Wednesday, September 30, 2009

What Will the Internet Become to Whom?

It has always seemed to me that Barry Diller has tried to keep a low profile. He strikes me as someone more concerned with running his business than with indulging in subjunctive speculations about how businesses of the future will be (or ought to be ) run. I thus found it interesting that he should go on a rant over the "information wants to be free" mantra on CBS News. The outburst was documented by Jonathan Skillings for CNET News as follows:

In Barry Diller's paleontological view of the Internet, we're still just coming out of the primordial ooze and slouching toward the "click to buy" button.

The IAC/InterActiveCorp CEO and self-professed opportunist, rather impatiently told CBS News' Katie Couric earlier this week that the day is coming when people will regularly pay for content. As he has before, he trotted out the example of Apple, which has managed turn its iTunes store into a "multimillion-dollar business" based on the once-heretical notion of asking people to spend money on digital music and video.

"We're still so young at this," Diller said of where the world is on the Internet timeline. "We don't even have, really, a first real generation. We're just kinda getting one."

In due time, he said, content companies will be unburdened of "this mythology of 'the Internet is free,'" which was perpetrated by a seemingly prehistoric tribe that cared only about bandwidth and availability.

"The Internet, you have to remember, was started by tech people," Diller said.

That last declaration is an interesting kicker, primarily because of its irrelevance. Perhaps in the course of sticking to his business, Diller never had much time for Peter Drucker, who made one of the most persuasive arguments that those who initiate rarely have much say in the future of what they have initiated.

I might have let this whole kerfuffle pass unnoticed had I not attended a talk that Thomas Hampson gave yesterday evening at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music in conjunction with members of the Library of Congress with whom he has been working closely on his Song of America Project. The Library of Congress, just like any other public library, is a free resource; or, to be more accurate, it is a resource we pay for through our taxes. I can go into the San Francisco Public Library to check out CDs, DVDs, and sheet music, not to mention the books I read. The Library of Congress may have greater limitations on what I can check out, since I live in San Francisco; but I certainly do not have to pay for access to any of their performing arts resources when I am physically at their site.

I am not sure that the Library of Congress has a uniform policy; but Hampson clearly has a personal conviction that, if one is studying music through the Internet, one should be able to listen to that music. Thus, if one's studies take one to a public library facility, then Internet access to that library's resources should be as free as physical access. I support his conviction, which is why I gave this post its somewhat convoluted title. Having recently written about the irreconcilable differences that are now surfacing in the wake of the mess that rampant capitalism has made of globalization, it seems to be fair now to raise the possibility that such rampant capitalism will soon have to confront irreconcilable differences over the future of the Internet. Those who live by capitalism (and Barry Diller is an excellent example) see the Internet strictly as an opportunity for revenue, a way to confront the decline of traditional revenue sources such as manufacturing. These guys just do not live in the same world as those who were "present at the creation" of the Internet (and its most significant predecessor, Usenet), who realized that they were approaching a major breakthrough in making knowledge sharable; and, to put the difference in its most hyperbolic terms, those who aspired to that breakthrough are about as capable of having a productive conversation with the capitalists as George W. Bush would be in having a conversation with Osama bin Laden.

The problem with irreconcilable differences is that the different parties ultimately reduce everything to who takes which side (the strategy that Newt Gingrich applied in getting the Republicans to wrest power from the Clinton Administration). Having such a fight over the Internet could well unravel the value that the technology can bring to both sides. Part of the problem is that institutions that once were regarded as public trusts have been transmogrified by that rampant capitalism into next-generation industries. Health care is probably the most obvious example of such transformation right now; but this is also the crux of the argument that Muhammad Yunus has tried to make that the financial sector should be based on a non-profit business model. Thus the irreconcilable differences between the capitalists and the scholars may ultimately be resolved by the attrition of the scholars.

Back in June I told a joke about how a friend of mine had reacted to C. P. Snow's Two Cultures thesis:

There is only one culture; the problem is that the other one does not realize it!

This seems to capture nicely the way in which the capitalist culture feels about the scholar culture. It is nicely reinforced by the history-is-bunk philosophy of Henry Ford. Now it seems that the vision of the Internet as the embodiment of the library of the future of which Vannevar Bush once dreamed has been dismissed as bunk by Barry Diller. I just hope the Library of Congress can continue to hang tough in their convictions of what a library should be and their efforts to extend those convictions to the Internet.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

"Il Tabarro" and the Search for Context

I see that my colleague, SF Opera Examiner Cindy Warner, has decided to treat each of the three parts of Giacomo Puccini's Il Trittico separately, beginning last night with "Il Tabarro." This probably makes sense. One could say (as Cindy observed) that the parts are united around the theme of death; but the perspectives are so different that the concept of union, rather than mere cohabitation, is a bit of a stretch. Indeed, the parts are different enough that Puccini approached each with a different musical language; and, given my usually dim view of the scope of Puccini's expressiveness, that is really saying something (at least for me)!

If Puccini excels in Tosca through a loud and vulgar account of his libretto, with a result that might play better on the streets than in an opera house, "Il Tabarro" offers a more subdued look at vulgarity that is all the more intense for its quieter approach. Set on a barge docked on the Seine in Paris between cargo deliveries, it is a potboiler of a failed marriage and repressed sexuality that could easily have been called "The Boatman Always Rings Twice." Cindy saw parallels with Porgy and Bess. However, my philosophical studies have led me to see Porgy as Aristotelian tragedy concerned with the impact of Porgy's nobility on the different people he encounters (not just Bess and Crown). All the characters of "Tabarro" are base; and, whatever dreams they have, they accept and sometimes revel in their base conditions. From Aristotle's point of view, this makes for comedy, even when the climax is murder. Indeed, the tale is a "comedy of distress," not unlike Alexander Pushkin's dramatic account of Tsar Boris Godunov and Modest Mussorgsky's adaptation of that account as an opera. This would be consistent with an observation made by Ethan Mordden on the Metropolitan Opera Web page of teaching materials for Il Trittico to the effect that the source for "Il Tabarro," Didier Gold's La Houppelande, was "a Grand Guignol favorite." One never went to the Théâtre du Grand-Guignol to encounter noble characters in noble circumstances!

There is also a useful clue in the nostalgia for Belleville that occupies the libretto as the characters are first disclosing their key attributes to us. Belleville rates its own Wikipedia entry, where we discover how relevant it is to those characters of "Il Tabarro" who survive (but only barely) from the strength of their backs:

Historically, Belleville was a working class neighborhood. The independent village of Belleville had played a large part in establishing the Second French Republic in 1848. Some 20 years later, residents of the incorporated neighborhood of Belleville comprised some of the strongest supporters of the Paris Commune in 1871. When the Versailles Army came to reconquer Paris in May of that year, it faced the toughest resistance in both Belleville and Ménilmontant. The bloody street fighting persisted in the two eastern districts, and the last barricade is said to have been in the Rue Ramponeau in Belleville.

In "Il Tabarro" we have progressed beyond the age of Victor Hugo and Émile Zola; but the residue of the revolutionary spirit of that age still clings to Belleville (and there were even traces of it in Sylvain Chomet's Les Triplettes de Belleville).

Going back to my claim that each of the three parts of Il Trittico has its own characteristic musical language, I found myself wondering how aware Puccini was of what Maurice Ravel was doing around the time of this project (which was first performed at the Metropolitan Opera on December 14, 1918). The Parisian setting is complemented by the sorts of atmospheric qualities one finds in Daphnis et Chloé and the orchestral version of Ma Mère l'Oie. This spirit is, of course, diametrically opposed to proletarian Belleville; but Puccini may have invoked it as an ironic twist to this sordid tale of a crime of passion, so out of context with Ravel's usual bill of fare. Indeed, even after the horror of the disclosure of the murder, we are left with little more than the sense that both life and Paris will go on, just as all of Russia goes on as the curtain falls on Pushkin's "comedy of distress."

Monday, September 28, 2009

CHUTZPAH Where it is Needed

Yes, I know it is early in the week for a Chutzpah of the Week award; but this one is too irresistible for sitting tight to see what else may arise. It also carries the irony of what I think is the first award for Palestinian recipients. The basis for the award comes in a report released by Al Jazeera earlier this afternoon:

A group of Palestinian families is attempting to have Ehud Barak, the Israeli defence minister, prosecuted in Britain for alleged war crimes in the Gaza Strip, lawyers have told Al Jazeera.

A lawyer working for the families will present their case at a magistrates court in London on Tuesday before British officials decide if it has the jurisdiction to decide the case.

Barak is due in Britain on Tuesday to address a meeting of the Labour Friends of Israel on the sidelines of the ruling party's annual conference. The families hope that an arrest warrant will be issued during his visit.

Michel Massih, the UK-based lawyer taking the case to court, said that he believed that the British government was obliged "to actively pursue people who are alleged to be involved in war crimes".

"One does not need, at this stage, to provide more than a basic prima face case and the suggestion would be that Barak certainly was in a position where he has to answer some of the allegations made about the commission of crimes by Israeli troops," he told Al Jazeera from London.

Just to be clear, this is not a matter of frivolous litigation. At the very least this is a case that can be grounded on Richard Goldstone's report to the UN Human Rights Commission. I am not sure how these families will react to being awarded for chutzpah in its most positive connotation, but my guess is that right now they care only about whether their current action will result in an arrest warrant for Barak.

When Linguistic Subtlety May Matter

When I lived in Singapore, I had a Singaporean neighbor who never said very much; but, when he did have something to say, it stuck with me. That was the case when he dropped a comment about the decision to adopt English as the "official government language." He described it as a decision that would guarantee that all government business would be conducted in a language in which all government officials were equally weak!

When I lived in Singapore I encountered more than my fair share of gaffes that could have been avoided through a greater awareness of the subtleties of the English language, not only the bits that were formally codified in the dictionary but also the slangs adopted by English-speaking cultures around the world and the connotations associated with them. One of the earliest examples that confronted me involved the name of a software system intended to retrieve photographs from a police "mug book" on the basis of a description of facial characteristics (from the sketch artist's reconstruction to the database, so to speak). The acronym for this system turned out to sound like a variation on the N-word in a non-American English speaking culture. I would prefer not to be more specific about this.

Where I can be more specific is in an example I just encountered in a report from Johor Bahru (in Malaysia) by Kevin Brown for the Financial Times. The basic story is straightforward enough:

More than $13bn has been committed to an ambitious plan to create a metropolis at the southern tip of Malaysia three times the size of Singapore, says the chief executive of the state agency set up to drive the project.

Arlida Ariff, chief of Iskandar Investments, told the Financial Times in an interview that a further $2bn (€1.4bn, £1.3bn) was likely to be committed in the next two years, including nearly $300m in retail investment expected to be announced over the next few months.

This may just be a matter of my having had a wonderful dinner in a Turkish restaurant last week: but my immediate reaction was to remember that Iskandar is the name that most of Muslim culture gives to Alexander (as in The Great). That got me to thinking about all the ways in which globalization has come to represent the platform for imperial domination by capitalism! (Are you listening, Michael Moore?) I suspect that those who decided to call their firm "Iskandar Investments" had no trouble with being perceived as a new generation of capitalists; but did they want to be perceived as imperialists as part of the bargain? I am reminded of Jacques Lacan's efforts to apply the use of language, both text and subtext, as a key to understanding the unconscious mind. Would he analyze the subtext this way even if the speaker did not know the language well enough to understand that subtext?

Mahler: What the FINANCIAL TIMES Tells Me

There are any number of risks when it comes to evaluating the experience of one performance of the music of Gustav Mahler on the basis of a report of another filed half-way around the world. However, bearing those risks in mind, I was still interested in reading what Andrew Clark had to say in the Financial Times about Vladimir Jurowski's first effort to conduct Mahler with the London Philharmonic Orchestra (LPO), who twenty years ago had built up some awesome Mahler chops under the baton of Klaus Tennstedt. The closest I have come to a direct experience of Jurowski was the Metropolitan Opera telecast of Engelbert Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel (giving the English title since the performance used David Pountney's English translation). One might think that any connection between Humperdinck and Mahler would be one of the ridiculous to the sublime. However, Mahler was a conductor before he was a composer; and he conducted the Hamburg premier of Humperdinck's opera on September 25, 1894. Having suggested that just about everything in Mahler's "prodigious store of memories" found its way into his compositions in one way or another, I wanted to read about Jurowski simply because his own "experience base" was aligning with Mahler's in an interesting way. My interest was further tweaked when I discovered that the composition Jurowski had selected for his first Mahler experience with the LPO was the second ("Resurrection") symphony, which struck me as a good place to begin for someone with a solid track record in both the concert hall and the opera house.

Nevertheless, I was less interested in Clark's overall evaluation of his experience than I was with one particular observation, which is that Jurowski's approach "underlined how much soft music there is in Mahler," making for "the opposite of a blast-fest." This set me to thinking about the overall conception of the current San Francisco Symphony Mahler Festival with regard to how much soft music Michael Tilson Thomas has selected for his programs. This was immediately evident from his decision to begin the entire affair with the settings of the five poems of Friedrich Rückert that Mahler composed (in the version with piano accompaniment) between 1901 and 1902. Mahler only orchestrated four of these songs; but, when he did, he drew upon some of the sparest, most transparent, and definitely most delicate instrumental resources we encounter in his entire corpus. Indeed, the closest his symphonic writing gets to this kind of instrumentation is the Adagietto of his fifth symphony, which, as Thomas pointed out when it was performed this past Saturday, Mahler was composing at the same time he was working on the Rückert settings. Indeed, that Saturday concert was very much "the opposite of a blast-fest," concluding with a contrived (but surprisingly effective) superposition of the final measures of the ninth symphony with Thomas Hampson singing the opening phrases of the first of the Songs of a Wayfarer.

Writing about the first concert of the San Francisco Symphony Festival for, I included the image of a caricature of Mahler conducting his first symphony, which is probably the ultimate in the effort of pen and ink to convey that concept of a "blast-fest." (A similar caricature was drawn of Richard Strauss conducting his Elektra opera, probably by a different artist.) I chose the caricature because the symphony was the major work on the program; and I even shamelessly appropriated W. S. Gilbert in describing the "beauty in the bellow of this blast." However, even in that symphony, some of Mahler's most interesting moments are the soft ones, particular at the beginning. On the other hand the featured work this coming week will be the fifth symphony, and we shall discover that all that intimacy in the Adagietto will be shattered by the concluding movement (which immediately follows it), in the course of which key thematic material from the Adagietto is reduced to a two-step that would be best suited for either a football field march or a workout class (all this in the context of his setting of the Knaben Wunderhorn poem about a song context between a cuckoo and a nightingale judged by a jackass). Much as I appreciate what Clark had to say, Mahler is far too complex to be reduced to the question of "to blast or not to blast!"

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Has Wall Street Finally Won the Vietnam War?

While I have had a long-standing interest in globalization and its discontents (possibly inspired by Sigmund Freud), I had not really appreciated the extent to which the free market can be used as a weapon until I found a report from Thuong Tin, Vietnam by Seth Mydans on today's New York Times Web site. It makes for interesting reading in the wake of the G20 summit's decision to prefer arguing over who has how much power as an alternative to trying to solve problems of global poverty that just keep getting worse. Mydans puts a human face on the consequences of such idle games through the genre of the good-news-bad-news story.

He begins with the good news (with only a slight hint of the bad):

Looking out across his green rice fields, Nguyen Van Truong can take pride in hedging his bets when he joined the global marketplace more than a decade ago and began to make money.

When Vietnam began a tentative engagement with the world economy in the mid-1990s, Mr. Truong was one of the first people to see profit in his local craft, embroidery, and he joined with other villagers in marketing it for export and domestic sales.

As hundreds, and then thousands, of farming villages began organizing themselves to sell their traditional crafts — like lacquerware, textiles, straw mats, noodles, fans and incense — they came to symbolize Vietnam’s eager embrace of capitalism after a ruinous postwar period of Communist restrictions on free enterprise.

Some villages, like Thuong Tin, on the rural outskirts of Hanoi, now resemble tiny cities in the midst of the rice fields with three- and sometimes four-story houses clustered along small concrete roadways.

Exports of handicrafts, many of them from village enterprises, earned $1 billion last year, according to official figures.

He then quickly shifts gears and makes this a that-was-then-this-is-now story. Needless to say, the "now" is not particularly pretty:

Most of the 3,000 crafts villages scattered around the country are in trouble, said Luu Duy Dan, vice chairman of the Vietnam Association of Crafts Villages. Only 30 percent of them are operating normally, he said, and, if nothing changes by the end of the year, half of them will have collapsed entirely, with a loss of some five million jobs.

Many villages are already bankrupt, according to the Ministry of Agriculture, including villages that made pottery, ceramics, shoes and high-quality paper.

Unlike Mr. Truong, 76, many of these new capitalists abandoned their farms and now find themselves without an economic safety net. In many cases, they had no choice, squeezed off their land like many rural people by a widespread conversion of farmland for industrial enterprises.

However, when it comes to appreciating the consequences of globalization, Mydans found one Vietnamese woman who seems to have swallowed an entire pitcher of the Kool-Aid and is willing to talk about how she now feels. The woman is Do Thanh Huong; and she committed to a three-fold embrace of globalization. She has two shops in Hanoi, one for fabrics and the other a clothing boutique, and also runs an export business. What she has to say is valid on all three of those fronts:

When people don’t buy in New York, we feel the effects in the village here.

Reading those words in the context that Mydans created for them, I suddenly realized that the financial sector of the United States managed to do to Vietnam what our military forces never succeeded in doing. Decades after the fighting ended, the embassy was evacuated, and peace was concluded, Wall Street won the Vietnam War for us. This may seem a bit anachronistic, if not downright silly; but think of it as a context in which to read those "mission statements" that continue to flow from al-Qaeda. The opposition that should concern us is an opposition that does not dismiss institutions like the G20 as irrelevant but instead sees them as a cultural threat. Since we are on the inside of that culture, so to speak, we cannot recognize the motives behind both their propaganda and their ongoing efforts towards terrorist attacks. We are as blind to those motives as we were to the motives of (then) North Vietnam; but, like those North Vietnamese, the al-Qaeda organizers are well aware of our motives and the risk of those motives prevailing over the long run. Unlike the Viet Cong, however, al-Qaeda has succeeded in taking their acts of opposition onto our own soil. We still think that we can retaliate by taking the fight to their soil without considering that theirs is not a "soil-based" battle.

If we are to get out of this mess, we might do well to think about Afghanistan in terms other than our usual agenda of making the world safe for democracy. At the beginning of this month, when every day seemed to bring news of another problem with the election there, I suggested that corruption was securely in place because the "government assumes that the West cares more about the threat of the Taliban regaining control than they do about the legitimacy of the democratic practices they claim to be supporting." Meanwhile, the Taliban is less concerned with democratic practices than they are with solving problems at the grass roots level, which is why the few success stories we have come down to whether or not our troops can present themselves at that same level as better problem solvers. However, even if our troops can present themselves this way, the question remains concerning whom they represent. If anyone who picks up a newspaper comes away thinking that neither the United States nor the G20 as a whole is seriously committed to problem solving, then, no matter how many good works those troops may achieve, they will never be seen as anything more than a temporary feel-good measure.

This is a serious problem, but it is even more serious because we rely so heavily on institutions that insist on pretending that the problem does not exist. This is nothing more than denial on a global scale. We ought to think metaphorically about that in remembering that denial is the first stage in Elisabeth Kübler-Ross' model of how we deal with the prospect of death. We should bear this in mind in the context of European commentary referring to the "death of America" that was flourishing during the last Presidential campaign. If we can get past denial, skip over the middle stages, and recognize the value of acceptance, we may be able to contribute to a world less vulnerable to the damages of poverty and the threats of terrorism. Unfortunately, that is a terribly big "if!"

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Was it Worth the Time and Money (not to mention media attention)?

I just finished reading Andrew Walker's assessment of the G20 summit on the BBC NEWS Web site. My guess is that any assessment will probably come down to whether the glass is half-empty or half-full without raising any questions about whether or not we are looking at the right glass. This was evident from the headline that framed Walker's report:

Will tough new G20 measures work?

The subtext here is that the summit was all about reforming regulations, accepting without question the premise that reforming relations would reform the financial system itself. The good news is that not everyone is accepting this premise. The media has not given much attention to those who dare to consider other premises, but at least two alternative schools of thought have managed to get beyond total disregard.

Most important is what, in the effort of trying to improve its attention by giving it an easily-remembered name, I would call the Grameen School of thought. This, of course, involves the alternative premise posed by Muhammad Yunus, which is that the financial sector should be based on a non-profit business model. This provocative premise has an equally provocative corollary, which is that solving problems of world-wide poverty is more important than economic growth. It is easy to see why Grameen School thinking was disregarded in Pittsburgh, not only because all of the conferees (the prevailing "economic autarky") were so firmly committed to growth as a metric of success but also because the media are supported by business models for a consciousness industry that maintains that economic autarky.

The other alternative premise arose in the more unlikely setting of an interfaith gathering of religious leaders in Seoul. This was a setting that was more interested in premises about human behavior than about econometric modeling. Put another way, these people were less interested in numbers (and whether or not those numbers were growing) and more interested in the ways in which people act and (to drop down a level) the motives behind those actions. This setting could adopt the premise that any reform in the financial system needed to be predicated on a reform of how we think about moral questions (or, for that matter, a reform aimed at thinking about those questions at all). At the very least such a gathering should have prompted G20 delegates to think about how their respective positions of authority would square off against the authority of the pulpit (regardless of specific beliefs held by those who come before that pulpit). I suppose there are those who might accuse me of disregarding the need to separate Church and State; but constitutionally-guaranteed separation does not rule out the capacity for those of Church and State to communicate in the interests of negotiated understanding. This was, after all, how those who met at this interfaith gathering could communicate in spite of significant differences in religious convictions.

I am reminded of the Camp David summit that Jimmy Carter arranged for Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat. Prior to that meeting Begin had cultivated the annoying rhetorical habit of declaring "Everything is negotiable!" whenever presented with questions about Israel's relations with its neighbors. Camp David provided Carter with the opportunity to hold Begin's feet to the fire until he was willing to honor the full extent of the semantics of "everything!" Similarly, the G20 wants to set itself up as the authority that can reason about all possible approaches to reform; but it then proceeds to rule out almost all of those possibilities. Barack Obama could have tried to hold everyone's feet to the fire; but, like it or not, he could not have attempted this from the position of strength that Carter had at Camp David. Yunus has the position of strength of a Nobel Laureate; but among G20 delegates that would not have gotten him the cab fare from the airport to the summit venue. Similarly, the secular world of economics sees no value in any religious leader, even when many such voices commit the rare act of speaking as one. Ultimately, the real conclusion of the summit was the agreement of the G20 to declare itself the authority for future economic planning., which means that we are back in the realm of that proclamation from Tim Dickenson that I cited before the summit officially convened:

We. Are. So. Screwed.

Friday, September 25, 2009


In the context of the positive chutzpah that earned Judge Jed Rakoff his Chutzpah of the Week award, this week's award will go to Bank of America (one of the two targets for Rakoff's chutzpah) for what can only be described as "retaliatory chutzpah!" Having failed to provide Rakoff with a satisfactory explanation for the settlement agreed upon by both Bank of America and the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), Bank of America has decided to respond with a request of its own, just reported by Reuters:

Bank of America Corp urged a federal judge to dismiss the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission's complaint accusing it of misleading shareholders about bonuses it let Merrill Lynch & Co pay employees before the companies' January 1 merger.

The bank's request, in a Friday filing, was expected, and came 11 days after U.S. District Judge Jed Rakoff rejected its $33 million settlement with the SEC over the $3.6 billion of bonus awards.

Rakoff, who is still handling the case, was upset that the accord did not require disclosure of the names of executives and lawyers who vetted the bonuses and the decision not to disclose them, and yet left shareholders on the hook for a fine. He called the settlement a "contrivance" that violates "the most elementary notions of justice and morality."

In its answer to the SEC's complaint, Bank of America maintained that the proxy statement for the merger did not contain false or misleading statements, or omit key facts. It also said it was not negligent in preparing the proxy statement.

SEC spokesman John Heine had no immediate comment.

In the language of diplomacy, this is all about playing "the great game." Fortunately, we have Andrew Cuomo hard at work to make sure that we are not the losers in this game. It is unclear that Bank of America's maneuver will get them anywhere, but we can still appreciate the chutzpah of the attempt!

Morality or Authority?

Having suggested yesterday that the G20 is both irrelevant and incompetent (the latter not being a major problem because of the former), at least where facilitating recovery from the current economic crisis is concerned, I took great interest in a dispatch just filed from Seoul by BBC Religious Affairs Correspondent Saul Landau. Here are the lead paragraphs that piqued my attention:

The worlds of economics and religion may seem far apart - but a meeting in South Korea has been attempting to narrow the gap between the two.

Religious and political leaders gathered in Seoul for a conference on interfaith co-operation.

They concluded their three-day meeting with a call for religious perspectives to be taken into account by governments tackling issues like the financial crisis.

While my usual reaction to religion stories is for my eyes to roll upwards (in the direction of a deity that does not exist?), I decided that, in this case, such a reaction would be an unfair prejudgment. After all, why should confidence in decisions made by religious leaders who have taken the trouble to attend an interfaith gathering be either lesser or greater than confidence in the attendees of the G20 summit? At the very least I wanted to learn more about what was said at the meeting in Seoul and about the sorts of conclusions (if any) that were reached.

One prevailing opinion in Seoul seems to have been that the financial crisis has more to do with morality than with economic theory. At the very least this could indicate that the conferees in Seoul had a better appreciation of Immanuel Kant than those in Pittsburgh. Kant was, after all, one of the first to codify the distinction between "pure reason," concerned with the objective lawfulness of the physical properties of nature (such as space and time), and "applied reason," concerned with the purposiveness of human behavior and its relation to a moral code. Kant saw these two forms of reason as being driven by different faculties of mind: cognition for pure reason and desire for applied reason. Between these two he postulated the mind's capacity to feel pleasure and displeasure, and that capacity enabled the mind to make decisions of judgment. While Kant did not explore judgmental decisions concerned with resources (such as personal wealth), it is hard to doubt that much of the current crisis can be attributed to a major failure of judgment. Since most of those who currently live by economic theory either cannot or will not get beyond the boundaries of pure reason, it may be desirable, if not necessary, to cede the field to the religious community if the conversation is to proceed beyond econometric models to more fundamental questions of humanity. Those questions necessarily address how the objectivity of those models can be reconciled with a capacity to feel pleasure and displeasure that, in turn, seeks a balance between the pleasure of having resources and the satisfaction one gains from a sense of fairness.

Most important, however, is that a departure from the formalisms of the objective world is accompanied by a diversity of opinions and values. This raises the question of whether an interfaith gathering of religious leaders can deal with that diversity. The indications from Seoul seem to have been that the participants were more willing to assign understanding of that diversity a higher priority than the promotion of the dogmas of their respective faiths. Perhaps those religious leaders have recognized that they are all in the same boat; and, whatever dogmas they espouse, they all care about whether or not that boat sinks. Those who persist in rejecting any premises that are not purely objective, on the other hand, do not (as an article of their particular "faith" in that objectivity) care what happens to the boat one way or another! Once you understand how significant this difference in underlying premises actually is, who (as they say in Ghostbusters) you gonna call?

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Mozart's Whiskey Tango Foxtrot Moment

Last July I gave National Security Advisor James L. Jones a Chutzpah of the Week award. It was not only that he was taking a tough stand against military brass who were trying every available method to bring more troops to Afghanistan but also that he could invoke military rhetoric to make it clear just how tough that stand was. What did the trick for me was when he told that brass that, if Barack Obama was presented with a request for additional troops, he would have "a Whiskey Tango Foxtrot moment." Everyone in the room got the message; but Bob Woodward still felt it necessary to provide an explanation to Washington Post readers (which can be found on the other side of the above hyperlink). Since that time I have come to realize that "Whiskey Tango Foxtrot" is as much a part of today's military language as "SNAFU" was during the Second World War; and, just as "SNAFU" found its way into our general vocabulary, "Whiskey Tango Foxtrot" will probably do the same, particularly since the texting community may have started the whole thing with their use of "WTF."

All this was on my mind on Monday night when I attended the San Francisco Opera Insight Panel for the new production of Die Entführung aus dem Serail, nicely summarized by Cindy Warner for Since that sentence may prompt a few Whiskey Tango Foxtrot moments of its own, I had better explain. It involves what I feel is a major challenge to any director staging the opera and concerns what happens in the quartet at the end of the second act. For those unfamiliar with the opera, the basic plot is about a noblewoman (Konstanze) being held captive (along with her maid, Blonde) by a Turkish Pasha. Her beloved Belmonte comes to Turkey to rescue her with the aid of his servant, Pedrillo, who was captured along with Konstanze and Blonde. This quartet is the first moment at which all four of these characters are united; and Belmonte and Pedrillo have devised "a cunning plan" to spring the ladies from their captivity. In the midst of all this planning, Belmonte gets tongue-tied. Something is bothering him, and finally he blurts out to Konstanze that he needs to know if she has been faithful to him. This, for me, was the perfect example of a Whiskey Tango Foxtrot moment; and Konstanze makes no bones about letting Belmonte know it! However, even though Konstanze sticks to her guns, I worry about whether or not most directors feel this is just Mozart indulging in the sexist humor of the time.

Thinking more about this as a staging challenge, I realized that any production of an opera that is not contemporary has to deal with two readings. There is the interpretation that is most consistent with the thinking of the librettist and composer (which is why a company will often hire a dramaturge to help figure out what that interpretation ought to be). In Entführung this is the interpretation that is grounded in a comedic view of love as a behavior that makes fools of all touched by it (as in, for example, A Midsummer Night's Dream). The second interpretation is the director's own reading that takes the contemporary audience into account and may accept or reject as much or as little of the first interpretation as his/her personal judgment thinks is appropriate.

In the Insight Panel director Chas Rader-Shieber talked about trying to work with a design that makes the transition from the world of artifact to the world of human values. (I saw a production of Richard Strauss' Ariadne auf Naxos in Paris that pulled off this trick beautifully, and I shall never forget it!) The world of human values has many virtues; but it is not necessarily a world in which the protagonists "live happily every after." In this quartet there is at least a faint suggestion that Konstanze's life with Belmonte will not be that all different from her life under the Pasha. How will she react when she discovers that? Her indignation indicates that she can be a take-charge woman, more like Despina's character in Cosi fan Tutte than that of the ditzy sisters who are that opera's protagonists. The curtain may fall on Konstanze's freedom from the Pasha (owing more to the Pasha's sense of mercy than to the success of that "cunning plan"); but the story continues. There is nothing wrong with our leaving the opera house thinking about that continuation, particularly if the director is trying to get beyond the stereotypes of low comedy in search of something higher!

Did the Radiation Work?

I have not had anything to write about my cancer treatment, since I had to wait three months before getting a PSA reading. Today I had a session with my radiologist for which I had my blood drawn and tested last week. PSA came in at 0.04, which, as I recall, counted for "negligible" in my post-surgery blood tests. My radiologist was pleased; and it goes without saying that I was, too! Nevertheless, I shall have to maintain three-month monitoring to make sure that this is not a statistical fluke. Still, this is the best I have felt about my condition since I first consulted my urologist last January.

Not to be Trusted with Problem-Solving?

John Nichols' latest post to his blog (The Beat) on the Web site for The Nation may have come up with the perfect rejoinder to my recent grousing about the prevailing attitude at the G20 preferring growth to problem-solving:

The G20 Summit that opens Thursday is unlikely to achieve much when it comes to restructuring the global economic order. That's good news for workers, farmers, consumers and citizens.

His basic argument is that, as far as "the rest of us" are concerned, no one attending the G20 summit has any interest (let alone will or, for that matter, competence) in solving our problems. Thus, it may be just as well that someone like Muhammad Yunus will not be sitting at the table with them (let alone sharing their champagne, caviar, and luxury hotel suites). There is too much optimism behind Yunus' efforts to advance the Grameen agenda, and I would not want depression and frustration with the ruling elite to slow his progress. From this point of view, I am not even sure I support those who have come to Pittsburgh to protest. It seems to me that the best thing we can do is honor the spirit of Georges Clemenceau and acknowledge the irrelevance of both the summit itself and those who participate in it. Rather than protesting that irrelevance, we should be seeking out those more committed to solving our problems, supporting them with both our words and our actions. If the center can no longer hold, let us regroup and apply our best efforts to the periphery!

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Irreconcilable Differences?

The respective timings of the two Al Jazeera English reports were so close that they appeared side-by-side in the RSS feed to Google Reader. The earlier story concerned the latest video from al-Qaeda:

Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda's second man in charge, has warned the US administration that it will be defeated at the hands of the Muslim world.

In a new video released on Tuesday, al-Zawahiri said the government of Barack Obama, the US president, would be brought down by the Mujahid youths of the Muslim Umma (nation).

"God willing, your end will be at the hands of the Muslim nation, so that the world and history will be free of your crimes and lies," he said.

As far as I can tell from subsequent details, the concept of Umma is one that transcends the secular concept of nationhood and the boundaries imposed by that concept, which, in turn, serve as a foundation for the members of the United Nations. In spirit it may thus bear at least a family resemblance to the Communist International and its mission of "the complete abolition of the State" (at least to the extent that "the State" was a bourgeois invention). In other words the idea of the Umma is one of globalization through faith in Islam, as opposed to Tom Friedman's version of globalization, which is based on faith in capitalism.

The second Al Jazeera English story concerns a faith that differs from Islam as much as from Friedman-style globalization:

Saudi Arabia has set up a new research university, a multibillion dollar co-educational venture built on the promise of scientific freedom.

The King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) - complete with state-of-the-art laboratories, the world's 14th fastest supercomputer, and one of the biggest endowments worldwide - is scheduled to officially open on Wednesday.

The inaugural ceremony is to be headed by its namesake, King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud, as well as several world leaders, dignitaries and officials.

The campus is built along the Red Sea coast about 80km north of the commercial centre of Jeddah.

Saudi officials have envisaged the postgraduate institution as a crucial part of the kingdom's plans to transform itself into a global scientific hub - the latest effort in the Gulf region to diversify its economic base.

As one reads the details, one realizes that KAUST will be an island (gilded cage?) for the scientific culture of Enlightenment thinking (itself yet another species of faith), surrounded by, as the article puts it "the most religiously strict country in the Middle East." The contrast of extremes is, to say the least, chilling, leading me to wonder when al-Qaeda will decide that KAUST is as much a menace to its ideals as the United States is, particularly in light of some of the ways in which normative practices within KAUST will defy fundamentalist Muslim thinking:

But the new university will not require women to wear veils or cover their faces, and they will be able to mix freely with men.

They will also be allowed to drive, a taboo in a country where women must literally take a back seat to their male drivers.

I am reminded of the quotation from Lin Yutang that inspired the title of Evelyn Waugh's novel Put Out More Flags:

A man getting drunk at a farewell party should strike a musical tone, in order to strengthen his spirit … and a drunk military man should order gallons and put out more flags in order to increase his military splendour.

I doubt that any serious scientist would like to be compared to "a drunk military man;" but what is KAUST if not an effort to put out another flag claiming Enlightenment territory, while fundamentalist Muslims put out flags for their Umma and globalization capitalists continue to salute flags they believe are firmly in place? The world is being torn apart by three (if not more) factions of drunk military men, none of which seem to grasp just how much damage they can cause (or perhaps they place a higher value on their convictions than on an assessment of the consequences of that damage).

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Growth Question

Much of my writing about economic conditions has focused on the dangers of a prevailing commitment that growth is all that matters where economic health is concerned. I have even suggested that this fixation on growth is a primary means by which the existing "economic autarky" can maintain power over "those countries not already 'developed' according to standards set by the industrialized countries." After several years of wondering whether or not I have been alone in questioning the value of growth, I can now thank SPIEGEL ONLINE for letting me know that I have some good company. This has been achieved through an English translation of an extended analysis by Alexander Jung entitled "Can Economies Function without Growth?: The Cult of GDP." Jung has been far more thorough than I ever was; but his invocation of the cult metaphor aligns nicely with my tendency to invoke the toxic Kool-Aid metaphor (whose origins trace back to the Jonestown cult). Jung's analysis also emphasizes the folly of the G20 (the prevailing "economic autarky") ignoring the problem-solving skills of Muhammad Yunus in the interest of keeping their autarky intact.

Let me offer one passage from Jung's article to encourage reading it in its entirety:

The critics of growth now advocate modesty, saying that affluence breeds contempt. Consumption, they argue, clouds our perspective on the important things in life. And it's not just young, left-leaning members of society who feel this way. "Growth is a completely useless concept to describe well-being," says Klaus Wiegandt, 70. For anyone familiar with Wiegandt's past career, this statement is nothing short of astonishing.

Until 1998, Wiegandt was CEO of Metro, a diversified German retail group that included the Kaufhof department store chain and the Saturn and Media Markt consumer electronics retail chains. Before that, he was responsible for the rise of the Rewe supermarket chain, increasing its sales tenfold. Wiegandt set the pace in the industry, based on the principle that growth was essential to survival.

At the time, regional dairies and breweries were disappearing en masse in Germany as retail purchasing became increasingly globalized. Nowadays lamb is imported to Germany from New Zealand, flowers are flown in from Africa and German lumber is shipped to China, where it is made into furniture which is then shipped back to Europe. What is Wiegandt's assessment of these developments today? "It's completely idiotic!" he says indignantly. "Later generations will ask themselves: Who were these people?"

My only misgiving is that Wiegandt may be too optimistic in assuming that there will be later generations to ask that painful question!

Rearranging the Deck Chairs

If I am to believe last night's story from Steve Schifferes, Economic Reporter for BBC News, there is a good chance that discussions at the G20 meeting could get hung up over questions of governance having to do with which countries have how much voting power. This is precisely why I went on a rant yesterday over the absence of someone like Muhammad Yunus at such a meeting at a time when it is clear that, whatever talk of economic recovery there may be, most of us are still in a crisis situation. While Yunus has made it clear that solving problems, particularly the problem of poverty, has always been his primary concern, it is clear that the G20 delegates have only one concern; and that is the question of who is in charge. This is beyond the absurdity of rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. We have now reached a stage where those rearranging those deck chairs are fighting among themselves for who has the best view of the iceberg! Like those "militaires" whom Georges Clemenceau realized could not be trusted with serious decisions pertaining to war, economic conditions are too serious to be entrusted to the G20 delegates. As has been the case at similar meetings in the past, protesters will at least try to take to the streets of Pittsburgh to make this point; but it is unclear that they will stand a chance against the resources that the consciousness industry can summon against them, be they resources of brute force or media control. Things have not changed since the days of Bush Administration Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, whose approach to dealing with the crisis was aptly summarized by Tim Dickinson's National Affairs blog on the Rolling Stone Web site as follows:

We. Are. So. Screwed.

We are no less screwed than we were a year ago, and all signs are pointing to our getting even more screwed!

Monday, September 21, 2009

In Search of Deeds, not Words

Last night, in the wake of Barack Obama's media blitz, the following dispatch came over the Reuters wire:

U.S. President Barack Obama said on Sunday he would push world leaders this week for a reshaping of the global economy in response to the deepest financial crisis in decades.

What is this supposed to mean? We can probably assume that one thing it will not mean is that those who steer the global economy should take a long hard look at the role of the profit motive in the conduct of business. Were they willing to take such a long and hard look, they would have made arrangements to invite Muhammad Yunus to this week's G20 meeting in Pittsburgh. As I have previously written (and honored), Yunus has had the chutzpah to suggest that the financial sector should be based on a non-profit business model, giving greater priority to problem solving over revenue. Any "reshaping of the global economy" can only be achieved from the ground up; and, where any business is concerned, that ground it the motivation for running the business in the first place. This would have been the perfect opportunity to bring to the table a voice with a decidedly different point of view, and the G20 has squandered that opportunity. Obama is not going to earn any social capital among the unemployed for this latest round of jawboning.

Rage Against the Consciousness Industry

Last night Rina Chandran filed a story for Reuters from their Mumbai desk that really gets you thinking about where we have arrived and just how the hell we got here. Here are her lead paragraphs:

When Infosys Technologies, India's second-largest IT firm, hired paramilitary troops to protect its sprawling headquarters in Bangalore, some observers might have thought they had gone overboard.

But since the Mumbai attacks last year, India's software exporters have bolstered security due to concerns that militants might target their headquarters as symbols of the country's economic success and to deter foreign investors.

Foremost among those seeking to hire well-armed paramilitary troops are companies in India's Silicon Valley, Bangalore, the nerve center of the nation's $60 billion outsourcing industry that runs services from software coding to managing computer networks and call centers.

"India's IT firms are the flag-bearers of the country's thriving knowledge economy. This makes them 'high economic-value' targets with a global identity," said Manoj Vohra, director of research at the Economist Intelligence Unit's India division.

Security guards are no surprise to me. I have dealt with them since I was a graduate student doing my research in an off-campus building that housed the MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. I have also recognized the need for security, since I was doing my doctoral research at the time of the bomb attack on an Army-supported research facility at the University of Wisconsin. However, I never found myself working in an environment that required the protection of "well-armed paramilitary troops," even when I was working on classified material. Is this an overreaction to the Mumbai bombings or a recognition of the way things now are; and, if the latter, just what are "the way things now are?"

Recently, a New York Review article brought my attention to Hans Magnus Enzensberger and his study of the bomb-throwing anarchists of the late nineteenth century. His two-part essay, "Dreamers of the Absolute," was included in Michael Roloff's anthology of Enzensberger's work, published under the title Politics and Crime. I thought about Enzensberger while reading Chandran's article but realized that this was not a story about politics. As I saw it, the focus of the story resided in the Vohra quote at the end of the above excerpt. It was a story about the new Weltanschauung of the "knowledge economy;" and that association triggered a memory of an item at the end of the table of contents of Politics and Crime entitled "The Consciousness Industry."

When you think of it, there is something awesomely arrogant in so much having been written about the knowledge economy when we know so little about knowledge (perhaps no more than Socrates ever did). Enzensberger's gift was his ability to focus on industry, rather than economy, and to recognize that industry could be more about manipulation than about production. This was the origin of his "consciousness industry" concept, which has been nicely summarized by Jeffrey Thomas Nealon and Caren Irr in their book, Rethinking the Frankfurt School: Alternative Legacies of Cultural Critique, as follows:

The basic premise of the consciousness industry approach is that gaining the consent of the dominated is essential to the ruling class. The coercive nature of capitalism alone cannot guarantee its hegemony; it requires ideological work to convince subordinate classes that the system is fair, just, and "natural." Formal democratic rights guaranteed to the subordinate classes also complicate matters of class rule. The ruling class must work to articulate its particular class interests to the general interests of the citizenry as a whole. Nevertheless, the capitalist class has a clear advantage in the struggle over definitions of what policies and programs are in the "public interest." It is more organized and unified than the working class. It has the networks and resources to maintain and reproduce its hegemony. In addition, the field of struggle—whether the state or the media—is structurally tilted against subversive forces. For example, a historical study of copyright law demonstrates how the legal system tends to privilege private property rights over the rights of creators and consumers of culture and information.

In other words, class warfare has moved from the conflict between those who produce goods and those who profit from the production of those goods (the primary focus of the investigations of Karl Marx) to a new conflict between a ruling class that controls the thinking of those they rule and those who resist having their thoughts controlled. If the IT firms of India are bearing any flags (as Vohra wishes to believe) they are the flags of a ruling class that can now "manufacture consent" (to borrow a phrase from Noam Chomsky).

However, what Chandran's report reveals is that the change in the objective of class warfare has been accompanied by a change in how that warfare is conducted. The bomb-throwing anarchists that Enzensberger were challenged by government-based institutions of enforcement, ranging from the municipal police to the national armed forces. What we see in India is a migration of defense and protection from the public sector to the private sector. This throws some new variables into the mathematical models of that "knowledge economy." The "supply and demand of knowledge" (whatever that may mean) now depends on the supply and demand of brute force to insure the security of "those who manage the knowledge" (again, whatever that may mean). Put another way, the geek kids in the playground now have the resources to hire their own bullies to protect them from other bullies, which means that, just as in every other era of history, it will all come down to which bullies are stronger. Is it time to hide under the bed yet?

Sunday, September 20, 2009

From the Ballpark to the Streets

At least some of my dissatisfaction with Giuseppe Verdi earlier this morning was probably a result of my having gone to see the simulcast of last night's San Francisco Opera performance of Il Trovatore from a seat in AT&T Park. Opera at the Ballpark is now a regular San Francisco Opera feature; and, as social events go, it is really quite an experience. However, it is important to recognize that it is a social experience, rather than an opera experience; and, at best, it can serve as an incentive for trying out the opera experience itself it its proper setting. The problem is that Trovatore is not the best offering to serve as such an incentive. To the extent that it works at all, it demands an interplay between its moments of bombast and the use of softer subtlety. From this point of view it is interesting to read Julie Bloom's latest post to the Arts Beat blog for The New York Times:

The sirens and other orchestral sounds singular to Times Square will have some competition Monday night. The Metropolitan Opera’s opening-night gala performance of Puccini’s “Tosca,” which kicks off its season, will be transmitted onto multiple screens in Times Square and to a large screen at Lincoln Center’s Josie Robertson Plaza.

The new production, which stars Karita Mattila, Marcelo Álvarez and George Gagnidze, will be conducted by James Levine.

Admission to the Lincoln Center Plazacast is free, but tickets are required. Beginning at noon Sunday only at the Met Box office, 3,000 tickets were made available (limited to two per person). The live Times Square relay of the performance, which will be carried on the Panasonic, Reuters/Nasdaq and MTV screens, is also free, with no tickets required. Approximately 2,000 seats will be available for the public on a first-come first-served basis, with additional standing room provided.

As I have observed before, Tosca makes for quite a different kind of selection. It is one of those operas that delivers its message through its capacity for being loud and vulgar. If there is any question as to whether or not the street sounds of New York might be too intrusive, we should remember that offstage sounds play a significant role in Giacomo Puccini's conception of the Tosca score. So, for this particular occasion, the Met may have the better idea; but, since Tosca was the offering at last year's Ballpark event, the Met may have gotten the idea from San Francisco!

Why Verdi?

The reader of Robert C. Marsh's Dialogues and Discoveries: James Levine: His Life and His Music could easily believe that Levine never met a Verdi opera he did not like. It is interesting that, in this context, Giuseppe Verdi's Il Trovatore only appears on two pages of Marsh's book, confined to a single sentence on each. In the first case the opera seems to be secondary to the man doing the singing:

A major historic document is the Il Trovatore [video recording] of 1988 with Pavarotti in his vintage years.

In the second case it is just one item on a laundry list:

Evidently persuaded that there was an audience for Verdi on CD, in 1991 Levine began a series of Verdi recordings in New York. Aida, La Traviata, Luisa Miller, and Il Trovatore were made in the three years, followed by Don Carlo, and an as yet unfinished Rigoletto.

Given how much of this book consists of transcripts of conversations that Marsh conducted with Levine, one wishes that, at some point (perhaps over a third beer), Marsh would have just blurted out, "Jim [as he seems to call him], what do you really think of Trovatore?" Wikipedia cites it as the second "of the three major operas of Verdi's 'middle period;'" and that is a fair enough description, However, does that justify anything more than its inclusion in the above "laundry list?" The video recording at least provides a sample of Pavarotti at his best belting out "Di qella pira;" but do we need anything more from the document?

Might one be bold enough to suggest that, for all of Levine's enthusiasm, Verdi never thought of opera as anything more than a few prime moments in which music united with drama in full force, with the implication that everything else was just filler to keep the audience in their seats and off the streets? For all we know, that is the way he initially thought about Otello; but fortunately Arrigo Boito, probably out of respect to William Shakespeare, would not let him get away with it. Boito was also responsible for reworking Simon Boccanegra into a drama that may not have risen to Shakespearean heights but was still intensely compelling. Boito helped make both of these operas exceptional; but they are not to be confused with the business-as-usual remainder of the Verdi repertoire. When we have to be careful about how much we spend on our entertainment, many of us would prefer an evening that consists of more than "a few prime moments!"

Saturday, September 19, 2009

"mugged by reality"

Al Jazeera English may seem like an unlikely place to read an obituary for Irving Kristol. However, they were so prompt in relaying the story from their wire sources to their Web site that this was the first place I received news of the death of this neoconservative-born-again-from-Trotskyism. The report reminded me of the one phrase from Kristol that has always stuck in my mind, his assertion that a neoconservative was nothing more than a liberal who had been "mugged by reality."

In light of how Kristol associated movement from the left to the right in the context of a violent attack, I wonder what he would have thought about the news from Belgrade reported by the BBC this morning:

A gay parade planned to take place in Belgrade on Sunday has been cancelled, due to security concerns.

The decision came after a recent wave of homophobic graffiti that has appeared across the city with slogans like "Gay parade - we're waiting for you" and "Death to homosexuals".

Past days have seen increased threats from ultra-nationalist groups vowing to stop the parade at all costs.

The organisers and city authorities feared a repeat of eight years ago, when Belgrade's first ever gay parade had to be abandoned half-way through due to widespread violence by an angry mob of protesters.

Television pictures of bleeding participants and police firing rubber bullets to disperse the crowd were flashed across the globe.

One wonders just how the gay community of Belgrade will respond to this "mugging" by the reality of the city's right-wing nationalists. Would Kristol suggest that they turn to conservatism through if-you-can't-lick-'em-join-'em logic? If so, then it might be a good example of how, at the end of the day, what the neoconservatives offered as logic was not logic at all but just a more elaborate form of intimidation masquerading as logic. If the gays of Belgrade prevail, it will be because their left-wing commitment to civil rights will withstand the "muggings" of conservatives (in the spirit of those who first tried to get members of the black community to register to vote in the Deep South), rather than capitulating to it. Kristol may have had a sufficient impact in the corridors of power of his own time to be remembered in an obituary; but today we have only to look at strife around the world to recognize that his theories never rose above the level of balderdash!

Friday, September 18, 2009


This feels like it has been a long week. It has certainly not been a week without chutzpah; but it did not feel like a week in which any specific act of chutzpah immediately jumped out as being award-winning. In retrospect, however, I think that Barack Obama deserves the Chutzpah of the Week award for his decision to reverse the "missile shield" plan of his predecessor. Reviewing the reactions of the German press in the SPIEGEL ONLINE summary article, I agree with the Süddeutsche Zeitung excerpt that described it as "a big political gamble;" but I think that is precisely where the chutzpah resides. I also happen to be reading James McPherson's survey of the latest crop of books about Abraham Lincoln, which got me to thinking that the Emancipation Proclamation was also "a big political gamble." As McPherson pointed out, Lincoln probably did a better job of preparing public opinion for the possibility of such a proclamation before actually committing himself to it; but this just means that Obama made his gamble with odds more heavily against him. However, his decision is a sign of his recognition that those who oppose him will do so for the sake of opposing him, regardless of whether there is any substantive reason, which means that he should assign the spirit of his campaign promises higher priority than the need for unity among partisans who prefer separation. As I have observed, Obama has a track record of chutzpah awards with both negative and positive connotations. This one is decidedly positive and needs to be recognized as such.

Anyone Remember when Retailing WAS Social?

The trouble with reading CNET News is that it makes me feel my age. Consider the following crux of today's report by Don Reisinger on prevailing attitudes towards social media in the retail sector:

The E-tailing Group, which specializes in retail sector trends, surveyed 117 companies--from small to large--to assess how retailers and brands view the social Web.

The biggest concern among respondents is that consumers will "trash their products in front of a large audience," according to E-tailing Group. At the same time, companies very much want to partake in the social Web.

Am I the only one to see the eating-your-cake-and-having-it-too irony in these results? The whole idea of selling through the Internet was one of those classic instances of "disintermediation." The fundamental premise was that all that mattered was the "relationship" (scare quotes intended) between customer and product. Anything else was extraneous.

As is so often the case when technology intervenes to "make things better" (more scare quotes), the result was a system that tended to work to the customer's satisfaction most of the time. When the system did not work, however, it became a source of major (if not extreme) aggravation. However, because the system persisted, our natural tendency to forget history obscured any recollection of the "good old days," when, if you were not satisfied, you took the product "back to the shop" and dealt with your lack of satisfaction through a human being. If that person was good at his/her job, that interaction might even allow you some time to blow off steam before getting down to resolving the problem. In this brave new world that the Internet has made, that whole back-to-the-shop scenario has gone out the window, particularly the part about dealing with someone who may actually be interested in resolving your problem. So, if you need to blow off that steam, you go to the Internet to do it and use what you feel is a suitable forum to "trash their products in front of a large audience." This rarely solves the problem, and it may not always provide the desired emotional release.

The problem seems to be that much, if not most, of the retail sector is now so addled by the Kool-Aid of technology evangelism that individual retailers can no longer recognize the problems that are most serious for any efforts to do better business. Social media may be the ideal platform for cooperative problem solving; but cooperative problem solving is no longer part of our culture (as even the slightest glance at political reporting should make painfully obvious). The technology promoted as making us more "social" has, in reality, made us more adversarial. If we are not careful, those adversarial confrontations will spin out of control, as they did in Eugene Field's poem, "The Duel," about a fight between a gingham dog and a calico cat:

Next morning where the two had sat
They found no trace of dog or cat;
And some folks think unto this day
That burglars stole that pair away!
But the truth about the cat and pup
Is this: they ate each other up!

Then we shall no longer have to worry about whether or not the Internet is good for the retail sector!

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Conversing with the Dead

It is very seldom that a truly personal blog post resonates with me. I figure that the blogger is writing it for the same reason that I write such things: Writing is a way of trying to bring some order to unkempt thoughts, usually on the premise that they may achieve a more secure place in memory once they have been ordered. (These days, I am not sure I can vouch for my memory; but I have a fair amount of confidence that those thoughts, now ordered by the process of writing, will soon be within the grasp of at least one of the search engines I use!)

I say all this as prologue to Jeremy Denk's blog post about Leon Kirchner this morning. It followed a path of free association that began with Kirchner "jokingly" comparing Denk to Walt Whitman, continuing with Denk finding (and purchasing) a copy of Leaves of Grass in Grand Central Station, being transformed by the text, and ultimately receiving the news of Kirchner's death. For me, however, the punch line hit me after that transformation:

Am back at home, looking at a giant writing project on the Goldberg Variations which I am supposed to finish, f&*(). How I wish I could ask Leon about them right now.

This struck me in a bizarre way, not so much because of my own sporadic encounters with Kirchner as much as a failure to appreciate conversations with a mentor until it is too late.

My first doctoral thesis advisor was Gian-Carlo Rota. It was an inevitable commitment after all the time I had taken transcribing his lectures on combinatorial analysis into printed notes (which was probably just as valuable on my path to becoming a better writer as any of my projects involving writing about dance or music). That commitment had the unintended consequence of reorienting the target of my research passions, resulting in my changing advisors. It was Rota who had been responsible for my being at the University of Colorado in Boulder during that fateful summer of 1968, when my life was changed by my encounters with John Cage, Merce Cunningham, and the members of the Cunningham Dance Company. Rota had a visiting appointment at the University of Colorado that summer, and he lured me to join him to continue my scribal duties while he lectured on a new approach to Pólya's Theorem. When I arrived, having given my Volvo is first serious road trip on the Interstate system between Boston and Boulder, Rota informed me that he had decided to lecture on category theory instead; and every day become an adventure of a stranger in a strange land (for me, if not for Rota). Going on mushroom hunts with Cage was the perfect way to clear my head while trying to make sense of each day's lecture.

I think Rota realized that I was more passionate about music than about pure mathematics; and, while he was never sympathetic to the agenda of artificial intelligence, I also think he realized that Marvin Minsky would serve me better as an advisor, even if it was just a matter of giving me a freer rein until I found my way. However, while Rota and I went separate paths where my doctorate was concerned, we stayed in touch sporadically. Thus, when I was teaching at the Technion in Haifa, I wrote to let him know that I had given a series of lectures on combinatorics that owed more to the notes I had taken in his lectures than to any of the current textbooks. I also mentioned that I had written up those lectures for the benefit of the students who did not follow my English very well, and Rota almost immediately wrote back to request a copy of what I had written! (Old habits die hard.)

Less than a decade later, when I was doing military research in Santa Barbara, I had a visitor one day who noticed a copy of José Ortega y Gasset's Phenomenology and Art on my shelf and asked, "Did you get that from Rota?" I doubt that he knew more about me than my MIT background; but through him I discovered that, having securely established his position in mathematics, Rota was now lecturing on phenomenology. It took almost another ten years for our paths to cross: I was now doing research at the Information Sciences Institute at the University of Southern California (USC); and Rota was spending chunks of his winter time in the USC Mathematics Department, primarily because of the preferable weather. By this time my struggles with Ortega had evolved into struggles with Ludwig Wittgenstein. We had lots to talk about, and I remember bringing him home to meet my wife and have dinner with us. He seemed particularly interested in my decision to view Wittgenstein as straddling a borderline between philosophy and poetry, seeking out a poet's approach to expression when the language of philosophy failed him. (These days I wonder how much of that was actually Wittgenstein and how much came from those who faithfully transcribed his lectures!)

We had only one encounter after that. This was when I was working in Singapore, and I was part of a task force considering an invitation for membership in the MIT Media Lab. Rota was both tactful and cautionary in his choice of words about the Media Lab. I could tell this was more than his usual skepticism about Minsky; and some of that skepticism wore off on me during the nuts-and-bolts discussion of whether or not the Media Lab's invitation would be accepted.

Throughout all these events, my reading continued to follow paths similar to those Rota had chosen in his excursions away from mathematics. News of his death came to me from one of my Xerox colleagues while I was working in Palo Alto. Ever since then I find that I cannot read a text by Edmund Husserl (or, for that matter, Jacques Derrida writing about Husserl) without having the same reaction that Denk articulated about Kirchner. My jaw would drop in amazement at some passage I had just read, and I would immediately have this urge to share it with Rota and probably ask him something about it.

Rota never understood what it was about Cage that appealed to me. He used to ask me to explain Cage to him back when I was still his student. (He also made the request concerning Charles Ives, who, ironically, now holds such a strong place in Denk's repertoire.) He would then add that he would only accept an explanation grounded in the aesthetic theory of Benedetto Croce. I am now reading The Aesthetic as the Science of Expression and of the Linguistic in General for a second time in conjunction with my ongoing efforts to understand the nature of musical performance; and, damn it all, I can give that explanation now! However, rather than feeling frustration over Rota no longer being around to hear it, I realize that he would have been more concerned about whether or not I could provide that explanation to myself than with how I would deliver it to him. My guess is that Denk will come to a similar conclusion, coming to grips with the "Goldberg Variations" by finding the right way to converse with himself now that Kirchner can no longer participate. The flesh of the dead may no longer be with us, but we can still converse with them in spirit. We do that through our gift for being able to hold conversations with ourselves.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Beyond the Statistics

Did the BBC actually react to last week's "Meaningless Statistics" post, in which I accused them of spinning Administration claims about the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act? Did Katty Kay actually leave the comforts of Washington to go into the field (which, in all fairness, she seems to do with encouraging frequency) to see if there was any substance behind those statistics? I know better than to assume that this blog has that sort of impact (and my wife continues to give me arch looks whenever I say anything about the good work Kay has been doing for BBC America); but the report she filed yesterday for the BBC NEWS Web site does have some real numbers about some real jobs. It is hardly enough to substantiate fully those Administration claims, but it is certainly pointing in the right direction.

The bottom line is that Kay's field work took place in Perry County ("about 90 minutes from Nashville"), because that county "is part of a unique experiment where the state is using stimulus money to pay for almost 300 people to work in private businesses." Here are some hard data points:

Armstrong Pies is employing eight stimulus workers. Around the corner, Dimples cafe has two. Next door, a tailoring firm employs one, while Linden's only hotel, the Commodore, has 12 government-paid staff to help it run its restaurant.

The scheme has brought local unemployment down from a staggering 27% to 19% - but these jobs are only guaranteed for one year.

The funds come from stimulus money set aside for welfare and only residents below a certain income level can apply.

Kay's larger claim is that "Dozens of businesses are benefitting;" but she chose to illustrate her point by focusing on a single city block, which is not a bad rhetorical flourish.

Nevertheless, there are two words that should be raising red flags of skepticism. The first is "experiment." As the elaboration makes clear, this experiment will be conducted over a limited period of time. What happens next will probably depend on the sort of data that get collected; but we should not discount the risk that any activities will get put on hold while the "professionals" conduct an analysis of those data. The word "unique" is also a bit disquieting. As my father liked to say, "One is not a statistic." What other activities are taking place by virtue of the use of stimulus money to reduce unemployment? Are they in any way coordinated, even for something as simple as sharing data? Do they know about each other, or is this going to be another classic case where no one is even thinking about connecting any dots? If this is a state-based effort, what is Tennessee doing to touch base with other states that have similar concerns?

Yes, the BBC has progressed beyond the specious reasoning that comes from spinning meaningless statistics; but, as Lao Tzu would have put it, this is but the first step in a thousand-mile journey. Who will take the next steps? Will Kay be there (wherever in the field "there" is) to let us know about those steps; and why is the BBC doing a better job covering unemployment in our country than our "home-grown" news services?

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Is Explanation Necessary?

I just finished reading Ronnie Scheib's Variety review of a screening of Kichitaro Negishi's Viyon No Tsuma (Villon's Wife) at the Montreal Film Festival. What struck me is that the name "Villon" only appears when the title of the film is mentioned with absolutely no explanation of what it is doing in the title. Scheib does mention that the film is based on a 1947 semi-autobiographical novel by Osamu Dazai in which he portrays himself as a "womanizing, heavy-drinking, suicidal hero" (who, incidentally, committed suicide a year after the novel was published). However, the idea that Dazai may have seen himself as a latter-day reincarnation of François Villon, described in his Wikipedia entry as "a French poet, thief, and vagabond," never surfaces in the review, leading me to wonder whether it arose in the film or, for that matter, the novel.

In the early twentieth century there were a variety of literary and musical works that romanticized Villon to a point of absurdity, which may be one reason that Bertolt Brecht decided to pull him in the opposite direction, using him as the model for the truly vile Baal character in his play of the same name. At the very least Negishi (and probably Dazai) saw fit to honor the thief side of Villon's reputation, since the film begins with Dazai's alter ego stealing ¥5,000 from a bar where he has run up a tab that he cannot pay. However, the closest Scheib comes to seeing any poetic side in this character is in describing him as "Byronic." (Oops! Wrong country! Wrong century! There is a good chance that Lord Byron was not acquainted with either the poetry or reputation of Villon, so it would be unfair to accuse Byron of channeling Villon.)

However, does any effort to set the record straight really matter? It probably would have mattered to Dazai. He went to the trouble of invoking Villon in his title. Whether or not the burden of recognizing the significance of the name was left as an exercise for the reader, the name was clearly important to him. Does it matter if that importance eluded Negishi? Does it matter that it eluded Scheib on the grounds that one dissolute scoundrel with "a touch of the poet" is as good as another? Ultimately, the narrative is more concerned with the good wife picking up after her husband than with the husband himself. Furthermore, Villon's own relations with women seemed to have more to do with getting into trouble than with having someone to clean up the mess. Perhaps Scheib is on to something. Perhaps Dazai would have done better to title his novel Byron's Wife!

Monday, September 14, 2009

Judge Jed Rakoff Hangs Tough

When we last left U.S. District Judge Jed Rakoff, he had refused to approve a settlement between Bank of America and the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) in the form of a $33 million fine to be paid by Bank of America. When I last wrote about this, I observed that Rakoff was less interested in arguing over the amount of a fine and more interested in what I called "the usual issues that occupy a judge." I enumerated those issues as follows:

  1. Has any wrongdoing taken place?
  2. If so, who is responsible for that wrongdoing?
  3. If the guilty parties can be identified, how may they best be punished to the satisfaction of the victims of their wrongdoing?

Where questions such as these were concerned, Rakoff was equally fed up with both sides of the story; so he ordered both the SEC and Bank of America to submit better reasons for his accepting the settlement by September 9. It is now September 14; and, according to a story that just came over the Reuters wire, Rakoff is still not convinced. His latest assessment is that the settlement, which both parties still wish to pursue, is a "contrivance" (his word) that (in the words of the Reuters story) "harms shareholders." Where this may now lead is that New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo is prepared to take Bank of America executives to court on fraud charges.

Under the circumstances, it is interesting to read the context in which Rakoff chose that noun "contrivance." He basically said of the new round of justifications that he had demanded from both Bank of America and the SEC that they:

leave the distinct impression that the proposed consent judgment was a contrivance designed to provide the SEC with the facade of enforcement and the management of the bank with a quick resolution of an embarrassing inquiry -- all at the expense of the sole alleged victims, the shareholders.

The shareholders Rakoff has in mind are those denizens of Main Street who committed themselves to being depositors and/or investors and are now stuck with paying for the blunders made on Wall Street. So it is that Rakoff has returned to his home base of those three enumerated questions and decided that the only way those questions can be answered will be through a trial, which he is suggesting should begin no later than February 1.

It will be interesting to see how Cuomo chooses to prosecute the fraud in this case. At the very least he is clearly prepared to draw up charges against Bank of America, but where will this leave the SEC? It would seem that they could be charged either separately or jointly on grounds of choosing collusion (that "facade of enforcement") over responsible regulation. Perhaps this will result in some of the uglier truths about Wall Street finally coming to light. Let us hope we have the courage to handle those truths.