Speak, KFC

When I was a kid, KFC – or “Kentucky Fried Chicken” in Olds English – held the secret ingredient for transforming a leaden summer day into fool’s gold. Like the A-Team, a KFC picnic could materialize out of nowhere and just in time to rescue you from a seriously dull afternoon. It usually went something like this:

Open on living room, Saturday afternoon. Kid is stretched listlessly across an ugly couch watching “The Price Is Right” re-run. Dappled sunshine spills through the windows.

Mom: What’re you doing?
Me: Nothing.
Mom: Auntie Paula and Sarah are on their way over.
Me: Great.
Mom: Want to get some KFC and go to the park?
Me: Okay.

Cut to our badly coiffed, late 20th century “new normal” family gathered on a blanket in Washington Park, laughing and teasing each other over soggy coleslaw, instant mashed potatoes with a hint of Styrofoam, and as many pieces of fried chicken from a bucket as you could handle. It was like a low rent Norman Rockwell painted on velvet in dayglo colors.

But my relationship with KFC eventually became about more than just a good time. In fact, Colonel Sanders came to be something of a role model for me.

For years whenever I experienced a crushing setback of the teenage variety – getting cut from the JV bowling team, being unable to master the chords to “Smoke on the Water,” not realizing that boys didn’t also curtsey after a dance – my mother would use my failure as an opportunity to trot out her favorite motivational story, “Colonel Sanders and the Quest of the Original Recipe.” In the story we invariably joined the Colonel shortly after he perfected his famous equation:

KFC secret ingredient equation

In the genteel tongue of the South, everyone for three counties told the Colonel that his poultry was the best damn thing they’d ever put in their mouths, and he soon began to dream of opening his own restaurant wherein he could serve his sumptuous victuals to what I imagined were the bearded, barefoot, family-feuding folks of the Bluegrass State. But sadly, the Colonel was just a simple country boy with no BMX bike and no authentic Polo shirts, hardships that sounded oddly familiar to me.

“So what’d he do?” my mother would ask incredulously. “Did he give up, shut himself in his room and listen to Echo and the Rabbit People records all day? Nope. He went on the road and started making his fried chicken for anyone and everyone who’d taste it. And you know what? He bombed around the country with a Fry Daddy in the trunk of his car for three years before Mercury got out of retrograde and he finally met someone who said ‘Son, you’ve got yourself a business!’ The rest, as they say, is history.”

I always figured my mom had made up the story, but it turns out it’s more or less true.

Sometime in the last decade a slick advertising firm re-branded the Colonel to resemble a cartoonish, avuncular type fellow who wouldn’t feed you a diabetes double down sandwich with a side of fries. Toward this end they re-worked his likeness so that he now sports an apron and a cockeyed grin. But I’ll always remember the Colonel as the taciturn grandfather who sat with his hands crossed over a cane in the framed black and white photos that used to hang in the old Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants. That tired and presumably slightly pissed Southern gentleman will always be more in line with my idea of a dude who had to sleep in his car for three years.

It’s A Blue World: Getting Nostalgic at the Four Freshmen Convention

In September, 2011 I attended the 24th annual convention of the Four Freshmen Society. I tried to be an objective reporter, but I had a good time and met many lovely Freshmen Society members. I hope this piece reflects both of those things.

Mood Indigo

The Glass City
The Glass City

It isn’t a pretty morning in Toledo. A sky like an unbroken slate hangs over the glass city, and across the Maumee River a factory belches a long plume of smoke endlessly up into the gray ceiling. Though it’s a warm afternoon in early fall the modest downtown feels deserted and it seems like every block has at least one building with boards across its windows or chains blocking its doors. It’s almost as if Toledo itself was wishing to return to the shinier, more prosperous days of its industrial past.

But a more cheerful scene can be found inside the grand ballroom of the Park Inn hotel on Summit street. A gathering of about 50 people, overwhelmingly seniors, has assembled in small groups around white-clothed tables. Onstage at the front of the room a makeshift combo is carefully making its way through a rendition of the jazz standard “Fools Rush In.” The congregation, eyes glued to shared fake books, is quietly singing along with the music. But instead of carrying a single melody line the group is attempting to harmonize along with the score’s sophisticated vocal arrangement. And they’re not doing a half bad job of it.

I’ve come to Toledo to attend the twenty-fourth annual convention of the Four Freshmen Society, an organization devoted to supporting “the greatest vocal group in history.” Despite this appellation, if you’re not a fan of vocal jazz you may not know who the Four Freshmen are. Here’s the relatively short version of a long story: The Four Freshmen is a four piece jazz group that got its start at Indiana’s Butler University in 1948, when Pee Wee Hunt’s “Twelfth Street Rag” was top of the pops and Alger Hiss was busy defending himself to HUAC. The Freshmen distinguished themselves from other acts of the era by singing lush close harmony vocals (similar to a barbershop quartet) while playing their own instruments. In 1950 big band leader Stan Kenton got a tip about the young combo, whose vocal style was said to emulate his own trombone section, and went to see them play in Dayton, Ohio. Kenton was so impressed that he began lobbying his label, Capitol Records, to sign them. The Freshmen eventually cut three singles for Capitol, but after the first two received lukewarm receptions the label was considering dropping the band from its roster. But in 1952 the band managed to put copies of their final single into the hands of a few Detroit disc jockeys to promote a local gig at a bowling alley. That single, “It’s a Blue World,” soon became their first hit.

A string of record releases, television appearances, and tour dates followed throughout the 1950’s and early ‘60s. The group’s hits included signature renditions of “Mood Indigo,” “Day by Day,” “How Can I Tell Her?” and “Graduation Day.” During this time the Four Freshmen were nominated for a handful of Grammy Awards and garnered best vocal group honors five times in DownBeat magazine’s yearly reader’s poll.

But the group’s star began to shine less brightly during the 1960s. Bass player Hal Kratzsch grew weary of life on the road and was the first of the foursome to leave in 1953. Guitarist Don Barbour followed suit in 1960 and died in a tragic car accident the very next year. By the 70s and 80s the group had fallen out of musical fashion and onto hard times. Don’s brother Ross finally called it quits in 1977 leaving only Bob Flanigan, trombonist and lead voice of the group, as the sole remaining original member.

Big and brash, Bob Flanigan proved to be a rock of stability and the band continued to record and tour in various manifestations for another decade and a half. Flanigan finally retired in 1992 in his mid-60s, but continued to play active roles in managing the group and keeping its flame alive.

But this is not the end of the Four Freshmen story. Amazingly, unlike the many other bygone acts of their heyday, the Freshmen are still performing today. Now in its 22nd incarnation, the ever youthful group currently features Brian Eichenberger (guitar), Curtis Calderon (trumpet), Vince Johnson (bass), and Bob Ferreira (drums). They play a host of dates in the U.S. and internationally every year and have a devoted fan club that organizes this annual conference in support of the group and its music.

When it comes to the Four Freshmen Sophie Tucker, “The Last of the Red Hot Mamas,” might have said it best: “The secret to longevity is to keep breathing.”

I’m Beginning To See The Light

Despite the recycled air and lack of recreational drugs, the Summit’s convention center is brimming with affable attendees and good vibrations. Everyone seems to know everyone else, and they all seem to understand and deeply appreciate music. Throw a rock at a buffet here and you’re likely to hit a musician.

The kind and soft spoken Bill Comstock, Freshmen guitarist from 1960-1972
The kind and soft spoken Bill Comstock, Freshmen guitarist from 1960-1972

But even though they aren’t screaming Bieber believers, these grandparents are still groupies. And as groupies they have a reason to smile: they are in the presence of their idols. Deadheads and Juggalos can only dream they had as much access to the objects of their affection as the Four Freshmen Society does. The current Freshmen, and often an alum or two, are active participants of the convention and can be seen chatting, posing for pictures or milling about at various venues. (It was Vince Johnson, the current band’s bass player, who voice lead the first afternoon’s “Wannabes” sing along.) Over the years, many Society members have grown to consider themselves good friends with one or more of the myriad past and present Freshmen. “The Freshmen came from another era when entertainers truly appreciated their fans and their music,” says Paul Halac, a retired teacher from the Chicago area. “When fans attended a Four Freshmen concert, the Freshmen were always available after the performance to meet and greet those who went backstage. I spent many hours over the years chatting with Ross, Bob, and especially Bill Comstock. They were most gracious and accommodating even when they weren’t ‘on the clock.’”

Over the years the relationship between the Four Freshmen Society and the band became increasingly tight, and at the convention the lines that separate the Society from the band are sometimes blurry. For instance, at the general meeting, Society President Mel Meyers mentions the recent gift of a valve trombone to Curtis Calderon, the band’s trumpet player. Mel says he hopes the instrument will inspire Curtis to learn to play it and to eventually recreate some of Flanigan’s parts on stage – a suggestion some professional musicians might take offense to. The Society even acts to some degree as the band’s record label, and is fronting the lion’s share of the recording costs for the group’s forthcoming CD “Love Songs,” a collection of standards with the backing of a string orchestra from the Czech Republic.

Like any diehard fans, some Society members feel a deep, personal connection to “our boys” and are willing to go to great lengths to support them. In 1998, indefatigable fan Don Boland made it his mission to win “Best Vocal Group” for the Freshmen in DownBeat’s annual reader’s poll, an honor that had last been bestowed on them some 40 years prior. Boland knew the Society’s 3,000 or so members could stuff the ballot box, all but ensuring a Freshmen victory. The problem? That year, “there happened to be NO vocal category in DownBeat’s annual poll,” Boland says. Seeking an explanation, he contacted the magazine and was told that the category had been eliminated due to a dearth of jazz vocal groups. “Well,” Boland responded, “I vote for a president every four years and there are generally only two viable candidates on that ballot.”

Undeterred, Boland, a former U.S. Navy Reserve Hospital Corpsman, began a campaign of correspondence to get the DownBeat’s publisher, Frank Alkyer, to re-instate the category. A couple of years and many letters later Alkyer surrendered, and the Four Freshmen took home “Best Vocal Group” laurels in 2000 and 2001. Since then Boland has worked off and on to get the Freshmen into DownBeat’s Hall of Fame, but has lately retreated on his efforts. “We have 3,000 members, but few participate despite my urging,” he says. “I am sure I am considered a P.I.A. by many.”

The current Four Freshmen onstage at Friday's performance.
The current Four Freshmen onstage at Friday’s performance.

For its part, the band shows its love for the Society early and often, peppering its sets with personal references and shout outs to individual society members. And the crowd responds warmly, thankful that a handful of talented young musicians have agreed to continue playing the music they love. In the end it’s like everyone has drunk the Kool-Aid, but somehow this time its turned out to be a kind of win-win situation.

Seems Like Old Times

So what is it that drives this far-flung assemblage of people to make an annual migration to B-side cities across the U.S. to attend the Four Freshmen Convention? The easiest answer is of course the music itself, and when it comes to this subject Society members are fanatical. “When I heard that Freshmen sound, I was blown away. The harmony was so much more than anything I had been exposed to,” says Paul Halac. “I was hooked on vocal jazz and the Freshmen. I happily missed the whole rock and roll era. Even the Beatles era was a joke to me because all they did was throw in a few major 7th chords and everyone thought this was revolutionary.” Halac has attended almost every reunion since the first in Las Vegas in 1988.

But Freshmen fans share more than just a predilection for the songs of a bygone era – they share a common history. Sure, they’ve come to Toledo to hear their favorite band play. But have they also come to revisit, by association, their own past – to bask in the golden light of nostalgia?

Edward Hopper's "Two On The Aisle" at the Toledo Museum of Art evokes a sense of nostalgia.
Edward Hopper’s “Two On The Aisle” at the Toledo Museum of Art evokes a sense of nostalgia.

Nostalgia is having something of a moment right now. It arrived right on time for its 20-year reunion with the 1990s, and is now in full swing. Cultural critics haven’t failed to take note of the most recent crop of reissues and regurgitations, which include Hollywood remakes of “The Bodyguard” and “Total Recall,” the exhuming of MTV’s “Beavis and Butthead,” and reunion tours by bands such as Gin Blossoms, Counting Crows and The Cranberries to name a few.

But a fair amount of hand wringing has also accompanied the latest wave of cultural leftovers. In an article in The New York Times, Carl Wilson traces the source of this new discomfort back to that most angst-ridden of cohorts, Generation X. Most X-ers grew up with a suspicion of their parents’ music and wariness for anything that smelled even remotely like the appropriation of their culture. Now approaching middle age, Gen X has awoken to find its own youth up on the chopping block, and it’s neither ready nor willing to go quietly into that “As Seen On TV” good night.

A more focused indictment of nostalgia can be found in Simon Reynolds’ latest book Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past. The argument at the heart of Retromania is that our fascination with the past has begun to suffocate the artistic present. As evidence Reynolds’ points to the first decade of this century, which was essentially “dominated by the ‘re-’ prefix: revivals, reissues, remakes, reenactments.” And the digital revolution has only made the condition worse. Now possessing virtual access to a significant chunk of the history of recorded sound, listeners and young musicians are getting trapped inside “a meticulously organized constellation of reference points and allusions.” Instead of inspiring new sonic experiments, boundless access has created a labyrinth of imitation and pastiche. The ‘Net result is that the digital revolution arguably still has “not spawned a single new form of music.”

Some of Ross Barbour’s personal photos on display

Few contemporary artists would welcome being labeled a “nostalgia act,” and the current Four Freshmen are no exception. In a 2003 Jazz Times article, Brian Eichenberger, the group’s guitar player, said, “It’s purely a musical experience for us. It’s not nostalgic for us, because we weren’t around then… Just like when the fans heard that wall of sound and harmony for the first time in 1952, it’s just addictive.”

When asked, Society members also put the emphasis on the music, not the memories. A common complaint is that the Freshmen have always gotten short shrift in the musical press, their music pigeon-holed as quaint or old-fashioned when compared to what, say, Miles Davis was up to. But to the converted, the Freshmen sound is as distinctive, avant-garde, and worthy of broader cultural relevance as it ever was. “I’m not sure I would use the word ‘nostalgia’ for the Four Freshmen because, to me, their music is current and has been since 1950,” says Halac. “My fervent wish is that, 100 years from now, folks will still tune in to Freshmen harmonies and realize how truly unique and classic they are.”

Memorabilia up for sale at the silent auction
Memorabilia for sale at the silent auction

Still, history seems to have stopped some time around the British Invasion at the convention, and bygone acts like the Hi-Los, The Modernaires, and Lambert, Hendricks and Ross are still all the rage. At the “Club 113 Music Mart” attendees can bid on pieces of the past to take home with them, including vintage records, autographed photos, and a watch given to Ross Barbour by Nat King Cole. The Society even has its own historian, who helps ensure the collective memory is intact and always close at hand.

The two performances by the current Freshmen line-up are the highlights of the weekend. The shows are throwbacks to a more genteel era, when Mad Men took elaborately coiffed women to clubs and sipped cocktails while polished performers entertained them. And they are enjoyable. It’s easy to be seduced by the music’s Brill-Cream-slick siren call, to get lost in wistful memories of a more romantic past – even if one didn’t actually experience that past the first time around.

Perhaps everyone eventually longs to revisit the days of their youth and defaults to a preference for the music they grew up listening to. Regardless, sometimes it does feel nice to check the baggage of the present at the door and revel in a simpler time, cultural consequences be damned.

We’ll Be Together Again

Despite the upbeat mood at the convention, last year was a tough one for the Four Freshmen and the society that bears their name. Bob Flanigan, the boisterous keeper of the band’s flame for the greater part of its existence, passed away last May and Ross Barbour, the final remaining member of the original lineup, joined him at the great gig in the sky in August. How would the Society deal with the fact that all of the people who made the music they listened to when they first kissed their future husbands and wives were now gone, leaving only kids who hadn’t even been born yet to carry the tune?

The Freshmen memorial session
The Freshmen memorial session

Saturday’s memorial session honoring the lives of Ross and Bob has the feeling of a last, bittersweet goodbye. A few members give heartfelt speeches and personal photos and archival footage of classic Four Freshmen moments are shown on a large screen. Palle Christensen of Denmark air conducts a rousing version of Vocal Majority’s “Joshua Fit The Battle Of Jericho.” There’s even a candid video tribute from Brian Wilson, who sings a touching rendition of “Their Hearts Where Full of Spring” along with a few Beach Boy friends. (Wilson has long been a fan of the Freshmen and has acknowledged their influence on his music. “Bob Flanigan and the Four Freshmen were my harmonic education,” he said following Bob’s death last year.)

When the issue of succession comes up later at the general meeting, the party line is that the Society now stands firmly behind the current band. “I want to be clear that these are our boys now,” president Mel Meyers said, driving the point home. However, Meyers goes on to acknowledge that the Society is facing some difficult challenges. Membership has been flat over the past few years, and as it continues to age the Society recognizes it will need to find ways to attract new, younger members into the fold. The future of the Freshmen sound may depend on it.

Still, neither the Four Freshmen Society nor the band itself plans to call it quits anytime soon. “We’re in it for the ‘long haul’ as they say,” says Meyers. “So is the membership and the group 22 guys.” The Four Freshmen maintain a busy touring schedule, and none other than Bob Flanigan himself once endorsed the current group as the best Frosh line-up of all time. “Can I guarantee perpetuity?” Meyers writes. “No, but neither can you.”

“How many people are able to say that their favorite performing musician was also a best friend?” says Paul Halac, remembering Ross Barbour. Despite Ross’s passing, Halac says he will continue to attend the conventions, “to renew friendships each year with a whole group of Fresh fans from all over the world with whom we have become very close… We sing (Freshmen arrangements, of course) and laugh and exchange stories and it seems like only a few weeks go by before we are together again. I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”

In the end, nostalgia alone may not be enough to keep the Four Freshmen franchise going forever. But with over 60 years of history, a reinvigorated band and a devoted fan base on their side, I wouldn’t bet against them.

See you in Reno in October.

Einstein in the West, Quanta in the East: Physics, Philosophy, and Religion

Originally published on May 27, 2005 on Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly (PBS) website

In the coming months, you may experience strange urges to spend quality time with protractors, gaze up into the night sky and ponder the nature of the universe, or sidle up to a few thousand volts of static electricity emitting from a Van de Graaff generator just to make your hair stand on end.

Is this some kind of bizarre astrological prediction? No — 2005 has been designated the World Year of Physics, and physicists, universities, and science-friendly organizations are celebrating with events from Aspen to Zurich.

Albert Einstein
Albert Einstein

The reason for all the hubbub is the centenary of Albert Einstein’s “annus mirabilis” or miracle year, 1905, during which he produced three groundbreaking papers that revolutionized physics. In addition to a slew of books, lectures, and exhibitions on Einstein, the many festivities include a new ballet in London called “Constant Speed,” a contest sponsored by the Pirelli tire company to find out who can best explain the theory of relativity, and a gathering of scholars at Oxford University to ponder “Einstein, God and Time.”

This smorgasbord of events will no doubt evoke at least hazy memories of the profound ways Einstein transformed our conceptions of light, space, and time in even the most science-befuddled minds. But without the threat of a final exam, few people are likely to spend much time considering the ideological principles that informed Einstein’s scientific description of the cosmos. Even these philosophical types might be surprised to discover that, although his radical ideas ushered in the era of modern physics, Einstein believed a deterministic universe lay beneath the mind-bending aspects of our physical world revealed by his theories. Moreover, his conviction about this overarching order makes Einstein an heir to the deeply rooted themes of positivism, unity, and determinism that run throughout the Western traditions of religion, philosophy, and science.

Einstein himself acknowledged that his work was built upon the bedrock of classical physics. As he put it in an April 1921 interview in THE NEW YORK TIMES, “There has been a false opinion widely spread among the general public that the theory of relativity is to be taken as differing radically from the previous developments in physics. … The men who have laid the foundations of physics on which I have been able to construct my theory are Galileo, Newton, Maxwell and Lorentz.”

Sir Isaac Newton
Sir Isaac Newton

Perhaps the most revered in that list of eminent predecessors is Sir Isaac Newton, the father of classical mechanics. Newton’s monolithic physics is synonymous with the empiricism that flowered during the scientific revolution, and was built upon a conviction that the laws he observed in nature revealed a clockwork universe. Though Einstein threw a wrench into Newton’s conception of space as a fixed entity, he believed that with time added to the familiar three dimensions of physics the “four-dimensional space of the special theory of relativity is just as rigid and absolute as Newton’s space.” More important, Einstein also shared Newton’s confidence in a fundamentally lawful world, which he summed up in his oft-quoted phrase, “God does not play dice with the universe.”

Newton also believed in a creator who had fashioned the laws of nature and set them in motion, but Einstein’s belief system did not include the existence of a personal God. In his writings on religion, Einstein emphasized a “cosmic religious feeling,” the essential beauty and mystery of the universe, and a metaphorical deity “who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists.” He tried repeatedly to explain his views, but they were often poorly understood and were by turns co-opted in support of or in opposition to different religious creeds. For example, in an attempt to defend Einstein’s theory of relativity against the claim that it was atheistic, Rabbi Herbert S. Goldstein of the Institutional Synagogue in New York cabled the professor in 1929 and asked him to clarify his views on God. Einstein replied that he believed in a God who “reveals himself in the lawful harmony of the world, not in a God who concerns himself with the fate and the doings of mankind.” The good rabbi somehow extrapolated from this brief sentence that “Einstein’s theory, if carried out to its logical conclusions, would bring mankind a scientific formula for monotheism. He does away with all thought of dualism or pluralism. There can be no room for any aspect of polytheism.”

Einstein himself called his theory “a purely scientific matter [that] has nothing to do with religion,” and he ultimately rejected the trappings of traditional faith. But his pursuit of theoretical unity, belief in causality, and trust in a harmonious universe all echo the Western religious traditions. It was these principles that guided Einstein’s quest for a “grand unified theory” to unite the disparate theories described by modern physics — a task that consumed the latter part of the great scientist’s life and remains the holy grail of physics today.

After abandoning the traditional religion of his youth, Einstein turned to Western philosophy; he later considered his readings in this area to have played an important part in the development of both his religious speculations and his physics. The most influential figure in his philosophical pantheon was the “God-intoxicated” 17th-century Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza. Einstein found a kindred spirit in this excommunicated Jew who devoted his life to quiet philosophical speculation, and in 1920 Einstein wrote a poem entitled “Zu Spinozas Ethik” (On Spinoza’s Ethic). As translated in Max Jammer’s EINSTEIN AND RELIGION (1999), it begins with the following lines:

How much do I love that noble man
More than I could tell with words
I fear though he’ll remain alone
With a holy halo of his own.

Baruch Spinoza
Baruch Spinoza

In Spinoza Einstein also found a champion for his belief in a deterministic universe that could be understood by human reason. Spinoza’s pantheistic philosophy held that the cosmos was an extension of God or Nature and was therefore fundamentally immutable and strictly ruled by cause and effect. Einstein regarded Spinoza’s conception of the universe so highly that he committed what he called the biggest blunder of his career in an effort to preserve his own vision of it. In 1915, he inserted an extra term, the “cosmological constant,” into his theory of general relativity so that it would yield a static universe similar to the one described by Spinoza instead of the expanding one his calculations produced without it. When astrophysicist Edwin Hubble’s observations revealed in 1929 that the galaxies in our universe were indeed hurtling away from each other, Einstein realized that this error had cost him the opportunity to be the first to announce that the cosmos was expanding.

Perhaps the most telling indication of Einstein’s faith in a deterministic universe can be found not in what he himself believed but in the rival physics theory he refuted: quantum mechanics. The work of a prominent group of early 20th-century physicists that included Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg, and Wolfgang Pauli, quantum mechanics crystallized during roughly the same period as Einstein’s own work. Ironically, Einstein’s 1905 explanation of the photoelectric effect, for which he won the Nobel Prize in physics in 1921, also makes him one of the early fathers of this theory.

Quantum mechanics elegantly describes the behavior of matter at the atomic level, but it contains strange effects that often seem to have more in common with Zen koans than traditional physics. For instance, wave-particle duality says that both light and matter at the atomic level can exist in either particle or wave form, depending upon how we look at them. And Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle states that it’s impossible to determine such simple characteristics as the position and momentum of a particle simultaneously. Physicists even differ over exactly what type of universe quantum mechanics describes. One of the most far-out opinions is American physicist Hugh Everett’s “many worlds” interpretation, which holds that our own is just one of countless equally real universes that continuously arise out of quantum probability.

Probability densities of hydrogen atom orbitals
Probability densities of hydrogen atom orbitals

Despite its success in describing the atomic world, Einstein couldn’t accept the indeterminacy, contingency, and importance of observation that lie at the heart of quantum mechanics. In an effort to prove it an incomplete theory, Einstein, along with fellow physicists Boris Podolsky and Nathan Rosen, presented a paper in 1935 introducing a clever thought experiment that came to be known as the EPR (Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen) paradox. It hinged upon a bizarre aspect of quantum mechanics in which two “entangled” particles essentially transmit information to each other across distances. If this were true, it would mean that quantum mechanics contradicted special relativity’s rule that nothing, not even information, can travel faster than the speed of light. Such particles would display a kind of unexplained “spooky action at a distance,” as Einstein put it.

The EPR paradox remained purely theoretical until 1982, when French physicist Alain Aspect’s experimental data suggested that entangled particles do mysteriously interact after being spatially separated. Though some physicists remained unconvinced, Aspect’s results were enough to convince the majority that quantum mechanics had beaten Einstein’s paradox.

But if Einstein didn’t appreciate the spookiness of quantum mechanics, that very quality has helped efforts to link science with Eastern or New Age philosophies. The indeterminacy in quantum mechanics seems almost tailor-made for those wishing to rescue a sense of free will from a mechanistic universe, and some perceive quantum systems as fundamentally holistic, an idea that dovetails nicely with Eastern traditions that view everything in the universe as part of an interconnected whole.

The resemblance between quantum mechanics and certain aspects of Eastern philosophy was recognized by some of the architects of the theory themselves. But these speculations remained outside the mainstream until physicist and systems theorist Fritjof Capra’s 1975 book THE TAO OF PHYSICS heralded a contemporary movement that sought to fuse quantum physics and spirituality. Other works soon followed, such as Gary Zukav’s THE DANCING WU LI MASTERS (1979) and Deepak Chopra’s QUANTUM HEALING (1989), which combined molecular physics with meditation.

WHAT THE BLEEP DO WE KNOW!?
WHAT THE BLEEP DO WE KNOW!?

More recently, a quirky film entitled WHAT THE BLEEP DO WE KNOW!? has sought to hitch its own mystical view of reality to science’s wagon. Mixing fact with fiction, WHAT THE BLEEP uses interviews with 14 interdisciplinary experts and special-effects sequences to put forth an extraordinary hypothesis: the key to self-actualization lies in the conscious creation of our own made-to-order reality from the quantum realm up.

The inspirational message at the core of WHAT THE BLEEP struck a chord with many moviegoers, and after being released in just a handful of West Coast theaters, the film grew into something of an art house phenomenon. But as it opened in more and more theaters across the country, WHAT THE BLEEP also elicited a collective groan from the physics community. One Columbia University scientist featured in the film, Dr. David Albert, claimed his views had been so badly distorted by the filmmakers that he refused any connection with the final product. Dr. Albert’s and many other scientists’ complaints revolved around the film’s mixing of quantum mechanics and consciousness — a hotly contested issue where physics meets philosophy.

Theorists have long posited that the raw potentiality and the important role of observation in quantum mechanics may make it helpful in explaining complex brain processes and human consciousness. For instance, physician and researcher Stuart Hameroff, who appears in WHAT THE BLEEP, and Oxford mathematics professor Roger Penrose have put forward a theory that quantum processes inside tiny microtubules in the brain may form the foundation of consciousness. But the film goes even further than such physically-based explanations to suggest that consciousness itself influences quantum processes and, by extension, our macro-level, everyday reality. This is certainly an intriguing proposition, but for the time being such hypotheses remain highly speculative, and only a few physicists subscribe to them.

But if the science in WHAT THE BLEEP and other works like it is questionable, they have at least served to bring into relief the need for constructive dialogue about the relationship among religion, philosophy, and science. When these diverse fields intersect today, the debate that follows is often stunted and acrimonious. Those with spiritual concerns claim that science extends beyond its rightful bounds and in effect disenchants the world. For their part, many scientists are reluctant to explore the philosophical implications of their work and content to ignore any metaphysical questions that might arise from it.

Contrary to such polarized positions, a few notable physicists, such as this year’s winner of the Templeton Prize for Progress Toward Research or Discoveries About Spiritual Realities, Nobel laureate Charles Townes, have advanced the view that science and the spiritual might best be viewed as complementary disciplines that can inspire each other to greater heights. As Townes put it, “Wonderful things in both science and religion come from our efforts based on observations, thoughtful assumptions, faith and logic.”

Einstein, too, felt a sense of reverence that motivated his efforts to expand more than just the boundaries of science. He challenged people to look beyond the parameters of their religion, culture, and nationality and to focus instead on the bigger cosmological picture. At that magnitude, our preconceived notions of what separates us from one another shrink beside a sense of what Einstein called “the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty, which only in their most primitive forms are accessible to our minds.”

In the end, Einstein sought to unite more than scientific paradigms — he envisioned a world in which humanity itself was unified by sweeping commonalities on the celestial scale. As we celebrate Einstein’s scientific achievements this year, we should also make a point of remembering that he was a great humanist as well. In the future, we will surely need both of these important legacies.

Telecommunications in South Africa: Expanding Horizons

Originally appeared on Wide Angle (PBS) website, “Road to Riches” episode, 2003

Building the Networks of Privilege

Though telecommunications systems in Africa are generally less extensive and sophisticated than those in the developed world, South Africa’s telecommunications networks are among the best in all of Africa. The reasons behind this distinction, like so many other facets of its social and economic landscapes, can be traced back to the effects of apartheid on South Africa’s development.

South Africa’s telecommunications networks were built and maintained by the state-run Department of Posts and Telecommunications. Under the authority of this government agency, and therefore subject to the principles of racial discrimination, South Africa’s telecommunications infrastructure was constructed primarily to serve its white population. Telegraph systems, and later telephone lines, were concentrated around areas where commercial activity took place, such as in mining operations near Johannesburg, and inside South Africa’s urban centers. These were areas that were controlled and dominated by whites. In contrast, communications networks were not extended into rural areas where the majority of South Africa’s blacks lived. During the 1980s, telephone service was estimated to be less than one tenth as common in black regions as it was in white areas.

But sustaining the prerogatives of prejudice was an expensive endeavor. As part of its state-subsidized model of progress, the South African government pursued a cumbersome policy of manufacturing much of its own telecommunications equipment. Such isolationist strategies may have helped South Africa shield itself from the impacts of international sanctions, but they also involved the risks that the nation’s technological development would be costly and that its telecommunications infrastructure could become outdated. During the late 1970s and early 1980s, South Africa’s telecommunications industry incurred heavy debt from the process of digitizing its networks.

As support for the politics of apartheid began to wane, South Africa’s telecommunications industry began a series of striking changes. The Department of Posts and Telecommunications would soon be split in two, and South Africa’s new telecommunications entity would be released from direct ministerial control.

Entering the Global Marketplace

In October of 1991, Telkom South Africa was formed out of the ashes of the Department of Posts and Telecommunications. Telkom controlled the domestic market and the government was its sole shareholder, but it was to be run essentially like a private company, and over the next decade it would become an emblem of South Africa’s entry into the global marketplace.

The inequities built into South Africa’s communications networks made the reassessment of the telecommunications industry an important issue to the African National Congress government under Nelson Mandela. The democratization of South Africa’s telecommunications networks was seen by many to be an important step in raising the living standards of the people of South Africa. Government initiatives such as the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) directly linked access to communication technologies, such as a telephone or the Internet, to expanded economic and educational opportunities. In order to spur development in rural areas, the Telecoms Act of 1996 granted Telkom a continued monopoly of South Africa’s fixed-line telecommunications market in return for an agreement that the company would create 2.8 million new lines with an emphasis on connecting previously underdeveloped areas.

Since then, South Africa has made considerable steps in restructuring its telecommunications industry. After he was elected president in 1999, Thabo Mbeki ushered in a more economically conservative administration and new views on how best to encourage business development in South Africa. In a bold move toward privatization, on March 4, 2003, 30 percent of the South African government’s shares of Telkom were listed for sale on the New York and Johannesburg stock exchanges. The Telkom offering also reaffirmed the South African government’s commitment to black economic empowerment: “historically disadvantaged” South Africans were eligible to buy Telkom shares at a 20 percent discount.

Even more recently, the South African government has stepped up efforts to deregulate its telecommunications industry by establishing a second network operator and ending Telkom’s monopoly. In some parts of South Africa, monthly telephone service can cost as much as an average worker’s monthly wage. Many economists believe that increased competition will lower prices and make telephone service more accessible to poor South Africans. Proponents of deregulation also cite the success of South Africa’s cellular phone market, which has thrived over recent years despite the addition of new players in the industry. According to Cellular Online, 13 million South Africans were using mobile phones in 2002 and estimates indicate that this number could grow to 21 million users by 2006.

However, important political organizations such as the powerful union consortium COSATU have taken issue with President Mbeki’s moves to deregulate the industry. These critics point out that a free market would encourage new businesses to focus on the more profitable urban and cellular markets and ignore the need to develop South Africa’s telecommunications infrastructure in rural areas.

In many ways, the struggles of South Africa’s telecommunications industry are representative of the issues currently facing the nation as a whole. As South Africa moves into its second decade of democracy, correcting the inequalities left behind by apartheid, improving the living standards of its poor, and becoming a part of the global marketplace will all be critical to South Africa’s continued renaissance.

Mining in South Africa: The Industrialization of a Young Nation

Originally appeared on Wide Angle (PBS) website, “Road to Riches” episode, 2003

South Africa’s Gold Rush

South Africa is a land rich in mineral resources including diamonds, platinum, aluminum, coal, and gold; mining in the region dates back to the early Iron Age. The story of mining in South Africa, and especially of its gold mining industry, is closely intertwined with the story of the nation’s modern industrial development.

The news that diamonds had been discovered near Kimberly in 1867 and gold in the Witwatersrand area in 1886 immediately caught the attention of the colonial powers of Europe. Newly acquired technologies such as steamships and railroads made it both feasible and profitable to penetrate the African interior and extract its precious resources. Tensions were soon rekindled as an influx of prospectors, mostly British, began to encroach upon Dutch territories in South Africa. Disputes over mining and commercial rights and armed skirmishes culminated in the onset of The Anglo-Boer (Dutch) War in 1899. After a series of initial defeats, British forces began a steady advance into the Boer states and, under General Lord Roberts, eventually defeated the Dutch resistance. In May 1902 the Treaty of Vereeniging set the jewel of South Africa in the English Crown, but the costly war left behind bitter feelings that would reverberate through South African politics and society.

With the South African territories firmly under British control, the last obstacle to the rapid expansion of the mining industry had been cleared. The new wealth brought into the country by large mining houses such as De Beers and Johannesburg Consolidated Investments soon underpinned the South African economy and became the driving force behind its rapid industrialization. Yet while mining operations continually sought out new technologies to increase their efficiency and output, they still had a great need for African manpower. In order to maximize profits, the mining industry utilized concepts of racial privilege to create an inexpensive and malleable black work force. In addition to stagnant wages and a color bar that kept blacks in unskilled positions, South Africa’s laws required black miners to return to their impoverished rural “homelands” when they weren’t working in the mines. These patterns of migration were eventually woven into the fabric of South Africa’s landscape: By 1960, 80 percent of whites resided in urban areas while a nearly equal percentage of South Africa’s black majority lived in rural areas.

To some, the government’s acceptance of the newly formed black National Union of Mineworkers in 1982 and the miner’s strike of 1987 exposed a small seam in the rigid foundation of apartheid.

The Challenge of Transformation

Recently, the South African government has begun to seek reparations for apartheid’s impact on miners. The landmark Broad-Based Socio-Economic Empowerment Charter for the Mining Industry in 2002 stated that a 15 percent stake in all mining operations would have to be owned by historically disadvantaged peoples within five years, and 26 percent by the end of a decade. Though the Mining Charter has helped some black entrepreneurs get a foothold in the mining industry, it has also caused a measure of uncertainty in the financial sector. Critics point out that broad legislative acts such as the Mining Charter and high-profile lawsuits against companies active in South Africa during apartheid encourage businesses and investors to seek more stable markets in other countries. Uncertainty about the future of South Africa’s mining industry can have a ripple effect throughout South Africa’s economy, creating volatility in the Johannesburg Stock Exchange and even influencing the strength of the rand.

The struggles of South Africa’s mining industry are also linked to the nation’s high unemployment rate, which is currently estimated to be 40 percent of the entire population. The number of people employed in mining has been reduced by more than half since it peaked at 534,000 in 1986. Higher wages for workers have likely contributed to the mining industry’s shrinking work force. The wages of black mine workers were kept extremely low under the rules of apartheid (in 1969 some workers were paid as little as 34 cents a day), but miners have recently fought for and gained significant increases in their pay. The increased cost of labor has led many companies to adopt capital-intensive development plans in an attempt to minimize their dependence on labor.

South Africa is still the world leader in gold production, but the South African economy has gradually become less dependent on gold. However, despite the waning of South Africa’s gold mining industry and the rise of its manufacturing and service sectors, the larger mining sector remains an important component of the nation’s economy. Currently, mineral exports still account for roughly one quarter of South Africa’s export market and seven percent of its entire gross domestic product.

Winemaking in South Africa: The Roots of Colonization

Originally appeared on Wide Angle (PBS) website, “Road to Riches” episode, 2003

The Dutch Arrive in South Africa

The beginnings of winemaking in South Africa coincide with the arrival of Dutch settlers to the future republic’s Western Cape in 1652. Commander Jan van Riebeeck had been sent to Table Bay by the Dutch East India Company to establish a foothold at the southern tip of the “dark continent” where the company’s vessels could stop to perform repairs and take on supplies along the route to the lucrative trading posts of the East Indies.

Upon noticing the native peoples eating berries from a species of vine, van Riebeeck wondered if grapevines would thrive in the Cape’s soil alongside the more mundane local fruits and vegetables. Van Riebeeck pointed out to his seniors in Holland that a ration of wine was known to reduce the outbreak of scurvy on long seafaring voyages, and vine shoots were soon dispatched to him. The first cuttings were planted in 1655, and in February of 1659 van Riebeeck wrote, “Today, praise the Lord, wine was pressed from Cape grapes for the first time.”

During the next century, viticulture continued to expand along with the colonization of the Cape region. At the end of the 17th century, winemaking expanded and became more refined under the influence of French Huguenots who had come to South Africa to flee religious persecution. During the 1700s, South Africa garnered an international reputation for Constantia’s dessert wines, which were reportedly a favorite of Napoleon’s while he was in exile in St. Helena. However, during the latter half of the 19th century, South Africa’s vineyards were decimated by war and disease.

During the 20th century, South Africa’s wine industry suffered under apartheid. Wine production and distribution largely came under the authority of the Ko-operatiewe Wijnbouwers Vereeniging van Zuid-Afrika, which set quotas and controlled the market. Practices such as bootlegging and false labeling were used to dodge international sanctions against South African wine, and the quality of the wines being produced went into decline as vintners were unable to import new and healthy vines. Finally, South Africa’s winemaking industry contracted as it was forced to rely solely upon its lackluster domestic market.

Black vineyard laborers suffered as well. Under the Natives Land Act of 1913, black farm workers had no rights to the land they cultivated, and the “tot” system allowed vineyard operators to pay their unskilled laborers at least partly with the liquor they produced, helping create and maintain patterns of poverty and alcoholism.

New Beginnings

Today, winemaking has become a leading component in South Africa’s agricultural sector. South Africa is currently the seventh-largest wine producer in the world, and exports of South African wine rose by an astounding 26 percent in 2002 alone. Tourism, another rising star in the South African economy, has also increased in South Africa’s wine-producing Cape region as the country has reemerged as a producer of internationally known fine wines.

One reason for the recent success of South Africa’s wine industry has been the drastic improvement in the quality of its product. Not possessing the delicate soils or extended winemaking traditions that Europe has, South African winemakers have turned to technology to aid them in their quest to craft the perfect vintage. Some South African vineyards have utilized high-tech tools such as remote sensing, Global Positioning System, and satellite imagery to help them position their crops in optimal growing conditions and to maximize their harvest. The use of such sophisticated methods has helped South African winemakers improve the consistency and quality of their wines more quickly and with less trial and error.

South African winemakers have also gained recognition recently for having embraced sustainable agricultural practices. In 1998, the Integrated Production of Wine (IPW) system was created to promote environmentally friendly growing practices in South Africa. Today, more than 98 percent of South Africa’s grapes are grown according to IPW guidelines.

Another bright spot for South Africa’s wine industry can be found in its various grassroots black economic empowerment projects. Though progress has sometimes been more symbolic than systemic, South Africa’s wine industry has taken some innovative steps toward making amends for injustices committed under the rule of apartheid.

New Beginnings, the first black-owned winery in South Africa, has become a model for small-scale black empowerment projects. According to the New Beginnings paradigm, black farm workers are allowed to purchase arable land or equipment from an existing winery and use its production facilities to create their own special label wines. As projects such as New Beginnings have evolved, they have fostered the development of other educational and social outreach programs in historically underserved agricultural communities. In one area, a radio drama entitled “Sommernet” (which, loosely translated, means “merely”) highlights social issues and promotes interpersonal skills and training to local farm workers.

From booming consumer demand to the negotiation of a tax-free export agreement with Europe, South Africa has seen an upsurge in international support for the fruits of its post-apartheid winemaking labors. But the keys to continued prosperity for South Africa’s wine industry will lie in its ability to adapt to the demands of the global market, an expanded output capacity without a loss in quality, and in sustained consumer support for its transformation efforts.