Pitch of Excitement

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Reaching for an image to convey the mix of entrepreneurial enthusiasm and rampant, imaginative speculation currently fermenting on Penn’s campus—“Blockchain Fever,” as we style it in this issue’s cover story—associate editor Trey Popp evokes the example, both alluring and cautionary, of “the San Francisco Bay Area during the original dotcom boom.”

If, like me, you’ve previously seen words like blockchain and Bitcoin in the headlines of articles you’ve then passed over, or skimmed without ever being quite sure how these things worked (or if they were the same thing), then Trey’s article provides a very clear and useful primer.

For example, I discovered that “Blockchains are a novel sort of database” with many possible uses, including in virtual, or crypto-, currencies like Bitcoin. And, while Bitcoin has been featured most broadly in the media (almost always in stories about how foolish/prescient people were in buying it), there are others around as well, with even more abstract names likeRipple (in my previous experience, a cheap wine) and Ethereum (some type of afterlife?). Also, while it always baffled me how one would get change in a Bitcoin transaction, now I sort of understand why that’s the wrong way to think about it.

For more knowledgeable readers, the article goes much further, offering a thorough and thoughtful tour of the history of these technologies; a balanced and informed consideration of their potential and limitations; and a compelling, entertaining, and even inspirational group portrait of the Penn people looking to shape their development and implementation in a staggering array of fields.

This includes interviews with some of the 400 (!) students involved in the Penn Blockchain Club, alumni working in existing firms or planning start-ups, and faculty developing new curricula to meet the growing demand for education on what appears to be at least a major innovation in the world economy, and could remake society much more broadly.

Not to further parade my ignorance, but contemporary classical music is another thing I don’t know much about. I had no idea, while a student here in the 1970s, that the University was home to three major 20th century composers. It did not escape the attention of the Gazette, however, which featured Richard Wernick, George Rochberg G’49, and George Crumb Hon’09 in its December 1977 issue. (See “Old Penn” for photographic evidence, and consult our website for a reproduction of the story.)

In this issue’s “The Philosophical Composer,” Dennis Drabelle G’66 L’69 profiles Rochberg, who died in 2005 [“Obituaries,” Nov|Dec 2005] and would have turned 100 in July of this year. In his early work as a composer, Rochberg gravitated to atonal musical forms like serialism and the 12-tone system originated by Arnold Schoenberg, but eventually—in reaction to personal tragedy (the death of his son at a young age) as well as a growing sense of their creative limitations—he turned to more traditional forms that could be remembered by the listener and felt more directly by audiences.

The article also surveys Rochberg’s critical and autobiographical writings, which chart his disenchantment with the avant-garde in music and the overall culture, as well as recounting signature concert triumphs and his occasional battles, as with the Philadelphia Orchestra’s legendary conductor Eugene Ormandy.

I actually consider myself pretty knowledgeable about film, but I was nevertheless surprised to learn just how many iconic American movies were released in 1967–1968—coinciding with the senior year of Penn’s Class of 1968, which celebrated its 50th reunion back in May. In his evocative, thought-provoking essay, “Our Love Affair with Movies,” Robert Cort C’68 G’70 WG’74—a veteran Hollywood producer and dedicated moviegoer from childhood—recalls his generation’s fervent identification with Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate, Cool Hand Luke, and other films that spoke to issues like the war in Vietnam and civil rights roiling the campus and the country at the time.

He also contrasts the originality, downbeat or ambiguous endings, and complex characters of the 1967–68 films with the fantasy and comic-book spectacles that dominate movie screens today, as the Class of 2018 graduates. Still, even in our era of endless distractions, he holds out hope that film can reclaim its hold on our affection.

The Class of 1968 was of course among those marching and mingling on Locust Walk for Alumni Weekend. Our annual photo essay appears on page 48. Commencement coverage—welcoming the Class of 2018 as Penn alumni—begins on page 19.

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