more busy surgeons became, the more costly was the lost time in traveling to the patient’s home.

To accommodate desires for privacy and fears of the hospital, many surgeons first moved their operations to private “medical boarding houses,” which provided hotel services and nursing. In the suburbs and small towns, doctors built small hospitals under their own ownership; surgery had now made hospital care profitable and permitted them to open institutions without upper-class sponsorship and legitimation. After 1900, as the old prejudice died out, most surgery moved inside hospitals.

Hospitals

The remaking of American hospitals began in the 1800s, and it was a remarkable process. Hospitals once served a very different role in society:

Medieval hospitals were conducted by religious or knightly orders and had a strong communal character; those who worked there were also bound together in a common identity and belonged to a common household. “Even when hospitals were taken over from the ecclesiastical authorities by municipalities in the later Middle Ages,” writes George Rosen, “they were not secularized. Essentially, the hospital was a religious house in which the nursing personnel had united as a vocational community under a religious rule.” In a different way, the almshouses of colonial America, which were the first institutions to care for the sick, retained a communal character. The colonial almshouse, David Rothman writes, provided a “substitute household: for people without a home who were poor or sick. “The residents were a family, not inmates.” Even the architecture of the colonial almshouse, which resembled an ordinary residence, reflected its conception as a household.

A key phrase above is “for people without a home.” For those who had family or were otherwise part of a community, care was provided in the home. Even the indigent poor were generally cared for in homes, until the government had a better idea:

In the colonial period, the almshouse was a secondary response to poverty and illness. As I indicated earlier, the colonists preferred to provide relief to the poor in their own homes, or to pay neighbors for taking care of them. But after about 1828, there was a shift in policy as states abolished home relief. By making the almshouse the only source of governmental aid to the poor, legislatures hoped to restrict expenditures for public assistance.

Eventually hospitals took over the role of taking in those of need of help and performing a sort of triage:

The contagiously ill they sent to the pesthouse, and the incurable and chronically ill, as well as those whom they thought wicked and undeserving, they sent to the almshouse. Such exclusions enabled the hospitals to restrict the number of patients they admitted and to keep down the reported mortality rates, since the hopelessly ill could be directed or transferred elsewhere before they became a blot on the hospital’s good name. This practice was encouraged by the medical staff, since the hospital would be less useful as a source of instruction to students if it filled up with chronic cases.

As industrialization progressed, the need for hospitals increased:

[Until 1870] hospitals had been formed mainly to take care of people who did not fit into they system of family care. The earliest hospitals were built chiefly in ports or river towns—Philadelphia, New York, Boston, New Orleans, Louisville—centers of commerce where strangers were likely to be stranded sick or where people were likely to be found working and living alone. Institutioinal charters and appeals for funds alluded to the needs of such people. In 1810, when Doctors James Jackson and John C. Warren circulated a letter to some of the “wealthiest and most influential citizens” of Boston to interest them in a hospital, they mentioned, as cases in need, journeymen mechanics living in boarding houses, widowed or abandoned women, servants, and others who had no adequate housing or kin to care for them.

As with other social institutions originally established to care for the needy, such as public schools and Sunday schools, those who were able to provide for their own needs in this area began to see the convenience of paying someone else to provide that care, thereby freeing them from the burden of family obligations. It wasn’t long before hospital care had become respectable, with middle-class families first offloading the care of relatives, then eventually turning to hospitals for their own care.

An interesting side note: American hospitals are apparently unusual in that a patient usually remains under the care of his own physician while in the hospital. In other countries the hospital takes full responsibility for the patient from his physician once he enters their care.

The mortgage crisis has barely begun

It’s been months since the public at large first learned that the state of residential mortgages was far from healthy, and still we don’t have a clear answer to one very important question: how much are the mortgages issued in the past five years really worth? For the longest time those dealing in mortgages were simply allowed to value them however they liked, yielding totally baseless figures. But now some companies are being forced to sell them on the open market, and it turns out the market has a very different opinion of what those mortgages are worth (emphasis added):

E*Trade Financial Corp’s (ETFC.O: Quote, Profile, Research) firesale of mortgage-backed securities has conjured up a new worst-case scenario for Wall Street’s portfolio of subprime assets by knocking their value even lower.

Financial analysts on Friday said E*Trade got anywhere from 11 cents to 27 cents on the dollar for its $3.1 billion portfolio of asset-backed securities. The portfolio sale was part of a $2.5 billion capital infusion from a group led by hedge fund Citadel investment Group.

“The portfolio sale, one of the few observable trades of such assets, has very clear, generally negative, implications for the valuation of like assets on brokers’ balance sheets,” Credit Suisse analyst Susan Roth Katzke said.

The portfolios are hard to value because demand has dried up for them and the brokerages sometimes use their own models to put a value on the assets. Any rare actual transaction could have an effect on other brokerages’ valuations. […]

Goldman Sachs analysts said they were surprised by the size of the discount on the E*Trade portfolio because 73 percent of the assets were backed by prime mortgages, or loans to people with solid credit. […]

Citigroup investment bank analyst Prashant Bhatia said E*Trade actually received 11 cents on the dollar for its portfolio, if you factor in that the brokerage received $800 million in cash minus 85 million shares it issued. He said that implies Citadel’s received stock compensation worth about $450 million, leaving E*Trade with only $350 million for its $3.1 billion portfolio.