Sunday, December 30, 2012

No Executive Power

The Republican President Theodore Roosevelt (who also happened to be a major supporter of progressive causes) may be best known for a single motto:
Speak softly, and carry a big stick.
President Barack Obama is very good a speaking softly. He even understands the rhetorical trick of speaking softly with great intensity. However, for all of that intensity, there seems to be no stick in sight, large or otherwise. This is the time when authority needs to be reinforced with meaningful do-it-my-way-or-else threats; but, the way things stand, the "or else" will be the price of doing nothing, a state of fiscal uncertainty that, while very much a fiction of convenience, can still undermine the behavior of both national and global markets.

The bottom line is that those members of Congress who owe their seats to TEA Party support still feel obliged to "dance with the one that brung them." They will not be swayed by the authority of the White House, since most of those "that brung them" feel nothing but contempt for our President. Nor will they be swayed by the authority of the Speaker of the House, who is more worried about whether the new Congress will keep him as Speaker than about anything else. In other words, like Obama, he lacks any stick with which to threaten.

Our country is as divided as it was when Abraham Lincoln was President. Lincoln tried to solve the problem through an appropriate mix of beguiling rhetoric and bare-knuckles politics. Obama clearly appreciates the rhetoric side of this mix, but we have yet to see his knuckles.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Ravel, the Two-Way Arranger

When I recently wrote about the new Decca Ravel: The Complete Edition release on my national site, I made it a point to observe that the use of the adjective "complete" was a bit of a stretch, using Grove Music Online to track down a few original works that were missing. There was also a bit of variability over how Ravel was represented as an arranger. The orchestration of Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition was not included, which I felt was totally understandable. On the other hand I was glad to see that the collection included Ravel's two-piano arrangement of Claude Debussy's three orchestra nocturnes (which is now my second recording of this impressively successful effort).

However, while I do not mind the absence of the Mussorgsky arrangement (partly because I could not begin to enumerate the number of times this has been recorded), I regret that the Decca collection did not account for the fact that Ravel's relationship with Debussy cut both ways. Not only did he distill some of that composer's richest orchestral writing down to two pianos, but also he orchestrated a few that same composer's piano pieces. The Naxos Complete Orchestral Works Debussy includes Ravel's orchestrations of the sarabande movement from Pour le piano and the short "Danse" piano solo (along with other orchestrations by composers contemporary to both Debussy, such as André Caplet, and the present day, such as Robin Holloway).

Off the top of my head, I cannot think of another composer who took this "bidirectional" approach to arrangement with anyone, let alone a colleague as close as Debussy was for Ravel.

Friday, December 28, 2012

The Reality of Congressional Leadership

There are those who would argue that the history of military defeats is based on the strategies of leaders who refuse to recognize that the enemy is playing by a new set of rules. As Barack Obama once again brings Congressional leaders together to stave off that "fiscal cliff," one wishes he were more up on this perspective. Until he recognizes that House Speaker John Boehner is a leader in name only, demonstrated by his own party's rejection of his "Plan B" effort to establish a "working compromise" position, there is little our President can do other than repeat the usual litany of appeals to rationality. By honoring "chain of command" and excluding Eric Cantor, designated "hit man" for the TEA Party, from the discussion, he is taking a position as foolish as our refusal to recognize the reality of the People's Republic of China for so many of the decades of the twentieth century (an irony that I doubt someone like Cantor would be willing to acknowledge).

The Mother of All Unanticipated Consequences

For those who have not been following the results of the gun buyback program initiated by the City of Los Angeles, I must call attention to the post hoc think piece for The Atlantic Wire by Alexander Abad-Santos. Most important is the author's observation that the collection of weapons turned in to gift cards from Ralph's included two anti-tank rocket launchers. As Abad-Santos observed, this raises innumerable questions:
The first being, who in Los Angeles had military-grade rocket launchers in their house(s)?
Actually, considering the city, I do not find that one particularly difficult. The answer I would propose is:
Anyone who is a character in an action movie made within the last ten years.
The more interesting question, which action-movie scriptwriters tend to ignore as a messy detail, is:
How could someone living in Los Angeles come to possess that weapon in the first place, particularly someone clueless enough to let on that (s)he has the weapon by exchanging it for a Ralph's card?
Then there is the question for all of us who feel frustrated at the intransigence of the National Rifle Association, based on their current philosophy of arming teaching in classrooms:
Is the only solution to "a bad guy with an anti-tank rocket launcher" going to be "a good guy with an anti-tank rocket launcher?"
Shouldn't we be asking what anti-tank rocket launchers are doing in a supply chain directed at the general public and how they got there?

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Bing Gordon's Wish Meets Reality

I continue to be haunted by the only opportunity I ever had to hear Bing Gordon address an audience. The setting was a convention on the topic of media "convergence," that had apparently been organized (and probably financed) by Comcast at a time when opportunities for viewing video on any platform other than broadcast television were still pretty clunky. At the time Gordon was Chief Creative Officer for Electronic Arts (EA); and he advocated a convergence of technology through which EA customers would be able to play their games on their own mobile devices. In an attempt to be witty, he envisaged a future of playing an EA game on a mobile phone as one of being able to "reach out and kill someone." Yes, those were his words, taken down in my handwritten notes and transferred to one of the PowerPoint slides I used in delivering my trip report.

Gordon has moved on from EA since then, but his legacy remains. Indeed, in the wake of Newtown, we are beginning to appreciate the intimacy of the connection between first-person-shooter games and reality. This morning BBC News ran a story about EA and the removal of hyperlinks to "real-world" weapons manufacturers on the Web site for their Medal of Honor game. Note the specificity of the content. Violence is the bread-and-butter of the catalog of EA products; and the story made no mention of other links between EA and weapons businesses. Thus, there is every reason to believe that today's announcement is merely a symbolic gesture to calm an outraged public, which can easily be undone once the current surge of outrage has passed. For EA, as for any other enterprise, the conduct of business depends on sustaining business-as-usual.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

This News Story Brought to you by …

This morning on Yahoo! News, a Reuters report about the current patent dispute between Samsung and Ericsson was almost literally plastered over in every imaginable location with advertising for the HP Discover 2012 conference in Frankfurt, Germany. This included a reader poll on the question of whether there were too many gadgets on the market, the sort of thing many readers might have taken to be a more innocuous Yahoo! News poll. The logic seems to be that, while HP in not directly involved in the patent dispute, it may well be trying to make lemonade from the lemons of others. Disturbing as this is, it is probably a harbinger.

Do not be surprised if one morning, in the middle of the hourly news broadcast, the NPR reporter says, "The following report has been sponsored by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation;" and the story turns out to be about some innovation in health care. The implication would be that the story only "made the cut" because of its financial backing. "All the news that fits" must now worry about who pays for the real estate!

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Drunk on Power

Taking a few days off from deliberations over that mythical "fiscal cliff" is not going to improve matters. To paraphrase Bill Clinton:
It's the power, stupid!
Politics has always been about the legitimation of power, as Max Weber observed; but even Weber would probably have to admit that the current practices of our Federal lawmakers are putting that legitimacy into question. Time that could be spent in serious deliberation is instead squandered on ideological diatribe, replacing conference rooms with television studios. Those who urge us all to keep our eyes on the prize of economic recovery, such as Jeff Madrick, can only review their ideas on sites like NYRBlog, which carry no weight among those for whom amassing and exercising power is the only game. Is this when the aliens invade and tell us that, after a few thousand years of observation, it is time for someone else to take over as "designated grownups?"

Monday, December 24, 2012

All I Want for Christmas is NAKED LUNCH

Recently, The New York Review of Books has been sending out electronic mail promotions of their articles that include a hyperlink to a past review that might be considered for "classic" status. The latest of these is Mary McCarthy's review of The Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs, which appeared in the very first issue. I cannot think of a better way for a new literary publication to put its stake in the ground in February of 1963. By way of historical context, Grove Press had published Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer in 1961; and the book had to endure a series of obscenity trials that did not let up until the Supreme Court ruled in its favor in 1964. One of those early trials was taking place in Philadelphia at the time that The New York Review of Books was launched. I was finishing my senior year at a suburban high school (with established redneck roots before being taken over by whole neighborhoods of white-collar professionals). I remember taking the train to New York to purchase my copy of Tropic of Cancer there and then "smuggle" it back home.

I always found Burroughs to be rougher trade than Miller. Indeed, as I wrote here back in August of 2011, one of his books provided me with the only occasion when I felt it was really necessary to conceal what I was reading. Strictly speaking, however, the book was not really Burroughs'. Rather, it was James Grauerholz’ editing of early material that would eventually find its way into Naked Lunch, published under the title Interzone. I remember that I purchased this book while on a business trip, which on reflection seems particularly relevant, since Naked Lunch was first published in Paris by Olympia Press in a series called Traveller's Companion! The fact that I had bought my copy of Interzone in Singapore (at a Tower Records that I used to frequent when I lived in Singapore) was amusing enough; but, while reading the book in my hotel room in Kuala Lumpur, I realized that did not want it lying around for the maid to discover (nor would it be a good idea to having it in my pocket during a business meeting)!

Thus, if Christmas is a time when we reflect on past deeds and future ambitions, being reminded of my experiences with Burroughs' writing by McCarthy's review strikes me as perfectly appropriate for the season!

Sunday, December 23, 2012

One Small Step for Yiddishkeit

I have to say that I was pleased to see on Google Analytics that my article about the reissue of the complete recordings of Hasidic New Wave provided a nice little bump in the numbers for my national site on I have written about Hasidic New Wave here on this site once before. I had just seen Michael Tilson Thomas' The Thomashefskys: Music and Memories of a Life in the Yiddish Theater at Davies Symphony Hall, and set me to all sorts of speculations about Yiddish Theater in general. The fact is, however, that I have never actually seen first-hand a Yiddish Theater production; and my guess is that this is also true of anyone reading this.

On the other hand the concept of Yiddishkeit itself has been surfacing recently in my writing, due primarily to occasions for writing about the music of Paul Schoenfield. In particular, in writing about Schoenfield, I found I had to explain the concept of freylakh, just as I felt that I could not write about Hasidic New Wave without offering some explanatory remarks about Hasidism itself. The bottom line is that, in the spirit of the old Levy's rye bread advertising campaign (an example of which was included in my article), you don't have to be Jewish to catch the spirit of Yiddishkeit. MTT operated under this premise in tracing his personal family roots back to Yiddish Theater and presenting the result to a culturally diverse audience; and the value of Hasidic New Wave was that they offered up a new way to perform jazz, rather than a new approach to the practice of Hasidism.

Nevertheless, a cross-cultural appreciation of Yiddishkeit appears to be on a decline; and I have to confess to feeling a tinge of nostalgic regret over this "new world order."

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Liberty and Revolution

This morning I came across the following sentence in Gordon S. Wood’s review for The New York Review of Kevin Phillips’ new book 1775: A Good Year for Revolution:
Everywhere in the colonies countless numbers of ordinary people like the Jack Tars—artisans, mechanics, militiamen, and farmers—were radicalized by arrogant, out-of-touch officials and irritating government regulations and actions; and ready at a moment’s notice to rise in defense of what they called their liberties.
I suspect that Wood worked hard to choose his words carefully for this sentence, given its power to suggest the motivation behind the rise of the current TEA Party. Nevertheless, there are differences worth noting. Most important is that Wood’s “ordinary people” had one major priority, which was to make a living out of the meaningful work that occupied that largest portion of their waking life. Today “countless numbers of ordinary people” face that same problem of making a living in the face of a choice between mass unemployment and drone-like meaningless work subjected to bizarre swings in compensation. It is thus questionable whether or not an American citizen would take up arms in the name of the pursuit of wage slavery imposed by a corporation like Walmart.

This raises a higher-level discrepancy. The TEA Party is not so much a popular uprising as an act of organized provocation supported by those moneyed interests that impose the sort of wage slavery we associate with Walmart. Consequently, what current TEA Party members call their liberties never really signifies, since that “definition” of liberties resides in the money behind their activities.

In other words “ordinary people” are at the mercy of a clash between opposing forces of “arrogant, out-of-touch officials,” those in the corporate world for whom greed is the only motivating factor and those in the political world concerned only with amassing and maintaining power. In 1775 radicalization could rise up against a common foe. When that foe is attacking from two different sides, however, radicalization faces a greater challenge.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Another Order not Understood

From time to time I am still fond of quoting my favorite sentence from Henry Miller's Tropic of Capricorn:
Confusion is a word we have invented for an order which is not understood.
I was reminded of it today while venturing into a 2001 paper by Caroline Palmer, Melissa K. Jungers, and Peter W. Jusczyk. The introduction includes this rather eyebrow-raising sentence:
Expression in music performance can be systematically affected by both structural dimensions (harmony, melody, rhythm, meter, etc.) and nonstructural dimensions (affect, tempo, other interpretive decisions), and it is often difficult to separate the two.
Actually, it is not that difficult to figure out how the authors achieved their separation. The "structural" dimensions are basically attributed captured by music notation; and anything else is "nonstructural!"

It might be better to say that those "nonstructural" dimensions are not as objective as the "structural" ones; but that just means that their structure arises from subjective, or possibly social, factors that may not be understood, probably through lack of trying. The fact is that description that can only be distilled to what is represented objectively in notation will never get at the actual practices of performing music, where notation plays a role but not always the dominating role. Ultimately, the authors' judgment reduces to that of the drunk looking for his lost keys under a lamppost because the light is better there.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Business Attacks the Community (again)

Since I am no longer part of the corporate world, I feel I can read accounts of the debate over BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) practices with some degree of detachment. In that context I was particular interested in "The hidden danger to companies with BYOD," the latest post by James Kendrick to his Mobile News blog on ZDNet. Whether or not it was his intention to do so, Kendrick framed the debate over BYOD as a question of values. On the one hand the great asset of BYOD is that it tends to increase the productivity of the individual worker. However, the "hidden danger" he has in mind is that the price of that increased productivity is a decrease of any sense of the workplace as a "community of practice," a principle that emerged from studies of workplace anthropology that identified situations in which social interactions within the workplace could solve challenging problems beyond the grasp of any one individual.

Those studies provided a trove of anecdotal evidence that would be repeated with great frequency back in the days when everyone was drinking the "knowledge sharing" Kool-Aid. The problem was nor that the evidence was specious but that most businesses were looking for some kind of magic bullet that would provide them with both individual productivity and increased knowledge sharing, not realizing that, in their own bean-counting mentality, the time spent sharing knowledge was time not spent on individual productivity. The fact is that, in the prevailing social context of work, because job security has become a think of the past, every individual must constantly under the gun over whether or not (s)he will be able to keep her/his job; and, at the end of the day, all this is going to matter is whatever metric of productivity prevails every time that worker is evaluated.

I would further suggest that the deterioration of any strong sense of community in the workplace entails the side effect of similar deterioration in the world at large. This is what Robert Putnam called the "bowling alone" phenomenon. The fact is that the deterioration has only progressed further since Putman's article about this phenomenon first appeared in 1995; and these days it seems as if we are only aware of a sense of community when the members of that community gather in the wake of a major disaster, whether it is a hurricane like Katrina or Sandy or the latest instance of a mass shooting. Perhaps, if we recognized that the lone gunman responsible for such killing is the reductio ad absurdum of individual productivity, we might finally make a serious commitment to reversing that trend that, last night, President Barack Obama declared cannot be allowed to continue.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Returning to Hard Science

Reading "Perceiving Temporal Regularity in Music," a paper that Edward W. Large and Caroline Palmer published in Cognitive Science in 2002, turned out to be quite an exercise in reviving past skills that have not received much exercise lately. On the other hand it was also a satisfying reminder of how patience can sometimes be as beneficial side-effect of retirement. Not to long ago I was writing to a sometime colleague about the extent to which "professional" research has become contaminated by business practices concerned more with return-on-investment than with insights. In that climate I realized that the pressure of delivering results was a serious impediment to reading extended survey papers when my mind was preoccupied with teasing out highly specific answers to narrowly-framed questions.

These days I do not have to worry as much about either the questions or how good the answers are. As a result I take more pleasure in reading a challenging technical paper that satisfies my curiosity than in reading a lot of that poorly written junk that tries to pass itself off as literature. Thus, while much of recent fiction my try my patience to the point of aggravation, I seem to have no trouble taking the time to dig into either the breadth of a survey paper or the depth of a report of specific results, particularly if if involves catching up on how the state of the art in a particular area has matured since I was last pursuing it as a "professional" researcher.

In that "former life" one of the projects I pursued while I was in Singapore was the use of visualization as a tool for piano pedagogy. This came about as a result of a conversation with a piano teacher to whom I was explaining MIDI representation. I showed her the representation for my own performance of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's K. 2 minuet; and, as she eyeballed the numbers, she started making observations about my phrasing as if she had actually heard the performance itself. She then talked about how hard it was to explain phrasing to beginning students, since it involves a major step beyond just decoding the notation.

What came out of this was a relatively low-level approach to representing those MIDI data as images superimposed on the score of the music being performed. For example, we colored the notes on a continuum between blue and red to indicate dynamic level. However, we also made a crude stab at inferring the pulse of the pupil's "internal metronome," representing it as tick marks that might appear to the left or right of the notes themselves, rather than directly underneath.

Reading the Large-Palmer paper, I realized that my team had taken a first stab at capturing and visualizing the subtleties of timing in a performance. On the one hand, there was the regularity of the beat itself (or, if you buy into the theories of Fred Lerdahl and Ray Jackendoff, the hierarchy of such regularities); but then there was the principle that phrasing often involved a departure from those regularities. Large and Palmer managed to capture this in a rather elegant mathematical model, which has now opened the door to new ways in which to visualize the subtleties of performance.

I still champion the value of such visualization. There are too many times when mere words cannot guide the listening practices of even the best students; and, of course, that challenge of description remains with performers long after their student days have passed. Whether or not visualization technology will built on the recent insights from Large and Palmer remains to be seen, particularly since  it is unlikely to become a major revenue stream to seize the attention of would be entrepreneurs. Nevertheless, it is nice to know that the state of knowledge is still being advanced by those more interested in the heavy lifting of science than in cashing in on the "next big thing" in Silicon Valley!

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Stephen Colbert Strikes Again, This Time at Eric Schmidt

Eric Schmidt can be such a bully with his shoot-from-the-hip assertions that there seem to be very few willing to call him out to his face over the speciousness of many (if not most) of his claims. Thus far the leading counterexample seems to have been Peter Thiel, who, as an investor, has a power-of-purse that may actually trump Schmidt's power-of-position at Google. Even Ken Auletta, whose command of facts tends to be stronger than that of the people he interviews, has had to maintain the reporter's skill of treating Schimdt with kid gloves.

Stephen Colbert, on the other hand, never heard of kid gloves. Furthermore, he parades a fictitious persona that would have nothing to do with kid gloves, even if he knew what they were. It was thus amusing to read Chris Matyszczyk's Technically Incorrect blog post for CNET News about Colbert being invited as a guest at Google, where he was interviewed on stage by Schmidt. Colbert himself is a master interviewer. As his encounter with Geoff Nunberg demonstrated, he is even good at dealing with those who try to best him at his own game.

Therefore, it should not have surprised anyone that Colbert could be as deft an interviewee as he was an interviewer for his own audiences. Matyszczyk chose to dwell on Colbert professing total ignorance of Google Play while flogging his new book. What it amusing is that Matyszczyk never came down on decided whether or not Colbert was yanking Schimdt's chain, perhaps because even Matyszczyk feels he has to be careful about what he says about Schmidt. In my own mind, however, there is no question at all about Colbert's tactics. Colbert knows enough about audiences to recognize that, more often than not, speaking truth to power is merely tedious, while making power look like a fool has all the impact in the world. (Colbert must have loved The Tin Drum when he was in his formative youth.) More power to him.

Friday, December 14, 2012

On the Entertainment Value of Politics

Yesterday I wrote a piece in favor of The Newsroom having received a Golden Globe nomination in the Best Drama category. Given the intensity of its political subtext, I found myself musing that, over in the "Best Miniseries or Television Movie" category, there were three offerings whose political impact was no less than that of The Newsroom:
  1. Game Change
  2. The Hour
  3. Political Animals
This makes for an interesting "size matters" lesson (which should have the useful side-effect of suggesting that the proper metaphor for the entertainment industry is Godzilla). Apparently, The Newsroom counts as "drama" because its overall duration exceeded some threshold, while the other three programs were treated as "lesser" candidates. On the other hand all three of these projects deserve credit for recognizing that it would take time to work out their subject matter in an appropriate narrative setting; and, from the point of one who "reads text" (which means I am not a typical television viewer), I found this sort of segregation to be more than a little unfair.

On the other hand I found it interesting that politics should play such a prominent role in the overall scheme of these awards. The bad news may be that television viewers prefer to get their politics as entertainment, rather than as "non-fiction;" which seems to be the principle behind the success of programming on Comedy Central. This raises the corollary that real politicians only matter to us on the basis of their capacity for entertainment, which strikes me as yet another move within our culture to escape, if not deny altogether, the reality that exists beyond the frames of our television sets.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

One Cheer for THE NEWSROOM

I suspect that The Newsroom will have a hard time holding its own against Homeland in the Best Drama Golden Globes category, but it was good to see that it at least got as far as nomination. There was nothing particularly new about its premise: The idea of using a show about producing the news as a platform for expositions of various insights from investigative journalism goes back at least as far as Lou Grant, if not further. Nevertheless, The Newsroom managed to do an excellent job of rendering through "dramatic fiction" a keen analysis of just how far "big money" has gone in undermining current political practices in this country. Then, just to make it clear that they were not just picking on the United States, they offered a particularly barbed treatment of how the Japanese media handled the Fukushima reactor story. Stuff like this rarely gets further than penetrating analyses in the progressive press, so HBO deserves credit in letting The Newsroom boldly go where no television drama has gone before.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Charles Rosen Deserved Better

Like many, I was saddened to learn of the death of Charles Rosen, whom I would cite from time to time in my articles. However, I was even sadder to discover that he was given such an ill-informed obituary by The New York Times. My guess is that Margalit Fox was cobbling together stuff from a variety of sources without giving very much thought to what that stuff said. For those who take their music seriously, the real howler came in the following sentence:
A conversation with him [Rosen], associates have said, typically ranged over a series of enthusiasms that besides music could include philosophy; art history; architecture; travel (Mr. Rosen had homes on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and in Paris, where he had first lived as a Fulbright fellow in the early 1950s); European literature, usually read in the original (he had a Ph.D. in French from Princeton); poetry (he held the Charles Eliot Norton professorship of poetry, an annual lectureship at Harvard, from 1980 to 1981); food (he was an accomplished cook); wine and the glassware it was served in; cognac and the wooden casks it was aged in; and the television shows “Absolutely Fabulous,” “Taxi” and “Cheers.”
Those who know a thing or two about major intellectual honors probably know that the Norton position is a Chair in Poetics, and I suspect that Rosen would have been the first to bristle at the proposition that poetics is synonymous with poetry. The Norton Chair has been an honor for quite a few major twentieth century composers, including Igor Stravinsky, Aaron Copland, Roger Sessions, Paul Hindemith, Leonard Bernstein, and (yes!) John Cage. Once again, the Times has made a public spectacle of how far it has fallen from its days of quality reporting.

The Consequences of Avoiding Questions of Internet Governance

Within the culture of the Internet, there seems to be a general inclination to avoid even the mention of governance, let alone actually discuss the matter. As I observed when writing about WikiLeaks having become the new platform for whistle-blowing, such head-in-the-sand tactics only go so far:
Then something ugly happens (as was the case with the death threats directed at Kathy Sierra);  and we get a lot of throat-clearing and a paucity of clear thinking.
In many respects the very thought of the United Nations convening a conference on Internet governance is as disconcerting as all that throat-clearing that took place when the Internet revealed itself as a medium for death threats, rather than some idealistic “republic of letters.” It is hard to imagine that an organization, which cannot engage in anything more than similar throat-clearing over current conditions of Syria, can take on a matter with consequences as worldwide as the role of government in Internet activities.

I would suggest it is time to revisit those words of Henry David Thoreau that Internet evangelists embrace so readily:
"That government is best which governs not at all"; and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have.
The problem is that those who embrace that motto most enthusiastically are also those least “prepared for it.”

How, then, can those who feel most strongly about the Internet prepare themselves? I would like to set forth the modest proposal that the Internet be allowed to declare itself a sovereign state unto itself, provided that, over the course of some grace period of time (determined, perhaps, by the member countries of the United Nations, if they can come to an agreement on anything), they establish and document a set of principles under which that sovereign state will be constituted and governed. This would require some form of constitutional convention, which could be organized under United Nations agreement or perhaps simply through Internet participation. Given the extent to which many countries whose sovereignty is already recognized are now struggling with questions of governance, this Internet exercise might prove valuable for not only the Internet itself but also a clearer understanding of governance in the physical world.

Like most “modest proposals,” this one is sure to be ignored; but, as memes go, it should probably be given a chance to reproduce in the current population of ideas!

Saturday, December 8, 2012

One Small Step toward Recovery

So Apple is back in the news, reported by Edward Moyer for CNET News as follows:
Various industry watchers are weighing in on Apple CEO Tim Cook's remark this week that the company will invest $100 million into making Macs in the U.S., with some saying the move will create 200 new jobs.
Not withstanding any advice about looking a gift horse in the mouth, it would seem that, at the very lead, it would be worth assessing just what kind of a horse this is. Considering both the current unemployment figures and the number of people involved in Apple manufacturing in China, 200 does not carry a lot of statistical significance. Thus, we should all have some right to ask whether or not this is the first step of a thousand-mile journey, as Lao Tzu would put it. My guess is that such a question would make Cook squirm. CEO's who have to worry about quarterly earnings are not well served by thoughts of thousand-mile journeys. Still, we should wait to see where these jobs will be offered and who will be likely to fill the available slots. I, for one, am skeptical about those who deal in vaporware as a business strategy for figuring out how their business will commit to the real thing.

Friday, December 7, 2012

The "New Age" Triangle Fire

The parallels between the fire at Tazreen Fashions Limited in Bangladesh and the famous Triangle Shirtwaist fire in New York are so strong as to be heartbreakingly pathetic. On the other hand ours is a culture with so little concern for history that those parallels are likely to go unrecognized. According to today's BBC News report, Walmart has deftly distanced themselves from the disaster by pawning all responsibility off to a supplier and then cutting all connections (for now, at least) to that supplier. However, it would seem that the real lesson here is that we can no longer get away with just dismissing history as bunk. Rather, we need to recognize that, for the rich and mighty, history is a bothersome inconvenience that threatens to narrow profit margins.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Apple's Loss of Significant Values: An Affirmation

I have to give a shout-out to David Gewirtz this morning for using a post to his DIY-IT blog on ZDNet to affirm my long-held conviction that "computing for the rest of us" has now totally devolved from one of Apple's core values to a myth remembered only by older generations (such as my own). It was comforting, in a grim sort of way, to read that Gewirtz' experiences with updating his Apple TV were even worse that the current state of updating software on a MacBook. (At least you can avoid the clunkiness of the new App Store interface and get things done more smoothly with a command line interface to sudo on the Terminal.) I think it is only a matter of time before Apple proclaims its new motto to be "the world's coolest toymaker;" and it would be a delightful irony of history if the launch of that motto would coincide with a major consumer shift over to another company that figured out how to do something cooler (and, hopefully, more user-friendly).

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Rushdie the Unreliable Narrator

In the latest issue of The New York Review, Zoë Heller seems to have no end of ways to pounce of Salman Rushdie for his latest book, Joseph Anton: A Memoir. From what I have seen in several other reviews, she is not alone. For those unfamiliar with the book, the name is the title that Rushdie used as an alias when he was under threat of fatwa assassination for the heresy of having written (and had published) The Satanic Verses. Heller begins by observing that the book is written in the third person, a style she called "de Gaulle-like," although the best known practitioner was probably Julius Caesar.

However, the general annoyance with the book led me to wonder whether Heller and the other critics may have made the mistake of taking the title at face value. After all, Rushdie's primary defense for The Satanic Verses amounted to the assertion that the book was "only fiction." Indeed, back in the days of the Bush Administration, when I felt as if rationality were currently under siege from faith-based thinking, I liked to observe that faith-based thinking only allows literal interpretation of a text, never recognizing that there may be a more significant figurative reading. Given the ludic approach that Rushdie has taken to so many of his texts, why should we assume that the title of his latest book should be interpreted literally?

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Future Consumers of America?

Is it my imagination, or has the holiday season brought with it a new trend of television advertising? One always expects to see more kids pulled in from Central Casting to promote new toys or revive interest in the old ones. Now, however, they are plugging adult consumer goods as if they were spokespersons for the "greater good" of their parents. The script writers give them all sorts of consumer-savvy things to say, almost creating the impression that they have better judgement than their parents when it comes to buying stuff.

Whether or not adults respond to this sort of thing is beside the point. More interesting is the impact it will have on younger viewers. These commercials create the impression that adulthood has become a matter of making smart buying decisions, rather than one of earning the money to buy in the first place. (We are already way beyond the days of Growing up Absurd, then being an adult meant being able to provide food, clothing, and shelter.) In other words the subtext of these commercials is telling kids that they have to prepare to grow up to be consumers, just like their parents; and, for most of them, that will probably be a matter of having to contend with both debt and obesity … just like their parents.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Good-Cop-Bad-Cop Governance?

I have little tolerance for getting my politics through Sunday morning television. Calvin Trillin once called both the hosts and the participants "Sabbath-Day gasbags;" and things have not changed since I heard him make that declaration. As a result, rather like the fact the BBC News can provide me with a reasonably good summary of all the shouting without my having to sit through any of it.

Today's shouting, of course, was all about the "fiscal cliff" (which may yet turn out to be yet another example of how economic theory is based on a foundation of "fictions of convenience"). The take-away from the BBC "post-game recap" is basically that intransigence is currently trumping deliberation, leading me to wonder whether the entire month is going to be like this. It is the sort of shouting I associate with cop shows on television, particularly those good-cop-bad-cop gambits that take place when interviewing a suspect. Certainly, if you want to call up Central Casting for a "bad cop," you would be in good hands if they send you Timothy Geithner. There are some accounts that he spends much of his time in White House meetings playing the bad cop, so you may as well sic him on the Republicans if he plays the role so well. Then we have Republican House Speaker John Boehner, who likes to play at being a good cop but still has to worry about his Majority Whip Eric Cantor, who may well be the baddest cop in Washington (and that includes the members of the city's police force) these days, dogging his heels.

Thus, what we really learn from the BBC report is that, for now at least, bad cops rule. Of course this may all amount to getting all of the invective out of the system relatively early in the game, allowing the good cops to take over as the deadline gets closer. I'm just beginning to wonder whether there are any good cops left in the game, because the prevailing practice of politics has reduced them to irrelevance.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Twinkies are Forever

Hostess Brands may now be going down the dark road to liquidation; but, according to a story filed yesterday on BBC News, the Twinkie is unlikely to go down with the ship. The report claims that the Twinkie brand has 110 potential buyers, including "at least five national retailers." Given that the Twinkie may be one of the more significant factors to the epidemic of obesity in the United States, I find it ironic that the Web-based advertising service used by BBC News decided to accompany this article with an ad for the ideeli fashion, featuring a photograph of a particularly svelte model all dolled up for New Year's Eve. Clearly, no Twinkies were harmed in the making of that advertisement!

Thursday, November 29, 2012

On the Death of Lois Bewley

Today's New York Times ran an article by Bruce Weber announcing the death of Lois Bewley at the age of 78. The headline described her as a "multifaceted ballerina;" but, for her many talents, she never really "made it big" in the dance world, even in New York, where she was based and seemed to accommodate just about anyone with his/her own ideas of what a dance concert should be. Nevertheless, Bewley was important to me. She was one of the members of the First Chamber Dance Quartet, whose "chamber" approach to choreography was refreshingly innovative. Mind you, my opinion is biased, because that ensemble was one of the first I reviewed when I was just beginning to build up my chops as a dance critic. They were the first group I ever interviewed, and I shall always remember Bewley because she did almost all of the talking. This is not a criticism, just a recollection that she was the member of the group who could put her thoughts into words as readily as she could put them into choreography.

In many respect the world of dance is a bit like the Tao. Those who know it do not speak, and those who speak of it do not know. Bewley spoke as one who knew, and her dancing and choreography warranted her knowledge. I thought I had forgotten about her until I read Weber's report this morning.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Another Crazy Birthday Coincidence

From a musical point of view, today is important because it would have been Jimi Hendrix 70th birthday. (I happen to be listening to Anton Bruckner as I write this. Go figure it.) However, we know from statistical parlor games that it does not take a particularly large number of people in one room to find two who share the same birthday. When we broaden the scope of history, the room becomes larger; and the coincidences become weirder.

We thus discover that Jimi Hendrix shared his birthday with Buffalo Bob Smith from The Howdy Doody Show. The thought of Hendrix sitting in front of a television set responding to Smith's famous question ("Hey, kids, what time is it?") with "It's Howdy Doody Time!" is more bizarre than the most psychedelic of any of his album covers. Furthermore, for those who think that things could not get weirder, today is also Caroline Kennedy's birthday!

Monday, November 26, 2012

Literature Gone Wild

Christopher Ricks is playing all sorts of games in his review of Ian McEwan's Sweet Tooth for The New York Review (probably to give the reader some impression of what McEwan is doing). In the course of his exploits, however, he lands on one gem of a sentence that is so delightful that "sharing with the group" was my immediate reaction:
It is a truth universally acknowledged that Oxford University's effortless superiority to Cambridge is nowhere clearer than in the pathetic inability of Cambridge spies to remain undetected.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

On the Pornography of Bogus Science

Alissa Quart has a wonderful op-ed piece in today's edition of The New York Times. The title is "Neuroscience: Under Attack." The crux of the title is that the study of neuroscience by qualified and competent practitioners is being undermined by writers to peddle their wares to pop culture and therefore do not even deserve the be called journalists in any professional sense of that term. Quart is not shy about naming names: Naomi Wolf for Vagina, Chris Mooney for The Republican Brain, Jonah Lehrer for Imagine: How Creativity Works, and, of course, Malcolm Gladwell, the undisputed master of drawing unwarranted conclusions from mountains of anecdotal data.

I particularly like the way Quart has assigned a label to this particular genre of writing about neuroscience. She calls is "brain porn." She even has a nice one-sentence characterization of the category:
Another way of saying this is that bogus science gives vague, undisciplined thinking the look of seriousness and truth.
Mind you, Stephen Colbert already gave us the noun "truthiness;" but I much prefer the pornographic connotation.

If Quart had been given more column inches, however, she might have point out that neuroscience was hardly the first scientific discipline to be so undermined. Think of all the ways in which genome research got distorted into equally distorted speculations about genes far too bogus to be dignified with the label "hypothesis." I was beginning to think that Richard Lewontin would have to spend the rest of his life straightening out the misconceptions of those searching for a "gene for creativity," a "gene for homosexuality," and (most recently and perhaps most chilling) a "Jewish gene."

I recently read a paper with the fascinating title "When the Brain Plays Music: Auditory—Motor Interactions in Music Perception and Production." It was a review paper. Review papers are not for casual readers. Indeed, back when I was involved with more specific projects, I used to hate them because they were too broad for the narrowly-focused goals I was trying to pursue. These days I can take things at a more leisurely pace, which means I can be patient with plodding through a review paper; and, as readers of this site know, I was rewarded with some fascinating insights into what we now know about how the brain deals with such matters as rhythm. It is a perfect example of a question to which there is no simple answer but which there are valuable insights for those willing to live with the complexity.

Quart is one of those who appreciates when complexity is necessary. She probably also recognizes that those who can manage complexity are in a very small minority. My fear is that the minority is so small that, in the brutality of social Darwinism, it may have lost its survival value.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

They Still Do Things Big in Texas

This is one of those grim stories about how bigger is not always better. According to a BBC News report, dense fog on Interstate 10 in Texas resulted in a 100-vehicle pile-up in which a man and woman were killed when their vehicle was crushed by a tractor trailer. It is no coincidence that this should occur on a day of the year when travel is at its heaviest. I suspect also that all of those families getting from here to there for the sake of having a good time did not expect that roads would also be crowded with commercial traffic, but the photograph accompanying this report shows just how wrong that assumption was. Nevertheless, I am sure that none of this will put a dent in the day's television commercials showing free-spirited individuals and families tooling down the open road in their overly-large vehicles. In another world today's disaster might serve as a reality check, but our world is one in which the pursuit of happiness has become the pursuit of happiness through consumerism.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Paul Volker Identifies the Problem behind the Mess

The latest issue of The New York Review of Books has an article entitled "What the New President Should Consider." The text comes from a lecture that Paul Volker gave at Cooper Union long before election day, and he submitted the excerpted version before the Election Day results had been finalized. Hence, the title was kept generic.

One particular remark struck me as particularly perceptive:
To my mind, our universities with prestigious schools of “Public Affairs” and “Public Policy” have concentrated far too much on high-level policy debates—i.e., what should be done—and far too little on what in practice can be done. Grand policy and great strategy can’t count for much without the resources and skills needed for implementation and management.
What Volker may have failed to recognize is that this precept cuts to the heart of why our country is so fed up with its government and the inability of that government to get anything done. The ideological gulf that has divided both the country and the Congress has progress to a point where we are now governed (sic) by representatives whose only "resources and skills" lie in promoting and defending ideological positions, rather than in the nuts and bolts of "implementation and management." Of course all of them are there because they were elected, meaning that the electorate is similarly obsessed with ideology, rather than with getting things done.

Volker offers some sage advice on how our representatives should set aside their differences and focus on shared values and goals, but he overlooks the role that divisiveness played in their becoming representatives in the first place.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Getting Some Satisfaction from the Literature

It turns out that my concern over that claim I cited that "freely generated rhythms always have interval ratios of 1:2 or 1:3" may have been a result of a misreading on the part of its authors. This weekend my reading took me to what may have been the source of the claim, a paper entitled "Hierarchical Organization of Temporal Patterns" by Peter J. Essens (whose work I used to follow when I was a more "serious" researcher. This paper was published in 1986, quite some time before the paper in which I found the claim appeared, which was in 2004.

First of all, the claim itself can probably be traced to the follow sentence from Essens' abstract:
From the systematic errors subjects made in reproducing temporal patterns, it is concluded that an accurate internal representation will be arrived at only if the temporal structure of a pattern enables an organization in which hierarchical levels relate as integers with prime factors 2 or 3.
While this sentence is, indeed, consistent with the experimental data, the paper concludes with a "General Discussion" section, which, in turn, concludes as follows:
The research reported here restricts itself to conceptual structures used by subjects from a western culture. In other cultures, different conceptual structures might be used. Data across cultures could provide insights into the universal nature of our results.
Exactly. Essens was careful to establish the limitations of his conclusions based on the limitations of his data, and it is more than a pity that some of those who read those conclusions did not respect those same limitations.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

The Meows Have It

Friday saw a post to NYRBlog that was as entertaining as it was informative. The title was “A Roman Cat Fight;” and the author was listed as Massimo Gatto. This was clearly a pseudonym; and, if I were a betting man, I would probably put my money on Tim Parks.

The story has to do with an effort by Roman politicians to shut down a sanctuary for cats on the grounds of Largo di Torre Argentina, presumably to satisfy more commercial interests behind city planning. One comes away with the impression that this is another instance of what we have come to call “vulture capitalism,” championed in Italy by former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. However, when the vultures take aim at historical artifacts, usually destroying them in the process, it turns out, according to this post, that they are maintaining a historical legacy. Thus, the post is framed in such a way as to leave the impression that Berlusconi and those of his ilk are simply continuing a long a path previously trod by both Benito Mussolini and Saddam Hussein (both of whose names appear explicitly in the post).

That makes for some pretty powerful rhetoric. If Wilfred Owen stated, during the First World War, that all a poet could do was warn; this post demonstrates that a blogger can do more. If the blogger has the right gifts, (s)he can shake the world with a shattering miaou de cœur.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Our Inherent Sense of Rhythm

Recently, I have been reviving my interest in the role of the "wet brain" in making music. This led me to a fascinating paper entitled "Emergence of Rhythm during Motor Learning." The basic idea is that, when we learn sequences of actions, we associate a rhythm with how we perform those actions. At the end of the paper, the authors then posed the following as an outstanding question:
Why do freely generated rhythms always have interval ratios of 1:2 or 1:3?
This of course presume that those ratios always arise. While we know that they can be traced by to the earliest origins of Western music, the authors of this paper were Japanese. Is it really the case that, on a global scale, all metric patterns are organized around those two ratios?

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Real Loser on Election Day

Elizabeth Drew entitled her post-election thoughts post to NYRBlog “A Victory over Suppression;” and I agree that it was right to view this election as a concerted effort by those determined to exercise their right to vote in spite of the efforts equally determined to disenfranchise them. However, since I seem to have a disposition to prefer the negative to the positive, I prefer to think about what happened last week in terms of who the real loser was. In those terms that loser would have to be Karl Rove. He staked his reputation on the premise that large sums of money could be applied to either buy or steal a victory for Mitt Romney. There are any number of ways to analyze why and how that premise was falsified; but the result was a Rove so undone by that falsification that he made a fool of himself on Fox Television, thereby prompting the network to make what may have been its first significant commitment to place reporting the news over promoting an ideology.

Unfortunately, as we know from the history of American politics, losers have a nasty habit of rising again, often high enough to become winners. We have only to look at the roller-coaster biography of Richard Nixon and his checkered (pun intended) legacy. Rove may be down (even down for the count, to play a bit more with words); but we should not assume that he is no longer a contender. At the very least, those forces of the rich and mighty, so determined to have stronger influence over all dealings of our government, are still with us; and they are already worried about salvaging their agenda. It is, of course, possible that they will turn to a better strategist, having been led astray by Rove; but that assumes that they will be able to find one.

Last week the American voters fought the good fight. It says something about our national spirit that they prevailed. However, the forces that opposed them are as strong as ever (even if, for the immediate present, they are not quite as rich). This is not a time for us to relax our vigilance, just because we maintained our freedom in last week’s battle.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Tom Wolfe's "Isle Joyeuse"

I have been having a lot of fun lately with Claude Debussy's "L'isle joyous," particularly after a student performance at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music inspired me to write an piece entitled "An encounter with Debussy at his most erotic." What struck me about this performance was that the student appreciated how this piece was inspired by Antoine Watteau’s L’Embarquement pour Cythère (whose image I had reproduced when I wrote about a less satisfying performance last May). What this student "got" was the significance of "L'Embarquement" in Watteau's title. The painting did not depict the "pleasure island" of Cythera itself but the anticipation of the travelers of what they would do when they got there (except, as I observed, for one couple in the painting who were already off to a running start).

I was reminded of this article while reading Nathaniel Rich's review of Tom Wolfe's latest novel, Back to Blood, in the latest issue of The New York Review. The novel is set primarily in Miami but also takes in one of the Florida Keys. Specifically, Wolfe invests his usual level of enthusiastic (typographically, as well as verbally) description on Elliott Key. Rich summarizes Wolfe's description (after quoting a bit of its outlandishness) as follows:
The idea is something like Bourbon Street on Mardi Gras, only on boats—thousands of boats, yachts, cigarette boats, dinghies, kayaks, clustered around the key like sharks around a bleeding seal.
In other words Elliot Key is just an Americanization of Cythera, and the anticipation depicted by Watteau has been heightened to such a fever pitch that none of the voyagers can wait to get off their respective boats!

Sunday, November 11, 2012

The Rachmaninoff Question

Having worked my way to the end of my project to write a series of pieces on my national site about the recordings in Arturo Toscanini: The Complete RCA Collection, I discovered something interesting about which composers among his contemporaries he chose to record. I knew that Ottorino Respighi would be there, since the old vinyl of "Pines of Rome" and "Fountains of Rome" was one of my childhood favorites. I also knew that he had conducted the American premiere of the seventh ("Leningrad") symphony of Shostakovich. Still I was a bit surprised to discover that, among all of those CDs, while both Shostakovich and Sergei Prokofiev were represented, Sergei Rachmaninoff was completely ignored. This is somewhat curious since Rachmaninoff also recorded with RCA. This has led me to wonder: Could it be that Rachmaninoff so disliked Toscanini that he refused to let him have anything to do with any of his compositions?

Saturday, November 10, 2012

The Beat of Hatred Goes On

One of the reasons we should, as I suggested on Wednesday, brace ourselves for four more years of governmental dysfunction is that, whatever the numbers may tell us, the primary reaction to Tuesday’s election may be one of unbridled hatred. I caught a taste of this from one of this morning’s calls made to C-SPAN by an irate listener (eventually cut off) who fomented about what was really wrong with the country, which was a failure of immigrants to recognize “American values.” When pressed by the announcer as to just what those values were, the result was a tirade about how democratic values always lead to dictatorship and must give way to republican values as the basis for stable government. (Since this was radio, there was no way to tell whether the speaker was using upper or lower case for those adjectives.) Then we had the FOX40 news story about a woman from Turlock (California), who used Facebook to rant about the election results, managing to include both the N-word and “assassination” in a single thirteen-word post.

The fact is that, if social capital were traded on a stock exchange, its value would be on the rise due to a growing enthusiasm for hate speech. I suspect we have Bill Clinton to thank for this, not for what he did but for how he provoked it. By beating the Republicans at their own game, Clinton inspired the Republican Party, at that time under the spell of Newt Gingrich, to plant a Blake-like “poison tree” nurtured by every possible expression of raw hatred. By now just about any politician interested in survival has made use of the fruits of that tree, the most notable exception being our President, who has become the most prominent target of that hatred, as Clinton had been during his second term of office.

Is it any wonder that a government motivated by nothing other than hatred should be so dysfunctional?

Friday, November 9, 2012

Grand Canyon Thoughts

Listening to the recording of Arturo Toscanini conducting the NBC Symphony Orchestra in a performance of Ferde Grofé's Grand Canyon suite reminded me of how thoroughly I had come to know this music before actually seeing the place. Needless to say, none of that music came to mind either while I was standing on the south rim or when I went half-way down on the back of a mule. (I did not have the time for the full descent on my first visit, which I why I used a second visit to provide my wife with her first.)

The fact is that I came to the Grand Canyon with precious little background knowledge. The only thing I really remembered vividly was the Sam Levenson joke about a kid from Brooklyn whose parents take him there for a summer vacation. When they returned to their motel, his mother insisted he send at least one postcard to a friend. The kid wrote:
Dear Louie,
Today I spit one mile.
Your friend,

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

America Votes for Dysfunction

When the latest issue of The New York Review of Books hit the stands, it included a short “think piece” by Joseph Lelyveld entitled “The Likely Winner.” This was not written to predict whether Barack Obama would be able to return for four more years in the White House or be displaced by Mitt Romney. Rather, Lelyveld took a broader view that included the Congress, as well as the White House, and concluded that, whatever would be decided in the polling places, the “likely winner” would be four more years of dysfunctional government. Listening to today’s “morning after” commentary, it would appear that Lelyveld has made the most sensible call of the whole electoral season; and, given the budget decisions that have to be made before the new Congress convenes, there is no reason to believe that the dysfunction will ramp up to full throttle before the end of the present day.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Life Imitates Art (again)

Those who saw today's BBC News story about six cameras embedded in a structure similar to that of a tennis ball may accept the "emergency services" applications for which it was designed; but anyone familiar with The Wire will recall the use of a similar device and the sad fate it suffered.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Can the Figurative be Enacted?

Emily Eakin’s latest post to NYRBlog, “Cloud Atlas’s Theory of Everything,” may tell you more about Cloud Atlas (the novel, the film, and probably the mystical philosophy of Ken Wilber) than you may ever need to know. However, her punch line may go a long way towards clarifying the challenge of taking a highly literary text and turning it into a movie. She takes, as her point of departure, one of the characters from David Mitchell’s novel, Luisa Rey, and discloses how her name pays homage to Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey, a connection with a variety of implications for both style and content.

She then develops her punch line as a riff on Wilder’s book:
In that novel, a lonely society matron veers between despair that “the world had no plan in it” and a flicker of belief in what Wilder eloquently terms “the great Perhaps.” Belief in the great Perhaps suffuses Cloud Atlas the novel; the misstep of Cloud Atlas the film is to try to turn Perhaps into Certainty.
This is an elegant form of closure; but, like many good conclusions, it raises more questions than it answers, most of which go beyond the scope of any specific film adaptation of any specific novel. There have, after all, been at least two adaptations of The Bridge of San Luis Rey, both of which do justice to the plot line and fumble because the impact of the novel comes from far more than the plot.

Ultimately, the Wilder novel is a philosophical tract made palatable through not only narrative but also the capacity to make its argument through figurative, rather than literal, language. A major element of Eakin’s account involves Mitchell’s facility in working in the figurative domain, through which his novel emerges as a powerful text. Thus the most important question raised by Eakin’s punch line is whether any movie can be primarily figurative.

Yes, it is true that Alfred Hitchcock unsettled François Truffaut by demonstrating that the camera can lie; and, for all we know, he learned that trick from Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. However, the figurative use of language is not about truth and lies. It would be better to say that it is about the difference between denotation and connotation. The real question is whether or not cinematic language can connote or whether it is limited to exploiting ambiguities and paradoxes of denotation. I would be willing to consider that, when opera works, connotation may be communicated through music beyond the setting of text; but an opera score is a far cry from a movie soundtrack. Thus, if there is any critical element of a novel that goes beyond the plot line, there is probably a good chance that it will get lost by even the best of film adaptations.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Confessions of an Early Voter

I have begun to make it a consistent practice of voting early. My primary motivation for doing so was that, over the last year or so, my polling place has become a comedy of errors. The staff has received so little training that their ineptitude is embarrassing, probably to the poll workers themselves as well as the impatient voters. Whether it involves checking the rolls or dealing with mechanical recalcitrance from the machine that is supposed to accept the completed ballot securely, my polling station is a paragon of disorder; and that was the case even before touch-screen voting machines were added to the mix. Since I am such a short walk from City Hall and the exercise is good for me, going over there to cast my vote early has always been pretty much a no-brainer.

However, this leads me to a somewhat ambivalent position over how much money I make candidates waste. Between the junk crammed into my modest mailbox and the density of robocalls, I realize that a fair amount of money is going up in smoke because those engines of distribution have no way of knowing that I have already voted. The one interesting thing is that almost none of that waste has involved the Presidential election, perhaps because mine is not one of those hypercritical “swing” states. Rather, the media assault is all about local issues, both ballot initiatives and the Supervisor for my district.

The funny thing is that I received at least a month’s worth of advertising from Supervisor candidates for District 5 before I learned that, due to redistricting, I was now in District 5. Supervisor elections alternate between odd and even numbered districts. I used to be in District 6, a point which I made on my site when I announced the San Francisco Arts Town Hall, which was held last August. This seemed necessary to declare my objectivity in reporting on an event at which my own vote was not at stake.

It was only after I had reported on the Town Hall that I discovered that my vote was at stake. Indeed, District 5 had the largest number of competing candidates who accepted the invitation to address members of the arts community on the question of support for the arts. The Town Hall turned out to be a rather gratuitous affair, the high point of which was the discovery that all of the District 7 candidates had not the foggiest notion of any arts activities in that District (some of which were rather impressive). Ironically, I singled out exactly one candidate from the whole evening of mindless speechifying who was capable of putting a reality check on the table; and she turned out to be a District 5 candidate. (She was also running against a candidate with a strong progressive reputation whose performance at the Town Hall was significantly less than clueless.) As a result, even where local issues were concerned, I had the necessary information to vote early.

Will any of this make a difference? I suspect not. Votes are not cast on the basis of issues. All forms of advertising are calculated to penetrate the limbic system so thoroughly as to block out any activity from the cerebral cortex. Most voters will probably put less thought into the choice they make than they will in buying an SUV (which they may not even need); and the “product” they receive through the polling place (regardless of the level of government) will likely be even more unreliable than any hulking gas-guzzler!

Friday, November 2, 2012

Will Jony Ive Remember HCI Rule #1?

Dan Farber definitely captured the right idea in his headline for his CNET News article today: “Jony Ive's challenge: Redesigning the human-computer interface for the masses.” However, Farber failed to say anything about why designing a human-computer interface (HCI) for software is qualitatively different from evolving the design of a new physical device. It is not just that software is more malleable. Rather it involves the problem that software engineers do not always think of functionality the same that the interface designers do.

This is why the best educational venues for learning software engineering recognize that an interface is not some final layer placed on top of a black box capable of performing some wide variety of operations. Indeed, many who have been trained at such educational institutions will tell you that Rule #1 is that the development of the interface should take place in parallel with that of the code. Thus, if the code starts to go down a path that will be hard for the interface to handle, the problem will be detected early in the development stage and hopefully remedied.

Yes, there are functions within OS X that could do with access through better interfaces. However, there are also a variety of perfectly good interfaces that connect to code that just doesn't work. The interface induces false expectations and then leaves the user in the lurch. It may be necessary to dispense with a lot of the nuts and bolts currently under the hood, perhaps even down to the current library of functions currently accessible only through the Unix interface. Otherwise, Ive may find himself pushed into the unpleasant situation of trying to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear; and the problem runs a lot deeper than providing that sow’s ear with the superficial appearance of silk!

Thursday, November 1, 2012

What are the Real Fetish Objects?

About a week ago I was attacking Andrew Ross for what I called “an unfair attempt to conflate musicology … and music criticism.” Using Theodor W. Adorno’s “On the Fetish-Character in Music and the Regression of Listening” as a point of departure, I suggested that I was putting the fetish of a newly discovered Beethoven manuscript in opposition to Ross fetishizing the performance of “new works by living composers.” Shortly after writing that, I made one of my rare treks across San Francisco Bay in order to see the first revival performance of Einstein on the Beach at the University of California at Berkeley. I discovered that fetishes were still on my mind as I wrote my “examination” of this performance for

However, Adorno was interested not only in fetishization but also in that “regression of listening.” His point was that consumerist preoccupation with fetish status may cloud our capacity to perceive the object itself. He illustrates this with a very caustic (and, I suspect, highly accurate) sentence:
The consumer is really worshipping the money that he himself has paid for the ticket to the Toscanini concert.
Sitting there among the audience in Zellerbach Hall, I felt surrounded by such consumers, wondering if even one of them either knew or cared about what was going on up on stage or in the orchestra pit. I realize that sounds more than a little self-serving; but close inspection of a sample of those faces let me to hypothesize that most, if not all, of those folks were there to make a fetish out of the ticket on which the name Einstein on the Beach had been printed. This was not about the power of art to enlighten but about the power of possession to gratify.

Adorno’s words were particularly ironic because I have been using my national site to examine the recently reissued CD box Arturo Toscanini: The Complete RCA Collection. The amount of time I have put into this project (covering the individual recordings on the basis of a system of seven categories) should provide sufficient evidence that my attitude towards Toscanini is far more positive than Adorno’s. This is not to say that I passionately approve of every recording in the collection, but I suspect the energy behind some of my highly positive remarks would be strong enough to set Adorno spinning in his grave.

My point is that one should be able to write about Toscanini without turning either him, or any of the CDs themselves, into a fetish object. The good news is that I have already negotiated that risk with two other conductors about whom I have been far more enthusiastic, Wilhelm Furtwängler and Sergiu Celibidache, whom I have “examined” through both recent CD releases and a collection of DVDs. The good news is that any of these material objects is far easier to come by than a ticket for Einstein on the Beach; and I would like to believe that ease of access serves to facilitate our directing attention to the content presented by the object, rather than on the object itself!

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Cage’s Memories of Computer Programming

I spent the better part of yesterday reading a paper by Leta E. Miller about John Cage’s work with electronic technology leading up to and then following the composition of “Variations V,” one of his most technology-rich pieces. Miller cited Cage having a relationship with Bell Labs that was new to my knowledge of him. It involved his connection with Max Mathews, a leading pioneer of digitally synthesized sound involving the development of a programming language for use by those wishing to compose electronic music. Miller wrote the following about Mathews:
Mathews recalls that he first met Cage when the composer contacted him to see if Bell Labs could construct a random number generator program that would mimic the stick-tossing procedures of the I Ching, an ancient Chinese treatise on divination. Mathews remembers accommodating Cage (‘not a very hard job; about 15 minutes of writing a program’).
None of this surprised me very much, including Mathews estimate of the amount of programming time involved.

While Miller did not attach a specific date to this encounter, it probably would have been in the early Sixties; and therein lies the surprise. I met Cage for the first time in the summer of 1968 while he was in the midst of working on “HPSCHD” with Lejaren Hiller at the University of Illinois. This was another technology-rich project, this time heavily digital where “Variations V” had been heavily analog. I attended a seminar at which Cage talked about his work at Illinois. This involved, among other things, once again having a program to simulate the chance operations behind I Ching consultations. This time the programmer was Ed Kobrin; and, according to Cage, it took six months for Kobrin to write the code.

(As an aside, Cage gave this talk at MIT. A programmer I knew who was in the audience ducked out after Cage made this statement. He was back with a running program before Cage concluded his talk. As I said, Mathews’ estimate was entirely believable.)

In retrospect this was, for me at least, a powerful lesson in programming environments. Both Bell Labs and MIT had rich environments for “interactive” programming. At the University of Illinois, on the other hand, one submitted punched cards to a batch-processing system. Interactive programming also entailed interactive diagnosis when the program did not work. There were even powerful software tools to facilitate the programmer observing what was happening on a step-by-step basis, modifying the program itself, and observing the impact of the change.

My guess is that the University of Illinois had no such interactive environment that allowed programmers to be more productive in their work. If the program did not do the right thing, one stared at the code, possibly using pencil and paper to facilitate the analysis. They were programming computers using techniques not that different from those used for those early computers being developed during the Second World War, unaware of how the state of the art had advanced at places like MIT.

In many respects the Internet has leveled the playing field across different work environments. However, as tools have gotten more powerful and more available to more individuals connected through the Internet, the knowledge of what actually happens seems to be declining. As I read various articles in trade publications, I have discovered that the number of people who know how code works and how to write it is in attrition, meaning that I am not the only one complaining about how few people are left who know how “the machine” works these days!

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

New Interfaces for Whom?

I just finished reading David Meyer’s analysis of the latest reorganization within Apple on ZDNet. His prediction at iOS and OS X will merge into a single operating system with a common user interface strikes me as a reasonably good educated guess. Furthermore, the promotion of Jony Ive from product design to the broader responsibility of human interfaces across all Apple products is a sign that this unification will be seen at the interface level, as well as the infrastructure. I would also agree with Meyer that these changes recognize a potential threat arising from Microsoft’s new commitment to touch-based products.

Still, I have to wonder just who will benefit from those changes that are potentially in the works. I have already written about the fact that those of us who still take “an analytic approach to both reading (as in long reports that often require multiple open windows to support fact-checking, testing, and related queries) and writing (as in responding to such reports with a comprehensive analysis)” are likely to be the losers in this mobile-based world of the future that has seized the attention of both Apple and Microsoft. I would also suggest that, beyond the basic acts of reading and writing, there are also basic issues of content management (once called file management), that have always been fundamental to any operating system. Whether the content is on your own device or off in some cloud, you still have to worry about both saving it and retrieving it; and interfaces should be designed to make those worries less bothersome. Finally, there is an even more fundamental issue of operating system design, which is the idea of managing multiple active processes for those “multiple open windows.” If I am trying to read anything of substance from a computer screen, I am likely to be writing at the same time. That is why I am such an advocate of the support for note-taking provided by Acrobat; but the notes I write usually require that I am running a Web browser (and probably also a tool for searching documents on my hard drive) at the same time. The notes I take may involve both pasting content from other sources or inserting useful hyperlinks. Such multitasking is not currently supported by iOS, nor would I want to do that kind of reading on a telephone. However, the corollary is that I cannot do it on an iPad either.

My fear is that we face a highly consumer-based approach to the next generation of technologies. This obviously plays well for the marketing folks, who can then dream up any number of scenarios of happy consumers for television commercials. However, it pushes those of us who have to do something other than consume, not only those of us who desperately cling to writing as a legitimate form of work but also all of those trying to run businesses confronted with day-to-day decision-making challenges that require hard-and-fast analytic thinking, into a distant background. It will be E. M. Forster’s world in which the machine satisfies all consumption needs but in which no one knows how the keep the machine running effectively; and it seems as if it is no longer in the interests of either Apple or Microsoft to consider the implications of such a future.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Integrating “Dennis the Menace”

In today’s panel for Dennis the Menace, we see that he has an African American baby sitter complaining that her book on child psychology was of no use. I think this was the first time I saw an African American in the series. Checking the Wikipedia entry, I discovered that the effort to integrate it had an interesting history:
… in the late 1960s, Ketcham decided to add an African American character to the cast named Jackson. Ketcham designed Jackson in the tradition of a stereotypical cartoon pickaninny, with huge lips, big white eyes, and just a suggestion of an Afro hair style. In one cartoon that featured Jackson, he and Dennis were playing in the backyard, when Dennis said to his father, "I'm havin' some race trouble with Jackson. He runs faster than me." The attempt to integrate the feature did not go over well. Protests erupted in Detroit, Little Rock, Miami, and St. Louis, and debris was thrown at the offices of the Post Dispatch. Taken aback, Ketcham issued a statement explaining that his intentions were innocent, and Jackson went back into the ink bottle. However, another African American character named Jay Weldon appeared in the 1986 animated series to far less controversy as he was not a stereotype.
The panels are now written and drawn by Hank Ketcham’s former assistants, Marcus Hamilton and Ron Ferdinand; and they may have decided that one could keep up with the times without stereotyping. After all, one assumes that a babysitter lives nearby, if not in the same neighborhood; and the implication is that this kid takes her job seriously. It may have taken half a century, but Dennis the Menace may have caught up with contemporary reality!

Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Clash of the Fetishes

It appears that Andrew Ross finally wrote something on his The Rest is Noise blog that prompted me to get out my flame-thrower. The good news is that I put in solid effort into my contrary position, resulting in an article for my national site. However, having taken that position, I realize that it may be situated in a broader context.

The "something" in question consisted only of a single sentence:
Wouldn't it be great if the media were covering significant new works by living composers, instead of reporting the discovery of an exceedingly minor piece by Beethoven?
The crux of my article involved pushing back against what I felt was an unfair attempt to conflate musicology (the discovery of a new Beethoven manuscript) and music criticism.

Ironically, yesterday I was typing up notes I had taken after having read an essay by Theodor W. Adorno entitled "On the Fetish-Character in Music and the Regression of Listening." Basically, the "fetish-character" amounts to taking a consumerist stance on music experiences (including concerts as well as recordings), thinking in terms of the exchange-value of commodities rather than any strictly subjective use-value. From this point of view, Ross might accuse me of fetishizing the newly discovered manuscript, while I would retaliate by accusing him of fetishizing the performance of "new works by living composers." In other words you get to choose the fetish for which you pays your money!

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The Concept of “Art”

I spent part of this past weekend wrestling with an essay entitled “Art and the Arts,” which I found in the Stanford University Press anthology of works by Theodor W. Adorno collected under the title Can One Live after Auschwitz?: A Philosophical Reader. This was the essay in which I found Adorno making explicit reference to John Cage, and I figured I had better get a sense of the context in which that reference was situated. The title referred to the question of whether or not it made sense of have a concept of “art,” given the diversity of all the instances subsumed by that concept.

I was a bit surprised that this “philosophical reader” contained no reference to Ludwig Wittgenstein in this essay. After all, Wittgenstein had taken on the same question with regard to the concept of “game.” Ultimately, he concluded that, while one could not define the that concept through the necessary and sufficient conditions of a rigorous formal logic, one could not dismiss the concept out of hand. To borrow a later phrase from John L. Austin, this was just one of those examples of how we “do things with words,” regardless of whether or not what we do can be reduced to a formal infrastructure.

The bottom line is that categories are not mere abstract constructs. They are products of how mind imposes order on sensory input, which is why Gerald Edelman chooses to focus not on the categories themselves but on those processes that he calls “perceptual categorization.” This stance is particularly important where “art” is concerned. Like it or not, we exist in a social world of minds that have declared it a perceptual category, reinforced by how our capacity for language has chosen to hang a noun-label on it. We have done this without worrying about whether that label has a variable target. Indeed, we may even embrace the variability of that target, which is what I had in mind when, back in 2010, I wrote that Edgard Varèse had “laid siege to those perceptual categories that we all assumed would serve us when listening to music.” From this we may conclude that Cage showed up in Adorno’s essay because he came along with a bigger siege engine.

In order to advance from sensation to cognition, Edelman uses his foundation as a basis for building hierarchies of categories of categories. This hierarchical stance has appealed to the artificial intelligence set, where it was abstracted into “object-oriented programming.” Unfortunately, that approach tried to abstract away the social dimension, which is one reason why it still cannot come to grips with “game.” (I once had a colleague who wrestled with whether, in the hierarchy he was trying to build, a “toy truck” was a “toy” or a “truck!”)

My own interest, on the other hand, has been to determine whether or not the things we do with our words might fall into some “meta-level” set of categories that serve us when we talk about different art forms. I have been at this for some time. Thus, when I find myself wrestling with a particularly tricky aspect of the making of music, I still tend to turn to the medieval trivium to guide how I use my words within a framework of logic, grammar, and rhetoric. This does not strike me as far-fetched, since one of the key aspects of the social dimension of music concerns the intersection between how we make music and how we talk about making music.

This is not to imply that, in the course of my own doing things with words, everything always fits nicely into that framework. Sometimes I feel as if I have to take a shoehorn to what I am trying to say. Then I have to remind myself that rethinking the framework may be more valuable that cramming into it things that may not belong there!