16 October 2010

Review of "On Mozart" (1996), Part II

This is part 2 of 4 of my review-essay on the collection On Mozart (ed. James M. Morris).  I wrote the review for the journal Notes in 1996, but it was not published at that time, and this is its first publication.  See also Parts 1, 3, and 4.

The stated objective of William J. Baumol and Hilda Baumol’s essay[4] “is to help explain the extraordinary confluence of composers whose activities centered in Vienna around Mozart’s time” (p. 72).  As they describe it, their fundamental hypothesis is:
...that the political division of the Holy Roman Empire and the Habsburg possessions into many petty states worked to produce the circumstances (notably demand and a profusion of jobs) that help to explain the profusion of musical productivity (p. 72).
However, there is a fundamental misapprehension here.  It is perfectly true that non-Habsburg German portions of the “Holy Roman Empire” were an unruly collection of petty states lacking a strong central authority.  The Habsburg monarchy, on the other hand, did have a strong and increasingly centralized authority embodied in the person of the current head of the house of Habsburg, who held a satchel-full of titles from the various subject Habsburg territories, such as “King of Bohemia,” “King of Hungary,” and so on.  The so-called “emperor” (or empress) exerted direct control over most aspects of economic, religious, political and cultural life, implemented through a vast, if somewhat unruly, bureaucracy.  Thus, for example, when Empress Maria Theresia died at the end of November 1780, the crown decreed that theaters should remain closed in mourning for several weeks throughout the Habsburg lands.  Such a decree would have been impossible in Germany, and there was in any case no central authority to make it.
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The Simpsons

Still catching up.

For those few of you who are not among the 3,565,308 who have already watched the instantly classic opening sequence from last Sunday's The Simpsons, story-boarded by Banksy, here it is:

According to a post by Mike Masnick at Techdirt on Tuesday, Fox, apparently unhappy with all the free publicity, successfully had one instance of the sequence taken down from YouTube. But at that point, it had already gone viral...

At any rate, this copy is still up, and very popular.

For good reason. Some are calling this the best couch "gag" ever.
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15 October 2010

Review of "On Mozart" (1996), Part I

The following review-essay was commissioned in 1996 by Notes, but not published there for reasons that were not made clear to me. Because much of the review is still relevant, and because I make a number of points that I haven't published elsewhere, I am publishing the review in full here.  It is unchanged from the completed typescript submitted in 1996; I have not made any attempt to update the notes with references to more recent work (apart from one reference to my dissertation). 

I have not included hyperlinks for the notes because Blogger chronically breaks these when editing in "Compose" mode (please complain to Google, not me).

See also parts 2, 3, and 4.


James M. Morris, ed.  On Mozart (Cambridge, New York, Melbourne:  Woodrow Wilson Center Press, Cambridge University Press, 1994)
Dexter Edge

At the height of the Mozart frenzy of 1991, I sometimes diverted myself by trying to count the Mozart conferences and exhibitions taking place that year. Although I felt I had a pretty good handle on international events (I could count at least a dozen major conferences and a similar number of exhibitions), I simply couldn’t keep track of the bewildering variety of local ones. The round of international conferences alone must have taxed even seasoned academic jet-setters. Most senior Mozart scholars (and some junior ones as well) spent the year in a permanent jet-lag-induced fog.

Since 1991, this orgy of talk has been slowly trickling into print. The volume under review is one of several bicentenary “books of the conference” to have appeared over the past half decade. It is based on the symposium (of which I was only dimly aware at the time) “Mozart and the Riddle of Creativity,” held at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D. C., over four days in the first week of December 1991. In the mornings, the audience heard presentations on Mozart by scholars from a variety of fields (only about half were music scholars, and even fewer were Mozart specialists); these presentations were intentionally geared to a “non-specialist” audience, but they were (as the essays printed here suggest) no less intellectually demanding for being so. Each afternoon the symposium featured a film of a Mozart opera, introduced by critic Stanley Kauffmann. The symposium concluded on the afternoon of 5 December, the anniversary of Mozart’s death, “in time,” as editor James M. Morris explains, “for the participants to attend the performance of the [Mozart] Requiem given that evening by the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center” (p. 6).

The symposium was the inspiration of the late John Clive, who unfortunately did not live to see its realization. Clive had envisioned, in Morris’s words, a “bicentennial event that would instruct intelligent lay audiences about Mozart, and entertain them as well, by presenting the composer in a context that had the density of real life and was, by turns, personal, psychological, historical, cultural, and aesthetic” (p. 6). On the evidence of the essays published here, the symposium went a long way towards achieving that vision, and it was undoubtedly a stimulating and rewarding experience for audience and participants alike. The resulting book, in spite of many merits, seems rather less successful.

The book includes revised and expanded versions of ten papers from the symposium, plus two contributions, by literary scholar Denis Donoghue and musicologist Christoph Wolff, that were not part of the original program. As Morris explains it, the symposium “set [Mozart] first in the timeless ahistorical space reserved for individuals of spectacular creativity, then in his time, and finally in our time” (p. 6). This is a fair description of the overall organization of the book (and the same sentence appears in slightly altered form on the flyleaf). “Timeless ahistorical space” is represented by Donoghue’s opening chapter, and by the contributions of psychologists Howard Gardner and David Henry Feldman; all three concern themselves in various ways with Mozart as “genius.” Mozart “in his time” is represented by economists Hilda and William J. Baumol, in their chapter on the economics of music in the late eighteenth century, and by essays on Mozart’s life and compositional practice by music scholars Neal Zaslaw, Christoph Wolff, Maynard Solomon, Joseph Kerman and Wye J. Allanbrook. Historian Michael P. Steinberg’s chapter on Don Giovanni tacks between the intellectual history of Mozart’s time and our own by considering what the opera meant in the Habsburg monarchy of the 1780s, and how that meaning is reflected by Joseph Losey’s 1979 film of the opera. Mozart “in our time” (broadly defined to include the late nineteenth-century) is represented by Leon Botstein’s essay on the fin-de-siècle Mozart revival, and by Stanley Kauffmann’s critique of three films of three Mozart operas.

Morris’s introduction opens with some cogent comments on the excesses of the Mozart year. He complains that “Mozart” was marketed as if his name alone were assurance of equal excellence across the entire range of his oeuvre. Yet, in Morris’s view, this kind of marketing “flattens” Mozart’s achievement (p. 2) and runs the risk of trivializing his music in the minds and ears of the general public. We should remind ourselves, Morris implies, that many of Mozart’s early compositions are relatively ordinary:  they are, to be sure, extraordinary because they were written by a child whose music was (from at least his early adolescence onward) as good as anything by any other composer in Europe.  Seen, however, in the light of Mozart’s mature masterpieces, his early works shine rather less brightly.  It is no good pretending that La finta giardiniera, however delightful it may be, is on a par with Figaro.

Denis Donoghue’s “Approaching Mozart” opens with a literary meditation on three texts touching on Mozart in various ways: Kierkegaard’s Either/Or; Anthony Hecht’s poem “Dichtung und Wahrheit,” and “Mozart, 1935,” a poem by Wallace Stevens. After a brief nod to musical sociology (in the guise of Jacques Attali’s Noise), Donoghue goes on to argue for the essential secularity of Mozart’s music (even of such ostensibly religious works such as the C-minor Mass) and for its proto-Romanticism.  Donoghue’s essay is self-consciously literary and rather obscure. The author states early on that writing about music ought to allow it to remain “elusive” (p. 15). In this, at least, I think he has entirely succeeded.

The chapters by Howard Gardner and David Henry Feldman share an interest in the psychology of extraordinary talent and creativity, a topic about which the authors have written both separately and collaboratively. Gardner’s essay here, “How extraordinary was Mozart?,” draws on his recent studies of seven “creators of the modern era”: Freud, Einstein, Picasso, Stravinsky, T. S. Eliot, Gandhi and Martha Graham. Gardner describes some of the characteristics that these “geniuses” have in common:  comfortable backgrounds, supportive families, a tendency towards single-mindedness and egocentricity, and so on. Much of this seems to belabor the obvious; more interesting, perhaps, is Gardner’s hypothesis that a genius, as a rule, requires ten years of intensive practice and study to attain mastery of his or her field, and a further ten years until he or she achieves a dramatic breakthrough in that field. Another breakthrough may follow a decade after that (if the genius lives that long). This seems a bit pat (why not nine years, or eleven?), and Gardner’s sample population is exceedingly small, but the hypothesis is worth pondering.

Gardner goes on to consider the extent to which Mozart’s life is typical of the patterns he has identified in the lives of other creative geniuses, and how it deviates. He posits four ways in which Mozart’s life was “unique”:  in his evenness of productivity and artistic growth (the creators Gardner has studied typically have had periods of intense productivity punctuated by relatively fallow periods); in his “combination of childlike and adultlike characteristics”; in his “exquisite personal intelligences”; and in his position “on the edge of modernity.” All but the third of these seem problematic. Mozart did in fact experience fallow periods, although his great overall productivity tends to mask this. For example, between the completion of Così fan tutte in January 1790 and the completion of the Piano Concerto in B-flat, K. 595, in January 1791, he entered only four new compositions and two arrangements into his catalogue of his own works.[1] The notion that the adult Mozart retained childlike characteristics is a well-worn commonplace of his popular image, but this aspect of his personality is often exaggerated and taken out of context, and I don’t find Gardner fully persuasive here. Nor am I convinced that Mozart in particular was a key transitional figure between the era of “musician as servant” (Bach and Haydn) and the era of “musician as freestanding artist” (Beethoven). The reality is more complex.  Joseph Haydn is often used as foil to Mozart in this regard. Yet Haydn spent the better part of a decade in his late teens and early twenties scrabbling for a living in Vienna as a freelance, and he later adjusted rapidly and remuneratively to the entrepreneurial possibilities opened up by the death of Prince Nikolaus Esterházy in 1790 and the sudden dispersal of the Esterházy Kapelle. Mozart, on the other hand, was an (admittedly not very diligent and often absent) employee of the Archbishop of Salzburg until 1781, and he was granted a sinecure as court chamber composer by Emperor Joseph II in December 1787. Thus he spent only a little over six years as a pure freelancer. Mozart was not unique in mixing aspects of old and new professional patterns in his career:  virtually all professional musicians in the Habsburg Monarchy during this period were “transitional” in this sense, because the economic structure of musical life was changing radically and rapidly.

Feldman’s essay, “Mozart and the transformational imperative,” considers how Mozart the “prodigy” resembles and differs from modern musical prodigies.  Like Gardner, Feldman finds much that Mozart shares with typical prodigies (if the word “typical” makes sense in this context):  a history of family interest, being a first-born son, and so on. However, he identifies two qualities that set Mozart apart from the run-of-the-mill prodigy. One is his love of word play: his tendency “to alliterate, generate transformations, transpose, and twist meanings seems to have parallels in his musical inventions” (p. 60). This is an evocative notion, but one would like to see some specific musical examples.

Feldman suggests that Mozart’s literary talent was far inferior to his musical talent. As an example, he cites Mozart’s poem on the death of his pet starling, a poem dated 4 June 1787, just two days after Mozart had learned of his father’s death.[2] It seems odd to criticize Mozart’s poem as “amateurish” on the basis of a modern English translation, as Feldman does. And the German original of the poem is more than competent structurally: it consists of a sequence of rhyming iambic couplets, the first lines of which have three feet and the second two. Rhymes are alternately masculine and feminine. Mozart carries through this scheme consistently and with fairly clever and unforced rhymes. The general effect is one of whimsical and self-mocking satire with a hint of melancholy. It could be said, then, that the poem (assuming it is genuine) actually shows a good deal of literary flair, something which can be said of all Mozart’s writing. That his literary talent remained uncultivated, that it never developed a professional sheen, is hardly surprising; Mozart was, after all, a full-time musician. Yet we should remember that Mozart’s main literary outlet, his letters, remain more widely read today than the writings of his Austrian literary contemporaries, most of whom are today known only to specialists.[3]

Like Gardner, Feldman takes as given that Mozart was childishly naive and inept in his social dealings as an adult. He claims that “[Mozart] routinely overestimated how impressed people were with his work, or how loyal, committed, or reliable they were” (p. 67). Again, one would like examples, and I, for one, am skeptical of the “routinely.” Feldman take as established fact an extreme revisionist view of Mozart’s financial state at the end of his life. He writes:  “The Mozart family was solidly middle class....Indeed, contrary to the legend that Mozart died in poverty, he enjoyed a comfortable bourgeois life right up to the time of his death.” Even for me, a known fellow traveler of Mozart revisionists, Feldman’s second sentence seems a tad overstated.


[1] See Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Verzeichnüß aller meiner Werke vom Monath febraio 1784 bis Monath 1 , published in facsimile as Mozart’s Thematic Catalogue, a Facsimile: British Library Stefan Zweig MS 63, introduction and transcription by Albi Rosenthal and Alan Tyson (London: British Library, 1990).

[2] The pedigree of this poem is not impeccable. No autograph is known to survive, and it was first published in Gustav Nottebohm, Mozartiana (Leipzig: Breitkopf und Härtel, 1880), pp. 8-9. It is reproduced in W. A. Bauer, O. E. Deutsch and J. H. Eibl, eds., Mozart. Briefe und Aufzeichnungen (Kassel: Bärenreiter, 1962-75) [MBA], III/49-50. Feldman’s essay disconcertingly gives the date of the poem as “1781,” although the surrounding discussion concerns Don Giovanni and “A Musical Joke.”

[3] The English translation cited by Feldman is clever in its own right: it retains Mozart’s rhymed couplets and his metrical scheme, and matches Mozart’s content quite closely, sacrificing only the alternation of masculine and feminine rhymes. This sort of thing is not easy to bring off in a translation, as anyone who has tried it will be aware. The translation is taken from Wolfgang Hildesheimer, Mozart, trans. Marian Faber (London: Dent, 1983), pp. 206-7.

This is Part 1 of four parts.

Continue on to Part 2.

Creative Commons License
This review of "On Mozart" by Dexter Edge is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
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Hunter S. Thompson Applies for a Job

This was posted by Max Fisher at The Atlantic Wire a couple of weeks ago, but I'm still slowly working through the backlog from the time of the great computer disaster, so I didn't get around to posting it until now.

A letter from 1958 in which Hunter S. Thompson applies for a job at the Vancouver Sun (extracts):
October 1, 1958 57 Perry Street New York City
I got a hell of a kick reading the piece Time magazine did this week on The Sun. In addition to wishing you the best of luck, I'd also like to offer my services.
Since I haven't seen a copy of the "new" Sun yet, I'll have to make this a tentative offer. I stepped into a dung-hole the last time I took a job with a paper I didn't know anything about (see enclosed clippings) and I'm not quite ready to go charging up another blind alley.
The enclosed clippings should give you a rough idea of who I am. It's a year old, however, and I've changed a bit since it was written. I've taken some writing courses from Columbia in my spare time, learned a hell of a lot about the newspaper business, and developed a healthy contempt for journalism as a profession.
As far as I'm concerned, it's a damned shame that a field as potentially dynamic and vital as journalism should be overrun with dullards, bums, and hacks, hag-ridden with myopia, apathy, and complacence, and generally stuck in a bog of stagnant mediocrity. If this is what you're trying to get The Sun away from, then I think I'd like to work for you.
Most of my experience has been in sports writing, but I can write everything from warmongering propaganda to learned book reviews.
I can work 25 hours a day if necessary, live on any reasonable salary, and don't give a black damn for job security, office politics, or adverse public relations.
I would rather be on the dole than work for a paper I was ashamed of.
It's a long way from here to British Columbia, but I think I'd enjoy the trip.
If you think you can use me, drop me a line.
If not, good luck anyway.
Sincerely, Hunter S. Thompson
You can read the whole thing here.

I think I'll try this approach if I ever apply for an academic job again. The outcome can't be any worse than with my previous cover letter....
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14 October 2010

Music Links

Some notable music links from the past couple of weeks.

Colin Eastock,  "What's Wrong with Classical Music?," at 3quarksdaily (4 October).  Worth reading.
His conclusion:
There are those who say that what’s needed is more music education programs, with a classical emphasis, in our schools. I’m certainly not opposed to this, but I fear that such efforts often create an academic aura around classical music that serves to further separate it from the “real world.” (This is the sorry fate that has befallen the art of poetry.) The goal should be to bring classical music back into the everyday lives of everyday people.

Musicians, educators, concert presenters, and all others involved in the promotion of classical music need to take a hard look at the cultural messages that may be undermining their efforts. It’s worth remembering that the division of musical cultures into “high” and “low” – separating the classical from the popular – was largely an invention of the classical music world itself. This kind of thinking has a long history, but it was only in the twentieth century that it coalesced into a rigid ideology of exclusion.

It’s time for classical music to finally get over the idea that it’s not merely different from, but opposed to, other musics: that classical music and no other kind is “timeless,” “universal” and “great.” This, in and of itself, will not solve the problem of getting people to appreciate (or even sit through) a Wagner opera. But it would, at least, bring classical music back into touch with the values of the contemporary world. If classical music today finds itself isolated on the wrong side of a cultural Berlin Wall, it’s a wall that it built itself. We need to demolish that wall, if we are to convince the world at large that classical music should and does have a place in the contemporary world.

The Economist (7 Oct) has a good summary of the current state of the music business: "Having a ball: In the supposedly benighted music business, a lot of things are making money."

The article has nothing whatsoever to say about the state of the classical music business, which is (as Eatock's essay emphasizes) too small to notice.

Philip Ball reports in Nature News (5 Oct) on the meeting The Musical Brain: Arts, Science & the Mind, which took place in London on 2 and 3 October, and took its inspiration from the life of Robert Schumann, whose 200th birthday is this year.  Ball discusses Schumann's (alleged) focal dystonia (from which pianist Leon Fleisher also suffers) and his (alleged) bipolar disorder, as well papers by Katie Overy on the expression of emotion in music and Stefan Koelsch.

An irritating quote:
In any event, Schumann is by no means unique among composers in having wrestled with mental illness: Mozart, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky and Leonard Bernstein are among others who seem to have done so.
When did it become a "fact" that Mozart suffered from "mental illness"?

Assorted short links:

Roberto Casati has published (5 Oct) a substantive revision of his article "Sound" at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Mark Changizi writes on the interaction in the brain between visual and aural perception, in "The Moving Look of Music: What Your Visual System Thinks Music Is" at Changizi Blog (28 Sep), drawn from his forthcoming book Harnessed: How Language and Music Mimicked Nature and Transformed Ape to Man.

Lisa Hirsch at Iron Tongue of Midnight has links to all of the reviews you could ever want (and more) of the new Rheingold at the Met.

Just what the world needs: another narcissistic "inheritor" of the mantle of Pavarotti. See Michael White's profile in the NYT of Vittorio Grigolo, who is making his debut at the Met this weekend in a revival of Zeffirelli's production Bohème, after making a smash in his debut in Covent Garden in June.

And wouldn't there be room in Pavarotti's mantle for at least two or three normal-sized tenors....?

A lost flute concerto by Vivaldi was recently discovered in Scotland among the papers of the Marquesses of Lothian; see the story by Severin Carrell in The Guardian (7 Oct).

Musicologist Reinhold Brinkmann, who taught at Harvard from 1985 until 2003, died this past Sunday, 10 October, at the age of 76. See the obituary in the Harvard Gazette; and another by Jens Malte Fischer at the Süddeutsche Zeitung.

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12 October 2010

Calvin & Hobbes in .... The Twilight Zone

I'm a big fan of Calvin and Hobbes, and sometimes read through the books when I'm feeling especially blue.

I'm also a big fan of the original Twilight Zone, which I think is one of the greatest shows ever to have been on TV (not that there has been a lot of competition).

The site Super Punch recently ran a contest to "draw Calvin and Hobbes or anyone else in the style of Calvin and Hobbes."

And the winners were Timothy Lim and Mark Pellegrini, one of whose entries placed Calvin in the role of Billy Mumy in the classic episode "It's a Good Life." 


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11 October 2010

Dinner with Leo Slezak and Tito Schipa

Sunday night, I had dinner with Dick Mackey, a retired horn player from the Boston Symphony, and his wife Wendy. Dinner parties at the Mackeys always bring together the most fascinating and unexpected assortments of guests, never failing to spark wonderful, warm, wide-ranging, and cultured conversation, without the least hint of pretense, fueled by a seemingly unending supply of good wine and good music.

Sunday was no exception.  The guests included Viennese emigre, Harold Basser, a structural engineer with the most wide-ranging cultural knowledge of anyone I've met in years (and who can apparently sing all of Rosenkavalier from memory); Robert Sheena, principal English Horn in the BSO and his wife Jane; Fredrik and Jane Wanger; and the most extraordinary dog & cat duo of my acquaintance, Hal and Clark.  (Also in attendance was an unemployed musicologist from Roslindale whose name escapes me at the moment.)

As usual, Dick showed off his most recently acquired Mozart first editions (beautiful).  Harold, who escaped from Vienna near the end of 1938, had avoided returning until 2005, when his daughter talked him into showing her the city from his point of view; he made me feel homesick by lapsing into Wienerisch (the rest of the time, he sounds like a New Yorker).  As I told him, Vienna is the only place for which I've ever felt homesick, and I mentioned Edge's Theory of Homesickness (developed from my experience in Vienna): you have to love and hate a place in order to feel homesick for it.

The main course (prepared by Wendy) was swordfish.  Outstanding.

After dinner, we listened to recordings of the tenors Leo Slezak (1873-1946), whose singing I knew only slightly; and Tito Schipa (1888-1965), whom I didn't know at all.  Because Schubert was one of the running themes of the evening's conversation (I had the opportunity before dinner to bore everyone with my recent research into the "Unfinished" Symphony), we listened to some of Slezak's extraordinary recordings of Schubert (and other) Lieder.  His soft singing was extraordinary, perhaps the best I've ever heard by a tenor.

So far as I can see, none of the Slezak recordings we listened to last night are available online.  But here is a recording of him singing "An die Musik" which gives a good sense of his subtlety, control, and nuance.

Today, while looking for recordings of Slezak online, I ran across ten digitized cylinder recordings from 1910-1913 at the Cylinder Preservation and Digitization Project based at University of California, Santa Barbara. So far as I can see, the site doesn't offer a way of embedding these recordings into blog posts. But for a sample, listen to Slezak's lovely rendition of the "Preislied" from Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. (The accompaniment, somewhat disconcertingly, sounds like an Italian municipal brass band.)

Schipa was a revelation. We listened to recordings of him singing Scarlatti, Handel, Tosti, and the like. His tone glows (he reminds me of an Italian Wunderlich), his diction and intonation are perfect, and he sings with a wonderful directness and lack of affectation. He's apparently become a great favorite among some high-level instrumental performers, and I can see why. I wouldn't hesitate to use Schipa to illustrate how to play the cantabile lines in a Mozart sonata or concerto.

Here's one of the tracks we listened to last night, "Che farò senza Euridice?" It nearly made me tear up (something that hardly ever happens anymore).

Every word is crystal clear.

And finally, here are three photos of Hal and Clark. These date from 2008 (Wendy sent them to me when I was taking Bruce Blumberg's "Cogntive Dog" at Harvard Extension), and Hal looks a bit more mature now. But their easy and playful interaction is the same.

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Joan Sutherland has Died at Age 83

Soprano Joan Sutherland died Sunday in Switzerland at the age of 83; Anthony Tommasini reports in The New York Times.

I was not a huge fan (I like acting with my singing), but her voice was an extraordinary one. Here she is singing "Casta diva" from Bellini's Norma:

[Update: Tommasini has now posted his full obituary of Sutherland, here]
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10 October 2010

Revision to "Writings" Page

A couple of additional revisions to my "Writings" page, most importantly an item that I forgot to include under "Magnificent Torsos":

Review of James M. Morris, ed. On Mozart (1996)
Commissioned by Notes. Completed and submitted 24 September 1996, but not published, for reasons that were not made clear to me. 18 pages plus notes in typescript.
I plan to publish the review on this blog, as it is still relevant and contains some points that I have not subsequently published elsewhere.  I'll probably do sometime in the course of the coming week, probably divided across several separate posts.
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Happy 10.10.10

Or, in American style, 10/10/10.
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