Monday, May 31, 2010

Consequences of Irreconcilability

There is something depressing about the appearance of Peter Beinart's New York Review article, "The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment." appearing so soon before the current incident involving the Israeli effort to prevent a flotilla of humanitarian aid from delivering their cargo to Gaza. I am sure it will be a while before are the different versions of this story get sorted out; but that sorting process will have to account for Al Jazeera English having a reporter on board one of the vessels, the Turkish ship Mavi Marmara, who was filing dispatches until communications were cut. About all we know at the present in that there was gunfire and that up to nineteen people on board this particular ship were killed. Israel claims its commandos were attacked before they boarded the ship, while those on board, including Al Jazeera reporter Jamal Elshayyal, claim that the vessel was flying a flag of truce before any shots were fired by the commandos. For now we can only conclude that this is a tragic example of what happens when the intransigence of faith-based actions collide, thus rendering any governmental authority, whether of a sovereign state or of a global institution such as the United Nations, virtually meaningless (as Max Weber put it). Like it or not, we are facing the opposition of Orthodox Jewish convictions in Israel (and among American Orthodox Jews who share those convictions) and the Islamic fundamentalism of political parties such as Hamas. Both of these are basically authoritarian convictions that have no room for the principles of democracy that our own government supposedly espouses. Whether or not the United States can resolve this matter may have much to do with the strength of its own convictions and whether or not either side of the opposition cares about its ability to serve as an honest broker. This is a bleak prospect on a day when we are supposed to be remembering those who died in battle.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Economic News from the Birthplace of Modern Economics

There is probably little argument with the Wikipedia claim that Adam Smith "is widely cited as the father of modern economics," primarily on the basis of his having authored An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. Smith was a Scot and did some of his most productive work at the University of Glasgow, but he had the opportunity to take a tutoring position that enabled him to travel to Europe. His Wikipedia entry offers a nice summary of the benefits of his travels:

After staying in Geneva, the party went to Paris, where Smith came to know intellectual leaders such as Benjamin Franklin,[22] Turgot, Jean D'Alembert, André Morellet, Helvétius and, in particular, Francois Quesnay, the head of the Physiocratic school, whose academic products he respected greatly.[23] The physiocrats believed that wealth came from production, in contrast to mercantilism, which was the dominating economic theory at the time. They also believed that agriculture produced wealth, and that merchants and manufacturers did not.[22] While Smith did not embrace all of the physiocrats' ideas, he did say that physiocracy was "with all its imperfections [perhaps] the nearest approximation to the truth that has yet been published upon the subject of political economy".[24]

One could thus probably make the case that travel provided both the inspiration for The Wealth of Nations and the motivation for Smith to set down his own "approximation to the truth."

I offer this background, with a particular emphasis on Smith's Scottish roots and sensibilities, as a context for reading one of those rare reports of positive economic news. This story showed up on the BBC News Web site last night and happens to be a dispatch from Scotland:

Scotch whisky is worth nearly £4bn to the Scottish economy, according to research carried out for the industry.

The analysis shows the extent of the boom in whisky from 2000 to 2008, when years of sharp export increases were stopped by the global recession.

The Scotch Whisky Association (SWA), representing the major distillers, said the product had as much impact on the Scottish economy as tourism.

It said it produced earnings per worker 12 times higher than those of tourism.

Only the oil and gas sector has more impact, and represents higher earnings per worker.

Given what is currently happening in the Gulf of Mexico, I suspect I am not the only one hoping that its impact on the overall economy will eventually overtake the oil and gas industries.

If we wish to understand the logic behind this good news, however, we should turn not to Smith but to his English "successor," David Ricardo, who developed a theory of rent to provide a model for the value of land, which Friedrich Hayek then generalized to a theory of price. From this point of view, we should recall that, while Ricardo's rent theory was preceded by work on a theory of value, Nobel laureate Robert Solow has held adamantly that "value" is too vague a concept for economic theory and that "price" is the primary concept on which any theory should be grounded. Here, then, is what Hayek wrote about price in 1942:

What is true of the theory of rent is true of the theory of price generally: it has nothing to say about the behaviour of the price of iron or wool, of things of such and such physical properties, but only about things about which people have certain beliefs and which they want to use in a certain manner. And our explanation of a particular price phenomenon can therefore also never be affected by any additional knowledge which we (the observers) acquire about the good concerned, but only by additional knowledge about what the people dealing with it think about it.

Speaking as one who has taken the consumption of single malt whiskies very seriously, I have to say that my personal beliefs play a very strong role in my purchasing decisions. From just about any point of view, such consumption should be regarded as a luxury; but it is a luxury that has earned itself a place in the budget that I now manage scrupulously. Thus, my beliefs are as strong as they were (if not stronger) when I had more resources at my disposal to explore and experiment among the many varieties of these whiskies.

This now brings us to the issue behind the BBC decision to report this story in the first place. The new coalition government in the United Kingdom has announced a commitment to review alcohol taxation, and the SWA is in strong support of this review. More specifically, the Association seeks a duty structure that will be more supportive to both production and exporting. This, in turn, can have a positive effect on the production system, bringing more people into the business while (hopefully) maintaining the level of skill that figures so heavily in the quality of the product.

Those of us who appreciate that quality and are willing to pay for it may constitute the best example of an "asocial global community." For the most part we do not know each other; and I suspect I am hardly the only one who sees no need to be part of a "social network." (I have not even bothered to check how many whisky blogs are out there.) Indeed, the only thing we have in common is the seriousness with which we consume the product; and for many (most?) of us, that is a solitary pleasure. However, it amuses me to think that, because of this particular approach to budgeting for a luxury, my purchasing power may have more impact on an economy than any investment I have made in shares of IBM or in bonds for a California water project, neither of which were motivated by beliefs as passionately embraced as those I hold about a good single malt!

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Adventures in the Archives

Where serious listening is concerned, EMI has one of the most interesting collections of archives that one is likely to encounter. I first appreciated this back when I was living in Singapore and accumulated, one by one, the three volumes (each with three CDs) of The Elgar Edition, which is the best (only?) recorded document of Edward Elgar as conductor of his own music. Amazon.com lists all of these as "Currently unavailable," which is too bad from a historical point of view but understandable in the context of the limitations of recording technology. Recently I have used my Examiner.com pulpit to wax enthusiastic over the more recent releases of the complete recordings that Pablo Casals made for EMI, with particular emphasis on the documents of his trio performances with Alfred Cortot and Jacques Thibaud, and the even more exhaustive Mstislav Rostropovich collection, which includes not only all of his EMI sessions but also the recordings he brought with him when he left the Soviet Union. Both the Casals and Rostropovich boxes are still available; and serious listeners have much to learn from both of them, particularly in comparing their respective approaches to the Johann Sebastian Bach suites for unaccompanied cello.

More recently, EMI has been putting out 2-CD sets for those with an interest in archives but a more limited budget. Thus, the Casals recordings of the Bach suites are available as a separate package, which is also the case for the Rostropovich recordings. Similarly, the first two CDs in The Walton Edition, which feature William Walton conducting his violin and viola concertos (both with Yehudi Menuhin as soloist), his first symphony, and "Belshazzar's Feast," are available separately. More interesting, however, is the 2-CD collection of the music of Arnold Schoenberg as interpreted by three conductors with three different points of view, John Barbirolli, Daniel Barenboim, and Simon Rattle.

I have been reflecting on this packaging because I have spent almost three months facing the prospect of writing an Examiner.com piece for the release of such a collection for Iannis Xenakis. This composer has been on my mind ever since I encountered a copy of Musiques Formelles in the library during my student days, which left me so perplexed that I wondered if the only way I would be able to get my head around it would be to translate it into English. I was far from alone in my puzzlement. Even George Balanchine, who probably encountered the same vinyl recording I had purchased (now in a CD version), seems to have decided that the only way to understand "Metastasis" and "Pithoprakta" would be to translate them into choreography. I never got beyond seeing that choreography in rehearsal, which left me with only two impressions. The first was that Balanchine seemed more influenced by the diagrams in Musiques Formelles than he had been by the music; and the second was intense sympathy for the rehearsal pianist trying to get a piano to play an approximation (possibly Balanchine's) of what Xenakis was demanding of a full orchestra. My procrastination in producing my own English version of Xenakis' texts was eventually rewarded by the efforts of Christopher Butchers, who took on the task with Xenakis' cooperation; and in 1971 Indiana University Press published (under the title Formalized Music: Thought and Mathematics in Composition, now available in a revised edition by Pendragon) an English version of the six essays in Musiques Formelles along with three more recent ones. By the time I purchased this volume I was teaching computer science at the University of Pennsylvania and found myself "volunteered" to prepare a seminar session on Xenakis. This turned out to be little more than an explanation of how Xenakis was using flow charts and what was lurking in the FORTRAN printouts contained in the book.

The fact is that this kind of algorithmic approach to formalism was very popular half a century ago. Pierre Boulez had indulged in experiments of his own, although, ironically, the task fell to György Ligeti to document the actual algorithms in Die Reihe. (Was he, too, "volunteered" for this task?) However, where Boulez was concerned, I could still address the nature of the listening experience without descending into all of the algorithmic detail; and I have yet to make such a claim about Xenakis. This is why, in this case, I really did volunteer to write about the recent EMI release. I know from having listened to the Harmonia Mundi CD of his Oresteïa that he can be a very visceral composer; but this composition may be an exception, because he was working with a dramatic narrative, rather than with formalism for its own sake. All I know for certain is that my current plan is to avoid any consultation of his writings while engaged in listening to the EMI CDs. I have no idea what will result, but I think I have finally reached the point where I am ready to undertake the adventure.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Sticking it to Milton Babbitt?

In 1958 the popular magazine High Fidelity published an article by the highly intellectual composer Milton Babbitt. Babbitt had entitled the article "The Composer as Specialist;" and it addressed the mindset gulf between many composers following in the footsteps of Arnold Schoenberg and most audiences. (Schoenberg himself had addressed this topic.) Without Babbitt's knowledge or consent, High Fidelity changed the title to "Who Cares if You Listen?;" and Babbitt has been living with the consequences of that decision ever since. However, even if he found the title "offensively vulgar," there remains that connotation of detachment in his "specialist" stance.

I have no idea if Lou Reed and Lori Anderson intentionally decided to exploit this stance and twit Babbitt at the same time, but they definitely found an amusing and clever way to do so. Here is the BBC News account of their project:

US rock star Lou Reed and his artist wife Laurie Anderson are to stage a "high-frequency concert" for canines in Australia.

Music for Dogs, to be held outside the Sydney Opera House, is billed as "an inter-species social gathering on a scale never seen before in Australia".

The bizarre recital in June will be largely inaudible to the human ear.

The couple said they have experience making music for at least one dog - their rat terrier, Lollabelle.

"She likes things with a lot of smoothness but with beats in them,'' Ms Anderson told the Sydney Morning Herald.

She said the inspiration for the performance at the Vivid Live festival in Sydney came while she was backstage at an event and thought: "Wouldn't it be great, if you were playing a concert and you look out and you see all dogs?"

The show, created by Ms Anderson, will last for 20 minutes as she says "dogs don't have a giant concentration span".

The sounds will be played at high frequency like a dog whistle, setting dogs' ears twitching but barely audible to their owners.

It is billed in the festival programme as "an absolute must for any dog and their two-legged friends".

The link to Babbitt is delightfully obvious: Now we have "Who cares if you can't listen?" However, even if Babbitt was not the intended target, this is clearly aimed at those who tend to get excessively serious about concert attendance, particularly in an opera house. It takes a certain level of chutzpah to break with such a strongly-held social tradition; and I would say that the level is high enough for Reed and Anderson to share the Chutzpah of the Week award!

Thursday, May 27, 2010

"National Security Strategy"—the View from Al Jazeera

Perhaps the most important lesson to be learned from the 9/11 attacks is that the national security of the United States has less to do with either our military or our economic might and more to do with our relations with those who do not see the world the same way we do. Our greatest liability in the wake of this catastrophe was the stubborn refusal of the Bush Administration to recognize that our worldview was neither the only one nor the "correct" one and that our system of values, whether those espoused or those actually practiced, were far from "globally universal." Thus, any analysis of the "National Security Strategy" document, released by the White House this morning, should account for the reactions of a diversity of points of view; and one of the most interesting sources is likely to be Al Jazeera, whose expansion into English-language journalism may be seen as one of the unanticipated consequences of the global reaction to 9/11, if not 9/11 itself. This morning's Al Jazeera English report on the release of this document is one of those items that is solely a product of its own staff, free from the influences of any of its wire services.

Thus, the first priority of this report concerns the extent to which the Obama Administration is departing significantly from the Bush Administration in its fundamental view of the nature of national security:

The document, updated every four years, sets priorities for America's military, law enforcement and foreign policy agencies. It drops some of the most controversial language from the Bush administration, like the phrase "global war on terror" and references to "Islamic extremism".

"The United States is waging a global campaign against al-Qaeda and its terrorist affiliates," the 52-page strategy document says.

"Yet this is not a global war against a tactic - terrorism, or a religion - Islam. We are at war with a specific network, al-Qaeda, and its terrorist affiliates."

This is followed by the acknowledgement that the scope of national security extends beyond the risks of further threats from al-Qaeda:

The strategy also calls for US engagement with "hostile nations," closer relations with China and India, and a focus on strengthening the US economy.

In other words we face two risks to our national security: the fragility of our economy and the possibility of further aggressive attacks. If there is an overall strategy in the new policy document, it is based on the premise that these risks may be mitigated through more effective communication that includes those who disagree with us rather than those in any "coalition of the willing." This is our most serious departure from Bush Administration policy, and it may also be the clearest statement to date of how Barack Obama is serious about bringing about change.

Another significant direction for change involves the need to move away from what I have previously called "that culture of fear that debilitated the entire country under the Bush Administration." As I reported in the wake of the failed terrorist attack on the Delta/Northwest airplane preparing to land in Detroit on Christmas Day, one of Obama's major "agents of change" is his advisor on counterterrorism, John Brennan; so it is no surprise that Brennan was one of those selected to preview today's report. Al Jazeera English quotes what I feel is the most important sentence from a speech Brennan gave yesterday:

As our enemy adapts and evolves their tactics, so must we constantly adapt and evolve ours, not in a mad rush driven by fear, but in a thoughtful and reasoned way.

I can think of no better way to reject Bush Administration thinking; and, presumably, this should be taken as a message to the world at large, rather than solely to our own citizens.

Nevertheless, it is important to recognize that "National Security Strategy," as it has been issued, is a statement of philosophy. Philosophy never translates easily into practice, particularly when its statement is issued by an Executive Branch of government bound by a system of checks and balances to a Legislative Branch and a Judicial Branch. Such a system imposes considerable inertia in the workings of our government, and Barack Obama is now intimately acquainted with that inertia. However, where George W. Bush turned to the agency of fear to "get things moving," Obama seems more disposed to persevere through that inertia; and his gift of perseverance may ultimately be the "secret sauce" to restoring our highly eroded sense of national security.

New York Discovers Twentieth-Century Opera

According to the latest post on The Rest is Noise (Alex Ross' blog), all tickets to the New York Philharmonic program of György Ligeti's Le Grande Macabre have sold out for all three performances. Ross further notes that conductor Alan Gilbert is planning to use his bully pulpit for "the long-awaited local premiere of Messiaen's Saint Francis." Writing from a city that has seen stagings of both of these works by the San Francisco Opera, I cannot resist asking why New York has dragged its heels for so long for both of these works. Granted, Olivier Messiaen's opera is a bit on the unwieldy side; and, while I am glad to have the CD of the Salzburg Festival performance in my collection, I continue to prefer taking this music in smaller doses. If it were economically feasible, I would advocate performing the three acts of this opera on three successive nights, similar to what Donald Runnicles once did for a concert performance of Richard Wagner's Tristan und Isolde. Le Grand Macabre, on the other hand, is a rapid-fire comic hoot from beginning to end; and most of the jokes should hold up well enough in the absence of staging, except for Amanda and Amando, who have a running (so to speak) gag, that starts in the first act and concludes near the end of the third. Was Peter Gelb able to secure a ticket while one was still available?

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Judaism and Democracy

One of the most contentious issues that impedes both understanding and progress in efforts to resolve the situation in the Middle East is the concept of Israel as a "Jewish state." The Arab world cannot understand how it is that countries such as Great Britain and the United States, whose underlying principles of democracy include a government independent of religious influence (separation of church and state), can support a country that does not maintain such a separation. The usual answer is to invoke the many ways in which Israel satisfies all other criteria of a parliamentary democracy, often with a rhetorical stab suggesting that all of its neighbors are authoritarian and/or corrupt. As a result of the scandal that led to the latest change in government, we now know that Israeli is as susceptible to corruption as any of its neighbors. Now, however, we have an interesting example of how the faith-based authoritarianism of Orthodox Judaism may be jeopardizing any national standards of democracy in Israel.

The example comes from a report that appeared this morning on the BBC News Web site and is brief enough to be reproduced in its entirety (and as a safeguard against accusations of "cherry picking"):

The chief rabbi of a West Bank settlement has prohibited women from standing in a local community election.

Rabbi Elyakim Levanon of the Elon Moreh settlement, near Nablus, said women lacked the authority to stand for the post of local secretary.

He wrote in a community newspaper that women must only be heard through their husbands.

No women have registered for the election due to be held later on Wednesday, Israeli media reported.

The rabbi made his comments in the community's newspaper after an unidentified young woman wrote to him asking if she could run for the position of community secretary, the Israeli news website Ynet News said.

'Giving authority'

"I am a young woman and I think I have desire and energy to do things," Ynet News quoted the woman as writing to Rabbi Levanon.

"It's not right for men to be the only ones deciding how to run the community," the letter reportedly said.

But in his weekly column, Rabbi Levanon wrote that, according to the teachings of influential rabbis, women were not allowed to apply for the position.

"The first problem is giving women authority, and being a secretary means having authority," Rabbi Levanon wrote in the community's newspaper.

"Within the family certain debates are held and when opinions are united the husband presents the family's opinion.

"This is the proper way to prevent a situation in which the woman votes one way and her husband votes another," he wrote.

He also said it was not appropriate for women to mix with men in late evening meetings of community leaders.

Women's groups have condemned the comments.

"Such talk is scandalous enough to call the rabbi for a clarification. I expect leaders of the religious public in Israel to condemn the rabbi's instruction," Nurit Tzur of the Israel Women's Lobby said.

First of all I do not question Rabbi Levanon's warrant of his claims on the basis of the writings of "influential rabbis." One does not have to dig very deep into the religious writings of Judaism to find examples that make it very clear that women play a subordinate role in the community, first to the father before marriage and after that to the husband. Orthodox Jewish women accept this precept, which is why none of the women of Elon Moreh have registered to vote. Indeed, within the mindset of this community, the very thought of a woman considering running in an election would be viewed as heretical; and that is the adjective that tests the democratic nature of the country as a whole.

The history of the United States includes pioneers who came here to escape persecution and accusations of heresy. Many of those seeking such escape were Jews, who, throughout the history of Europe, were never strangers to such accusations, often "argued" through such forensic methods as the gathering of testimony under torture. I say this not to equate Rabbi Levanon with Tomás de Torquemada but to emphasize the extent to which secularism has necessarily become tightly coupled to prevailing principles of governance.

Now it is clear that the very existence of an Israel Women's Lobby means that the Rabbi does not speak for all of Israel. He is a voice of authority in a very limited community, which just happens to sit in the middle of one of the most hotly disputed pieces of land in the Middle East. The question now is whether or not there will be a response to this incident at the national level. The United States is also a country that believes that the Federal Government should not interfere in state and local matters, and that belief has been reinforced by considerable legislation. However, in this case it will be easy to assume that silence from the national government means an assent to Rabbi Levanon's ruling, at least within the boundaries of Elon Moreh. Such an assent may encourage further actions based on fundamentalist judgments that involve not only fundamentalist Judaism but also fundamentalist Islam. That will take us all down a road that will distance us even further from the prospect of eventual peace in the Middle East.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Gift of Pac-Man?

In his PC World report on Google celebrating the 30th anniversary of Pac-Man by posting a working version of the game as their homepage doodle, Ian Paul noted the flood of jokes on Twitter "about how Google had killed U.S. productivity on Friday by putting the game (including all 256 levels) across the screens of millions of office workers." However, neither PC World nor the "Twitter-sphere" tends to see beyond the boundaries of office productivity. Google has secured itself as an essential in just about every academic setting; and, in classrooms fortunate enough to have computer support, it plays a major role, once assumed by the encyclopedia, the dictionary, and the atlas, in day-to-day pupil activities. Since my wife teaches at the middle school level, she fully appreciates the value of Google, which is why she also fully appreciated just how disruptive that doodle could be.

Pac-Man was designed to be the ultimate distracting shiny thing. That was why it was an overnight success in video arcades and why it continues to demonstrate how simplicity can still trump all of the sophisticated imagery of today's game technology. Resisting the spell of this game is about as easy as walking from one end of a Vegas casino to another without placing a bet. Now, according to Paul, Pac-Man will be a permanent fixture on Google's site, although no longer as a home page doodle.

The bottom line is that gaming is probably one of the most addictive elements of the Internet (the other most addictive element being shopping). Every now and then a story surfaces about the consequences of that addiction, and the stories are no less depressing than those about alcoholism and drug addiction. Does Google want to be part of those stories just because it thought it would be cute to celebrate a 30-year-old icon? This goes beyond those many instances of Eric Schmidt's foolishness that inspire so many of my posts. This is a matter of the corporate culture of a corporation that sometimes forgets just how important it has made itself in the world. Such cultural amnesia is often the first step towards hubris, a road down which many of the powerful have traveled and few have returned.

Monday, May 24, 2010

The Death of Discretion

BBC News Business Reporter Will Smale released a series of anecdotes this morning about people getting into trouble through their spontaneous use of Twitter under the headline "Be careful what you tweet." Those of us with a sense of history know that this is not really news; it is just the acknowledgement that Twitter supports flaming as effectively as any other form of computer-mediated communication. The only change seems to be that the size of the audience keeps growing.

Communication is one of the ways in which we establish identity; and spontaneous utterances tend to give a more faithful account of identity than deliberated ones. When the spontaneity is positive, it may tend to facilitate understanding among the communicating parties, proving far more effective than any of the conditions behind Jürgen Habermas' concept of an "ideal speech situation." However, in the Newtonian tradition of "opposite and equal," negative spontaneity (even less a part of an "ideal speech system") can undermine understanding as effectively as the positive side facilitates it. Face-to-face encounters tend to provide us with ample opportunities to learn that discretion is the better part of spontaneity, particularly when one of those faces gets slapped. However, even when an indiscreet remark does not lead to blows, there are any number of paralinguistic cues that warn us immediately when we are getting ourselves (or have gotten ourselves) into deep yogurt over a spontaneous utterance.

That is what is missing in computer-mediated communication, the means through which the reaction to an ill-conceived spontaneity can be just as spontaneous, thereby immediately setting the wheels of "repair" into motion (or at least creating the opportunity for such motion). In other words this is yet another instance of one of my favorite topics: All actions have consequences, including the full panoply of our speech acts. The problem is that the physical world does a better job of putting out cues about possible consequences than the virtual world does, and one might say that discretion is the fine art of probing for those cues and attending to them. The result may be that, as more and more of our communications are computer-mediated, our capacity for such probing will erode through not being exercised; and, since everything happens at "Internet speed" these days, it may not be long before the very concept of discretion no longer figures in our working vocabulary.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Will There Be an App for Everything?

Sue Halpern's article on the iPad is now available at the Web site for The New York Review of Books, even if the print edition has not yet arrived in my mailbox. The fact that I should be reading this piece at all by virtue of computer mediation is saying something, regardless of whether I am doing so on an iPad, with a smart phone, on my networked laptop, or even from my printer. This virtual approach still has its disadvantages. I cannot flip back to the Table of Contents to remind myself of why I know Halpern's name as readily as I can with my physical subscription copy. On the other hand there seemed to be something appropriate in reading about the "next generation brave new world" through some connection to the current generation.

This may be the first time that The New York Review has released a product review, rather than a book review or an extended essay; but it was a relief to encounter finally a serious effort to put this particular product in perspective, free from the gee-whiz rhetoric that Steve Jobs seems to engage each time he talks about yet another feature. On the other hand, given that the iPad is primarily Apple's big gun in the war that has begun over the future of electronic books, I would have expected that Halpern, who is no stranger to cognitive science, would have devoted a bit more column space to the relation of this technology of the act of reading itself. She does not ignore this issue, but she never goes deep over the question of how well the iPad fits her own reading habits. (On the basis of what I know from my own experience, I take her to be a very serious reader.)

Ultimately, however, neither her article nor the iPad itself is primarily about reading. I did not use the word "war" lightly in the preceding paragraph. These days almost everything that happens in cyberspace is aggressive. Put another way the Internet has become one vast zero-sum game; and those of us who naively think only in terms of utility tend to overlook the extent to which major corporations like Apple, Google, and Microsoft plan their every move with the long-range goal of controlling all the marbles. Thus, even Halpern cannot resist serving as a minor foot-soldier in the latest skirmish by using language such as "game-changing." Indeed, her concluding sentence is not about the utility of the device but of the future of this ongoing war:

This is what is really revolutionary and game-changing about the iPad: once there is an app for everything, it’s Apple’s Web, not the wide world’s.

So in her conclusion Halpern leaves the world of devices and utility and moves into one of the oldest oppositions in software development, the conflicting interests of generality and specificity. Back when using a computer meant programming it, there were major factions that aspired for a single programming language general enough to address all software needs. The most popular of these was probably PL/I (as in "programming language one," a curious name for something that was supposed to be the last word in programming languages, since it presumed the future existence of a "two"); and it probably spawned as many jokes as it supported software projects. The best of the jokes involved comparing it to the ultimate Swiss Army Knife: There was a blade that could do anything you wanted; the problem was that, in trying to get at that blade, you would cut yourself on all the others!

This bit of history repeated itself with the rise of Smalltalk. Smalltalk was even more like a Swiss Army Knife than PL/I ever was. It was driven by a vast library of "methods," each of which was highly specialized and effective at its job, just like any single knife blade. Using any method was a snap, but finding the right one could be a real bummer. In many ways Smalltalk first awakened us to the idea that search itself was a major intellectual task that required effective technical support.

In this historical context the "app" is nothing more than the latest incarnation of a Smalltalk method. The good news is that we now know a lot more about indexing and search than we did when a Smalltalk programmer could burn an entire day in hunting for just the right method. The question, however, is whether or not what we know will be able to serve us should it ever come to pass that there really is "an app for everything."

Actually, there is more to that historical context than one might imagine. The Smalltalk development team recognized that finding methods would be a problem, so they built a tool to facilitate the search process. The tool was called the Smalltalk Browser, providing an interesting foretaste of the future semantics of the world of the Internet. Negotiating an inconceivably large number of methods evolved into negotiating an inconceivably large number of Web pages, so there may be some inevitability in our now moving into a world of apps too numerous to mention. In this world the device will be a side show, the only real question being whether lots of apps multitask on a single device or whether lots of specialized devices are tightly networked. On the other hand finding the app you need without cutting yourself metaphorically on lots of other apps is likely to be the real problem that identifies how the game has really changed.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Death Comes to the Social Network

BBC Radio 4 producer Peregrine Andrews has a fascinating piece on the BBC News Web site entitled "Virtual life after death." It covers a variety of topics, including questions of what constitutes property in virtual worlds and whether or not the disposition of that property can be addressed in a last will and testament. It also observes that just about all social networks and virtual worlds are products of the very young (college age), who have given little thought to the realities of death in the physical world. This was certainly the situation behind the creation of Facebook, which makes the following case study particularly interesting:

When 21-year-old Bath University student "KJ" fell into the river Avon and drowned in 2009, his Facebook page remained. As news of the death spread, rest-in-peace messages started to appear on his wall.

One of KJ's closest friends had heard of Facebook's "Memorialisation" feature, which allows existing friends continued access but blocks new ones and removes information such as contact details.

He wrote to Facebook with proof of death and asked for this to be done.

Friends now continue to write on the wall, even a year after the death.

Facebook's European Director of Public Policy, Richard Allan describes this as "a new form of mourning".

Doctor Elaine Kasket, a counselling psychologist, has found that a surprising number of messages are written to the deceased as if they are still present and "logging on from some internet cafe in heaven".

"It's perhaps the best example so far of continuing bonds after death," she says.

There is perhaps a better sense of the living person on their remaining Facebook or MySpace page than anywhere else.

It has been suggested that the existence of this online presence after people die, plus the accessibility of online memorials, could draw out the grieving process.

But this may not be a bad thing, says Mark Dunn, a psychotherapist. He believes most of us in the developed world do not grieve for long enough and that the internet "may allow us to learn the mechanics of grieving again."

I think Dunn may be on to something. For all the ways in which cyberspace provides ways to retreat from reality, this may be a case where it addresses the harshest reality of all, even if it is doing so through an unintended consequence.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Eclogue

I just realized with some embarrassment that I have used the word "eclogue" in two of my recent Examiner.com reviews without a particularly clear sense of what it means. Last week it came up in my writing about the performance of Leonard Bernstein's "The Age of Anxiety" by pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet with the Los Angeles Philharmonic conducted by Gustavo Dudamel. Then it showed up again yesterday morning in my account of this week's San Francisco Symphony subscription concert, since it was the title of the second movement of Igor Stravinsky's Ode.

It is not as if I was entirely ignorant of the word, but my memory needed refreshing. Also, I suspected I was prodded a bit when Michael Tilson Thomas called it "ecologue" while talking about Stravinsky's music before performing it. I knew the pronunciation was wrong, just as I knew that the word was not about an ecology-based travelogue. Beyond that, however, I realized that I needed to pay a visit to my Shorter Oxford English Dictionary:

A short poem, esp. a pastoral dialogue such as those of Virgil.

That was sufficient to revive my memory. Almost a year ago, while spending part of my summer in Maine, I had brought along for reading a chapter from Ernst Robert Curtius' book European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages (in the translation by Willard R. Trask). I may not have known much about eclogue before reading Curtius, but one passage leapt out at me by throwing new light on my ignorance:

To know only the Aeneid is not to know Virgil. The influence of his eclogues on later times is hardly less important than that of his epic. From the first century of the Empire to the time of Goethe, all study of Latin literature began with the first ecolgue. It is not too much to say that anyone unfamiliar with that short poem lacks one key to the literary tradition of Europe.

I had probably come across something like this while reading The New York Review, but Curtius' text had a way of making me feel guilty! After the dictionary pointed me towards the Virgil connection, I returned to that text to brood over it again.

From this point of view, I was very pleased with what I found by checking out the entry for the term in Wikipedia. It begins with the following clarification:

For the first of the three major works of Virgil, see Eclogues. For the work of the same title by Dante, see Eclogues (Dante).

The article itself begins with the following summary:

An eclogue is a poem in a classical style on a pastoral subject. Poems in the genre are sometimes also called bucolics.

The form of the word in contemporary English is taken from French eclogue, from Old French, from Latin ecloga. However it is also attested in Middle English as eclog, and this form was apparently taken directly from Latin ecloga. The Latin ecloga is a Romanization of the Greek eklogē (έκλογή), meaning "draft, choice, selection (particularly of short passages)". The term originally referred to short poems of any genre, or selections from poetry-books. The ancients referred to individual poems of Virgil's Bucolica as eclogae, and the term was used by later Latin poets to refer to their own bucolic poetry, often in imitation of Virgil. The combination of Virgil's influence and the persistence of bucolic poetry through the Renaissance imposed "eclogues" as the accepted term for the genre. Later Roman poets who wrote eclogues include Calpurnius and Nemesianus.

Ironically, Auden never arises in the "Modern eclogues" section. On the other hand, the "In music" section was nicely informative about Stravinsky:

Igor Stravinsky titled the second and third movements of his Duo Concertant (1932) "Eclogue I" and "Eclogue II". The middle movement of his three-movement Ode (1943) is also titled "Eclogue".

I am more familiar with Stravinsky's earlier 1932 composition; but, having known it through the choreography of George Balanchine, I realized that I had not checked out the Greek-oriented movement titles.

Bernstein got his title from W. H. Auden's extended poem, whose full title is The Age of Anxiety: A Baroque Eclogue; and presumably Auden was being ironic. Dialog is certainly at the heart of the text; but even the most die-hard New Yorker would balk at the "pastoral" label for the settings for the dialog, a seedy bar and an even seedier apartment. As to the "baroque" adjective, that probably applies to Auden extending the brevity of the original form with a wealth embellishment that borders on the grotesque.

I suspect that, if I really want to fix the word "eclogue" in my working vocabulary, I need to let it associate securely with Stravinsky, rather than either Auden or Bernstein!

Thursday, May 20, 2010

A Classical Pianist with CHUTZPAH

I see that the last time I gave a Chutzpah of the Week award in the domain of music was about a year ago, when I gave the award to those members of the operations team of the American Bach Soloists who decided that a festive setting in Grace Cathedral was more important than whether or not anyone in that cavernous space could actually listen to the music of George Frideric Handel being performed. This time around listening is once again the issue, but the awardee is putting a much more positive connotative spin on his chutzpah. Unfortunately, he is on the other side of the pond; so we may have to wait a bit in this country before we can enjoy his chutzpah directly. Furthermore, if he does decide to grace our shores, chances are good that his chutzpah will extend to his choices of venue for an American tour.

The awardee is the pianist James Rhodes, and I knew nothing about him until he was profiled by Damian Thompson in a piece that recently appeared on the London Telegraph Web site. Thompson's introduction makes it clear why Rhodes is a candidate for the award:

No cheesy crossover, no TV ad favourites, but Bach partitas, Beethoven sonatas, Chopin études and wild, sprawling piano fantasies by the crazed 19th-century composer Charles-Valentin Alkan.

And he’ll be playing them live, too, in venues where classical music has never been heard: the Latitude festival, for example, a sort of highbrow, right-on Glastonbury held on the Suffolk coast in July. Next Wednesday he performs in the Udderbelly, a tent in the shape of an upside-down purple cow on the South Bank.

The cover of Rhodes’s second album (the last before Warner snapped him up) shows him dressed like a mime artist at a psychedelic rave: face slathered in white make-up, a smear of scarlet lipstick, plastic trousers – one leg red, one blue. When it came out, I wrote a blog post asking: “Why does this clown think he can play late Beethoven?”

And the answer was: because he can. The performance of Beethoven’s late piano sonata Opus 109 on that album is one of the most delicate and exquisitely crafted I’ve ever heard.

This is the sort of performer who gets attacked by critics who have never actually heard him play because they feel obliged to defend the honor of their profession (whatever that may mean). Thompson's profile singles out the critic Michael White, who seems to have dismissed even the possibility of listening to Rhodes after the latter dismissed traditional concert settings as being "full of people with blue rinses and smelling vaguely of urine." My own reaction was that perhaps I was not missing as much as I thought by not being able to attend concerts in London; but I suppose that is why White is trying to circle the wagons (assuming there are any wagons other than his own).

With this as context we can now turn to the interview that Rhodes gave to Thompson:

I meet Rhodes, now 35, for lunch in the restaurant of the Wigmore Hall. No, that’s not the venue he had in mind, he says. And he’s sorry about the urine remark, though it’s perfectly in character: the other day he became the first concert pianist to tweet about a bowel movement.

It’s the format as much as the composition of classical concerts that bugs him. "They’re at this weird, inconvenient time – 7.30pm – which doesn’t give you time to go home to see the kids, and they’re usually way too long," he says. "What’s wrong with 6.30, or 10 o’clock after a hot date?

"And this complete lack of verbal communication. The audience sits there reading about sonata form while the artist is so wrapped up in his own genius that you can’t shake his hand afterwards because, you know, his fingers are sooo fragile."

So Rhodes will sometimes chat to the audience before and during his recitals, "which, believe me, makes playing 100,000 notes from memory twice as nerve-racking, but also twice as satisfying. And I’m going to make some other poor bastard nervous, too, because one day I’m going to ask for someone from the audience to come up on stage and see if they’ve got the guts to play their party piece."

That might sound like a 21st-century gimmick; actually, it’s the sort of trick that the virtuoso showmen of the 19th and early 20th century played, in an era before piano competitions when pianists took risks that didn’t always come off.

"Fistfuls of wrong notes," says Rhodes gleefully, aware that – although he spends six hours a day drilling technique into his fingers – his lack of conservatoire training means that he can’t turn on the prestissimo autopilot, as so many production-line soloists from the Far East can.

The fact is that, as a performer, Rhodes has his priorities straight. He is interested in the immediacy of the occasion, and he clearly wants that occasion to involve something more than auditory stimuli going in one ear and out the other. Here are his own words at the end of Thompson's account of his interview:

Too many people turn up expecting to hear the pristine performances captured on CD. Well, that’s not what I’m offering. I want the kind of edge-of-your-seat excitement that makes the audience think, "Holy ----, he’s taking this fast. Will he make it?"

Exactly, and if it takes some element of shock value to get listeners to the edges of their respective seats, then all the better for Rhodes' knowing how to shock. Here is a pianist who takes his chutzpah onto the stage with him but does not seem to let that chutzpah interfere with the music he is performing. That seems more than sufficient to merit a Chutzpah of the Week award.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

"Huge Ears"

Yesterday I appealed to the folk poem "Lob des hohen Verstands," from the Des Knaben Wunderhorn collection, to provide a stick for beating up on the poor judgment of the popular media. This morning I realized that the stick may serve me just as well in my ongoing efforts to undermine the argument that the Internet supports the "wisdom of crowds." Recall why the devious cuckoo nominates a donkey to judge his song contest with the nightingale:

Since he has two huge ears,
He can hear so much better
And will know what is correct.

Like the donkey the Internet has very "huge ears," whose prodigious growth is a product of the industrious efforts of Web searching by the massive servers of Google (and others) to "hear" everything in cyberspace. We might even continue the metaphor by comparing the blogosphere with the donkey's insistent and strident voice ("Eee-yah!"). However, the real poetic wisdom of the text, which translator Emily Ezust deftly captured, lies in the key verb of this passage. Like English, German draws a distinction between the verb for "to hear" (hören) and the one for "to listen" (horchen), which is the distinction that mattered so much to Igor Stravinsky. Recall how Stravinsky put it:

Others let the ears be present and they don't make an effort to understand. To listen is an effort, and just to hear is no merit. A duck hears also.

Like Stravinsky's duck, the donkey's ears are present to the nightingale's song; but the "effort to understand" is entirely absent:

You make me dizzy! Eee-yah!
I can't get it into my head!

To reduce the argument to exaggerated simplicity, Google allows us to "hear" everything and "listen to" (i.e. understand) nothing. (In a modern translation the donkey might well be given the name Yelp!)

To be fair to these lower animals, ducks and donkeys both inhabit an ecology in which listening does not matter. It is sufficient to detect specific classes of auditory stimuli, and survival may depend on responding to those stimuli efficiently. Reflective deliberation is not part of the system, nor should it be. In more refined terms ducks and donkeys have no need for Immanuel Kant's elaborate model in which the power of judgment mediates between the pure reason of cognition and the applied reason of desire. We, on the other hand, must deal with a far more complex ecology, which is why so much of Kant's philosophical efforts were exerted towards how we deal with that ecology, even if he never used that particular term explicitly. The question of whether or not Google is making us stupid, as Nicholas Carr put it in his Atlantic Monthly article, is simply a pejorative way of asking whether our "Internet culture" is eroding our capacities for dealing with the ecology in which we are situated.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Kiri Te Kanawa Encounters the Triumph of "Lower Understanding"

This morning's Telegraph Web site ran a story that was a perfect case study in how the media would rather provoke than inform. Dame Kiri Te Kanawa was being interviewed by the Radio Times about the BBC Radio 2 Kiri Prize, a competition conceived to discover and cultivate the next generation of opera talent. Having seen Te Kanawa give a Master Class at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, I know that she takes these matters very seriously; so I can imagine how she felt when the interviewer tried to compare her competition with Britain's Got Talent and the most "famous" (scare quotes deliberately inserted) product of that series, Susan Boyle. From that point of view, her decision to let discretion lapse in her reaction to the interviewer's move was more than justified:

You insult me by even wanting to bring it into this conversation. I'm not interested.

This competition is named after me and has far more stability.

It's judged seriously by people with integrity who know what they're talking about.

However justified these remarks may be though, I wonder whether or not Dame Kiri recognized the ring of familiarity from her side of the repertoire. I am referring to the folk poetry of Des Knaben Wunderhorn set to music by Gustav Mahler and specifically to the poem "Lob des hohen Verstands," which, on its page in The Lied and Art Song Texts Page Web site, has been translated into English by Emily Ezust as "In praise of higher understanding." Ezust's translation captures the significance of this poem in the context of Dame Kiri's interview perfectly:

Once in a deep valley,
The cuckoo and the nightingale
Had a contest:
To sing the Masterpiece.
To win by art or to win by luck,
Fame would the victor gain.

The cuckoo said: "If it pleases you,
I will nominate the judge."
And he named the donkey right away.
"Since he has two huge ears,
He can hear so much better
And will know what is correct."

They soon flew before the judge
And when the issue was explained to him,
He told them they should sing.
The nightingale sang out sweetly!
The donkey said: You make me dizzy!
You make me dizzy! Eee-yah!
I can't get it into my head!

The cuckoo then quickly started
his song through thirds and fourths and fifths;
The donkey found it pleasing, and only said
Wait! Wait! Wait! I will pronounce judgement now.
Well have you sung, Nightingale!
But, Cuckoo, you sing a good chorale!

And you keep the rhythm finely and internally!
Thus I say according to my sublime understanding,
And, although it may cost an entire land,
I will let you win!

I do not wish to dwell on the animal characterizations of the competitors; but the donkey is certainly the best possible embodiment of the level of judgment found in Britain's Got Talent and all of its "reality-based" American cousins. Nevertheless, the media never fail to find ways to add insult to injury; and in this case the Telegraph seems to have found a cherry to place on top of the Radio Times sundae. Consider what one finds above the headline for this story:

That's right, in the classification system for Telegraph stories (and RSS feeds) Susan Boyle has her own category (and Dame Kiri does not)! Those of us seeking news about nightingales will probably have to draw upon other sources!

Monday, May 17, 2010

Metaphor Considered Harmful?

There are so many examples (many due to the experimental and scholarly efforts of George Lakoff and his colleagues) that demonstrate the ways in which we invoke metaphor both to make sense of the world around us and to communicate our understanding to others that we should avoid falling into the trap of believing that metaphor is some kind of all-powerful philosopher's stone that can transmute confusion into knowledge (even if I had to resort to metaphor to make this point). The "darker side" of metaphor is so fundamental to Richard Lewontin's latest New York Review article, "Not So Natural Selection," that it occupies his lead sentences:

Nothing creates more misunderstanding of the results of scientific research than scientists' use of metaphors. It is not only the general public that they confuse, but their own understanding of nature that is led astray.

As one may guess from the title of this article, Lewontin is specifically concerned with the extent to which the figurative connotations of the phrase "natural selection" can be misleading. The greatest problem involves that word "selection," whose literal usage tends to presume that there is some agent doing the selecting. Thus, even if Darwin's model emphasized the "natural" modifier (an emphasis reinforced by the scientific arguments posed by Richard Dawkins, particularly in his Blind Watchmaker book), it is hard to resist the temptation to believe that some form of purposive choice is taking place. (Lewontin even reminds us that Alfred Russell Wallace explicitly warned Charles Darwin about this risk.)

We should not take Lewontin's arguments as a dismissal of the cognitive value of metaphors but as a reminder that we have to be careful about how we "live by" those metaphors (to appeal to the title of the 1980 book by Lakoff and Mark Johnson). We tend to think of metaphor as a one-way arrow that transports categories and relationships from their literal domain to a figurative one in which they inform our interpretations of new situations. However, sometimes we have to reverse the arrow, which amounts to using the figurative world to create new categories and relationships for the literal one. Thus, in Darwin's model the operative concept is one of survival and the processes by which certain species endure longer than others (as in differential reproduction). In the figurative world the species that endure have been "selected;" but the value of the metaphor is that it leads us to accept differential reproduction as a new concept to be invoked in our sense-making activities.

My own thoughts about such two-way arrows first emerged from Margaret Atwood's efforts to introduce new literary categories as a strategy for making sense of the current economic crisis. My post about Atwood was entitled "Poetic Wisdom in Practice," acknowledging a concept of Giambattista Vico long rejected by positivist rationality. Unfortunately, positivism is limited to the objective world, which does not always serve the "messier" aspects of reality particularly well. Atwood was trying to deal with the messier social side of economics; but "life itself" is just as messy. Given our cultural preferences for scientistic thinking, we clearly need to be reminded of this regularly; and it is valuable when the reminder comes from a scientist as reputable as Lewontin.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Westphalia's Last Gasp?

Brian Urquhart's articles about international affairs for The New York Review always make for a fascinating read. As a former Undersecretary-General of the United Nations and biographer of his former boss, Dag Hammarskjöld, he has a clear sense of the history of global thinking following the Second World War; and he is now sufficiently detached from the field of play to take it all in with a relatively dispassionate point of view. Thus, when Thomas G. Weiss wrote the book What's Wrong with the United Nations and How to Fix It (published by Polity in 2008), Urquhart did not respond defensively; instead he wrote the foreword.

In his latest New York Review piece, "Finding the Hidden UN," Urquhart emphasizes one of the key arguments posed by this book:

Weiss points out that although the UN's original purpose was to protect member states against external aggression, sovereignty and power remain vested in those states. Since the UN's founding the need for international management of both political crisis and of global problems has steadily grown, while the incidence of wars between states has steadily decreased. "Treating traditional sovereignty as a cornerstone for the United Nations," Weiss declares, "is a fundamental structural weakness in urgent need of replacement." The concept of sovereignty established by the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 is 360 years old [or was when the book was published]. "This venerable institution," Weiss writes, "remains a hearty enough virus. It is a chronic ailment for the United Nations, and perhaps a lethal one for the planet…." If governments really considered the effectiveness of the United Nations an urgent priority, this would be the first problem they would have to tackle. As it is, one can only wonder which of the great global problems will provide the cosmic disaster that will prove beyond doubt, and probably too late, that our present situation demands a post-Westphalian international order.

Note that his "great global problems" phrase is no mere rhetorical flourish. Rather, it is the context for his entire article, established in very specific language in the opening paragraphs:

So-called "global problems," issues that no government can successfully deal with by itself, were virtually unknown in 1945. Now they include nuclear proliferation, the deterioration of the environment and global warming, international terrorism, pandemics, and a probable future shortage of such necessities as clean water.

Choosing only one of these as an example, Urquhart cites the recent failure of substantive progress at the Copenhagen meeting on climate change.

Weiss' virus metaphor is an apposite one. Were it more tangible, one might also call sovereignty an addictive substance, to the extent that we cannot conceive of thoughts about world affairs in which the concept does not signify. The Treaty of Westphalia may have been effective enough in resolving the horrors of the Thirty Years' War; but it could not have anticipated that, whenever horrors are vanquished, new ones pop up in the most unanticipated ways. Thus the very concept of the United Nations sought to banish the horrors of the Second World War, and even a critic as strong as Weiss acknowledges the success of this effort. However, the founders of the United Nations could not have anticipated that the prospect of another world war would pale beside this "new generation" of "global problems." Unfortunately, neither Weiss nor Urquhart has very much to say about how the world, as a whole, might turn to "post-Westphalian" thinking, which is why they are such brothers in pessimism.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Grammar in Literature

It has been quite some time since I read Dan Chiasson's review of The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis in The New York Review. (It was in the April 20 issue.) However, I realize that, sooner or later, I am going to have to read this book to see for myself just how much she can pack into so few words. Brevity seems to be the sharp edge of her rhetoric, followed closely by an extraordinarily thorough mastery of grammar. Thus, I would not be surprised if this were the entirety of her story "A Double Negative:"

At a certain point in her life, she realizes it is not so much that she wants to have a child as that she does not want not to have a child, or not to have had a child.

Chiasson reflects on this "story" as follows:

The double negative—to say nothing of the future perfect infinitive, "to have had a child"—isn't really permitted in speech; those who talk this way sound persnickety. But everything about what one feels (and in the end, does) about whether to have a child depends on making these hairbreadth grammatical distinctions. Parse it wrong and you are in big trouble: the orphanages are full of kids whose parents failed to parse their own complex thoughts correctly.

Indeed, at a time when tweets have reduced communication to structures even simpler than unadorned subject-predicate couplings, this is the sort of text that reminds us that the subtle twists and turns of grammar, such as the future perfect infinitive, are there for a reason. They are products of prior generations trying to come to grips with the complexity of their own thoughts in such a way that others could effectively understand those thoughts. This is particularly true of all those rich options that make up verb grammar, since any effective communication about actions we take, have taken, or wish to take must be verb-based. Is it too much to say that, if we lose our grip on verb grammar, we create the risk that both acting and communicating about acting may descend into a catastrophic chaos?

Friday, May 14, 2010

Successful Exploitation CHUTZPAH

My never-ending quest for chutzpah led me this week into the bowels of Gawker, thanks to Mark Ward's Tech Brief column on the BBC NEWS Web site. More specifically, I found a post by Adrian Chen to the VALLEYWAG section that provides yet another example of the sort of world the Internet has made. Here is the substance of Chen's account:

If there is one common current that runs throughout all of humanity, it is that everyone Googles themselves all day, every day. Humans are vain creatures! Copywriter Alec Brownstein used this fact to get a job via Google AdWords.

Languishing at a huge ad agency, Brownstein bought the names of his favorite creative directors on Google AdWords for 15 cents per click. Which meant whenever they Googled themselves, Brownstein's ad popped up:

"Hey, [creative director's name]: Goooogling [sic] yourself is a lot of fun. Hiring me is fun, too" with a link to Brownstein's website, alecbrownstein.com.

It worked: Everyone but one of his targets called him, and today Brownstein works for Young & Rubicam, a fancy New York ad agency.

This immediately reminded me of a post in which I recently wrote about "so much of the junk that is now out there on the Internet by those who are better at self-promotion than they are in cultivating a 'self' worth promoting!" Nevertheless, I have to credit Brownstein with coming up with positive-connotation chutzpah. Ultimately, this maneuver was a judo-like move of turning self-promotion on itself, taking the attention of those most fixated on self-promotion and directing it elsewhere (i.e. towards Brownstein himself). I admire his inventiveness, and I admire Young & Rubicam for appreciating the survival value of his strategy. Whether or not they all live happily ever after is beside the point. Brownstein has now given us a new Ur-narrative of Internet life; and the style with which he concocted the narrative earns him the Chutzpah of the Week award.

Second Thoughts about Oil? Think Again!

While it is clear that nothing good has come from the ongoing oil spill from the ruins of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, there was some comfort in both the White House and Congress having second thoughts about future plans for offshore drilling. However, if we are to believe the latest report from Al Jazeera English, such reconsideration may not be consistent with the electorate itself. The Al Jazeera story ended with an account of a poll that deserves attention:

Meanwhile, an Associated Press-GfK poll found that the massive spill in the Gulf of Mexico has not dimmed the American public's desire for drilling oil offshore.

The poll found that half of the Americans surveyed were in favour, while 38 per cent opposed an increase in coastal drilling.

The telephone poll of 1,002 adults for the latest survey was conducted for The Associated Press by GfK Roper Public Affairs & Media between May 7-11.

It has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.3 percentage points.

The poll also found that 42 per cent approved of US president Barack Obama's handling of the ongoing oil spill, while 33 percent disapproved.

The results contrast with the public's reaction to George Bush, the former US president, in his response to the Hurricane Katrina disaster in 2005, also in the Gulf of Mexico.

It is nice to see that the American public is more favorably inclined to Obama's crisis management than it was to Bush's; but, to be fair to Obama's predecessor, the more substantive numbers from the poll basically reinforce that speech Bush gave, in which he invoked the phrase "addicted to oil." The current disaster may be spurring many in Washington to get a lot more serious about alternative energy sources, but this poll seems to indicate that this seriousness has yet to register outside the Beltway. Even if I say this grudgingly, Bush got it right. As a nation, we really are addicted to oil; and, as is the case with drug addiction, "getting a fix" is far more important than any considerations concerned with risks and consequences. It is hard to imagine than any number of media images of oil-soaked birds or dead dolphins is going to shake us from that addiction, particularly in light of the amount of oil industry propaganda that is specifically aimed at keeping us addicted.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Would YOU Join a Social Network Named Diaspora?

When I first encountered Diaspora through a post on Matt Asay's Open Road blog for CNET News, I did not give it much thought. I continue to follow reports of Facebook's problems (as in Asay's post) with what can best be called "detached amusement;" but, like Betty White, I really cannot grasp what it is that motivates so many people to waste so much time, particularly when that time seems to serve as a surrogate for actual face-to-face encounters. Today, however, the story gravitated to The Social, a CNET News column that Caroline McCarthy maintains. Her report taps into yet another indicator of just what kind of world the Internet has made:

Perhaps the most damning critique of Facebook's recent controversial moves has been that a group of programmers have been raising money to create an alternative--and people are donating.

Diaspora, a social-networking project hatched by four New York University programming students in their early 20s, is set to hit $100,000 on Thursday in its quest to raise enough funding from the public to spend the summer building "an open source personal web server that will put individuals in control of their data," using a fundraising platform start-up called Kickstarter. Their original goal was to raise $10,000 by June 1. As of Thursday, they have raised nearly an order of magnitude more than that with 19 days still to go.

McCarthy attributes this financial success to the fact that "animosity toward Facebook is at an all-time high;" and I can certainly appreciate her position. If political advertising plays up to the tendency of the electorate to vote against a candidate or ballot measure, rather than for one, then this story may just be an example of people willing to vote with their pocketbooks against Facebook, even if, as McCarthy makes clear, Diaspora is still in the vaporware stage.

This is little more than a replay of history in a different setting. The dot-com bubble was inflated by investments in promises, rather than products. Nevertheless, there are some interesting questions surrounding both what Diaspora seems to be promising and, perhaps more importantly, how they are packaging their promises. Here is another paragraph from McCarthy's story:

"We are 140-character ideas. We are the pictures of your cat. We are blog posts about the economy. We are the collective knowledge that is Wikipedia," Diaspora's home page explains. "The internet is a canvas--of which, we paint broad and fine strokes of our lives with. It is a forward extension of our physical lives; a meta-self comprised of ones and zeros. We are all that is digital: If we weren't, the internet wouldn't either."

I reproduce it in this form because, having followed her link to the Diaspora home page, I could not find this statement there! It seems to have been displaced by a report of that recent fund-raising result. Nevertheless, I eventually found the statement on a project description page, which is probably where it properly belongs. Either way, I cannot say that it raises an awful lot of confidence. If anything, it reminds me of Yogi Berra's classic remark about déjà vu all over again.

This time, however, the memory stretches much further back than the dot-com bubble, because the very name of the enterprise carries more than a century of unpleasant (if not offensive) baggage with it. Let us begin with the faux definition on the Diaspora home page, which Asay captured in his blog post:

The one thing they got right is the Greek origin of the word; but, since I no longer have my Greek copy of the Septuagint, I cannot say whether or not they got the spelling right. What interests me more is that the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (of all sources) does not give a lower-case spelling of this word. It is listed only in its capitalized form with the following definition:

The dispersion of Jews among the Gentile nations; all those Jews who live outside the biblical land of Israel; (the situation of) any body of people living outside their traditional homeland.

The entry also cites the Septuagint source, which is the 25th verse from the 28th chapter of Deuteronomy. The Hertz Humash calls this the "Blessings and Warnings" chapter, because it enumerates the rewards and punishments for adhering to and violating the laws set forth in the Mosaic code. As you might guess, the 25th verse comes from the "Warnings" section; and it is a goodie:

The Lord will cause thee to be smitten before thine enemies; thou shalt go out one way against them, and shalt flee seven ways before them; and thou shalt be a horror unto all the kingdoms of the earth.

In other words "Diaspora" is one of the best nouns that captures the Old Testament expression of the Wrath of God. This is a name for a social network?

I suppose I find myself irritated by this example because it gores two of my favorite oxen in a single stroke. First, there is the general sense of an awareness of history. Second is the matter of choosing words with respect for what they mean through connotation as well as denotation. In my irritation I could only wonder whether or not a system named "Nakba" could be just as successful in raising $100,000 in seed funding; but I am not sure I want to know the answer to that question.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

From the Department of Weird Coincidences

This just in, as they say: Daniel Nasaw filed the following from his Washington desk for BBC News:

The Los Angeles city council has voted to boycott Arizona businesses in one of the strongest moves yet against the state's new immigration law.

Council members agreed to bar official travel to Arizona and avoid new city contracts with state firms.

The legislation still needs to be signed by the Mayor, but it is now headed for his desk. Meanwhile, according to their touring schedule, the Los Angeles Philharmonic (under the baton of their Venezuelan conductor) is performing tonight in Phoenix (having just performed here in San Francisco on Monday and Tuesday evenings)! Given the rate at which governments move, I doubt that the law will be signed before Gustavo Dudamel lowers his baton to begin tonight's concert!

Where is iTunes when you Want It?

I have to confess that I have a strong bias towards "New York Counterpoint," Steve Reich's composition for eleven clarinets and bass clarinet, which may also be performed by a single clarinetist with amplification to balance a tape of the other parts. That bias owes much to my having heard Reich give an informal talk about this composition at UCLA while I was living in Los Angeles. There were a small enough number of us in the audience that we could all huddle around the twelve-system score pages while Reich played a recorded performance for us. All of this was in preparation for a performance Richard Stoltzman gave of the clarinet-plus-tape version a few days later at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. That performance was an absolute hoot, all the way down to Stoltzman effectively (but not maliciously) mimicking the mannerisms of Benny Goodman.

This was one of those compositions that I absolutely had to include in my collection of recordings. How was I to know what the price would be? I am not talking about out-of-pocket expenses, just aggravation with the package that was released by RCA several years later in 1990. Basically, the recording was marketed as a "jazz product," meaning that, with the exception of "New York Counterpoint," all the tracks were performed by a combo whose personnel were listed on the back. I had some familiarity with the rhythm section, particularly bassist Eddie Gomez but also Glen Velez on percussion. The keyboard people were the unknowns for me, Bill Douglas and Jeremy Wall; but it did not take me long to realize that, when it came to an understanding of jazz, their reality was in an alternative universe immeasurably distant from my own. Then there was the decision to release the entire CD with the title New York Counterpoint, in spite of the fact the most of the other tracks had absolutely nothing to do with Reich and seemed almost calculated to try the patience of any serious Reich fan. The exceptions were an arrangement of Perotin's "Viderunt Omnes" chant, which gets marks for a good college try (unless everyone at your college was a medievalist), and passable arrangements of two songs by Charles Ives, "In the Morning" and "Serenity." However, even accounting for those tracks, none of the CD had anything to do with jazz; and it had even less to do with any composers pursuing genres similar to Reich's.

Let me repeat that all this happened in 1990. The historical significance is that the MP3 format was not approved as an ISO/IEC standard until 1991; and negotiating the Internet, such as it was, involved explicitly specifying gateways if you needed to communicate between component networks. Usenet was the most popular (and probably most viable) piece of software that actually negotiated those gateways for you. Many of us had mastered using FTP (the File Transfer Protocol) through a Unix command line interface and were beginning to play with search tools like Gopher; but I doubt that many of us ever thought that we would be transferring files of recorded music that would eventually shake the foundations of the music business as we knew it.

As a result, I am still old-fashioned enough that I tend to take a physical CD, put it on a player in my computer room, and let the whole thing run from beginning to end. I have a private library of favorites on my hard drive to cater to my needs when I am on the road; and that library is actually organized by composer (classical or jazz), rather than by CD source. Every now and then I may download a track from a source like iTunes for some very specific reason (such as it being music that I am currently learning to play); but this sort of thing happens extremely rarely.

Where "New York Counterpoint" (the Reich composition, rather than the album) is concerned, the only way I would recommend Stoltzman's performance would be by downloading that one track from the CD. Unfortunately, I cannot make that recommendation. I could find no sign of it on iTunes; and Amazon.com did not have a page for MP3 distribution of the content of the album, hence my choice of today's title. I still approve of packaging when it is done properly, but the New York Counterpoint CD is ultimately a great disservice to Reich and does not do much in favor of Stoltzman either. If ever there were a track to be purchased entirely on its own, this one would be a shining example!

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Will These Words Precede Deeds?

The latest BBC News report on the Vatican abuse scandal seems to indicate that the Pope is finally beginning to come to grips with the harsh reality of the situation:

Pope Benedict XVI says the Church's child abuse scandal shows that the greatest threat to Catholicism comes from "sin within" the Church.

He made his comments in response to a question while en route to Portugal.

Critics have previously accused the Vatican of attempting to blame the media and the Church's opponents for the escalation of the scandal.

But the Pope made clear its origin came from within the Church itself, and said forgiveness "does not replace justice".

'Need for penance'

"Today we see in a truly terrifying way that the greatest persecution of the Church does not come from outside enemies, but is born of sin within the Church," the pontiff told reporters on a plane bound for Portugal.

His comments were his most direct response to press questions, and some of his strongest words yet on the abuse scandal, says the BBC's Vatican Correspondent, who is travelling with the Pope.

Benedict said the Church has "a very deep need" to acknowledge that it must do penance for its sins and "accept purification".

However, he added that forgiveness should not be a substitute for justice.

I am comforted by the appearance of justice as a recurring theme in this text. It gives me some hope that, having grasped the magnitude of the crisis facing him, the Pope may finally realize that this is not a problem to be addressed by his usual lofty abstractions. I would further hope that, if he still needs to exercise his mind with philosophy, he would consider the following passage that the Jewish philosopher used to begin his Preface to Ten Rungs, a collection of Hassidic sayings:

They asked the "holy Yehudi": "Why is it written: 'Justice, justice, shalt thou follow' [Deut. 16:20? Why is the word 'justice' repeated?"

He answered: "We ought to follow justice with justice, and not with unrighteousness." That means: the use of unrighteousness as a means to a righteous end makes the end itself unrighteous; injustice as a means to justice renders justice unjust.

It is not enough to invoke the principle of justice. The word has no meaning without at least two necessary contextual foundations. The first concerns the grounds for justice: justice according to what precepts, whether documented in sacred or secular texts or implicit in the normative behavior of a community (as in justice by precedent)? The second concerns who dispenses the justice. If an infraction violates both civil and religious codes, which is the higher authority to rule on questions of crime and punishment? These are not simple matters; and they may well pose challenges to the sort of intellect of which the Pope seems to be so proud (if that is not a cardinal sin). The last thing the offended parties (as well as the Vatican) need is "injustice as a means to justice;" so the next step should be for the Pope to lay out a plan to prevent such an occurrence.