Is Washington Post going Twitter teenagers on us?

This attempt by Petula Dvorak to pull together random bad things that happened at UVA into some sort of grand statement — with or without tongue in cheek — is one of the most reprehensible things I’ve ever seen under the Post’s banner:

Is U-Va. going Bravo Network on us? – The Washington Post.

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Paul Jeffrey, Duke jazzman

I was in over my head. I knew it, and so did the man sitting across the desk from me.

He was a legitimate jazz man who ran in the same circles as Thelonious Monk and Sonny Rollins. I was a 17-year-old kid from a lily-white private school whose “jazz band” started with two teachers and two students playing nothing that sounded like jazz. We were popular, at least, because we debuted by stretching the Hawaii Five-O theme with so many self-indulgent solos that the assembly ran long and several tests scheduled for the next period had to be rescheduled. All I really knew of jazz was what I’d read in Musician magazine, which had encouraged me to pick up a couple of cassettes by Miles Davis and various Marsalis brothers.

In that high school “jazz” group, being a jack of all trades and master of none was fine. I’d quickly gathered that the Duke Jazz Ensemble was a little different.

But he humored me as I worked my way through several instruments. I was a competent classical piano player who could get through some complex arrangements of Rush songs. I was competent on clarinet, which I would later play in marching band, though it’s strange that he let me audition on an instrument that they didn’t really use in the jazz ensemble. I could play Stand By Me and a few other tunes on bass, though I’d never been trained in doing the “walking bass” so essential to a jazz ensemble. He got a good laugh out of my drum set audition.

As intimidating as he was, a compliment from him went a long way. Two of us auditioned on guitar, and he tested our ears by playing a note on piano and asking us to match it. The first kid had no clue. I had built up a decent relative pitch — something that would help me boost my GPA in music classes — by figuring out rock riffs on my guitar, so once I found the first note he played, I was able to follow him with no trouble. He tried to trick me with a tritone that went nowhere near the key in which he was playing, but I got it right away.

He nodded. “You have a good ear,” he said.

My audition also led to one of those freak coincidences that changed my college years. I needed to find a string bass on which to audition, and I asked an older gentleman in the equipment room for help. “Oh, you play bass?” he asked? That man was Paul Bryan, who had led the Duke Wind Symphony for decades and was getting ready to take most of the group on one last semester-long trip to Vienna. He also liked having string bass in the Wind Symphony, as counterintuitive as that sounds. No, I didn’t go to Vienna, but the man they called “PB” recruited me to play in the “scab” Wind Symphony that stayed home, and I stuck around to play seven of my eight semesters. The conductors who replaced PB — who still sometimes plays with the group at the age of 95 — decided they needed a percussionist more than they needed a bass player, so I switched instruments.

Back in jazz ensemble, things weren’t going well. Somehow, we settled on having me play bass clarinet, on which I would play tenor sax parts. I simply couldn’t keep up — at times, I was playing every other phrase and letting my section-mates handle the rest. A lot of the time, I just hoped Jeffrey couldn’t hear me.

He was a unique conductor. He tucked his arms in close to his body and flapped his hands in 4/4 time like a bird making a really weak effort to fly. If the tune was in 5/4, he’d add a little beat as his hands swung out. And if we sounded horrible, he’d let us know — he’d remind us how long he spent writing out the charts for us to play and tell us he needed a few shots after our last rehearsal.

Before one concert, a pad fell off the bass clarinet. He growled and offered little help in fixing it, so I just went back to my dorm and missed it.

That wouldn’t be the last I saw or heard of Paul Jeffrey, though. We overlapped in another of the activities I sought out upon arrival at Duke, DJing at the campus radio station. I went through DJ training, where the one thing they emphasized was that we should never leave “dead air” — you play a song, you speak as soon as it’s finished, and you speak until you play the next song.

Paul Jeffrey had a different approach:

(song ends … silence … a few more seconds …)

That was ……. Impressions …… by John Coltrane …………….. from North Carolina …… Coltrane ……………….. he’s from North Carolina ………… and that was ………………….. Impressions.

I actually thought his show was more interesting than the rest.

My extracurriculars changed after that first semester. I never got called to take a DJ shift at WXDU for some reason. Nor did the people at Cable 13 ever get back to me. I joined the marching band my sophomore year, though I ran out of time to stick with it the next year. I stayed with the wind symphony until my last semester.

And after that first semester, I walked away from the jazz ensemble and walked into the office at The Chronicle, where it’s no exaggeration to say my life changed — I found friends, memories and a career.

The paper needed more arts coverage, and so I wound up frequently calling on Paul Jeffrey, often with a bit of trepidation. Big things were happening with jazz at Duke — the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz was coming to Durham and would be affiliated with the school. I wound up in Jeffrey’s office on the phone with people who were setting up the institute, and he growled at me once when I asked someone to tell me about the interest in the project outside Durham. I insisted I was trying to get across to the Duke audience how big this really was; he wanted to get across to me that the South was jazz’s heart and soul, a point re-emphasized when I wound up on the phone listening to Thelonious Monk Jr. for about 30 minutes, trying to scribble down quotes as he went through an enthusiastic monologue about jazz and the South.

This was the big time. I wound up standing on a stage trying to do interviews and getting elbowed aside by photographers getting pictures of Clint Eastwood, who had come to Duke along with Steve Allen and Clark Terry to kick-start the institute.

I crossed paths a few other times with Jeffrey due to scheduling conflicts back in the days before the music department figured out how to avoid such problems. I wound up playing in pit orchestras for the stage musical group Hoof n Horn, where my “jack of all trades, master of none” traits were put to good use. I played woodwinds in one show, drums in a couple of others, and bass in a couple more. One day after exams and before our Graduation Weekend shows, I went to the equipment room at Duke to find that Jeffrey had taken all of the string basses — some Italian jazz buddies were in town, and it was his right to take them. I wound up playing bass parts on a keyboard for the final shows.

My senior percussion recital was scheduled a few hours before a jazz performance in Baldwin Auditorium. I walked in before my performance to find my equipment shoved to the side, with the stage set up for the jazz show. I managed to get my stuff up to the front of the stage to play. After my recital, which went surprisingly well despite the vibraphone falling over, I recruited audience members to help me reset the stage. “We don’t want to make Paul Jeffrey mad,” I said.

But Jeffrey’s honesty meant his compliments and his willingness to help out were sincere. If I needed to get in touch with someone, he’d help me track that person down. One day at The Chronicle, I called Jeffrey to ask something for the next story on the institute, just a couple of days after my last one. “I read your story,” he said. “You’re a good writer.”

To this day, I don’t know if I’ve ever been prouder to hear that.

I saw Paul Jeffrey at least once in the year after graduation. I was bouncing up to The Chronicle office, having not yet cut the cord from the group I considered family. He was probably headed to Page Auditorium next door. He smiled and greeted me warmly, and we chatted for a few minutes about the arts at Duke. I think he and I recognized that we shared a passion for the subject, even if our experiences differed greatly.

The Thelonious Monk Institute never got off the ground in Durham for some reason. But Jeffrey stuck around Duke for a couple of decades, leading the jazz ensemble and teaching a jazz history course that was well-known for being one of the easier classes at Duke. He didn’t care about that rep, he’d say, as long as kids were listening to the music.

Listening to the music was what mattered.

Paul Jeffrey passed away on Friday at age 81. And while I never became a great jazz musician or even a great jazz writer, I’m glad I listened to him. I’m sure thousands of Duke alumni feel the same way.

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How to name a bass player

One little cottage industry on YouTube is the phenomenon of “covers.” Instead of a full band playing a cover version of a song, it’s usually a drummer, guitarist or bassist playing along with a favored track.

One star in this industry, frequently getting more than 1 million page views per upload, is a young Catalan bass player living in London named Marta Altesa. She’s adorable, smiling and singing along with the tracks she’s playing, and she can flat-out play.

So I decided to check out bass covers of Uptown Funk, and the best one I saw was this Dutch kid who starts out looking like he’s completely full of himself, unbuttoning a couple of buttons of his silky shirt before the bass kicks in. But he can also flat-out play, adding a couple of funky flourishes. OK, dude — you play like that, you’ve earned the right to wear your shirt however you like.

His name? Mart.

Clearly, I should’ve named one of my kids Martin.

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Tuesday’s weird news

Too many interesting links for one Facebook post today: A Durst mixup, Gannett spending, and the end (for now) of a walking metaphor for going mad with power.

– AP confused murder defendant Robert Durst with Limp Bizkit frontman Fred Durst. I have no idea why either of them is famous.

– Cheer up, laid-off Gannett folks — your CEO made $12.4 million in 2014, up from a paltry $7.9 million the year before! This wouldn’t be possible without your noble efforts before being marched out of the building.

– Hubris is taking taxpayer money to decorate your office Downton Abbey-style. Make you wonder if the series’ progressive take on the blurring of England’s once-rigid class divisions was lost on Rep. Aaron Schock. No matter — he’s stepping down from Congress amid several spending questions. I think I’d rather be represented by Gina Schock.


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The media’s role in climate-change denialism

False objectivity, postmodernism, getting “both sides” — by any name, it’s a problem:

As Kenner sees it, on any issue, there are typically three groups: true believers; nonbelievers; and the vast, confused middle. It’s not the middle’s fault it’s confused: Kenner blames the Marc Moranos of the world, who are paid to sow not just doubt but fear. (“Fear is a big part of it,” he says.) The media share much of the blame. Kenner singles out newspapers — this one in particular — for his harshest criticism of what he calls their tradition of “false balance”: the insistence on always presenting two sides of an issue, even when there aren’t two.

via ‘Food, Inc.’ director’s new project shines light on climate-change deniers – The Washington Post.

An honest debate on climate change would include several qualified people discussing how bad it’s going to be and how we should fight it and/or adapt. Not outright denialists. You wouldn’t include a Flat Earther for “balance” in a discussion on air travel, would you?

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The value of a four-year college

Three weeks into my symbolic logic class, I realized I didn’t belong.

It certainly seemed like a good idea to take it. I was a philosophy major, and I had aced logic. Loved it. Breezed through it.

I slowly realized that my classmates were all math majors and engineers. Somehow, word had gotten out that this was essentially a math class masquerading as a philosophy class that they could take to fill that social sciences requirement.

The professor would stop, apologize and talk very slowly when he mentioned something philosophical. “OK, this is what Immanuel Kant said about logic — that’s Kant, K … A … N … T.” Then he surveyed the class to make sure we all were familiar with mathematical induction. A couple of us said we weren’t.


So here it is:

\forall P.\,[[P(0) \land \forall (k \in \mathbb{N}).\,[P(k) \Rightarrow P(k+1)]] \Rightarrow \forall (n \in \mathbb{N}).\,P(n)]

Yeah, I shouldn’t have been there. But it was too late to drop the class. I had to muddle through, knowing I had as much chance of getting correct answers as Chris Farley on a Japanese game show in that SNL sketch that was a ray of sunshine in an otherwise awful season.


I somehow made it out of there with a C+, which was either divine intervention or a “gentleman’s C.”

So when people question the worth of a four-year residential college experience, I sometimes look back upon this class and wonder what I gained from the experience. Did my advisers and the Duke course catalog fail me? Should I have known better? Or was it good for me in the long run?

Perhaps I would’ve been better prepared if I had taken another class. But after acing calculus in high school, I placed into Calculus II at Duke. My instructor struggled with English, and he didn’t take us through all the material that wound up on the exam. Got a C in that one, too.

The same semester I struggled with symbolic logic, I followed some advisers’ recommendations and took philosophy of law. I wasn’t officially pre-law — at Duke, you didn’t really declare such a thing — but I was taking classes that would, in the view of the pre-law advice folks, prepare me for law school. I was cruising to a B or B+ in that class until I spent all my time at the end of the semester trying to teach myself enough symbolic logic to pass that class. I wound up with a B-.

So these classes pretty much stopped my late surge to graduate cum laude. Yes, I was close, despite all those nasty classes and my ill-advised decision to take an art history class that met right after my PE class. I somehow finished just above the middle of my class. Perhaps it was because I was sober.

(Friday night, in fact, I thought of the supposedly mandatory “alcohol survival” session attended by me and tens of my freshman classmates, as if I needed tips on dealing with the effects of the wine at church. I was thinking of it because I was in a supposedly mandatory coaches’ meeting, along with at least 20% of the other coaches. I never learn.)

The bigger impact of that philosophy of law class, though, was that it convinced me not to go to law school. I was bored to tears.

In retrospect, law would’ve been a better career for me than journalism. But I was lucky that things worked out to some extent. I’ve been to four Olympics and a Women’s World Cup. I’ve met famous people and even befriended a couple of them. And I met terrific co-workers, one of whom I married. That might not have happened had I gone to law school or, as the music faculty would’ve loved, gone to grad school in music, where I was making good grades and getting pegged as the next PDQ Bach. (He’s kind of the Weird Al of classical.)

I should say Duke didn’t really help me, career-wise. The university launched a Career Center during my time there, and I duly stopped by to talk about my decision to go into journalism.

So I’m planning to send clips out to various newspapers.

Oh … great! Yeah … um … that sounds like a good idea.

Thanks, dude.

Late in my senior year, when I realized I had no employment lined up and had been passed up a couple of internships, I learned that some information on journalism careers was stored in the political science department. A small box of index cards had contact information that, in the pre-Web days, was not otherwise available. Great.

So I’d have to say Duke let me down on several levels. But I have to take some of the blame myself. I was perfectly content to take an intellectual buffet.

To some extent, that should be encouraged. Young adults need some freedom to explore.

But I wonder if universities have erred too far toward freedom. Maybe a few more classes should be required, not just the horrid writing course Duke requires in the first semester. (That was my lowest grade — C-. The next semester, I purposefully forgot everything that grad student tried to tell me, went back to my old writing style and made an A in an English seminar. I still think I should dedicate one of my books to that teacher.)

Duke science majors made fun of some of classes like “Chemistry and Society,” a chemistry class geared toward humanities and social science majors. But I took that class, and it was terrific. I got a broad overview, not the details you get in the general chemistry classes. Besides — we all did chemistry in high school. Once you get past that, there’s little reason to put future engineers and future political scientists in the same class.

Meanwhile, math and science majors fulfilled their “social science” obligation in the aforementioned symbolic logic, a math class with a philosophy label.

And responsibility for such things really does fall back onto the school. I had no way of knowing I’d be beating my head against the wall in symbolic logic. I should’ve been told statistics would be much more practical than a second semester of calculus.

I can’t say any class is a total waste of time. I like to think of my education as “batting weights for the brain.” Wrestling with difficult concepts and abstractions can make the typical day-to-day work problems seem simple by comparison.

But a few more practicalities wouldn’t hurt. Maybe offer more broad survey courses to fill field of study requirements — a general history of philosophy rather than something specific, economics for personal and political literacy rather than future policy wonks.

Short of a curriculum overhaul, let’s get back to the question I’ve danced around long enough: Was it worth it?


Even with today’s technology, what else would I do? Stay at home for another couple of years and take classes online?

College is supposed to broaden the mind. You meet people who are a little different. You explore. You try new things, and they don’t have to be alcohol-related.

Before I went to Duke, I had never met a gay person (that I knew of — in retrospect, yes I had) or a Muslim. I had stereotypes that needed deflating.

I met great people — and learned how to deal with some obnoxious ones. I tested my intellectual limits. I had the best journalistic experience of my life, running a good daily newspaper with smart people I both loved and couldn’t stand (sometimes the same people).

In this day and age, where people hide behind anonymous online personas and fail to relate to each other, shouldn’t more people have this sort of experience.

So let’s fix the advising and maybe the curriculum. Let’s make it affordable. Maybe encourage exchanges for one year so people can diversify their experiences.

And move “symbolic logic” to the math department. Doesn’t matter if Kant and company had interesting thoughts on it. Greek philosophers invented a lot of mathematical concepts, too. Must have had a good college experience. They had togas, after all.

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Random reads: Healthy Chipotle, life-crushing Tweets, astrology, creepy houses

“Chipotle unhealthy!” screamed the headlines this week. As Slate points out, that’s wrong.

Chipotle simply gives you the option of eating a lot of food. And that’s not an option you have to take. You can go for the bowl instead of the burrito, saving you the relatively empty calories of a giant flour tortilla. Or you can have the restraint to eat your speed bump-sized burrito in two servings.

The fillings themselves are pretty good. Meat and beans with a lot of protein. Good vegetables. Nothing wrong with that.

And you can figure out what you’re ingesting with ease. Check the nutrition calculator. Or just read the misleading headlines like Bloomberg’s “Chipotle Doesn’t Care That Burritos Make You Fat.”

Other fun stuff I’ve read this week but didn’t immediately share on Facebook:

– Like everyone else, I read the NYT Magazine piece, “How One Stupid Tweet Blew Up Justine Sacco’s Life,” which should be required reading in high school. The provocative piece leads to a productive discussion that isn’t quite simple. We should be able to respond to stupidity on Twitter, and I’ve often cheered when racist or sexist nonsense is exposed to the light of day. But people like Sacco deserve a bit of forgiveness, and there are other examples in the story of people losing livelihoods over one slip of the virtual tongue.

I don’t agree that we need to be blameless to cast the first stone. But maybe only the blameless can build a solid wall to keep the Saccos of the world out of polite society.

– This one’s scary: The number of Americans who think astrology has some sort of scientific basis is growing. Granted, the situation was worse when Nancy Reagan was in the White House.

– What’s omitted when MP3s and MP4s compress your favorite song or video? Find out with the “ghostly remains” of Suzanne Vega’s classic a cappella tune Tom’s Diner.

– Do “conservatives” in the modern USA typically favor “after-the-fact” solutions that cost more? The examples given here are climate change, health care, education and immigration.

– And finally, the funniest photo collection of the week — inexplicably terrible real estate pictures. I figure some of the houses would appeal to April and Andy on Parks and Rec.

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