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Memories of a King, the Beale Street Blues Boy

15 May

It’s possible that the first photo I ever saw of B. B. King was on the cover of Charlie Keil’s Urban Blues, an ethnographic study that spilled over into common discourse and made Charlie’s career. And I’m sure I read more about him in that book than I’ve read about him since then. But I don’t recall when I first heard King’s music and I only ever saw him live but twice in my life, once at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center (SPAC) in upstate New York in the late 1970s or early 1980s and then a bit later in Albany, New York, when I opened for him as a member of The Out of Control Rhythm and Blues Band.

I don’t remember much about the SPAC performance except that before long he had us dancing in the aisles, at least those of us close enough to the aisles that we could get out there and dance. The rest of the rather considerable audience had to be content with giggling and grooving in or in front of their seats. By this time, of course, King’s days of struggling were over and his audiences were mostly white, as are most of the people in the USA – though those days will come to an end some time later in this century.

Dancing in the aisles: that’s the point, isn’t it? The music enters your body, lifts it up, and you become spirit. The blues? Why not, the blues?

My memories of the Albany gig are a bit richer. To be sure, as I recall, King’s music was better at that SPAC gig, for the music comes and goes even with the best of them. Our manager (and saxophonist) Ken Drumm had seen to it that King had champagne waiting for him when he arrived in his dressing room and that got us an opportunity to meet him after the gig. But we had to line up with everyone else – mostly middle aged ladies in big hats and Sunday dresses – and wait our turn. We didn’t have more than a minute, if that, in the man’s presence.

And that meeting is worth thinking about in itself. King was the son of Mississippi sharecroppers. I don’t know about the rest of his band, but I recall a thing or two about Out of Control’s line-up at the time: two lawyers (I suppose we could call them ‘Big City’ lawyers for contrast, though Albany isn’t that big of a city), an advertising executive (that would be Mr. Drumm), a commercial photographer, a Berklee College drop-out, a car salesman, and an independent scholar (me). All brought together in the same place at the same time to worship in the church of the blues. I suppose I could invoke the melting pot cliché, but there was no melting going on, though the music was hot enough. As for the pot, to my knowledge the Out of Control boys were clean that night. I don’t know about BB’s band. Continue reading

Software Mysteries: Roll over Beethoven, let Satchmo come over!

9 Mar

I spent a fair amount of time in the last decade of the previous century working in the software industry (see this post for example) and reading popular prescriptions for improving America’s management style, many of those inspired by Japan. Somewhere along the line I got the idea that these new organizational ideas were more like an improvising jazz quintet and basketball than like the classical symphony and football. That is to say, that, stylistically, high-tech owes a debt to African-America even if African-Americans are not widely employed in the high tech world.

That’s what my current piece in 3 Quarks Daily is about: Cultural Styles in the 21st Century, or the High Tech Debt to Africa. This is the kind issue I’ve looked at elsewhere as well. Here’s a passage from Cultural Evolution: A Vehicle for Cooperative Interaction Between the Sciences and the Humanities:

During the 1960s the late Alan Lomax (1968) decided to investigate folk song styles against the background of cultural complexity. Lomax and his colleagues prepared a sample of over 3000 songs, representing 233 cultures from 5 continents plus the Pacific islands, and had judges code the songs on features of style — nature of the performing group, relationship between vocal part and instrumental parts, melodic style, rhythmic style, wordiness, tone quality, tempo, and so on. They correlated style traits with measures of social complexity and found that the simpler the society, the simpler its song lyrics. The simplest societies used a great deal of repetition and nonsense syllables. Similarly, the precision of enunciation varies with social complexity; the more complex the society, the more precise the enunciation. The prevalence of solo singers was also associated with complexity. In the simplest societies, everyone sang; no one was given or took a solo role. It is only in more complex societies, with permanent leaders and social stratification, that we see ensembles divided into a soloist and accompanists.

This is an empirical finding. And, while it may seem intuitively obvious that complex cultures create a collective ambiance that favors expressive forms that are different from those of less complex cultures, one would like an explanation for this “fit.” I would expect a robust account of cultural evolution to provide such an explanation.

In a similar vein, John Roberts, Brian Sutton-Smith, and Adam Kendon (1963) were interested in the relationship between child-rearing practices, community size, types of games, and folk tales. In particular, they were interested in what they have called the strategic mode. Strategy plays minor role in games of physical skill, but a dominant role in games such as chess and poker, which also has strong elements of chance. In folk tales, we can examine how the outcome is achieved, whether through physical skill, chance (guessing, casting lots, magic), or strategy (e.g. evaluating a situation, deception, out-witting an opponent). They discovered that games of strategy are likely to co-occur with folktales having a strong strategic element and that both are more likely in politically complex societies (chiefdoms and above).

The general point is simple: Expressive culture, how and what we sing, dance, and tell stories, is not just about entertainment. It pervades our society and all that we do. The cultural requirements of high tech industries are quite different from those of ‘classical’ industrial revolution. The fact that high tech culture evolved in a society pervaded by jazz, rock and roll, and hip-hop is not incidental. It is foundational.

An Appeal to the Pope on Behalf of the Creatures in the Cosmos

10 Feb

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I’ve got another post at 3 Quarks Daily, Charlie Keil’s Simple Appeal to the Pope on Behalf of the Future. Here’s a conversation Charlie and I have been having on Facebook:

Charlie Keil: Nice nesting and contexting Bill Benzon! … I’ll spread your commentary and the proposal around as far as I can reach into social media.

Some comments:
A big YES, to all those Firsts for Francis you list: First Jesuit, First Latin American, etc.

And another big YES to making this appeal to people of all religions who will need to form an ecumencal alliance if humans are to turn away from war once and for all.

A correction: be clear about the difference between “nations” (ethnic groups, tribes, those sharing values & traditions, peoples, who have a right to self-determination) and “states” (often, but not necessarily, the war-making enemy of anarcho-pacifists like myself and/or the enemy of nations trapped within states).

Correcting myself in the light of your highlighting the original St. Francis as putting the Creation, the speciation, before us as God’s other “book” to be praised and interpreted constantly. Just as “children’s liberation” and full expression can not be accomplished without peace, neither can the diversity of species by saved, strengthened, praised and interpreted properly without ending wars, banning weapons of mass destruction, creating Peace in all meridiens.

Bill Benzon: Thanks, CK. I was aware of the “nation” issue when writing the piece. Should have used “nation state” at every point.

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Charlie Keil: I’d have to go back to each sentence to see if that would work. I think it is safest, from anthropological, self-determination of peoples, classless society, and human rights points of view to just talk about states as states, because there are so few states made up of just one nation. Even homogeneolus Japan has the Ainu up north, the Okinawans down south, and a long hidden Korean underclass or caste. Whenever you’re tempted to use the phrase ‘nation state’ think of the Kurds existing in the corners of Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Syria and looking for self-determination since before the 1920s, or think of the 200 plus peoples caught in the trap that Lady Lugard named Nigeria.

On Behalf of the Future, your phrase keeps me thinking of all the ways that a Papal Peace Initiative opens the key doors to preserving species integrity and diversity, increasing awareness of Children’s Rights (European Network of Masters in Children’s Rights), and reviving the very essence of Christianity and all the other major religions.

Bill Benzon: Ah, but Charlie, THAT’s why I use the “nation state” phrase. It’s because the USofA was conceived as a nation-state that a large and important class of its inhabitants were defined as 3/5 of a person in the founding documents. Nation-states and nationalism go hand-in-hand. And this leads to a whole conversation about how people locate themselves in the world, aka identity, and that’s larger than will fit in these little FB text blocks.

Continue reading

Bottom-Up Climate Fix – NYTimes.com

22 Sep

YES! A thousand times YES! The top is busted, we must start from the bottom. Change starts in the community.

As one of those who, as an official at the Environmental Protection Agency, negotiated that first United Nations treaty in 1992, I believe we need to shift gears and try something new. Relying on national governments alone to deliver results is not enough, as the last two decades have shown. The real action on climate change around the world is coming from governors, mayors, corporate chief executives and community leaders. They are the ones best positioned to make change happen on the ground. Accordingly, we need to move from a top-down strategy to a bottom-up approach.

Mayors in Barcelona, Melbourne and the Brazilian city of Curitiba, for instance, are trying to expand public transportation. New York City’s former mayor Michael R. Bloomberg worked with pipeline companies to increase natural gas access so residents could shift from dirty fuel oil furnaces to cheaper and cleaner natural gas ones.

via Bottom-Up Climate Fix – NYTimes.com.

Taxonomy of a Landscape — re:form — Medium

10 Sep

The photographs are stunning!

The reader is left to infer that Sambunaris has stepped into the cartographer’s shoes as a 21st-century documentarian of human presence in the American landscape. The photos in this book, taken during half a dozen road trips over more than a decade, capture the massive scale of modern industry — mines, dams, freight trains, highways and logistics centers; the pipelines of Alaska and the Mexican border fence. She spent a particularly long period photographing Nevada, Utah, and the town of Wendover, which straddles the state line. She recorded the steam that rises from the ground at Yellowstone National Park, hinting at the massive volcano that sits beneath it. Each image conveys the tension between the epic timescale of geological features and the blink-short span of modern infrastructure’s tenure.

via Taxonomy of a Landscape — re:form — Medium.

Walt Disney, Stephen Miller and the Future of Jersey City

2 Nov

Buildings … are not discrete objects. They are building blocks of a democratic society. W. H. Auden once proposed that a civilization could be judged by “the degree of diversity attained and the degree of unity attained.” In the spirit of service, architecture can contribute to both. Without the spirit of service, architecture can be a highly destructive force.

– Herbert Muschamp, Visions of Utopia

No doubt you are familiar with Walt Disney, the guy who made cartoons and nature documentaries, created the world’s first theme park, and gave his name to what is now the world’s largest entertainment company. But it’s been years since Disney himself appeared in the media – he died in 1966 – and his life story isn’t well-known, though there must be at least a dozen biographies of him (I’ve read four of them).

But what does Uncle Walt have to do with Stephen Miller and what do either of them have to do with the future of Jersey City?

And, by the way, WHO is Stephen Miller?

I don’t know how many laser cutters there are in Jersey City – 10, 20, 100, 763? I have no idea – but one of them is in his atelier off Harrison Street between Monticello and Bergen.

What’s a laser cutter?

It’s a high tech device used for cutting materials such as wood, plastic, leather, metal perhaps.

And what the h___ is an atelier?

It’s a workshop and design studio.

OK, gotcha, but what does that have to do with Walt Disney and what do they have to do with the future of Jersey City?

Let’s start with Walt Disney. Disney was an entertainer; he made movies and went on to build a theme park. Miller is an entertainer too, though of a different kind. He’s musician and a very good MC – he tells me he used to front a band. And he’s a slammin’ djembe player.

And I know a little about djembe players. When I lived in upstate New York I performed with Eddie “Ade” Knowles, a percussionist who toured as a percussionist with Gil Scott-Heron early in his career. I hear and feel the same power and nuance in Miller’s djembe playing that Ade has in his.

OK, so he’s an entertainer, there are lots of entertainers in the world…

Just cool your jets. Don’t go getting testy on me. I’m gettin’ there.

Take a look at this video (embedded below). It’s a promotional video that Disney prepared for Epcot (Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow) and it shows a small city that’s very different from and far more interesting than what the Disney Company eventually built in central Florida.

Continue reading

Extra! Extra! Japanese Government Funds Distance Education on the Rez

1 Nov

No, it hasn’t happened yet. But who knows, stranger things have happened.

By “the rez” I mean, of course, the reservation. In this case I have no particular reservation in mind but rather am thinking of all 300+ of them as a collective entity that encompasses 2.3% of the landmass of the United States. While most of them are rather small, a few are quite large, with nine larger than the state of Delaware while the lands of the Navajo Nation are roughly the size of West Virginia.

What’s interesting about these Indian reservations is that the tribes possess tribal sovereignty, which means that in some respects these reservations are foreign nations. That’s why a few tribes have been able to get rich from gambling casinos on the rez. Federal and state laws don’t apply on the reservation, and if the reservation happens to be in the middle of are populated by people with money they’d like to gamble away, when then come on down!

But I’m not interested in gambling. I’m interested in poverty. Many reservations are, in effect, third world countries within the territorial United States. Over a quarter of Native Americans live in poverty as compared to 15% nationally. Poor people generally get lousy education and that, in turn, makes it difficult for them to work their way out of poverty.

And that’s where the Japanese come in. As I indicated in my post on Takeshi Utsumi, the Japanese government funds distance education in third world nations. Why not fund distance education in these third world nations that just happen to live within the territorial boundaries of the United States of America? Continue reading

Dr. Takeshi Utsumi: Globally Collaborative Environmental Peace Gaming

31 Oct

David Hays introduced me to Takeshi Utsumi sometime back in the 1980s. Both of them were members of an on-going seminar convened at Columbia University by Seth Neugroschel on the topic of Computers, Man, and Society. This was one in a series of seminars that Columbia has run since the middle of the 20th Century. The seminars are housed at and funded by Columbia University, but are open to participation by the general public.

Neugroschel’s seminar featured wide-ranging discussions of the social impact of computing technology. I often timed my visits to Hays so that I could attend the seminar. Those visits came to an end in the mid-1990s when Hays died. But I reconnected with Neugroschel’s seminar when I moved to Jersey City in late 1997 or 98.

Utsumi was born in Japan in, I believe, in the mid-1920s and immigrated to the United States in the mid-1950s. For the past several decades he has been traveling in South Asia, Africa, and the Middle East to meet with people and groups seeking funding for projects in distance learning, telemedicine and the like. He then directs them to an appropriate place in the Japanese government where they can obtain funding for their work.

All this is in service of his idea of a Global University System (GUS), “a worldwide initiative to create advanced telecom infrastructure for accessing educational resources around the world. The aim is to achieve ‘education and healthcare for all,’ anywhere, anytime and at any pace.” You can find a 2004 interview with Utsumi HERE.

He is particularly interested in peace gaming, and has included an essay on it in the collection, Global Peace Through The Global University System. Here is an abstract of and link to his contribution.

Globally Collaborative Environmental Peace Gaming
(A Personal Recollection on Its Inception and Development)

Abstract: As a computer simulationist, I conceived in 1972 an idea of establishing a Globally Collaborative Environmental Peace Gaming (GCEPG) with a globally distributed computer simulation system through a global grid computer network, with a focus on the issue of environment and sustainable development in developing countries. This is a computerized gaming/simulation to help decision makers construct a globally distributed decision-support system for positive sum/win-win alternatives to conflict and war. It can also be used to train would-be decision makers in crisis management, conflict resolution, and negotiation techniques. This gaming approach is to devise a way for conflict resolution with rational analysis and critical thinking basing on “facts and figures.”

Over the past three decades I played a major pioneering role in extending U.S. data communication networks to other countries, particularly to Japan, and deregulating Japanese telecommunication policies for the use of Internet e-mail. I also contributed by conducting innovative distance teaching trials with “Global Lecture Hall (GLH)”tm videoconferences using hybrid delivery technologies, which spanned from Korea, Japan, New Zealand, Finland, Italy, France, Russia, Turkey, Brazil, etc. 


Using this background, we are now creating a Global University System (GUS) with colleagues in major regions of the world, which will be interconnected with Global Broadband Internet (GBI). The GCEPG is one of the proposed ways to utilize the GUS and GBI in integrative fashion. A similar scheme with globally distributed computer simulation system can be applied to various subjects as creating a new paradigm of joint research and development on a global scale. This will foster not only wisdom by collaborative interaction on knowledge but also true friendship among people around the world with mutual understanding and lasting peace. 

This paper briefly describes the history of the GCEPG project since its inception in 1972 and its future direction. It is a companion to the opening chapter “Creating Global University System” of the book “Global Peace Through The Global University System.”

Does Jersey City have more Creative Potential than NYC?

21 Oct

Can Mana Contemporary make the transition from NYCArt in Jersey City to scene weaver?

It’s time to revisit a question I posed a couple of months ago in the wake of Steven Fulop’s ground-breaking election as Mayor of Jersey City: is Jersey City a 21st Century Florence?

A Time for New Institutions

First let’s once again review a crude little story I’ve been telling for years. It goes like this:

In the Medieval West the Catholic Church was the institutional center of intellectual life. Then the West underwent a massive cultural change, the Renaissance, and new life ways and new institutions emerged. A new system of colleges and universities supplanted the church as the central institution of intellectual life. That system served us well up through the end of the 19th Century and into the early 20th Century.

But the world is once again changing. And this time it’s not the West alone that’s undergoing a metamorphosis. It’s the whole world, kicking and screaming.

So, just what are the possibilities for new institutions? Are any emerging?

On the latter question, sure, I guess. But the basic institutions of life in the West, if not the rest, have been inherited from the 19Century and before. This is overlaid by large international corporations and various international treaties, pacts, and NGOs. And the web has emerged in the last 20 years as a vehicle of communication and dissemination, and it’s certainly changing the institutions of higher education.

But the deepest kind cultural work needs to be done face-to-face. What are the prospects there?

Well, of course, I don’t know. But let’s think about the three institutions I’ve been examining recently: Mana Contemporary, the MacArthur Fellows Program, and the SUNY Buffalo Department of English for roughly a decade or so in the 1970s. Can we make something new out of that? What? How? Continue reading

A Birthplace of Spirits

9 Oct

The garden is empty now, at least empty of humans other than me, the photographer.

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But yesterday it was filled with people… Continue reading