Friday, September 30, 2011

The Heart of the Problem

Catrin Nye, of the BBC Asian Network, has an interesting background piece on the Internet on today’s BBC News site.  In concerns a study by an independent research group, Demos, that tried to assess the level of trust that current students in the United Kingdom put in the reliability of what they read on the Internet.  The results are, to say the least, mixed and may ultimately involve factors that have nothing to do with what is sometimes called “digital literacy,” the capacity for critical thinking and evaluation applied to any content discovered on the Internet.  Thus, for example, students at school whose student body is predominantly Bangladeshi Muslim appear more inclined to believe conspiracy theory stories involving 9/11 and the death of Osama bin Laden.

It seems to me that the real point behind these results is that the underlying question is not one of being able to distinguish signal from noise on the Internet (or any other media source, for that matter).  It also is not a matter of how well any individual is trained in “critical thinking.”  Rather, it is a matter of recognizing that every individual’s thought processes has a social dimension and that interpersonal communication cannot be achieved without accepting that this dimension plays a critical role.

Jamie Bartlett, a senior research at Demos quoted in this article, probably came close to acknowledging this proposition, even if she only closely grazed it.  She has the last word in Nye’s report with the following quote:

Without a common base of history that we all understand and accept and agree upon it's very hard for people to have a shared understanding of where we are now.

This is one way of recognizing the role of the social dimension;  but that claim about “a common base of history” is probably seriously misguided.  Ultimately, it is the prerequisite for “shared understanding;”  and, as I have previously argued, this tends to be a self-centered framing of the problem of understanding:  You understanding me once you share my point of view.  It is why I have rejected the concept of shared understanding in favor of one of negotiated understanding.  This latter does not require “a common base of history.”  It requires, rather, an awareness of differences in history among those parties trying to achieve understanding, which serves as a platform upon which negotiation over differing worldviews may take place.

In terms of how we use the Internet, we may be dealing with a world in which one man’s signal is another man’s noise.  The problem is that, if both men are locked into their respective signals, they will never communicate.  The question is not one of how we get rid of the noise on the Internet.  Rather, the question will always be what any body of content may actually be trying to tell us and, as a result, how we should respond to such communicating “move” (as Erving Goffman would put it).  This requires considerable mental effort on the part of all communicating, which may be asking too much of a global society whose only commonality has become a tendency towards laziness.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Verb-Based Approach to Representation

I have begun to wrestle with the philosophical treatise Art and Its Objects by Richard Wollheim, and it did not take the author long to start wrestling with the noun “representation” and try to tease out just what it means.  Of course he was hardly the first to undertake this task, and it will probably help my reading to have gone onto this ground under the guidance of past philosophers.  It may be that the most useful of those philosophers would be Charles Sanders Peirce, whose 1868 paper for the Proceedings of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, “On a New List of Categories” offers the distinction of “three kinds of representation.”

This analytical approach has achieved somewhat classic status among those who study semiotics, and I see that I myself last visited it on this site this past December.  Still, it is worth reviewing just what those three “kinds” are in Peirce’s own words:
  1. Those whose relation to their objects is a mere community in some quality, and these representations may be termed Likenesses.
  2. Those whose relation to their objects consists in a correspondence in fact, and these may be termed Indices or Signs.
  3. Those the ground of whose relation to their objects is an imputed character, which are the same as general signs, and these may be termed Symbols.
This is useful as far as it goes, particularly in helping to negotiate Wollheim’s apparent need to establish a distinction between representation and resemblance, which seems to assume that, contrary to Peirce, he believes there is only one “kind” of representation.

However, there may be a broader issue at stake, which is the effort to think of representation in terms of artifacts (as in “objects” of art).  I am not sure this is a useful stance to take, particularly when the art in question happens to be music.  Back in 2009 I had the following to write after having experienced a series of concerts covering both volumes of The Well-Tempered Clavier by Johann Sebastian Bach:

However, what this exhaustive account of the second 24 of the full set of 48 preludes and fugues achieved that was more important was a reinforcement of my appreciation that a fugue has less to do with a formal structure than with a particular approach to an imitative process.  Thus, my own composition teacher used to prefer to speak of fuguing as a process you acquire from performing the products of related processes, rather than by following structural guidelines and constraints.  In this same light I see from my Shorter Oxford English Dictionary that "prelude" can be used as a verb, meaning that one takes the same process-based approach to composition and performance.  In more pretentious language one might say that neither "prelude" nor "fugue" constitutes a particularly legitimate ontological category, although one can recognize "family resemblances" of particular preludes to other preludes and similarly for fugues.  (At least one of the preludes in the second volume actually bears a very strong family resemblance to one of Bach's two-part inventions.)  The lesson, as I see it, is that music is fundamentally far more verb-based than noun-based:  The music is in the making rather than in the note-bearing objects involved in that making.

In other words too much attention to those objects could actually be a distraction from the most relevant issues of the nature of art;  and this could be just as true of the making of a painting as it is of the composition of a structure of “note-bearing objects.”

From this point of view, we might do well to rethink the concept of representation in verb-based terms, thinking less about Peirce’s three kinds of objects and more about acts of representing (words chosen to reflect the title of Jerome Bruner’s book, Acts of Meaning).  In this framework we might do better to think in terms of those actions associated with achieving what Friedrich Hayek called a “sensory order,” or, as I recently put it in an article, those actions through which “the mind brings ‘sensory order’ to the stimuli of sense data (the “blooming, buzzing confusion” of William James).”  This does not eliminate the need for objects;  it simply establishes a different stance for thinking about them.

This may be appreciated in my summary of the fundamental thesis behind Hayek’s book, The Sensory Order:

Hayek’s most important point was that the primary function of mind consisted of the formation of categories and the recognition of those “objects” that are instances of those categories.

“Representing” is thus not only a matter of asserting that a given object is an instance of a given category but is also the broader and more challenging task of developing a repertoire of categories within such instantiation can be asserted.  From this verb-based point of view, the “making of art” (which would include the performance of music) as an ongoing process in the course of which pre-existing commitments to both categories and instances may be subject to change.

This is what makes the task of description so difficult.  The challenge of providing a textual account of “what is” is already, as has been previously discussed, formidable enough.  Where the performance of music is concerned, however, “what is” is secondary to “what is happening;”  but “what is happening” is already “in the moment.”  We cannot begin to describe it (and mind cannot try to deal with it in terms of categories and instances) until it has elapsed;  and then we have to worry about a “new moment!”  The act of description is not only formidable, it may also be theoretically impossible.  The best we can do is engage in an ongoing process of coming up with approximations;  and the beauty of the performance of music is that there will always be room for yet another approximation, which may or may not be a refinement of a previous one!

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Educated for War?

The most striking sentence in Patricia Storace’s review of David Grossman’s novel To the End of the Land for the October 13 issue of The New York Review of Books and now available for all to read online comes at the very end of her analysis:

Yet from toy soldiers and paratrooper dolls, model tanks, displays of the emblems of Israeli army corps, pop songs from the armed forces radio station, school visits from soldiers, and picture books about army adventures, to teenagers taking state-sponsored trips to concentration camp sites in Poland, Israeli childhood educates for war.

To be fair, it would not surprise me to find a similar (or analogous) assertion made about the Palestinians;  but that is not the critical point.  That point can be found in one of the analyses of the Old Testament.  That analysis suggests that the reason that Moses led the Jews freed from Egyptian bondage around in the desert for forty years was to allow a new generation to mature.  Put another way, a population that has always been in slavery is not ready for freedom.  The Children of Israel could not enter the Promised Land until they had leaders who had not known slavery.

Whether or not this is a valid Biblical interpretation, it suggests the hypothesis that a population that has only known war may not be capable of living in peace.  The history of Israel has been a narrative of one conflict after another, and things are not that different in the chronicles of the displaced Palestinians.  Peace may not be able to come with any stability until both sides have grown up knowing what it means to live in peace.  Needless to say, this does not make the prospects for peace in the near future particularly promising.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

No Coincidence?

It took reading Darryl Pickney’s piece on Manning Marable’s biography of Malcolm X to remind me that the subject’s birth name was Malcolm Little.  That name immediately rang a bell:  It is the surname of one of the most memorable characters in The Wire, the notorious Omar, who shared with his classmate Bunk Morgan the firm conviction that “A man gotta have a code.  This, alone, would provide sufficient justification for his sharing Malcolm’s original surname.

Bucking the System: Two Points of View

When you cast your ballot at this straw poll, send Washington a message. They're ready for a problem solver, not another politician. They're ready for solutions, not more speeches. That's what the United States of America, the people are ready for. Send Washington a message.

This was enough to give him 37% of the vote.  The significance of this number can be seen in that the next two candidates, Rick Perry and Mitt Romney, received 29% combined.  That says something for a candidate whose leadership experience had nothing to do with politics and culminated in serving as CEO for Godfather’s Pizza;  but, since only 3500 Floridians participated in the straw poll, it is unclear just how much it says.  Certainly, as far as Fox News is concerned, it was not an endorsement of the significance of Cain’s message, since Sean Hannity seemed more interested in interviewing Rick Santorum than on giving Cain an opportunity to elaborate on his words.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the pond, the Labour Party has been having its annual conference in Liverpool, where they heard Ed Miliband deliver a similar message.  Like Cain he did not pull any punches in taking the very foundations of his nation’s government to task.  Here is how BBC News reported his speech:

"Recognise what is staring you in the face - and understand that protecting our economy matters more than protecting your failed plan," he advised the prime minister.

He told delegates the phone hacking scandal, the banking crisis and the summer riots "point to something deep in our country - the failure of a system, a way of doing things, an old set of rules.

"An economy and a society too often rewarding not the right people with the right values, but the wrong people with the wrong values."

Mind you, he was not trying to win a straw poll with these words.  He was addressing a faithful flock of party insiders with the usual arguments to lay the blame on the other party.  Thus, Miliband’s call for reform comes from the inside, while Cain came to the Florida poll as an outsider taking all insiders to task.

Will either of these voices prevail?  Both were right to play for a national spirit that is fed up with being crushed by political business-as-usual.  These are times in which calling for reform is a good way to get elected, and Barack Obama remains an outstanding case in point.  However, he is also a case in point for the problems that face the reform candidate who succeeds in getting elected, a predicament that was excellently depicted in the fictitious account of a reform candidate for Mayor of Baltimore in The Wire.  Indeed, Obama may well have left the legacy of a nation that no longer has the audacity to hope that a failed system of representative government can give way to a new “way of doing things.”  The enemy of reform is inertia, and my guess is that neither Cain nor Miliband would dare talk about just how much inertia there is in that system or why there is so much of it.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Who Thinks What is News

The following report greeted me this morning as I was reviewing my RSS feed from BBC News:

At least 80 people have been arrested during an anti-Wall Street march in New York's financial district.

Several hundred people took part in Saturday's march, which was intended to draw attention to "corporate greed and corrupt politics" in the US.

Participants carried banners supporting a range of other issues, including healthcare reform, an end to US wars and the scrapping of the death penalty.

The march came after a week of protests by the Occupy Wall Street campaign.

I shall not go into further details.  Rather, I want to observe that, because yesterday was a Saturday, I could not get my usual BBC World Service Television feed, I found myself watching NBC instead.  Apparently, the network did not feel the protest was important enough to make the cut of news that could fit into a half-hour (less time for commercials) slot.  In other words, if I want to get an account of progressive activities in my own country, it looks as if the BBC delivers the goods better than NBC.  Why am I not surprised?

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Abbas Upsets the Apple Cart

I suspect that many would not agree, but one way to read yesterday’s application for recognition submitted by Mahmoud Abbas to the United Nations is as a sign of just how long his patience has endured.  In a way he spent decades playing the role of Charlie Brown while everyone else, not only Israel but also Tony Blair and the Quartet of the United States, the United Nations, the European Union, and Russia that Blair represented kept preventing him from connecting with the football of peace in the Middle East.  Even if his application is vetoed by the Security Council, the source of that veto will be a matter of public record.  All Abbas could do was risk the discontent of his own electorate by playing the game by the rules and letting the chips fall where they may.

Another way to read yesterday’s events is that Abbas has embraced the role of the unreasonable man.  In doing so he has found sympathy in at least one Western voice, that of George Bernard Shaw:

The reasonable man adapts himself to the conditions that surround him... The unreasonable man adapts surrounding conditions to himself... All progress depends on the unreasonable man.

Abbas has made the unreasonable man’s play for progress.  Now we wait to see how all those who proclaim themselves reasonable by their own standards decide how to react.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Bruckner, Mahler, and Furtwängler

The abundance of opportunities to hear the music of Gustav Mahler in Davies Symphony Hall here in San Francisco seems to be matched only by the paucity of opportunities to hear anything by Anton Bruckner.  As a young, arrogant, and therefore foolish student, I had little tolerance for Bruckner’s music and held to the distorted precept that Mahler figured out how to succeed where Bruckner had failed.  It was only after my first contact with Henry-Louis de La Grange’s biography of Mahler, as originally published in English by Doubleday, that I began to appreciate the relationship between these two composers.

One sentence from de La Grange captures the beginning of that relationship:

When Mahler entered the university of Vienna on October 1, 1877, he immediately joined Bruckner’s harmony class.

More relevant, however, may be one of the preceding paragraphs:

Whatever one may think of Bruckner’s music—which, despite its real greatness and its undeniable beauty, demands of the listener a spiritual repose rare west of the Rhine—one must admire the warmhearted man, the teacher, the generous older musician constantly discovering and helping talented younger men, and exercising a beneficial influence on the destinies of Mahler, Hugo Wolf, [Hans] Rott, and many others.

I find this interesting in the context of one particular individual among those who “may think” of Bruckner and of those he influenced.  That individual is the conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler.  The audio documentary that is included in Wilhelm Furtwängler:  The Great EMI Recordings makes it clear that Furtwängler did not think very much of Mahler.  Nevertheless, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau discusses the experience of recording the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen with Furtwängler;  and I find it interesting that the EMI producers decided that this was the recording they would include in their Complete Works collection, which they released for Mahler’s 150th birthday.  I find it equally interesting that Fischer-Dieskau mentioned only one Mahler symphony that Furtwängler conducted, the third, which, by just about any criterion, has to go down as one of the most unwieldy.

Compare what we thus know about Furtwängler’s opinion of Mahler with that 107-CD collection, Wilhelm Furtwängler:  The Legacy, which includes six CDs, one for each of Bruckner’s fourth, fifth, sixth (but only in excerpts), seventh, eighth, and ninth symphonies.  I remember the ninth, because it was in the Deutsche Grammophon vinyl collection through which I first came to appreciate Furtwängler;  but I had no idea that he had recorded so much of the man, particular in comparison with how little he had recorded of Mahler.  Now, as I approach these recordings, I find myself thinking about how little Bruckner I have heard in performance.  The fact is that I have only heard Bruckner performed by the San Francisco Symphony (which Michael Tilson Thomas has fashioned into a world-class champion of Mahler) and only on two occasions in Davies Symphony Hall.  One was in February of 2010 during one of Herbert Blomstedt’s annual returns as Conductor Laureate, when he performed the sixth symphony in A major.  The other was about a year earlier, when Kurt Masur was making one of his periodic return visits to the San Francisco Symphony and chose to couple Sofia Gubaidulina’s “The Light of the End” with Bruckner’s fourth.

Does Bruckner deserve a better shake?  He certainly gets one from Furtwängler, and Masur and Blomstedt seem to have had no trouble passing on that torch.  I also find de La Grange’s grounds to criticism to be a bit amusing, at least in the context of my own listening habits and the opportunities to cultivate those habits.  The fact is that, when I think about spirituality among composers, my first thoughts turn almost immediately to the intense Catholic faith of Olivier Messiaen.  In the context of de La Grange’s remark, I immediately recognize that France is as much west of the Rhine as we are, even if it is a bit closer!  Admittedly, Messiaen may also run a bit short of champions;  but there seems to be more of a tendency to embrace his spirituality, probably because of the ways in which it is coupled to his modernism, while Bruckner is better remembered for that supportive personality that de La Grange cites.  This is probably an unfair perspective, but public preferences are rarely grounded in factors that can be traced back to listening experiences.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The New Ancient History?

In the San Francisco concert scene the month of October will be getting off to a roaring start, but I suspect the event I am most anticipating will be the opening concert of the 2011–2012 subscription series concerts of the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players (SFCMP).  The irony, however, it that there is nothing really contemporary about the part of the program I am most anticipating;  and yet it bears a critical relevance to the conception of the entire season.  The new Artistic Director, Steven Schick, conceived of the season under the rubric title Zones of Intensity.  That is a phrase that can be found in a 2004 paper for Contemporary Music Review by Gerard Pape on the subject of Edgard Varèse’s approach to composition.  As Pape put it, Varèse explored “the concept of a counterpoint of differing zones of intensity that would be demarcated by different colours and amplitudes.”  Schick’s title thus amounts to declaring Varèse as the patron saint of the subscription season, if not of SFCMP itself.

Varèse, of course, died in 1965.  Put another way, he died before many leading composers and performers of “contemporary music” (for all I know, including Schick, whose Web pages do not appear to be forthcoming about his birthday) were born.  Another way of setting context is that we are about a dozen years of shy of the centennial anniversary of the composition of “Octandre.”  This work was selected to represent Varèse in the subscription season;  and it is, by a very long shot, the oldest work to be included in this season of five concerts.

Thus it will not surprise me if there are several (if not many) people in the audience who have never heard it.  I count myself lucky to have come to know it not only through some fine recordings but also through a performance by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center.  In spite of all of this historical context, I almost with that the program for this first SFCMP concert not explicitly give the year in which “Octandre” was composed or, for that matter, the years of Varèse’s birth and death.  I would guess that those who are unfamiliar with this music will be struck that, at its ripe old age, it still reverberates with a sense of newness that stands out above any number of scores for which the ink on the manuscript pages has not yet dried.  This could turn out to be a fun concert!

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Europe Insecure about the Patriot Act

Every now and then the technology news tells us more about the state of our own country than reports on foreign affairs or the economy.  Consider a post recently filed by Zack Whittaker for the Between the Lines blog on ZDNet with the following introduction:

The Dutch government is to “basically [...] exclude” U.S. cloud providers from government IT contracts amid concerns of the reach of the Patriot Act in Europe.

To prevent sensitive citizen data from being compromised by U.S. authorities, the move to bar U.S. companies from providing cloud-based services and data processing capabilities is only a temporary measure until the European Commission changes the data protection laws.

Discussed by the European Parliament’s Privacy Platform earlier this month, the Patriot Act is being investigated by European authorities, after Gordon Frazer, managing director of Microsoft UK, exclusively told ZDNet that the Redmond-based company must comply with Patriot Act requests, and other companies with a U.S. presence must do also.

This contravenes European law, which states that organisations cannot pass on user data to a third-party outside the European zone without the users’ permission.

Does this mean that Europe is soft on terrorism?  They have as much to fear from terrorist attacks as the United States does.  They simply reject the Patriot Act philosophy that has dispensed with cool reason in favor of heated emotion.  Having had to endure attacks on their own soil, they also wonder whether the Patriot Act is really as effective as our own government seems to believe it to be.  That is why Whittaker concluded his post with the following punch line:

Last month, an article published claimed that the power to search suspects with Patriot Act invoked ‘delayed warrants’ — the ability to search without formally making warrants known to the subject, to prevent the loss of vital evidence — were used in 1,618 drug-related cases, 122 cases for fraud, but only 15 cases relating to terrorism.

This is clearly not in the same league as automobile manufacturers losing overseas business by not accommodating the need to put the steering wheel on the other side.  This addresses a broader problem of what happens when globalization “bumps into” (as Ken Auletta would put it) security.  My guess is that American cloud providers were not prepared for this particular bump or its implications, and neither was our own government.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Beyond Reason

Forget about Charles Dickens.  We are so far beyond any talk of the best of times and the worst of times that any reference to that cliché runs the gamut from trite to painful.  Let’s not kid ourselves.  These are rotten times.  Indeed, the one proposition that may actually find agreement among those on the far left and those on the far right has to do with just how bad things are.

Indeed, there is probably even agreement on why they are so bad, at least to the extent that progressives are as willing to point the finger at Barack Obama as are the most dedicated conservatives.  Beyond that one point of agreement, however, paths differ;  and that is where dysfunction takes over the whole picture.  At the heart of that dysfunction is a change in the practice of politics itself, a change that had a lot to do with why those of us who voted for Obama chose to do so.  I submit that we saw the Bush Administration as an object lesson of what can happen when the forces of reason must give way to self-interest run rampant.  We saw Obama as the leader of an Administration guided by ideas rather than ideologies.

What we did not realize was that ideas have lost all currency in today’s political system, regardless of who is sitting at the desk in the Oval Office.  Here is how Michael Tomasky put it in his “Republican Days of Wrath” piece for The New York Review:

Usually a political movement is driven by its ideas. Then it chooses the rhetoric it thinks best advances the ideas. I’ve long thought that sometime in the 1990s, this normal process reversed itself on the American right, and rhetoric began driving, and even elbowing out, ideas. Once this wall is breached, compromise on any important issue becomes impossible, and responsible policymaking nearly so.

Tomasky then makes the case that conservative rhetoric has less to do with any agenda for the future of the United States and more to do with demonizing those who do not agree with them:

When you call someone an “enemy” enough times, when you say enough times that the person across from you doesn’t have simply wrong ideas but wicked ones, how can you tolerate compromise with such a person? The conservative rhetoric factory has persuaded millions of Americans that Democrats and liberals are evil, that the poor are lazy, that government is incapable of any good, and that the press, television, and Internet are in on the conspiracy to make sure they all triumph at the expense of everyone else.

In the midst of this “cognitive chaos” we have a President who continues to assume that, sooner or later, things will get bad enough that everyone will have to grow up and go back to the old-fashioned way of thinking about how to solve the prevailing problems.

Tomasky’s basic point is that this ain’t gonna happen.  The conservatives are getting too much mileage out of their rhetoric to sacrifice it.  Meanwhile, ideas are not fairing much better in the White House itself.  This side of the story has now been addressed in today’s edition of The New York Times by Michiko Kakutani in her review of Ron Suskind’s new book, Wall Street, Washington, and the Education of a President.  This book comes across as a “searing” (Kakutani’s adjective) indictment of a chief executive who can neither form nor manage an effective team for getting the country out of the economic mess made by his preceding Administration.  Obviously, this book does not track Obama’s progress all the way up to today’s headlines;  but it certainly leaves us wondering whether or not anything has changed since Suskind’s manuscript went to press.

What, then, are progressives to do?  This question came up recently in a panel discussion on Book TV.  Katrina vanden Heuvel (of The Nation) seemed to speak for the entire panel in her recommendation that progressives should give up on the 2012 presidential election as a lost cause and set their sights for 2016, to which my grandmother would probably have replied, “You should live so long.”  The panel also agreed that progressives should not desert the polls and should not push for a Democratic nominee to replace Obama.  The point of agreement is that splitting a party always leads to losing the election.  That, of course, is not strictly true.  Republican John Anderson ran for President as a third-part candidate against Ronald Reagan;  and we all know what happened.  (I voted for him.  I knew he would lose, and I knew to whom he would lose.  I just felt he deserved getting enough votes to qualify for funding as a legitimate candidate.)

The consensus on the panel was that, no matter how bad things were, a Republican in the White House would only make them worse.  I am not sure I agree;  and it’s not because of the usual how-much-worse-can-things-get argument.  (A major corollary to Murphy’s Law is that, when you assume that things cannot get any worse, they always do.)  Rather, I wonder whether the progressives might function more effectively as the force of opposition.  (Norman Thomas never won an election.  Nevertheless, just about everything he advocated eventually found its way into law.)  Face it, progressives are already in the minority as the only players in the current political system still trying to work with ideas;  so, whoever is in the Oval Office, those who depend on rationality alone are not going to establish any significant power.  I would argue that progressives can build more political capital by establishing their position as a “loyal opposition” (even if that means breaking with other Democrats) and then sticking to their guns.  Thus, if they really do want to set their sights for 2016, there is no reason why they cannot be building their platform even before the Democratic Convention of 2012.

Shifting public opinion away from shallow rhetoric to substantive ideas is not going to be easy.  It’s going to take a lot of time.  If you want that shift to have a foothold by 2016, then it’s going to take a lot of preparation.  As Hillel said, “If not now, when?”

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Public Television for the 21st-Century Public?

Yesterday I used my national site to give a shout-out for all those wonderful videos that Merrill Brockway produced for the old PBS Dance in America series.  As I wrote in my second sentence, Brockway “brought to the video capture of both ballet and modern dance that same ‘gold standard’ of production values that Jordan Whitelaw had established in his video coverage of the Boston Symphony Orchestra for Evening at Symphony.”  The occasion for my writing this piece was a New York Times story about Brockway donating his archives to the National Dance Institute of New Mexico.

Now I have no problem with those archives being given to an institution committed to dance education.  Another sentence in my piece asserted that both Brockway and Whitelaw “were committed to educating their viewers without making ‘educational television’ feel like a tedious and oppressive concept.  However, this was not just “educational television;”  it was public television.  Without casting any aspersions on the National Dance Institute, does this mean that Brockway’s videos will be out of reach for the rest of us?

This prompted me to do some poking around on YouTube in search of video content.  Apparently PBS is not uploading any of its programming, at least as a matter of national policy.  I found a few things that had been uploaded by individual stations but nothing on the national scale of Dance in America or even the national distribution level of Evening at Symphony.  PBS does have its own video site.  However, this is all relatively recent stuff (long after PBS production standards went down the tubes, consigning the likes of Brockway and Whitelaw to the dustbin of a history meant to be forgotten);  and the Performing Arts section seems to consist heavily of previews and other fragments, hardly a resource for an engaging introduction to the performance of either dance or music.  This should serve as an informative barometer of just what our government thinks of the performing arts, but I doubt that this data point will surprise many of us.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

The Arab Spring Comes to Wall Street

Apparently the spirit of revolution can come back to life in the United States.  However, this time around the model seems to have less to do with throwing tea into Boston Harbor and more to do with storming the Bastille or confronting Marie Antoinette over the need for bread.  I am still trying to assess who is finding this newsworthy.  However, because the parallel to the Arab Spring is so obvious, I was not surprised that I should read about it first on Al Jazeera English.  Here is how they presented the story:

Building on the momentum of the Arab Spring movements, protesters in the US are gathering in New York City's financial district in a bid to show mass resistance against the dominance of the country's financial system.

What started as an online campaign has translated into action on the ground, with protest organisers calling for thousands of people to "occupy Wall Street" on Saturday.

"On the 17th of September, we want to see 20,000 people flood into lower Manhattan, set up beds, kitchens, peaceful barricades and occupy Wall Street for a few months," organisers wrote on the website.

"Like our brothers and sisters in Egypt, Greece, Spain, and Iceland, we plan to use the revolutionary Arab Spring tactic of mass occupation to restore democracy in America. We also encourage the use of nonviolence to achieve our ends and maximize the safety of all participants."

The leaderless movement includes hacktivist group Anonymous among the protesters. The group released a video online calling on people to take to the streets on September 17.

Similar to the structure of the hacktivist group itself there is no defined central authority, but Twitter accounts like @AnonOps are hubs of information for those attending the protests in person and virtually.

It will be interesting to see how many of the people they wish to confront are actually there on Saturday.  While it is true that a lot of these folks now work 24/7, it is just as true that they can be at home with a laptop as easily as sitting at a workstation on Wall Street.  What will probably matter more is just how long the protestors plan to hold their ground.  The game plan may be that there will be a lot of reporters on hand by the time it is Monday morning, and which time I suspect that the media are going to need a lot of technology to delete a lot of expletives!

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Why There is not Always "an App for That"

Ken Hess put up a post to the Virtually Speaking blog on ZDNet this morning with the provocative title “Why desktop computing failed.”  I suppose one could reduce the entire piece to the following motto:

The desktop is dead;  long live the app!

Here is a more reasoned statement of the basic argument in Hess’ own words:

Applications, not the OS, is where it’s at. Who cares to interact with the operating system for anything other than to run applications? I do but I’m a computer guy. But, if there’s an app for that, I want to use it. I can’t think of any reason whatsoever, under normal circumstances, for ordinary users to interact with the operating system. Sure, some of us techie-types like to mess with the OS but for most people, it’s just not a need.

Now, granting that blogs are there for all of us to vent our opinions, my basic conclusion is that, like just about any other technology wonk, Hess assumes that anything he says for himself applies to all users.  In other words he is a typical example of why those of us who just want to get our work done never seem to avoid running afoul of the computer systems we use.

To be fair, I have to plead to being “a computer guy.”  On the basis of his brief biographical statement, I would say that there is a good chance that I was “a computer guy” before Hess was born;  but that has nothing to do with my current work activities.  Now I spend most of my time writing, and most of my writing work involves doing background research.  For me the great virtue of current technology is that I can be doing my research in tandem with my writing.  This means that my rough drafts end of being sort of like stream-of-consciousness diary pages (or laboratory notebook for those who think the concept should be more dignified) that play out hypotheses and then document the sources I invoke to support those hypotheses;  but I can do this because most (but not all) of those sources are in digital form, either on the Web or on my hard drive.  I still have a fair amount of heavy lifting to do when it comes to turning a rough draft into something worthy of the attention of my readers, but the act of composition has become much more dynamic for me.  For better or worse, I relish those dynamic qualities.

However, those dynamic qualities reveal the shallowness of Hess’ thinking, at least where my own work habits are concerned.  The fact is that, while many aspire to a world in which all we shall need is a Web browser that easily manages a collection of tabs, I require a level of interoperability that goes beyond such a simplistic worldview.  At the very least, digitization itself as part of what I do, mostly in the form of scanning with optical character recognition;  and, because I respect the constraints of copyright, I feel it necessary to confine all of my created digital forms to the privacy of my hard drive.  Similarly, I do a lot of reading;  and that involves a lot of note-taking.  I would not want my notes to reside anywhere except on that hard drive (and its backup server, which I still prefer to keep as a local device, rather than a cloud service).  Indeed, I do not want my rough drafts to reside anywhere other than locally.

My point is that I do a lot of things with a lot of applications, but it is not just about using those applications.  It is about whether I can depend on a useful level of interoperability among them.  That interoperability takes many forms, but almost all of them are supported by an underlying operating system.  Each application may be designed to allow the operating system to do its thing, but that is ultimately the point.  No application can ever be designed to anticipate all the possibilities of interoperability, but it can be designed to confirm to some set of basic functionality guaranteed by the operating system.  Take away that interoperability, and I would no longer be able to streamline my research practices to the extent that I have done so.

Having now made my point, I should also say that I agree with Hess’ indictment of “the fat and stupid operating system.”  It does not take an awful lot of functionality to support interoperability;  but the simplicity of such a foundation has not prevent most of the operating systems out there from becoming bloated with “features” (scare quotes intended) that are more likely to get in your way than facilitate your work practices.  On the other hand, as we all know from Microsoft Office, it is just as easy for an application to succumb to such bloat as it is for an operating system.

The bottom line, then, is that Hess chose the wrong target.  It is not the operating systems that have failed.  The failure lies with software developers (and probably their managers) who prefer to go after “the next cool thing” without ever taking the time to think about what users are actually doing and how those activities may be impacted (and usually impeded) by the narrowness of vision that plagues the development process.