Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Knowledge Management and Social Software: The Clash of the Over-Inflated Midgets

The discussion over Facebook and the enterprise over at confused of calcutta not only continues but has now moved into the domain of knowledge management. This could be a good thing to the extent that it would provide an opportunity to find something solid for anchoring down the concept of the sociology of knowledge. Unfortunately, I have already argued that, from the enterprise point of view, Facebook is hardly a good place to drop anchor. However, JP Rangaswamy has proposed "three simple examples" of Facebook attributes that purport to serve the objectives of knowledge management:

One, relationships. Facebook has a rich array of relationships, from Friend to Group Member to Network Member and even Cause Supporter, all the way to Event Participant. And they’re all non-hierarchical and nonexclusive. This is very powerful, since it mimics real-life relationships far better than organisation charts and hierarchies. Furthermore, it allows you to “subscribe” to your interests with reasonable precision.

Two, conversations. Facebook allows a wide range of conversation types, from Poke to Send Message to Write On Wall to Chuck Book to Hug to Give a Gift to Dedicate a Song. It also features a number of conversation styles, from text to video (and surely audio cannot be far behind) and a whole plethora of ways to attach stuff and comment on stuff, both bilaterally as well as multilaterally. Again, this mimics organisational real life far more than the straitjackets of email-only deprivation zones.

Three, transactions. Every event in Facebook is a transaction, and every transaction you do in Facebook can be an event. A news feed is nothing more than a transaction ticker. You get status updates on a number of things as well. And notifications. The entire alert process is promising and more flexible than traditional enterprise approaches.

For my part I see this is an opportunity to do what I do best, which is to unpack the text and see whether the stable actually contains a pony or is just filled with the pony's calling cards! This is basically did with the three words in "Customer Relationship Management," revealing that, in the reality of enterprise operations, all three were linguistically impoverished. This provides a useful context, since the first of the above three examples is, again, "relationships."

  1. My point is that there is just as much linguistic poverty in the Facebook approach to relationships as there is in CRM. A rich array of labels does not make for a rich array of relationships! Indeed, when you start to tease apart the nature of "real-life relationships" the way, for example, Erving Goffman has done, you quickly discover an amorphous mass that does not yield readily to perceptual categorization. This is not to say that "organization charts and hierarchies" are any closer to "real-life relationships." Rather it is to say that, when the social subtleties of human relationship are at stake, there is little to be gained from arguing over the lesser of two evils!
  2. The same goes for conversations, which is another one of Goffman's prime areas of study. As a matter of fact, one collection of his essays is entitled Forms of Talk. This is, by no means, an "easy read;" but I cannot imagine having anything intelligent to say about "knowledge sharing" without first having taken a whack at the first essay in the collection, "Replies and Responses." If nothing else, it is sure to change your thoughts about Google! Once again, it is not a matter of labeling things with type or attaching stuff. It is about multilateral exchanges, but the reader quickly sees that Goffman's take on multilateralism goes way beyond that of Facebook.
  3. The reason I can state that last sentence so definitively is that the whole point of "Replies and Responses" is that the events of such talk are not transactions. Goffman weaves a rather elaborate argumentative web to make this point; and I am not going to reproduce it (because I still do not understand it well enough to synopsize it). However, where the argument leads is that Goffman analyzes a conversation in terms of moves (in the metaphor of a chess game, which is basically the operative metaphor behind Wittgenstein's language-game concept); and moves are far more elaborate than the simpler give-and-take foundation of a transaction.

Needless to say, this analysis goes far beyond the limitations of Facebook. Rather, it is a wart-revealing lens that can be applied to examine just about anything out there that claims to be "social software." The moral of the story is that, once again, we should be looking at "real life," rather than at software. Every enterprise is rich with relationships and conversations. Rather than trying to impoverish it with a consumer toy like Facebook, we should be looking for software that recognizes the wealth that is already there, facilitates it, and ultimately enhances it.

IT: Infantile Tenacity?

Yesterday, in a comment on confused of calcutta, I revisited that old joke that IT is one of only two professions that refers to its customers as "users." This morning, while reading Claire Messud's New York Review piece on Andrew O'Hagan's novel, Be Near Me, I remembered another "professional metaphor," which seems to now attract less attention than it did when it was first introduced. I do not know if Robert Townsend invented the metaphor for his book, Up the Organization; but that is where I first encountered it. It is where refers to IT professionals as high priests.

My memory was tweaked because the protagonist of Be Near Me is a Catholic priest. This gave O'Hagan an opportunity to reflect on the life of such a priest in a passage that fascinated me:

One never buys a house or pays school fees. One sleeps in a single bed. One lives like an orphan in a beautiful paternalistic dream. As a priest one may never grow up. In a sense, one lives as an infant before the practical trials of reality.

I have to wonder whether O'Hagan and I share the same reading of that preposition "before." If one reads this in the context of preparation for the priesthood, then "prior to" would probably be the appropriate reading. However, if this is a description of an ordained priest, then "in the face of" would be more suitable; and this is the reading I prefer, because I can then also read it in terms of those "ordained" in the practices of information technology.

What sort of infantilism do I have in mind (if this text is to be more than a screaming rant)? I think the answer can be found at the lower levels of Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of human needs. These are the levels that have to do with the self-satisfaction of deficiencies, the implication being that, even when the deficiencies are social, satisfaction is very much a self-centered matter that essentially ignores the roles and motives of others in its achievements. Townsend was basically arguing that so many of the critical elements of the real world workplace were being blocked out by the dogmatic objectivity of information technology that the professionals of that technology would ultimately do more harm than good. Much of what he had to say was not only true but subsequently reinforced by the later stages (fads?) of IT development, culminating in the mess that has been made by the combination of today's enterprise systems and their connectivity to the Internet. Meanwhile, as the technologies have extended from life at work to life at home, the infantilism behind those technologies has similarly extended, leading to such phenomena as the self-satisfying "cult of the amateur" and Time's declaration of that infantile "you" as Person of the Year.

There is a further reading of that last sentence quoted from O'Hagan, which, in my argument, shifts attention from the "IT priesthood" to the "flock." To live as an infant in the face of the practical trials of reality is to believe, as an act of faith, if necessary, that someone (the father figure in that "beautiful paternalistic dream") will always be there to take care of those trials. Put another way, the infant lives without any sense of responsibility under the conviction that there will always be a deus ex machina to set things right. This is why so much of the current Presidential campaign seems to be based on appealing to what I have called the "Secular Messianism" of the electorate. Going beyond governance to everyday life, this form of infantilism was also embodied in the Eloi of H. G. Wells' Time Machine.

This leads us to two ways in which we can view today's IT profession. On the one hand they are the priests, the purveyors of that "beautiful paternalistic dream," who promise that all will be satisfied if we simply offer up our obedience without question or resistance. On the other hand they are the Morlocks, the only ones left capable of pulling those strings that satisfy our infantile needs. Then again, if we apply a dialectical synthesis, it may be that the IT professional is a Janus wearing both of these faces, since both priests and Morlocks seem to ask nothing more than that the rest of us wallow in our own infantilism.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Lessons from Bogus Journalism

The latest report from Reuters concerning the authenticity of a news report about steamed buns sold by street vendors in China that were actually made from cardboard may provide some useful insights into the underlying nature of the world of work in China today. Consider the lead for the article:

Chinese state television has begun sacking contract staff after a bogus news report about toxic dumplings that drew international alarm and angered propaganda chiefs, newspapers reported on Monday.

Next, let us move to that this actually means in substance:

Propaganda officials are now seeking tighter control on the mammoth, multi-channel national broadcaster by sacking masses of contract and informal staff, according to Ta Kung Pao, a Hong Kong paper under mainland control.

A staff member told the paper that after the scandal, the ruling Communist Party's propaganda department and the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television had demanded that media "carry out resolute self-examination and self-correction".

"CCTV [China Central Television, which ran the bun story] is following the demand and has begun dismissing employees," the employee said. "Those with ability can stay, those that aren't qualified must all be dismissed."

Reflecting its status as an arm of state, CCTV has a limited number of formal staff positions authorized by the government. But as channels and the chase for ratings and advertising revenue have expanded, the broadcaster has taken on many hundreds of contract and informal staff.

"These irregular staff are huge in number -- about as many as there are formal staff," commented the Yangcheng Evening News, a state-run paper in Guangdong province, which also reported the dismissals.

Let us begin with what appears to be official language about "resolute self-examination and self-correction." This strikes me as a significant reminder that, whatever moves China may be making towards the accumulation of wealth and the exploitation of global opportunities, the language of Communist ideology still provides the bedrock of the culture. However, because words can never be more the signifiers, there remains the question of how sound that bedrock is. On the one hand this language could be a reminder of the sort of punitive measures exacted in the days of Mao, which would make it a not-particularly-veiled threat that those measures still prevail and can be invoked again. On the other hand, to continue the geological metaphor, that threat may be as hollow as bedrock that has had all the fluid (water or oil) sucked out of its pore spaces, sitting there just waiting to collapse into a sinkhole. My point is that, while Mao could be absolutely ruthless in making sure that there was no gulf between word and deed, the contemporary pragmatism of today's Chinese leaders no longer appears to exercise such ruthlessness. Even the imposition of capital punishment as a sentence for negligent oversight may have been more a symbol of threat, rather than a warning that such measures would be the norm for future acts.

Then there is the matter of just how "self-correction" is being administered, getting rid of the contract workers. Like just about every business in the industrialized world, CCTV now depends heavily on contract labor. However, while free market businesses engaged contractors as a cost-cutting measure, CCTV does it in response to that government authority that makes an ad hoc determination of the number and types of full-time staff positions that the business can sustain. Putting this another way, while the Los Angeles Times may have to rely on contract reporters because their owners keep requiring them to cut their staff numbers (presumably to satisfy the needs of shareholders), CCTV has traded the problem of satisfying shareholders for the problem of satisfying government bureaucrats who may or may not care about the quality of their "product."

In other words the "story behind the story" is actually about a growing emergence of a major confrontation between Communist ideology and the Chinese media business, which, on the one hand, is supposed to be a vital propaganda arm for the ideology but, on the other hand, is also trying to think of itself as a business. What are the consequences likely to be? The Reuters story closes with one perspective:

But staff were also skeptical about how deep and lasting the cuts would be. One CCTV worker said many dismissed staff were likely to be re-employed because many programs could not be made without them.

This is that question of the soundness of the bedrock. The world the Internet has made is one that does not support hollow gestures very well because it is so good at exposing them for how hollow they really are. If, indeed, the ideological bedrock is no longer strong, then the Chinese leaders will have to find new ways to exercise authority. In the absence of authority recognized as valid, all of China could turn into another Deadwood; and that will bring consequences that none of us will want to face.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Can Anyone do Anything about the Pathology of Today's Workplace?

In "They're Micromanaging Your Every Move," in the latest issue of The New York Review, Simon Head reviews three books, none of which are particularly new:

  1. The Social Life of Information, by John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid
  2. Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream, by Barbara Ehrenreich
  3. The Culture of the New Capitalism, by Richard Sennett

It is only at the end of his article that Head looks to the future, rather than reminding us of just how pathological the present is and how it was that the past brought us into this mess. Nevertheless, Sennett's book, based on lectures he gave at Yale in 2004, is probably still valuable for its analysis of the implications and consequences of the mess; and he may also have contributed some fresh weapons for taking on some of the more recent claptrap being promoted by IT evangelists. By invoking the concept of "culture," Sennett is justifying an argument that has to do with a major shift in worldviews and values. Head recognizes this by capturing that shift in a single sentence:

The concept of a career has become increasingly meaningless in a setting in which employees have neither skills of which they might be proud nor an audience of independently minded fellow workers that might recognize their value.

While Sennett does not invoke the adjective "Agile" (capitalized by its evangelists to reflect a development methodology, a business strategy, and, consistent with Sennett's "culture" concept, a mindset), he describes contemporary workplaces as scenes in which Agility trumps all else:

As we have seen, in the workplace [changes based on Agility] produce social deficits of loyalty and informal trust, they erode the value of accumulated experience. To which we should now add the hollowing out of ability.

Indeed, it is that erosion of the value of accumulated experience that lies at the horror story of Ehrenreich's book, a truly disconcerting chronicle of the inability of a successful journalist to land a job in public relations, even with the assistance of "career coaches."

Head's concluding assessment of the future is framed in terms of what a Democratic candidate for President might do to get us out of this mess:

Compared with Al Gore in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and John Edwards are already concentrating more heavily on the growing inequality of American society, the squeeze on middle- and lower-income Americans, and how to reverse these trends. But all three are having a hard time facing up to how the unfairness and inequality they all claim to deplore has been caused by the relentless growth of corporate power.

This is worth saying; but, once again, it is nothing new. The message was delivered far more dramatistically in John Kirby's documentary, based on a text by Lewis Lapham, The American Ruling Class. The punch line of this film is a motto that says it all: "Why change City Hall when you can buy it?" It is hard to imagine any candidate for President (even one not affiliated with either of the major political parties) achieving the office without ultimately selling out to that corporate power that lies at the heart of our own "ruling class." Furthermore, since the power to rule now depends to such a great extent on the very IT that the evangelists keep promoting, the bottom line is that the world the Internet has made is one in which we have painted ourselves into a corner and the paint is now closing in on us through its own devices!

When (and Where) did Music Move from Background to Foreground?

Yesterday I described Mozart's "Haffner" serenade as "occasional music." This is a slightly more dignified phrase than "background music;" but the two phrases have roughly the same connotation. This particular composition was written for a wedding; and in eighteenth-century Austria one did not go to weddings to listen to music. Presumably, then, as now, the primary function at a wedding was social talk situated in a context of food (probably, but hardly definitely, better in a posh wedding in 1776 Salzburg that it would be today), fashion, and some form of music tasteful enough to fill any embarrassing silences but not so intrusive as to interrupt conversation. Tafelmusik (which carries both the denotation and connotation of "dinner music") served a similar function. The fact that Mozart would put out a "product" (which is basically how it would be viewed by its "consumers," Sigmund Haffner being very much such a consumer) that deserved attentive listening was irrelevant, if not disruptive to the social occasion.

The above reflection is a product of my just having read Darryl Pinckney's review of Gabriel Banat's new biography of the Chevalier de Saint-Georges. I suspect that many of my contemporaries, like myself, discovered Saint-Georges through the good graces of the Musical Heritage Society (MHS), which used to sell "reprints" of European recordings from publishers such as Erato. MHS had a series called "Of Castles and Cathedrals," each record of which hypothesized a concert that would be performed at a particular castle or cathedral. The first of the series was an imagined concert for Marie Antoinette at the Petit Trianon; and the first side coupled one of Saint-Georges symphonies concertantes with a duo by his teacher, François Gossec. It was from the liner notes that I learned that Saint-Georges was a mulatto from Guadeloupe, a fact that could first be summoned to raise eyebrows at a concert and later receive more serious attention in the study of Black History. Pinckney's review, however, addressed an attribute of that concert (real or imagined) that I had not previously considered:

In the early 1770s, a new type of concert emerged in large court societies. The chatter of the salon quieted down and people began to listen more attentively, or seem to, a reflection of a fashion for seriousness and marking a display of one's elevated sensibility.

Pinckney does not discuss whether this "new type of concert emerged" locally in France or began to crop up in court societies across Europe. He only writes about France because that was the site of most of Saint-Georges' musical activities. However, given the impressions we get about the Archbishop of Salzburg from accounts of Mozart's life, it is not hard to imagine that the trend had not yet "taken" in the Salzburg of 1776; so Mozart most likely only encountered it when he moved to Vienna and the court of Marie Antoinette's relatives!

"Bon Voyage" to the San Francisco Symphony!

One of the advantages of being invited to "Bloggers' Night" at the San Francisco Symphony was the opportunity to learn about the European tour that the Symphony will be making beginning at the end of August. I was particularly interested in the performances at the Edinburgh Festival and the BBC Proms, because I can now anticipate reading reviews of them through my RSS feed for the Telegraph (and perhaps hearing at least one of the Proms concerts on the BBC World Service). Today's San Francisco Chronicle further tweaked my interest with an advertisement for a "Bon Voyage" concert at Davies on August 23. Here is the program with some extra information about the soloist (omitted in the ad but culled from the Symphony press release) and which works will be performed that the two venues that interest me the most:

John Adams Short Ride on a Fast Machine (Edinburgh, August 29)

Charles Ives Symphony No. 3 (Proms, September 1)

Richard Strauss Final Scene from Salome (Deborah Voigt, soprano; Edinburgh, August 30; Proms, September 1)

Dmitri Shostakovich Symphony No. 5 (Proms, September 1)

So basically the San Francisco audience gets to hear the September 1 Proms concert with the Adams thrown in for good measure. I was also pleased to note that the Symphony will be performing a second Proms concert, consisting entirely of the Mahler seventh symphony. This was of particular interest, not only because Michael Tilson Thomas has done so much to build an audience for Mahler here but also because he seems to be doing the same in London with his performances with the London Symphony Orchestra. My guess is that the Telegraph will have a lot to write about, and I look forward to reading all of it!

Saturday, July 28, 2007

You Can't Deny the Social World!

I continue to be amazed at the ramparts erected by denizens of the objective world in their efforts to deny the existence of the social world! Most recently I have been following the confused of calcutta discussion on whether or not companies should ban their employees from visiting Facebook, at least at work. A comment from alexis expressed amazement that "a mutual friend at a Tier1 Bank told me it was banned on the basis of being a ‘Dating Site’." Of course Facebook is a dating site; and, as those of us who have studied the phenomena know, dating in virtual worlds can get just as hot and heavy as it does in the physical world! (Is there any difference between "getting it on" in the world of plain text electronic mail and engaging in phone sex?) However, over in that physical world, bars are dating sites also. Is there anyone out there in the world of enterprise workers who has not conducted business in a bar at one time or another? The problem with virtual worlds is that we get so wrapped up in all the evangelical jargon about them that we forget about some of the simple realities of the physical world!

It gets better. Stick with the fact that a particular virtual environment is primarily a dating site. Can any enterprise worker claim to have worked for an organization that never had even the slightest brush with sexual harassment? Like it or not, the office is a dating site, too; and, until we finally invent a realistic approximation to Huxley's soma to regulate the libido, it is going to stay that way!

This brings me to that oft-repeated positivist dream of enriching "data with real semantics," that old Philosophers' Stone that will solve all the problems of knowledge management. Inveterate Wittgensteinian that I am, I believe that the only "real semantics" reside in how we use those data, whether they are texts, records in a database, or cells in a spreadsheet. The corollary is, as we all know, that, as our situation changes, we use those texts, records, and spreadsheets in different ways. That applies to workplace talk as well as everything else; and anyone with an ounce of literary sensibility can recognize when seemingly objective "work talk" is also sending out "mating dance" signals! (In other words the multiple uses of text and be simultaneous!)

Those who react to these plain truths in horror remind me of those who want to achieve zero-level probability of a terrorist attack in their community. This is an unrealistic goal. The less hysterical policymakers in "homeland security" have long argued that one should strive for a robust environment, capable of quick recovery from catastrophe (whether caused by terrorists or forces of nature). This is still a tall order, but it is at least within the realm of possibility! The conduct of business, whether in physical or virtual worlds, should be similarly robust.

Personally, I just try to avoid talking too much in either virtual worlds or bars. This is not because of any puritan streak. I just bear in mind that wherever I am talking, my texts can have consequences. So I prefer to generate texts in settings where I can review them (as I plan to do with this comment after I complete it)!

Mozart at Twenty

For all of my remarks last week about the virtues of revisiting music I had heard earlier this season at Davies, the high point for me at the second Midsummer Mozart Festival was not a second hearing of the "Coronation" mass but a first "live" hearing of the K. 250 "Haffner" serenade. This was probably due, at least in part, with my fascination with the "inner-twenty-year-old" on much of Mozart's music, because it turns out that Mozart was a twenty-year-old when he wrote this particular serenade! While this was "occasional music" for the wedding of the daughter of a wealthy banker, merchant and burgomaster (Sigmund Haffner, whose name also surfaces in the K. 385 symphony), ostensibly a solemn affair with all its trappings of wealth and power, the eight movements of this work all present Mozart the "show-off kid" in the best possible light. There are any number of unpredictable twists and turns of composition that are more often associated with Haydn's ingenuity and wit; and they are matched by utterly splendid use of orchestral resources, made all the more evident by the reduced size of the Midsummer Mozart ensemble.

Then there is the violin. By way of context, we should consider a passage from Dyneley Hussey's Lives of the Great Composers (included in Louis Biancolli's Mozart Handbook) about this period in Mozart's life:

On his return to Salzburg [in 1775], Leopold [his father] set him to work harder than ever at violin-playing. His father (no mean judge) was of the opinion that, if he would do himself justice, he would be 'the first violinist in Europe.' The results of his application are embodied in the five violin concertos, all written at this time. But although he worked at the instrument to please his father, Wolfgang had no great love for it, and turned his attention to the newly invented pianoforte as soon as he cut his apron-strings.

If Mozart, indeed, "had no great love for" the violin, one can hardly tell it from the attention to gives to the solo violin voice in the "Haffner" serenade. As was the case for Laura Griffiths in last week's performance of the K. 251 divertimento, concertmaster Robin Hansen had all the right skills for the double-duty of responsibilities to both the ensemble and her own solo voice. Indeed, given that the concert was dedicated to the memory of Beverly Sills, Hansen's performance of the second movement andante elicited a foretaste of some of Mozart's best writing for the soprano voice.

That foretaste was satisfied after the intermission when Elspeth Franks sang three of those composition, all of which are seldom performed. Two of them were written for the soprano Louise Villeneuve, who wanted them inserted into a performance she gave of Il burbero di buon core, by Martín y Soler; and they both demonstrate how Mozart could bring the sublime to bear in the midst of even the most ridiculous dramatic situation. Franks' voice brought just the right subtlety to this sublimity and fit will in the relatively intimate setting of Herbst Theatre. Then, as an encore, Franks and conductor George Cleve included a performance of "Ruhe sanft, mein holdes Leben" from the first act of the Singspiel Zaide (an aria Cleve had conducted for Sills at a performance in San Jose). This was less interesting musically, but the emotional context was what mattered.

Finally, that "intimate setting" through a new light on the "revisited" offering, the "Coronation Mass." Even though Metzmacher had reduced his resources in the San Francisco Symphony and Chorus, he was still faced with the problem of providing a sound for the space of Davies. Cleve could achieve a better "fit" with the resources of the Cantabile Chorale and soloists Ruthann Lovetang, Sanford Dole, and David Miller joining Franks. Yes, there is certainly a "grand" sound to this work; but grandeur need not imply massive volume. Also, since most of the solo voices are singing together, there is little attention to "grand arias" here. The result was just the right match of resources to music, bringing this year's Midsummer Mozart Festival to a conclusion that honored the composer's work in the best possible ways.

A YouTube Advantage

It appears that I may have been took quick to criticize the CNN "YouTube Debate" as being little more than a desperate attempt from CNN to draw eyeballs back to their channel. Now that CNN is planning a second such debate for Republican candidates, scheduled for September 17 in the Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg, we are discovering, from sources such as the Pensito Review blog, that Republican candidates are running scared from the prospect of an event similar to the one in which the Democrats participated. It may be that, in their overall value system, the Republicans are discovering that fear of the general public may be more important than the fear of God. Pensito Review framed the situation as follows:

After pulling a party-line no-show at the recent National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) convention, aka, THE event for Latino movers and shakers, they are now discovering a rash of scheduling conflicts at the prospect of facing the chilling YouTube questioners in debate.

According to Stephanie Garry, Staff Writer for the St. Petersburg Times, Rudy Giuliani is already claiming that "scheduling issues" may prevent his participating. More interesting is the Pensito Review account of Mitt Romney:

Mitt Romney — who recently faced derision and questions about his common sense for strapping his dog in its carrier to the top of his car during a 12-hour drive, causing the animal to defecate over his windshield — came right out and said the format is beneath his dignity.

“I think the presidency ought to be held at a higher level than having to answer questions from a snowman,” Romney told the Manchester (N.H.) Union Leader this week.

Before making any further comments about his dignity, Romney would do well to read that passage about "the knight who swore on his honor" in Shakespeare's As You Like It! Apparently only two Republicans have confirmed that they will participate, John McCain (whose campaign is in such deep yogurt that he is willing to try anything but who also may have learned from the "battle experience" of his "Google interview") and Ron Paul (who presumably saw the way in the which Democratic debate provided good opportunities for Bill Richardson, Dennis Kucinich, and Mike Gravel, none of whom have particularly good numbers).

Friday, July 27, 2007

Distortions of Retold Stories

Having invested a lot of my personal research time in trying to understand the nature of organizational memory and the proper role that technology can play in maintaining such memories, I have become very occupied with the extent to which stories provide a better model of memories than, for example, data repositories do. Recall my previous citation of Jerome Bruner, who, in his Acts of Meaning book, credits Jean Mandler with the observation "that what does not get structured narratively suffers loss in memory." However, when we shift focus from the individual (psychological) level to the social level of organizations, we encounter the corollary that memory is maintained not only through narrative structure but through the capacity of members of the organization to retell stories in social settings, whether they involve work or leisure. One of the best demonstrations of this corollary in an organizational setting is probably the Eureka system that supports the entire global network of repair technicians. The underlying idea for this system grew out of observations from anthropological field work concerning how these technicians exchanged "war stories" at the end of the working day. Technology provided a means by which stories that previously had only been shared by technicians working in (for example) Denver could now be shared with technicians around the world.

Nevertheless, there were two consequences to this approach that were probably not anticipated:
  1. Once a story has been "told" into a database, the communicative action of retelling in has been subverted by the "hard record" now in the database.
  2. The retold version of a story is seldom the same as the story as the "re-teller" heard it.
Neither of these consequences has really been assessed since Eureka was fully launched as part of service operations. Each has is own impact and deserves attention.

The significance of the first has as much to do with general "Internet culture" as with the organizational memory of Xerox repair technicians, because it involves the question of whether or not our general relation to the Internet is gradually changing us from storytellers to story readers, thus reflecting back on the proposition analyzed by Walter Benjamin as to whether or not man had lost his capacity to tell stories. There is, of course, the Wikipedia philosophy that this capacity can only flourish in a setting in which everyone can comment on what everyone else is writing; but I continue to argue that a disregard of the social context in which Wikipedia is embedded and a staunch rejection of the role that governance can play in regulating that context have done the capacity to tell stories more harm than good, simply because even the most astute reader will have trouble distinguishing the informative narrative from the "disinformative tall tale." My guess is that our elevation to the status of Time's "Person of the Year" has encouraged our willingness to be participating storytellers; but the Web 2.0 setting that Time celebrated has taken away our active and involved audience, which may, in the long run, erode both the quality of our stories than the interest that anyone (probably including ourselves) may have in them. In other words, to invoke Andrew Keen's language, the capacity to tell stories may get washed away in the flood brought on by the "cult of the amateur."

This then moves to the question of what happens to the "signal" when a story is retold. I can illustrate this with an example. Yesterday I was writing about the filmmaker Carl Theodor Dreyer. I am pretty sure that my first exposure to his work was his Passion of Joan of Arc. This was back in my student days, and there was a lot of excitement about Dreyer having cast Antonin Artaud in this film. However, there was also a story circulating about Maria Falconetti, the actress Dreyer had cast as Joan. The story was that, prior to shooting the final scene in which Joan is burned at the stake, Dreyer found a remote location, tied Falconetti to a stake he had driven into the ground, and left her there (alone) overnight. This was supposedly the factor behind her anguished look when the cameras started rolling.

This all sounded a little bit absurd. However, there were other stories about Dreyer's eccentricity; and, if nothing else, this was a good story. It was only when I saw a documentary about Dreyer that I learned the origin of this story. It turned out that a more logical version of this tale had nothing at all to do with The Passion of Joan of Arc. Rather, it was a story about Day of Wrath, which begins with a witch-burning scene. In this scene the woman being executed was not tied to a stake but to a flat wooden frame. After the fire was burning, the frame was propped up, perpendicular to the ground, and tipped over; so the victim would fall directly into the flames. The day this scene was shot, much of the morning went into tying the actress playing this woman to the frame that had been built. Once she was in place, someone shouted, "Lunch break!" Everyone went off to eat (including Dreyer); and she was left lying on the ground, tied down to her frame. The teller of this story suggested that Dreyer had done this intentionally to make sure that the actress would be suitably hysterical during the filming. Anyone who has seen the film knows that this effect was achieved; and, since it is a somewhat more "controlled" approach to "method," it is at least a bit more believable than the Falconetti story. However, since more people seem to have seen the Joan of Arc film, the story "crossed over" to "satisfy a larger audience."

A similar case of story-distortion came up in the early years of my music education. I had encountered a story that Brahms had appropriated Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" theme in the final movement of his own first symphony; and, when someone walked up to him on the street and confronted Brahms about this, Brahms reply was that any fool could recognize the appropriation. Well, here I was, owning copies of scores for both symphonies, and I could not, for the life of me, figure out where this appropriation was supposed to be. Eventually, I was able to straighten things out by reading Arnold Schoenberg's "Brahms the Progressive" essay. The story was not about Brahms' first symphony but about his first piano sonata, and the music appropriated from Beethoven was not from the ninth symphony but from the "Hammerklavier" piano sonata. The two sonatas definitely share the same opening gesture, thus justifying Brahms' rejoinder, "Das bemerkt ja schon jeder Esel."

This now strikes me as a variation of a classic Ernie Kovacs gag: The Great Wall of China is not great, it is not a wall, and it is not even in China; it is in New York, where it is called the Triborough Bridge!

When we confront distortions like this, we have to ask what really matters in the story. The Dreyer story was more about the man's personality, which is ultimately more important that specific details about films and actresses. (On the other hand IMDB confirms that Falconetti never made another film after Joan of Arc, and the Dreyer documentary suggests that the experience of working with Dreyer had something to do with this.) On the other hand we count on editorial skills to make sure that the distorted version of the story does not show up in a textbook on film history (and Wikipedia assumes that the "wisdom of the crowd" will keep it out of any of their related entries). Thus, while I am not quite as pessimistic as Benjamin, I believe that a story only becomes a good story when it can survive "performance before a critical audience," which is precisely what we seem to be losing with the rise of "Web 2.0 culture;" so, if we lose our capacity for telling good stories, we may also gradually lose the communal memory through which we make sense of the world around us. In other words we may accumulate a critical symptom of culture death.

Moving a Corporate Scam to the Public Sector

This week's act of chutzpah falls under the category of making an outrageous decision in opposition to strong contrary evidence. In this case the evidence concerns trading in carbon emissions, also know as carbon credits and carbon offsets. The evidence that this was more of a scheme to protect polluting industries than a serious step towards cleaning up a polluted atmosphere has been accumulating for some time, but the hardest data were reported by the BBC last month with only the weakest of refutations. In the face of this evidence, the outrageous decision has come from our Forest Service, according to Claudia Lauer, Staff Writer for the Los Angeles Times:

For years, companies have been allowed to compensate for greenhouse gas emissions by purchasing "carbon offsets" — vouchers for investment in alternative energy sources, tree-planting and other projects that can mitigate global warming.

Now the idea is spreading to individuals, with the Forest Service's announcement Wednesday that it will be the first federal agency to offer personal carbon offsets through an initiative called the Carbon Capital Fund.

"We came up with the idea because everyone is looking at what they can do in terms of climate change," said Bill Possiel, president of the National Forest Foundation, a nonprofit partner of the Forest Service. "The money goes to a restricted fund for projects on national forests."

Trees and forests are "carbon sinks," Possiel said, because they draw carbon dioxide — the main greenhouse gas blamed for global warming — out of the atmosphere and store it for long periods of time.

The Forest Service, an agency within the Agriculture Department, estimates that the 155 forests it oversees absorb 10% to 15% of the nation's carbon emissions and that planting through the new initiative will increase that amount.

Under the program, individuals can use a "carbon calculator" at http://www.carboncapitalfund.org to figure out the size of their carbon footprint. Then, they can buy offsets at $6 per metric ton of carbon dioxide. An average family of four is responsible for 19 to 30 metric tons of carbon dioxide a year, so the offsets would cost $114 to $180.

"People have an opportunity to contribute to the health, diversity and productivity of the nation's forests not only by countering climate change, but also by replanting forests for the benefit of future generations," Forest Service chief Gail Kimbell said in announcing the initiative.

As to any contrary evidence, Possiel claims it is refuted by the "ground truth" of the computer models they are using. Furthermore, verifications based on those models will be managed by an unnamed third party. All in all the operative noun for all this still appears to be "scheme;" so the Chutzpah of the Week award goes to the Forest Service for sending out a dog that could never hunt in the first place.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Information Content in Grieg

John Cage once said that, in his youth he had decided he would dedicate his life to learning and performing the piano music of Edvard Grieg; and we also get suggestions that he made this decision because he found the music of Beethoven too challenging. My own experiences with Grieg were heavily influenced by the (probably familiar) high school experience when any piano student with an ounce of either talent or ambition would take a crack at the first movement of the piano concerto. This saturated me with so many mediocre performances that I quickly became sick of the damned thing (except in the treatment given by the Hoffnung Festival Orchestra); and that feeling percolated into the rest of the Grieg repertoire.

Nevertheless, when I was living in Santa Barbara a little less than thirty years ago, I had this absolutely wonderful piano teacher, who believed that, since I was not out to be a professional pianist, I should take the time to explore just about anything the repertoire had to offer, ranging from the downright impossible (such as the fourth movement of Ives' first piano sonata) to the (deceptively?) simplistic (such as Mompou's "Charmes").

Actually, I think she gave me the Ives to see how I would approach it, since she was trying to prepare it herself at the same time. Looking back on my copy, I see that I meticulously marked out all the "1 & 2 &" beats on the first two pages, making particular note when these fell between the beats of the triplets, quintuplets, and septuplets in the notation. I seem to have done this only on the first two pages. I think this is because my first "assignment" was limited to those pages. However, after concentrating on those pages, I began to develop a feel for the rhythms and did not have to mark those "training wheels" on the remaining pages.

It was with this attitude of exploration that I found sheet music for the first three sets of Grieg Lyric Pieces at a friend's used book store and decided to buy them (in spite of the somewhat disparaging look on my friend's face). (This was the same friend who had taken the late Steven De Groote to task for including the Liszt "Dante" sonata on the program for a recital he gave in Santa Barbara, as if Liszt was just too vulgar to receive serious attention.) Like much of the music I purchased at that time, it then just sat in a pile, waiting for the "right time" when I would give it some attention.

I cannot remember when I decided to look at the first set (Opus 12 from 1867). I remember that it was more challenging than Mompou, but it also had a tendency to be tediously repetitious. Nevertheless, I was amused that the "Watchman's Song" had been inspired by Macbeth, particularly since the mood was so much more sober than the character it was supposed to invoke. This was my first clue that there was probably more to this music than what I was reading on the surface.

Ten years later I was living in Los Angeles, taking piano lessons from a promising young composer, who decided to put me on the "Berceuse" movement at the beginning of the second set (Opus 38, 1884). The two of us never communicated very well (which is probably why, to this day, I do not think very much of his work, which puts me at odds with much of the listening public for "serious" music); so I did not make very much further progress with Grieg. I do not think I returned to that second set until I had also returned from Singapore (now about ten years ago) and was no longer taking lessons, just using my time on my own as best as I could. By this time I think I had acquired the full CD set of Grieg's piano music, released by BIS with pianist Eva Knardahl. I was not sure what to make of Knardahl, beyond her achieving the ambition that Cage had set for himself and never fulfilled; but, if nothing else, she made me aware that the Lyric Pieces were embedded in a cultural context that I did not understand very well. I was thus willing to admit that I had not really "gotten" either of the first two sets and that I was not sure what it would take to "get" them.

What probably turned the trick for me was the decision of the Turner Classic Movies (TCM) channel to run a "focus series" on the work of Carl Theodor Dreyer, which included a documentary about the man made by Torben Skjødt Jensen in 1995. I had known about both his Passion of Joan of Arc and Day of Wrath from my student days but had never given very much thought to his Danish nationality and the impact it had on his talents as both writer and director. Nevertheless, I consumed the entire TCM series voraciously, thinking little about it until I decided to return to Grieg a couple of months ago and take on the last of the Lyric Pieces sets I had in sheet music.

This time I was more interested in getting beyond the simple repetitions; but what really turned me around was the "Erotic Piece," which is the fifth composition in that third set (Opus 43, 1886). My immediate impression was that this was not particularly erotic; but then, with an impact not that different from that of Proust's madeleine, my memory flashed back to Dreyer's Gertrud and I realized that this was an eroticism that had more to do with sexual frustration than with consummation. This, in turn, led me to approach the other pieces in the set as growing from a soil rich with sadness, however upbeat the surface structure may have been. From this vantage point I could listen to Knardahl with "fresh ears," more aware of the ways in which those seemingly tedious repetitious were actually fraught with emotional intensity.

This throws a new light on my recent attempt to home in on the "right" way to invoke information theory in the study of music. If we just look at the notes in the Lyric Pieces compositions, we find a relatively low level of information content, by virtue of all the repetition. However, as I have tried to argue for some time, information content resides only partially in the notes; one must also take the performance of those notes into account. Because Knardahl was so good at finding the right ways to play the repeated passages without having them sound "repetitious," she was intuitively raising the information content of the listening experience to a very high level, obliging us to (almost literally) hang on every note summoned from her keyboard. From a point of view of historical irony, it is interesting to note that Cage eventually moved to an aesthetic in which notation could be almost incidental to the acts of performance.

Now my challenge is on the other foot, so to speak. My guess is that my technique will never be up to conveying the subtleties through which Grieg really "works;" but I have finally come to a point where I am no longer dismissive of the man's compositions. At that point I have also decided to trade in my sheet music for the Dover publication of all of the sets of Lyric Pieces, because I expect them to occupy me for several years to come!

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

The Naked Violin

Having written about two members of the wind section of the San Francisco Opera Orchestra (Rufus Olivier and Laura Griffiths) being featured in the first Midsummer Mozart Festival concert, I feel a need to give similar attention of Kay Stern, Concertmaster of the Opera Orchestra. This afternoon Ms. Stern gave the "Musical Lunch Break" concert at Saint Patrick's Church, accompanied by pianist Joan Nagano. The program consisted entirely of Beethoven's "Kreutzer" sonata (Opus 47, Number 9, in A major for the more musicologically inclined). Ms. Stern introduced the performance with the observation that Kreutzer was best known for his exercises for violinists and found the Beethoven sonata too hard to play. She then launched into a delightful demonstration of how much the skill of violinists has changed for the better over time.

I have had many influences in my life that stress the importance of first impressions, whether it is the very first sentence of a text (literary or otherwise), the opening gesture of a musical composition (of any genre), or the first gesture of a soloist in an accompanied work. By the time we are in the age of the classical concerto, the last two are seldom the same; but the sonata tradition usually has both soloist and accompanist participating in the opening gesture, as was the case in most baroque sonatas. The unaccompanied soloist, however, was another matter. That is exactly how the "Kreutzer" begins, with a soloist honoring the semantics of that label by being truly alone. (Beethoven would invoke the same technique, with equally dramatic effect, at the beginning of his fourth piano concerto.) The result is a sonata that demands not only technical skill and a confident sense of performance rhetoric but a full measure of intestinal fortitude. The listener is about to embark on a voyage of about forty minutes, the heart of which reveals Beethoven in one of his best elements, weaving elaborate variations around a relatively simple theme; and the first step in that voyage is the critical one. I am therefore happy to report that Ms. Stern had it all: solid technique, persuasive rhetoric, and, most importantly, opening with a stance of self-conviction that qualified her as our guide for the entire voyage.

This is not to say that the opening gesture is all that mattered in this performance. This sonata is a syntactic wonder, as Beethoven explores not only new ways of approaching what is basically a call-and-response relationship between soloist and accompanist but also the weaving together of two lines of counterpoint, invoking more of a sense of a duet for sopranos than an instrumental sonata. There are also the dynamic levels that shift abruptly, never keeping the metaphor of the ground beneath your feet particularly steady as you are guided forward. This sonata may be the closest one comes to a drama without the benefits of either text or the imagined plot line of a tone poem (which may make it one of Schoenberg's inspirations when he was exploring similar dramatic qualities in his first string quartet). Both Ms. Stern and Ms. Nagano seemed to have the right intuitions for how to bring dramatic "voices" to their instruments that did justice to such a point of view.

If we are inclined to talk about what we have heard at the end of a concert (as I hope most of us are), the conversation inevitably comes to the what-did-you-think or how-did-you-like-it question. If the music in question is totally new (which is often in the case of my own tastes), I have come to the realization that the best thing I can say in response is, "I don't know, but I would really like to hear it again." We do not have to say this about works we think we know; but, for such works, the best performances are the ones that remind us that we do not know as much as we thought. Today's "Kreutzer" performance left me hungry to hear it performed again; and I think that may be the highest praise when one is talking about such a familiar composition.

Blogging at the Symphony

Last week I neglected to mention that San Francisco Symphony conductor James Gaffigan's "intermission chat with a community of local bloggers who had assembled at Davies" was made possible by the Communications Department of the Symphony, which had declared that concert to be "Bloggers' Night." Twenty pairs of prime orchestra seats were set aside for those "local bloggers," who were also given access to the Press Room (now endowed with WiFi connectivity). I thus have this kind of forward-looking thinking from the Symphony to thank for giving me the opportunity to write my two recent posts about Rachmaninoff and Richard Strauss. For those interested in the general impact of the event on those local bloggers, Louisa Spier, the Public Relations Associate who coordinated the whole affair, has set up a del.icio.us page (actually three pages), on which she has compiled all the resulting posts. As might be expected, the content ran the gamut from the sort of stuff that, a few months ago, prompted Andrew Keen's "Blogs are boring" rant to some keen perceptions from serious instrumentalists, one of whom was well experienced with the oboe part for the Strauss "Don Juan." Having now visited all of the links on Ms. Spier's pages, I have to say that the impression that pleased me most was the discovery that listening to a performance in Davies is a significantly different matter from listening to a CD or DVD, no matter how good the system may be. At its best, the recording process can only capture a single event, which can never provide a fair representation of the music being performed; and, because recording technology is still far from capturing everything in that event, collecting several recordings of the same composition does not improve the representation very much. There is also, as I mentioned in my Rachmaninoff post, the problem that most of those recordings are the result of "manufactured production" in a controlled studio setting, which really has nothing to do with the true nature of musical performance. So the bottom line is that Ms. Spier has done a great service to the San Francisco Symphony (for cultivating awareness); and some of the local bloggers were quite good about letting their awareness be cultivated!

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

The "YouTube Debate"

I'm surprised that no one has yet asked the most important question about last night's debate on CNN: Did CNN ratings improve as a result of their incorporating "grass roots" questions submitted through YouTube? I know that is a cynical assessment; but, on the basis of yesterday's post, I strongly suspect that this is the only question that matters to the CNN bean counters. Meanwhile, for those who are interested in whether or not anything of substance occurred, I found John Nichols' blog post for The Notion to be one of the better summaries this morning. He did a good job of writing about voices that might not otherwise have been heard and the absence of other voices (such as Wolf Blitzer) who tended to provide more noise than signal. Nichols used the title of his post to identify those voices that he felt most deserved recognition: Bill Richardson (for the only intelligent comments about Darfur), Dennis Kucinich (for departing from everyone else by speaking in favor of gay marriage), and Mike Gravel (for trying to cut through much of the bull left on the stage by the other participants). Nevertheless, Nichols himself seems to agree with Gravel that any significant change is unlikely, no matter how much the surface trappings of political discourse may change to accommodate the Internet age.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Semiotic Ignorance

Once again I see that JP Rangaswami, over at confused of calcutta, is waxing poetic over the Cluetrain motto that "markets are conversations. This time has argument is motivated by the Bengal Renaissance, which brought about a veritable explosion in creative writing. ("Between 1818 and 1867 there were some 220 different periodicals published in Calcutta, mainly in Bengali, freely discussing politics, culture and spirituality.") This has led to an interesting exchange of comments over whether or not the virtual conversations enabled by the Internet are raising or lowering "the social intelligence of our species." I have to react to this with an overwhelming need to vent, because, while I approve of debates that take place through the comments submitted to a blog post, I feel strongly that exchanges impeded by tunnel vision hardly count as debates.

Let me try to provide some context for my aggravation. On March 1, 2006 I was invited to give a seminar talk at the IBM Almaden Research Laboratory. This was at a time when the IBM effort in "services science" was charging forward with great vigor; so I saw this as an opportunity to exercise some sound argumentation on the basis of a contentious position. That position was that interpretation was a critical skill in providing effective service. There was nothing new about this, since Karl Weick had been saying the same thing for several decades; but I then argued that the capacity of a service provider for interpretation was impeded by a lack of understanding in five fundamental disciplines. Those disciplines (which will not be found in the department names of any university catalog) were phenomenology, semiotics, hermeneutics, narratology, and emotive valuation. This is my lengthy (Wagnerian?) prelude to the assertion that the confused of calcutta discussion about "the social intelligence of our species" is being impeded by a failure to grasp one of the most fundamental principles of semiotics.

That principle is the idea that any sign has a dual nature, whose two aspects are the signifier and the signified. Everything that was said about conversations in the confused of calcutta discussion, whether it involved printed matter in Bengal or an enumeration of the many things we see on our computer screens, was about signifiers. Those signifiers are the artifacts without which conversation would be impossible, but the conversation itself resides entirely under the aspect of the signified. Each of us relies on our capacities for interpretation to make sure that we are conversing about signifieds, rather than quibbling over signifiers.

This is why it is pointless to argue about whether or not the signifiers of virtual engagement (not just conversations) raise or lower "the social intelligence of our species." Such an approach is a distraction from "where the action really is." One has to take a broader view of the acts of interpretation (yes, I'm talking about verb-based thinking again) in order to grapple with a concept like social intelligence. (Indeed, one also needs that point of view to address the question of whether the crowd is wiser or madder than any individual member.) This is no easy matter; but, if we do not confront it, we are no better than the drunk looking for his keys where the light is better, regardless of where he dropped them.

To provide an example, let me try an exercise in examining the context in which interpretative actions take place. JP's description of Calcutta in the middle of the nineteenth century invokes memories of similar descriptions of coffee-house Vienna at the end of that same century (both heavily seasoned with caffeine and nicotine). This was not just a scene of conversations; it was also (in Chomskian language) the "surface structure" of a "deep structure" of cultural ferment. The "fermentation" would eventually burst out of the vessel that contained it, Europe would be consumed by a "war to end all wars," and the conversations of the coffee houses would be forever silenced. I am not interested in what is happening on the "surface" of the Internet, because I am too worried about what kind of brew is now fermenting!

CNN's Grass Roots Mythology

Yesterday I tried to take a pragmatic look at Cindy Sheehan's "challenge from the grass roots" against Nancy Pelosi's seat in the House of Representatives. My theme, as stated in my lead paragraph, had to do with "thinking beyond the passion of the moment to the consequences" of taking action. Today's News Blog post by Josh Wolf provides another take on that "passion of the moment" and how, as was the case with Ms. Sheehan, mass media can convert the best of political intentions into marketing opportunities. Now, just to be fair, that last sentence does not capture any assertion that Mr. Wolf made in his post; so I shall try to explain why I have chosen to read his report that way.

Let me begin with what Mr. Wolf did report:

When I first heard that CNN had partnered with You Tube for two upcoming presedential debates I was intrigued. For the first time in history, on July 23 at 7:00PM (ET), the general public will have a chance to ask a question to the man (or woman) who might become the next president of the United States.

But what does this approach really mean to the future of U.S. politics? As a recent article on CNN points out, while the questions may come from the public, the news agency is still making the choice which questions will actually be asked. Does this approach really democratize the debates or is it simply a chance for a few lucky individuals to have a chance to be on national television. According to Joshua Levy at techpresident.com, "There are two parts to opening up a platform like these debates to the community: 1) Let individuals participate in unprecedented ways, [and] 2) Give up control of the voting to the community."

In other words Mr. Wolf wanted to raise the question of whether or not CNN had hit on an innovative approach to democratizing the debating of issues, which, hopefully, would lead to the selection of candidates for the Presidency of the United States. My own reading was that this was not a story about political processes, democratic or otherwise, but just another brick in the wall constructed from the unhealthy relationship between the service of informing the public and the business interests without which (apparently) such services cannot be rendered.

I still believe that the cardinal rule of investigation is "follow the money." Following the money in this case leads to asking about CNN's motive for running this debate; and my guess is that the motive has nothing to do with politics (unprecedented or otherwise) and everything to do with bringing lost eyeballs back to the CNN channel (which leads to charging more for advertising slots, which, in turn, means, of course, more money). Now that both CNN and Headline News have their veins full of the Kool-Aid of entertainment fluff being passed off as news, they have discovered that the gain in viewers who want that kind of "news lite" has been overwhelmed by the loss of viewers who want "all news all the time" (if anyone still remembers that motto). Of course, many of the viewers they have lost have not gone to another channel; they have gone to the Internet, where you can now get "hard news" from just about any source you desire and editorial opinions of every conceivable stripe. CNN has become the drowning man coming up for air one more (last?) time; and grabbing the YouTube life preserver for a new take on a so-called "open forum" will likely result in as feeble an effort as their recent previous "forum" programming.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

From the Grass Roots to the House of Representatives

When Cindy Sheehan "came out of retirement" to announce that she would run against Nancy Pelosi as an independent if the Speaker did not move to impeach George Bush by July 23, I was not sure how to react. Since I live in California's Eighth Congressional District, this would affect me personally. However, this also means I know a thing or two about the cost of declaring residency in the District; and I wondered whether or not Ms. Sheehan had factored that into her plans (and that would be before worrying about financing an actual campaign). In other words I reacted as someone who appreciates passion, particularly when it involves my own strong beliefs, but also recognizes that passion has to be balanced against pragmatics. Now I actually had several reasons for not voting for Ms. Pelosi last November, but one of them was that I knew that the polls were giving her a pretty safe majority. Thus I could use my own ballot to register discontent without jeopardizing Pelosi's chances, and I still believe that this was a good thing to do. So the pragmatist in me could not help but wonder to what extent Ms. Sheehan was thinking beyond the passion of the moment to the consequences of her action.

Today, the day before the "deadline" she declared, she published an opinion piece in the "Insight" section of the San Francisco Chronicle; and it provides at least some indication of the extent of such thoughts since the made the announcement a couple of weeks ago. She began by raising the question of whether or not her announcement had prompted support:

The feedback I have been receiving since I announced that I would challenge U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, for her House seat -- unless she gives impeachment the go-ahead -- has been running about 3-to-1 positive.

Some people have offered to quit their jobs to move to California's Eighth Congressional District to help my possible campaign. People are lining up to donate and help, and I am again very grateful and touched beyond belief by the generosity and energy of my fellow Americans.

My guess is that her numbers are pretty informal. We do not even know if that 3-to-1 ratio is based on a statistically valid sample space; and while I am sure that people are "lining up to donate and help," we have no good way of assessing the extent of either their checkbooks or the amount of personal time they are willing to commit. Then, of course, there is my initial question of moving into the District in time to change the base of the electorate already there. At least Ms. Sheehan confirmed that she had given this factor of the equation some thought!

However, there is also a question of the mentality that Ms. Sheehan would be bringing behind her challenge. This is where I found a paragraph that made me a bit nervous:

I was a lifelong Democrat only because the choices were limited. The Democrats are the party of slavery and were the party that started every war in the 20th century, except the other Bush debacle. The Federal Reserve, permanent federal income taxes, not one but two World Wars, Japanese concentration camps, and not one but two atom bombs dropped on the innocent citizens of Japan -- all brought to us via the Democrats.

This is where I worry that the balance between passion and pragmatics has been knocked way out of kilter (or, as they probably still say in the military, "fouled up [or words to that effect] beyond all recognition"). What particularly concerns me is the way she lumped the Federal Reserve, perhaps the most important effort in regulation to stave off a repetition of the Great Depression, in with the two World Wars (the second of which had been supported by some of the most extreme opponents to the first due to the nature of the enemy) and the Japanese internment camps created out of the same irrational passions that now drive our "homeland security" policy. Pragmatism is, among other things, a matter of finding an appropriate perspective from which to assess every situation. Perspective is one of those traits that is sorely lacking in our current Executive Branch. It is more present in the Legislative Branch because, if nothing else, the new leadership has enabled more exchange of perspectives than the previous set of puppets to gave the Executive everything without question.

This brings me to my strongest fear, which is that Ms. Sheehan is no better than President Bush when it comes to making decisions. Both of them are ruled by their passions, and the fact that Ms. Sheehan's passions are closer to my own is not a determining issue. For all the unpleasant qualities that a "political animal" must have, just by the nature of the work, I would rather be represented by such an animal than by a candidate who speaks from the heart, however much I may sympathize with what her heart tells her.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

The Many Approaches to Mozart

I do not know if this was an intentional act of design by Music Director George Cleve, but this month's Midsummer Mozart Festival is revisiting two of the works that I felt were high points during this past season of the San Francisco Symphony. Next week Cleve will be conducting the K. 317 "Coronation" mass with the Cantabile Chorale, which Ingo Metzmacher had conducted in Davies; and last night featured the K. 482 E-flat major piano concerto, which Emanuel Ax had performed under the baton of Osmo Vänskä. While I did not write about Metzmacher (even though I have yet to hear one of his performances with the San Francisco Symphony that displeased me and am already looking to the program he has prepared for next February), Ax' approach to Mozart prompted me to write about the way "he could turn the performance over to his inner-twenty-year-old," referring to that "show-off kid" side of Mozart that was so central to his characterization in Amadeus. (Given how strongly this impression has stuck with me, I should, out of a proper sense of full disclaimer, credit it to a conversation I had with a former professional colleague, who had joined me for this particular concert, during the intermission following Ax' performance.) While Janina Fialkowska may share some of Ax' Eastern European roots, her reading was definitely not one of a show-off kid. Like Cleve she had a great sense of all the nuances that Mozart brought to bear in the grammar of his structure; but, also like Cleve, she knew how to let those nuances speak for themselves, rather than marking them all with a metaphorical highlight pen. In other words this was an another example of how conductor and soloist were very much "on the same page" where the rhetoric of performance was involved. This is not to say that Fialkowska was so refined that she was bloodless: She knew how to summon the climax of the first movement cadenza in a way that brought me to edge of my seat, while her sense of touch in the Andante summoned that same sense of poignancy that we hear in The Marriage of Figaro (which Mozart was working on at the time he composed this concerto). The result was yet another reminder of why it is so important to live in a world of live performance, rather than one of a massive library of recordings that, through the wonders of technology, we can take with us wherever we go. As I observed about a week ago, this is not to dismiss the value of those recordings but to emphasize the value of our listening skills and the memories of how those skills can serve us.

This concert was also an interesting exercise in the variety of personal approaches that a soloist can bring to performance. The other concerto on the program was the K. 191 bassoon concerto, played by Rufus Olivier, a familiar face, since my seat at San Francisco Opera affords a great view of the action in the orchestra pit. I do not have a lot of background knowledge of the work (other than having heard several performances, all, unfortunately, recorded); but I do know that this was Mozart's first effort at a concerto for wind instrument and orchestra (just as I know that the clarinet concerto was his last). I also know that Mozart scribbled jokes into the soloist part for his horn concertos, but those came about ten years after the bassoon concerto. Nevertheless, the bassoon is an instrument of extremes; and the kid in Mozart seems to have had a lot of fun running those extremes into each other. Therefore, the important thing about this performance is that both Olivier and Cleve were in on those gags; and Cleve gave Olivier the berth to pull them off, occasionally with some supporting body language. The result was something much more akin to the inner-twenty-year-old approach to performance (although Mozart was actually only eighteen when he wrote this concerto), making for an approach to concerto performance that pleasantly complemented Fialkowska's sense of refinement.

The other featured soloist of the evening was Laura Griffiths, playing the sole oboe part in the K. 251 divertimento. This is a part that has to do double-duty, both shaping the overall sound of the ensemble and coming forward as a full-fledged solo voice. Here, again, Cleve and Griffiths shared a common agreement about when she was playing which role. Also, again, there is a question of whether or not Mozart is playing a prank with that double-duty in the rondo movement, where the oboe has some sustained notes that tend to stick out like a sore thumb and seem to be there more as a sound effect. Since the movement is a rondo, the effect keeps returning; and the result is definitely comical, which I believe to be intentionally so. If it was meant to be a joke, Cleve and Griffiths knew how to avoid belaboring it, making it come of as a throw-away gag of the sort that W. C. Fields had mastered so well. Another possible joke in this work is that, while the rondo has a definite feel of being a finale, it is not the final movement. Rather, it is followed by a "Marcia alla francese," which would almost provide an opportunity for the performers to march off the stage, were they not primarily a string ensemble. Most likely Mozart was taking this as an opportunity to tweak the expectations of the Archbishop of Salzburg, making it just another example of coping with strained relationships in the workplace!

Since I have covered all the other pieces, I should mention that this program, which was already quite generous in length, concluded with the K. 338 symphony (number 34 in C Major). In the context of the divertimento, this is the last symphony Mozart wrote in Salzburg. It has only three movements but, in its own way, is a rather massive piece of work. It required the largest of orchestral resources of the works on this particular program, bringing a final burst of energy as a conclusion to the evening. Indeed, the final Allegro vivace movement was delivered at as breakneck pace (without any loss of accuracy), which I feel is really the way it should be rendered. This may make it a bit of an athletic stunt; but, actually, its just the show-off kid at it again! Indeed, since so much ground had been covered in the concert, this was the perfect way to leave us walking out of Herbst Theatre in an upbeat mood!

Friday, July 20, 2007

Adding Injury to Insult

Just when we think we have heard enough of the ways in which the Federal Government has denied the humanity of the survivors of Katrina, preferring to treat them as objects manipulated by the machinery of their bureaucratic operations, we discover that there are still more gnurrs waiting to "come from the voodverk out" (if only they could wreak the destructive power endowed upon them by author Reginald Brentnor on those bureaucrats)! The latest report comes from Associated Press writer Charles Babington:

Lawyers for the government's disaster relief agency discouraged officials from pursuing reports that trailers housing hurricane victims had dangerous levels of formaldehyde, according to documents released Thursday.

Lawmakers said they were infuriated. At a House hearing, they listened to three trailer occupants whose families suspect formaldehyde is to blame for their various illnesses.

Democrats and Republicans criticized the Federal Emergency Management Agency for its limited inspections or tests of trailers whose occupants reported various respiratory problems.

The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee subpoenaed records showing that agency lawyers warned officials of potential liability problems if tests suggested government negligence.

"It's sickening and the exact opposite of what government should be," said the committee chairman, Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif. "It is impossible to read the FEMA documents and not be infuriated."

This is beyond chutzpah (which is just as well, since this week's award already has a deserving recipient). This is far closer to the reduce-the-surplus-population philosophy of Ebenezer Scrooge. Perhaps it is about time that we move beyond the formalities of oversight to the nitty-gritty of criminal investigations!

Whose "Don Juan?"

Having written yesterday at greater length than I anticipated about the San Francisco Symphony performance of the Rachmaninoff third piano concerto, I wanted to devote a second post to the performance of Richard Strauss' "Don Juan" on the first half of that same program. From many points of view, this piece may be the most challenging of Strauss' tone poems, beginning with the fact that the opening measures provide one of the major hoops through which any string player must jump when auditioning for a symphony orchestra chair. In spite of the fact that this is may be the shortest tone poem, I have had the misfortune to hear two major conductors (whom I would prefer to leave unnamed, along with the orchestras they were leading) bungle things somewhere along the course of the score. I suspect that the problem has less to do with the feet-first burst of energy that launches the work as with the high density of abrupt energy shifts that take place over the work's brief duration. The problem, then, is that neither performer nor listener is ever on "solid ground" for very long. The music never lingers in the moment (more applicable to Faust's contract with Mephisto, at least according to Goethe) but, instead, is always charging ahead to the next "conquest." This is a vision of the Don that occupied many of the authors of the Romantic movement, with its rebellion against Enlightenment thinking. The theme shows up in a variety of languages, including English (Byron), German (Hoffmann), and Danish (Kierkegaard). This obsession to drive forward incessantly is not halted by the fires of Hell, as conceived by Mozart and da Ponte, but by the sheer exhaustion of "all passion spent," without even the comfort of past reflection that Casanova enjoyed by writing his memoirs.

Thus, while we can all appreciate Gabriela Martinez' observation that the primary challenge in "taming" "Rocky 3" is endurance, this is just as true for "Don Juan." In the spirit of the Don's activities, endurance is not just a matter of length but with everything that happens "over the duration." Consequently, the same skill that James Gaffigan had in working with Martinez to establish a good "energy budget" for the extended scale of the Rachmaninoff concerto was applied equally effectively over the brevity of the Strauss tone poem. The result was that the Strauss performance was as impressively memorable as the Rachmaninoff; and, while the two works were radically different in so many ways, that level of quality performance was achieved in these two settings for basically the same reasons.

I also want to submit the disclaimer that the "vision of the Don" I presented above is primarily my own fabrication; and it is not easy to determine whether or not this was the "story" behind the Strauss tone poem. Strauss' source was an incomplete poem by Nicolaus Lenau, who is not known, at least in the United States, anywhere near as well as the three authors I cited. As a matter of fact, when I did a Google search on the phrase "Don Juan" and the name "Lenau," all of the first ten hits were from program notes for the Strauss tone poem. (We have Robert Schumann to thank for knowing that Lenau also did a version of Faust.) Wikipedia does have an entry for Lenau, but says little about Don Juan except for its fragmentary status. (Was Lenau thinking on the same scale as Byron?) Unfortunately, the Wikipedia entry for Don Juan is a good example of what Andrew Keen calls "the cult of the amateur" at its worst. Not only is the Lenau fragment misrepresented as a play; but the accounts of both Hoffmann and Kierkegaard, however brief, leave much to be desired. We have to wonder if Strauss was drawn to Lenau through the motive of getting away from the shadow that Mozart had cast over the legend. If Strauss wanted to seek out "something completely different," he certainly succeeded, but in a way that is likely to drive performers crazy for many years to come!

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Philosophy: The First Refuge for Chutzpah?

Michael Moore already has his Chutzpah Award for health care "services rendered;" and, if it involved more bias than we anticipated, that is no reason to take it away from him. However, given the high profile of health care in the news, it is probably time for President George W. Bush to join Condi Rice as a two-time Award winner. The justification has been provided by Washington Post Staff Writer Christopher Lee:

President Bush yesterday rejected entreaties by his Republican allies that he compromise with Democrats on legislation to renew a popular program that provides health coverage to poor children, saying that expanding the program would enlarge the role of the federal government at the expense of private insurance.

The president said he objects on philosophical grounds to a bipartisan Senate proposal to boost the State Children's Health Insurance Program by $35 billion over five years. Bush has proposed $5 billion in increased funding and has threatened to veto the Senate compromise and a more costly expansion being contemplated in the House.

"I support the initial intent of the program," Bush said in an interview with The Washington Post after a factory tour and a discussion on health care with small-business owners in Landover. "My concern is that when you expand eligibility . . . you're really beginning to open up an avenue for people to switch from private insurance to the government."

Given the man's track record, the idea of using "philosophical grounds" to undermine health coverage for poor children, one of the few things the government does with enthusiastic bipartisan support, really sets the bar for what counts as chutzpah! Nevertheless, when our President starts to dig himself into a hole, he always seems to find a way to make the hole deeper:

"I'm not going to surrender a good and important idea before the debate really gets started," Bush said. "And I think it's going to be very important for our allies on Capitol Hill to hear a strong, clear message from me that expansion of government in lieu of making the necessary changes to encourage a consumer-based system is not acceptable."

In other words he is perfectly willing to hold those kids hostage until his idea of proper deliberation gets to run its course. Even then, however, Bush did not seem to know when to stop:

In the 15-minute interview, Bush also rejected the charges by former surgeon general Richard H. Carmona that the administration's political appointees routinely rewrote his speeches, blocked public health reports for political reasons and screened his travel.

"I can't speak to some of the complaints the surgeon general made," Bush said. ". . . He worked energetically in his job. And, obviously, at some point in time, he became very disgruntled and spoke out about it. But ours is an administration that attracts very smart, capable people. I'm very interested in their points of view, and I expect people to speak out. I also have my own points of view and feel very strongly about a lot of issues."

Bush said he is opposed to a bipartisan legislation that would allow the Food and Drug Administration to regulate the manufacturing, marketing and sale of tobacco products, which could lead to stronger warning labels and limits on nicotine and other ingredients.

"We've always said that nicotine is not a drug to be regulated under FDA," Bush said.

I would say that a performance of this caliber deserves an extra shiny award at the presentation ceremony!