Thursday, December 31, 2009

Blazing the Trail or Covering It?

It is clear that the failed terrorist attack on the Delta/Northwest airplane preparing to land in Detroit this past Friday at the end of its flight from Amsterdam demands serious analysis. What is less clear is how seriously that analysis will be pursued and how its results will be handled. The proposition that, from a procedural point of view, nothing has changed since the status quo prior to 9/11 has become blood in the water for the mass media sharks, particularly those who see it as the perfect opportunity to bring down President Barack Obama; so there is a real risk that serious analysis of a serious problem will be undermined by ideological motives that have nothing to do with that problem. It is thus worth considering the current state of play as that analysis gets under way.

A good point of departure would be this morning's report for the Financial Times by Anna Fifield. Her opening paragraphs provide as good a summary as we can anticipate:

President Barack Obama will on Thursday receive a preliminary report from intelligence agencies on how a would-be terrorist was able to slip through terrorism databases and board a Detroit-bound aircraft on Christmas Day, as his administration tries to avoid repeat attacks.

The preliminary report is aimed at reassuring a jittery public that the skies are safe and at countering criticism that the Obama administration was too slow to address what the president on Tuesday called ”human and systemic failures” in the intelligence sharing system.

John Brennan, the White House homeland security and counterterrorism advisor, is expected to give Mr Obama his initial findings on what went wrong, and the president, who is on holiday in Hawaii, will likely discuss them with his national security team.

Mr Obama is not, however, scheduled to speak publicly on Thursday about the report.

A final report is expected to take weeks but intelligence agencies have already started defending their actions after it emerged that multiple lapses had taken place that allowed Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a 23-year-old Nigerian who allegedly tried to blow up a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit on Friday, to board the Northwest Airlines flight last Friday.

Most important is that she provided context for the Obama quote, not only through the hyperlink but also by reproducing the entire sentence in which it was embedded further down in her article:

There was a mix of human and systemic failures that contributed to this potentially catastrophic breach of security.

The fact that Obama was willing to use a phrase like "potentially catastrophic" is at least a sign that things have changed since the "Denial Presidency" of George W. Bush. Obama took a buck-stops-here stance on the seriousness of the situation; and now we must wait to see if his resolve can hold up against any analysis submitted to him. That resolve will have to penetrate any CYA strategy attempted by any of the parties involved in favor of a more systematic identification of where failures occurred in the narrative thread leading to the thwarted attack attempt itself. Once the failures are identified, they may be classified according to Obama's human/systemic distinction, hopefully laying the groundwork for the most important question:

What do we do now?

However, beyond the problem that serious analysis is likely to be impeded by the bureaucratic practices of the institutions charged with providing it, there is at least one problem that transcends mere bureaucracy. If we think of the problem as a narrative that concludes with the avoidance of catastrophe while that Delta/Northwest airplane was on its descent into Detroit, then, for the sake of failure analysis, where does the narrative begin? Think of the problem that Richard Wagner had: He wanted to write an opera about Siegfried's death, so he worked backwards from that episode. By the time he was done, he had conceived four operas! I could see the whole analytic effort being undermined by endless arguing over where this particular story should begin, and there is no simple answer to the question. However, it illustrates how easy it is for "government work" to get distracted from the goals that matter the most.

There may be a lesson to be learned from the mess that Congress has managed to make of health care reform. Respecting the theory of separation of powers, Obama decided to take a relatively hands-off approach to Congressional activities. This may have been good for theory, but it led to results so disappointing that it is unclear that they can even be called "reform." If Obama is going to withstand the attacks that have already begun over being weak in matters of national security, then he is going to have to be more of a manager in this failure analysis project. He is going to have to demand frequent progress reports, and he is going to have to keep asking hard questions to keep the analysis from being derailed by bureaucratic niggling Like it or not, he is going to have to take responsibility for the quality of the final product, after which he will also have to take responsibility for proposing a course of action based on those results. In the midst of the process, he will also have to keep a cool head while his opponents try to whip up that culture of fear that debilitated the entire country under the Bush Administration. I just hope his vacation has given him some time to recharge his batteries, because he is going to need all of his energy to turn "this potentially catastrophic breach of security" into a more effective Homeland Security policy.

"Make It So"

Speaking of the private life, I have absolutely no idea how directly the Queen of England is involved in selecting who will appear on the New Year Honours list; and, while I got the impression from The Queen that the Royal Family watches television, it would be impossible to speculate over just what they watch. These thoughts were triggered by the news that Patrick Stewart is on the list and will be granted knighthood. Without detracting from Stewart's many accomplishments, I had to wonder whether, when his knighthood was proposed to the Queen, her reply was, "Make it so!"

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Confusion Begets Fear

There is something about the reporting of terrorism that seems to bring out tendencies to confuse, rather than inform. Consider the case of a possible precedent for the attempted attack on Friday's Delta/Northwest flight during its approach to Detroit. Here is how this precedent was reported by Associated Press Writers Mohamed Olad Hassan, Katherine Houreld, and Jason Straziuso:

A man tried to board a commercial airliner in Mogadishu last month carrying powdered chemicals, liquid and a syringe that could have caused an explosion in a case bearing chilling similarities to the terrorist plot to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner, officials told The Associated Press on Wednesday.

The Somali man — whose name has not yet been released — was arrested by African Union peacekeeping troops before the Nov. 13 Daallo Airlines flight took off. It had been scheduled to travel from Mogadishu to the northern Somali city of Hargeisa, then to Djibouti and Dubai. A Somali police spokesman, Abdulahi Hassan Barise, said the suspect is in Somali custody.

"We don't know whether he's linked with al-Qaida or other foreign organizations, but his actions were the acts of a terrorist. We caught him red-handed," said Barise.

This should be taken as good news. Investigation is all about identifying patterns and deducing what they may indicate. Finding precedent is an important part of the pattern-seeking process.

Consider, now, the "screaming" headline composed for this report:

Somali arrested at airport with chemicals, syringe

This carries a clear connotation of having taking place after Friday's incident, rather than providing investigators with a possibly valuable precedent. If there were any doubts about how the consciousness industry works or how the Associated Press contributes to that industry, the distortions of this headline implying one terrorist attempt following quickly on the heels of another should resolve them. Did anyone really think that a new President would get us out from under the oppressive culture of fear engendered by the Bush Administration?

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Valuing Private Life

This morning I received my second invitation to be someone's friend on Facebook. The first one came from a former colleague; and I felt it was sufficient to reply to him politely through electronic mail, emphasizing that I continued to prefer electronic mail as a channel for communication. This one came from a journalist at a French news source to which I subscribe (from which I have seen very little, if any, news since subscribing). The invitation informed me that this journalist has 281 friends, 6 photos, 2 notes, 22 Wall posts, and membership in 58 groups. No wonder I am not getting any news feeds from this source! If all of their journalists are busy with their Facebook activities, when will they have time to write any articles?

That really cuts to the core of my own motivation. John Cage used to tell a story about a brief encounter he had with psychoanalysis at a time when his life felt like one rejection after another. As Cage told the story, after a few sessions the analyst said to him something like, "Your problem is not a serious one. After only a few more sessions we should have you composing again," to which Cage replied, "But Doctor, I'm already composing too much!" The fact is that, as anyone can tell by examining either this site or my articles, I am already heavily engaged with the physical world, the virtual world, and that "world of information" provided by my RSS feeds at such a prodigious rate that I have to keep thinking about which ones I want to unsubscribe. Yesterday's BBC World Service Television news summary provided through PBS ran a closing piece on the too-much-information problem; and, if this is the time of year when we take stock of what he have been doing with ourselves and contemplate making any changes, then that feature was certainly well-timed.

However, beyond the evidence that Facebook can be a dangerously deep time sink, there is another problem, which is that matter of personal privacy. When I received my second invitation, it came with a reminder that I never replied to my first one. (This, of course, was mistaken. I had replied. I just chose to do it through a channel other than Facebook!) I was then presented with a three-by-three grid of photographs and names of "other people you may know," which was surprisingly accurate. This raised the question of just how Facebook knew whom I "may know." This, of course, brings us (again) to the terrain of data mining, because there are any number of ways through which Web pages can connect me with these people. The problem is that not all of those pages are ones that most people would regard as public (which is to say that most people do not give very much thought to whether or not they are public). Specifically, from my own point of view, my connections to two of the names on that grid were established only through my Yahoo! Mail account. Thus, when I had recently written about the potential problems with the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security looking in on every human being appearing on any social network anywhere (and we may assume that they are particularly active in the wake of Friday's incident), I had forgotten that the search space extends beyond those social networks.

Now one does not have to be an Annaliste to appreciate the value that private life played in the development of Western civilization. One does not even have to read the five-volume History of Private Life published under Annales School auspices. However, one may wonder whether or not the final volume, completed in 1994 and entitled Riddles of Identity in Modern Times, slipped into obsolescence long before its contributing authors anticipated. In our "brave new world" of social software, we may be regressing to the Rome of the first volume, when social circumstances were such that the very concept of a private life had not yet really emerged; or, rather than thinking in terms of regression, we may be moving into an age in which the boundary between private and public lives is blurring so much that neither will constitute a meaningful category for much longer.

In this respect I can thus own up to being conservative. In the literal sense of the word, I am determined to conserve as much of that concept of a private life as prevailing circumstances will allow. Since I am already watching that concept slip away through my use of electronic mail, no matter how judiciously I use it, I figure that the best I can do is defend those fronts that are still defensible; and thus I shall continue to keep my distance from Facebook and its many social software cousins!

Monday, December 28, 2009

Reinforcing CHUTZPAH over Health Care Reform

Having already presented a Chutzpah of the Week award to Howard Dean for asking "Where's the reform?" in the health care bill that was debated in the Senate, I may be accused by some of being redundant in offering another award for the same reason. However, until a bill actually makes it from the Congress to the President's desk (and, for that matter, until the President actually signs what is given to him), this question cannot be asked too often (or loudly) enough. I was reminded of this while reading John Nichols' 2009 "MVP" (for Most Valuable Progressives) list from the January 11, 2010 issue of The Nation, now posted on that magazine's Web site. Within my own state the burden of the where's-the-reform question has been assumed by Nichols' Most Valuable Union, the California Nurses Association. Here are his grounds for awarding them:

Fiercely independent and combative--a magazine they fund for activist nurses is dubbed Revolution--CNA inserted itself into the 2009 healthcare debate as a steady proponent of a single-payer system along the Medicare for All lines supported by such groups as Physicians for a National Health Plan. When Congressional Democrats equivocated and pulled punches, CNA called them out and explained how big insurance companies might come out ahead under many of the "reform" proposals. CNA also came up with innovative ways to highlight the public health threat posed by barriers to care--for instance, when everyone was getting scared about the H1N1 virus, the union proposed suspending co-pays and deductibles as well as other financial barriers that prevent giving quick treatment to all swine flu victims. CNA ended the year by pulling together independent nurses' groups from across the country into National Nurses United, which veteran CNA executive director Rose Ann DeMoro promised to build into "The RN Super Union."

Things do not look good for the CNA getting the single-payer system they advocate so strongly; but they definitely deserve a Chutzpah of the Week award for sticking to their guns!

Preventative Security: What are we Trying to Prevent?

Whether or not we have learned anything from the alleged terrorist attack on the Delta/Northwest airplane preparing to land in Detroit this past Friday at the end of its flight from Amsterdam, it is clear that "homeland security" has once again recovered pride of place in our daily discourse. These are the times when I turn to Al Jazeera English in the hope of finding language that is relatively free of bias, even when it is not yet clear just what the objective facts are. One of their most recent reports on Friday's incident provides a good example of such language:

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a 23-year-old Nigerian, is accused of trying to detonate explosives attached to his body as the plane began its descent into Detroit on Christmas Day.

That is straightforward enough. The problem is that things start to get messy when everyone (particularly in the media) become obsessed with one question: How could this have been prevented? In this respect the reaction of our President has not been much different:

Barack Obama, the US president, has ordered a review of air security wanting to know how a man carrying explosives had managed to board a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit.

Apparently, part of the problem had to do with how difficult it would be to detect the explosive involved in this incident. However, is this strictly a question of detecting explosives? It would appear that the more pressing issue involves a vague concept of "undesirables" who should be kept off of all public airline flights. To some extent it would appear that, as our friends at Apple like to say, "There's an app for that;" or, more specifically, there is a hierarchy of databases:

According to US officials Abdulmutallab, the son of a prominent Nigerian family, was named on the US Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment (TIDE) security watch list, a document which includes about 550,000 people.

However, the Nigerian was not on the smaller Terrorist Screening Data Base (TSDB) and was not flagged for mandatory extra airport security screening or included on the "no fly" list.

These two tiers demonstrate the problem: One filter is too coarse, and the other is too fine.

Part of the problem is that there are no good criteria for effectively detecting and filtering out "undesirables." To offer a reductio ad absurdum, is there anything "undesirable" about a man who wants to bring a copy of the Koran as reading matter during the flight? Hopefully, the general consensus will be that there is not; but what if this man is sitting next to a strong-willed right-wing ideologue with a tendency to drink too much, leading to undue aggressive behavior, verbal or worse? Are we to exclude someone as a "potential provocateur;" or are we to exclude someone who is too easily provoked? Remember, I used the word "absurdum;" but exaggerated examples often best demonstrate the underlying problems.

This takes me to a theme I have developed in the past: Bad things happen, and there is no way to prevent all of them. Here is the way I put the matter in October:

In the wake of 9/11, we were confronted with an obsession with what I have called "preventative security," giving little thought to whether or not this was a realistic goal. In December of 2007, I wrote about a book entitled The Edge of Disaster by Stephen Flynn, whose fundamental proposition was that resiliency is more important than preventative security.

Resiliency is not a matter of building better databases with better filters. It is a far more nebulous matter concerned with how we all behave when faced with a difficult (or even potentially difficult) situation. The problem is less whether or not our Government can make us feel more secure and more a matter that our behavioral dispositions are constantly being warped, not only by the ways in which the media report the news to us but also by all the fantasy worlds of "action heroes" that we encounter in the movies and on television. In other words our greatest vulnerability is the loss of our "sense of reality," a loss that has been induced by the very media that we assume are informing us but are actually mucking with the very consciousness that, by all rights, should make us functioning human beings.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

It Pays to Criticize!

Two weeks ago I decided to go on a rant over what I felt was an injudicious, not to mention inappropriate, use of the superlative. The text in question was Ricky Riccardi's review of the new biography of Louis Armstrong by Terry Teachout that made the front page of the Books section of that Sunday's San Francisco Chronicle. Ultimately I was less concerned with Riccardi (who responded to my post with a comment that was as informative as it was civil) than I was with Chronicle editing practices allowing the phrase "the greatest jazz musician of the 20th century" in reference to Armstrong. My basic point was that, regardless of the quality of the book (and I accept as credible Riccardi's assertion in his comment that, given more column space, he would have provided a convincing argument for the superiority of Teachout's book over all past contenders), there is too much subjectivity in how we listen to any genre of music to justify apotheosizing any individual musician, past or present.

This morning I found myself wondering whether or not someone on the Chronicle editorial staff followed my exchange with Riccardi (perhaps because Riccardi himself passed that exchange back to the Chronicle?). Today's Books section provides an opportunity for a "before and after" view of the text that initiated the rant. Here, from my original post, is the passage I quoted:

Thirty-eight years after Louis Armstrong' death, Terry Teachout had made the possible, possible: He has written a definitive narrative biography of the greatest jazz musician of the 20th century.

Here is the summarizing passage for this book in today's Lit Picks column:

Thirty-eight years after Louis Armstrong's death, Terry Teachout has made the possible, possible: He has written a definitive narrative biography of the jazz great.

Vive la différence! As I suggested in my initial post, I would be the last person to deny Armstrong the status of "jazz great;" and any history of jazz that neglected Armstrong would be a bit like a history of the United States that neglected George Washington. Indeed, Robin D. G. Kelley's sources have led him to conclude that the influence of Armstrong (among others) may have had much to do with the young piano student Thelonious Monk preferring the pursuit of jazz to that of the classical repertoire. Yes, this whole argument was only over a few words; but words do make a difference. As readers we are all obliged to call out cases when they are not used properly. That is our only safeguard against those who try to get away with (and often profit by) using them recklessly.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

What is Remembered

Since I am not particularly big on top-ten lists, I decided to set myself the exercise of trying to identify one event for each month of this year that I would be only too glad to experience for a second time. Here are the results:

January: The San Francisco Performances recital by violinist Christian Tetzlaff accompanied by pianist Leif Ove Andsnes. This was one of the most imaginative programs I have experienced, bringing together Leoš Janáček, Johannes Brahms, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Franz Schubert. The encores were then by Jean Sibelius.

February: Sofia Gubaidulina's extended visit to the San Francisco Symphony (which is probably my one point of agreement with Joshua Kosman's "Top 10" list).

March: Frank French's two recitals covering all 48 preludes and fugues in Johann Sebastian Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier, performed on a modern piano tuned according to a system developed by Thomas Young in 1799. This could well have been the most fascinating recital of the year, and we have a local artist to thank for it. French's intention was to restore the distinctive character of each of the keys covered in Bach's two cycles, a character that is totally lost under equal temperament. By the end of the first recital, my capacity for listening was just beginning to grasp what he was trying to demonstrate. Of all the experiences I would like to repeat, this is the one that means the most to me, just in my own interests of being a better listener.

April: My discovery of selections from György Kurtág's Játékok, performed by Jonathan Biss in a "Concert with Conversation" event organized by San Francisco Performances at the Community Music Center at 544 Capp Street in the Mission District. I was first exposed to Kurtág during Marino Formenti's "San Francisco Piano Trips" recitals in 2007. Since then my primary exposure to his music has come from recitals at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. Not only would I enjoy hearing Biss' performance again, but also I suspect I could get more out of his remarks by being more familiar with the music.

May: Bernard Labadie's visit as guest conductor of the San Francisco Symphony, providing highly stimulating accounts of Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and George Frideric Handel.

June: The coupling of Alban Berg's 1925 "Chamber Concerto" with Schubert's D. 944 C major ("Great") symphony during the Dawn to Twilight series of concerts by the San Francisco Symphony.

July: Tien Hsieh's recital for the InterHarmony Music Festival, in which she demonstrated her capacity for giving equal "justice" to both Franz Liszt and Johannes Brahms.

August: A thoroughly compelling performance of Frederick Rzewski's "Coming Together," given as part of an evening of chamber music at the Old First Concerts series, at the Old First Church.

September: The opening program of the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra season, particularly in the approach Nicholas McGegan took to the seventh symphony of Ludwig van Beethoven.

October: Osmo Vänskä's visit as guest conductor of the San Francisco Symphony and the delightful repertoire he prepared for his two concerts.

November: The visit to Davies Symphony Hall by the Berlin Philharmonic under the direction of Sir Simon Rattle, particularly with regard to the program Rattle prepared to cultivate an appreciation for the music of Arnold Schoenberg.

December: The two Aspects of the Divine recitals arranged by pianist Marino Formenti for his second San Francisco Performances visit.

From this point of view, 2009 was definitely a stimulating year. Furthermore, not all of the stimuli came from the usual venues of Davies Symphony Hall and Herbst Theatre, which should serve as encouragement to see what lies beyond the beaten path in 2010!

Friday, December 25, 2009

New Reading

It is very rare that I read a book shortly after it appears. Much of my reading tends to follow up a book I have been reading with books cited by that book's author; so my reading habits tend towards the past, rather than the present. Every now and then, however, I get caught up in the present; and in this case I find myself launching into a book that has been on quite a few Christmas recommendation lists.

The book in question is Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original, by Robin D. G. Kelley. I actually got into this situation because Kelley came to City Lights to give a reading several months ago. Finding him in his own, I introduced myself and gave him my card. I explained that, while my "beat" was classical music, I felt that Monk was important enough to be part of any serious listener's experiences, even if that listener felt happiest in the nineteenth century. Kelley then pulled out one of the opening anecdotes in his book about Monk rattling off a composition by Frédéric Chopin "at breakneck speed" (in the words of the "Prelude" to his book). So I mentioned that I was at liberty to review books, as well as musical performances, on; and, the next thing I knew, a copy of the book had arrived in the mail.

In my conversation with Kelley, I explained to him that I was currently involved with another project, not mentioning that the project was not a brand-new book but, rather, Arthur Loesser's Men, Women, and Pianos. Regular readers know that this book occupied me for quite some time; and I finished it only last week, after which I was more than ready to jump into Kelley's book. This one is also likely to consumer a healthy chunk of my time. This is very much a scholarly endeavor. The wealth of footnotes makes clear the scope of resources that Kelley summoned and the depth with which he penetrated those resources. Looking at his list of previous books, it is clear that he shares with Loesser an interest in social history; but he is far advanced beyond Loesser's dilettantism. This may leave those who want to jump straight into the jazz wondering why so many pages were invested in a first chapter that traces Monk's ancestry back to slaves in North Carolina, but this sets a context as relevant as the one set by Albert Schweitzer when he began his biography of Johann Sebastian Bach with a survey of the evolution of sacred music and the influence of the Reformation.

Equally important is that any interest I have in serious listening experiences extends to refining my own experiences with Monk recordings. I never purchased any vinyl recordings of Monk because, quite honestly, I did not know where to begin. I was fortunate enough to hear him play several times at the Village Vanguard; but, while I was fascinated with what I heard, I was far too perplexed to begin to really listen, rather than just receiving these bizarre auditory stimuli. It was only when Riverside released their 15-CD anthology that I felt ready to approach Monk as more than as casual listener (as if one could ever be casual about a Monk performance). From that first commitment I could then move to the Blue Note and Prestige anthologies, as well as a variety of single-disc offerings. With Kelley's book, however, I now have the motivation to move from my past synchronic approach to listening (considering each track on its own terms) to a more diachronic one (embedding each track in its proper historical context).

Finally, I was drawn to this book for the very reason that Kelley felt made it worth writing. In his City Lights talk, he emphasized that his intention was to write about Monk as a working musician, rather than a jazz icon. His opening pages make clear just how extensive was the mythology that grew up around Monk, a mythology that, for example, would have nothing to do with Monk having any interest in Chopin. However, I have used this platform to address the proposition that performing musicians have work practices just like anyone else who is committed to a particular area of work. Having tried to study the work practices of other musicians through a variety of sources, I felt it was time to apply the same kind of investigation to Monk.

This book is likely to take a fair amount of my time. That will include time spent marking up the pages and then transcribing those annotations into more coherent form. Beyond that systematic approach that I take to any book, however, there are those "flashes of insight" that may come while reading or while listening to Monk's sides, which I need to document for the benefit of my own failing memory. It is thus likely that I shall use subsequent posts as a "laboratory notebook" for the task I have now set for myself. Hopefully, those "laboratory notes" will eventually be as useful to anyone undertaking to listen to Monk as they will be to my understanding my own listening experiences.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Bringing CHUTZPAH to the Christmas Spirit

'Tis the season for generic Christmas cards from the business sector. However appropriate to the season they may seem on the surface, the subtext is always the same:

We are happy to have you as our customer. We really need your business. We hope you will continue to give it.

I chose that particular phrasing because the very essence of the "corporate card" almost seems to be fishing for just another Christmas present. In the current economic times I shudder to think how many people receive these cards who barely have the resources to give gifts to their immediate families.

Under most circumstances, those who traffic in these marketing ploys disguised as Christmas cards would deserve one massive joint Chutzpah of the Week award. However, since I am always on the lookout for chutzpah with a positive connotation, I am pleased to discover a retaliatory effort more worthy of the Award. It turns out that the municipal government of Barcelona plays that same game with marketing-oriented Christmas cards, the only difference being in the punch line:

We hope you will continue to vote to keep us in office taking care of your beautiful city.

Unfortunately, Raval, the central district of Barcelona is not so beautiful these days; so the residents came up with a good way to throw this propaganda back in the faces of those purveying it. Here is the basic story as it appeared this morning on the BBC News Web site:

Raval has been getting ready for Christmas.

Festive lights twinkle above the narrow, cobbled streets. Strings of tinsel festoon the tapas bars. And the residents and traders of this central district of Barcelona have been preparing to send traditional "season's greetings" to the city authorities.

But there is no sign of Santa or fluffy snowmen on their Christmas cards this year.

"Here are some people using the street as a toilet," says Alexia, pulling one of the cards from a pile scattered over the counter at the family shoe shop.

"Here they are taking drugs," she continues, as her youngest daughter tugs at her skirt to go home.

"And here, people are having sex in the street."

The photo of a prostitute and her client, mid-act and mid-street, leaves very little to the imagination. It is the most graphic of a series of snapshots of daily life in Raval caught on camera by the residents. The message on the back reads "Happy Christmas!"

"We're sending them to the mayor so he can hang the pictures by his Christmas tree," Alexia's husband Luis explains.

Apparently, Raval residents have been trying to go through the usual channels for some time when it comes to cleaning up the neighborhood; and the municipal government has been unresponsive, which is basically what we have come to expect of any municipal government for a large city. So, as BBC reporter Sarah Rainsford put it, they are now resorting to "shock tactics." Such tactics require not only strong resolve but also the chutzpah to translate that resolve into action, and there is certainly no questioning the chutzpah of the action taken by the Raval residents. The musician in me would prefer to write about the celebration of Catalonian spirit in the Sardanes de Concert that Pablo Casals recorded back in 1955; but it seems more appropriate to present the Chutzpah of the Week award to a tightly-knit community of Catalans who just want to recover the dignity of their neighborhood.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Recognizing Self-Promotion When you Read It

Ever since Andrew Keen raised the problem (which I called the problem of "the cult of the professional" when I discussed in August) of how, in the Internet world, creative individuals run the risk of spending more time promoting themselves than they do realizing their creative pursuits, I have been more aware of how I have tried to cultivate my own reading strategies to filter the noise of deceptive promotion out of the signal of more substantive content. I am far from naive when it comes to recognizing the need to attract eyeballs on the Internet. pays me by the number of page views I receive; and, when I first started writing for them, I was encouraged to read background material offering a variety of tips for enhancing that page-view count. For better or worse, this is the life of those of us who write on the Internet; but, like much of the world the Internet has made, it is a life of unpleasant consequences.

I have even gone so far as to suggest that those consequences extend beyond the usual boundaries of the Internet itself. Only a month ago I was considering the case of Sigrid Olsen, who once could have been presented as a model case study of the entrepreneurial spirit at its best. Olsen developed her own line of clothing and worked up to a point where her offerings had no problem attracting eyeballs, not only among viable customers but also within "the trade" itself. Unfortunately, some of those latter eyeballs belonged to Liz Claiborne Inc., which basically acquired and then destroyed her business. What were their grounds for destroying it? Basically, the numbers for Olsen products were not keeping up with the overall corporate numbers of their "parent." The bottom line was that Liz Claiborne Inc. was now responsible for the Olsen line; but Olsen herself was responsible for promoting it to a performance level consistent with other "parent" offerings. Olsen had never tried to do this when she was on her own. She was more interested in designing what she wanted to design while living within the means that her numbers supported. In other words she was never interested in playing the corporate "growth game;" but that did not prevent her being victimized by it.

Fortunately, the signal-to-noise-ratio problem seldom has an impact on how we provide ourselves with clothing. On the other hand, at the beginning of this month, I found myself confronted with a problem of noise from a source that I had previously trusted for signal quality: Yahoo! News. Basically, Yahoo! News ran a story about public opinion on health care reform which was basically duplicated from the Rasmussen™ Reports Web site. The problem was that the story did not present a particularly convincing argument because it was pretty vague about the underlying data. This led me to conclude that Scott Rasmussen, the "man behind the Web site," so to speak, was using a free version of a news story to build up his subscriber base. In other words Yahoo! News had passed off as news material that may have served no purpose other than to market Rasmussen's polling results.

Today I encountered another instance of such marketing, somewhat more innocuous but also more pervasive. It emerged because, once again, I was attracted by one of Chris Matyszczyk's headlines for his Technically Incorrect blog on the CNET Blog Network:

UK divorce lawyers: A fifth of cases Facebook-related

It was an enjoyable piece on a potentially dark side of the whole obsession with social software, and it was certainly worth the read. More interesting, however, was a comment from WHPHW, which I shall reproduce now that I have set readers up for the dangers of self-promotion:

Its funny because I recently purchased a book entitled 'is: The Phenomenon of the Facebook Status' were it presents an insight into everyday life in the 21st century through the medium of Facebook status updates, highlighting the joys and pressures of today's world, giving a 'warts 'n' all' look into what we have become, as a society.

Each individual status update listed within 'is' allows the watching world to look into the updating person's soul as they share their thoughts and feelings of the day in a manner that has never before existed, giving a glance of what the person is made of, if not the image they are attempting to portray!

It is one of my favourite books this year, and has been getting rave reviews online.

If you are reading this article then you will love this book.

Thank me later

This struck me as sitting right on the threshold of relevance, and then I realized that the last three letters of the handle were the initials of the author of the book being cited! I then clicked on that handle and discovered that this comment had been submitted to six separate CNET articles! This led me to check out the URL to see just how legitimate the product was. It turns out that the product was "real" enough; but there were only two reviews, neither of which could be described as a "rave." The more informative of the two is worth reproducing:

CrazyFunnyCrude Book, June 16, 2009
Man this book is crazy!

It is not like a 'normal' book that is designed for reading straight through, it seems to be designed as more of a book to flick through whilst browsing on Facebook, but I am a huge Facebook fan, that loves knowing what people are up to, and once I started reading I just could'nt stop! It had me laughing out loud so many times, but also cringing and gasping at the contents! My flatmate is now reading it and making the same outbursts I did!

It is a bit rude and crude in some chapters so I dont think it would be suitable for readers under 18, but I think the rest of us can appreciate someone going against the PC brigade.

This book will be huge this Christmas.

I'm giving it 4* based on the emotional rollercoaster it put me through, but deducting a star for the layout and some of the crudness.

The other review seemed like pretty faint praise, even if it also awarded the book four stars:

The book has many creative ideas, but..., October 24, 2009
you can find tons of free ideas on the web without buying a book. It will be a great gift for friends of mine who pride themselves on how witty their Facebook Status is for any given day.

This was sufficient to convince me that I have better things to read, including the data sources that Matyszczyk cited, which I figured I could accept as far more authoritative by a long shot. All this simply reinforces a principle by which I have tried to live ever since the Internet opened its floodgates: "the primary rule for reading any text on the Internet" is caveat lector. The Internet reader must assume that, from the writer's point of view, (s)he is as likely to be a victim as a seeker of information. Thus, every one of us who reads from the screen is personally responsible for developing strategies to avoid that victimization; and, like it or not, we have no reason to assume that any "higher power" will apply those strategies on our behalf.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Truth about Bernie Sanders

I happened to be listening to Washington Journal this morning on the C-SPAN radio feed that I get through my XM Satellite receiver; so I got to hear John Barrasso, Republican Senator from Wyoming, fulminating over how bad things had become in the Senate health care debate. His example of how corrupt the Democrats had become was that they had even won over Independent Bernie Sanders with a sweetheart deal for his home state of Vermont. Since I have long admired Sanders for sticking to his progressive guns, I immediately put out feelers for an alternative account of this claim. While my usual search processes were impeded by my own battle with the health care system this morning, I can report that The Nation has now come out with an account of Sanders' deeds and some of his words behind those deeds.

That account was provided by Katrina vanden Heuvel on her Editor's Cut blog. It turns out that Sanders was pushing for a deal and that it was a deal that would probably benefit Vermont. However, what Barrasso seems to have missed is that the beneficiaries also included all of us who are still looking for some backbone of reform in the bill that has been cooking in the Senate. Here is vanden Heuvel's version of what apparently got Barrasso out of joint:

Without fanfare, the good Senator from Vermont, Bernie Sanders, has continued to work behind the scenes to champion community health centers--something he has done for years (also here). These non-profit, community-based facilities provide primary healthcare, dental care, mental health services, and low-cost prescription drugs on a sliding scale. As amendments were added in recent days to win over the Liebermans and Nelsons of the "greatest [undemocratic] deliberative body" in the world, Sanders made sure that a $10 billion increase in funding for the health centers was included.

"This is not gonna solve all the problems of the world," Senator Sanders told me yesterday. "But expanding access to high quality primary health care, and low-cost prescription drugs, and mental health counseling, and dental care--which is a big issue--this is a very significant step forward. If you walk into a health clinic and you have no insurance at all they will treat you on a sliding scale basis. So, that's affordable healthcare."

There has also been little news coverage of Sanders' fight to allow states waivers so they can move forward with their own "health insurance concepts, including single-payer." Such language is now in the Senate bill and Sanders is still working with Senator Ron Wyden to strengthen it. That is exactly how Canada developed its healthcare system, with a successful program incubated in Saskatchewan. This provision is actually stronger in the Senate bill--it didn't make it into the House version.

So, if Barrasso wanted to attack Sanders for tacking on a $10 billion commitment, he probably should have paid more attention to where the money would be going, rather than ranting about its magnitude. Yes, the process taking place in the Senate has been really ugly; and I do not see anything to be gained by sticking our heads in the sand and ignoring how flawed the results have been. Nevertheless, Sanders has been trying to work around the flaws and to provide at least a few cracks through which reform may flow. My guess is that Barrasso has a knee-jerk fear of anything that Sanders achieves; so he felt obliged to use his C-SPAN pulpit to come out with guns blazing, even if he wasn't too clear on where his guns were aimed!

Monday, December 21, 2009

Pushkin's "Comedy of Distress" Today

Regular readers know that I am particularly taken with the phrase "comedy of distress," which seems to have originated with Alexander Pushkin. Pushkin applied it to his play about Tsar Boris Godunov, but most recently I applied it to the first two operas in Giacomo Puccini's Il Trittico, "Il Tabarro" and "Suor Angelica." I like the phrase because it reinforces Aristotle's precept that only nobles are capable of tragedy. Pushkin seemed to honor this constraint, since his play is less about the Tsar and more about the Russian people and their susceptibility to shift favor from an anointed tsar to a pretender to the throne.

Pushkin may well have felt that all of history is a comedy of distress; and, if he would not have gone that far, he would probably have granted that all of political history is such a comedy. We would do well to remember that we are in the midst of such a comedy; and, if we do not immediately recognize it, we can rely on folks like Garry Trudeau to clarify it for us. Consider today's Doonesbury strip. We have Mark Slackmeyer at his public radio microphone finally getting his dander up over Barack Obama:

You know what, caller? I'm sick of defending him! The truth is Obama has been a huge disappointment – on many issues!

Enough is enough! Obama has lost me! He's finally lost me!

Whereupon the voice of his caller responds:

But he's all we've got. If you bail, what's the point of your show?

Mark is struck dumb as we cut to advice from his producer:

Walk it back, dude, walk it back.

I am reminded that, when the all the chickens of the economic crisis were finally coming home to roost, I observed that "this would have been as farcical as the antics in David Mamet's play Glengarry Glen Ross; but none of us would be laughing because we have all become victims." Mamet knew his Pushkin well; there was not the slightest shred of nobility in any of the Glengarry Glen Ross characters. So, while all of Mamet's characters came to grief over financial double-talk (and the grief comes to both those who speak and those who listen), Mark and all the real-world folks he represents are now coming to grief over the pedestal of secular Messianism they erected when Obama first emerged as a viable candidate for the Presidency.

The heart of Pushkin's comedy is the specious assumption that any mere mortal can serve as the embodiment of "high principle." In Pushkin's Russia deals are made and politics goes on; and things will always be this way, because people will always cheer a leader. Were he alive today, he would have made a character out of that New York cab driver cited in Andrew Keen's Great Seduction blog, who believed that Obama would fix the traffic problem in New York. Mark's tragedy is that, when his messianic mortal fails him, he loses his grip on those principles that are more important; but no mortal will ever live up to those principles all of the time.

The point is that, whether it is health care reform, economic recovery, or military adventurism, the people who matter the most are the skeptics who have the chutzpah to respond to any proposal by asking, "Is this really what we want to do?" If the proposal can survive that question, then it may well have the merit attributed to it; but there is no merit in a plan that exists only to make Obama (or any other politician of any party) look good, domestically or internationally. As long as there are such skeptics and as long as they have platforms from which to speak, there may yet be some hope for that "audacity of hope" being more than a slogan for getting elected.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Celebrating the Naughty Child

Having chosen to write about sin yesterday, it would seem appropriate to follow up with a few words about Maurice Ravel's one-act opera project with Colette exploring the world of a child who would definitely be in the "naughty" category on Santa's list. The opera is "L'Enfant et les Sortilèges;" and it is an elegant little parable of how enchantment (les sortilèges) leads a truly nasty little boy to discover his inner virtues. That enchantment brings to life (and to voice) not only the furniture and wallpaper in the room where he is supposed to be doing his homework but even the contents of his mathematics textbook. (How many operas have "Arithmetic" as a character, in the tenor range, no less?) It then moves into a second scene in a garden where both animals and trees do most of the singing.

My first contact with this opera was on television, so it did not surprise me that it was not until 1981 that it entered the repertoire of the Metropolitan Opera, where it was part of a triple bill entitled Parade. The title came from the "Ballet Réaliste" by Erik Satie that opened the program. Between the Satie and the Ravel was a staging of Francis Poulenc's two-act opera (performed without an intermission, because the acts are relatively short), Les Mamelles de Tirésias, based on the play of the same title by Guillaume Apollinaire. This is a farce about role reversal between husband and wife. The wife "liberates" her breasts (they turn into balloons that float away); and the husband takes over the role of reproduction, applying his manufacturing skills to give birth to 40,049 children, all of whom sing "Papa!" at the beginning of the second act.

I was not at the Met for the premiere, but I did get to attend its revival. This was one of those magical productions in which the staging and design contributed as much as the music. The former was by John Dexter and the latter by David Hockney. The high point had to be the identical perambulators (not the full count) for Mamelles, each of which had a little head (again all identical) that popped up while an off-stage chorus sang "Papa!" As Donal Henahan put it in his New York Times review of the premiere, an intermission was necessary "to clam everyone's giddiness" before the Ravel could begin. This was where Hockney's visual imagination moved from the ridiculous to the sublime in his conceptions of both the study room and the garden.

The idea of a triple bill, particularly with one item being a ballet, was definitely a major departure in Met programming; but the formula was good enough to be followed by a similar treatment for compositions by Igor Stravinsky ("Le Sacre du Printemps," "Le Rossignol," and "Oedipus Rex"). As far as I can tell, Parade was revived for the 2001–2002 season; but I have not been able to determine how well it was received. Those 40,049 babies were produced to support a war effort (the wife having turned into a general after shedding her breasts); so it is unclear how well that kind of humor would play in a post-9/11 world. Given what we have been through since then, however, a bit of the absurdities of both Collette and Apollinaire would be more than a little welcome.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

A Sin of Omission in the Omission of Sin

As I gradually work my way to the final chapters of Men, Women and Pianos, Arthur Loesser's effort to cast a social history of life in both Europe and the United States around the role that the piano played in that social life, it occurred to me that there is a significant gap in his account of that role at the very least in the United States and probably also in much of Europe. Loesser did some prodigious research in his efforts to document the growth of piano sales, particularly in the United States, which, particularly in the nineteenth century could boast a prodigious diversity of manufacturers appealing to different standards of both quality and price. However, while much of his social history is directed at the growth of the number of living rooms that were not complete without a piano among the furniture, he never tries to compare this with the number of brothels for which the presence of a piano was equally de rigueur. From the tone of his language, one may assume that Loesser enjoyed the reputation of a moralist, if not the notoriety of a downright prig. Perhaps I am reacting out of my own predilections for taking jazz into account in any musical dimension of social history, but I feel that Loesser has committed a great sin of omission.

Beyond the scope of both the United States and jazz, there is Johannes Brahms and what his Wikipedia entry calls the "long-told tale" of his playing in brothels in his early teens. There are also those who believe that Brahms himself was the originator of this tale; and, as the footnotes to that Wikipedia entry affirm, both sides of the authenticity story have arguments to promote. For what it is worth, the current Grove Music Online entry for Brahms by George S. Bozarth and Walter Frisch has him earning a living "playing in dance halls and taverns;" but, whether or not the tale is true, it strongly suggests that one would be as likely to find a piano in a German whorehouse as in an American one. Presumably, this would be true of other European countries as well; and, if that setting did not engender a revolutionary new approach to how music could be made in Europe, as it did in the United States, then, as that great connoisseur of Parisian brothels, Gustave Flaubert, might have put it, tant pis! The setting certainly did not seem to have any negative effect on the musical development of Joe "King" Oliver and probably was equally conducive to Oliver's protégé Louis Armstrong. We should be thankful that our perspective on social history has become far more accommodating (resisting the urge to call it "broad-minded") than it was when Loesser wrote his book in 1954!

Young Schubert

Browsing through my Dover edition of Shorter Works for Pianoforte Solo by Franz Schubert, edited by Julius Epstein from the old Breitkopf & Härtel edition of his complete works, I realized that I had never taken a look at his C major andante movement from 1812, to which Otto Erich Deutsch assigned the number 12. I recalled that, in the early days of CD distribution, I had encountered a disc entitled The Young Schubert, featuring performances by pianist Leonard Hokanson. (Alas, according to, this CD has been "discontinued by the manufacturer;" and, while the Goliath profile of Northeastern Records indicates that they are still in business as of November 5, 2009, I am not sure I believe that claim!) I had discovered Hokanson through my vinyl-collecting days as a member of the Musical Heritage Society when I encountered a boxed set of the complete piano trios of Ludwig van Beethoven for which Hokanson was performing on a period instrument. (That may have been my first purchase of a period instrument recording, and I was immediately attracted to the sound.)

Hokanson used a modern piano for these Schubert recordings, which were made in the Houghton Memorial Chapel of Wellesley College in December of 1985; but, even without an "authentic sound," this CD did much to expand my horizons for listening to Schubert. Here is how Mark DeVoto introduced the booklet of notes:

We normally measure Franz Schubert by the masterpieces of his maturity, and there are a good many of these – more, perhaps, than anyone might expect from one who died at thirty-one. Yet even this genius who never reached middle age had a youthful apprenticeship, and the works on this recording are good evidence of both his originality and his early-acquired mastery. Indeed, much of this music is worthy of comparison with the best of his time.

DeVoto continues by then elaborating on that apprenticeship:

Five of the works here date from the year 1815, when Schubert was eighteen. Tow years earlier, when his voice changed, Schubert had dropped out of the Stadtkonvikt, the training school for boy singers in the choir of the Viennese imperial court. To earn a semblance of a living, he became a teacher in his father's private elementary school, taking lessons with Antonio Salieri when he could, and perfecting his skills as a composer at a feverish pace.

Even before his exposure to Salieri, however, Schubert knew how to draw upon models and take them in new directions. As DeVoto observes, his sources for models began with Joseph Haydn and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and eventually progressed to Ludwig van Beethoven. Furthermore, there is evidence that he was able to use his resources in Vienna to seek out less familiar resources. Thus, in the third and fourth measures of that 1812 andante, it appears that Schubert was struck by the progression that introduced Mozart's glass harmonica adagio (K. 356), which may well have first appealed to him for the oddity of its setting. It is almost as if this one progression triggered his own imagination to conceive of an entirely new (and far more ambitious) composition. Did he see himself as "rescuing" the most interesting passage from a work that may have had little more than novelty value in Mozart's time, only to be thrown away after the novelty passed? This kind of tinkering may not be "worthy of comparison" with the far more ambitious things Schubert would do with the piano in later years; but it provides an interesting window into how his inventive mind was beginning to work.

Friday, December 18, 2009

The Obama Administration Loses its Touch in Cyberspace

Irrationality is often an excellent symptom of desperation, particularly when it involves losing grip on your best strengths. This lesson goes all the way back to the Old Testament. The Israelites lost the strength of their faith as soon as they decided to take the Ark of the Covenant into battle (a confusion of symbol with substance that has followed us all the way through history into the Bush II Administration, if not further). God punished them for losing their grip, and they were soundly defeated.

The days when the Obama Administration boasted that it came into office by leveraging the strength of cyberspace now feel as distant as those of the Old Testament. Now, with the future of health care reform on the ropes, Senior Advisor David Axelrod seems to have reinvented the take-the-Ark-into-battle strategy in a rather bizarre way. Here is Ari Melber's account from The Notion, the collective blog site managed by The Nation:

The White House swiftly organized a blogger conference call on Thursday evening to rally support for health care reform, in a bid to stem fallout from progressives over recent compromises in the Senate. Senior Obama adviser David Axelrod devoted most of the time to taking questions, as bloggers from OpenLeft, Daily Kos, Crooks and Liars and Huffington Post pressed for answers on why recent concessions seemed so one-sided.

Say what? Did that text really say "conference call?" Did Axelrod deal with the urgency of the situation through POTS technology? What happened to chat rooms? If he wanted to keep participation at a manageable level, he could have done that; but there is something really disquieting about organizing such a strategic event without leaving a text trail for the rest of us to examine.

As we read on in Melber's account, we get the impression that it may not have taken Axelrod long to realize that he was in a hole, to which he responded by digging himself deeper:

MyDD's Jonathan Singer said he was channeling another blogger, Duncan Black, to ask whether Axelrod's recent "insane" remark about Howard Dean's position also applied to Ben Nelson's willingness to scuttle the entire bill. "I'm not professionally qualified to judge insanity and maybe I should have used a different word," Axelrod said, and he noted that "everybody's a little on edge at this point" in the long legislative battle. He also stressed his respect for allies in the "progressive community," but reiterated his view that it would be "wrongheaded" to squash all of health care reform at this point, which is "infinitely better" than the status quo.

It is as if some wrathful divine power (perhaps that same figure from the Old Testament) had decided to bring down the follies of at least two previous administrations on Axelrod's head. Judging insanity is not quite as off-the-wall as debating the semantics of "is;" but, at the very least, it indicates that the discourse has shifted from insanity to inanity. For that matter, if a key attribute of insanity is a detachment from reality, then Axelrod may be the one facing that detachment, since Dean is far from a lone voice in the wilderness; he just happens to be the one with enough chutzpah to raise his voice from some bully pulpits. That detachment from reality brings us, of course, to the immediately preceding Administration, which tried to cast everything in terms of right and wrong (even if "wrongheaded" was too many syllables for them to handle) and never seemed to have trouble playing fast and loose with an adverb like "infinitely."

The problem with having to handle second-hand accounts, even when they come under the banner of a progressive organ like The Nation, is that we may never know if anyone on that conference call shifted attention from Dean to the Clara Peller question he was raising: "Where's the reform?" The only real question that remains is whether the health care reform train has run out of steam or whether the insurance industry dug up the rails, leaving the train to crash colossally into a ditch. In either case any sense of reform has left the Capitol with the same finality with which Elvis has left the building. As one of our Presidential ghosts would say, "Make no doubt about it!"

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Choose Your Media Weapons!

Michael B. Farrell has an interesting piece written last night for the Web site of The Christian Science Monitor concerning the "global warming rumble" between Sarah Palin and Arnold Schwarzenegger. I am not particularly interested in what this spat tells us about what Republicans really think about how one is supposed to debate complex issues and what role disciplined argumentation plays in such debate. Rather, I have been fascinated by the way in which this debate is being conducted as a sequence of media salvos. In Farrell's account the affair began on December 9, when The Washington Post ran an opinion piece by Palin, entitled "Copenhagen's Political Science," discussing the skeptical claims in the recently leaked electronic mail messages that attracted so much media attention. Here is Farrell's synopsis:

In her Dec. 9 article, Ms. Palin criticized the Democrats cap-and-trade plan to limit greenhouse-gas emissions as a jobs killer and called on President Obama to boycott the Copenhagen climate talks, reflecting a skeptical view of global warming often seen in conservatives' Tea Party protests.

Schwarzenegger, on the other hand, not only rejects the idea of a boycott but, as I write this, is now in Copenhagen. Before his departure, he gave an interview to Matthew Garrahan of the Financial Times, which was published on December 14. Garrahan covered the Republican "rumble" over the climate issue as follows:

The California governor has become an environmental standard bearer for the Republican party, which is split on the merits of curbing emissions. Sarah Palin, John McCain's running mate in the 2008 presidential election, has attacked cap and trade and questioned any link between man-made emissions and global warming.

Mr Schwarzenegger said: "You have to ask: what was she trying to accomplish? Is she really interested in this subject or is she interested in her career and in winning the nomination [for president]?"

The governor also addressed leaked "Climategate" e-mails that indicated some scientists had been selective in their use of data to back up research on global warming. "I understand there are mistakes made in the environmental community but I see [the impact of global warming] first hand, with the fires we have in California and the lack of water in the state," he said.

The following day Schwarzenegger was interviewed on Good Morning America, providing yet another sign that George Stephanopoulos is turning this program into a platform for substantive news coverage and analysis. Farrell provided the following Schwarzenegger quote from his interview, which shows how blunt he can be about the Republican split:

I think there are people that just don't believe in fixing and working on the environment. They don't believe there is such a thing as global warming, they're still living in the Stone Age.

This prompted Palin to retaliate. However, it would appear that she could not find a platform to do so within the mainstream media. So she did what anyone else would do in the Internet age. She took the fight to her Facebook site. Here is Farrell's summary:

Palin fired back on Facebook: “Why is Governor Schwarzenegger pushing for the same sorts of policies in Copenhagen that have helped drive his state into record deficits and unemployment?”

She was “among the first governors to create a sub-cabinet to deal specifically with climate change,” she said, adding, “While I and all Alaskans witness the impacts of changes in weather patterns firsthand, I have repeatedly said that we can't primarily blame man's activities for those changes. And while I did look for practical responses to those changes, what I didn't do was hamstring Alaska's job creators with burdensome regulations so that I could act "greener than thou" when talking to reporters.”

As I see it, Palin has decided that she would prefer talking to her "Facebook friends" about this matter, rather than continue the exchange in a more open forum, if not in a face-to-face encounter then through written articles for the usual channels to the historical record. (I pity the poor historians of the next generation, who will probably find themselves spending the better part of their time wading through the Internet Archive "Wayback Machine" and figuring out what to make of the detritus they encounter at sites like Facebook and MySpace.) Meanwhile, the Web version of Farrell's article begins with a photograph of Schwarzenegger taking a question during a debate at the Climate Summit for Mayors at the Copenhagen City Hall yesterday. Granted, Schwarzenegger may be playing the Obama card in going after global, rather than national, opinion. Still, he does not have to worry about running for President; so that may give him more flexibility in how he both forms and expresses his opinions. Regardless of whether or not I agree with him, I have to sympathize with his trying to figure out just what Palin's motives are!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Terror Pornography

Last month, in posing the "inconvenient hypothesis" that there was a pornographic quality to the propaganda photographs that Dorothea Lange took of the destitute victims of the Great Depression, I drew upon Plato's "Republic" to support my argument. I did not have my copy of Plato with me when I wrote that post; but, now that I want to take a broader view of that hypothesis, I have identified the critical passage. It does not take place on a battlefield, but the basic message is as I recalled it. It is in Book IV, and the use of the first person pronoun leads me to believe that it is an account being given to Socrates by Plato himself. Here is the relevant passage:

I once heard a story which I believe, that Leontius the son of Aglaion, on his way up from the Piraeus under the outer side of the northern wall, becoming aware of dead bodies that lay at the place of public execution at the same time felt a desire to see them and a repugnance and aversion, and that for a time he resisted and veiled his head, but overpowered in despite of all by his desire, with wide staring eyes he rushed up to the corpses and cried, There, ye wretches, take your fill of the fine spectacle!

In this post I am less interested in the "wide staring eyes" of either Lange or those who now view her work. Instead, I wish to consider Plato's account in the light of the work of documentarian Dan Brown, two of whose films have now been co-produced by HBO. The first, Terror in Moscow, chronicled a 2002 attack by Chechen terrorists on a Moscow theater in which they held 700 hostages. The second, Terror in Mumbai, is currently being broadcast on HBO. This purports to be "a 360-degree view" of last year's attack on multiple public sites in Mumbai (including two hotels and a Chabad center), designed and implemented by Lashkar-e-Taiba, which was formed with the goal of "liberating" Muslims living under Indian rule in Kashmir.

This is, without a doubt, an intensely chilling film, disturbing enough that I preferred watching it in two segments, each approximately half an hour in duration. What is presumably on-the-spot news footage of the attack sites is interleaved with interviews with survivors and law enforcement officials. However, the "360" effect is achieved by including recordings, supposedly gathered by those law enforcement officials, of cell phone conversations between the terrorists in Mumbai and their commander in Pakistan. Brown plays out this content with the skill of an action film director; and it is no surprise that one of his recent movies is the revenge flick Closure, which he wrote as well as directed. The "reality" of Terror in Mumbai is further enhanced by narration given by CNN host Fareed Zakaria. This is very much an experience of "wide staring eyes" that has been skillfully crafted into "fine spectacle."

So it this spectacle nothing more than pornographic excess, or does it satisfy that Supreme Court criterion of redeeming social importance? I tend to address this question the way I address any question of theatrical excess, and that is with the cui bono question. Regardless of how fine the spectacle may be, who benefits from being touched by it? As narrator, Zakaria tries to cast the entire narrative as a cautionary tale whose message is one of the need for eternal vigilance. However, there is a difference between vigilance and vigilantism. Are Brown and Zakaria whacking us on the head with a two-by-four to get us to pay attention to the reality of terrorist threats? Are they afraid that, with the passing of the Bush Administration, we shall no longer bend to the will of governmental authority out of fear; or are they trying to open a discussion on how we got into this mess as a precursor to finding a way to solve the problem?

Personally I do not think that the sentiments of this production team were either authoritarian or noble. My guess is that they just wanted to make a film that would attract a lot of eyeballs. To be fair, HBO has put up a Web page for fielding comments; but this is not a forum for discussion. It is, at best, another echo chamber where viewers can make themselves feel better by voicing an opinion. Nevertheless, attracting eyeballs is a matter of appealing to audience desire; and this takes us back to whether or not we should raise questions about the moral value of a given desire. In Plato's example it is clear that there is not moral value in Leontius' decision; but he acts the way he does to get the compulsion out of his system. In the case of the Mumbai attack, our system had already been saturated with our usual 24/7 on-the-scene-coverage treatment; and we got both through it and over it. What is the benefit in reconstructing the whole affair a year later simply for the sake of now giving voice to the terrorists?

"Where's the Reform?"

Where is Clara Peller now that we need her? For those who do not remember this icon of political history, Clara was the actress who played the little old lady in a Wendy's commercial that looked an oversized hamburger bun and snapped back, "Where's the beef?" Walter Mondale then used it as a rhetorical weapon against Gary Hart's call for new ideas in a 1984 debate held before the New York and Pennsylvania primaries for the Democratic presidential candidate. Watching last night's news about the purported agreement that will probably pull together enough votes to pass health care legislation, all I could think about were all the compromises made to give up key reform objectives in order to get that vote. I found myself wishing that Clara would storm the Senate floor shouting "Where's the reform?" Alas, Clara died in 1987, about three years after shooting that Wendy's commercial.

This morning, however, it appears that we may have a Clara surrogate in the unlikely form of Howard Dean. Dean is one of those rare individuals who can see health care from the perspective of both physicians and patients. I would not be surprised that, if you were to ask him about the industrial perspectives of pharmaceuticals, advanced medical technologies, and insurance, he would look you in the eye and tell you to get your priorities straight. It is clear that all industrial players have deployed their best lobbying forces, so one can hardly complain that their voices have not been heard. To the contrary, those voices have been so stentorian that the Senate has barely (if at all) recognized the voices of those who need medical treatment or those professionally qualified to treat them. The closest those voices have come to representation has been in the form of Howard Dean, and he is on the sidelines.

Fortunately, he still knows how to use a bully pulpit; and, just as fortunately, there are those willing to give it to him. In yesterday's New York Times Alessandra Stanley used her TV Watch column to discuss the likelihood that George Stephanopoulos would transcend at least some of the fluff that has been the usual bill of fare on Good Morning America and bring substantive news coverage and analysis back to morning television. Given his personal history with failed efforts at health care reform, it is reasonable to assume that Stephanopoulos had a hand in giving Dean a guest slot on Good Morning America for review of yesterday's Senate follies; and Dean did not mince his words. He called the compromise legislation currently on the table "an insurance company bailout."

The Associated Press account of Dean's salvo also cited the appearance of House Democrat Anthony Weiner on The Early Show, the CBS competition to ABC's Good Morning America. Weiner was quoted as saying:

We can't let the perfect be enemy of the good, but we are reaching a tipping point.

Indeed we are. We have tipped the legislative package so far from its original position that all of the reform has dribbled out from the top. Dean seems to be the only one with the chutzpah to shout "Where's the reform?" If there is no longer any reform in the bill and if the only real beneficiary will be the insurance industry, why is Barack Obama still grandstanding about getting it passed? While we ponder these question, the time seems right to give the Chutzpah of the Week award to Dean for getting us to think about them!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Nightmare on Market Street

It has been so long since I have invoked the spirit of "immutable work practices" in attacking a really stupid human-interface design that I probably ought to quote the last time I cited the concept:

Graham Button has lectured and published long and hard about the problems of introducing a new technology in a workplace; and the problem that most concerns him is that any work setting has its own "immutable work practices" (his words) before the new technology is introduced. If the learning curve for the new technology does not take those immutable practices into account, the new technology many lower productivity rather than raise it.

These days, however, new technologies are not only deployed for the sake of workplace productivity; they are also deployed to provide customers with new "features." Note the use of the scare quotes, because Button's case for counterproductivity is just as applicable to customers as it is to workers.

This is precisely what has happened with Chase's recent rollout of new "DepositFriendly" (as the brochure states) ATMs. The key problem is that they deployed the technology without providing sufficient notification to the customers. The brochure is brief and easy to understand, but if you do most of your banking through your computer from home, chances are that you did not see one. (I certainly did not.)

I am the sort of person who prepares my ATM deposit envelope at home. That allows me to spend the least time fiddling around (and making those behind me impatient) when actually using the ATM. So I approached the new machine with my old habits, fed it the deposit envelope, and it jammed up the works! It turns out that DepositFriendly means you now feed both checks and paper money directly into the machine! So, in the interest of being efficient, I made life more difficult for those behind me, since I basically knocked the machine out of commission. At least I kept a civil tongue while venting my frustration, which is more than I can say for the guy next to me, trying to cope with his machine.

I like the way Chase has decided to call this their "worry free" solution. Apparently, they did not run many real-world tests on their new equipment. I shudder to think what these dummies will come up with for their next innovation!

France Takes a Stand on Digitization

In the context of Robert Darnton's efforts, in the latest issue of The New York Review, to make sense out of the legal muddle over the digitization plans behind the Google Book Search effort, yesterday's news from Paris, as reported by Scott Sayare for The New York Times, throws an interesting light on one of Darnton's key points. Consider first the French side of the story:

President Nicolas Sarkozy pledged nearly $1.1 billion on Monday toward the computer scanning of French literary works, audiovisual archives and historical documents, an announcement that underscored his government’s desire to maintain control over France’s cultural heritage in an era of digitization.

The French National Library announced in August that it was engaged in discussions with Google over the digitization of its collections, part of a global effort by Google to digitize the world’s literary works. This provoked an uproar among French officials and the publishing community here, and the discussions were suspended.

“We won’t let ourselves be stripped of our heritage to the benefit of a big company, no matter how friendly, big or American it is,” Mr. Sarkozy said last week, apparently in a reference to Google.

On the surface this may sound like little more than nationalist grandstanding. However, it taps into issues considered not only by Darnton as to what American citizens have to expect of a public library in the digital age but also the analysis of the nature of social democracy by Tony Judt (which, coincidentally, immediately follows Darnton's piece in the print edition of The New York Review) that addresses the general questions of what constitutes a public good and how the provision of that good should be divided (if at all) between public and private sectors. Darton's proposed resolution to the current legal disputes over digitization places the public good above all other interests:

The most ambitious solution would transform Google's digital database into a truly public library. That, of course, would require an act of Congress, one that would make a decisive break with the American habit of determining public issues by private lawsuit. The legislation would have to settle ancillary problems—how to adjust copyright, deal with orphan books, and compensate Google for its investment in digitizing—but it would have the advantage of clearing up a messy legal landscape and of giving the American people what they deserve: a national digital library equal to the needs of the twenty-first century. But it is not clear how Google would react to such a buyout.

It seems to me that the penultimate sentence of this paragraph gets to the heart of Sarkozy's decision, which is that the government should take responsibility for giving the French people what they deserve by way of "a national digital library equal to the needs of the twenty-first century." In an American setting, on the other hand, I suspect that Darnton's proposal will be seen as idealistic and naive. An American people obsessed with reality television and Twitter does not necessarily see a national digital library as part of the public good; and my guess is that those who represent them in Congress, for whom the act of representation should take a broader view than that of immediate gratification, are unlikely to see things any differently, particularly now that Google has discovered the effectiveness of lobbying. On the other hand, if we accept Judt's arguments that the very concept of a public good has now been corrupted beyond recognition, should we expect matters to be any different? Perhaps Sarkozy has taken one small step towards reversing that trend that Judt now views so pessimistically.

Monday, December 14, 2009

A Calculus of Social Value?

I have been reading with great fascination Tony Judt's article in the latest issue of The New York Review on why the very concept of social democracy appears to be off the map whenever our government undertakes any effort towards reform, particularly in areas such as health care and financial services, both of which have had such menacing impact on Main Street. Judt's thesis is that our shortcoming is "discursive," meaning that we "simply do not know how to talk about" matters of social democracy; and he attributes this shortcoming to what he calls "economism," which he describes as "the invocation of economics in all discussions of public affairs." In other words we avoid "moral considerations" by restricting discourse to "issues of profit and loss."

As we know from those who have tried to identify countries that offer models for health care reform, Great Britain does not have this discursive problem. However, at least one British institution, the new economics foundation (nef—they use only lower case letters on their Web site), appreciates the problems of economism; and it is trying to argue against it on its own playing field. As Martin Shankleman, Employment Correspondent for BBC News, reported last night, this foundation has been trying to evaluate various jobs by comparing the value they create with the value that those who do the work are paid. This research has taken place under their Valuing What Matters program. Shankleman's report cited the results of how this study applied its calculus to six different jobs (with quotations from its report, "A Bit Rich"):

  • The elite banker

"Rather than being wealth creators bankers are being handsomely rewarded for bringing the global financial system to the brink of collapse

Paid between £500,000 and £80m a year, leading bankers destroy £7 of value for every pound they generate".

  • Childcare workers

"Both for families and society as a whole, looking after children could not be more important. As well as providing a valuable service for families, they release earnings potential by allowing parents to continue working. For every pound they are paid they generate up to £9.50 worth of benefits to society."

  • Hospital cleaners

"Play a vital role in the workings of healthcare facilities. They not only clean hospitals and maintain hygiene standards but also contribute to wider health outcomes. For every pound paid, over £10 in social value is created."

  • Advertising executives

The industry "encourages high spending and indebtedness. It can create insatiable aspirations, fuelling feelings of dissatisfaction, inadequacy and stress. For a salary of between £50,000 and £12m top advertising executives destroy £11 of value for every pound in value they generate".

  • Tax accountants

"Every pound that a tax accountant saves a client is a pound which otherwise would have gone to HM Revenue. For a salary of between £75,000 and £200,000, tax accountants destroy £47 in value, for every pound they generate."

  • Waste recycling workers

"Do a range of different jobs that relate to processing and preventing waste and promoting recycling. Carbon emissions are significantly reduced. There is also a value in reusing goods. For every pound of value spent on wages, £12 of value is generated for society."

This left me wondering whether there was any office in the overwhelming bureaucracy of our Government in which a comparable study could or would be performed. If we go to the Web site for the Bureau of Labor Statistics, we can find considerable effort being put into the analysis of productivity and employment costs; but there is no indication that the Compensation Research and Program Development Group is even remotely considering the sort of value-for-money methodology that nef adopted (which may explain the "New" part of their name).

Now, to be fair, nef is an independent institution. On their home page they call themselves a "think-and-do tank that inspires and demonstrates real economic well-being;" but, of course, there is no indication as to whether their findings will have any impact on national policy in Great Britain or anywhere else. Still, they pose any interesting challenge to our own country that seems to have so many evangelists promoting "out of the box" thinking. If ever there were an opportunity to restore moral considerations to our predispositions for economism, this would appear to be one that has taken a great leap out of the box (without jumping the shark in the process). However, given how successful our ruling class has been in beating into submission any commonsense interests from Main Street regarding either health care or banking, I find it hard to believe that nef will find any serious champions on this side of the pond!