Thursday, December 31, 2015

Not Quite Fiddling

Fifteen minutes ago Julia Jacobo filed a report for ABC News to the effect that the massive fireworks display involving the entire length of the Burj Khalifa skyscraper in Dubai went on as planned while the fire at the Address Downtown Hotel, within eyesight of Burj Khalifa, which was consuming an entire side of the hotel, was only 65% contained. Jacobo's report did not state who made the decision that "the show must go on." Presumably the decision reflected someone's priorities, but whose priorities?

Monday, December 28, 2015

An Unexpected Exercise in Archiving

Like the Lord, giveth and taketh away. Around the middle of this year, I was informed that everything I had written in 2009 had been "unpublished." This came without any warning and probably had only to do with the fact that those articles did not fit with the change in page formatting. (There may also have been a tacit assumption that anything written in 2009 no longer had any value.) The Content Director who was my point of contact suggested that I could just republish them in the new format, indicating when they had originally been published. This turned out to be a rather time-consuming process; and I abandoned it when one of those articles got unpublished again. Fortunately, it turned out that I had the rights to the content; and there would not be a problem with my creating my own archive. I have now used this blogging tool to do so; and the new "archive blog" was completed today. I may be the only reader, but at least I can use the search tool!

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Trump's Damage has Already been Done

It would appear that, regardless of whether Donald Trump becomes the Republican candidate for President next year, his divisive rhetoric has taken hold of the general population of the United States in more ways than we might imagine. His latest victim is Riverheads High School in Augusta County in the state of Virgina, a state that tends to be sympathetic to Republicans and seems to translating that sympathy into enthusiasm for Trump. Riverheads' mistake was to encourage an appreciation of cultural differences by exploring the role of calligraphy in sacred Islamic texts. This included an assignment to reproduce the calligraphy of the Islamic declaration of faith, known as the Shahada.

Copying is often a valuable pedagogical tool. An excellent example can be found in Bernard Greenhouse's description of his cello lessons with Pablo Casals, which began with a prolonged exercise during which Casals instructed Greenhouse to produce "an absolute copy" of his way of performing Johann Sebastian Bach's BWV 1008 solo cello suite in D minor. Similarly, there used to be a counterpoint teacher at the Curtis Institute of Music whose only student assignments involved copying out the music of Giovanni Pierlugi da Palestrina.

However, as far as the good citizens of Augusta County are concerned (perhaps only the Republicans among them) there is a big difference between reproducing music, written or heard, a reproducing an Islamic declaration of faith. As a result of the hysteria stirred up by Trump, one by think that citizens were afraid that mere exposure to a significant element of that faith (one might compare it to the representation of the cross in Christianity) might turn their children into terrorists. Sober-minded students of the life and practices of Adolf Hitler know that creating a mass feeling of fear is often the key to winning popular support; and Augusta County seems to provided a powerful data point in support of this proposition. Indeed, according to the report on the Al Jazeera Web site, the school decided to close early for the Christmas break after receiving threats of violence.

Perhaps we should credit Trump for knowing more about Islamic terrorist strategies than we might have guessed, since there seems to be a clear parallel in his strategy for winning the American public to his cause.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

"Until the Real Thing Comes Along"

Anyone of my generation, who spent time of the East Coast and had strong feelings about Chinese food, probably had a chance to sample the food in Philadelphia's Chinatown. Those who were lucky got to do so at a restaurant with a chef who know about fish lo mein (yú lo mein). In contrast to most lo mein dishes, this was a delicate affair in which flakes of fish (probably steamed or lightly braised) intermingled with ginger, spring onions, and a bit of lemon peel, all on a bed of soft but slim lo mein noodles. I was fortunate enough to discover this the summer after my freshman year, when I had an internship with graduate students in computer science at the University of Pennsylvania. We used to go to one particular restaurant (South China) about once a week for this treat; and I continued to do so when I would return to visit my family in later years.

By the time I was teaching at Penn, South China was no longer serving fish lo mein. However, Computer Science departments tend to be inhabited by adventurous and enterprising graduate students. One of them figured out where the chef had moved, and I got to resume my culinary habit. Unfortunately, my later travels took me away from Philadelphia for several decades, which is how I discovered just how unique fish lo mein was. Even when I was working in Singapore, the very idea of such a dish would raise eyebrows. Things were no better when I moved from Singapore to Palo Alto.

Then I got to attend a conference in Philadelphia. I happened to be held at a new hotel built on top of the old Reading Terminal Market. That was a treat in itself, but it also put me only a few blocks away from Chinatown. My first night in Philadelphia I combed every street there in search of a chef who knew about fish lo mein. Unfortunately, when I finally found someone who knew what I was describing, he said, "I remember that chef! He died several years ago!"

About two decades have past since then, and I may finally have found a viable alternative. Several restaurants in Chinatown now serve a noodles dish with ginger and spring onion. The first time I tried it, I asked the waiter if the chef could add some fish the next time and basically got a dirty look. Today I found a place that did not give me a dirty look; and, while what I ate was not the "real thing" of personal memory, it will probably be the closest I can get. I figured I had a good chance because the name of the place is Kam Lock Seafood Restaurant; and they knew just how to do the right thing with the fish, even if the pieces were larger than those I used to get in Philadelphia. the balance of flavors, on the other had, was about as close to memory as I could expect. So, for those who may have had to endure the same "Philadelphia withdrawal" in their Chinese food diet, Kam Lock is on 834 Washington Street (just west of Grand Street) in San Francisco Chinatown; and it is open from 11 AM to 9:30 PM seven days a week!

Monday, November 2, 2015

It Has Come to This

In her opening news summary this morning on her radio broadcast of Democracy Now!, Amy Goodman introduced one of her stories with the phrase "In the latest mass shootings across the United States …." Beyond the Fringe used to have a joke about how, during the Second World War, every evening the BBC would bring "news of fresh disasters." That was funny back at a time when we did not take "fresh disasters" to be part of the stream of everyday life. Now they are; and, while Goodman was anything but casual in her reporting, her phrasing suggested that news of a mass shooting had become about as familiar as news of a hurricane striking. Perhaps we have to be casual about these things because the volume of taking all of them seriously would be unbearable.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Speaking Truth to Power is no Guarantee that Power will Comprehend

This past Tuesday James Gleick put up a fascinating post on the NYR Daily blog. His title was "What Libraries Can (Still) Do;" and it amounted to a valuable analysis of how the resource of a public library could be qualitatively different from that of a computer connected to the Internet, emphasizing the positive value of that difference. He then signed off with a zinger of a punch line:
The masters of Internet commerce—Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple—sometimes talk as though they’re building a new society, where knowledge is light-speed and fungible, but a marketplace is not a society.
This allowed him to hit squarely on the head a nail in desperate need of being hit. Unfortunately, that desperation has a lot to do with the prevailing ignorance among those "masters of Internet commerce." We have known for some time that the movers and shakers in the world of the Internet have been blithely ignorant of the social world. Many of them might even attribute their success to that ignorance. The bottom line is that they are so fixated on the marketplace that they believe that the very concept of society is outmoded, if not downright counterproductive. Thus, whenever social disruption rears its head, whether it involves death threats, identity theft, or just plain harassment, the "masters of Internet commerce" turn a blind eye and hold to their faith that the workings of the marketplace will take care of everything. Unfortunately, the result goes beyond the disappearance of society (and, along with it, any viable sense of the concept of governance) from the Internet. Because the Internet is so ubiquitous, society no longer signifies in the world at large except among terrorist groups for whom cultures that have neglected both society and governance can now be recognized as easy targets.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Are Things Looking Up for Bing?

I had mixed feeling after reading Mary Jo Foley's "Bing finally shows a profit" story on CNET this morning. The bottom line appears to be that Bing is finally attracting more eyeballs because other Microsoft software is pushing them there. There is nothing unfair about this practice; but it will not necessarily turn "Bing" into a verb of its own the way "Google" currently is.

Meanwhile, I was more than a little amused by the graphic attached to this article. It suggests that the Bing home page has a search window superimposed on a photograph of a meditation labyrinth (perhaps the labyrinth located here in San Francisco in the sanctuary of Grace Cathedral). The thing about any labyrinth is that going through it almost always takes a lot of time, and the duration can be even longer due to the risk of getting lost. Is that the sort of visual metaphor you want for a search engine?

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Does "Nimbler" Mean "Better?"

One gets the impression that Jack Dorsey returned to the Chief Executive Officer position at Twitter because someone (probably the heavy-duty investors acting as a collective) felt that the company needed a good hatchet man. In this case the hatchet will lop off 336 jobs, constituting 8% of the workforce. Given that unemployment is still a major problem, that amounts to a mighty hatchet.

One sentence from Dorsey's statement about the layoffs stuck in my craw:
We feel strongly that Engineering will move much faster with a smaller and nimbler team, while remaining the biggest percentage of our workforce.
This is very much the newspeak of the world that the Internet has made. My guess that all of us are now encountering software coming from "a smaller and nimbler team." What we notice most is that it is more error-prone. It is the latest generation of the old Microsoft motto: "Get it out as soon as possible and fix it later." It is also the latest example of what happens when pleasing the shareholders is more important than pleasing the customers.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Do You Judge a Man by his Credentials?

Like many, I have taken a rather jaundiced view of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). The fact that just about everything discussed in the preparation of this plan was performed in absolute secrecy (strict enough to avoid penetration by WikiLeaks) was enough to give me pause as a first impression. This seemed like another one of those gatherings inspired by organizations such as the World Economic Forum, whose motto ought to be, "Making the rich and mighty richer and mightier." Thus, when I got a hyperlink to the article "Why Support the TPP?" on the Facts & Arts Web site (which I read primarily for the arts), I decided to click with curiosity heavily seasoned with skepticism.

I did not take long for skepticism to come down like John Henry's hammer. The author is Jeffrey Frankel. His credentials are listed as "Professor of Capital Formation and Growth at Harvard University." Say what? This says as much about Harvard as it does about Frankel. I suppose it would be really cool (at least to the rich and mighty) to have a resume that describes you as having a degree from Harvard in "Capital Formation and Growth." The fact that Harvard has become so specialized is just as disturbing as its efforts to displace the University of Chicago as the recognized haven for the "paid brains" of the rich. Time to get a home in that rock.

Friday, October 9, 2015

What Would Will Rogers Say?

My favorite Will Rogers quote would have to be the following:
I do not support any organized political party. I am a Democrat.
These days it seems as if the Republicans are setting the bar for a "disorganized political party" and seem to just keep raising it. Could it be that the Internet has turned us into a culture that prefers anarchy to governance, even if the side-effects of anarchy include the laundry list of social abuses that now take place regularly on pages of the World Wide Web? Once upon a time the "futurists" were predicting that, by giving every individual his or her own voice, we would finally achieve a "true" democracy. Ironically, those futurists seemed blithely ignorant on how Athenian democracy was first conceived and how it actually worked. Rather than democracy, we have abundant opportunities for the unbridled execution of power, leading to the detriment of many for the sake of those who can shout louder than anyone else. At least the Democrats can take comfort that Will Rogers no longer can make fun of them.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Robocalls are Getting Smarter!

I just got call from which it was obvious that the caller was reading from a prepared script. When I asked, "Are you a human being?," the reply was:
I am a human being, but I am only allowed to respond to specific questions.
I replied:
Does that mean that "Am I interrupting anything?" is not part of your script?
That was followed by dead silence. Speech recognition is clearly getting better, but it is still pretty easy to tell the difference between technology and a human being. Make a note of that, Alan Turing!

Friday, September 25, 2015

Thinking Out-of-the-Box About Greece

These days the phrase "thinking out of the box" has been so over-used (and usually abused at the same time) that it is little more than a worthless cliché. Nevertheless, it is clear that "old school establishment" thinking by those who control the world's wealth is making conditions in Greece worse, rather than better, while, at the same time, trying to reduce the refugee problem permeating Europe to a case of muddling through at its most ineffective. Meanwhile, Greece has to contend with a flood of those refugees arriving faster than they are departing.

Why not view them as a resource, rather than a problem? Instead of talking about bail-out funds, why not institute a development fund that bean-counters would see as an attractive opportunity for investment. The money could be used to bring life back to those businesses that used to thrive in Greece and probably, at the same time, allow a new generation of business to take root in the country. Properly planned, employment would come not only to all those Greeks living from hand to mouth but also to refugees, who left their home countries because conditions and/or opportunities for work were no longer viable. Properly finances and managed, Greece could become the sort of melting pot for the 21st century that the United States was for much of the 20th.

Perhaps the problem with this proposed solution is that it could result in Greece becoming a new economic competitor; and "established money" is more worried about that outcome than about the pending failure of Greece to sustain itself as a country.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

The World is a Sadder Place without Yogi Berra

Yes, I appreciate Yogi Berra's many contributions to the history of Major League Baseball. However, given my personal interests, I shall always remember him best for his command of the English language. He clearly knew what he was doing when he gave one of his books the title I Really Didn't Say Everything I Said. I have to wonder whether or not anyone has taken the trouble to enumerate all of the occasions when he warped the English language with such panache. It used to be that it was hard for me to pick a favorite. However, now that I live in restaurant-obsessed California, it is definitely the case that "Nobody goes there anymore. It's too crowded." has become a guiding motto for my life. (For those looking below this text at my one lone tag selection, there is no doubt in my mind that the mottos of Yogi Berra deserve to be studied at literature!)

Monday, September 14, 2015

Is Eric Schmidt the Donald Trump of Technology?

There was a time when I could always count on Eric Schmidt (now Executive Chairman of Alphabet, the corporation formerly known as Google) to get my dander up every time he made a public statement. However, I see that the last time I had such a reaction is more than a year ago; and I was kind of thankful that he was finally allowing me more time to concentrate on my interest in the performance of music. This weekend, however, Schmidt was at it again, using the BBC News Web site as his bully pulpit for a muddled sermon about artificial intelligence that betrayed just how much the use of that noun "intelligence" is little more than a con job.

This morning, writing for CNET News, Lance Whitney decided to focus of Schmidt's interest in music recommendation and his accusation that Apple employs "elite tastemakers." As usual, Schmidt offered up a flamboyant display of his own ignorance. Anyone who still believes that the Internet is involved in anything other than efficient marketing must be under the spell of some pernicious Kool-Aid. Whether it involves ranking search results (not to mention displaying those results in a frame of advertising links) or making recommendations to "music consumers" (not to be confused with those who actually take the time to listen to music), the game is never about predicting future trends, as Schmidt seems to think. The fundamental premise of marketing is that consumers are sheep, and all they need is a sheepdog to follow. What this means is that recommendation need involve little more than what everyone is consuming now, rather than what they are likely to be consuming in the future. When a trend starts to form, no matter for what reason, technology can amplify it; and this basically makes for a larger body of happy consumers (not to mention the performer involved in the trend). This is not so much rocket science as freshman statistics, and Schmidt probably knows this full well as it applies to the core competency behind Google.

What is more interesting than whether or not Schmidt "gets" any concepts involved "knowledge-based" technology is that he seems to have latched on to learning the rhetorical style of Donald Trump. Having seen how Trump has managed to garner so much attention by saying so many outrageous (not to mention inconsistent) things, it would appear the Schmidt has decided to get in on that game. Could it be that his BBC gig was little more than a rehearsal for a desired appearance on Fox News?

Monday, September 7, 2015

Can Clear Writing be Dangerous?

The latest issue of The New York Review of Books has an essay by Timothy Snyder entitled "Hitler's World." It may be one of the best efforts to distill the basic principles of Mein Kampf without getting bogged down in the inflammatory rhetoric. It goes without saying that Snyder also does an excellent job of pointing out the abundance of flaws in Hitler's approach to argumentation.

In many respects it is probably about time that someone gave such a serious and dispassionate reading of a document that had such a strong impact on the twentieth century. However, do we need to ask whether or not there is a risk in summarizing that document in readily accessible language, even if that language also explains the many instances of faulty reasoning? We know from institutions such as Fox News that selective reading and attention has become the order of the day for those who try to promote personal ideologies. Do we have to worry that Snyder's clarity might fuel the fires of current and future generations of neo-Nazi thinking? When we live in a world in which willful irrationality seems to be "the new normal," we have to worry about such matters!

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

A Composer who Moves and Shakes

Those who read my SF Classical Music Examiner site may recall that, back on August 20, I ran the story that Nick Benavides, one of the original founders of the Guerrilla Composers Guild, had been named as the new Managing Director of the Left Coast Chamber Ensemble. Attentive as ever to timeliness, the San Francisco Chronicle finally got around to running this as news this morning. Furthermore, it was reported in the "Movers and Shakers" column in the Business Report section. It is not often that a composer gets into that part of the paper,;but this is one that has certainly moved and shaken at least one member of his audience, all in a good way!

Friday, August 28, 2015

Daniel Barenboim Gets Enemies to Agree

Had Daniel Barenboim checked in with Jimmy Carter, he probably would have gotten an earful about how the course of true peacemaking never runs smooth. His plans to bring the Berlin Staastskapelle to Tehran has apparently been met with rejection from both Iran and Israel. Israel felt they had grounds to object because Barenboim is Israeli, conveniently overlooking the fact that he also has Palestinian citizenship. Ironically, Iran is also objecting because Barenboim is Israeli. Carter would probably tell Barenboim to look on the bright side: At least he managed to get Iran and Israel to agree on something.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Plagiarism or Appropriation?

Today's BBC News Web site includes an article from the Magazine division entitled "How many national anthems are plagiarized?" The author is Alex Marshall, who has apparently written a book on the history of national anthems. Sadly, this is a case where specialization may have induced misleading myopia. Many of the acts of making music, whether it involves composing or performing, are informed by influence from the past. Sometimes the source of influence can be identified; but that does not necessarily translate into plagiarism, which carries connotations of theft. Paul Ricœur, who counts as both a literary theorist and a philosopher in my book, used to write at length on the nature and significance of appropriation; and, where making music is concerned, the idea that any evidence of appropriation should be expunged was basically a twentieth-century idea that emerged after the Second World War with a crop of composers who, in the wake of the meticulous detail in the music of Anton Webern, became what I like to call "composers of 'principles.'"

One of Marshall's case studies was a national anthem that could be traced back to the theme music from Animal House. The composer claimed not to have known the music. He then listened to it and immediately recognized the similarity. Nevertheless, he was vilified for his work. For my part, he reminds me of one of the most delightful episodes in Albert Schweitzer's biography of Johann Sebastian Bach. It concerns not Bach but the making of Martin Luther's first hymnal. Luther himself would play tunes for the words on a recorder, and they would be transcribed by an assistant. When someone observed that one of the tunes resembled a popular song heard out on the streets, Luther supposedly replied that the Devil could not have all the good tunes to himself! This tells us more about music for national anthems than the whole of Marshall's article.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Bad Gecko!

The following was released on the ABC7 News Web site late last night:
Insurance giant GEICO, Government Employees Insurance Company, says it will pay $6 million to settle a complaint accusing the company of unfairly over charging poor, low-and-moderate income women, and single drivers.
This is the sort of thing that happens when a company spends more money on its advertising budget than it does on providing customers with the services they think they are going to get after paying attention to those ads. (In GEICO's case, that involved a veritable deluge of clever advertising.) I am reminded of the terrible service from United Van Lines back when they were sinking all of their money into Stiller & Meara radio commercials.

Monday, August 24, 2015

The Joy of Reading Things the Wrong Way

Safeway invaded my electronic mail with an ad encouraging me to use their electronic coupons. One of the items they were flogging was listed as "Grass Fed Beef Hotdogs." This conjured up an image of hundreds of hotdogs grazing on an open meadow!

Sunday, August 23, 2015

The Semantics of "Good"

I've pretty much gotten beyond taking the San Francisco Chronicle seriously for anything other than the comics. (On the positive side my wife still has good thoughts about their sports reporting and commentary.) Occasionally, however, there is amusement beyond the "funny papers," as such. On Sundays I tend to check the back page of the Insight section to see what counts as the past week being "good" or "bad."

Today was a case of the Chronicle not being able to make up its mind and erring on the side of optimism. One of the "good week" items was:
BayArea home prices rise to their highest point since 2007 peak: $661,000 median.
This counted as a good week for home sellers. Perhaps it will be. It remains to be seen whether or not the current economic crisis in China will become the next full-fledged global economic crisis; but, on the basis of past history, that is the sort of transition that can take place very abruptly. (Given how divided our nation has become, one can even imagine moneyed interests hastening such a catastrophe, just of the sake of leaving a black mark on Obama's record before he leaves office.) So anyone thinking this would be a good time to sell might consider that any real estate transaction that does not take place today will be far from certain in its outcome.

Meanwhile, the Chronicle was perceptive enough to realize that good news for those with a home to sell does not necessarily translated to good news for anyone else. That sentence quoted above was followed by another:
Affordability crisis persists.
In other words, even if you make a killing selling your home, you may not be able to buy a satisfactory replacement for it. So much for this being a good week in the world of real estate.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Welcome to Dismaland

I thoroughly enjoyed the video tour of Banksy's Dismaland that showed up recently on BBC World Service News on television. Today's article by Bryony Gordon on the Telegraph Web site was the perfect follow-up. However, I am old enough to remember when the satirical magazine Mad had its way with the original Anaheim Disneyland and its creator "Walt Dizzy" (as they were probably obliged to call him to avoid libel). They went through the different sections, such as Adventureland and Tomorrowland, concluding with Fantasyland and its epithet, "the happiest land of them all." They then moved on to "the happiest land of them all (for Walt Dizzy)," which was Moneyland! That was all one needed to know about this initial venture by the Disney empire into new territory!

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Another Toy for the Idle Rich

These days it seems as if there is some kind of competition over who can the most absurd pastimes for the idle rich. The latest competitor is the property developer currently planning a pair of ten-story towers of luxury properties called Embassy Gardens at Nine Elms in London. Ten stories is not very high, but the place is likely to attract attention because the towers will be bridged by a swimming pool. According to a BBC News report, this idea was commissioned by Ballymore Group, whose chief executive described swimming in it as being like "floating through the air in central London." It least he was tactful enough to omit saying that it would provided a new way to look down on the poor people at street level. Meanwhile, points go to the BBC for an excellent account of all the engineering problems behind this fatuous vision. Anyone reading the story is probably already making mental notes about making sure not to walk under the damned thing!

Staples does not Understand "Now"

This morning (August 20) I received an electronic reminder from Staples. It informed me that, as of August 14, I had not used to rewards I had accrued for recycling my ink cartridges. This was true. However, it overlooked the fact that I had used those rewards on August 18. What is it about their software that is oblivious to transactions that took place within the last 48 hours?

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Who Serves Whom?

In the latest issue of The New York Review, David Cole, in his article "The New America: Little Privacy, Big Terror," makes the following statement:
When we carry our cell phone, use (or have downloaded) apps on those phones, browse websites, send e-mails or texts, drive in our cars, or make purchases with a credit card, we send digital information about our whereabouts, our association, our interests, and our needs and desires to the corporations that serve us.
It is that last phrase that gets to me. We may be customers or clients; but, thanks to all those opportunities that Cole outlines, it is no longer fair to say that any corporation "serves" is customer or client base. Simply by providing all those data, we now serve them. It is almost as if, by virtue of the data they acquire, corporations now, for all intents and purposes, own us and deliberately manipulate us to generate numbers that look good on balance sheets and stockholders' reports.

I should have seen this coming. Back when I was trying to pursue "knowledge management" as a legitimate domain for research, I was first exposed to Customer Relationship Management (CRM). While the ideals of CRM looked good enough on paper, allowing me to address questions of how knowledge management might leverage CRM by providing more personalized interactions with customers, once I saw the technology in use, I realized that it was pointing in the opposite direction. As I put it in a post back in 2010, it was basically a technology for "desubjectivizing" customers, transforming them from agents acting according to their personal motivations into data points to feed banks of analytical software. While others were looking for technologies that would commoditize knowledge, the game was going to those who had figured out how to commoditize their own customers!

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Self-Documenting without Self

Financial Times writer Gautam Malkani was apparently given permission to write an opinion piece about Benedict Cumberbatch's (probably futile) attempt to get those attending his performances in Hamlet to cease and desist from capturing him (through photographs and/or video) on their personal portable devices. Whether or not Malkani himself wrote the sub-headline, it is a useful enough summary to spare the reader from some of the verbal games he plays that do not contribute very much to advancing his argument, particularly if that argument is flawed in the first place. That sub-headline is:
If we did not digitally document our life, our ‘self’ might cease to exist
That is quite a claim; but, in all likelihood it is as specious as it is compelling.

The logical flaw lies in that verb "document." Digital devices do not document. They capture signals that would otherwise stimulate our visual (and sometimes auditory) sensory organs. In the latter case those signals are, for all intents and purposes, meaningless until mind imposes order on them through a process that I like to call "sensemaking," having picked up that word from former colleagues.

Documentation is a similar process by which we try to make sense out of bodies of objective data that confront us (which may include the images we have captured on our portable devices). In other words documentation is, in a sense, an attempt, usually through writing, to reproduce the results of sensemaking achieved by mind. This brings us to Malkani's scare quotes. Many researchers of the nature of consciousness, such as Gerald Edelman and his acknowledged predecessor Friedrich Hayek, have made compelling arguments that "self" is not only the "engine" of sensemaking but also its product. In other words, to use Malkani's turn of phrase, "self" exists as a result of how we make sense of the signals we capture. It is neither the process of capturing nor the signals themselves.

This allows us to turn Malkani's conclusion on its head. The more obsessed we get with capturing the signals around us, the less obliged we seem to feel to "make sense" of them, which is to say to "document" them. The reductio ad absurdum is that we shall become mindless drones, sucking up all of the signals around us but leaving interpretation to someone else (except that there is no "someone else"). Rather than compensating for dementia, an obsession with capture contributes to further erosion of the capacity for sensemaking. Welcome to the world of the "hollow men!"

Monday, August 10, 2015

Virgin Ignorance

Apparently, The New York Times has decided to run a series of retrospective reviews under the rubric Virgin Eyes. The idea seems to be for the reviewer to recall a particularly intense "first contact" experience. Today's piece is by Ben Brantley, and it is about David Lynch's Blue Velvet. To be fair, I have enjoyed quite a few of Lynch's projects, one of which was actually a totally riveting stage piece with music by Angelo Badalamenti. However, Blue Velvet left me cold, probably because, by the time I saw it, I had enjoyed an abundance of plays by Sam Shepard; and Blue Velvet felt like familiar material warmed over inadequately. I can appreciate that, out in Kips Bay, Brantley did not approach the film with the same background, which just goes to show how mercilessly subjective aesthetic judgement can only be.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Is it All About Having the Biggest Gun?

Today is one of those days on which history has designed some ironic coincidences. In Japan it is the 70th anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Nagasaki, based on our logic that it would take two such bombings to convince Japan to sue for peace. On our own soil it is the first anniversary to the death of Michael Brown by police shooting, a memorial occasion that was interrupted by the firing of six more shots, whose origins have yet to be determined. If that were not enough to remind us that the juggernaut keeps rolling, last night gunfire broke out at a home in Harris County in Texas; and, by the time the shooting had stopped, six children and two adults were dead. Such is the legacy of a country that seems to believe that conflict can only be resolved though violent deaths.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Blinded by Rose-Colored Glasses

Last night Jason Hiner filed a story on ZDNet that served up enough Kool-Aid to last the entire month. His title was "When robots eliminate jobs, humans will find better things to do;" I suppose the best way to describe it is that excessive focus on work as little more than a schedule of tasks has led to a complete disregard of the many roles that the workers play, regardless of the area in which they are earning a living (or trying to do so). Probably because his own reading never extends beyond the Web pages of ZDNet, there are clear signs that he has never read any analyses about the role that work, simply as an activity, plays is establishing human well-being.

On the other hand, it is hard to pick up a newspaper these days and avoid reports of a rise in sociopathic behavior that can be traced back to not only desperate economic straits but an absence of both gainful and meaningful employment for those hit hardest by that economic meltdown we continue to bowdlerize as a "recession." Without flaunting a bias for rhyme, I would suggest that, rather than an economic recovery, we have entered an "Age of Rage." That rage found an ironic means of expression recently when a robot deployed on a project of hitchhiking across the United States was assaulted, meaning that most of the structure was trashed and the head was removed. (Think of the conclusion of Easy Rider happening shortly into the first reel.) According to Trent Moore's account on blastr this morning, the perpetrators have not yet been found. Once they are identified, I suggest that Hiner have a meeting with them in a small room with the doors locked!

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Is ISIS a Product of the Failed Arab Spring?

I can appreciate the decision of the author of "The Mystery of ISIS," scheduled for the next issue of The New York Review of Books and currently available on their Web site, to remain anonymous. The article is rich with both historical background and analysis, yet it never draws any conclusions as to why ISIS should be recruiting so many followers on such a broad international scale. I would like to suggest that the author may have overlooked the role that may have been played by the Arab Spring, not so much in terms of any immediate impact that happened, fizzled, or backfired but with regard to the motivating forces behind protest. Those forces had so much in common that, as I observed in August of 2011, they could be found in Israel as well as its many Arab neighbors.

The writer that seems to have been most aware of those forces was Fareed Zakaria, whose analysis on the Web site argued that those who gathered in Tahrir Square were there because, regardless of how much education or training they had, they could not see a future for themselves in Egypt as it was in early 2011. Indeed, such a social context would suggest that the Arab Spring inspired not only Israeli youth but also the subsequent Occupy movement. Perhaps the most important consequence of globalization is that, practically everywhere in the world, there is now a generation of educated young people who see absolutely no prospects for a viable future. That future has been withheld from them by the tyrannical forces of an "economic elite," the top 1% of the tope 1%, if you will, that understands the world only in terms of balance sheets and returns on investment.

In any individual country this would be a desperate situation. On a global scale it is an invitation to catastrophe. Through skillful manipulation of the "consciousness industry," surpassing that of both the Nazis and the economic elite, ISIS has been able to circulate its message to those who feel, rightfully so, that there is nothing they can do to bring any satisfaction into their lives. Moralists can wax indignantly that ISIS should try to deceive so many vulnerable individuals, but do they give any thought as to why those individuals were so vulnerable in the first place?

Think about it. Through globalization the economic elite has create a world in which even the basic premises behind governance have gone onto the rocks, smashed by the domination of marketing over legislation and jurisprudence. "Rational man" may be justified in declaring that the efforts of ISIS to burn down the whole house and replace it with their caliphate are "barbaric;" but are they any more barbaric than they ways in which the "wise men [sic] of Davos" have all but obliterated the middle class in any economic society? The world may ultimately be divided between those who waste away out of their own helplessness and those who rally to ISIS for the simple reason that they have nothing better to do with themselves.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

New Semantics for "Liquid Assets"

Back when I was living in Los Angeles, it was a good place to be for those interested in exploring the diversity of single malt whisky varieties from Scotland. The city seemed to have a critical mass of Japanese businessmen residing there, and their interest in some of the really special products of Scotch distilleries may well have surpassed their interest in vintage wines. These days China has become the new Japan, and the action is in China itself rather than in any of the American cities. One result has been the formation of the Single Malt Club in China (SMCC) to "take over" the connoisseurship of the best of the brews from Scotland.

Going the Japanese (at least) one better, SMCC has created its own investment fund of three million pounds Sterling. The purpose of the fund is to promote interest in single malts, buying them in quantity for distribution in China, and (presumably) benefiting from the results of the sales. The launch of the fund was announced by First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon, who is currently leading a trade mission in China.

Profit motive aside (although I am sure it is never very far aside), it is nice to see an investment fund that will benefit one of the few bodies of small businesses that produces something other than toys for the idle rich!

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Trump on the Web

At the bottom of one of the news Web pages I was reading, I saw the following:

I later realized that I had to scroll to read the second line of this headline:
About Home Solar Panels
I decided I liked the first impression better. I wondered whether the URL would take me to a blank page or whether the risk would be too great that I would run afoul of malware. I opted for the latter possibility.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

The Harley Recall: Bad News and Good News

The latest bad news from Detroit is that Harley-Davidson is recalling 185,000 motorcycles made in 2014 and 2015. The problem is that the saddlebag can come loose and fall off of the bike. It is unclear how many times Harley has issued such a recall, but my guess is that there have not been many. It would not surprise me if Harley had a better manufacturing record than Cadillac. So this may be yet another case of skilled labor just not being what it used to be, at least where quality control is concerned.

On the other hand, Harley detected the problem through analysis of warranty claims. This is definitely good news. Because, apparently, there have been no reports of crashes or injuries due to this defect. In other words, unlike some of the automobile companies (and not just the American ones), the folks at Harley believe in closing the barn door before the horse has been stolen (and then filing their own insurance claim on the stolen horse). Harley seems to be a company that still believes that the customer is more important than the shareholder.

The fact is that the company had a rough past, particularly when Japanese bikes were on the rise. However, they managed to rise above that mess. One reason is that many of their customers are "true believers." Apparently, they want to make sure that they believe in their customers as strongly as their customers believe in them. How many Chief Executive Officers of publicly-traded corporations can make that claim with a straight face? (Harley does not always keep a straight face, by the way. Their ticker code on the New York Stock Exchange is HOG!)

Monday, July 20, 2015

Technology Endangers Reality (again)

To put the situation is as blunt language as possible, if you build hobby drones so easy to use that any idiot can fly them, who do you think will be your biggest customer base? As BBC News reported early this morning, it looks like, when it comes to the current massive fire in San Bernadino County, such customers are taking a really bad situation and making it even worse. As one report on the fire (quoted by the BBC) put it, those drones"pose a major safety threat to firefighting pilots and firefighters." The result documented in this report was that helicopters that were supposed to be providing water drops had to stay grounded until the drones were out of their path of approach and drop. This matter is being investigated, but it smacks of our new mindless generation thinking only of attracting attention with YouTube uploads, rather than of the real priority of first containing the massive fire and then extinguishing it. Even Peter George (the author of the book on which the Dr. Strangelove movie was based) could not have dreamed up such idiocy for his fiction,;and now we have to contend with it in the real world.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Depending on Defective Software

My recent "Confluence of 'Glitches'" piece suggested that the sorts of systems failures that have recently plagued institutions as large as United Airlines and the New York Stock Exchange may be traced back to a major nosedive in what, when I was both teaching and research computer science, used to be called "software quality." Indeed, it has been so long since I have encountered that phrase that I have to wonder whether or not it still has any currency in current software engineering practices. The fact is that our day-to-day life is more and more dependent on software embedded in the devices and systems that we now use heavily. This is no longer a question of OS X software not being as good as it used to be. Within the last 48 hours I had an encounter with a security guard dealing with screen freeze on his cell phone. I have a Blu-ray player that keeps telling me to wait while it upgrades its software; and even after that "improvement" it still freezes on some Blu-ray discs. Comcast recently decided to implement a "smarter" HDMI interface, which has now been upgraded to make it worse than it was when I first used an HDMI connector. To add insult to injury, OS X Firefox can no longer display Blogspot pages with the utility bar at the top of the screen!

Recently, the Business section of the San Francisco Chronicle ran a story about the rise of "coding boot camps" in the Bay Area. This was a corporate-based response to the observation that coding talent is not what it used to be. Still, there is it worth asking just what sort of training those boot camps are providing? Could it be that software has gone down the tubes due to a competitive environment in which fast delivery is more important than product reliability? (After all, Microsoft conditioned us to expect that all software needs periodic updating.) Is this a sign of just how badly we are at the mercy of technology that no longer works according to plan?

Thursday, July 9, 2015

A Confluence of "Glitches?"

It is not often that I agree with the FBI, particularly after Director James Comey's fumbling Congressional testimony on why his agency should have access to all encrypted communications. However, his response to three major computer outages (United Airlines, the New York Stock Exchange, and The Wall Street Journal) taking place all on the same day was the right one. Those who investigate criminal acts cannot afford to be "big believers in coincidence."

Indeed, this may be one of those cases in which investigators have to exercise the full scope of imagination to come up with a wide variety of qualitatively different hypotheses. One should be able then to assess systematically each hypothesis. Some will be easy to eliminate, while others will require more intense scrutiny and investigation. (The very question, "What will it take to refute this hypothesis?" can be a valuable driver for deciding the directions investigation should take.)

Even the hypothesis that this was, indeed, a confluence of accidents needs to compete with the other hypotheses. The point is that confluence is not necessarily a matter of coincidence. In this case, for example, it may simply be the result of the general decline in software quality, regardless of the particularly function being served by the software. In other words things went south for United Airlines, the New York Stock Exchange, and The Wall Street Journal for the same reason that they keep going south for OS X with increasing frequency.

Friday, June 26, 2015

When Robot Cars Meet

It was going to happen sooner or later. Two autonomous vehicles would find themselves on the same road at the same time. Paul Lienert documented the encounter is a story for Reuters. What made it interesting was that the two cars came from different research laboratories. One was from Google, and the other was from Delphi Automotive. The Director of Delphi's Silicon Valley laboratory, John Absmeier, was in the latter vehicle.

Liner described the encounter as follows:
As the Delphi vehicle prepared to change lanes, a Google self-driving prototype - a Lexus RX400h crossover fitted with similar hardware and software - cut off the Audi, forcing it to abort the lane change, Absmeier said. 
The Delphi car "took appropriate action," according to Absmeier.
I like the way Absmeier was not very specific about what he meant by "appropriate." However, I have now made a decision for myself. The only automated car I'm going to get in is one that has a Dalek at the wheel!

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Rage Against the Technology

Those who get high on the Kool-Aid of disruptive technologies are usually too stoned to realize that, if not properly managed, disruption can result in an eruption of violence. This is what happened when 2800 Parisian taxi drivers went on strike to protest against UberPop. As one can read in Hugo Leenhardt's report for ABC News, things got really ugly; and, as is usually the case in war, the ugliness infected both sides. So, while Uber cars were vandalized, it appears that one Uber driver decided to deal with a cabbie blocking his way by running over the guy. What makes things all the more depressing is that the French government had already declared UberPop to be illegal, banned due to unfair competitive practices. As a result Paris has discovered something that any American city with a plethora of bike riders aggressively competing with motorists on city streets has known all along: A practice is only illegal if legality is sustained through enforcement. Clearly, such enforcement did not not take place "with all deliberate speed" in Paris. This led to the usual problem with vigilante justice: offended parties taking the law into their own hands, usually with violent results.

It is unclear that there is a way out of this mess. The fact is that technology evangelists have managed to disrupt the world of governance while pursuing an agenda that seems to have involved disrupting the world of work. The primary consequence is that all of us are living in a world in which goods are more likely to be defective and services are less likely to be reliable. It is hard to imagine our arriving at a closer approximation to the apocalyptic world that E. M. Forster envisaged in "The Machine Stops." Unfortunately, one of the services that has been disrupted beyond recognition is education. Thus, while in Forster's world people just got more tolerant of an increasing number of flaws, we now seem to be creating a new generation too stupid to realize that those flaws even exist.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Does Europe Remember Greenspan?

I see that both the French and German stock exchanges are doing very well this morning. As I write this, both are up more than 3.75%. This is obviously connected to the fact that the lead story on BBC World Service News was that a viable solution to the problem of Greek debt may actually be in sight. Mind you, the problem has not yet be solved; but stock markets live in the fictions of the future, rather than in the immediate present. This makes them prime targets for what Alan Greenspan once called "irrational exuberance." Those of us more interested in common sense, rather than good manners, might prefer to call it "grabbing at straws."

Recently Columbia University Press published a book entitled What Does Europe Want? The Union and Its Discontents. It is basically a "dialog through essays" between Slavoj Žižek can Srećko Horvat. However, of particularly interest if the Foreword written by Alexis Tsipras, listed only as "Greek politician, president of SYRIZA," since, at the time he wrote it, the idea of an election in Greece was not yet in sight, let alone a rise in public support for Tsipras' political party.

These are all voices that realize that "economic recovery" is a concept that may well serve the ultra-rich but is condemning just about everyone else to poverty even greater than what was suffered before the collapse of the last decade. One might go so far as to say that even talk about the wealth gap has been devalued. Nevertheless, there was one rather unconventional sign of hope in a less-publicized story that the BBC ran over the weekend. They managed to find a specialist in population dynamics that was bold enough to suggest that the extinction of the human species is not only possible but likely to occur sooner than anyone had dared consider. Considered as a system, the earth may take care of itself better than any mere humans can; and, if humans try to interfere with the earth, then they may well be outwitted by some simple mathematical principles!

Friday, June 19, 2015

Clash of the Idiots

Gary Wills had a great post on NYRblog yesterday. The title was "Holy Ignorance," which he appropriated from Olivier Roy, a French anthropologist who specialized in studying belief systems. The basic argument is that fundamentalists are immune to argument based on reason. They see the use of logic to justify any with which they disagree as a test of the strength of their faith, which makes them hold to their beliefs with even greater strength. Wills wrote this in an analysis of the Pope’s decision to write an encyclical on climate change and its connection to selfishness. Almost immediately five Catholic Republicans who are part of the rush to candidacy in the next Presidential election denounced the Pope for knowing nothing about science, regardless of the fact that they knew even less (even collectively)! Clearly, Wills saw all five of them as evidence of “holy ignorance!”

What is interesting, however, is that a parallel line of argument can be developed about Muslim fundamentalists. This, in turn, may tell us something about what makes IS tick. While they are not necessarily grounded in Islam, their goal is to subvert all Western forms of government in their territory and replace it with a caliphate. This actually turns out to be a double-edged sword. On the one hand they are determined to reinstate a pre-Enlightment approach to governance based on little more than raw power. However, at the same time they know they can appeal to Muslim values to win others to their cause. Ironically, they do all this through some of the most sophisticated Internet advertising (yes, that is ultimately what it is) yet to be designed.

Perhaps the Pope should pay more attention to the book of Revelations. The prediction of the great war of Gog in the land of Magog could well involve Christian Fundamentalists in battle with Muslim Fundamentalists (hence the inspiration for my own choice of title for this post)! That is quite a change from the early nineteenth-denture hasidim, who thought Napoleon was Gog (worth remembering on this anniversary of Waterloo)!

When Music and Sports Collide

As a rule, I have decided not to give too much thought to Vanessa-Mae as a violinist. There are enough other violinists that really interest me that I do not have to worry about a lack of memory cycles for her. As a result, I have not paid too much attention to her trying to make a second career about of being an Olympic-class skier, even if her activities in that domain have been controversial. Nevertheless, given the state of so many athletes these days, I find it hard to avoid speculating about whether Vanessa-Mae has found some performance-enhancing drug for her violin technique.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Kentucky Fried Rat

The ABC7 site just ran a story about a Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) customer that had a rat included in her order. Back when I was teacher at the University of Pennsylvania (we're talking about 40 years ago), stories like that would surface about the KFC closest to the campus. The main difference between then and now is that now those stories tend to be reinforced with photographs and/or videos, which does a lot for their credibility. Nevertheless, when we think that this is a problem that has been around for 40 years, we have to wonder why KFC has never done anything particularly effective about it. Is it like the Pinto gas tank, where some bean-counter decided that fixing the problem cost more than compensating for it when it arises? Could it be that the rats are more intelligent than most of the KFC staff?

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

An Unfortunate Acronym

Does the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which Al Jazeera describes as the "Philippine largest Muslim rebel group," realize that its acronym is also used for a phrase that devout Muslim's are likely to find profoundly offensive?

Sunday, June 14, 2015

When a Change for the Better Makes Things Worse

Today's Al Jazeera English Web site has an article by Dinouk Colombage about the formation of an orchestra of Sinhalese and Tamil children recently formed in Sri Lanka. Since the participating children are poor, the Venezuelan "El Sistema" was cited as a precedent. However, the title of the article was "Can music lead to social harmony in Sri Lanka?," suggesting that trying to ease tensions between Sinhalese and Tamil cultures was also a major issue. In that respect a more appropriate precedent might be Daniel Barenboim's West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, which was formed to provide an opportunity for musicians of both Arab and Israeli backgrounds to come together for the sake of making music. (It should be noted for the record that this ensemble is based in Seville, rather than anywhere in the Middle East.)

I have great admiration for Barenboim's project. However, it is somewhat interesting to think about what has happened on a global scale since its formation in 1999. Over the course of about fifteen years, the world has experienced a radical increase in acts of inter-cultural violence; and there is no sign of the trend reversing. (I have made it a point not to single out any particular cultures in making that observation.) This has led be to entertain the conjecture that social harmony is bad for politics. This conjecture may be approached from the opposite direction by taking Max Weber as a point of departure: Politics is all about legitimizing the exercise of power. Thus, it is only natural that it is driven by opposing blocs, each of which seeks to hold more power than the others. As a result, we can find social harmony in an orchestra because making music involves getting beyond the idea that life is all about having more power than those around you. The problem is that both the members of the orchestra and those in the audience have to go back to the real world after the concert has concluded; and we now live in a real world in which "social harmony" is treated as an impediment to political maneuvering rather than as asset for society as a whole.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Follow the Money to the Man Cave

CNET News reporter Max Taves provided an interesting summary of venture capital investments that were concluded over the past week. I treat this as highly recommended reading matter. I further recommend that every reader review the entire list to look for any sort of common trends. My personal interpretation is that the current generation of venture capitalists is being drawn to self-indulgence in a big way. This is not just a shift from products that do useful things to services that allow the idle rich to be more idle. Rather, it seems to be a calculated response to analytical results suggesting that the fastest way to quick profit is through the exploitation of infantilism. Mind you, this amounts to a corollary of the principle that any form of consumerism involves the exploitation of the potential for infantile behavior. So it should be no surprise that, if you want to follow a venture capitalist's money, the path will probably lead you to the man cave.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Even Iceland Can't Get it Right All the Time

This morning the BBC News Web site announced that Iceland has made arrangement for a rave to be held inside their second largest glacier, Langjokull. Participation will be limited to 70. Even with that limitation, however, it is hard to imagine that the amount of heat generated by this event will only contribute to melting the glacier faster than current climate conditions have already created. Did anyone stop to think about this being more destructive than it would be "cool" (both metaphorically and literally)?

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Thankful for Ligeti Fans

I must confess that I have been pleasantly surprised to have Google Analytics inform me of just how popular my report for my national site on on the interactive Web site for the piano music of György Ligeti was. It has been some time since I had an opportunity to write a review about technology, rather than the music being delivered by that technology. In this case I felt that I was covering a relevant part of the story that had been neglected by The New York Times, even though the Times had relegated it to a post on their ArtsBeat blog. In cases like these, the delivery technology matters as much as the content. Perhaps it matters even more. If the technology is poor, the content may as well be a tree falling in the forest with no one to hear it. Apparently, I managed to attract the attention of a healthy chuck of readers who agree!

Monday, June 1, 2015

On Following the Money to Iraq

Here is a sentence from an Al Jazeera report worth considering:
Iraqi security forces lost 2,300 Humvee armoured vehicles when the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group overran the northern city of Mosul, according to the country's prime minister.
Bearing in mind that it is not particularly easy to "follow the money" in wartime (particularly when it is not your war, or at least not supposed to be), it is worth pondering just who should be taking the financial hit for the expense behind all that fancy hardware. My guess is that the Iraqi government did not pay for the stuff, meaning that it was given to them, presumably by the Department of Defense, rather than the corporation that actually builds the vehicles. In that case this is the sort of thing that amounts to a bad investment. Does that mean that DoD will be able to write it off as a tax loss? (The thought that the DoD is immune from paying taxes is as chilling as it is realistic.) In my own private fantasy world, the bill would be sent to George W. Bush, since he basically created the predisposing conditions behind the loss of the hardware. For better or worse, those, I know that my fantasy world is not a "reality world!"

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Is Technology Innovation Oblivious to Crime?

Here in San Francisco the latest police blotter item involves a woman who managed to steal at least 76 Zipcars over the course of a six weeks. Zipcar was relatively early among those technology-driven innovations that would rid us of all the discomforts associated with car rental, particularly when short-term usage was all that was involved. It is hard from the only innovation to go south in equally innovative ways. Consider all the criminal activity (including assault, stalking, and theft) that has emerged from the "sharing economy" philosophy of drivers being compensated for sharing space in their cars. Of course ugly consequences are not unique to the present decade (he said, with vivid memory of the first time spam circulated on Usenet).

I recently attended a San Francisco Opera press conference at which I was able to prompt some comments about operas based on historical events out of director Francesca Zambello. I found the experience enlightening enough to write an article about it on my national site. Not one to mince words, Zambello unleashed a beautiful take-away quote:
History teaches us lessons; we just don’t always listen.
I am not saying that the technology sector is more deaf to history than any other major segment of our economic structure. Only a few years have elapsed; but my guess is that those obsessed with seeking out innovation in finance have long forgotten This Time Is Different, by Carmen M. Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff. I suspect it all comes down to the fact that a cool new idea will always trump any lesson from history, particularly when the lesson brings bad news. It is more profitable to believe that you are making a change for the better, rather that providing human nature with new opportunities to make things worse.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Advances [sic] in Communication

According to Professor Vyv Evans at Bangor University, the development of emoji as a language has now surpassed the past rate of Egyptian hieroglyphics, making it the "fastest growing language," at least in the United Kingdom. This preference for iconic abbreviations may actually be a logical advance over strings of letters (WTF), which tend to be necessary in order to work within the limits of Twitter messaging. Still today's BBC newsbeat report that an "I feel sick" icon is being developed in which the core smiley face may now be not only sad but also spewing green vomit should give us all pause. Could it be that our fixation over efficiency has now advanced to such a state that efficiency is necessary even in the communication of snark? Have we really lost the ability of language to be so colorful as to be interesting while insulting at the same time?

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Bobby Jindal's "Parlor Games"

Last night the Republicans held their Lincoln Day dinner in Des Moines. Chris Good was there covering the story for ABC News. Apparently he decided to confront Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal with the same question that managed to get Florida Governor Jeb Bush to fumble: Knowing what we now know, was the decision to go to war in Iraq a good idea? Jindal dodged the question, dismissing the consideration of such hypotheses as "parlor games." In doing so, he may have earned himself poster-child status in representing our prevailing culture that seems to lives by the motto "Ignorant of history and proud of it."

Put another way, Jindal appears to assign little value to a critical question:
How did we get where we are?
Whether "where we are" is particularly good or really bad (which seems to be the case at present); we need to deal with the present with some frame of reference other than "shit happens." If Jindal's were an isolated voice that could be ignored when cooler heads prevail, then his reinforcement of our willful ignorance of history could be dismissed as a statistical outlier. Unfortunately, he is more likely right there in the center of a statistical norm; and, if, as a culture, we dismiss as a "parlor game" the need to reflect on how we got ourselves into our present mess, then it is likely that the next mess will come soon and with even greater impact.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

I'll Believe It When I See It

According to a report filed by Lyanne Melendez for ABC7 News, the city is finally going to face up to the traffic congestion problem. During rush hours violations such as double parking, delivery trucks, cars blocking intersections, and construction projects will be tickets and subjected to three-digit fines. Do I believe it? I am more inclined to believe commuter Pearline Hawkins, who told Melendez that they do not have enough people to do the necessary ticketing. The city claims we should give their new plan some time. Time for what? Do they have the budget to hire enough officers to give out tickets for all the violations that take place on a single day?

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Keeping the Faith No Longer

The BBC News Web site just posted an article based on a rather interesting finding:
Pew Research Center found that 71% of Americans identified as Christian in 2014 - down from 78% in 2007.
Statistically, that amounts to a pretty significant drop; and it will be interesting to see what sorts of hypotheses are launched to explain the shift. We have a long history of viewing our country as a secular one dedicated to the separation of church and state. However, in this new century fundamentalist Christianity seems to be playing a greater role in politics. Thus, it may be that those who previously embraced Christianity are put off by extremist fringes, possibly even seeing little difference between them and Jewish or Muslim extremists. In other words, where the fellowship of Christianity once provided a "quiet place" where an individual could take stock of his/her values within a sympathetic community, that "place" has now become unduly "noisy," meaning that, as a "social world" it is not that different from Facebook or Twitter. I have been living comfortably with my own atheism for over 40 years, so I am probably not the best source of hypotheses. Still, I have to wonder if this is yet another case of "voting against," rather than "voting for," in which case it may be a sign of an increasing loss of any value system, secular or sacred.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Marvel Keeps Their Narrative Threads Up To Date

My schedule has been busy lately, so I have only recently begun to catch up on the last few weeks of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. episodes. However, it did not take me long to appreciate how Marvel had managed to work Ultron into this show's narrative. I have noticed that the storytellers within this enterprise seem to like to talk about "the Marvel universe." However, what makes the approach to storytelling particularly fascinating is that this construct is more like a vast social network than a universe, which connotes little more than a vast space of objects. With the latest round of "civil war" plans, that social network is likely to get far more interesting, particularly if one tries to represent it with connectors that are not as simplistic as acquaintance links. Perhaps Marvel fans will eventually recognize that there is much more to a social network than "friending!"

Thursday, May 7, 2015


When it comes to an arrogant display of military might, there is some justification in taking pleasure when things go wrong, as long as no one gets hurt. No one got hurt during a rehearsal for the parade in Red Square marking the anniversary of the Second World War. However, as Patrick Reevell reported for ABC News, there were probably an abundance of red faces (not with connotations of former Soviet might). One of the stars of the show was supposed to be the new Armata T-14, which apparently has been recognized by both Western and Russian experts as the most advanced tank in the world. Unfortunately, the damned thing stalled during the rehearsal run, right in front of the Kremlin to boot. Reevell's article includes a hyperlink to a YouTube of a failed attempt to tow the tank out of the way of the parade. (Has anyone ever successfully towed any tank?) Eventually, the tank started up again with the same sort of arbitrariness with which it had halted. It would not surprise me if the authorities are now convening to decide which heads will be rolling (hopefully, only metaphorically) as a result of this episode.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

The Company We Keep

A Better Balance is a legal advocacy group that promotes workplace fairness for families. They seem to have timed their latest report, "Investing in Our Families: The Case for Paid Family Leave in New York and the Nation," to come out in time for Mother's Day. Susanna Kim reported for ABC News that the United States is only one of three countries that does not have a statute for paid maternity leave. The other two are Papua New Guinea and Suriname. I suspect that the reason this comparison was stressed is that the United States is the only one of those three countries that would be called "economically developed." That being the case, whatever Republican conservatives may try to tell us, the United States is the only country that places economic development above family values, which is probably just a neutral way of saying that the United States is the only country that thinks in terms of keeping wealth, rather than applying it to the overall well-being of its population.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Looking at Intelligence through the Other End of the Telescope

I see that Peter Day, Global Business Correspondent for BBC News, has now entered the artificial intelligence fray with a "think piece" (those are scare quotes) about if and when machine intelligence will surpass human intelligence. While I have enjoyed many of Day's broadcasts, I was dismayed to see that he is the latest to "understand" the Turing Test through hearsay, rather than through what Turing actually wrote. I am also waiting for someone in this argument to suggest that one way in which computers will be more intelligent than humans is that, through their dependences on computers, humans will get progressively more stupid. So computers just need to sit and wait!

Monday, May 4, 2015

What Price Exercising Free Speech for the Sake of Giving Offense?

If the American Freedom Defense Initiative wanted the world to pay attention to them, they certainly got their wish. By arranging an event that would focus heavily on an exhibit of cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed, this organization may have established one of the most extreme cases of exercising free speech solely for the purpose of giving offense. However, while the speech may have been free, the exercise came with a price. According to an ABC News report by Emily Shapiro, that price amounted to $10,000. This is the amount of money that the organization paid out of its own budget for security. According to Shapiro's report:
Security included security officers, uniformed officers, SWAT, FBI and ATF, Joe Harn of the Garland Police Department said at a news conference.
Now, I am not a constitutional scholar and/or expert; but I have tended to assume that the right to free speech does not include the right to incite violence. Thus, the question arises as to whether or not the American Freedom Defense Initiative expected violence and expected it because they knew that the images they were exhibiting would incite it. If that were, indeed, the case, why were federal, state, and local authorities taking fee-for-services to allow such provocative behavior?

Sunday, May 3, 2015

An Amusing Parallel

According to Google Analytics, my recent article about the new recording of Nicholas McGegan conducting the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra in three Haydn symphonies has received exactly the same amount of attention accorded to my article about Pierre Boulez conducting the music of Second Viennese School composers.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

The Marvel Universe Rules the Collective Consciousness

The fact that a parody of the Marvel Avengers has now made its way to Sesame Street suggests that the collective consciousness of our country (if not our world) is more aware of the details of a plethora of fictitious Marvel characters than it is informed about anyone running for high office in just about any country. Mind you, I am not saying this is a bad thing. If I had to choose between sitting down for a drink with Tony Stark and having the same drink with Hillary Clinton, I would go for Stark in a New York minute. This is not because I am a Republican (God forbid). It's just that, when I want a conversation, I do not want to have to protect myself with a fine-meshed bullshit filter. Marvel has woven enough detail into Stark's character that I know his contribution will be ego-laden; but I also know that I shall probably listen out of a combined desire for information and entertainment. All Hilary wants is my vote and my willingness to extract votes from others. Is there really a choice here, even if Stark does not really exist?

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Spending Money Singapore Style

Leave it Singapore to find a cuteness factor in the act of spending money. Here in San Francisco I experience "contactless payment" through my Clipper card, which gets me on to most of the forms of public transportation that I use and can be "fueled" through machines and selected underground stations or remotely through a Web site. Singapore seems to have decided that a plastic card is just not cute enough, so they have replaced them with charms of the Hello Kitty character. Not only does this explore a new dimension to payment, but also it provides a new avenue for marketing. Here is how Aloysius Low described the business angle in his CNET article:
Each charm retails for S$24.90 ($18) and comes with no stored value. There are a total of four designs to choose from: pink, red, black and blue. The blue one is not sold individually -- you'll have to buy all four together, or be one of the first 1,000 customers, who can redeem one through the use of loyalty points.
O brave new world that has such cute toys in 't!

Monday, April 20, 2015

Is the NBA the Ultimate Toy?

It has been a while since I wrote about one of Chris Matyszczyk's Technically Incorrect columns for CNET. Today's, however, was an irresistible gem, devoted to Steve Ballmer's behavior as a Clipper's fan. The headline definitely captured the flavor of it all: "Steve Ballmer screams louder than at any developer conference." Reminiscent of the old I-love-this-game commercials, Balmer, at least according to Matyszczyk, has found his calling as the ultimate fan:
His eyes bulged. His mouth opened to the wingspan of a pterodactyl. His commitment spewed over the Staples Center, until it surely engulfed all who were there.
My guess is that Ballmer lives by the rule that life is all about having the most and the best toys, and in now having the Clippers he seems to relish having a toy for all the world to see.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

The Battle over the word "Genocide"

This morning Belen Fernandez submitted a fascinating opinion piece to Al Jazeera English entitled "The Kardashian factor and the G-word." The "G-word" is, of course, "genocide;" and it has been attracting a lot of attention in the weeks leading up to the 100th anniversary of the killing of some 1.5 million Armenians by Ottoman Turks. To call the word sensitive is the height of understatement. Switzerland convicted a Turkish politician for denying that the noun was appropriate, while Turkey itself will only allow the word if it is quarantined by scare quotes.

Fernandez, however, is not interested in the roots of this controversy. Rather, she felt obliged to write about how it had been overtaken by public relations interests, particularly pertaining to member of the Kardashian and Clooney families. (Amal Clooney represented the Armenians in a case argued before the European Court of Human Rights.) She feels that all this emphasis on public relations, much of which spins off into marketing, has reduced a major issue to inanity.

Is she correct? There is a Gedankenexperiment that might warrant or refute her hypothesis. Simply find an appropriate sample space of subjects, each of whom will be shown Fernandez' headline. Ask them all what the article is about; and, if we want to have some fun, ask the question twice, before and after they have read the article. If, indeed, the substance of Fernandez' message has been obscured by a "Kardashian halo," then she has made her point.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Osedax: The New Villain for Those who Dig

Back when PBS ran Michael Wood's In Search of the Trojan War series, I learned that gerbils were the bane of archeologists. Everything we thought we knew about the underground layers of different cities of Troy from different eras was called into question. As a result of gerbil tunneling, one could not assume a simple relationship between depth and distance in time.

Now there is a new villain on the scene, this time undermining (so to speak) the world of fossil hunters. It turns out that Osedax has a voracious appetite for bones; and, according to Michael Franco's CNET article, they have probably been around for about 100 million years. As a result, much of the fossil record through which we can track the rise and fall of different life forms is far less abundant than we had hoped because it has been eaten! I realize that there may not many readers willing to shed a tear for evolutionary biologists whose efforts have been frustrated by this little red worm that has neither mouth nor stomach, but the course of true knowledge never did run smooth!

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Does Anyone Bother to Read What They Write?

This comes from the "Top Stories" electronic mail sent out by the San Francisco Chronicle this morning:
One possible explanation is that, in our brave new world of communicating through cell phones with our thumbs, no one pays attention to spelling any more. Another is that, due to dire financial straits, the Chronicle decided that it would make sense to take proofreading out of the workflow.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Who's Afraid of Arnold Schoenberg?

I was stuck by the fact that the music review in today's San Francisco Chronicle managed to account for just about everything that happened at last Thursday's matinee concert and the SoundBox event that same evening except for the performance of Arnold Schoenberg's Opus 9b chamber symphony in its orchestral version. Given that John Adams' chamber symphony (on the same matinee program) was a product of the composer trying to learn the Schoenberg piece well enough to conduct it, this struck me as at least a little bit negligent. Nevertheless, I have to confess that any of the versions of the Schoenberg (including Eduard Steuermann's solo piano transcription) remain more opaque to me than any of the hypertrophied abstractions of Iannis Xenakis. In fact, yesterday was the first day I could detect one of Schoenberg's motif's lurking in Adams' score. So, if Virgil Thomson believed that we should write about music in order to explain, I have to confess that this particular Schoenberg piece is still beyond my capacity for explanation. Still, I once gave advice to a high school student that could be distilled into a single sentence: Write what you remember. At least memory served me with the ability to detect one instance of the presence of the Schoenberg in the Adams, even if I have no idea if any more exist. That meant that I could not allow myself to ignore either Schoenberg's music or its impact on Adams' music!

Friday, April 10, 2015

Cat Explores Old Optical Illusion

Now that everyone is bored with arguing over the color of a dress, along comes a photograph of a cat with the question of whether it is walking upstairs or downstairs. However, this is basically an appropriation of an optical illusion listed in Wikipedia as the Schroeder stairs. Here is the original version:

The basic idea is that you can view either A or B as the outer face of a stair structure. The the first case you see stairs descending to the floor; in the second case they are rising to the ceiling. As the Wikipedia author observed, this illusion inspired Escher's "Convex and Concave."

In this case a photographer figured out how to photograph a staircase to allow for the same kind of ambiguity in interpretation. The cat was then added just to make the image interesting. The point has less to do with the reality of the setting in which the photograph was taken and more with how it reproduces a classical optical illusion, older than the cat and everyone looking at the photograph.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Remembering Stan Freberg

I was glad to see The New York Times run such an extensive obituary by Douglas Martin for Stan Freberg, who died yesterday at the age of 88. Back when I worked at the MIT campus radio station, Freberg was our patron saint. We could only run advertising on our AM band, which was restricted to the campus; but we had a policy of running any commercial created by Freberg at no charge. (This was when he was led a major campaign for Salada Tea featuring the misfortunes of the Kringleman Koffee Company.) The bottom line was that Freberg only cared about those smart enough to get his jokes, which may explain why his fans included Albert Einstein and David Mamet. Even Mad Men cited one of his lines, but I fear that few of us remain who can inject Freberg quotes into conversational discourse.

Monday, April 6, 2015

HBO Becomes Part of its Own Story (again)

HBO seems to be running up an interesting track record when it comes from taking the news as a point of departure and then becoming the news. I suppose I was first aware of it when John Oliver ran a monologue about net neutrality that concluded by encouraging viewers to make their thoughts known to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), explaining how they could do so through the Internet. It was pretty simple, since the FCC had set of a site for collecting comments; and the viewer response to Oliver was massive enough to crash that site. More recently, The Jinx led to a revival of attempts to investigate the role of Robert Durst in several unsolved murder cases.

Last night, however, Oliver raised the stakes to an unexpected height. His show had been off the air for a couple of weeks, and he had told viewers that this would be the case. Last night we found out why: Oliver had traveled to Russia to interview Edward Snowden on the issue of government surveillance. This turned out to be a major undertaking, and the show ran about fifteen minutes longer than usual. As had been the case with net neutrality, Oliver began with an extended monologue with his personal stamp of low humor aimed at bringing awareness to admittedly complex issues. There was also a fair amount of low humor in the Snowden segment, but not enough to mask when things got serious. Oliver even persistently argued that at least some of Snowden's actions could justifiably be called irresponsible, and he even managed to milk a reluctant acknowledgement from Snowden. Nevertheless, he let Snowden say his piece about the irresponsibility of current surveillance activities; and, to his credit, Snowden gave some rather good explanations for the why and how the National Security Agency could get away with doing what they did (and are probably still doing).

I suspect that the most important result of the show was that Oliver went a long way towards undermining the efforts of our government to demonize Snowden. It is clear that Snowden will never set foot in the United States as long as he runs the risk of being tried for treason and then executed. Nevertheless, his is a major voice in any debate that takes place over the complex relationship between security and privacy; and last night he demonstrated that he is given more to calm and rational speech than to the strident rants that have become so popular in our excuse for national discourse.

The net neutrality broadcast had particular impact because it ended with an action item. Last night there was also a need for action regarding a legislative stand on the content of the Patriot Act that must be reviewed by June 1. However, Oliver did not push for a write-in campaign, because it would be more difficult in this case. Therefore, the major impact of his broadcast may have been to demonstrate to the so-called "news" networks that neither Snowden's voice nor the issues he has raised can be ignored if we are to maintain even the pretense of a free society. Unfortunately, this is a matter of considerable complexity. Perhaps Oliver's next program should discuss how our country has allowed its educational system to deteriorate to a point that we no longer have the skilled minds to take on such complexity.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

East is East

The latest issue of The New York Review has a fascinating article by Steve Coll entitled "Hitler & the Muslims." It basically involved efforts by the Nazis to transmogrify precepts of Islam for their own propaganda purposes. Adolf Hitler himself was active in this process; but even more active was Heinrich Himmler, who apparently admired the discipline of Muslim troops in battle. Most interesting, however, is the history-repeats-itself irony that surfaces towards the end of the article:
Still, as in Berlin between the wars, failure has proven no deterrent to persistence in Washington, where Pentagon planner continue to act as if they can win wars in the Middle East by deftly manipulating and arming tribes, sects, and Islamic leaders in scattered territories they barely know.
It takes guts to find a parallel between Nazi and American reasoning; but, considering the mess our country has made out of its relations with the Islamic world, a swift "boot to the head" may be what it required to bring a bit of sensibility into the decision-making process.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Rating the Freshness of Food Purchases

I have to say that I have been relatively pleased with the alliance formed between KGO-TV (the ABC affiliate for the Bay Area) and Consumer Reports, particularly since the latter seems to have dropped the "lifetime" subscription as a reward for a donation I made many decades ago (reminding me a bit of Monty Python and the Holy Grail). Nevertheless, I have always been skeptical about Consumer Reports articles about food and nutrition, since they would often base their findings on attributes that different from the criteria stressed by other concerned organizations, such as the Center for Science in the Public Interest. Therefore, I have to question the value of today's report on the quality of fresh produce at different outlets. Regardless of the criteria behind the evaluations, the entire path that brings an item of produce to a customer's shopping bag is long, involved, and totally local. Thus, I have to wonder if, when a particular store is listed in operating out of a large number of states, the resulting rating is an averaging over all of those states or the result of examining only a few (or even one) of them. Even more problematic is that the ratings may have depended in when the outlets were evaluated, since it is not hard to imagine conditions changing radically from one week (or day) to the next.

These days my biggest concerns with inventory, fresh or processed, is how decisions are made. It is not hard to imagine that the large chains now relegate all such decisions to software. They all have had problems making ends meet since the economic downturn, meaning that they have all had to downsize, meaning that they probably let go of a good deal of "expert knowledge," letting some fast-talking consultant convince them that the knowledge would be "preserved" in the software. Indeed, I think we all have cause for concern that the expertise of a human evaluator may be out of the loop for just about any purchase of food made anywhere, with the possible exception of farmers' markets. Furthermore, I suspect that Google-informed consumers have less intuitive knowledge about when the food they buy may be contaminated or just spoiled. The conspiracy theorist in me wonders whether this all amounts to a skillfully calculated plot to "reduce the surplus population!"