Sunday, December 6, 2009

The Underrated and Overrated Series: 4 - THE INFLATED HEROES

As a child growing up in Venezuela, I spent a lot of time at the beach. And I really enjoyed it. Digging for mussels, building sand castles, feeling the warm sun over my shoulders and the wet sand under my toes, listening to the sound of my own breathing while snorkeling and perceiving the world above the water as distant and muffled… I loved it all.

One of the most rewarding beach activities for me, however, was also one of the simplest ones: riding waves to the shore on my way to buying ice cream.

Even from the water, it was still possible to hear once in a while the bell from the ice cream cart being pushed through the sand by young local boys toasted like coffee beans under the Caribbean sun. Every time I heard the bell, the conditioned reflex was immediate and strong --Pavlov would have been proud of me--, but I usually resisted the temptation to start running to the beach at once. Instead, I used to put my arms straight in front of me pointing to the beach --like Superman getting ready to fly--, and wait for the next wave, hopping for the best. Occasionally, on a lucky day, the next wave would turn out to be just the perfect size to take me all the way to the shore without walking or swimming. Whenever that happened, I felt like some kind of hero that had forced Mother Nature to work for me; and the ice cream served on a coconut shell became my prize for such a big “accomplishment”.

But even back then, I knew those feelings were silly. Simply riding a wave that was destined to hit the beach with or without me, couldn’t possibly make me or anyone else a hero. I still indulged on heroic thoughts, but absolved myself by concluding—well, I am just a kid—.

Today I am no longer a kid, but I see adult variations of my silly beach hero on a daily basis. These highly overrated idols can be found everywhere, but seem to flourish in areas like finance, business management and politics, particularly during good economic times. They are the Inflated Heroes, admired leaders who get an almost free-pass to fame and fortune by riding waves, this is, taking advantage of obvious trends in their respective fields to claim achievements that they didn’t really make happen.

The Inflated Heroes may not deserve the votes they receive from their constituency, the rankings they are given by analysts, the exposure they get from the media or the bonuses they are paid by their boards of directors, but it is clear to me that they deserve a place in my overrated series. Here are a few examples.

John Chambers is a good CEO. He has led Cisco Systems for a long time and has done a great job at it. I remember, however, the insane admiration journalists and market analysts had for him when Cisco was riding the wave of the early growth of the Internet (Cisco was the lead producer of routers and other hardware required to support the expanding Internet infrastructure). Fortune magazine ventured to ask… is John Chambers the best CEO ever? In reality, you could have assigned a college student or Mr. Bean to the job of Cisco CEO in 1996 and the company would still have enjoyed stellar growth. Only a tiny fraction of the company’s sales expansion during that period could possibly be attributed to John Chamber’s real and significant managing skills, the rest just came from the amazing growth of the Internet in the late 90’s, the time when people outside of the academia finally discovered the world wide web thanks to the launch of Mosaic and Netscape. The same Fortune Magazine recently ranked Chambers as the #1 of the biggest losers, highlighting that since March 2000, the market value of Cisco System has decreased by $425 billion.

Hugo Chavez was first elected president of Venezuela in December 1998. Back then, PDVSA (Venezuela’s state oil company), produced 3.8 million barrels per day and had plans to invest more than $40 billion to expand production to 6 million barrels per day by 2010. In 2002 Chavez fired 18,000 employees (40% of the total payroll of the company), in a successful attempt to replace PDVSA’s meritocratic culture with political loyalty to his socialist revolution. As a result, the company which constitutes the economic heart of the country and 80% of its exports will end up producing with luck 2.5 million barrels per day in 2010 rather than the 6 million originally planned. Luckily for Chavez, the growth in oil demand from emerging markets, particularly China and India, has been pushing the oil price up since he took office, from $11.9 per barrel in 1998 to a pick of $126 in 2008. This price increase of more than 1000% has allowed Chavez to finance significant spending in social programs that have made him a popular president among the poor in Venezuela and other Latin American countries. It is too bad that people forget about the other number, the much bigger figure that Chavez left on the table by throwing away PDVSA investment plans and the employees that were able to implement them. That number --perhaps $100 billion per year of forgone income-- is equivalent to almost $11 per day for every man, woman and child living in Venezuela, a country where roughly 50% of the people live under the poverty line, earning $1 or less per day.

But perhaps the most disgustingly inflated heroes are in Wall Street, even after this year’s financial debacle. Mutual fund managers, for example, are paid a percentage of the assets they manage in exchange for their investment ideas, with the goal of producing returns that beat the indexes representing the market. The reason why fund managers should beat the indexes is that there are investment tools based on indexes that are much cheaper than actively managed mutual funds. Therefore, rational investors should use index investment tools unless fund managers can justify their higher fees. In reality, very few fund managers get to beat the indexes and almost none beat the indexes consistently. According to Business Week, from 2004 to 2008, mutual fund managers failed to beat major indexes in every fund category. The S&P 500 outperformed 72% of actively managed large-cap funds, the S&P MidCap 400 index outperformed 76% of mid-cap funds, the S&P SmallCap 600 index outperformed 86% of small-cap funds and the emerging markets fund managers failed to beat their benchmark nearly 90% of the time during the period. And yet, mutual fund managers earn millions, regardless of their funds performance. How can this be explained? Simply, even the worst mutual fund manager has a big advantage: markets tend to go up. In the long term, a diversified portfolio will return close to 9% per year. Mutual fund managers just ride the market upward inertia, and even if they don’t beat the indexes, they still can impress unsophisticated investors with returns that are higher than those available by placing cash in a savings account or under the mattress. Why don’t investors use index instruments exclusively? Some do (index funds are growing quickly), but unfortunately most investors are as bad in their supervisory role as the mutual fund managers are in their investment picking strategies. One day, however, I hope the industry will change and make mutual fund managers receive just a salary plus perhaps a percentage of the gains they produce in excess of the index returns. That would be fair.

As the example of the mutual fund managers shows, sometimes it may be difficult for regular people to differentiate Inflated Heroes from real ones. That's why the media, with their journalists and analysts, should play an important role on this. Sadly, heroes sell newspapers and ads, so the media loves heroes, regardless of their authenticity and tend to revere Inflated Heroes with the same mix of admiration and respectful envy usually reserved for Hollywood stars: they interview them on prime time TV, but skip all the tough questions.

That’s too bad, because there are plenty of other Inflated Heroes out there that can cause serious damage to society before they go. Some, like Alan Greenspan, end up deflating only once the tide turns against them and it becomes very apparent that they didn’t have control over the wave in the first place. In Greenspan’s case, the wave was stable growth with little government regulation, and the result of our unchallenged admiration for him and his policies was the 2009 worldwide financial crisis. Others like Vladimir Putin, have a long way to go and a lot of damage to do before deflating. Putin's wave, shared with super-Chavez, is the Chinese demand for oil, and that won’t stop growing any time soon. If only Putin could be satisfied with a coconut ice cream…

Monday, September 21, 2009

The Legend of Martin McDonagh

Padraic Hello? Dad, ya bastard, how are you? (to James.) It’s me dad (Pause.) I’m grand indeed, Dad, grand. How is all Inishmore? Good-oh, good-oh. I’m at work at the moment, Dad, was it important now? I’m torturing one of them fellas pushes drugs on wee kids, but I can’t say too much over the phone like…

James (crying) "Marijuana", Padraic

Padraic They are terrible men, and it’s like they don’t even know they are, when they know well. They think they’re doing the world a favour, now (Pause.) I haven’t been up to much else, really. I put bombs in a couple of chip shops, but they didn’t go off. (Pause.) Because chips shops aren’t as well guarded as army barracks. Do I need your advice on planting bombs? (Pause.) I was pissed off, anyways. The fella who makes our bombs, he’s fecking useless. I think he does drink. Either they go off before you’re ready or they don’t go off at all. One thing about the IRA anyways, as much as I hate the bastards, you’ve got to hand it to them, they know how to make a decent bomb. (Pause.) Sure, why would the IRA be selling us any of their bombs? They need them themselves, sure. Those bastards’d charge the earth anyways. I’ll tell ya, I’m, getting pissed off with the whole thing. I’ve thinking of forming a splinter group. (Pause.) I know we’re already a splinter group, but there’s no law says you can’t splinter from a splinter group. A splinter group is the best kind of group to splinter from anyways. It shows you know your own mind (Whispering.), but there’s someone in the room, Dad, I can’t be talking about splinter groups. (To James, politely) I’ll be with you in a minute...


Once upon a time in the old town of London, there lived a young slacker with premature gray hair named Martin. Even though both of his parents were hard-working Irish immigrants, Martin didn’t like to study or work, so at the age of 16, he quit school and started collecting unemployment benefits.

When Martin was 22, his parents retired and went back to Ireland, but Martin decided to stay at their house in London with his older brother John. Martin didn’t have many friends, money or a girlfriend, but he was happy just fighting with his brother about anything, watching TV, sleeping a lot and surviving with his $50 weekly welfare checks. Whenever his financial assistance expired (every year and a half), Martin went out and found a job, but quit immediately after becoming eligible for unemployment benefits again.

In his free time, all-day long, Martin watched a lot of soap operas, but he also read whatever books his brother John brought home, including many stories by Jorge Luis Borges.
By the time Martin was 24, his brother John won a fellowship and moved far, far away to study screenwriting in the University of Southern California. Martin stayed in London alone. He still didn’t have many friends, money or a girlfriend, but he also didn’t have his brother John to fight with, so he quickly became bored, quit his job again, and decided to spend all day at home watching soap operas.

But one day, Martin got so bored that he grabbed a pencil and a spiral notebook and started writing the conversations he heard in his head, spoken by multiple voices in funny Irish accents and dialects. Since his brother John wanted to be a writer, Martin had decided that he wanted to be one too. It could give him an excuse to sit around the house all day. “It’s unemployment with honor”, he thought.

And once Martin started writing, he couldn’t stop. The voices kept talking and, day after day, he kept writing. Sometimes he talked back to the voices in his head, but he didn’t talk to anyone else and almost never left the house, filling notebook after notebook…

After nine months, his notebooks that once held only cheap paper had become the magic container that housed a world of crazy, amoral and violent characters, whose stories were, strangely enough, exciting, refreshing and totally hilarious. It turned out that Martin had the power to make us laugh at anything. Not even Pedro Almodovar could have gone that far. Martin had reinvented the fables of our childhood into an entertaining art form for open-minded adults. He had created human demons and witches of such unmitigated darkness that our lives in comparison seemed like a fairy tale.

Martin’s stories were not like the ones our parents told us. The words that his characters so gracefully and rhythmically articulated, could have been better described as pure venom. But the end result was the same. Like children, we couldn’t help but laughing out loud with the stories, and even if at some specially shocking moments we felt the need to cover our eyes or our ears with our hands, we always made sure to leave enough space between two key fingers, because we needed to know what was going to happen next. And at the end, like the good old fables of our childhood, there was something deeper that we were left with, even though we couldn’t quite describe what it was.

Three years later, at the age of 27, Martin became the first playwright since William Shakespeare to have four plays staged in London at the same time. The six plays he had written during those nine maniac months in London, were being produced not only in London, but also in Broadway, Tokyo and around the world, making Martin a rich young man and a very famous playwright.

But by then, Martin had became bored again and refused to write another play. “Until I’ve lived a little more, and experienced a lot more things, and I have more to say that I haven’t said already, it will just feel like repeating the old tricks”, he said.

Martin had now decided that he wanted to do movies.

And so, at the age of 28, Martin directed a short-film that he also wrote called “Six Shooter”, which featured among other things, a suicide, several murders, and exploiting cow and a decapitated bunny… all in less than 30 minutes.

The following year, Martin won the Oscar for “Six Shooter”...


I am Sorry, I have no idea how this story ends…

But fortunately enough, another chapter (or at least another paragraph) is coming soon! After finishing reading all of Martin McDonagh’s plays a couple of days ago, I went on the Internet searching for something to feed my newest addiction and found that a new play by McDonagh, his first since my favorite “The Pillowman”, will premiere in New York in March 2010. The new play is surprisingly unsurprisingly called “A Behanding in Spokane”, and is about a man who has lost a hand and wants it back!

If you haven’t seen or read a McDonagh play, you still don’t know what you are capable of laughing at.

I'll end with a short story that McDonagh included in "The Pillowman". One of the favorite tales of my childhood will never be the same...

Once upon a time in a tiny cobblestreeted town on the banks of a fast-flowing river, there lived a little boy who did not get along with the other children of the town; they picked on and bullied him because he was poor and his parents were drunkards and his clothes were rags and he walked around barefoot. The little boy, however, was of happy and dreamy disposition, and he did not mind the taunts and the beatings and the unending solitude. He knew that he was kind-hearted and full of love and that someday someone somewhere would see this love inside him and repay him in kind. Then, one night, as he sat nursing his newest bruises at the foot of the wooden bridge that crossed the river and led out of town, he heard the approach of a horse and cart along the dark, cobbled street, and as it neared he saw that its driver was dressed in the darkest of robes, the black hood of which bathed his craggy face in shadow and sent a shiver of fear through the little boy’s body. Putting his fear aside, the boy took out the small sandwich that was to be his supper that night and, just as the cart was about to pass onto and over the bridge, he offered it up to the hooded driver to see if he would like some. The cart stopped, the driver nodded, got down and sat beside the little boy for a while, sharing the sandwich and discussing this and that. The driver asked the boy why he was barefoot and ragged and all alone, and as the boy told the driver of his poor, hard life, he eyed back of the driver’s cart; it was piled high with small, empty animal cages, all foul-smelling and dirt-lined, and just as the boy was about to ask what kind of animals it was had been inside them, the driver stood up and announced that he had to be on his way. “But before I go,” the driver whispered, “because you have been so kindly to an old weary traveler in offering half of your already meager portions, I would like to give you something now, the worth of which today you may not realize, but one day, when you are a little older, perhaps, I think you will truly value and thank me for. Now close your eyes.” And so the little boy did what he was told and closed his eyes, and from a secret inner pocket of his robes the driver pulled out a long, sharp and shiny meat cleaver, raised it high in the air and brought it scything down onto the boy’s right foot, severing all five of his muddy little toes. And as the little boy sat there in gaping silent shock, staring blankly off into the distance at nothing in particular, the driver gathered up his bloody toes, tossed them away to the gaggle of rats that had begun to gather in the gutters, got back onto his cart, and quietly rode on over the bridge, leaving the boy, the rats, the river and the darkening town of Hamelin far behind him.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

On Bach and Gould

Warning: if you are a Pittsburgh Steelers fan with attention deficit disorder, who glanced at the title above and read “On Black and Gold”, you can stop reading here.

No doubt. Glenn Gould was a wacko.

During his entire career he sat at the piano crouched on a crappy folding chair that was six inches lower than the standard bench, and which by the end, with all the padding worn out and only the wood frame left, looked like something that the Bush administration could have prescribed as an “enhanced interrogation technique” for the Guantanamo base.

With the keyboard almost at the level of his nose, Gould played rotating his torso in a clockwise motion, using any free hand to “conduct” himself with his eyes closed, while simultaneously humming loudly, even singing, seemingly oblivious of where he was, --practicing at home in Toronto, in a recording session in New York or in a live concert in front of the Berlin Philarmonic and a sold-out audience--. His voice can clearly be heard in many of his recordings.

He disliked bright colors and argued that his mood was inversely proportional to the clearness of the skies. His motto was “behind every silver lining there is a cloud”. He was such an outstanding hypochondriac, he would had been considered an unrealistic and over-the-top character in a Woody Allen film. Afraid of colds, he usually wore wool coats, two sweaters and gloves during the summer and refused to talk to a sick person, even on the phone. He kept logs of his body temperature, pressure and hours of sleep. He showed at concerts and recordings sessions with his chair, water, a few towels and bottles of Valium, Trifluoperazine, Phenobarbital, Librax, Aldomet, Clonidine, Indocin, Hydrochlorothiazide, Fiorinal, Phenylbutazone, Gravol and Allopurinol.

Gould considered live concerts a demeaning blood sport similar to gladiatorial combat, and regarded audiences as a force of evil, so he begged friends and family not to attend his concerts. He also argued that public performances, particularly in large halls, caused musicians to distort the music in an attempt to reach and impress the audience. “Perversions” he called these attention-grabbing tricks. But being a perfectionist, his main objection to the concert hall was its “non take-twoness”, as he called it. And so, at 31, at the height of his touring career Glenn Gould stopped playing live concerts to focus on studio recording. No previous announcement. No farewell tour. He never played in a concert hall again.

Yes, he was a wacko. But even less charming is the idea that at least a significant portion of his eccentricity was a conscious decision to gain sympathy from friends and audiences. For example, I do believe that he was a real hypochondriac, but he didn’t shy away from using fake medical conditions as an excuse when convenient. He once wrote to Leonard Bernstein “I have several titles for diseases which I am expecting to use in later life and have not yet had occasion to make use of. I always find that a good disease title will impress your average concert manager no end”.

His need to be “special” also showed in his writings. He used to write the liner notes of his recordings, and he was good at it. He won a Grammy once for that. But sometimes he would use such a convoluted language that it is difficult to tell if he was actually trying to convey a complicated idea or just having fun at the expense of his readers. I believe he always though he was very funny, but nobody was brave enough to hell him he was not. I do enjoy, however, some of his weird jokes, like the time he faked a return to the stage, or those ocassions when he gave himself bad reviews, posing as a critic and writing about Gould in third person.

Perhaps more importantly, his artificially pumped eccentricity also showed in his music. Everyone had to be able to recognize Gould’s version immediately. But in many cases that wasn’t necessarily a good thing. I find for example his Beethoven unexciting and his Mozart just plain weird. In a famous episode, Leonard Bernstein felt the need to do a public disclosure before a concert featuring Gould as the soloist to explain to the public that he had nothing to do with the unorthodox version they were going to hear that night of a Brahms concerto.

But is better to let Lenny tell the story himself. This offers additional insight not only on what really happened that night, but also on the music making process and on the greatness of both Bernstein and Gould.

"Don't be frightened, Mr.Gould is here. (audience laughter) He will appear in a moment. I am not - as you know - in the habit of speaking on any concert except the Thursday night previews, but a curious situation has arisen, which merits, I think, a word or two. You are about to hear a rather, shall we say, unorthodox performance of the Brahms D Minor Concerto, a performance distinctly different from any I've ever heard, or even dreamt of for that matter, in its remarkably broad tempi and its frequent departures from Brahms' dynamic indications. I cannot say I am in total agreement with Mr. Gould's conception. And this raises the interesting question: "What am I doing conducting it?" (mild laughter from the audience) I'm conducting it because Mr. Gould is so valid and serious an artist, that I must take seriously anything he conceives in good faith, and his conception is interesting enough so that I feel you should hear it, too. But the age old question still remains: "In a concerto, who is the boss (audience laughter) - the soloist or the conductor?" (Audience laughter grows louder) The answer is, of course, sometimes one and sometimes the other depending on the people involved. But almost always, the two manage to get together, by persuasion or charm or even threats (audience laughs) to achieve a unified performance. I have only once before in my life had to submit to a soloist's wholly new and incompatible concept, and that was the last time I accompanied Mr. Gould. (audience laughs loudly) But this time, the discrepancies between our views are so great that I feel I must make this small disclaimer. Then why, to repeat the question, am I conducting it? Why do I not make a minor scandal -- get a substitute soloist, or let an assistant conduct? Because I am fascinated, glad to have the chance for a new look at this much played work; because, what's more, there are moments in Mr. Gould's performance that emerge with astonishing freshness and conviction. Thirdly, because we can all learn something from this extraordinary artist who is a thinking performer; and finally because there is in music what Dimitri Mitropoulos used to call "the sportive element" (mild audience laughter) - that factor of curiousity, adventure, experiment, and I can assure you that it has been an adventure this week (audience laughter) collaborating with Mr. Gould on this Brahms concerto; and it's in this spirit of adventure that we now present it to you. “

Considering all the admiration the music world still has for Gould –many consider him one of the two or three greatest pianists of all time-, some of the things I have mentioned so far would be more than enough to make this entry in my blog a part of the overrated series. But then of course, there is Gould’s versions of Bach. And there is nothing like them.

Gould practicing Bach’s Partita #2 at home in Toronto.

Gould’s sensational career really started when he played in New York in 1955. The head of the Classical division of Columbia records attended that night and signed him to a long-term exclusive contract the next day. Gould’s choice for his first record with Columbia was strange: Bach’s Goldberg Variations, a piece admired by musicians but pretty much ignored by audiences that Bach composed supposedly as a request of the Russian ambassador Count Kaiserling, who was the employer of Bach’s student Johann Gottlieb Goldberg and who suffered of frequent insomnia, so he wanted some custom made music to be played by Goldberg during his long sleepless nights. Bach published the set of one aria and 30 variations as a “keyboard practice” book. 214 years later Gould’s version of the Goldberg Variations became the best-selling classic album in history.

Bach was not popular piano music when Gould’s first record came out. Chopin, Liszt, Schumann and Rachmaninoff were the standard repertoire. Purist had ruled that Bach’s keyboard music had to be played in the harpsichord or the organ since there was no piano in the times of Bach. Pianists who dared to break the rules romanticized the music to make it sound similar to the more popular piano composers.

But Bach’s keyboard music is more than beautiful sounds. It is pure mathematical perfection that goes beyond specific instruments and tempi. If you take the wonderful first movement of Beethoven’s Moonlight sonata and play it in a trumpet, it will no longer have the ability to produce the melancholic feelings that so successfully achieve in the piano. Take Bach’s second prelude from the Well Tempered Clavier, play it in an electric guitar at twice the normal speed (if you dare and can) and you’ll probably get the most exhilarating, orgasmic rock solo ever. Play the same piece at half the speed in a Grand Piano with some background strings with crescendo dynamics and a Chopinesque style, and it will probably make you cry. Since we are at it, play it backwards, it will probably sound good too.

By implementing Bach’s ideas in the romanticized style that was popular since the 19th century, musicians were for many decades making more difficult for audiences to perceive the perfection of the essence of the work, which I like to call “the naked Bach”.

But then Gould came. Playing on a modern grand piano and with an attention to detail that required several days to record a two minute piece, his outstanding technique with no pedals avoided blurring notes together and allowed the listeners to fully appreciate what makes Bach the best composer in history, his unmatched harmonic sense. Not just one pretty melody with accompaniment, but two, three, four melodies, one of top of each other creating something that is much more than the sum of the parts, polyphonic heaven. Gould’s Bach made easy for the first time to jump back and forth from the big picture to the details, the individual voices. It was liberating. Listeners experienced something similar to the architecture fan who after having admired the Parthenon in photos for years, finally has the opportunity to visit it, and is able to get close to first admire the beautiful columns supporting the structure, then focus on the ornaments on the ceiling, and then pull back to contemplate the grandiosity of the whole structure. In 1955, with the release of Gould’s Goldberg Variations, the naked Bach became Gould’s Bach.

I don’t know if this was an effort from Gould to differentiate himself from the pianists of his time. His eccentricity always made him a contrarian to tradition, and tradition in 1955 meant playing a “romantic” Bach. But I prefer to think that his naked Bach was the result of Gould’s respect for Bach’s music. However, I don’t try to imply that there are no traces of Gould in his Bach. There are plenty. The speed of the 5th variation in his Goldbergs, for example, makes very apparent that you are listening to Glenn Gould. Only he could have recorded it that fast because first, only he could play that fast; second, only he and perhaps a couple of other classic artists were allowed such interpretative freedom in the recording studio; and third, only he would use his artistic freedom to go so far away from traditional views. But he managed to play it at inhumane speeds while still avoiding blurring the details, thus keeping Bach naked.

After quitting the stage in 1964, Gould embarked on a broad recording career that included most of the keyboard works of Bach. During the following 20 years he became a reclusive, neurotic, obsessive, manipulative, egocentric intellectual who ate scrambled eggs every single night at two in the morning in a nearby 24-hour dinner and called his few friends at any time during the night, expecting them to pick up the phone, even though he always let the machine pick up his calls. But during the same period, he created some of the best recorded versions of Bach’s keyboard music ever. It is Glenn Gould’s version of the Well Tempered Clavier that was included in the Golden Record aboard Nasa's Voyager in search for extraterrestrial intelligence, as an example of the accomplishments of human kind.

In 1982, Gould went back to the studio to record a second version of the Goldberg Variations. 27 years had passed since the first version, and he didn’t like it anymore. He had evolved to see the piece differently. While the 1955 version was a set of independent pieces that had little in common other than the bass line of the Aria and its chord progression, Gould felt he could made them more cohesive this time by creating, for example, a relationship between the tempo of each variation and the speed of the original Aria. He also felt that there was some showmanship in the first version that he wanted to avoid. Comparing both is an interesting way to note the evolution of an artist from an energetic genius kid who knew could play anything, to a mature musician, who still could play anything, but perhaps knew better. It is easy however, to see hints of the young Gould in the 1982 version. Even though the speed of the Aria is probably half the speed of the 1955 version, in variation #5 we can still see Gould in a race to beat his 22-year old self.

Gould playing variation #5 from the Goldberg Variations. 1982 version.

But for me, and millions of grateful Bach lovers around the world, is the Aria from the Goldberg Variations that will always remind us of Gould. Many times Gould mentioned his plans to quit his piano career at 50. On his 50th birthday, on Saturday September 25th, 1982, CBS released his second version of the variations. Two days later, Gould suffered a stroke and died. The Aria that opens and closes this mighty work also became the beginning and the end of Glenn Gould’s outstanding career.

Gould playing the Aria of Bach's Goldberg Variations. 1982 version.


I haven’t written for a while. Work and routine have kept me busy.
Recently, however, I received something totally unexpected, a praising note from a reader! What the hell! I didn’t know I had any!
So, I am back, at least for now… and Lilia, the next entry is for you.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

The Underrated and Overrated Series: 3 - THE ROUTINE

“Routine” is in many countries -including the U.S.- almost a bad word. It represents something dangerous that can ruin relationships, destroy dreams and waste lives. Even the strongest love can fade away as a result of long-term exposure to the R-Word.

The association between routine and unhappiness is widespread and largely encouraged by the media. How many times have we read or seen the story of the decent but dull guy who lives a routinary life that makes him miserable, cranky, obsessive-compulsive and destined to die alone; until one day, an energetic and adventurous girl comes to liberate him from his monotony, making him feel alive for the first time and transforming him in a better and happier person? A routinary life -they teach us- is unfulfilled, lonely, unexciting… sad.

One thing is true about all those Hollywood stories. Routine may be one of the biggest contributors to depression and life-long unhappiness in the developed world. But that’s not because routine is a natural source of suffering that we should try to minimize; quite the opposite. Our daily routine should be by far the biggest source of enjoyment in our lives. The problem is that routine is way underrated, so people don’t pay enough attention to it.

When I read holiday letters, those state of the union addresses for families that Americans enjoy mailing along with portraits of their kids and dogs around Christmas time, I always notice how focused on special events they are. It’s all about the special vacation the family had in Hawaii, the special birthday party the kids enjoyed so much, or the special Thanksgiving Day dinner that Grandma attended. As a result, the letter that was supposed to describe a year in the life of Family X, ends up describing only 10 or 20 extraordinary days.

This is understandable because the authors may believe that only exceptional events constitute interesting news for their audience. But, as a reader who actually wants to know how my friends and their families are doing, I wish people would focus more on their normal days, their average moments, their real life. For example, I would like to receive holiday letters titled “A regular day in the life of Family X during 2008”. That would tell me a lot more about how they are really doing.

Our special days may constitute the headline news for friends and acquaintances, but they don’t really represent our life or our level of happiness. Our average day does. Happiness, as I see it, requires either an unbelievable amount of good luck, or a life-long commitment of time and energy to improve our average day. And only 5% of our average day is made of special occasions, the other 95% is just plain routine.

The day I realized all this I woke up with a slight back pain. Some deformed coil springs in my old, cheap mattress were to blame. This wasn’t unusual, but the pain was never bad and I had bigger problems in mi life, so getting rid of this minor annoyance was not a priority for me. On this particular morning, however, I woke up wiser, or at least less stupid and instead of letting the backache fade away with my morning coffee, I jumped out of bed and said to myself (I think I actually said it out loud):

–What the hell am I doing? I spend 8 hours per day, one third of my life, lying on this damn bed!--

I had no money whatsoever, since the Nasdaq had imploded a few months before, but on the afternoon of that same day I used my emergency credit card to buy the best mattress and box spring I could find in the Pittsburgh market.

Constantly improving our average day certainly means big ticket items like finding the right person to share your life with, or choosing the right career path; but also means promoting those little things that make us happy on a daily basis and getting rid of repetitive annoyances, even if individually they seem insignificant.

For many people, however, is a lot easier to make sacrifices aimed at special occasions than routinary stuff.

A few months ago, I realized that I didn’t like the computer monitor I had at work. It was a 17-inch bulky, low resolution CRT. So I requested a new larger one. When the bank refused to pay for it, I immediately went to Amazon and ordered a fancy 24-inch HP LCD anyway.

Since then, almost everyone who passes by my desk stops immediately and stares at the device. They are usually impressed with the size, the clarity of the image and the way it fits several documents at the same time. Everyone one wants one too. So I tell them:

-It makes all the sense of the world. You spend at least 6 hours a day looking at that thing! You should get one too!-

They totally agree. After a couple of minutes they get all excited and are ready to go wherever they have to go to make the request. Then I tell them:

-I paid for it you know?-

After that, it usually takes them no more than ten seconds to lose all the excitement, and get back to work. I know a lot of these workmates are willing to spend hundreds or thousands in a fancy grill to be used only during summer weekends. But a monitor for the office for daily use? Forget about it!

Our life can’t be just summer weekends, so our goal shouldn’t be to get rid of the routine in our life, but to use most of our energy, our resources and our time to constantly improve it. We will never be able to perfect it. Circumstances will keep changing and our routine will have to be adjusted accordingly.

But this is a worthwhile and rewarding effort. When I look back at the last year of of my life, if you ask me which specific days contributed more to my overall satisfaction, I guess I could answer it was the New Year’s Eve I enjoyed in Barcelona, or the four nights I spent in Florence, or the day I visited a spa in the hotsprings near Padua. But I would be lying. Those days may have been good and in intense, but in the overall picture, they don’t add too much.

The right answer is probably the forty eight Sundays I didn’t spend in Europe, the normal ones. The Sundays I spent most likely at my condo in Shadyside, alone or not, drinking Spanish wine, listening to Bach, eating 8 oz top sirloins from Omaha Steaks and reading the New York Times... those repetitive, simple and almost perfect moments that many would call “routine”.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

The Underrated and Overrated Series: 2 - SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE

I have to recognize that the idea was a really good one. The poor, ignorant kid who goes to Who Wants to be a Millionaire and knows the answers to one question after another, not because of a superior education, intelligence, or passion for learning, but as a result of the life of misery he has lived in the streets of Mumbai and the lessons this underworld and its inhabitants have taught him. Each question the show host asks him represents then an opportunity for a flashback to a new episode of his life, and a piece in the puzzle that explain his journey from childhood to the end of the story, the present moment, the “grand finale”, the last question in the show: Do you take it or leave it?

The execution of this wonderful idea, however, is another matter.

In few words, I was not able to get through the amateurish acting, the conventional characters and the melodramatic love fable, to focus on the general idea, the interesting cinematography, the philosophical aspects of a life in the slums of Mumbai, or the historical significance of India's growth in the late 20th century.

Elevating a dull TV show like Who Wants to be a Millionaire to become the core of a passionate, human, enlightening movie would had been a great cinematographic achievement. Robert Redford accomplished a similar trick with Quiz Show (1994).

But with Slumdog Millionaire, just the opposite happened. A movie with great potential to seduce us, inform us and inspire us became just cheap entertainment, like most TV shows. And by subtracting realism, especially to the love story, to make this a Bollywood-kind fable, Slumdog Millionaire lost all its power to move me at any deep level.

So I didn't feel cheated with Slumdog Millionaire and hated it, like it seems my friend Jose did. It's inability to move me works both ways; you don't really hate a cheap entertainment TV show, you just change the channel.

But I know that some of these shows have a large audience. And a lot of people feel better about third-world suffering when someone tells them that the poorest in Asia, Latin America or Africa also have an opportunity to become happy and wealthy. As a result, Slumdog Millionaire may have significant chances of winning some of the most important Oscars, including Best Film.

If that happens, this film would sink down in history, along with Titanic (1997), as one of the most overrated movies of all times…at least in my book.

The Underrated and Overrated Series: 1 - INTRODUCTION

Last year I wrote about why I considered Sydney Pollack to be an underrated filmmaker. That wasn’t a random thought. Trying to identify underrated and overrated things is one of my favorite sports.

As the financial world has shown us lately, markets are less efficient than we would like them to be. One reason for this is that enthusiasm, not just about stocks or mortgage-backed securities, but also about movies, artists and everything else is more contagious than a common cold in a kindergarten classroom. This is understandable. For most people it is just more fun to agree with their friends when they are passionately trashing a movie or praising a politician than having to raise a conflicting view.

Groupthink, the need exhibited by group members to minimize conflict by reaching consensus at the expense of individual analysis and critical reasoning, is a real and tangible phenomenon in every day modern live.

Consciously or not, most people often find themselves adjusting their views at least a little to agree with their spouses, bosses, piers or the market. Then they try to justify themselves for doing so: “he knows more about this and he loves it”; “this is the most expensive, so it must be good”; “maybe I missed something since everybody seems to like it…”

Of course the result of this is that every day the opinionated people and the media end up dictating what the majority like or dislike, or at least what they think they like or dislike (I swear I wasn’t thinking in Oprah’s Book Club when I wrote this sentence… but what a good example it is!). This is dangerous and foolish, particularly when applied not to movies or books, but to our priorities in life… or jury duty.

“12 Angry Men”, the Sydney Lumet classic of 1957, highlights the negative impact that group-thinking can have in the effectiveness of a jury deciding a murder trial. It’s not until juror #8 starts painstakingly challenging the “guilty” consensus of the other jury members when any kind of deliberation takes place, even though everyone knows that a guilty verdict will result in the electric chair for a black, troubled kid accused of killing his father. Some aspects of the original film may be outdated (there are at least two remakes of it, including a very good one for TV with Jack Lemon as juror #8) but the basic points about group behavior and the fairness of a judicial system based on jury trials are still –how scary this is– completely valid.

Outside of court, the consequences of this herd behaviour may also be devastating. By assuming the idea of happiness that family, friends or the media have, someone can be pushed unknowingly to pursue someone else’s dream, squashing any chance of real happiness.

An exercise to find underrated and overrated things from our very particular point of view is therefore, not just healthy but critically important. It’s a very personal game, since we are not supposed to feel the same way about everything. Market winners should be a reflection of the taste of the majority, not the preferences of the opinionated.

But this is also a worthwhile and fun game we should all play more often; definitely, an underrated game.