Monday, August 31, 2009

Forgetting the "Inter" in "Internet"

Apparently, the media have decided to celebrate September 2 as the 40th anniversary of the Internet. This seems to be because September 2, 1969 was the date on which two computers exchanged data in the first test under the ARPANET project. This took place at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA); and I find it interesting in the context of our general cultural ignorance of history that there is no mention of this date in the Wikipedia entry for ARPANET. The first specific date documented by the wisdom of the Wikipedia crowd is October 29, 1969 in the caption of a photograph taken from the UCLA "IMP [Interface Message Processor] Log" for that date. The portion of the log reproduced describes, as the caption says, "setting up a message transmission to go from the UCLA SDS Sigma 7 Host computer to the SRI [Stanford Research Institute] SDS 940 Host computer." No mention is made in either the image itself or its caption of the fact, cited in an Associated Press release this morning, that "the network crashes after the first two letters of the word 'logon.'"

Since I have now reached an age where I think about my own birthday as little as possible, I am not particularly interested in how either our pioneers or their acolytes decide to peg down a specific date of origin. What does annoy me, however, is the overall Associated Press story, since it was released under the title "Key milestones in the development of Internet." More important than whether history began with the connection of two computers within the proximity of the same university campus or with a connection across California from Los Angeles to Menlo Park is the origin of the actual Internet concept. This is captured in the Associate Press chronology as follows:

1974: Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn develop communications technique called TCP, allowing multiple networks to understand one another, creating a true Internet. Concept later splits into TCP/IP before formal adoption on Jan. 1, 1983.

What is missing from the chronology is any mention of how those multiple networks arose in the first place. Once the ARPANET concept had been proven, it was only a matter of time before similar networks (without ties to the Department of Defense, which had sponsored the ARPANET project) emerged and proliferated. Wikipedia lists several of the key emergents, including the British JANET and American public access services, such as CompuServe. Most important, however, was the emergence of Usenet, which provided Unix developers with discussion groups through which technical problems could be addressed and resolved without face-to-face meetings. Usenet was supported by UUCPnet, a network of Unix-based hosts.

The value of computer-based discussion groups caught on quickly; and it became readily apparent that many of the discussions would benefit from the participation of those on other networks. Thus, a major shot in the arm for the promotion of TCP emerged with the establishment of gateway processors through which users on all those other networks could both enter Usenet discussions and exchange electronic mail with the discussants in more private settings. Mail exchange was particularly tricky. Basically, you had to send your mail to the right gateway with a destination that involved your formatting the address of the receiver in a form which that gateway could understand. Many of us heavily involved with Usenet kept a copy of a page from the Communications of the ACM with a chart that provided all of the gateway addresses and the formats they required. Getting to a UUCP user was particularly tricky, since you had to define a path from the gateway to that user's actual host that might run through several computers.

The most important contribution of the Internet as we now know it, which is never mentioned in the Associated Press chronology, is that it simplified this mess. From a user's point of view, the Internet became a reality on the day when we could all throw away that Communications of the ACM chart and reach everyone through the format of an address consisting of a user identification followed by @ followed by a domain-based host. Perhaps the Associated Press chose to ignore this event because it was too complicated to explain. History is like that; and we have become too lazy to have the will to negotiate such complexities, which is probably why we have dispensed with any account of history except those that are over-trivialized by sources like the Associated Press!

Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Aggressive Audience

When I first started attending concerts, there were a fair number of rigid rules and conventions of behavior. Indeed, each side of the edge of the performing area (which was usually a stage) had its own respective criteria for normative behavior; and, in an age in which the fear of Communism had imposed a mind-numbing commitment to conformity, those norms were respected with the same reverence one encountered in places of worship. Very few performers dared to break the rules on their side; and doing so had a tendency to provoke similar rule-breaking within the audience. One of the great leaders among the rule-breaking performers was John Cage; and his courage to do so was an inspiration for those who worked with him, not only among other "New York School" composers (such as Earle Brown, Morton Feldman, and Christian Wolff) but also in Merce Cunningham's approach to the creation and performance of dance.

Ironically, the history of this movement is often told more around the norms violated by the audiences than by the acts of the creators and performers. One of my favorite anecdotes concerned one of Cunningham's most controversial creations, "Winterbranch." On the surface this was a relatively straightforward study of the representation of different ways in which people fell, either alone or in groups; but the controversy resided in two critical ways in which the surface was obscured. The first was the use of chance techniques to determine the lighting cues, with the result that almost none of the choreography took place under direct light. To the extent that one was aware of what was being represented at all, most of the representations were cloaked in near darkness to a degree that they were barely perceived. This made for a provocative complement to the second way in which surface structure was obscured, which was the selection of a musical composition by La Monte Young. Young's work was entitled "Two Sounds," which was as honest as it was hard to take. Indeed, the first half of "Winterbranch" took place in silence, after which the two sounds intruded at maximum volume. I was never sure just what the sounds were, but I knew that Young wanted them to aggravate. I suspect that one of them came close to fingernails on a blackboard, if that was not the actual source.

Even after audiences went to Cunningham concerts with full knowledge of what the "Winterbranch" experience would be like, would still react hostilely. I even remember a story of Cunningham commenting backstage, after the dancers had taken their bows for a "Winterbranch" performance, "There were fewer booers tonight!" Nevertheless, the reaction to end all reactions took place when the Company was on tour in Paris. Not content to boo, members of the audience left the theater during intermission to buy up unsold produce (as in rotten tomatoes), which they brought back to throw at the performance of the next dance on the program!

Such hostility now feels like a distant part of my past. These days it seems as if the worst that performers have to encounter is an infectious level of nervous coughing. Hostility is reserved for athletic and political events, either during the performance or after it has culminated in a conclusion. From this point of view, the Cramps recording of John Cage's performance of the third part of his "Empty Words" (which constituted an entire evening's program) at the Teatro Lirico di Milano on December 2, 1977 is an important historical document. Here is how Gianni-Emilio Simonetti introduced the recording in the liner notes:

What happened at the Teatro Lirico in Milan on 2nd December, 1977? What happened that was so unique it deserves to be remembered by a recording? A theatrical event – the reading by the author of the third section of a work called Empty Words – was unpredictably transformed into something completely unexpected into an event in which the actors played their parts to the very utmost, with stubbornness and determination. On the stage, a "speaker", an aged man, with certain beliefs about music that had earned him some notoriety among esteemers of the avant-garde. The audience consisted of a handful of young people who had only heard of avant-garde of the armed type, and in any case were expecting to receive a message in the form of a concert, if only because this time they had paid for their rickets [sic, the typographical error in the English translation is irresistible!] instead of protesting as was the custom in those days. They had paid for them because someone from the "left" had asked them to. Having paid, for them, they thought they had also acquired the right, to enjoy themselves and, indeed to receive a "message", or at least some "content" – no matter if it was complex – as long as it was compatible with their "idées reçues". The length of the reading and the years of experience of the "speaker" did the rest. A generation mirrors itself today in these voices out of context. A generation that collected every humiliation and ignored every revolt does not recognize itself. Cowardice makes one lose one's sense of unhappy experiences.

As the photograph accompanying this essay illustrates, protest was far more than derisive shouting. It probably did not involve rotten tomatoes; but it did involve breaking the "fourth wall" through members of the audience coming up on stage to "do their own thing" under the assumption that they were entitled to do so if that was all that Cage was doing. However, by focusing his account on the dynamics of the protest, Simonetti ultimately ignored the nature of Cage's actual performance. Throughout the entire evening, Cage never broke from his calm delivery of his text, an amalgam of words and nonsense syllables derived from a highly methodical chance-based deconstruction of texts by Henry David Thoreau. At his advanced age Cage was still a student of the Zen master he had encountered a quarter of a century earlier, maintaining equanimity (and probably, in his own words, "a sunny disposition") in the face of the anger (and subsequent madness) of those around him.

My initial reaction to this recording was a combination of perplexity and amusement. I remember a performance of one of the earlier parts of "Empty Words" that I had attended in the United States (possibly at Brandeis University). That performance was for a sympathetic audience. We sat there in religious silence, knowing that Cage wanted us to do nothing more than listen to the sounds and straining to do so with the utmost precision. Thus, when I first heard this Italian audience, I was surprised that what Cage had done could still provoke and that the resulting behavior should be so aggressive. Listening to it today, I am still surprised that it could have engendered such hooliganism; but I also wonder if we have now become so benumbed to unexpected extremes that we no longer react that way. (It was said that the Théâtre du Grand-Guignol made it easy for members of the audience to run off in search of a place to vomit in reaction to its staged violence. Today's audiences sit through Quentin Tarantino films without flinching.) I can't say that I miss audiences who decide to exercise their right to protest to the detriment of those who want to listen, but at the same time I wonder how many performers today have the commitment that Cage brought with him for the sake of being true to his aesthetic philosophy. I still believe in the power of the provocative (even if I do not always sympathize with the provocateur); so I find myself asking whether our current social norms may be sapping the provocative of the power it once had. Once again, an investigation of the moral consequences of this brave new worldview are left as an exercise for the reader!

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Remembering Bird

Without in any way trying to detract from the memory of Michael Jackson, it is also important to bear in mind that serious jazz listeners remember today as the birthday of Charlie ("Bird") Parker. Our "local" (scare quotes because it is actually located in San Mateo) jazz station is offering a nice mix of Bird sides and performances of his music by other groups. Bird did, indeed, "live" beyond his death, first through those who had played with him and later through second-order (and probably by now third-order) connections. Thus, while others may see Kind of Blue as the height of Miles Davis' collaboration with John Coltrane (if not the height of his career), I continue to have a soft spot for how the two of them worked Bird's "Ah-Leu-Cha" for the earlier Columbia album 'Round About Midnight. This quintet later took "Ah-Leu-Cha" out of the studio and played it at Newport on July 3, 1958, a little more than three years after Bird's death. Miles had recorded with Bird on the Savoy and Dial labels as a member of what Wikipedia calls Bird's "so-called 'classic quintet.'" According to Lewis Porter's biography, Coltrane had played with Bird on a few occasions, none of which were recorded. However, Coltrane was always a keen listener; so I have always fantasized that he took on "Al-Leu-Cha" as an opportunity to turn his listening knowledge into performing knowledge by working with someone who had acquired more direct performing knowledge.

The end of August is even more important in the jazz world since this past Thursday was the birthday of Lester ("Prez") Young. I first became aware of this proximity when I was living in Stamford, Connecticut in a condominium whose roof had a really strong antenna. It was great for the television; but, by plugging it into my FM receiver, I pulled in a great signal from the campus radio station at Columbia University. Every year around this time they would broadcast a three-day marathon, during which they would play everything they had (at least once) of both Prez and Bird. The Marathon would begin on Prez' birthday and end on Bird's. They seemed to have enough in their collection that they did not have to bother with other groups playing this "music of the masters!" Happy Bird Day to all!

Friday, August 28, 2009

An Unintended Consequence of Literary Ignorance?

I just read a Business & Finance report on the Reuters wire that caught my attention for its literary implications:

Cerberus Capital Management has been swamped with redemption requests with the Wall Street Journal reporting that investors are asking to pull out $5.5 billion or 71 percent of assets from its hedge funds.

Cerberus last month tried to entice investors into staying with the firm, but found that its clients overwhelmingly wanted to leave, the newspaper reported.

My immediate reaction was to wonder whether these fund managers realized how much truth-in-advertising there was behind their decision to invoke the name of Cerberus. A quick visit to the Wikipedia entry for this name should have been enough to give them pause:

Cerberus, (pronounced /sər-b(ə-)rəs/[1]; Greek form: Κέρβερος, pronounced [kerberos][2]) in Greek and Roman mythology, is a multi-headed hound (usually three-headed[1][3][4]) which guards the gates of Hades, to prevent those who have crossed the river Styx from ever escaping.

This entry also includes a cute photograph of an ancient Roman statue depicting this beast:

Later on in the entry, we encounter a prescient sentence that has all sorts of implications for the world of hedge fund investment:

Each of Cerberus' heads is said to have an appetite only for live meat and thus allow the spirits of the dead to freely enter the underworld, but allow none to leave.[12]

I have to wonder whether or not it was the prospect of an encounter with Cerberus that would later inspire the immortal words of Dante Alighieri:

Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch'entrate.

[All hope abandon, ye who enter here.]

Those certainly strike me as words to the wise where hedge fund investing is concerned these days. From a literary point of view, the name of this fund was just a fancy way of saying "Roach Motel for Investments!"

Madonna's CHUTZPAH

Sometimes chutzpah is a matter of having a bully pulpit and putting it to good use where it matters most. Where both politicians and entertainers are concerned, the bully pulpit is clear. The question is one of whether the use involves personal gain or that amorphous concept of the "greater good." One may raise this question where Barack Obama is concerned, particularly since he has received Chutzpah of the Week awards with both negative and positive connotations. On the other hand I have never doubted Dennis Kucinich's commitment to the greater good, possibly because he does not seem to have trouble putting thoughts of personal gain on the back burner and keeping his eyes on the prize of progress for a more Progressive agenda than is within the comfort zone of those with more power.

When my attention shifts from politics to entertainment, I become a bit more skeptical. Too much of popular entertainment is all about getting attention, even in the spirit of Malcolm X's by-any-means-necessary strategy. Nevertheless, since I place considerable value on speaking out against discrimination, particularly to an audience who does not want to hear such things, I am willing to recognize that Madonna's recent performance in Bucharest may have been an act of chutzpah worth recognizing. Here is how it was reported on the BBC NEWS Web site:

Madonna has said she was "compelled" to comment on the discrimination of Romany Gypsies while on stage in Romania, despite being booed by fans.

The 51-year-old was jeered by the audience in Bucharest after saying the discrimination "made me feel very sad".

Publicist Liz Rosenberg said Madonna made the comments after being made aware of the prejudice towards Romany people in eastern Europe.

The star uses a group of Roma musicians on her Sticky and Sweet tour.

Madonna paused during her two-hour show to say: "It has been brought to my attention, that there is a lot of discrimination against Romanies and Gypsies in general in Eastern Europe - it made me feel very sad."

"We don't believe in discrimination, we believe in freedom and equal rights for everyone."

Jeers and cheers

The star then received more boos when she mentioned prejudice against homosexuals and others.

Perhaps this is also a situation in which Madonna has received so many awards of greater value to the advancement of her career that she could care less whether or not I grant her one for Chutzpah of the Week. So I shall take my chances and recognize her with an award this week and hope that those with less of a bully pulpit will consider taking her example to heart.

Putting an Archive to Good Use

People in the information technology business have long sustained the joke that compares their stock-in-trade to that of the world's oldest profession: No matter how many times to sell it, you still have it to sell again. Perhaps if the well had not been poisoned by this kind of sophomoric humor, the world the Internet has made might now entertain a healthier attitude towards the marketing of archival material. This is particularly the case where digital capture has become part of the performing arts in so many different forms, since just about anything that becomes a digital document is, at the very least, a candidate for one or more digital archives. One may then address the question of how much of the content of any given archive should be marketed and by what means.

By virtue of its relationship with Texaco (which predated the technology of digital capture by far more than half a century), the Metropolitan Opera has accumulated one of the most prodigious archives of performances in its present and past opera houses. Texaco's support began with Saturday afternoon radio broadcasts and then progressed naturally into contribution to the sponsorship of the Live from the Met series on Public Television. However, the idea that any of this content could then be distributed after performance came relatively slowly. When I was a patron of the Met, I remember that selected broadcasts would get pressed on vinyl and offered as incentive gifts for generous donations; but I do not think these ever went on the general market. Similarly, the PBS video recordings seemed to be limited to supporting delayed broadcast on the West Coast and reruns during pledge weeks. It was only near the end of the last century that the Met made an arrangements with Deutsche Grammophon for distribution of some of this video content through videotape (and, subsequently, DVD).

All this is now changing; and it would appear that Peter Gelb, now general manager of the Met, has had much to do with the resulting changes. Gelb shifted the "live broadcast" experience from radio and Public Television to movie theaters, sweetening the offer by providing an HD signal that could be projected on movie screens without the distortions of a hyper-enlarged television image. When Gelb launched this project, it was viewed as a major gamble; but the signs are that his decision was a good one. Here is how Anthony Tommasini described the results in today's New York Times:

Now these broadcasts are seen around the world. At many movie theaters and performing-arts centers, tickets for the broadcasts are scooped up within hours of going on sale.

I was personally aware of this global impact the first time I attended a Met HDLive telecast. The opera was Benjamin Britten's Peter Grimes; and there on the screen was a live interview taking place in front of a movie house in Aldeburgh, where Britten lived, founded a music festival, and was subsequently buried. There was something truly inspiring about the fact that I was sharing this moment with citizens of Britten's "home town;" and it was strong enough to transcend the absolutely dreadful job that Natalie Dessay performed in hosting the broadcast. Most important, however, is that I got "hooked" on these broadcasts; and, while I do not attend all of them, I have been more than pleased with the ones I have selected.

Having changed the way we could experience the Met in a "live" setting, Gelb and his team have now reviewed the value of the archive that has accumulated. The most important step in this direction was the launch of the Met Player, an on-line streaming service that offers both audio and video (including HD) material. I cited this service in my "Concerts on a tight budget in cyberspace" piece for Examiner.com. However, I made it clear that I had not yet tested it and was recommending it because SF Opera Examiner Cindy Warner had told me about it. I subsequently received an invitation to test the service from the Met over a trial period, during which I was never able to get the Player to work. I had a good exchange with the technical team over my problems, but I have yet to have a successful experience with the technology. Nevertheless, since there may be eccentricities in my own computer configuration, I still feel it fair to recognize Cindy's positive experiences.

On the other hand it appears that Gelb has also decided to license at least some of his archival content to Classical TV, which is based in England but is definitely interested in cultivating an American audience. I have been following Classical TV for about a month; and, while they, too, have had to deal with technology-based impediments, I have been relatively happy with the service they are providing. Gelb has definitely been selective in what he has made available to them: There are nine operas from the archives of HD broadcasts, along with last season's opening-night gala. None of the pre-HD material, video or audio, is available through this service. However, since Gaetano Donizetti's La Fille du Régiment is one of the offerings, since that opera is part of the coming San Francisco Opera season, and since I much prefer Donizetti's comedies to his tragedies, I have every intention of viewing this one through Classical TV.

This brings me back to Tommasini's piece in today's Times. Gelb has selected Fille du Régiment to open a Summer HD Festival tomorrow night in Lincoln Center Plaza, where it will be screened for free, the first of ten programs of broadcasts selected from past HDLive events. In an interview Gelb made his intentions clear:

We hope it will be a summer diversion for opera lovers and whet the appetite for what is to come this season.

What is interesting is that the event may whet two different appetites, increasing audience share for both the Metropolitan Opera House and the movie theaters that host HDLive broadcasts. The same can be said for the general strategy of making archival material available through the Internet rather than letting it languish in a vault doing little more than gathering dust. Meanwhile, both the Zurich Opera and the English National Opera have begun to make some of their content available to Classical TV, allowing our appetites to be whetted on a global scale. Opera has now established its presence in cyberspace in a significant way by recognizing the value in its archives, and those of us who are opera lovers can only benefit from this trend.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Netbook Risk Factor

The headline for a Reuters report by Kelvin Soh on the just-released Acer quarterly results cited the "risks of cheap netbooks." The nature of the risk could be summarized in a single sentence:

Acer, the world's No. 3 PC brand, reported weaker quarterly results even as it sold more PCs, underscoring how its low-cost netbooks are cannibalizing into its more expensive products.

This got me to thinking about my own decision to purchase a netbook for the trip back East that I made at the beginning of this month. When netbooks were first announced, I thought about the fact that my only computer was a pre-Lenovo ThinkPad. It has been serving me very well, but I put a lot of effort into configuring it for the service I needed. I really did not want to risk taking it on an extended trip, during which I wanted to keep up my blogging and Examiner.com writing. At the same time I also did not want to sink money into a new laptop that I could configure the same way, particularly when I could not see anything around that I particularly liked. The netbook struck me as a cheap item whose loss would not be a great crisis but with the benefit of providing me with the bare minimum of functionality that I wanted while on the road.

I happened upon an Acer by accident, because my wife and I went into a Radio Shack to ask some questions about wireless modems. I had seen a few netbooks on other shelves; but the Acer was the first one I saw that supported both WiFi and a "wired" Ethernet connection. It came with XP and a bare minimum of applications, and the price was definitely within my window of reasonableness. It seemed worth the risk.

Having now made the trip, I would say that it was worth the risk. The small keyboard was awkward. (Readers probably saw an increase in typographical fumbles while I was on the road.) However, I had no trouble reading my RSS feeds over WiFi signals in airport waiting areas; and I brought my own Ethernet cable to apply to any connection I could use. Since I had such connections in both of the cities I visited (Portland and Pittsburgh), I ended up managing quite well. I even used the Ethernet connection for a first look at a video streaming from Classical TV to consider an idea for an Examiner.com piece I wanted to write about Igor Stravinsky and was able to start making my plans on the basis of that viewing.

Nevertheless, the bottom line is that I bought the netbook because it was cheap. I did not want to do very much with it, so I did not want to make much of an investment. Thus, my particular purchase did not amount to "cannibalizing" the laptop market. I really did not want to spend laptop prices because I really did not want full laptop functionality. My guess is that, at a time when just about all of us attach great value to living frugally, replacing a laptop that is doing its job very well is out of the question. Spending far less to avoid the risk of bringing that laptop to harm over an extended trip, on the other hand, seemed more sensible.

My guess is that the netbook market will not thrive, simply because its appeal is too limited. I would also guess that efforts to package it with a G3 plan will also not get that far. You do not choose to spend less money in order to spend more on your cellular provider. On the other hand, as one who needed support for doing a fair amount of writing, the netbook was clearly preferable to any of the cell phone alternatives for connection to the Internet! However, since writing for me is still at the level of extended essays, rather than Tweets, I suspect that there are not enough folks like me to make the netbook market any more viable than it already is!

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

VARIETY-speak Advances (or does it?)

Last February I felt it was worth taking the time to write about the adoption of Variety-speak by Reuters when variants of "finmin" started to replace "finance minister" in their headlines. At the time I suggested that, since Variety seemed to be suffering as much as any other print medium, its writers may have been jumping ship to Reuters; and we were getting our first taste of what happens when an entertainment reporter takes over a political beat. Well, today the trend seems to have spread to the BBC NEWS Web site. This morning I encountered the following headline about the Latin American economy:
Latam exports 'worst in 70 years'
However, I now have an alternative to my Variety hypothesis (which had been initially proposed with some sense of the facetious). My new hypothesis is that these headlines are a product of the Twitter Age, in which we are all suddenly counting our characters to keep them within a restricted limit. The BBC now has a site for mobile-oriented content; and the option for communication with them through SMS has been around for some time. Presumably, it is only a matter time before Tweeting catches up with (and probably overtakes) texting. In the meantime news sources, such as Reuters and the BBC, see value in communicating headlines as Tweets; and presumably they want those same headlines to appear on their full Web pages to facilitate easy recognition. I suppose it will not be long until the Doonesbury vision of the reporter filing copy as an ongoing stream of Tweets becomes reality.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

"A plague o' both your houses!"

At the beginning of this month, I granted a Chutzpah of the Week award to Judge Jed Rakoff for his refusal to approve a settlement between Bank of America and the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) in the form of a $33 million fine to be paid by Bank of America. Rakoff's reasons, reported by the BBC, are worth repeating:

Despite the public importance of this case, the proposed consent judgment would leave uncertain the truth of the very serious allegations made in the complaint.

The proposed consent judgement in no way specifies the basis for the $33m figure or whether any of this money is derived directly or indirectly from the $20bn in public funds previously advanced to Bank of America as part of its 'bailout.'

This inspired my own paraphrase of his explanation, based on the script for the movie Hester Street:
You can't piss up my back and tell me its rain!

Rakoff followed up his decision with an order for both sides to present arguments to refute his position and justify the acceptability of their proposed settlement. He has now reviewed those arguments and is hanging tough. Here is the Reuters account from Jonathan Stempel and Joe Rauch:

A federal judge ordered Bank of America to explain why it agreed to pay $33 illion to settle a U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission lawsuit if it believed it properly disclosed bonuses it authorized for Merrill Lynch & Co employees.

A day after receiving arguments from both sides about the proposed settlement, U.S. District Judge Jed Rakoff questioned the bank's willingness to settle, saying that if it was "to curry favor with the SEC or to avoid retaliation by the SEC, the court needs to know the specifics."

The judge, however, also questioned the SEC effort to end its civil case, suggesting it might be unreasonable to let off company executives and their lawyers without penalty.

By questioning motivations behind the August 3 settlement, the judge threw a spotlight on regulators' willingness to settle with companies that do not admit wrongdoing.

"The deal is the complete opposite of transparency," said David Lewin, a corporate governance professor at the University of California at Los Angeles' Anderson School of Management. "There are a lot of decisions on these kinds of disclosure issues right now, and some you can argue the merits of. But I don't think this one is even close."

The judge directed both the SEC and the largest U.S. bank to make further submissions by September 9. It remains unclear whether he will approve the settlement. Bank of America bought Merrill on January 1.

The bottom line is that Rakoff is less interested in settlement and more interested in establishing the usual issues that occupy a judge:

  1. Has any wrongdoing taken place?
  2. If so, who is responsible for that wrongdoing?
  3. If the guilty parties can be identified, how may they best be punished to the satisfaction of the victims of their wrongdoing?

The judge has his priorities, and he is holding to them tenaciously. Let those of us on Main Street who have grown sick and tired of the legerdemain of Wall Street hope that his grip persists!

The Cult of the Professional

It was probably only a matter of time before Andrew Keen, author of The Cult of the Amateur, would get around to taking a long hard look at the future of creative artists in the world the Internet has made. He has now done so on the Web site of the London Telegraph with an extended essay that makes some interesting points. However, I would like to consider the proposition that Keen overlooked the most interesting point behind his argument, which is that his essay may be as much about the current world of work itself as it is about the world of the creative artist.

The best way to approach this essay is through its most extended case study of an author who, in the midst of a global obsession with the Internet, has succeeded (at least for now) in the good old-fashioned world of print publication:

Take, for example, Jonathan Littell, the Franco-American author of The Kindly Ones, a 900 page Holocaust novel that won the Grand Prix du roman de l'Académie française and Prix Goncourt in France, and which the News Corp owned Harper Collins paid $1 million for the privilege of exclusively distributing in the American market.

Littell is a good example of a cultural aristocrat in the analog ancien regime, a writer acclaimed by high-end cultural curators for his “talent”. Last February, for example, he was interviewed by Jeffrey Trachtenberg, the book reviewer of The Wall Street Journal. “Will you come to the U.S. to promote your book?” Trachtenberg asked him.

“No,” Littell replied, disdainfully. “I don't do that kind of thing. I don't consider it my job.”

So what, exactly, is the “job” of an artist like Jonathan Littell? Historically, at least since the industrial revolution of the mid 19th century, his commercial function has been to create art that would then be manufactured and sold on the mass-market by his publisher. For the last 150 years, there existed a clear division of labor between a Littell who created art and his mass-market publisher who printed and sold copies of the finished product.

Over the last twenty years, however, an interconnected trinity of technological, cultural and ideological events have revolutionized the mass-market copy economy:

1. The appearance of the Internet as a global platform for the creation and distribution of content.

2. A broad legitimacy crisis of the traditional copy economy, both in terms of its economic and cultural value.

3. The ideological assault on the supposedly “elitist” idea of talent and of the role of cultural gatekeepers in the discovery and development of high-end artists like Jonathan Littell.

It is important to begin with this emphasis on the word "job." Keen frames this word in the context of a commodity that is first created and then mass-produced for the sake of marketing and sales, where a division of labor exists between these two phases in the life cycle of the commodity. He then illustrates how his "interconnected trinity of technological, cultural and ideological events" has strained this life-cycle model to an extent that it may now be just shy of its breaking point.

Using this context as his point of departure, Keen plays out an argument that culminates in the following conclusion:
Thus, Jonathan “I don't consider it my job” Littell is absolutely wrong. For better or worse, the reverse is actually now true. The job of all artists is now self-promotion. In an age in which the old cultural gatekeepers are being swept away, the most pressing challenge of creative artists is to build their own brands. And it’s the Internet which provides creative talent with easy-to-use and cheap tools for their self-promotion.
In other words, because Internet technology has all but blown away everything in the life-cycle concerned with mass-production and traditional practices of marketing and sales, all that remains is the creation of the commodity and the need for the creator to promote that creation. From a lexical point of view, Keen has argued that the very concept of "job" must change to accommodate the new practices of that world the Internet has made.

There is, unfortunately, a problem with this conclusion; and that problem is well known to researchers whose work can only be sustained through frequent infusions of grant money. Like the artists that Keen has in mind, these researchers must devote large portions of their time to promoting their projects. Without that promotion, there will be no support through grants. If you build it, there is no guarantee that the Ford Foundation (or the National Science Foundation or the National Institutes of Health or any of the funding agencies under the Department of Defense) will come. Indeed, it is all but certain that, unless you promote what you have built, none of these agencies will come, since they are too busy responding to other efforts that have put more time into promotion.

This is where the problem arises: When does the researcher have the time to figure out what "it" is (even before worrying about building it), if the "necessary work" has more to do with promotion than with research itself? Often the answer is that the researcher does not have the time and is therefore obliged to "outsource" the research to others: The researcher must become the "chief executive" of a laboratory workplace whose "job" has become managing that workplace by directing its activities and providing the necessary resources for those activities. In other words the necessity of promotion forces the researcher to give up being a researcher!

The analogy should be obvious: The artist whose job has become self-promotion is likely to be so consumed by that task that no time is left to be an artist. If Keen's argument is either true or eventually emerges as true in the world of the creative arts, then the model for creation may well be that of Andy Warhol's Factory (in which case posterity may remember Warhol more for his economic foresight than for any of his work that now hangs on museum and gallery walls).

For now I am willing to leave any examination of the moral consequences of Keen's vision as an exercise for the reader. What interests me more is that this model may extend well beyond the work of creative artists. After all, in the grand scheme of things, the impact of the Internet on the work practices of creative artists may be little more than a side show (even if it is a side show of considerable personal interest). More important is the world of work in general, particularly as envisaged by those Internet evangelists who see a future in which we all hang our shingles out on Web pages and wait for the work to come to us. Those who follow this advice are not that different from creative artists and will quickly discover that they, too, must heed Keen's advice: Without extensive self-promotion, work will not come. The irony, of course, is that, as any form of promotion depends more and more on getting good page rank and buying the most strategic keywords, promotion for the sake of creating art will become no different than promotion for any other form of employment. Marshall McLuhan's "Bali ideal" will have been fulfilled: We shall no longer have art; we shall all just do things as best as we can.

McLuhan's vision, however, neglected to tell us that most people on Bali, who do things as best as they can, spend most of their time doing things like growing their own food, making their own clothing, and building their own shelters. Tightly coupled to all three of those practices is an extensive framework of religious rites that organize life on every scale from day-to-day up to year-to-year. As Paul Goodman pointed out in his Growing Up Absurd essays, ours is a culture in which work is not so directly coupled to providing food, clothing, and shelter. McLuhan's ideal is a pretty picture; but it does not "fit" the context of the industrialized world in which most Internet users reside. Thus, while Keen's model may readily extrapolate from the creative artist to anyone else trying to earn a living through work, it is far from clear that it will sustain anyone, whether that happens to be Joe the Plumber getting customers through the Internet or Jonathan Littell trying to work on his next book. Now the reader can start considering questions of moral consequences!

Monday, August 24, 2009

Negative Thoughts about False Positives

Apparently, I have not been writing about instances of synchronicity for a couple of years; but, since one of the first such instances I detected happened to involve Facebook, a curious coincidence of events has prompted me to return to the subject. The first of these events was the decision of Book TV to rebroadcast a talk that Stephen Baker gave about his book, The Numerati, at the Free Library of Philadelphia last year. Baker has that wonderful gift of bringing clarity to a topic most of whose practitioners prefer to keep concealed in a cloud of jargon intended to obscure just how much of the alleged discipline is little more than fuzzy speculations. He is particularly good at exercising his gift on the subject of data mining. He thus set the perfect context for today's Military Tech report by CNET Blog Network writer Mark Rutherford in the problem of too many false positives showing up in the use of data mining to identify potential terrorists (a problem identified by the National Research Council almost a year ago).

It seemed appropriate that, in the course of his book talk, Baker told the old joke about the drunk looking for his car keys under a lamppost. (He dropped the keys on the other side of the street, but the light was better under the lamppost.) The general consensus is that data mining sheds light, and there are too many stakeholders in the promotion of the technology for anyone to be so bold as to ask whether it is shining the light in a useful direction. The Departments of Defense and Homeland Security have thus become small boys with the hammer of data mining viewing every human being appearing on any social network anywhere (think Facebook) as a nail to be pounded.

Once again we are faced with a narrative that originated decades ago in literary humor; and once again the humorists were members of the Beyond the Fringe team. In this case the text grew out of an examination of the "Great Train Robbery" that took place in England in the mid-Sixties. Peter Cook played "Sir Arthur Gappy, the First Deputy Head of New Scotland Yard" as interviewed by Alan Bennett. The exchange is not so much about data mining itself as it is about more general misconceptions about technology:

Cook: But we are using the wonderful equipment known as 'Identikit' – do you know about that?

Bennett: Yes, that's when you piece together the face of the criminal, isn't it?

Cook: Not entirely, no … we're only able to piece together the appearance of the face of the criminal. Unfortunately, we're not able to piece the face together – I wish we could. Once you have captured the criminal face the other criminal parts of the body are not hard to find – the criminal body is situated directly beneath the criminal face – joined of course by the criminal neck … anyway, through this wonderful system of 'Identikit", we have pieced together an extremely good likeness of the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Bennett: So His Grace is your number one suspect?

Cook: Well, let me put it this way – His Grace is the man we are currently beating the living daylights out of down at the Yard.

Bennett: And he is still your number one suspect?

Cook: No, I'm happy to say that the Archbishop, God bless him, no longer resembles the picture we built up. A change I think for the better – he thinks for the worse.

In the days before the Bush Administration ran rampant in the quest to seek out terrorists and punish them with neither mercy nor due process of law, we could laugh at Cook's sense of humor. Now his words have a ring of truth that should have a chilling effect on all of us. Unfortunately, if we are to believe Rutherford's report, both the humor and the irony are probably lost at the operations level of our Government.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Recovering Ambience

Thanks to the good graces of the Downtown Music Gallery, I have been recovering several instances of favorite material that I had given up when I got rid of all of my vinyls. Many of those recordings were produced by Brian Eno as part of his Ambient and Obscure series, and some of them are real gems. For example it was from the Obscure series that I first discovered the music of Gavin Bryars; and, when I finally had an opportunity to talk about this with Bryars himself, I learned that he was the only person who had written to me directly to request a copy of my doctoral thesis (which I provided)!

There is a tendency to associate the "ambient movement" (to the extent that it was a movement) with Windham Hill Records, which, in turn, came to be viewed as the standard bearer for New Age music at its most vacuous. The first paragraph of the Wikipedia entry for New Age music nicely captures this perspective:
New Age music is music of various styles, which is intended to create inspiration, relaxation, and positive feelings, often used by listeners for yoga, massage, inspiration, relaxation, meditation,[1] and reading as a method of stress management[2] or to create a peaceful atmosphere in their home or other environments often
associated with environmentalism and New Age spirituality.[1]

From my own point of view, however, Eno had far less to do with New Age thinking and far more to do with advancing the philosophy of John Cage, who believed that, since there was no such thing as absolute silence, we could find things to listen to where we least expected to find them. Eno had a way of finding such listening experiences in places that even Cage had not considered looking. This emerged through his own compositions, through his collaborations with others (such as Harold Budd), and through his support of those who worked independently of his own activities. While Gavin Bryars was my prime example of this latter category, I discovered that one of the Obscure releases that included a Bryars composition also included the entirety of John Adams' three-movement American Standard suite (only one movement of which, "Christian Zeal and Activity," has ever been available through any other source). Now that I have settled in San Francisco and become a champion of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, I take delight in the fact that Eno's release of Adams' music consists of a recording of a live performance by The New Music Ensemble of the Conservatory made on March 23, 1973.

I continue to listen to Eno's projects, particularly since they provide me with useful data points in my efforts to gain a better understanding of the nature of listening to music. I find that Eno found his own path from Cage by beginning with Cage's philosophy to take sounds just as we hear them and instead holding the acoustic equivalent of a magnifying glass to those sounds. This may involve repeated motifs in the spirit of Philip Glass (or, as I have observed, Ludwig van Beethoven); but it can also involve sounds that emerge of their own accord by nature of the audio equipment being used (an approach that can also be found in the music of composers such as Alvin Lucier). In either case the result, for me at least, has less to do with creating any kind of New Age "spiritual aura" and far more to do with focusing the mind on listening with a concentration that may well exceed the level of attention we give to Beethoven. What more can we ask of a composer?

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Doing Harm for the Sake of Entertainment?

With all the buzz filling the media over James Cameron's new film, Avatar, I found Libby Purves' piece for the London Telegraph a pleasure to read. Basically, she decided to have it out with Cameron for all the distortions perpetrated by Titanic in the name of better entertainment for his designated demographic of ten-year-old girls:

Titanic traduced the British characters, and falsified the treatment of third-class passengers to score points. It invented a working-class hero for Leonardo DiCaprio to play, but ignored the real worker-heroes, the engineers who kept stoking the boilers to run the pumps and give the rest a chance, even when they must have known they themselves would die. Worst of all, it libelled First Officer William McMaster Murdoch. In Cameron's version, he is a posh git who takes a bribe, shoots a passenger, panics, and commits suicide. In reality, he gave his lifejacket away, drowned, and has a memorial in his home town of Dalbeattie.

The film company had to admit its wicked slur and contribute $8,000 to a prize fund in his name. But the popcorn-munching Kate Winslet groupies won't know that.

I don't care how much money it made: that film stank. I'm glad Mr Cameron has moved on to imaginary blue-faced computer-game critters. At least he can't do them any harm.

Purves' punch line is probably correct. It is hard to imagine Avatar doing anything that would bring harm to virtual denizens of a virtual world. However, that is not necessarily the scope she should be considering. Hollywood has built up a rather impressive track record in creating misconceptions about computers, what they do, what people who use them do, and what people who program them do. I doubt that any advance material will help us forecast whether or not Avatar will offer up a new batch of such misconceptions. After all, establishing too secure a sense of reality might erode its box office potential!

Given that ignorance of history is now part of our culture, it is unclear whether Purves wanted to take Cameron to task for causing that ignorance or simply exploiting it. Avatar, on the other hand, will have an impact on how we view the present, regardless of how much we choose to neglect the past. The funny thing about Titanic is that I have no trouble living in a world in which I can assume it never existed; but, given the impact the Internet has on most of our lives, awareness of Avatar may turn out to be both more likely and more hazardous.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Remembering Hildegard Behrens

I did not immediately jump to my keyboard when the news of Hildegard Behrens' death first broke. However, having now read Joshua Kosman's excellent San Francisco Chronicle obituary for her, I realize that I have a few personal points to add. Without in any way trying to diminish either her talent or her stature, Behrens was, for me, the "post-Nilsson" soprano, since she took on many of the roles that I had most enjoyed hearing Birgit Nilsson perform. Through accidents of personal timing, I did not have a chance to hear Nilsson at the Metropolitan Opera until her final season there, when she sang the Dyer's Wife in Richard Strauss' opera, Die Frau ohne Schatten. My opportunities to hear Behrens at the Met were not much better, but I had the good fortune to see her sing Marie when the San Francisco Opera performed Alban Berg's Wozzeck in 1999. I also remember being riveted by her Brünnhilde when Otto Schenk's staging of Richard Wagner's Ring for the Met was broadcast on Public Television. Those performances meant so much to me for so many reasons (Behrens' performance being just one of them) that the complete set is now part of my DVD collection, assuring Behrens of a rather firm place in my personal memory.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Inconvenient Truth about Obama

While I follow all the cartoons that Mr. Fish provides to Truthdig regularly, I have to confess that I tend to find them a hit-or-miss affair; and today turned out to support both sides of that coin. On the one hand we had his "21st Century Saint" image of Michael Jackson, which was as ambiguous as it was disquieting, leading one to wonder whether the artist was taking a position on Jackson, the circumstances surrounding his death, or the media treatment of the event or whether he was seeking out the most provocative image to associate with the entire affair (perhaps pour épater all those who tend to be self-righteous about the time they take to read Truthdig articles). On the other hand there was no mistaking the message behind his "Have a Nice Day" cartoon, since it was spelled out explicitly in the caption. A figure with a smiley-face is on a medical examining table receiving the following diagnosis from a physician:

The only cure is to stop predicating your blind trust of Barack Obama on the deep satisfaction you get from no longer being outraged by your gut-wrenching mistrust of George W. Bush.
I remember that I reacted to Obama's acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention by observing that "he was not going to try to win the White House by playing up to that sense of Secular Messianism that had infected so many of his supporters, if not the 'American way of life' in general;" but I cannot enumerate the number of instances of that aforementioned outrage that I encountered between the date of his nomination and Election Day whenever I would voice any hesitation over how I would cast my vote. Obama may have never wanted to be a "secular messiah" (let alone be elected on the pretense of being one); but that "blind trust" in Mr. Fish's caption laid the burden on him, whether he wanted it or not. If on Tuesday (ironically in the context of reading an article about Michael Jackson) I found myself railing (once again) about ours being a culture with no sense of history, today's cartoon reminded me of how, last March, I wrote about "our chronic cultural problem of evading (if not outright denying) our sense of reality."

Hard problems can only be solved by hard work. Obama believes this (as does Muhammad Yunus, whom I cited yesterday); and he dignifies us with the assumption that we share this conviction with him. Has our sense of moral character been so abased by the years of the Bush Administration that we cannot honor his assumption by rejecting blind faith in favor of clear and realistic thinking?

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Financial CHUTZPAH

I always appreciate the chutzpah of speaking truth to power, and I see that the last time I did this the Chutzpah of the Week award involved military power. It thus seems appropriate that this week's award acknowledge a similar act of speaking truth to financial power (without getting into any philosophical arguments over which is the greater power). What is particularly interesting is that, in this case, the truth is being spoken from a position of power: The speaker is Muhammad Yunus, whose Grameen Bank is one of the few financial institutions to weather the current economic crisis almost unscathed. Last October, when it seemed as if the entire financial sector had been turned into decapitated chickens, as if by a malevolent Circe with a sense of humor, I reported on an interview Yunus gave to SPIEGEL ONLINE in which he disclosed the secret of his success:

The fundamental difference is that our business is very connected to the real economy. When we provide a loan of $200, that money will go to buy a cow somewhere. If we lend $100, someone will maybe buy some chickens. In other words, the money goes to something with concrete value. Finance and the real economy have to be connected. In the US, the financial system has completely split off from the real economy. Castles were built in the sky, and suddenly people realized that these castles don't exist at all. That was the point at which the financial system collapsed.

It goes without saying that Yunus' wisdom had little impact on the efforts of either the Bush or Obama Administrations to bring recovery back to our national (let alone the global) economy. Thus, Yunus has decided to deliver the message again; and this time, as Tim Johnston has reported for the Financial Times, he is making it clear that the failed business models of the financial sector need to be replaced by a non-profit one. He has even proposed a name for his model: He calls it "social business." Here is how he describes it:

What I am suggesting is that you create businesses exclusively for changing a situation that exists, of poverty, or environment or so on.

This is an exclusive arrangement and you invest there not to make any profit out of it, personally or companywise, but to dedicate yourself to solve the problem, and you can bring your own technology, which you command, to make it happen.

My guess is that this is the sort of talk that can set the rich and mighty quaking in their boots, particularly when Yunus backs it up with a you-can't-argue-with-success logic:

It is particularly remarkable when big banks – lots of collateral, lots of lawyers around them – are collapsing, and microcredit, the programme we built, is working everywhere without any collateral; without any lawyers. Their repayment has remained as high as ever.

Reading this account, I found myself wondering whether or not the real secret of Yunus' success was one of attitude. I cannot imagine any one of us who has not felt that our dealings with a financial institution have been fundamentally adversarial, the underlying premise on the part of the institution being: "I have something you want; and, if you are to have it, you must be beholden to me." Yunus is more interested in being a problem solver than an adversary. At a time when it seems as if our very sense of humanity is in jeopardy, Yunus has focused on trying to recover it. As he puts it:

Poverty is not created by poor people – it is not their fault. They are as good human beings as anyone else, they are as creative as anyone else, they are as enterprising as anyone else. Simply, they never get a chance to discover their own talent.

Coming from anyone else, this might sound like granola-speak; but this man is a banker whose message is only as strong as the bank he runs.

Unfortunately, for all of his efforts to bring reality back into the financial sector, he will still have to confront that "classical battle between Lucy and Linus" that seems fated to reduce any effort to reform health care to bureaucratic rubble. The stakeholders in the adversarial approach to finance are legion, and they still have more than adequate resources to continue their adversarial ways. Nevertheless, Yunus deserves the Chutzpah of the Week award for his efforts to keep the discussion of current economic problems on message, in spite of the inevitable adversities that will confront him.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Way We Really Were

My wife cannot stand Mad Men. For all I know, she is so put off by all of the characters that she may well regard the intensity of my attention to this program in the same light as the guilty pleasure of going to a carnival freak show. From James Baldwin's point of view, she may be right. Hilton Als' piece about Michael Jackson for The New York Review included a quote of Baldwin's claim that "freaks are called freaks and are treated as they are treated—in the main, abominably—because they are human beings who cause to echo, deep within us, our most profound terrors and desires." There is certainly no delicacy in the ways in which Mad Men treats its characters, all desperately clinging to their Fifties values in the period immediately following the election of President John F. Kennedy. However, that uncompromising (not necessarily abominable) treatment appeals to my interest in "origins mythology." Having become a culture without a sense of history, we can celebrate the 40th anniversary of Woodstock by listening to the music and ignoring how that enormous party came to be; but there is something that depresses me about remembering Woodstock without remembering the "profound terrors and desires" of the youth culture that inspired the gathering in the first place. Those terrors and desires live and thrive in the Mad Men scripts, recalling a time when racism and anti-Semitism were socially normative and when women both knew and kept "their place."

On the other hand my wife has also acquired a revived interest in the films of Otto Preminger; and, as a result, last night we began to watch Advise & Consent, which I had recorded on our VTR during our vacation. In its own way this, too, is a freak show of normative social practices; and, at a time when we seem to be experiencing political behavior at its vilest when the future of our health care is at stake, the film serves the interests of "origins mythology" particularly well. For those of us old enough to remember the 1960 Presidential campaign and the "profound terrors and desires" it awakened over the prospect of changing the status quo, all of the characters in the film are familiar. They were carefully crafted, originally by novelist Allen Drury, to avoid identification with specific individuals; but we still know them very well, even if they are no more than stereotypes.

Both Mad Men and Advise & Consent are fascinating because, in both cases, we now see how their respective narratives played out into unexpected futures, both of which seem to have converged on a general loss of our sense of humanity. Both advertising and politics are far more depersonalized today than they were half a century ago. Whether it involves purchasing consumer products or voting for candidates, we have been reduced to numbers in databases at the mercy of experts who claim they know how to interpret those numbers. Thus, we can read both narratives in terms of what they tell us about the beginning of a descent. Under better circumstances we might then be able to read those narratives for suggestions about reversing that descent; but our "culture without a sense of history" his little interest in such a reading. To the extent that we enjoy the narratives at all, it is for that amusement once provided by carnival freak shows; but we are deaf to those echoes that Baldwin heard in considering those freaks.

Monday, August 17, 2009

How the United States has Perverted the Concept of Health Care

Apparently, Eyal Press, one of the contributors to The Notion on the Web site for The Nation, had to go to Europe to grasp the extent to which the American concept of health care has gone fubar:

I've just come back from Europe, where citizens in most countries (on the left, right and center) would revolt if their leaders dared to privatize their health-care systems. That's because they've grown accustomed to getting shoddy care rationed out by bureaucrats, opponents of health-care reform in the United States insist. In fact, it's because citizens in countries such as France, Germany, Finland and the United Kingdom – all of which boast lower infant-mortality and higher life-expectancy rates than the United States – don't think of health-care as a commodity. They think of it as a public good and a basic right.

A little bit of linguistic insight could have made a big dent in Press' travel budget. Is there any country other than the United States that classifies health care as an industry? Indeed, while just about every other American industry is on the rocks, the health care sector is one of the few keeping its head above water, thus becoming the darling of the Wall Street set.

If we want to understand why, as Press put it this morning, the White House if "caving" on health care reform (along with most of the Democrats in the Congress), we have to think like industrialists and investors rather than like reformers. Put another way, we have to remember Deep Throat's advice to Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein and "follow the money," because there is one hell of a lot of money in play right now. The bottom line is that there are too many well-heeled stakeholders committed to maintaining the industrial status of health care. If they cannot get their way through the usual channels of logic and rhetoric, they will play the fear card through "the demonization of the concept of socialized medicine;" and, if that does not work, they will fall back on the Mein Kampf strategy of disrupting any effort to make sense of the situation (and then giving extensive media coverage to the disruption).

In a peculiar way this all reminds me of the days when I was building up my chops for writing about the avant-garde. It was that summer of 1968, when I had my first serious exposure to the music of John Cage and the choreography of Merce Cunningham. "Officially," I was working as teaching assistant for my thesis advisor, who had a visiting appointment at the University of Colorado in Boulder. However, when I realized who else was in Boulder that summer, I went over to the offices of the campus newspaper and basically barnstormed my way into covering the dance and music events. I wrote like a demon, using everything I had learned from one of my mentors back in Cambridge to bring both clarity and enjoyment to performances that were so different from the run of the mill; and, to my surprise, students were reading what I wrote and talking to me about it! Towards the end of the summer term, one of the graduate students in the class for which I was doing my teaching assistant work took me aside and said of my writing, "You came here like Attila the Hun, waving your sword to win supporters for your cause; but, now that the summer has ended, you should get out of here before your arm gets tired."

This is how I understand the "money war" over health care reform. It does not matter how many polls side with the Progressives in support for a public option, nor does it matter how heavy that support is. Those who wish to keep health care as an industry have the resources to wage a war of attrition. They know that they just have to keep at it until the Progressives tire out from waving their swords. When that happens, the powers that be will put some lipstick on this industrialized pig and declare it to be reform. The rest of us will be too tired (not to mention sick) to do anything about it.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Description through Poetry

At the beginning of this year, having already explored the hypothesis of the extent to which description may be achieved through music, I found myself intensely occupied with the nature of description itself and how (if at all) it could be applied to communicating about both the execution of music and the act of listening to that music. Following the advice of a former colleague, I deep-ended on Philippe Hamon's book Du Descriptif, reading it in French, from which I concluded that "the terrain through which one makes descriptive 'moves' (to invoke the terminology of Erving Goffman) is littered with mine fields." As a result, Hamon left me with a big stick that I could use to beat down many inadequate instances of descriptive language that I subsequently encountered; and, for better or worse, I took that stick with me to a Piano Master Class that Stephen Hough conducted at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, where it struck me that he was having serious communication problems in his interactions with the students who performed for him. Looking back on what I wrote at the time, I suspect that, had I to do it again, I would still take Hough to task for stepping on some of those metaphorical mines but might have been more tactful in my own choice of words.

In addition to inspiring my mine-field metaphor, Hamon left me with several references that I thought might be worth reading. They found their way into my pile of reprints, where they received almost no attention until I decided to take them with me on my trip to Maine and Pennsylvania over these last two weeks. The two reprints I took with me turned out to be delightful eye-openers. One of them, a chapter on landscape description from European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages by Ernst Robert Curtius, ended up inspiring a preview piece I wrote for Examiner.com about Gustav Mahler's first symphony, which will be featured in the first concert in the San Francisco Mahler Festival at Davies Symphony Hall. However, when it came to the practical problems of negotiating that hazardous "terrain" on which description takes place, the real kicker came from a 1973 paper by Michael Riffaterre based on his interpretative analysis of the poem "Yew-Trees" by William Wordsworth.

Riffaterre's objective was to take on what he called "The Referential Fallacy," based on the premise that one read a poem to determine what it was "about" through its references to objects and acts in the objective world of both poet and reader. The nature of the fallacy is that, if a poem is concerned with representing reality at all (which is not always necessarily the case), that "representation of reality is a verbal construct in which meaning is achieved by reference from words to words, not to things." Thus, in terms of my oft-cited references to the trivium, meaning is achieved through syntactic, rather than logical, constructs. This leads to the corollary (not explicitly acknowledged by Riffaterre) that meaning resides in the power of grammar to distinguish embellishing features from those constructs that are being embellished, regardless of whether or not there is any logical consistency to what those features represent (as in the classic example of syntax without semantics, "curious green ideas sleep furiously").
This was enough to tweak my own thoughts into hypothesizing that what Riffaterre had to say about poetry (or at least descriptive poetry) might also apply to the composition of music. Having been hooked, I then realized that the continuation of Riffaterre's referential-fallacy argument could then be applied to the performance of music:
A secondary weakness of this sort of interpretation is that in defining significance as opposed to subject matter, it pays too little attention to the verbal process whereby that significance is actually perceived when the poem is read.  This process too, I think, can best be understood as an awareness of verbal structures, rather than in terms of referentiality.  The form a text imposes upon a meaning is also the key to decipherment of that meaning.
Could the performance of music thus bear a strong family resemblance to the sort of "verbal process" that Riffaterre had in mind in the reading of a poem, whether we are talking about someone reading a poem to an audience (which is the usual paradigm for musical performance) or a process that engages the mind of the "reader" (which would then apply to the act of listening)? In other words my own efforts to integrate my parallel concerns with the nature of listening and the nature of performance may ultimately benefit from Riffaterre's approach to descriptive poetry. Whether or not I continue to feel this way when his essay is no longer fresh in my mind remains to be seen. However, through Riffaterre I discovered that Wordsworth had written another poem entitled "On the Power of Sound." I certainly intend to read the poem (without letting it languish on my pile of reprints too long), even if I do not approach it with the full battery of Riffaterre's analytical machinery!

Saturday, August 15, 2009

One Cheer for Norman Lebrecht

Having demonstrated how easy it is to find fault with Norman Lebrecht's The Maestro Myth: Great Conductors in Pursuit of Power, I feel it fair to point out one virtue of the book, even if it was a strictly personal one. I spent two hours in a dentist's chair on Friday morning for the first stage of a crown replacement. This required several intervals of waiting for a moderate period of time. Lebrecht sustained me through all of those periods. This is a text that can stand up to interruption no matter where you happen to be; and you can easily pick up where you left off, regardless of how long the interruption took. I am not used to reading books where you can do that. I suspect it is just as well that such books are not a regular part of my reading diet, but it was there when I needed it to get me through my dental appointment!

Friday, August 14, 2009

Fricka's Version

I am beginning to regret not having the opportunity to enjoy the Seattle Opera Ring this summer for a variety of reasons. The most important, however, may well be the high level of attention (coming from my fellow Examiner Cynthia Warner among many others) being given to Stephanie Blythe for her performance of Fricka. I am no stranger to Blythe's performance technique, having been more than duly impressed by her performance of Alan Louis Smith's Vignettes: Covered Wagon Woman when The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center visited San Francisco this past April. If she could bring high drama to a chamber music recital, I can imagine what she could do with a role as meaty as Fricka's; but I am not sure I could have imagined how she would do it.

The general consensus seems to be that her high point came in the second act of Die Walküre, summarized in Anna Russell's hilarious lecture on the Ring as "Mr. and Mrs. Wotan have an argument." The argument is over Siegmund stealing Sieglinde from her husband, Hunding, and having sex with her, the act through which Siegfried is conceived. The conception of Siegfried is part of Wotan's plan to recover the Ring itself, which he had lost to Fafner, one of two giants who built Valhalla for him. Fafner became miserly about all the wealth he had accumulated (in addition to the Ring). He hid it all in a cave and then used the magic helmet that was part of the wealth to turn himself into a dragon, who would frighten off (or kill) anyone who tried to steal his hoard. Wotan knew that the treasure could only be recovered by a fearless hero and set about to have that hero conceived by the illegitimate union of two of his own illegitimate children. This violated all of the principles defended by Fricka, goddess of hearth and home, leading to her confrontation of Wotan.

This "argument" tends to receive relatively static staging, leading many to wish that they would just get it over with, moving things right along to Wotan's first confrontation with Brünnhilde. It would appear that director Stephen Wadsworth wanted Fricka to get a better shake, and in Blythe he seems to have found just the right singer to give her more proper consideration. The bottom line is that Fricka prevails in her "argument" with Wotan by combining the ethical stick of her sanctity-of-home principles with the sexual carrot of marital bliss with Wotan. She thus is "reinvented" as a skillful sexual politician rather than the nagging prig that others (perhaps including Richard Wagner himself) have taken her to be.

As a result she is also "escalated" above a role that is usually taken to be secondary. That secondary status is usually justified by her absence from the final two operas. However, just as Scarpia is present in spirit in the final act of Tosca, Fricka's spirit is similarly there when Siegfried shatters Wotan's staff in Siegfried and when Waltraute describes the deterioration of Valhalla in Götterdämmerung. (I suspect Wagner would spin in his grave over any sentence that he had to share with Giacomo Puccini; but, as the Emperor Joseph keeps saying in Peter Shaffer's Amadeus, there it is.) Whatever her merits, however, Fricka is still just as flawed as the other gods. When I wrote about the last San Francisco Opera production of Das Rheingold, I observed that her primary flaw is one of hypocrisy, abandoning her ethical standards when she thinks of the Ring as a wardrobe accessory. This has left me wondering whether or not Blythe (or Wadsworth) made it a point to recognize this hypocrisy, which may be the major reason I regret having missed this summer's Seattle production.

Scholarly CHUTZPAH

Anyone who has ever been part of the academic community knows that it has no shortage of chutzpah, but I target that community for a Chutzpah of the Week award. This week, however, it seems appropriate to present the award to the editorial staff of a journal that calls itself Current Biology for demonstrating the extent to which a specialization tends to blind itself to any work beyond its self-determined borders. More specifically, I refer to this morning's account by BBC News Science Reporter Judith Burns that this journal has published an article that "challenges the idea facial expressions are universally understood." I would hope that the article did not use the language of Burns' paraphrase; but, even so, anthropologists have long recognized that facial expressions can only be interpreted within a cultural context. So, even if a team of biologists were to design a new experiment based on a new quantitative methodology, there is hardly anything "current" about the result. At best this seems like an easy shot within the two-point zone for some folks stuck in the publish-or-perish game; but why was the defense from Current Biology so weak? The real chutzpah resides in yet another instance of lax editorial standards, and it deserves recognition for occurring in the academic world, rather than the beleaguered world of journalism.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Another Member of the Coltrane Legacy Passes

The death of Les Paul may be receiving all the attention (to the point of receiving air time on BBC World Service Television News); and his memory certainly deserves that attention. However, William Grimes recently reported another significant death on the ArtsBeat blog of The New York Times:

Rashied Ali, whose expressionistic, free-jazz drumming helped define the experimental style of John Coltrane’s final years, died Wednesday in Manhattan. He was 76.

The cause of his death was a heart attack, his wife, Patricia Ali, said.

I know Ali's work primarily from Coltrane's 1965 album Meditations. This was a session in which Coltrane experimented with spatial layout to clarify his instrumentation. In the rhythm section McCoy Tyner's piano and Jimmy Garrison's bass were backed by two drummers, Elvin Jones on the right channel and Ali on the left. Similarly, both Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders were playing tenor sax on the left and right channels, respectively. In addition, each played rhythm against the other's solo work, Sanders playing tambourine and bells and Coltrane playing other percussion instruments. This November 23, 1965 session took place about five months after the Ascension session (June 28, 1965) and had much of the wild spirit that both Coltrane and Sanders had brought to Ascension; but there is now a sense that both of them were beginning to seek out signs of form within the chaos of free jazz. The two drummers who had to back this quest while driving it forward with their own polyrhythmic explorations had their work cut out for them, and Meditations remains a favorite item in my jazz collection. I hope that Ali's death is properly acknowledged by those few who continue to play serious jazz on the radio.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Preparing for a Rich Season of Music Performances

"What does one do when attending a performance of classical music? If one wants to do it well, how does one prepare?" I cannot enumerate the number of times I have been confronted with these questions. After decades of trying to answer them, about all that I can say is that neither admits of a simple answer; so the best one can do is come up with hypotheses, work (rehearse?) with them, and see if they make matters any better. My own quest has taken me to hypotheses in two related areas concerned, respectively, with the nature of listening itself (from a heavily phenomenological point of view) and the nature of performance (with a bias towards an ethnographic analysis of work practices). Hypotheses streaming down these paths collide with each other when it comes to the study of conductors, who must master skills of both listening and performing of the highest order. The impact of those collisions often resembles those that take place in the physical world of the accelerators required for the study of high-energy physics; and, when a large-ensemble performance really "works," high-energy physics may be just the right metaphor for the result.

Unfortunately, those who have tried to write about conductors tend to produce either hagiographies or gossip at its most salacious. I have now completed the eleven chapters on the first contents page of Norman Lebrecht's The Maestro Myth: Great Conductors in Pursuit of Power; and it is more than abundantly clear that hagiography is not his cup of tea. I suppose his thesis is that, among music professionals, the belief that there is something special about conductors (both past and present) is a dangerous illusion (myth); and the worst of the danger lies in the fact that conductors care more about acquiring and exercising power than about the music they are conducting. Whether or not either of the assertions behind this thesis is tenable, however, Lebrecht is not interested in making his case through strategies of logic. Rather, he has decided to apply his literary skills (such as they are) to the time-honored logical fallacy of ad hominem argument; and the result may be one of the most comprehensive documents of character assassination outside of the profession of politics.

This is not the first time I have tried to set down my thoughts about a book while reading it. I always seem to do this, however, under similar circumstances: The argument is so weak that I feel I have to document my aggravations as they arise. It also usually seems to be the case that weak argument is accompanied by weak writing or editing skills; and, in this case, the text abounds with both types of flaws. Lebrecht clearly loves to have a way with words; but he is so smitten with that "way" that he becomes very tedious very quickly. He is in dire need of an editor with a firm hand to remind him just how far he is stretching the patience of his reader. Unfortunately, as we can see from the Amazon LOOK INSIDE! view of the second page of contents for the revised edition of this book, editorial support could not even catch the misspelling of the one power player in the book who is not a conductor, Ronald Wilford of Columbia Artists Management Inc. This is but one of many instances of sloppy editing, but it is disconcerting that the casual reader will probably confront it before encountering any of the author's text. Larger-scale problems, such as the lack of overall coherence, are probably a sign that the book is a collection of essays written over a considerable time that were never integrated, which is a sin that can be shared by author and editor in equal measure.

Blowing off some steam about this book has made me feel a bit better. It also gives me a bit more confidence in my own methodological conviction that one learns about listening to music by listening to music. However, the book has also reminded me just how many dangers of distraction confront the would-be serious listener and how many of those dangers can easily disguise themselves as serious writing.