The Boston Symphony on a weeknight: Death is gaseous and awesome

One of the nicest things about being a student in Boston is the $25 “BSO Student Card,” which lets you attend certain Thursday night performances of the Boston Symphony Orchestra for free. Of course, Thursday night is not the big night for the Boston intelligentsia to attend the symphony, and tickets for the cheap seats are actually cheap, even if you’re not a student. Thus, it’s fair to conjecture that you get a different crowd at the Thursday night performances, to put it politely, and it’s clear that many of us “far in the back” are not taking the experience as seriously as those paying $150 for the privilege. I fear that the musicians probably think of Thursday night as riff-raff night, and regard it as a rehearsal for the weekend’s benefactor show. If they don’t, they probably will from now on.

This week the orchestra played Edward Elgar’s “The Dream of Gerontius,” which is a huge piece for full chorus and orchestra with pipe organ. It is a setting of a poem of the same name, which deals with the death of a man and his transport beside his guardian angel to His final Judgement and on to Purgatory. (Too much capitalization there? Well, better safe than sorry, I say. The grammarian version of Pascal’s wager.)

The beginning of “The Dream…” is a somber orchestral prelude, setting the mood using perhaps the quietest tone in which I’ve ever heard an orchestra play. (For the first time I’ve seen, the concert notes are printed with the admonition “Please turn the page quietly.”) The hall is hushed, and this beautiful string adagio begins to wax quietly, creating a hallowed, church-like atmosphere. But it does not last long, this being Bingo night at Symphony Hall. An older gentleman in the balcony starts to go into a comical, high-pitched coughing fit that sounds like an asthmatic cat being repeatedly gut punched. They are probably looking frantically for this guy in whatever ICU he wandered out of. Going out in public was probably a poor call, but he clearly has a health problem and can surely be forgiven, if not lauded for his thematic complement to the subject matter. Jesu, Maria–I am near to death, And Thou art calling me; I know it now, sings the tenor. But there are others for whom Judgement will not be so kind…

Continue reading “The Boston Symphony on a weeknight: Death is gaseous and awesome”

Obama’s speech at Ebenezer Baptist Church

Here is a transcript of the speech given by Obama at Dr. King’s church in Georgia. This is taken from their website, where it is a bit buried, and I figure they won’t mind any extra exposure this can get. These days it’s pretty safe—trendy, even—to speak truth to power, but Obama is the first Democratic candidate I’ve ever seen who has the guts to speak truth to the people.

The Scripture tells us that when Joshua and the Israelites arrived at the gates of Jericho, they could not enter. The walls of the city were too steep for any one person to climb; too strong to be taken down with brute force. And so they sat for days, unable to pass on through.

But God had a plan for his people. He told them to stand together and march together around the city, and on the seventh day he told them that when they heard the sound of the ram’s horn, they should speak with one voice. And at the chosen hour, when the horn sounded and a chorus of voices cried out together, the mighty walls of Jericho came tumbling down.

There are many lessons to take from this passage, just as there are many lessons to take from this day, just as there are many memories that fill the space of this church. As I was thinking about which ones we need to remember at this hour, my mind went back to the very beginning of the modern Civil Rights Era.

Continue reading “Obama’s speech at Ebenezer Baptist Church”

Army Strong*

I’m no peacenik, and my best guess at the truth is that war is sometimes a neccesary evil forced upon a nation by outside circumstance. If North Korea, for example, ever got ICBMs, I’d probably support the idea that maybe we should do something about it besides worry. Having said that, I’m a bit skeptical of the current set of ads running for the Army.

The target of the current ads are the clearly the parents of young men, a tell that the Army is running into problems recruiting young turks to fight over the objections of their parents. The central idea of the ads is that the Army will give them discipline, a sense of honor, and an inner strength, all things a parent wants to see in their children–the tagline is “You made them strong, we’ll make them Army Strong.” And I have no doubt that Army training makes one a better person. The problem is, sometimes Army Strong is led into battle by Yale Stupid, and then you get Army Dead, all for a reason nobody really understands.

How the hell is it that we can’t advertise erectile dysfunction pills on the TV without fifteen seconds of disclaimers about the possibility of sore eyelids, but the Army can advertise for a job that involves getting shot at, and they’re not required to put a single line of 8 point Helvetica at the bottom of the screen pointing out that your results may vary? I’d like to see the announcer have to rattle off something at the end like “Army Strong is not to be taken while pregnent or nursing. It may affect your ability to operate a motor vehicle, or anything else for that matter. Army Strong may get you killed in the event a demagogue fools congress into a poorly conceived war. Please consult a physician before joining, or if an election lasts longer than four weeks.

I have a lot of gratitude to the men who volunteer to fight for us, people who are made of tougher stuff than I, so I mean no disrespect to them by saying this. In fact, I say this because I don’t think we show them much respect by using glib Madison Avenue tactics to entice them to serve, or by calling upon their service so cheaply.

A cautionary tale for Vista users with automatic updates turned on

Last night I left a long computation running on my Microsft Windows Vista machine at work. When I came in the next day, I found my computer restarted. It was just happily sitting there, blank faced, waiting innocently for me to do something as if nothing had happened. A little too innocently, if you ask me.

“Where would you like to go today?” the little imp asked me, clearly trying to sound a little more helpful than usual.

“I’d like to continue going where the bloody hell I was going last night!” I said. “Why did you think I left you running that incredibly long computation? Remember my thesis that we were both working on? Remember that? What happened to that, Vista? Look at me when I’m talking to you!”

“Ohh, thaaaaat… Well, it was Tuesday, when Microsoft fixes a few of my bu… features, so I installed them and took the liberty of restarting your machine. It’s all for your safety. Remember when you agreed to the default recommended setting of automatically installing updates? Hey look at this pretty translucent window effect! Did you notice that? I totally didn’t notice that until now. That’s just…” it’s voice trailed off and it smiled meekly, avoiding eye contact.

“Yes, I remember very well turning on automatic updates, Microsoft Windows Vista Enterprise Edition,” I sternly replied. (I tend to use its full name when I’m angry.) “But I don’t remember agreeing to have my computer restart itself without my permission at four in the morning, especially in the middle of a computation!”

“Safety is Vista’s number one priority. We can’t have your computer getting viruses, now can we?”

“Of course not,” I coldly responded, “a virus might cause me to lose work.”

Silence from the machine.


Kids, I know we’ve made losing 5 hours worth of thesis simulations sound like fun, but in real life losing valuable work is no laughing matter. Microsoft products are out there, and their shoddy engineering and poorly concieved design causes millions of hours of lost productivity every year. If you feel you’ve been the victim of poor operating system engineering, help is available. Just call 1-800-MY-APPLE and tell the nice lady where Vista touched you. In the meanwhile, here’s how to turn off automatic restarts.

How to turn off automatic restart after updates on Vista

After enjoying the satisfaction of being protected from harmful viruses by having Vista destroy more work in one badly timed restart than I’m likely to ever lose to a virus, I looked into how to fix this while still leaving automatic updates on. As usual with Microsoft products, there’s no problem that can’t be fixed by an obscure administrative tool. If you are running Vista*, here’s how to keep your computer from spontaniously restarting itself without your permission:**

  1. In the start menu, type “gpedit” in the search box and hit return. (If you’re running Windows XP, type “gpedit.msc” in the “Run…” dialog box that can be selected from the start menu.) This will start the “Group Policy Object Editor.”
  2. Drill down to Computer Configuration | Administrative Templates | Windows Components | Windows Update | No auto-restart for scheduled Automatic Updates installation. Completely intuitive, no?
  3. Click “Enabled. Remember, enabled here means you’re disabling the automatic updates. Make sense?

*This apparently also happens with XP running SP2, though I’m not sure if these instructions apply.

**There’s a sentence I never thought I’d have to type.

Update: Vista SP1, which is coming later in February, apparently changes the location of the group policy tool. Please see the comment below from chris.

Note: it appears that not all versions of Vista make this available. I have Enterprise, so if you have another version, your mileage may vary. I’ll try to figure out if there is a way to turn off auto updates in the Home version. In the meanwhile, you can just turn off automatic updates in the Windows Update program for now.

How to drive to and from Logan without a toll

I’ll depart from my usual genre of pointless complaining to actually put up something of use. Well, at least of use to the 1% of my readers who live in Boston. (Which prompts the following Zen koan-like question: what is 1% of ten people?) So, if you don’t live here, may I suggest you read my fascinating take on Sarkozy’s fight with labor unions? Nothing entertains like dated editorials on French politics.

So, you live in Boston? You’ve probably figured out by now that the only thing Boston hates more than an outsider is an outsider in a car. There is a secret office of the mayoralty tasked solely with making life difficult for people who are visiting. They are the ones who make sure less than half the streets have signage, and of those that do, half are incorrect. They are also the creative minds behind the five-way-intersection-without-a-light. Not to mention my personal favorite: the InstaMergeâ„¢ whereby two (sometimes three) lanes suddenly turn into one. (Check out Route 2 entering Cambridge for a prime example. The first time it happened to me I thought I’d missed something. It took me three trips before I caught on that I was just no longer in civilization, and not suffering from occasional blackouts while driving.)

Boston is designed to be learned, not taught, and once the initial grieving process is completed, the truth is living here can be enjoyed as a series of small triumphs as you learn the ropes. What once held you back now holds back others, and the unintentional (or is it?) genius of Boston’s hostility to outsiders becomes apparent: the obscurity of the city is just a tax on newcomers, with the dividends going directly to the natives.

A perfect example of this is the toll tunnels and bridges to the airport. Blindly following the advice of the road signs leads one to pay about $7 in tolls when picking up a friend from Logan. However, it’s quite possible to pay nothing if you know which ones to use, though it’s hard to find them. I suspect this is not an accident. Fortunately, nobody reads this blog, so I’m not going to ruin the secret by publishing it here. (Note to my fellow Bostonians: if this blog actually starts getting more than 300 visitors per day, I promise I’ll take down this post.)

To get to Logan: This one is fairly easy and probably fairly well known. Take 93 South from any point north of Storrow Drive (or take Storrow Drive itself) and you have the option of the Callahan tunnel, which is toll-free outbound from the city to Logan. You can also access the Callahan tunnel from downdown Boston by following signs for Route 1A. Not only is this free, but it’s actually often quicker than taking the more advertized Route 90 East tunnel. If you have a GPS it will probably take this route if you ask for directions to Logan and tell it to avoid toll roads.

To get back from Logan: This is the hard one, and is best explained by a map. Here the evil Sumner tunnel and Tobin bridge duo conspire mightily against the thrifty driver. You need to drive towards Revere on Route 1A and take the first exit (it comes quickly). Take the Chelsea Street Bridge from Route 145 out of the airport. Then cut through the industrial blight and get to Route 99, where you’ll take the Malden Bridge to freedom. It’s a bit out of the way if you live in Boston, but actually quite direct if you live in Cambridge or north. I know this sounds confusing, and it’s even more so in real life, so just check the map I linked above. The best way to do this is to enter the route into your GPS ahead of time by telling it to go to the two bridges enroute to your final destination; the GPS will likely figure out the rest. (As an added bonus, you get a tour of Boston’s old working waterfront area, including the main food distribution centers and our energy infrastructure. If you’re like me, it’s fascinating to see the machinery behind the Boston economy, and it’s amazing that it it is hidden so well, so close. At some point maybe I’ll write an article with photos on all the interesting infrastructure hidden across the river in Chelsea.)

Granted, the return trip makes for about two miles of extra driving, but it’s not about the time or the measly $3.50, it’s about the moral victory. Enjoy. By the way, it’s one thing to publish this secret on the internet, but for godsakes don’t tell anybody about it.