Wednesday, February 29, 2012

What Raspberry Pi May Tell Me

Once upon a time, computers were for programming.  We used them at work to facilitate (usually routine) tasks associated with our jobs.  We used them in research laboratories to broaden the scope of the sorts of tasks they could facilitate.  Then the hobby culture came along;  and kids started using them to build stuff, sometimes more for amusement than for facility.  For the most part the kids did things on a smaller scale, but they could be impressively creative about it.

The Internet changed all that.  We started doing other things with our computers, many of which had to do with communication.  Then the commercial folks got wind of what we were doing and realized that any technology that could change the playing field on which people communicated could also change the rules of the game for advertising.  Now, on the Internet, everybody knows you’re a consumer;  and they are all moving heaven and earth to communicate with you.

Raspberry Pi may be a sign that we can get back to the Garden.  It is cheap ($25);  and it is so bare-bones that only a hobbyist can love it.  Nevertheless, it is a computer, even if you have to provide your own keyboard and monitor.  The point, however, is that it is not a computer for Web surfing or running the latest cool stuff from the App Store.  It is a device that only appeals to those who still believe that programming can be a creative and fun activity.  I almost added “if any of them are left” to that last sentence;  but, according to Vincent Chang’s Crave report for CNET News, demand for Raspberry Pi went through the roof as soon as it was launched yesterday in the United Kingdom.

Will it spark a similar interest in programming if it expands its business to the United States, or will our consciousness industry spare no expense to make sure that its electrons never flow on American soil?

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Somebody Likes Bradley Manning!

According to Lauren Indvik’s post to Mashable last night, Bradley Manning has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.  This should not be entirely surprising, since WikiLeaks received an institutional nomination last year.  Indivk took the trouble to provide a few words about the nominating process:

The names of 191 individuals and 43 organizations were submitted to the Norweigan [sic] Nobel Committee for consideration. Every year, the five-member Committee sends out thousands of letters to qualified individuals — lawmakers, university professors and other figures involved in the public sphere — calling for nominations. The lists of nominees are kept secret for 50 years, but some voting individuals choose to announce their nominations publicly.

This seems as good a process as any.  Lawmakers tend to have ideological agendas, but there seems to be plenty of room for other opinions.  The irony is that how the Nobel Committee makes a decision about Manning will probably have a lot to do with how his trial proceeds.  In other words the very government that has chosen to prosecute him may become a major data source when the Nobel Committee ponders what decision to make.

Friday, February 24, 2012

The Price of an e-Book

I continue to keep my distance from gadget-based reading.  When I read from the screen at all, the screen is on my “untethered MacBook Pro;”  and my reading software is Acrobat Pro, because it is almost impossible for me to read a text without wanting to annotate it.  Nevertheless, I was interested in Charles Cooper’s Digital Media piece on CNET News this morning, “So how much is a fair price to pay for an e-book?,” simply because I had not realized how contentious the state of play had become.

Cooper has done an excellent job of weaving his readers through the complexities of the current disputes.  Perhaps it is his explanatory skill that makes his punch line so disquieting:

If it comes down to Amazon and the DOJ on one side against Apple and the book publishers on the other, guess which side the book lovers will be rooting for?

As a punch line this text overlooks those who, by all rights, should be key players in this dispute but, in reality, have virtually no voice at all:  the authors.  Publishers will always put the interests behind their balance sheets before those of their authors.  (At least the ones who want to stay in business do, and they then survive the Darwinian process of selection imposed by the free market.)  Amazon, on the other hand, is promoting self-publishing, which means that only the author is responsible for the author’s interests, making the pool of authors yet another population base that gets winnowed out by Darwinian selection.

Meanwhile, there is another factor that did not figure into Cooper’s exposition.  It has to do with my careful wording of my first sentence.  I suspect that I would have been a bit more comfortable had Cooper said “gadget lovers” in his punch line, rather than “book lovers.”  Yes, I am seeing more people reading in the course of my wanderings;  and many of them are reading from the screens of their favorite gadgets.  However, they tend to be more interested in talking about the “gadget-based experience of reading,” rather than about the book itself.

Now we all know that the thing about gadgets is that the playing field keeps changing.  This leads me to believe that most people will be absorbed in new gadgets by the time the current disputing parties come to an agreement, making the substance of the agreement tantamount to worthless.  Worse, we have no idea what people will be doing with the next generation of gadgets.  The “solitary” reading experience may give way to something more “social,” as developers have been trying to do with computer-based movies and television programs.  Alternatively, these “passive” experiences may give way to yet another generation of games with new (and more dazzling) ways for players to kill each other.  Needless to say, none of these bodes very well for authors who take their writing seriously and seek readers willing to do the same.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Life Imitates Art (or at least television)

BBC News is covering the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS);  and this morning they decided to take on a rather daring paper.  The title of the paper is “In Defence of Dolphins:  The New Moral Frontier,” written by Professor Tom White of Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, whose specialty is ethics.  The fact that the AAAS should now be including ethics in its conference agenda should be news enough;  but this paper offered an ethical argument that cetaceans (including dolphins) deserve the same ethical considerations as humans.  In other words both hunting and captivity (including captivity for entertainment purposes at venues such as Sea World) should be ruled illegal on ethical grounds.

White’s argument rests on the following premise (stated in his words):

A person needs to be an individual. If individuals count, then the deliberate killing of individuals of this sort is ethically the equivalent of deliberately killing a human being.

The paper then outlines the grounds (nicely summarized in the BBC News article) for attributing such individuality to cetaceans, leading White to conclude that dolphins are “non-human persons.”  The timing is such that one wonders whether or not White has been watching television or, more likely, that one of the writers on the production team for Harry’s Law has been taking the 405 over to Loyola Marymount to sit in on White’s classes.  In the January 11 episode of this series, Harry Korn took the case of a woman who “liberated” a gorilla from the animal park in which it was held on the grounds that the animal had “personhood.”  The script for this show provided such a clear exposition of both sides of the case (including one of the best Cliff Notes introductions to the fundamentals of ethics I have encountered) that it is very likely that one of the writers consulted an expert.  (It was also about as up-to-date as one could get, since it showed the gorilla using an iPad, an item that had been in the news only about a month earlier.)  Having now read about White’s current work and taking into account that he is based in Los Angeles, it would not surprise me if he were the expert behind this episode.

Local Knowledge Ignored Again?

Around the beginning of the year, the deli on the ground floor of the complex where I live went out of business.  It was a mom-and-pop operation that just could not make it in the sagging economy against the pressures imposed by the big chains selling the same stuff for less.  I had been willing to pay a bit more for my milk, just as a sign of support;  but the closing of their doors was no great problem.  It just meant that I had to walk a block up the street (that being Van Ness Avenue, it meant uphill, making for an addition to my exercise regimen) to Walgreens to get milk.

This morning I made that trip around 8:30 AM.  I discovered that the milk shelves were almost empty.  While checking out I asked when milk deliveries were made.  I was told that the milk came around 7 AM (before the doors opened);  but the clerk then added that it was only delivered every other day.  In other words, having created increased demand by forcing a small business to give up the ghost, the big business had yet to take measures to deal with the resulting need for increased supply.

Now, it is unclear which big business made this decision.  It could have been Walgreens’ failure to recognize how much milk was being sold, or it could have been Berkeley Farms failure to note that the shelves were getting emptier at delivery time.  Of course the supply shortage could be traced back to a broader milk shortage.  (Perhaps those happy cows of California are not as happy as we think.)  However, my guess is that word of a milk shortage would have made local, if not national, news sources (if not in the mainstream then in the free weeklies that come out on Wednesday mornings).

The more likely hypothesis is that order-and-fulfillment is now managed entirely by machines, working off of databases that, for all we know, have been relegated to some place in that cloud that is the newest fad of information technology management.  Put another way, technology is serving decision making, rather than decision support;  and, because that technology does not accommodate anything as sophisticated as local knowledge, all it knows about are the raw numbers that are collected and fed to the database.  Those numbers may eventually indicate a trend, which, in turn, may be interpreted as a need for increased supply.  On the other hand, they may not.  My own reaction is to do a bit more plan-ahead buying when my wife and I make our weekly run to Safeway, thus eliminating the need to walk the extra block to Walgreens most of the time.

In other words, by driving the mom-and-pop out of business, Walgreens may have gotten what they wanted.  However, by ignoring the local consequences of their action, their decision-making software has yet to take advantage of this newly-created situation.  In other words the machine fumbled the ball;  and, by the time the machine even figures out that the ball was lost, it will be irrecoverable because people can be resourceful enough to figure out what to do in such a situation better than machines can!

Monday, February 20, 2012

Has Downton Abbey "Jumped the Shark?"

James Fenton seems to have been the latest “informed” writer to join the gang-up on Downton Abbey with his piece in the latest issue of The New York Review of Books entitled “The Abbey That Jumped the Shark.”  Assuming (perhaps rightly) than many New York Review readers are not up on Hollywood jargon, Fenton prefaced his piece with a definition from Wikipedia, explaining that jumping the shark refers to the beginning of “a decline in quality that is beyond recovery.”  (I am willing to accept this as a point of reference;  but was “quality” ever in the working vocabulary of any serious conversation in Hollywood?)

I am not convinced that Downton Abbey is all over except for the train wreck, so to speak.  The train metaphor is actually Fenton’s:

It’s a large sentimental contraption, coming at us, as the first trains came at us in the early Age of Steam, with a man in front, waving a red flag as if to say: you have been warned.

Still, when it comes to invective, I have to say that I much preferred Simon Schama’s description as “a steaming, silvered tureen of snobbery.”  Nevertheless, predicting that trains will crash or tureens will spill may be premature.  The third season has already been announced;  and I suspect that public relations will work up a fervor of expectations at the prospect of seeing Maggie Smith go head-to-head with Shirley MacLaine (a bit of future planning that did not figure in Fenton’s argument).

To review the bidding once again, Fenton and Schama both come down on Downton Abbey by attacking the writing.  In Hollywood logic this amounts to appealing to “quality,” which means that, however valid the argumentation may be, the results really do not signify.  After all, the Golden Globes preferred Downton Abbey to Game of Thrones, probably because the latter was taking a far more ambitious approach to narrative.  More recently the final episodes of the second season of Downton Abbey had to go up against Luck, which seems to have found the sweet spot between a thoroughly imaginative conception of both character and plot and the nail-biting suspense of horse races.  This latter world has little interested in whether or not the vintage port is strained through a cloth napkin, and it would not surprise me if it turned out that every one of the characters is suffering from a peptic ulcer.  Is that how we shall all feel when Shirley MacLaine comes to the small screen to begin the “battle of the mothers-in-law?”

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Curtis Learns about Death

Ray Billingsley’s comic strip for today’s Curtis is rather a departure from his usual offerings.  Curtis is basically a hedonistic kid driven by little more than self-indulgence;  but today he had a more sobering experience.  It came at the barber shop, where Gunther (who never gets Curtis’ name right) has closed for business in order to throw a big party.  The party turns out to be for the death of his uncle, which left Curtis more than a little perplexed.

Half of the strip is Gunther’s explanation monologue:

He said if we had to remember him with tears, it’s be better not to remember him at all

He no longer has to bother with all the bull life hands out!

No more struggling to pay the rent, low-class reality shows, clueless politicians, or neighbors who don’t act very neighborly!

Heck, we oughta cry when babies get born into this messy world, and celebrate when we leave and go on to glory!!

Curtis delivers the punch line with a wistful look on his face as he leaves the barber shop:

I’ve never thought about it that way before …!

Of course “that way” has been a significant element in the history of just about every major religion:  Life is pain;  death is relief from pain.  It was only with the emergence of a secular society motivated by little more than its addiction to consumerism that we saw a change in this positive outlook on death.  Now this ancient message has become comic strip material;  and, if that is not some kind of barometer indicating just how “messy” (as Gunther put it) the world has become, I don’t know what is!

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Self-Destrictive Self-Righteousness?

Chris Matyszczyk decided to use today’s post to his Technically Incorrect blog on CNET News to riff about the girl who “fell flat on her nose” while texting under the eye of a CBC News camera resulting in a YouTube upload whose hit rate will probably have passed 1.5 million by the time you read this.  I came away from reading his post with a clear impression that behavior modification by humiliation is not nearly as effective as many of us wish it would be.  For me these are the operative passages from Matyszczyk’s post:

But texting and walking has surely gained a unique place in culture, for its sheer absurdity. Just a couple of years ago, I found myself tempted into bumping into New York text-walkers, just to see if they had any self-consciousness at all. (They don't.)

Instead, I found if text-walkers bump into you, they actually think it's your fault. They truly believe that it is your responsibility to get out of their way, because, in texting, they are proving they have more important things to do than look out for you.

As I see it, Matyszczyk has captured a fundamental law of human nature, even if he never stated it explicitly:

Self-righteousness trumps all.

The behavior of those who text while walking is no different from that of the many bicyclists who have made city streets hazardous for pedestrians and motorists alike.  (No matter how many testimonials I read claiming that these guys are a minority, the statistics of my personal observations just cannot agree.)  Even when those cyclists run smack into a serious (fatal, in at least one case in San Francisco) accident, whether or not the cyclist is the injured party, (s)he will inevitably insist that, no matter how reckless (and/or oblivious) his/her behavior may have been, (s)he was in the right because the other guy was clearly opposing his/her “green” philosophy.  In other words we can rephrase the law as the following corollary:

Being right means never having to check your behavior against reality.

In other words, for anyone who does believe in reality checking, it’s a dangerous world out there!

Friday, February 17, 2012

The Wisdom of Morton Feldman

I came across a great quote from an essay that Morton Feldman wrote for Source that amounts to a no-holds-barred polemic against “academic” perspectives on making music:

It becomes increasingly obvious that to these fellows, music is not an art.  It is a process of teaching teachers to teach teachers.  In this process it is only natural that the music of the teacher will be no different from that of the teacher he’s teaching.  Academic freedom seems to be the comfort of knowing one is free to be academic.

Needless to say, I sympathize with his polemic approach and fervently hope that, before Feldman died, he found at least one good spokesperson to carry on this torch!

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Short-Lived Lion?

The Associated Press report from Peter Svensson was one of the first to catch my attention this morning:

Apple Inc. on Thursday released a developer preview of an update for the Mac operating system, dubbed "Mountain Lion," that will copy more features and apps from the iPhone and iPad to the Mac.

This strikes me as the strongest possible confirmation of what Ted Landau has called the “iOS-ification” of Mac OS, which pretty much seems to be to the detriment of those of us still working at desktops or on laptops.  It also means that Lion was one of the shortest-lived (if not the shortest-lived releases of an operating system in the history of the Mac).  I would like to take this to mean that Apple has admitted just how badly Lion screwed the pooch, even if they are claiming to keep up with mobile features for surface appearances.  Of course this is no guarantee that all the things that work poorly in Lion (if they work at all) will be overhauled in the interest of a more reliable operating system;  but at least the implicit message is there that Lion has been accorded FUBAR status.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

"Appalling movies for dates"

In keeping with today’s significance, the above headline was appropriated from the London Telegraph in a piece by Mark Monahan and Florence Waters listing fifteen movies to avoid if you want a romantic evening.  I am reminded that one of the first movies I took my wife-to-be to see was The Company of Wolves, an over-the-top adaptation of a story by Angela Carter that basically turned “Little Red Riding Hood” into the fever dream of a girl (Sarah Patterson) on the brink of puberty.  I had first learned about this movie while on a business trip to London, where the line of people waiting to get into the movie house was as long as any I had seen for Star Wars.  A few months later I was on a business trip to Paris and got to see it without worrying about any lines.

It was, to say the least, pretty heavy stuff.  It was also far more sophisticated than anyone had a right to expect a movie to be, particularly one based on a fairy tale.  Also, it was my first contact with the work of Neil Jordan.

By the time it finally made it to the United States, I was certain everyone would want to see it.  So, on its opening weekend when we were staying at my place in Stamford, Connecticut, I dragged my wife-to-be down to the movie theatre.  The guy who tore our tickets said, “I can’t imagine why anyone would want to see this movie!”  Sure enough, we were part of a handful of people in the house.  Fortunately, my wife-to-be shared my enthusiasm for the film, which may have something to do with why we are now happily married!

Monday, February 13, 2012

Giving the Voters a Clear Choice

Regardless of whom the Republican Party eventually decides to nominate as a candidate to run against Barack Obama in November’s Presidential election, Obama has finally made a move that is likely to be interpreted by most voters as defining a clear choice.  That choice amounts to deciding whether our next President represents the 1% of the superrich or the 99% of the rest of us.  This morning Obama gave a speech in Virginia that, at least according to the report on the BBC News Web site, makes as clear a statement on behalf of the 99% as one can expect.  Here is the introductory summary:

US President Barack Obama has proposed to raise taxes on the wealthy in his 2013 budget, prompting an election year spending showdown with Republicans.

The proposal includes $1.5 trillion (£950bn) in new taxes, much from allowing Bush-era tax cuts to expire.

He will also call for a Buffett Plan tax hike on millionaires, as well as infrastructure projects.

Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney has already gone on record calling this plan an “insult to American taxpayers.”  I suppose he is right to some degree.  The plan is likely to offend many (if not most) of the 1%;  and they are American taxpayers.  However, their contribution to tax revenue is so small when compared with the rates sustained by the 99% that it is clear that Romney is looking through the wrong end of the telescope.

The question is whether or not the 99% will rally behind Obama for finally taking such definitive action.  After all the Republicans have so much control in the Congress that Obama’s move is tantamount of requesting a vote of confidence over the entire Legislative branch.  Recent polls seem to indicate that one would need a microscope to find any such confidence these days, so basically Obama is creating a situation in which the 99% will feel as if they have a significant stake in voting in November.  Nevertheless, the 1% have the money to spend on maintaining their current power grip on the country;  and we can expect that the propaganda engines of the consciousness industry are already rolling.  Will the 99% be fooled by such machinations?  I sure as hell hope they won’t!

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Audiophilia is not for Music Lovers!

Once again Steve Guttenberg has put up a post on his The Audiophiliac blog on CNET News that reminds me that “audiophilia” has absolutely nothing to do with listening to music (at least within Igor Stravinsky’s semantics for the verb “listen”).  Here is the opening of Guttenberg’s post:

For me a great hi-fi doesn't necessarily have to be the best sounding one.

It's more about a sound that draws me in. One CD or LP leads to the next, and I don't want to stop to eat, read, go to bed, or watch TV. A great hi-fi is one that lets the music cut loose.

My guess is that the last sentence has more to do with “good vibrations” than music.  Indeed, as the post rambles on, I realized that Guttenberg was more interested on those vibrations from Jimi Hendrix and the Doors (the examples he cites) than with the fact that those guys were performing music.  In other words what draws one into Hendrix is not the sound but rather his whole approach to performing that yields the sound as a byproduct.

It would not surprise me if, within a decade, neuroscience will know enough about the pathway from the inner ear to the cerebral cortex to model how we respond to different kinds of sounds.  This may even lead to a new “listening device” that will be able to tweak all of the right neurons without ever having to worry about the physical demands of bandwidth.  Should this happen, I suspect that such a device will keep Guttenberg happy for the rest of his life.  Those of us who are more serious about listening as a significant factor in our bodily behavior will probably be happy to have him out of the way!

Saturday, February 11, 2012

What Greece Really Teaches Us?

Once again the news of the day is focusing on Greece and its debt problem.  The Prime Minister may have changed, but the conditions that forced his predecessor out of office still prevail.  Here is how the current state of play is being described on the BBC News Web site:

The Greek PM has warned the nation of a collapse in living standards if MPs fail to pass an unpopular austerity bill demanded in return for a 130bn-euro ($170bn; £110bn) bailout.

In a TV address, Lucas Papademos said Greece was "just a breath away from Ground Zero".

The cabinet has approved the measures but five government ministers resigned.

Unions are holding a 48-hour strike, and thousands of protesters rallied in central Athens against the measures.

Riot police were on standby after clashes on Friday, but the demonstrations were mostly peaceful.

The austerity measures are being demanded by the eurozone and IMF - they must now be passed by the Greek parliament and approved by European finance ministers.

Meanwhile, as if to underscore how little things have changed, BBC World Service Television followed the footage of Papademos’ address with one by George Papandreou, Papademos’ predecessor who resigned on November 11 after failing to make any progress on the same problem.

One way to get a sense of just what it happening is to consult a recent post to NYRBlog by Timothy Snyder entitled “How Democracy Can Save Europe.”  The following paragraph explains how little who is Prime Minister matters, particularly to the general Greek public who has to bear the burdens of austerity:

In an article that will soon be published in The American Interest, [Ivan] Krastev argues that the European financial crisis is but a symptom of a deeper malaise of European political culture. Europe is troubled, he says, by insecure majorities, the national populations of EU member-states who believe themselves to be threatened both by globalization in the streets (immigration) and globalization in the law (Brussels). As Krastev puts it, national governments have politics but no policy, since important decisions are made by the EU; the EU has policy but no politics, since decisions are not made by elected representatives. Sovereignty becomes a symbol: precisely because national politicians have yielded authority to the EU, they cling to the identity and comfort provided by traditional national states. This is true not just of small and weak states, but also of the major European powers, such as Germany.

A few paragraphs later Snyder applies this reasoning directly to Greece:

At the moment Greek voters can change the parties who rule them, but cannot change fiscal policies. These are decided in Berlin. Thus we have the emergence of pantomime republics.

That phrase “pantomime republics” is particularly telling.  We are witnessing yet another instance of the concept of “elected representative” falling victim to what Max Weber called “loss of meaning” in his cautionary observations about a society dominated by market-based thinking.  In other words the Greek electorate is in the same boat as the 99% of the Occupy movements, ostensibly freed from political totalitarianism but now bound by the helplessness of “pantomime republics” in the face of an investor class that cares more about quarterly reports than about people frustrated by the harsh reality that the long-aspired power to vote for elected representatives no longer amounts to anything.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Bruckner Fever?

Judging from some of my recent conversations, it seems as if Wednesday night’s performance of Anton Bruckner’s fifth symphony by the San Francisco Symphony under the baton of Conductor Emeritus Herbert Blomstedt has triggered a wave of Bruckner fever.  Perhaps I should say “revived,” since Joshua Kosman’s review for the San Francisco Chronicle described the performance as “a happy reminder of the old days, when this repertoire formed a staple of Blomstedt's activities here and the performances were grand, probing and closely argued.”  This was before my time as a Bay Area resident (since I arrived around the time that Michael Tilson Thomas began his tenure);  but I am willing to take Kosman at his word on this claim.

The fact is, however, that, wherever I happened to be, the opportunities to hear Bruckner were pretty rare.  This makes it a weird coincidence, that this happens to be the week in which Simon Rattle will conduct the Berlin Philharmonic in a performance of Bruckner’s ninth symphony including a reconstruction of its final (fourth) movement, based on a thorough analysis of all existing sketches performed by a team of four musicologists between 1985 and 2008 (and then revised in 2010).  Having already made a career out of pursuing the latest scholarship on performing editions of Gustav Mahler’s tenth symphony, Rattle now seems to have shifted his focus to Mahler’s most famous teacher!

It is not as if Bruckner has been ignored after years in the shadows.  The recently-released EMI 48-CD anthology of concert recordings of Sergiu Celibidache conducting the Munich Philharmonic towards the end of his career includes twelve CDs of the music of Anton Bruckner covering his last seven symphonies (the third through the ninth) and two sacred compositions, the relatively short Te Deum and the last of his mass settings in F minor.  My own first serious exposure to Bruckner came from a Deutsche Grammophon reissue of the ninth symphony conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler, and his comprehensive Legacy collection includes six CDs that cover the fourth, fifth, seventh, and ninth symphonies, as well as excerpts from the sixth.  (Taken together, these two collections make quite a pair, since Celibidache was known to call Furtwängler his “beacon.”)  As I write this an Amazon.com music search on Bruckner just turned up 1650 CD hits, one of the most recent being a concert recording of Bernard Haitink conducting the London Symphony Orchestra in the fourth symphony on the ensemble’s own LSO label.  Even Jeffrey Tate has gotten into the game with a recording of the ninth made with the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra.

What most fascinates me about this revived interest is that it seems as if the reason I had previously heard so little Bruckner in the past was that he had been consigned to Mahler’s shadow.  This has led me to wonder whether or not the rise of interest in Mahler may have peaked with the celebration of the 150th anniversary of his birth, beginning on his birthday, July 7, 2010 and acknowledged by EMI with a sixteen-CD Complete Works box.  A year’s worth of celebrating may have left the listening public with a craving for something new;  and Bruckner is so radically different from any other symphonic composer that he may now be filling the bill, so to speak.  Nevertheless, if this is a fad on the part of the listeners, it certainly is not one where the conductors are involved.  If this means that there are likely to be more opportunities to experience different approaches to performing Bruckner, then I am all for it!

Thursday, February 9, 2012

My Most Memorable Muppet Moment

Since today’s London Telegraph decided to compile an image gallery of the Muppets with their most famous co-stars, I figured this was a good time to exercise my own memory.  I have to say that, while I was never one of his most rabid fans, the Muppet Show broadcast I remember most featured Jean-Pierre Rampal as guest.  While he was a good sport in Pied Piper costume in a bit where he saves the Muppet rats from a plague of children, the highlight of the show had to be his accompanying Miss Piggy (along with Rowlf the Dog on piano) in a performance of Henry Bishop’s “Lo, Hear the Gentle Lark” with Piggy in her best Florence Foster Jenkins form.  This can still be enjoyed on YouTube, and it is three minutes of time that deserves to be remembered forever.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Proper Spelling

For the better part of my life, Chopin’s first name was Frederic (and usually not “Frederick”).  However, the European countries tend to recognize that this was his name in Paris, where it was properly spelled with acute accents:  “Frédéric Chopin.”  This is the way we find his name spelled in the Munich-based Henle editions of his piano works.  Now that we live in a Unicode world, more and more English sources (including Wikipedia) go with this European spelling.

I thus found it a bit of an amusing jolt to discover that, in his review of Jonathan Kregor’s Liszt as Transcriber for The New York Review of Books, Charles Rosen chose to spell Chopin’s name “Fryderyk.”  This is the spelling we find in the edition of Chopin’s complete works whose chief editor was Ignacy Jan Paderewski.  It is the Polish spelling, although I have to wonder as I write this while looking at the two facing pages of the Preludes volume.  The right-hand page lists the publisher as “Instytut Fryderyka Chopina;  Polskie Wydawnictwo Muzyczne.”  The page facing this on the left side reproduces this as “The Fryderyk Chopin Institute;  Polish Music Publications.”  So, strictly speaking, because of grammatical details, “Fryderyk” is the proper spelling of Chopin’s first name when one wishes to use the Polish spelling while writing in English.

Is that what Rosen is doing, or is he just putting on a show?  After all, if he wishes to respect an individual’s nationality, then, by all rights, Liszt’s “first name” should be spelled “Ferencz;”  and his Wikipedia entry states that more modern Hungarian would spell this “Ferenc.”  Furthermore, the scare quotes around “first name” serve as a reminder that, in Hungarian, Liszt’s name is “Liszt Ferenc!”

I believe that standards can be useful for matters other than pedantry, particularly when you are dealing with search engines that often make up their conventions as they develop.  When it comes to spelling, I still use my Shorter Oxford English Dictionary.  I also use it to decide when to add a common noun to my Microsoft Word Custom Dictionary.  For the names of composers, however, I have decided to stick to the form that appears in large type at the top of the Wikipedia page.  By all rights I should go with Grove, but I prefer using a source that anyone reading me can consult for free.  (Mind you, I have free access to Grove through my San Francisco Public Library card;  but I cannot expect all of my readers to be so lucky.)  This also addresses questions of how many names to use;  so Mozart is “Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart,” while Haydn is “Joseph Haydn.”  This is probably not the perfect scholarly convention, but it provides for a “convenient consistency.”  That amounts to a virtue for anyone who writes as much as I do!

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

"humans are cheaper"

I have already cited Robert Greenwald’s 2005 documentary The High Cost of Low Price as a source for viewing the “new dark side” of manufacturing as a sign of the impact of the “Wal-Mart economy” on manufacturing in this brave new world of globalized supply chain management.  Apparently, Chi-Chi Zhang from CNN managed to interview a Foxconn employee to put a human face on just how dark that side is.  The employee is known only as “Miss Chen” for purposes of anonymity.  I suppose she was willing to speak because she knew she would not have a future at Foxconn.  She went there for the month of Spring Festival because she needed the money (making me wonder on the side just what Chinese students must think of spring break in the United States).

She quickly learned the motto adopted by Foxconn line workers, which is that “they use women as men and men as machines.”  This provided Zhang’s motive for the conclusion of the interview:

When asked why humans do machine-like work at Foxconn, she responds, "Well, humans are cheaper."

To some extent this reflects the outlook of the South vis-à-vis the rise of the Industrial Revolution in the North in the years leading up to the Civil War.  However, in the wake of the North’s victory, it also reflects the slave-like conditions endured by those who then had to work with machines, a theme that dominated Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle.  Sinclair’s book probably led to the rise of that joke about eating sausage without knowing how it is made.  Now, however, the joke is about pretty much every piece of technology we face;  and it is getting harder and harder to laugh at it (unless you are in that comfortable 1% whose only concern is return-on-investment).

Monday, February 6, 2012

Thought for the Day (so to speak)

Jan Strupczewski has been covering the stalemate in negotiations between Greece and the European Union (EU) over the next stage in financing its debt.  Things have now progressed to a point where one encounters the noun “default” in these dispatches.  This led to a quote on this matter from one unnamed EU official that was too good to resist:

They think, that we think that the unthinkable cannot be thought. But they better think again.

I think I shall need a strong cup of Greek coffee before trying to process that!

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Contemporary Coriolanus

Given that I spend almost no time at the movies any more, I have to confess that I was drawn to reading reviews of Coriolanus, the directorial debut of Ralph Fiennes, who also plays the leading role.  Much has been made of how Shakespeare’s conception of this Roman general easily translates into contemporary settings, and the images of Fiennes in both camouflage uniform and a full-dress costume easily mistaken as that of a United States Marine are, to say the least, compelling.  However, in the interest of giving credit where credit is due, I have to say that the most effective production of this play was the one I saw on the stage of the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego in the summer of 1988.  The set design for that staging by John Hirsch was built around an abundance of television monitors, establishing the post-CNN age of a public that sees the world only through a continuous cycle of broadcast news dispatches, a conception that also seems to underlie Fiennes’ vision of the play.

Nevertheless, there is one significant difference between the two productions.  While Fiennes’ appearance may resemble a high-ranking Marine, his portrayal seems basically generic.  We are at liberty to “fill in the blanks” as we wish.  Hirsch, on the other hand, had the luxury (if you can call it that) of modeling Coriolanus on a specific individual.  The actor performing the role bore a disturbing resemblance to Oliver North, almost as if Hirsch was trying to use Shakespeare’s character to get us to think beyond the pre-digested news reports about North and get under the man’s skin to hypothesize all those motives behind not only what he actually did with regard to our adventures in Nicaragua but also how he conducted himself under Congressional review.  He further exploited our sense of history by modeling Menenius Agrippa (who delivers the wonderful parable of the revolt against the belly staged by the other parts of the body) to resemble one of the great champions of Congressional review, the late North Carolina Senator (and “country lawyer”) Sam Ervin.  In other words Hirsch managed to take on two major scandals under Republican Presidents in a single play!

On the other hand I can appreciate Fiennes’ more generic approach.  One could not really enjoy Hirsch’s interpretation of Coriolanus without catching the references to these two major figures of recent American history.  However, in a culture that no longer seems to care very much about history, references to recent events do not signify as much for any purpose other than that of a cudgel that one candidate can take to another’s head.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Research Recapitulates Dinner

I spent enough time in Singapore to recognize that the only thing more important than the quality of work over there is the quality of dinner.  Thus, while Singaporeans may dismiss as idle speculation the question of whether or not ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny, a far more down-to-earth principle seems to have emerged with a promising future:

Research recapitulates dinner.

By way of evidence, here is an account of how it actually happened from Bonnie Cha, chief correspondent for Crave on the CNET Web site:

Inspired by our crustacean friends, researchers in Singapore have created a mini robot that can be used to remove early-stage stomach cancer in a far less invasive way than other procedures. The robot has the ability to crawl down a patient's throat and features a pincer and hook that can remove cancerous tissue.

The idea first came up in 2004 when Lawrence Ho, an enterologist at Singapore's National University Hospital, and Louis Phee, an associate professor at Nanyang Technological Institute's School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, had dinner with Hong Kong surgeon Sydney Chung, who is well-known for his fight against SARS.

While dining on Singapore's signature chili crab dish, Chung suggested the two use the crab as a prototype, making note of the strength of a crab's pincers and its ability to pick up sand.

Taking his advice, Ho and Phee created their crab-like robot by attaching a pincer and hook to an endoscope, along with a small camera to provide visual feedback. The bot enters through the patient's mouth, and once inside the stomach area, the surgeon can maneuver the pincer to grab the cancerous tissue and then use the hook to slice it off.

Ho said the robot allows for more precision on the surgeon's part. "Our movements are very huge and if you want to make very fine movements, your hands will tremble... But robots can execute very fine movements without trembling," he told Reuters.

The mind absolutely boggles at the potential for discovery latent in this methodology.  What might roti prata inspire?

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Decoding Zuckerberg

By now just about anyone following the story of Facebook preparing to go public knows that Mark Zuckerberg included a letter as part of the IPO filing that reads more like a personal philosophy of life than a mission statement.  I was therefore interested this morning to read how Rory Cellan-Jones, Technology Correspondent for BBC News, chose to undertake a micro-level text analysis of what he calls an “extraordinary document.”  I definitely agree with Cellan-Jones’ choice of words.  This is definitely a radical departure from what potential investors expect to read before a stock is floated.

Because Cellan-Jones has done such an admirable job, I want to come at this from the other end.  First of all I would have to say that someone (I have to wonder whether or not it was Zuckerberg) has done an excellent job of taking what is basically a defiant defense of a personal creed and rendering it in prose that coaxes the reader, rather than taking to him/her with a sledge hammer.  Whoever wrote this could have given some excellent lessons in style to Karl Marx.  Nevertheless, the top-level message is still a defiant one.  If I had to write a headline it might go something like:

Zuckerberg to investors, do it my way or go away!

Regardless of whether or not I accept “Mark’s way,” however, I think he may have overlooked one particular ugly reality about why Wall Street is so different from Main Street.  This amounts to a variation on the punch line of The American Ruling Class, both Lewis Lapham’s book and John Kirby’s documentary:


When we shift Lapham’s perspective on power from political office to the broader question of who calls the shots for what, it is important to recognize that, unless Zuckerberg is extremely vigilant in making sure that he always holds a controlling percentage of Facebook stock (far from an easy matter), he may unhappily discover that, rather than walk away, those who wish to undermine his “way” may well find ways to buy that controlling interest.  If Zuckerberg does not recognize this possibility, then he may well find himself caught up in what I like to call a “comedy of distress,” if not on the scale of Alexander Pushkin’s A Dramatic Tale, The Comedy of the Distress of the Muscovite State, of Tsar Boris, and of Grishka Otrepyev, then perhaps long the lines of David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

A Confrontation between PBS and HBO?

Time (and possibly a sense of irony) should soon tell if Brian Wheeler’s piece for BBC News this morning, “The US cult of Downton Abbey,” was premature.  Wheeler neglected to mention that, for those more interested in solid drama rather than sports, the second season of Downton Abbey got off to a good start because there was no real competition for that Sunday night slot.  Both Boardwalk Empire and Homeland had concluded their runs, and Mad Men is still in the distant future.  However, this past Sunday saw the beginning of Luck in that same slot on HBO;  and I, for one, will be very curious about what the numbers have to say.

Like many HBO viewers I took advantage of the opportunity for a “sneak preview” of the first episode of Luck about a month ago.  That left me undecided but curious;  and, in the interest of narrative continuity, I decided to give Sunday’s “official” broadcast of that first episode a second look.  To my delight that second viewing was more than powerful enough to hook me;  and, by all rights, I should not have been surprised.  Like Deadwood, Luck is a David Milch creation;  and, like its admirable predecessor, it is a slow starter.  However, also like Deadwood, the narrative makes instrumental use of language itself to advance the plot, not only to establish characters but also through subtle interrelationships between language and action that used to be a hallmark of David Mamet’s writing.  In other words, rather than worrying about the pace at which the plot unfolds, the viewer can relish a command of rhetorical twists and turns that make Maggie Smith’s one-liners on Downton Abbey sound like Joan Rivers in period costume.

Wheeler, of course, made appropriate reference to Simon Schama’s recent attack piece, giving Executive Producer Rebecca Eaton the opportunity to rebut.  The fact that her argument was that Downton Abbey is not a documentary means that she just did not get what was annoying Schama.  Readers know that I had my own issues with Schama;  but they had to do with his assertion that history “delivers the tonic of tragedy, not the bromide of romance.”  This leads me to wonder if Schama spent any time watching Deadwood, whose “tonic of tragedy” was more than a little bracing;  but, if he watched that series simply for the unfolding of events, he would have totally missed its literary value.

Luck promises just as much literary value, this time without the history.  This one is about the human condition in a present that gets harder to face by more people every day.  As such, it may not pose that great a challenge to Downton Abbey;  but that, in itself, is an irony.  Now we turn to PBS for escapism when the realities dished out by HBO are too hard to take.