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Duke Ellington and Me

January 2, 2009 Leave a comment

chelm

In a recent post, I expressed my surprise that the Iraqi politician Ahmed Chalabi, in his earlier career as a research mathematician, worked in an area closely related to my own, and had a thesis advisor at the University of Chicago whom I knew when I was there some years later. A few days later, I returned to the issue, quantifying my connection to Chalabi by the well-known procedure (among mathematicians) of counting steps in a path from me to him through authors of joint papers. This is similar to the count of degrees of separation used to measure an actor’s level of connectedness to Kevin Bacon (through joint appearances in movies), or to the Erdős number, in which mathematicians or scientists count how connected they are to the late Paul Erdős through authorship of joint papers.

Since writing this last post, I’ve been thinking of connectedness in other fields. One could imagine measuring connectedness of baseball players, the first degree of connectedness (or separation) being playing in a game together, on the same or opposing teams. Obviously, by this measure, every major league baseball player in history will be connected to every other one, with relatively small paths (length one or two) for players of the same generation — at least now, with interleague play and players changing teams a lot — and longer paths as one crosses generations. Or one could measure connectedness of jazz and rock musicians with the first step in a path being playing together in a band.

Or, one can really open things up, allowing connections simply through acquaintanceship. I know A, A knows B, B knows C, so I’m connected to C by a path of length three. This is a pretty low threshold as compared to actually performing or playing or writing together. And with this measure of connectedness, it’s surprisingly easy to connect to just about anyone. I’ve come up with lots of examples. For instance, the year before Gail and I were married, she had a roommate whose brother played with the Jefferson Starship, the band that evolved from pieces of Jefferson Airplane. That pretty much connects me to just about every rock musician of note. Or, if I start using connections through college classmates, I can connect in just a few steps to every major politician in the world, thanks not to my own great talents or extraordinary collection of immediate friends, but simply to the extraordinary lives led by various people in that class and the fact that I am connected to any single one of them through no more than one or two intermediaries. I could name names, providing explicit paths, but not today. Instead, I’m here to talk about my unexpected connection to the twentieth-century New York jazz scene. For more, read on.
Read more…

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Categories: Family, Music, Restaurants

Can You Dig It?

January 2, 2009 Leave a comment

I’m always the last to know, so if you’re already familiar with The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain — they’ve been around for over two decades — you can skip this post. If not, you can see some of their work on youtube. I’ll provide two samples. First, the theme song from Shaft (Hat tip: hilzoy):

Second, another theme song, from The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly:

You can learn more about the orchestra at their website. Here’s the first paragraph of their self-description to get you started:

The Ukulele Orchestra is a group of all-singing, all-strumming Ukulele players, who use instruments bought with loose change, and who believe that all genres of music are available for reinterpretation, as long as they are played on the Ukulele. A concert by the Ukulele Orchestra is a funny, virtuosic, twanging, singing, awesome, foot-stomping obituary of rock-n-roll and melodious light entertainment featuring only the “bonsai guitar” and a menagerie of voices; no drums, no pianos, no backing tracks, and no banjos. A collision of post-punk performance and toe-tapping oldies. See the universe in the grain of a Ukulele. You may never think about music in the same way once you’ve been exposed to the Ukes’ depraved musicology. The Orchestra use the limitations of the instrument to create a musical freedom with Ukuleles, (little ones, big ones, high ones, low ones) revealing unsuspected insights into popular music. From Tchaikovsky to Nirvana via Otis Redding, the Orchestra takes you on a world tour with only hand luggage and gives the listener “One Plucking Thing After Another”.

Categories: Culture, Music