Monday, November 30, 2009

Switzerland Discovers Irrationality?

Imogen Foulkes' analysis for BBC News of the Swiss vote to ban minarets indicates that the descent of reasoned political debate into irrationality has now spread beyond the United States to Europe. As I read it, I could not help but remember what I recently wrote about Howard Dean's thoughts on the debate over health care reform:

Thus, in commenting about how problematic the opposition has been, all Dean could say was, "We didn't realize they would go that low." His worldview simply could not imagine that someone like Sarah Palin could turn arguments about health care into arguments over death panels. Dean's admission reveals an interesting principle, which should serve as a warning to all who try to engage in argumentation in the present day:

Rationality defines is limits through fundamental principles of logical reasoning; irrationality knows no bounds.

The very concept of a death panel was so far off the map of just about anyone in the Democratic Party that they simply could not anticipate those who live by fear-mongering putting it on the table.

Compare those remarks with the following observation by Foulkes:

What many Swiss politicians are beginning to realise this morning is that they underestimated the concern among their population about integration of Muslims in Switzerland, and about possible Islamic extremism.

So while the right-wing Swiss People's Party campaigned hard, warning in meetings up and down the country of the possible introduction of Sharia law in Switzerland, the middle ground and left-wing parties did very little.

There were few posters, and none to compete with the People's Party's eye-catching and controversial offering, which showed a woman shrouded in a black burka, a map of Switzerland behind her, black minarets shooting out of it like missiles.

Basically, the People's Party got their way through the same fear-mongering tactics that we have seen practiced so well by Palin and those who sail under her flag (which, presumably is not the State Flag of Alaska and hopefully is not the Flag of the United States of America).

Thus, the principle that irrationality knows no bounds applies not only to personal ethics but also to geographical extent. Almost two years ago I wrote about the entropic nature of political discourse:

Entropy is not restricted to the objective physical world of thermodynamics. There are many other processes that inevitably devolve into chaos; and, whether we like it or not, political discourse may be one of those processes.

That devolution of entropy is achieved by, among other means, diffusion; so we should not be surprised that politics at its most irrational should diffuse across geographical boundaries so readily, particularly in the world the Internet has made. The tragedy is less that it has diffused at all but that it has diffused to a country that gave refuge to so many of the persecuted as recently as during the Second World War. On the other hand signs of the flip side of this coin have been emerging for some time. Anyone who saw the 1973 Italian film Pane e Cioccolata, about the treatment of Italian "guest workers" in Switzerland, knows that this emergence has been coming for at least a quarter of a century.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Bach in his Proper Setting

Having used my article to defend Ragnar Bohlin's abridging of the performance of the Christmas Oratorio BWV 248 of Johann Sebastian Bach for this week's subscription concert at Davies Symphony Hall by the San Francisco Symphony and Chorus, I found myself thinking that the six cantatas that comprise this work really deserved to be performed in their entirety. However, I still stand by my position that it would be unreasonable to perform them back-to-back in a single event that would probably run about three hours in length. Rather, each cantata deserves to be performed on the day for which it was composed, thus making for an ongoing celebration that covers the twelve days of Christmas. Needless to say, this is not particularly realistic when all of your soloists are visiting artists (in this case three from Europe and one from Canada). To be true to Bach, you need an ensemble more like the "repertory company" with which he worked at the Thomaskirche (St. Thomas's Lutheran Church) in Leipzig.

The closest I have come to such a setting has been the Bach Vespers series of services at New York's Holy Trinity Lutheran Church on Central Park West (a short walk from Lincoln Center). This series is now in its 42nd season. When I was living in Stamford, Connecticut, I was not only audience but also an enthusiastic donor to their cause. This was my best opportunity to hear Bach in his proper context; and, on the basis of some of the popular anecdotes in circulation, the performances were probably better than any that Bach himself had supervised. (One of these concerts also happened to be the setting in which I met my wife-to-be; but that is another story!) I have sometimes wondered how many other cities have a church that has tried to present Bach the same way. Having not (yet?) visited Leipzig, I do not know whether or not the Thomaskirche has tried to establish this practice. I gather that the philanthropy of Henry S. Drinker did not extend to encouraging it at a church in Philadelphia, since Drinker seems to have preferred performances in his own house. San Francisco has choral groups that focus on Bach, but none of them have the resources to keep up with his schedule based on the church calendar. For all I know the practice is sustained only in New York because that is the one location that can provide both support and audience. For all the virtues of that setting, Bach deserves more attention.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Arriving at Brahms' Vocal Compositions (again)

In my recent "category-based analysis" of the complete works of Johannes Brahms, I made note of just how much of that corpus involved music for voice in some way or another. My traversal of the Deutsche Grammophon Complete Edition box has now brought me to the Lieder section, which, as I have previously written, was one of the collections that first drew me to my interest in taking a Gesamtwerk approach Brahms. Listening to these performances by soprano Jessye Norman and baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, all accompanied on piano by Daniel Barenboim, has reminded me of how much I have missed the vinyl recordings I used to have. It is not just that these songs cover so much of Brahms' progress as a composer through almost the entirety of his career; nor is it just a matter of the sensitivity that these performers bring to these compositions. It is also that this collection differs from the Brilliant Classics' collection of the complete works of Johannes Brahms in facilitating diachronic listening to these songs. Where Brilliant organized the vocal music around who the performers are, the Deutsche Grammophon collection is basically ordered chronologically. Thus, we have a sense of which songs have been grouped under a single opus number, even when different songs require different vocal ranges, along with the higher-level ordering from one opus collection to the text. All that is missing is the year of publication for each opus number, which can easily be resolved by consulting Wikipedia. For the record the collection begins with the Opus 3 collection of six songs published in 1853, the year of the publication of his first two piano sonatas (Opera 1 and 2), and concludes with the Opus 121 Vier ernste Gesänge, published in 1896 at the time when he was diagnosed with the cancer that would soon thereafter take his life. (The opus number 122 was assigned posthumously by Brahms' publisher.)

When we examine a complete listing of Brahms' published compositions ordered by opus number, we realize that a diachronic traversal of these song collections is essentially a traversal of the man's life. This is not a unique attribute of a composer's corpus. Ken Russell directed a television documentary about Ralph Vaughan Williams (with the expert assistance of the composer's widow Ursula) that was structured around a traversal of his nine symphonies, the last of which received its first performance shortly after his death. Similarly, I have long been interested in the autobiographical nature of the progression of the symphonies of Gustav Mahler (including the intervention of Das Lied von der Erde between the eighth and ninth symphonies). What is important, however, is that we learn to be aware of when the work of a particular composer can serve as a window on his/her life-world and that we accept that serious listening is as much a matter of looking through this window as it is getting to know the notes on the score pages.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Arguing over a Meaningless Concept

I continue to be surprised that Wikipedia has never been on the receiving end of a Chutzpah of the Week award. I gave one to Jimmy Wales this past April; but that was not for anything specifically having to do with Wikipedia. Rather, it was for an outrageous act of cultural amnesia, which, ironically, could have been prevented had Wales taken the time to use Wikipedia itself. This week, however, we seem to have an act of chutzpah at the administrative level of Wikipedia through a dispute raised by the Wikimedia Foundation. The dispute was reported this morning on the BBC News Web site. It concerned a claim in a research report by Dr. Felipe Ortega, which seems to have been trying to track the level of participation in Wikipedia over a sustained period of time. Ortega claimed that, in the first three month of 2009, 49,000 editors "departed" Wikipedia, comparing this with 4900 departures in presumably the same period of 2008. (My weasel words are an attempt to get around the vague language of the BBC report.)

At the very least Ortega was trying to quantify just how participatory the Wikipedia enterprise was and consider whether or not participation may be dropping off. This seemed to be enough to provoke an indignant response from Erik Moeller, deputy director of the Wikimedia Foundation, and Erik Zachte, one of its data analysts, through a blog post. Their refutation, however, seemed to have more to do with biting Ortega's finger than with looking where he was pointing:

The confusion arose over the differing definitions of what constitutes an editor. Dr Ortega counted everyone who made one change as an editor giving a total population of three million people.

By contrast, the Wikimedia Foundation counts only people who make five edits or more as an editor. This gives an editing population of about one million people across all languages. Of that total, the English edition of Wikipedia has about 40,000 editors.

If all Ortega was interested in was participation, then it seems unfair to rap his knuckles for trying to settle on a metric that he could use consistently over different periods of time. His only fault may have been describing that metric in language that irritated the Wikimedia Foundation. Thus, the chutzpah of their refutation came down to infantile schoolyard reasoning: It's our ball; we get to make the rules. Having done so, however, they do not have appeared to provide numbers that, by any standard of measurement, would refute Ortega's more general claim.

This may be much ado about not very much, but the chutzpah of going after scholarly research in the name of institutional pride still deserves recognition.

On the Legality Question of the Iraq War

Since the BBC is one of my primary sources for world news, I have been following with mild interest (which seems to be significantly more than that of American media) the proceedings of an inquiry into the initiation of the "Bush War" in Iraq. The head of the inquiry is Sir John Chilcot, who, prior to its first meeting, released a public statement emphasizing the objectivity of the procedures to be taken. Since both those procedures and the findings are likely to have a significant impact on both the current Prime Minister and his immediate predecessor, taking that emphasis seriously may be challenging; but I, for one, hope that Chilcot can make good on his intentions.

This morning's BBC News story dealt with the testimony of Sir Jeremy Greenstock, the United Kingdom's ambassador to the United Nations in 2003 when the United States' proposal to invade Iraq was being debated. Greenstock chose some interesting language to describe the ultimate conclusion to those debates:

I regarded our participation in the military action against Iraq in March 2003 as legal but of questionable legitimacy in that it did not have the democratically observable backing of a great majority of member states or even perhaps of a majority of people inside the UK.

There was a failure to establish legitimacy although I think we successfully established legality in the the degree, at least, that we were never challenged in the UN or International Court of Justice for those actions.

This strikes me as diplomatic language at its most evasive: The military action was legal because its legality was never challenged. What this proposition overlooks is that the United States can probably block any attempted action by the International Court of Justice, just as it has yet to accept the authority of the International Criminal Court. Simply put, American policy has put the United States beyond the limits of any court-based procedure that would resolve this particular question of legality. Since any challenge to legality would have to involve either the United States itself or specific Americans (such as the former President) as defendants, the United States has basically protected itself with a major barrier to such a challenge ever being resolved.

The current Administration seems content to leave that barrier in place. Barack Obama began his Administration with eloquent language of putting the past behind us, which basically meant that there would be no steps towards prosecution of anyone involved with our initiating the war in Iraq. His Attorney General took a few initiative steps of his own, but it would appear that his boss is keeping him on a tight leash. Similarly, there is no sign that the United States will change its position on refusing to recognize the authority of any international legal authority; so the barrier will remain secure. Perhaps Obama is banking on his personal appeal concealing that barrier in a smoke screen. This would certainly be effective politics, but would it be consistent with either our domestic model of proper judicial procedure or our need to respect justice as an international concept?

Thursday, November 26, 2009

What H. C. Robbins Landon Meant to Me

I first encountered the name of Howard Chandler Robbins Landon when, as a student, I began to collect the complete symphonies of Joseph Haydn as they were incrementally released by the Musical Heritage Society. The notes on the back of each record jacket were by Robbins Landon, and it would not be an exaggeration to say that Robbins Landon's text notes were responsible for my first efforts to listen seriously to Haydn's musical notes. Indeed, Robbins Landon's writing had much to do with my getting beyond the notes on the score page to the notes that trigger the mind by way of the ear. I would not be writing the way I do today had I not had Robbins Landon's own writing as an influence.

Thus, while I never met the man or had an opportunity to hear him lecture, I read Allan Kozinn's obituary on the occasion of his death last Friday at the age of 83 with some sadness. My initial incremental exposure to Robbins Landon was then followed by the volume-by-volume acquisition of his five-volume Haydn: Chronicle and Works. I have never read this through cover-to-cover; but it has become a major resource for me in this bicentennial year of Haydn's death. I even consulted it for my writing when I was trying to track down the explanation for how the "Frog" string quartet got its name. Ironically, this was one of those rare occasions when Robbins Landon did not help; and eventually I ended up exploring hypotheses on my own last May. Nevertheless, his resource was of invaluable assistance during my traversal of the Brilliant Classics Haydn Edition.

My one frustration with these volumes was in finding things. Since it was structured as a chronicle, it was easy enough to consult if I could connect my search to a year; but I was not always that fortunate. Thus, my greatest regret is that Robbins Landon was not able to secure the rights to include some version of the catalog compiled by Anthony van Hoboken. Fortunately, there was a French version of this material at a University of Quebec site that I consulted with great frequency when writing about my experiences with the Haydn Edition; but that site has now been closed. As a result, I have now had my first seriously positive experience with the Internet Archive, through which I discovered a "Wayback Machine" copy of the Quebec site. I have "Chris," the Administrator of The Beethoven Reference Site, for pointing me to the Wayback Machine. The wisdom of the individual still trumps the wisdom of the crowd, but it is not always easy to find the right individual!

Of course no individual is infallible, and that includes Robbins Landon. Reminding us that an obituary does not need to be an encomium, Kozinn recalled what was probably his greatest scholarly blunder:

Mr. Landon’s enthusiasm for Haydn could lead him astray. In 1993 he and the pianist-musicologists Paul and Eva Badura-Skoda announced what they said was a major find: a set of six lost Haydn piano sonatas. Mr. Landon declared them authentic, although he had seen only photocopies. When further study raised questions about the provenance of the pieces — which were eventually proven to be the work of a modern German composer — Mr. Landon changed his mind, agreeing with other musicologists that the set was, after all, “a rather sinister forgery.”

Nevertheless, there is nothing wrong with recognizing the mere humanity of a great scholar who has influenced one's own work. Had it not been for Robbins Landon, I may not have learned about Haydn's own mere humanity; and I doubt that Haydn, himself, every wanted to be apotheosized!

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

"Hurry up please it's time!"

I found it interesting that yesterday's report of the study of brain regions that are active when actors perform described an experiment based on excerpts from T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land. Having heard the poem read aloud several times (including a recording of Eliot himself), I continue to be haunted by that mundane interjection, "Hurry up please it's time!," in the "A Game of Chess" section. We may puzzle over how many layers of meaning Eliot built up over this trivial phrase; but the nature of time-consciousness remains one of the great challenges in our understanding of what the brain does that endows us with mind.

In many ways the continuing success of the Internet is all about better serving our consciousness of time. Our telephone technology matured to a point where, at least for domestic service, we accepted that a phone call would have the immediacy of a face-to-face conversation. However, when we started communicating through the Internet, we sacrificed that immediacy in a variety of ways. We discovered that the nature of the network itself meant that the instant at which an electronic mail message was sent was not the instant at which it was received at its destination site(s). The first experiments with digital video were frustrating. Not only were the images small, but also their flow of time was not smooth. However, because video on the computer screen was so "cool," we learned to live with these shortcomings, just as we gradually recognized that electronic mail delivery can never be instantaneous. There was even a whole area of research concerned with identifying behavioral practices during video conferencing that would compensate for the temporal weaknesses of the technology.

Today the technology has improved to a level where images not only fill the screen but fill it with high-definition resolution. Nevertheless, time remains a problem. I was first really aware of the problem when I tried to watch the entire Carnegie Hall concert given by the YouTube Symphony Orchestra on YouTube itself. This was shortly after the concert took place, and the bottom line was that the technology was not up to the task. As I summarized the experience at the time, YouTube was a fine place to watch short snippets; but it was not up for an uninterrupted delivery of a full movement of a symphony by Johannes Brahms. Those interruptions can destroy the listening experience, and they are beginning to surface with greater frequency. The recent live HD broadcast of Turandot from the Metropolitan Opera had similar problems; and I was surprised that none of my New York Times RSS feeds ran a statement from the Met informing their vastly-expanded audience about the nature of the problem (which apparently involved uploading from their end). However, this is not just a problem of real-time events. Even my beloved archives of the performances available through the Berlin Philharmonic's Digital Concert Hall have suffered. The player for these archives supports three levels of resolution. When it was launched, I quickly discovered that my DSL service at home could not keep up with the data rate for a high-definition signal; but mid-level resolution served my needs quite satisfactorily. Now I am happy if I can get uninterrupted flow at low resolution. None of this should be surprising in light of just how much video is being consumed through the Internet. When once think tanks like the Institute for the Future were asking what we would do with "bandwidth to burn," we now discover that the traffic jam has come to the Internet.

As a result, I found myself more concerned than enthusiastic over the following BBC News report that was released this morning:

Pupils in North Yorkshire have jammed with one of the UK's leading orchestras, thanks to high-speed broadband lines.

The video-linked music workshop over 10Mbps (megabits per second) connections provided sessions with the Southbank Sinfonia.

The project was organised by NYnet, which has set up high-speed broadband in the area.

It demonstrates what could be achieved using video conferencing.

David Cullen, chief executive of NYnet, said: "This level of connectivity enables both unique experiences such as this, and plays an ongoing role in day-to-day learning that can truly enhance the educational offering in the region."

Superfast broadband is transforming public services in other countries, allowing people to work from home and access medical and educational services remotely.

I actually have friends who attempted something like this in the pre-Internet days, trying to set up a performance that involved musicians in California and Massachusetts. I wonder what they would say about how well a 10-megabit connection would manage for the time-sensitive subtleties that arise when a teacher is trying to get a student to phrase a passage properly. I worry even more that, while medicine has clearly benefitted from broadband communication technology, we have not yet recognized that there may be time-critical situations in which relying on the technology may end up doing more harm than good.

Once again we face the problem that mindless evangelizing of a technology impedes our ability to have serious discussions about that technology's limitations. We rush to take advantage of new (or "cool") capabilities, giving little thought to what is actually happening when we do so or what consequences might subsequently arise. Thus, when those consequences do arise, we are caught off guard; and the results can be anywhere from frustrating to catastrophic. When it comes to the matter of how we listen to serious music, this is a case where one of my prize oxen is in danger of being gored!

In Search of Self

In The Remembered Present Gerald Edelman suggests that the fundamental problem of consciousness is how the mind, presumably as embodied by the brain, establishes a sense of self and, in particular, how the distinction between self and other is established. Since I tend to agree with this premise, I was interested to discover this morning a piece on the BBC News Web site by Nick Higham, a presenter for the Today program on BBC Radio 4. The report concerns experiments by Professor Sophie Scott of the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at University College London based on scanning the brains of actors. It is important to remember that scanning technology is still restricted to creating static images, each of which takes significant time to compose. Thus Scott has to face the limitation that she cannot effectively capture the "active" brain in a time-based data stream, which can then be analyzed. Nevertheless, Higham's report indicates that Scott is coming up with some imaginative ways to make the best of her limitations.

Her basic approach was to identify areas of brain activity in two different tasks. The first was a simple counting task; and the second involved a "performance." The subject was a professional actress, given the following as the second task:

For the experiment, Fiona Shaw performed snatches of T S Eliot's poem The Waste Land. (Appropriately enough, given the circumstances, Eliot's original title for the poem was He Do the Police in Different Voices.)

The poem's second section, A Game at Chess, includes a dialogue between a married couple, and a passage in which a Cockney woman gossips in a pub near closing, interrupted by the voice of the landlord shouting "Hurry up please it's time!".

The text was cut up into sections lasting just a few seconds each. Fiona read them in character, then stopped while the machine scanned her brain.

Scott's hypothesis that different brain regions would be involved for the different tasks appears to have been confirmed. For the counting task she identified activity in three regions: control of lip and tongue movement, hearing, and planning speech activities. These were all regions that have been identified by previous scanning experiments. For the second task, however, new regions come into play:

Towards the front of the brain there is a part associated with "higher order" control of behaviour. Towards the top of the brain is a section which controls the movement of the hands and arms - even though she wasn't waving her arms about, she was apparently thinking about doing so.

And towards the back of the head is an area associated with complex visual imagery, even though she wasn't performing a complex visual task.

Higham's conclusion is a bit simplistic:

Perhaps it's just this: that convincing people you're someone you're not by changing your voice is hard work - a lot harder than simply being yourself.

My own opinion is that the interesting parts go deeper than this. It seems as if the brain is working to synthesize, both visually and kinesthetically, another "self" to "be." In other words, it is, in a sense, still a matter of "being yourself;" but the self is an alternative one. My own conjecture is that sense of self is always a matter of role-playing. Experiments with actors can help us identify what the brain is doing in the course of that role-playing; but, where what Higham calls "simply being yourself" is concerned, those activities may be enabled through routines under some sort of "automatic pilot" control. Shaw's second task, however, involved a less routine level of control.

This may also tell us something about the "method" approach to acting. The experiment was designed in such a way that Shaw would be more aware of the acting task as an acting task. This would contrast with a situation in which a "method" actor gets "into character" before performing for an audience. Getting into character may well be a matter of substituting one set of routines (those of the character) for another (those of "everyday self").

Regardless of how the data are interpreted, Scott's results point the way towards a variety of directions for further study; but, unfortunately, they also emphasize how limited our current data acquisition technologies are for such subsequent study.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Free No More?

Rupert Murdoch has long been looking for a way to drive a stake through the heart of the information-wants-to-be-free vampire. Is Microsoft now offering him that stake? According to a team of Financial Times reporters tracking a common story from bases in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York, this may turn out to be the case. Here are the opening paragraphs of that story as it was filed last night:

Microsoft has had discussions with News Corp over a plan that would involve the media company being paid to “de-index” its news websites from Google, setting the scene for a search engine battle that could offer a ray of light to the newspaper industry.

The impetus for the discussions came from News Corp, owner of newspapers ranging from the Wall Street Journal of the US to The Sun of the UK, said a person familiar with the situation, who warned that talks were at an early stage.

However, the Financial Times has learnt that Microsoft has also approached other big online publishers to persuade them to remove their sites from Google’s search engine.

News Corp and Microsoft, which owns the rival Bing search engine, declined to comment.

One website publisher approached by Microsoft said that the plan “puts enormous value on content if search engines are prepared to pay us to index with them”.

This may well upend one of the major apple carts of conventional Internet wisdom. Treated as an abstract array of bits, information may not have any "inherent" value. However, that does not preclude information assuming value because others are willing to pay for it. Conventional wisdom has always assumed that no one would be willing to pay for something that can be obtained for free, but the rules of the game may be changing. Rupert Murdoch has already begun his campaign to block his content from appearing in Google search results. Now he has a strategy for the flip side of that coin: He may have found another search business willing to pay to make sure that their search engine is not blocked.

This could well change the rules of the game for the Internet economy. It would be yet another move in which providers of Internet content may think about interactions with real money. The more interesting question, however, is whether there is substance to the claim in the Financial Times story that the biggest beneficiary could be the newspaper industry, which may finally be able to identify a revenue stream around which to build a sound business model. It is easy to see how Murdoch can drive a hard bargain and come away with a tidy sum from Microsoft. For that matter, even if the current Google "party line" is that news content is "not a big part of how we generate revenue" (at least as Matt Brittin was quoted in the Financial Times story), Google may decide that it is worth paying out the same amount for the sake of maintaining their competitive position. However, the more interesting question is how Murdoch will put his own new revenue stream to use. Would he ultimately decided to revive the newspaper business as we used to know it; or would he be more interested in mining even more gold from his new source of "them thar hills?"

My guess is that at least some of his gains will trickle down to his payrolls. I would even guess that one will have a better chance of making a living by working at News Corp than by trying to live off of making money from AdSense. (This is certainly the case right now, but how long is it likely to stay that way?) On the other hand Murdoch has never had much of a track record when it comes to putting the needs of journalism practice before the demands of business. So any predictions of benefit by the Financial Times are probably premature. Perhaps the layoff rate will subside a bit; but any sound reasons for declaring the profession of journalism to be a "beneficiary" of the new rules of the game have yet to surface.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Toxic Kool-Aid for a Thirsty Country

The cover of the Insight section of today's San Francisco Chronicle trumpet's the question:

Who will create the jobs of the future?

This was the common theme for the first five opinion pieces. I have no idea how the Chronicle decided to order them, so it is hard to tell whether or not the placement of the first of these essays reflects a certain editorial preference. If it does, I have to wonder whether or not it reflects a coded message to the current Chronicle staff from senior management.

This initial essay is by Shufina English, and it is clear that her rather arbitrary mix of singular and plural in using the first person pronoun reflects that she is serving as a spokesperson for the California Association for Micro Enterprise Opportunity, whose basic creed appears in the second (single-sentence) paragraph of the article:

We believe that self-employment and micro-business is the labor trend of the future.

This basically reinforces the headline for this piece in the print edition:

Find jobs of the future on entrepreneurial path

The Web version, on the other hand, selected a headline that is a call to action, rather than a declaration of principles:

Ramp up entrepreneurship education, training

This better captures the message of the piece, which is elaborated with the beginnings of an action plan in its final paragraphs:

I believe it is time for a sea change in thinking about education. Young children often are naturally entrepreneurial in their play and actions. Somewhere along the way, as they proceed through their education, they stop thinking "I can create something" and become focused solely on satisfying the eligibility requirements for graduation and entrance to higher-level institutions.

We should challenge our educational institutions to develop an educated and entrepreneurial workforce. Public education should develop a statewide entrepreneurship initiative for our students that incorporates entrepreneurship training into our academic fabric. This would be based on creative, immersive entrepreneurial experience and would be appropriate for all students, from K-12 through the University of California system.

Professors could link their classes with innovative businesses so that students understand the exigencies of a successful business and can see themselves as contributing participants. Entrepreneurship or business-plan competitions at all education levels, mentor and alumni networks and improved facilities for prototyping, testing and other business start-up requirements will develop the skills required for successful self-employment and business ownership.

We should take to heart the words of William Butler Yeats, "Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire." Entrepreneurship is the heart of our economy. Let us celebrate and nurture this spirit.

At this point I should come clean and state that the context in which I read this article was heavily shaped by two programs I had saved on my VTR and only recently got around to watching. The first was the Book TV broadcast of Barbara Ehrenreich's talk at Politics and Prose about her latest book, Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America. The second was the recent HBO documentary Schmatta: Rags to Riches to Rags. Let me quickly summarize what I took away from each of these viewing experiences:

  1. Ehrenreich basically felt a need to push back against those who try to capitalize on turning tragedy into opportunity. Her own dog in this hunt involved a personal experience with cancer and her barely concealed disgust with those who advised her to "embrace" her malady. (I had to wonder whether or not any of those advocates had the chutzpah, or just plain ignorance, to call it a "growth opportunity.") Clearly, what she said about the tragedy of a life-threatening illness was just as true of the tragedy of unemployment. Thus, she wrote the book to put positive thinkers in their place, arguing that realistic thinking was far more sensible than positive thinking when it came to trying to get to the other side of any personal tragedy.
  2. The documentary, on the other hand, was ultimately a tragedy of unemployment, using the fall of the American garment industry as the primary case study. However, it was more than that. It was also a perfect example of Ehrenreich's realistic thinking applied to the spirit of entrepreneurism. The case study for this example was Sigrid Olsen, who, in the best entrepreneurial spirit had developed her own line of clothing, only to have her business acquired and then destroyed by Liz Claiborne Inc.

These should both be cautionary tales for any stories we want to tell about the future of education. The fact is that education does require a "sea change;" but it is a sea change that needs to be grounded in questions of just what those who emerge from the educational system will do when they enter the "real world." It is not necessarily a matter of thinking about "creating something." It about thinking realistically about where one will fit into a life-world that has objective, subjective, and social dimensions; and there are no one-size-fits-all solutions to the problems that arise in the course of that thinking. Furthermore, even if one actually is "naturally entrepreneurial," one needs to think realistically about the challenges and hazards that arise beyond the spirit of "creating something." The social world is populated by a vast diversity of motives, most of which are not going to align neatly with one's own.

Survival in that social world must also contend with the problem of "the cult of the professional," which I discussed in August. This is the problem that one cannot devote one's life to "creating something." Part of that life needs to be set aside to promote what one has created (which is usually a matter of promoting oneself); or one will probably lack the resources to sustain "creating something else." Andrew Keen examined this problem in the context of authors, but it is just as true of entrepreneurs. Indeed, it reflects what happens when those who wish to sustain their creative powers discover that the entrepreneurial necessity of promotion can undermine their creative efforts.

So, will the current unemployment crisis really be solved through "micro enterprise opportunity?" I seriously doubt it. More likely it will result in a glut on the market of enterprises, which, through the desperation for promotion, are likely to find themselves in a collective race to the bottom. This may eventually be sorted out by some form of Darwinian selection; but it is most unclear what the products of that selection will be, let alone just how much social value those products provide. We need less celebrating and nurturing and more uncomfortable critical thinking!

San Francisco Remembers Elisabeth Söderström

Today's New York Times ran Anthony Tommasini's obituary for the Swedish soprano Elisabeth Söderström, who died on Friday in Stockholm at the age of 82. Tommasini cited the Marschallin in Richard Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier as one of her major roles; but, with his New-York-centric perspective, he neglected to mention a corollary that is particularly relevant to San Francisco. Söderström leveraged her expertise with this opera to serve as the "primary brains" (with help from Lotfi Mansouri) behind the production last mounted by the San Francisco Opera during their spring season for 2007. (Since Joyce DiDonato just gave a recital here this past Monday, it is worth observing that this Rosenkavalier was her most recent appearance with the San Francisco Opera.) Söderström's conception of Rosenkavalier was very much "by the book;" but, as I wrote in 2007, it is hard to imagine the opera being set any other way. As I put it at that time:

The story just has too many things to tell in its intended setting to let revisionism get in the way.

My point at the time was that one does not need revisionism to discover new ways to look at a familiar opera. Söderström apparently appreciated this proposition, and I appreciated her being true to it. My only regret now is that I never had the chance to be present at one of her performances, but she left the San Francisco Opera with a real gift. I hope they continue to care for it.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Can We Make Entertainment out of Irrationality?

If, as I have suggested, irrationality knows no bounds, can we at least start mining it for its entertainment value? I have to confess that this was my immediate reaction to the following report that just appeared on the BBC News Web site:

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has defended jailed killer "Carlos the Jackal" and several world leaders he says are wrongly considered "bad guys".

In a speech to international socialist politicians, Mr Chavez said "Carlos", a Venezuelan, was not a terrorist but a key "revolutionary fighter".

He is serving a life sentence in France for murders committed in 1975.

Mr Chavez also hailed Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe, Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and the late Ugandan dictator Idi Amin.

'Great nationalist'

Carlos, whose real name is Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, gained international notoriety in the 1970s as a mastermind of deadly bombings, assassinations and hostage-takings.

He was captured in Sudan in 1994 and handed over to France, where he was jailed for killing two French intelligence officers and an alleged informer in 1975.

In his speech late on Friday in Caracas, Mr Chavez said: "I defend him. It doesn't matter to me what they say tomorrow in Europe."

He said he believed Carlos had been unfairly convicted, and called him "one of the great fighters of the Palestine Liberation Organisation".

I started thinking about this entertainment factor when it occurred to me that I might actually pay to see a debate between Chavez and Sarah Palin, just because I had absolutely how far off the map the two of them would venture. It is tempting to conjecture that they would end up like Eugene Field's gingham dog and calico cat, but I doubt that such wishful thinking would be consummated! I suspect that the best we could hope for is that each would bring out the worst in the other, which might provide partisan supporters in both camps with a more realistic take on their partisanship!

Putting Brahms in Perspective

One of the things that the packaging of the Deutsche Grammophon Complete Edition box of the music of Johannes Brahms has revealed to me is just how little music Brahms composed for orchestra. There are only five CDs in the Orchestral Works section, which comes down to the two early serenades, the four symphonies, and two concert overtures. Then there is the orchestral version of the Opus 56a Haydn variations (which, in spite of alphabetic ordering, has always struck me as a post hoc reflection of the Opus 56b two-piano version) and the WoO 1 Hungarian dances (which were probably preceded by the four-hand piano version). There are then three CDs to cover the two piano concertos, the violin concerto, and the "double" (violin and cello) concerto, bringing the count up to eight. Finally, there are three CDs of Works for Chorus and Orchestra, one for the German Requiem and two for shorter works, the most familiar probably being the Opus 53 rhapsody for contralto, male chorus, and orchestra. In other words there is an orchestral presence on only eleven of the 46 CDs in the Deutsche Grammophon box.

This "census" reminded me of what I basically already knew, which is that Brahms' two "strong suits" were the keyboard and the voice. There are nine CDs in the Piano and Organ Works section, only one of which is for organ, while another two are allocated primarily for the four-hand and two-piano works; but the piano plays a major role in the canon of chamber music, which fills eleven CDs. Similarly, the piano accompaniments for many (most?) of the song settings (another eleven CDs, covering both the Lieder and Vocal Ensembles collections) stand in their own right as impressive keyboard writing. That leaves only the four Choral Works CDs, most of which are a capella or relatively modestly accompanied (the outstanding exception being the Opus 17 songs for female chorus, two horns, and harp).

From the point of view of a struggling amateur, I also have discovered that, while there are certainly works that make heavy virtuoso demands, once you figure out how to get your hands around them, the notes tend to be pretty much "keyboard friendly." I have had similar experiences with Robert Schumann (who, for all we know, brought out that side of Brahms) and Joseph Haydn (whose influence is easily detected). This contrasts sharply with my efforts to wrestle down Ludwig van Beethoven (even if the struggle is eventually rewarding) and my ongoing frustrations with Frédéric Chopin, whom, for the most part, I prefer to leave to others. Franz Schubert occupies a middle ground between Beethoven and Brahms; but then I have always enjoyed the anecdote about a Schubertiad at which he could not play the fugue from his own "Wanderer" fantasy! Franz Liszt is another matter. I had a teacher in Santa Barbara who encouraged me to go after Liszt in order to get beyond the usual pedagogical conventions, rather in the spirit behind Simon Rattle's efforts to get the orchestra of San Francisco Conservatory students to get beyond their conventions when performing Richard Wagner. On the other hand Liszt's arrangement of Beethoven's first symphony is, in many ways, far more "keyboard friendly" than many of Beethoven's own piano compositions. After Brahms, of course, the rules of the game start to go through all sorts of changes; so any discussion of "keyboard friendly" music in the twentieth century should be held off for another post!

Friday, November 20, 2009

Getting out of the Hole, or Digging it Deeper?

Yesterday I focused on the proposition that "irrationality knows no bounds." Today's news brings evidence that the same can be said about greed. (Resolving the question of whether or not greed is irrational is left as an exercise for the reader.) The evidence comes from Candice Choi, Personal Finance Writer for Associated Press. It takes the form of an anecdote of one of the major victims of the current economic crisis, an ordinary citizen faced with the problem of credit card debt. Her name is Lindsey Pappas, she is 25 years old, and she is fortunate enough to have a job here in San Francisco in public relations. Here is Choi's account of her story:

She received a letter from Citi Wednesday that her interest rate was being hiked to 19.99 percent, up from 14.99 percent.

If she spends $750 a month, however, she can get a refund for part of the higher interest rate charges.

The problem is that Pappas is trying to pay off a $5,000 balance on the card, so she tries not to charge any money on it.

"I'm just going to have to deal with the higher interest rate. Spending that much would be irresponsible," she said.

Choi does not provide the details for how Pappas got into her $5000 hole, but that last sentence seems to indicate that she has learned the consequences of unmanageable debt. At the very least she has learned that you do not get out of a hole by digging it deeper.

Choi also explains the context behind Citi making this offer (which, depending on your point of view, is either predatory or preposterous) in the first place:

The change by Citi comes as the industry rushes to adjust to sweeping reforms to start in February that will limit when and how much card issuers can hike interest rates. In a statement, Citi said the actions were necessary given elevated losses from souring loans and "regulatory changes that eliminate repricing for that risk."

The bank also noted that "customers who do more business with us will have the most opportunity to reduce their rates."

Citi's reasoning (deliberately?) overlooks the obvious corollary that, in their semantic model of the world, "doing more business" actually means "building up more customer debt." Ultimately, this is a last-ditch effort to promote one more Ponzi scheme before new regulations take effect. The only way in which Citi distinguishes itself from Bernard Madoff is that, while Madoff preyed on the substantial retirement assets of a relatively select few, Citi can go after the sizable percentage of all of its 92 million credit card customers who do not pay off their balance in full every month, making up for the relatively small profit from each account by the high volume of the number of accounts.

So, someone remind me, was Citi one of those businesses declared by our government as "too big to fail?" If so, is it about time to promote the new motto of "too devious to succeed?" Sadly, that will never be more than wishful thinking. If greed does, indeed, know no bounds, then there will never be any such thing as "too devious!"

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Honoring the Opposition

I used my lunch hour to (finally) watch the Book TV broadcast of Howard Dean at Politics and Prose last August promoting his book on health care reform. While I did not disagree with any of his major points, I found myself disconcerted by his worldview of political practice, which reflected a naïveté that may ultimately be his undoing. In a nutshell he is willing to show too much honor to the opponents of health care reform, assuming that differences of opinion can be resolved through reasoned conversations. This seems to disregard the likely premise that those who oppose health care reform are more interested in winning for the sake of building political capital than they are about what happens to the American people, both those in their electorate and the population at large.

Thus, in commenting about how problematic the opposition has been, all Dean could say was, "We didn't realize they would go that low." His worldview simply could not imagine that someone like Sarah Palin could turn arguments about health care into arguments over death panels. Dean's admission reveals an interesting principle, which should serve as a warning to all who try to engage in argumentation in the present day:

Rationality defines is limits through fundamental principles of logical reasoning; irrationality knows no bounds.

The very concept of a death panel was so far off the map of just about anyone in the Democratic Party that they simply could not anticipate those who live by fear-mongering putting it on the table.

There was another instance of naïveté that might be a bit more forgivable, since it was basically a matter of wishful thinking. This was Dean's prognostication that fear-based irrationality had run its course and would begin to decline. His reasoning was that the younger generation who turned out in such great numbers to vote for Barack Obama simply would not put up with the bill of goods that the fear-mongers have been selling. Admirable as Dean's aspiration may be, we are now three months on from his book talk; and we may be witnessing its refutation. The warrants for that refutation are to be found in the public response to Going Rogue and the book tour Palin has organized to promote it. This morning Kevin Connolly posted a report from Grand Rapids to BBC News on the "couple of thousand supporters" waiting in the Woodland Mall for Palin to sign their copy of Going Rogue; and what Connolly felt was most important to report was that quite a few of those prepared to wait hours for this opportunity were young people. One of them had a simple reason for being there:

She's cool.

Think about that. Eighteen months ago Obama was cool. Young people were drawn to him for a variety of reasons; but that "cool" factor cannot be ignored. Now that he occupies the White House, he is no longer cool. Cool people don't do things like that to their friends. So, having found this whole new base of the electorate to mobilize, it turns out that what mobilizes them is the cool factor; and, for now at least, Palin has it. (Remember, irrationality knows no bounds!) Think of it this way: The generation that grew up on the "What's Cool" button in the Netscape browser is now participating in the electoral process. What, if anything, can this tell us about next year's congressional campaigns and the presidential race in 2012?

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Complexity of the Abuse Problem

This morning the BBC NEWS Web site ran an interesting report about the problem of abusive practices, particularly towards children, in the brave new world of social software on the Internet. Given that the undiscriminating embrace of this technology may be equaled only by the mindless evangelizing that continues to promote it, these stories are valuable. Nevertheless, this particular account reflects a bias that may not be particularly productive. Here is how the story opens:

Major social networking websites have been criticised for not introducing a help button for children to report concerns about grooming and bullying.

Jim Gamble, from the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (Ceop), hit out at the sites as one site, Bebo, adopted the button.

He said there was "no legitimate reason" why other sites like MySpace and Facebook had not done the same.

As Bill Clinton would have put it, I feel Gamble's pain. I have long argued that the Internet is a hazardous place whose dangers have been consistently overlooked or downplayed by social software evangelists, and most of my attention has been towards hazards to adults. By all rights the risks to children should be even greater, and we need voices like Gamble's to raise consciousness about those risks.

Nevertheless, I fear that Gamble may not entirely grasp the nature of the technology. The Bebo "button," which is illustrated on the BBC NEWS Web page, is an instance of what tends to be called reporting technology. Most of us have encountered it in some setting or another. Indeed, anyone reading this should be aware of the technology, because it is at the top of the page. If I write something that offends, then a reader can click on the "Report Abuse" hyperlink to notify the Blogger support team that I have done so; and, whatever my past rants and inquiries into the dark side may have been, I have tried very hard both to edit my text before submitting it and to stay on the right side of the boundary of normative social practices.

The rub, however, resides in that second infinitive phrase. Where is that "boundary of normative social practices?" When reporting technology is engaged, it is basically a request for a judgment on where a particular item sits with respect to those practices. How does such judgment take place? More importantly, in the midst of the heavy volume of content flowing through the Internet pipes, how can each such judgment be made both effectively and efficiently?

The bottom line is that there are no good answers to these questions, so Gamble's indignation has missed the point. Where MySpace and Facebook are concerned, the question is not whether or not they choose to adopt a simple button-based reporting technology. The real question has to do with what happens when the button is clicked? What sort of account (and, once again, the concept of λόγος from Plato's investigation into the nature of knowledge in "Theaetetus" rears its head in the world of Facebook) is elicited when abuse is reported? Then, what happens to that account (even if it is nothing more than "the abuse button was clicked") after it has been submitted? To offer a reductio ad absurdum example of just how vulnerable this process is, I recently learned of a situation in this brave new world of outsourcing in which reports of abuse were being read by individuals who did not understand the language of either the content or the account very well.

So, while it may distress Gamble, there is, indeed, a "legitimate reason" why MySpace and Facebook have not jumped on the reporting technology bandwagon. Worse yet, it is unclear that Bebo is quite the paradigm of vigilance that Gamble would like it to be. Consider the following excerpt from a BBC Panorama report that I cited this past March:

Internet ratings company Nielsen claims that Bebo, with its one million Irish users, was the most popular site in Ireland after Google in 2007.

Sectarianism on the site hit the headlines after threatening posts surfaced following the 2006 murder of Catholic school boy Michael McIlveen in Ballymena.

Three years on, and some pages on Bebo brazenly continue to promote violence.

Has this situation changed since March; and, if so, was the change the result of the adoption of the reporting technology that Gamble so admires?

As I see it, the real problem with social software is that problems of offense and abuse are human problems for which humans have to be in all parts of the loop from the very beginning. The most dangerous consequence of Internet volume has been the gradual erosion of person-to-person "Contact Us" mechanisms in favor of alternative technologies, such as blogs in which users can discuss problems among themselves (which may or may not be monitored my the technology support team) or FAQ pages (where one may be able to vote on how informative they were without any confidence that one's vote counts for very much). The erosion is, of course, understandable. There are just not enough individuals available for "contact" to keep up with the load of users trying to make contact.

Thus, conditions are such that technology providers search frantically for bandages because no one seems to have the resources to analyze the nature of the problem and think about solving it. One would think that there are plenty of educated people out there who would be more than happy to work the problem. Is it then a question of not wanting to put budget into those resources? If so, then we are back in the days of the Ford Pinto, when managers decided that the cost of settling with the victims of a defective product was lower than the cost of repairing the product. I wish I could say that this is another instance of a farcical repetition of history; but, where the safety of children is concerned, this just is not the case.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The CHUTZPAH to Believe in Representative Democracy

In the wake of yesterday's rant over our obsession with universalist ideals that can only lead to irreconcilable differences and destroy any pragmatic hope of getting things done, I was pleased to see that at least British Foreign Secretary David Miliband prefers getting things done to getting stuck in ideological mud. Consider the beginning of a report that Al Jazeera English compiled from their wire sources:

Britain's foreign secretary has suggested that senior Taliban figures be given positions in the Afghan government to bring an end to the violence in the country.

At a meeting of Nato's parliamentary assembly in Edinburgh, Scotland on Tuesday, David Miliband said that history suggested many Taliban members could be persuaded to stop fighting.

Miliband said the Afghan government would need to reach out to "high-level commanders that can be persuaded to renounce al-Qaeda and pursue their goals peacefully".

"This will be far from straightforward. But the historical lessons are clear," he said.

"Blood enemies from the Soviet period and the civil war now work together in government. Former Talibs already sit in the parliament.

"It is essential that, when the time is right, members of the current insurgency are
encouraged to follow suit," he said.

In the midst of all the current hand-writing over corruption in an Afghan government that, for all intents and purposes, was installed by the United States as part of the War on Terror, here is someone with the chutzpah (I suppose the British would prefer to call it "temerity") to suggest that, if we want to spread our love of democracy to Afghanistan, then we should not impede their forming a government that would be truly representative. He also made his case with an appeal to history, which, as far as I can tell, is a concept that remains alien to prevailing American culture. This is a gesture that is almost guaranteed to induce considerable aggravation in Washington, which makes it perfect for the Chutzpah of the Week award!

Deception by Connotation

William Shakespeare may have known how to capture the romantic moment, but he did not always get it right:

What's in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;

This may be true in a world of denotations; but Juliet was apparently too love-struck to recognize that words have connotations, too! The best joke about the power of connotation is the one about the designer of a new perfume who realizes that, if he wants to sell his product, "Evening in Paris" will be a much better name than "Morning in Brooklyn!" Taken on its own, a name may be nothing more than an impartial sign; but, as soon as a reader makes a symbol out of that sign, all impartiality goes out the window.

What, then, is "in" the name "Factery?" According to the latest Web Crawler blog post by Josh Lowensohn on CNET News, this is what is in the name:

New start-up Factery Labs is launching its first service on Tuesday, a technology called FactRank that can tear through Web pages and collect what it calls "facts." These are bits of information from each source page that Factery Labs' algorithm then organizes into an order of importance.

What this means for you is that developers will soon make use of the technology in third-party search engines or on Web pages to very quickly deliver reading summaries. This cuts out most (or all) of the parts you don't care about, while organizing the bits you might. It also manages to do all this in real time.

The FactRank technology was created by Paul Pedersen, who has a good background in search, including gigs at Inktomi, Google, and Powerset. CNET News met with him and co-founder Sean Gaddis (former Skype and eBay'er) on Monday to get a demo of how the technology works.

Note the scare quotes in the first paragraph. Note them well. After providing a readable summary of the technology and offering a demonstration screen shot, Lowensohn launches into the obvious question:

Of course, one of the problems with Factery Labs' approach across multiple sources--be it Twitter, or multiple URLs is accuracy; like how can it realize something like The Onion is not the same as the Associated Press?

The short answer is that it can't. Factery Labs can't determine the truth value of what it finds, nor will it ever. "It goes beyond any existing technology. And nobody knows how to do that. I mean, I don't even know how to do that--people don't even know how to do that," Pedersen said. "We are absolutely neutral. We have nothing in the system that has any bias in terms of anything. The only mechanism we maintain is egregious spam, the bad guys."

In other words what Pedersen is really saying in all of that verbiage is that his technology has nothing to do with facts, at least in the way that most of us use the word (which, at least according to Ludwig Wittgenstein, is the foundation for any meaning that word assumes). The appearance of "Fact" in the company name is, to appropriate shamelessly from William Schwenck Gilbert, "intended to give artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing" technology! Personally, I prefer the smell of morning in Brooklyn!

Monday, November 16, 2009

Barack Obama and the Question of "Universal Rights"

Barack Obama made a bold move in participating in a "town hall" meeting with Chinese students in Shanghai. However, on the basis of the Al Jazeera English account of this meeting (taken from both wire sources and their own staff), he was even bolder in how he participated:

During the question-and-answer session, Obama said that "universal rights" of expression, religious freedom and free information should be available to everyone, including those in China.

Aspects of the event, which was streamed live on the White House website, were subject to delicate negotiations between US officials and Chinese officials up to the last minute.

A transcript of the session was posted on the website of the state-run Xinhua news agency and it was broadcast on local Shanghai television with a several-second delay.

It other words he chose to speak his mind about his value system; and, whatever their general practices of censorship may be, the Chinese government allowed the circulation of news of his actions.

Is there any significance to this event? The Chinese must still remember the link between the official visit by Mikhail Gorbachev and the initial protest gathering in Tiananmen Square on May 13, 1989. One assumes that they weighed heavily whether or not Obama's presence would induce a repetition of history, possibly as a second tragedy rather than a Marxian farce. If so, then they seem to have concluded that the risk of protest in the name of "universal rights" was too low to pose a threat.

This led me to consider the proposition behind Obama's words and why so little threat was associated with it. Presumably, he (with or without assistance from his speechwriters) took his words from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of the United Nations. Consider, however, the text that introduces this Declaration on its Web page:

On December 10, 1948 the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted and proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights the full text of which appears in the following pages. Following this historic act the Assembly called upon all Member countries to publicize the text of the Declaration and "to cause it to be disseminated, displayed, read and expounded principally in schools and other educational institutions, without distinction based on the political status of countries or territories."

I found myself reading this in the context of how difficult it had been to get a unanimous endorsement of our own Declaration of Independence by all thirteen colonies and wondering just what the adoption process was. Considering conditions among the initial member nations, it is hard to imagine that adoption was a matter of a unanimous vote of approval. Cynic that I am, I cannot imagine anything other than a rather vague voice vote having established adoption.

So perhaps it is time for us to let go of this rhetoric of universality and its close ties to the worldview of the victor nations of the Second World War. Instead, we should recognize that, on a global scale, there is considerable diversity in the underlying view of the nature of humanity itself, which precedes any questions of "inalienable rights" and "inherent dignity" in the language of the Universal Declaration. Consider, to choose an example that does not pick on any individual countries, the radical difference in the sense of humanity assumed by Muhammad Yunus and his Grameen Bank and that of the more profit-based financial institutions that dominate the world economy. If there is no universality of humanity in the business of finance, regardless of the countries in which that business is conducted, what hope is there for agreement over human rights?

Yet business goes on, because business runs through negotiations, rather than agreements to accept universal truths. Those who succeed in business tend to be those who succeed in communicating; and communication involves engaging with a wide variety of interests (suppliers, partners, customers, competitors, etc.), each of which requires different communicative strategies, tactics, and actions. Like it or not, worldviews and value systems differ; and we probably understand more about how the diversity of life forms has evolved than we do about the emergence of such differing views of humanity itself. We should definitely see to our own interests and values, but that is likely to involve negotiation with those who do not share them. Negotiation, in turn, is more about being able to get things done, rather than whether or not one worldview can "win" over another. To a great extent the history of the world is a chronicle at just how poor we have been at such negotiation. Can we look back at our track record for getting it wrong and start thinking about getting it right for a change?

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Inconvenient Truths about Health Care as Industry

As I continue to argue that one of the most significant impediments to serious health care reform has been the efforts of a "consciousness industry" to induce a general acceptance of the phrase "health care industry" and thus accept, by implication, industry-based thinking in all sectors of health care, including providing care, providing insurance to cover the care, and providing supporting agencies (to use the terminology of Kenneth Burke), such as pharmaceuticals and new technologies. However, such industry-based thinking has its own implications; and I found myself thinking about them while reading Arthur Loesser's account of the transition of piano-making from craft work to manufacturing. The most important element of that transition is the migration of a craftsman's personal shop, which tends to involve only a few people, to a factory that supports mass production. Loesser raises the interesting point that, while the craftsman may only have to worry about supervising and coordinating a few assistants and apprentices, the move to the factory necessitates a change in worldview:

Inevitably, the head of a factory tends to regard sales as more important than production. Unfilled orders give him less of a stomach-ache than excess inventory. A piano maker who expands into a factory ceases to be a craftsman; he becomes a businessman.

Where health care is concerned, this is the inconvenient truth that dare not speak its name. We may be comfortable enough thinking of the production of pharmaceuticals and advanced medical technologies in a factory setting; but, in accepting the concept of health care as an industry, we accept the implication that, from the businessman's perspective, the view of hospitals and clinics as factories is more important than the view of them as care centers. The same can be said about insurance providers; but, as our relationship with our insurance providers becomes more and more depersonalized, it is easier for us to think of them as some form of cubicle-based factory. My point is that, when it comes to patient care itself, those who provide it must now contend with business processes that have more to do with extrapolations of the concepts of "sales" and "inventory" than with either what is taught in medical school or the broader issue of, as Jerome Groopman put it, "how doctors think." Indeed, Groopman's latest critique of medical practice aligns nicely with Loesser's observations: Doctors now think more like the sort of businessmen that Loesser had in mind than they do about patient care.

Of course all that attention to sales and inventory escalates to broader questions of supply and demand, which, in turn, leads to demand creation in the interest of increasing sales. This brings us back to the primary domain of the consciousness industry and the recognition that it has been warping our view of medical care for several decades. The primary agency of demand creation is advertising, and advertising has now corrupted just about every aspect of health care. Doctors are besieged with advertising, primary for those pharmaceuticals and new technologies; and there should be no question that such advertising warps their diagnostic judgment as much as advertisements from the food industry warp our perspective of good nutrition. The pharmaceutical sector has now become even more devious, taking their advertising to the general public but always concluding with that ask-your-doctor punch line.

It should be no surprise that none of these issues have surfaced in Congressional debate over health care reform. Calvin Coolidge may have been the one who said it, but it is hard to imagine anyone of either political party currently working in Washington who does not accept the precept that the business of America is business. The ultimate goal of the consciousness industry is the reinforcement of that precept, even if it implies that the health of the individual citizen may be an insignificant inconvenience to the smooth operation of business.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Second Edition?

It was during the sesquicentennial celebration of the birth of Johannes Brahms that my interest in his music began to escalate from the serious to the exhaustive. At the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan, the Guarneri Quartet joined forces with the trio of Joseph Kalichstein, Jaime Laredo, and Sharon Robinson to perform a series of programs that covered all of the chamber music that Brahms composed for piano and strings. My wife-to-be Linda and I attended every one of those concerts (even inviting my parents up from Philadelphia for one of them); and I still remember how revelatory each evening was for me.

That was a time when I did a lot of browsing in the many Manhattan record shops that had interesting collections of classical music. On one of our "dates," Linda saw a Deutsche Grammophon box marked Brahms Edition containing all of his songs performed by soprano Jessye Norman and baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, all accompanied on piano by Daniel Barenboim. We were both crazy about Norman; so there was no question of adding this to my collection, even if I was not the most enthusiastic Barenboim follower. (I would later play the track of "Von ewiger Liebe," Opus 43, Number 1, at our wedding.) Over the following months I picked up several more of the Brahms Edition boxes, all of which had vocal content: the Vocal Ensembles collection, the Choral Works, and the Works for Chorus and Orchestra. As I have previously written, we grew particularly fond of Giuseppe Sinopoli's approach to the German Requiem in that last collection.

With the move into the era of compact discs, it seemed as if the masters of many of my favorite Deutsche Grammophon recordings had been condemned to languish in the archival vaults. This included all of the Brahms Edition material, which may have been set aside under the assumption that demand would not be particularly high in the absence of any major anniversary celebration. After a couple of decades of waiting (and living with the decision to get rid of all of my vinyls when we "downsized" to our condominium in San Francisco), I eventually decided to satisfy my Gesamtwerk approach to listening to Brahms with the Brilliant Classics' collection of his complete works, using this blog to document several impressions of its assets and liabilities. Recently Deutsche Grammophon finally released their own Complete Edition box, and I looked forward to reviving my memories of those vinyls that were eventually played to death. I even wrote about that anticipation in conjunction with reexamining Sinopoli's Requiem performance in light of all the negative things I had been reading about him.

Thus, when the Deutsche Grammophon box arrived, the first thing I did was review the "table of contents" booklet. It was neatly organized in sections that corresponded to the individual boxes of vinyls that had originally been released, but I was surprised to discover that the Sinopoli Requiem was not there. It had been replaced by a performance conducted by Carlo Maria Giulini, while all the other Sinopoli recordings from the original box were included. Checking the recording details, I discovered that this "substitute" was recorded in 1987, roughly five years after all of the Sinopoli recordings for the vinyl box had been made (and four years after the sesquicentennial year). Was this a reaction to all of Sinopoli's negative press receptions? That seemed unlikely, since Deutsche Grammophon had already released the complete recordings that Sinopoli had made with the Philharmonia Orchestra of the music of Gustav Mahler.

Further investigation revealed that the CD version was, indeed, a "second edition" of the original vinyl product. All of the Herbert von Karajan recordings of the symphonies and Haydn variations made with the Berlin Philharmonic had been recorded in 1987 and 1989; and the recordings of the piano sonatas were made in 1996! Were those replacing the recordings that Krystian Zimerman had made in 1979 and 1982 that had been released as their own 2-CD set? When a book goes into a second edition, there is usually at least a rough account of what has changed and what motivated those changes. However, the Compete Edition booklet provides no information other than the lists of all the tracks and the recording details. Is there a story behind the decision that the second edition should revise the content of the initial project?

Friday, November 13, 2009

The Glitz Question

At 12:05 PM (Eastern time) today Daniel J. Wakin used a post to the Arts Beat blog maintained by The New York Times to pose the inevitable question about Gustavo Dudamel. Actually, he framed the question within an observation made by Larry Livingston, Chairman of Instrumental Conducting at the Thornton School of Music of the University of Southern California. Having run through the usual encomia to praise Dudamel ("huge talent," a "breath of fresh air," "thrilling"), Livingston popped the question that was really on the mind of probably every musician striving for a career in (at least) the classical domain:

Do we need glitz to save classical music?

I give points to Wakin for recognizing that there is nothing new about glitz and for tracing it back at least as far as the popularity of Italian castrati (which I found a particularly appropriate example, since it was only two days ago that the BBC had a Newshour slot for an interview with Cecilia Bartoli about her new CD that celebrates, if that is the right word, the castrato repertoire). He might also have recalled Donald Francis Tovey's entry for "Music" in the eleventh edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica (now available in the book The Forms of Music), in which he discussed the impact of "the efficiency of [the] press bureau" on the progress of music history, although that institution does not really emerge until the nineteenth century.

Wakin does not provide his own conclusive answer to Livingston's question. Instead he threw it open for discussion through comments. So I found it interesting that, after an hour and a half had elapsed since his post appeared, no comments had accumulated. Are Arts Beat readers really that uninterested in the question? Have they grown tired of it because it has already been discussed to death over water coolers or in concert hall lobbies?

One problem may be that the question actually unpacks into two questions:

  1. Does classical music need saving?
  2. Can salvation be achieved through glitz?

From a historical point of view, Tovey demonstrated that the second question hardly needs asking. What we would now call "serious music" has been grist for the mill of "press bureaus" for as long as they have existed; and, from Nicolas Slonimsky's Lexicon of Musical Invective, we know that "critical assaults" (to borrow the phrase from Slonimsky's subtitle) preceded the institutionalization of the press as we now know it. Like it or not, public opinion rules, which is why Jacques Offenbach should be remembered for turning Public Opinion into the central character of his opera Orphée aux Enfers (which I have always preferred translating as Orpheus Goes to Hell). Notwithstanding Brüno's scathing exposé of what some people will do to get their children (or themselves) in the spotlight, I doubt that any institutions of serious music would still be with us without the efforts of those press bureaus.

The trickier question is whether public opinion feels the institutions of serious music are worth saving. Ironically, even though I live in a city that lacks its own radio station for the serious listener (as opposed to those who simply want a higher-class level of background music), I think that even the first question is not worth posing. Serious music is part of our environment, and I do not see its future as being in jeopardy. Even many of those for whom it is not preferred listening seem to recognize it for what it is and acknowledge the value of institutions such as Davies Symphony Hall and the War Memorial Opera House. This was particularly evident when I was doing my "Great Recession" coverage from, and I realized how much interest there was in opportunities to enjoy serious music on a tight budget.

In other words Wakin may not be getting any comments because both he and Livingston are asking the wrong question. The real question is:

Why am I not getting as much attention as Dudamel?

Some of the answers to that question clearly have nothing to do with music, and that is ground that those who implicitly want to ask this question fear to tread. If Dudamel is currently doing well in the spotlight, it is because he understands "spotlight rules" (even when they involve getting enthusiastic about Gustav Mahler while being interviewed by Andy Garcia sitting there looking like he neither knows nor cares who Mahler was) as well as he understands his performance technique. If he can get people to listen to Mahler under conditions as adverse as that television interview (which seems to have been the case, at least in the world of iTunes), then more power to him! After all, one day he may be able to do the same for former Los Angeles resident Arnold Schoenberg!

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Trying to Correct a Misconception of Media Bias

Al Jazeera English just pulled the following report from their wire sources:

A Jewish-American, who settled in the occupied West Bank, has been charged with killing two Palestinians and attempting to murder more people.

Jack Teitel told reporters at a Jerusalem court on Thursday that he had no regrets for shooting the pair and trying to kill the others with explosives and poison, and that God would approve of his actions.

"It has been a pleasure and an honor to have served my God," Teitel, an ultra-Orthodox Jew originally from Florida in the US, said.

Teitel has a total of 14 charges against him including two for murder and three for attempted murder.

He has also been charged with illegal possession of explosives and weapons and incitement to racism.

The indictment said that Teitel, 37, was trying to avenge the deaths of Israelis killed by Palestinian fighters.

It added that he began his assault by killing a Palestinian taxi driver in 1997. He also attacked a dovish Israeli professor and messianic Jews who venerate Jesus.

No date has yet been set for the beginning of the trial.

Teitel faces up to life in prison if convicted.

I reproduce this story to refute the discriminatory practices of many media sources that seem to assume that "Muslim" is the only modifier for the noun phrase "extremist terrorist." Al Jazeera is to be credited for trying to right this imbalance, as well as for recognizing that this is being treated as a criminal act to be handled by the Israeli justice system. I shall be curious to see which American media decide to treat this as newsworthy (particularly since the BBC NEWS Web site gave en even more detailed account than did Al Jazeera)!

Laura Flanders' Armistice Metaphor

As I continue to read each piece of economic news as if it were a dispatch from the front lines of the War Against the Poor, whose objective seems to be the banishment of those below the poverty line from the virtual world of financial practices in which "real world" concepts of value need not interfere with articles of faith based on mathematical models, I took some comfort in seeing that Laura Flanders used The Notion blog on the Web site for The Nation to pursue this metaphor in her own way. Her post this morning was entitled "No Armistice In War on Poor;" and it was clear that she was using Armistice Day as a point of departure. Here is her opening paragraph:
Armistice Day reminds us that when wars end, the winners and losers are supposed to make peace. For the first time, in 2009, leaders of World War II enemies, Germany and France, commemorated the date together as a sign of new mutual respect. But this week also marked the ten-year anniversary of a different kind of war -- a war on Americans' assets and the poor. Ten years later, while the winners and losers are obvious, there's no armistice in sight.
Unfortunately, this concept of armistice, at least as Flanders has conceived it, is a relatively recent one. Peace was not made with the "losers" of the Trojan War. Those who were not slaughtered were enslaved, and we have Euripides to remind of the full extent of humiliation associated with that slavery. While the motivation for war may have been a matter of controlling resources, the "winners" of that control maintained it through the strongest exercise of domination. Winning was not the only thing; one also had to keep a secure hold on one's victory.

This particular view of the nature of war is far from outmoded, so Flanders will not find an armistice in the War Against the Poor because there is no need for one. As her post observes, after the initial setbacks of the economic crisis, the rich are regaining control of their resources, particularly the virtual ones through which they maintain their power. It is, as Flanders observes, "obvious" that they are the winners; and their domination is so secure that there is no need for armistice. Still, the question remains as to why this victory was so important. Was the War Against the Poor nothing more than, as I put is a little over a year ago, "a fight to 'control all the marbles?'"

One theme I have considered since I first invoked the war metaphor is that, as was the case in the Trojan War, this was a matter of domination insured through enslavement. The technology through which man could control nature was now engaged to enable man to control his fellow man. This then brings us back to yesterday's unpleasant theme and its relation to Euripides' account of the aftermath of the Trojan War. Control is not enough; control must be exercised through humiliation. Not only must the "losers" be dominated; but also they must be (in yesterday's language) ravaged to make sure they are "kept in their place." Victory is not only about control but also about the pornographic thrills that can come with the exercise of that control.

The irony is that, back in the eighteenth century, the emergence of capitalism was tightly coupled with the origins of humanistic thinking. As Arthur Loesser put it in his social history, Men, Women and Pianos, "a wealthy, educated, public-spirited cotton manufacturer could rightfully tell himself that he was a better man than the gracefully mannered ne’er-do-well son of an impoverished baron." Nobility could no longer control by rank when manufacturers and merchants controlled resources that the nobles needed. This spirit of humanism culminated in the words of Friedrich Schiller's "An die Freude" in 1785 (later set to music by Ludwig van Beethoven) which, as its Wikipedia entry put it, celebrated "the ideal of unity and brotherhood of all mankind."

It took less than a century for that ideal to lapse into a hollow platitude, but when did the rich discover that the poor could be viewed as a source of pornographic titillation? This is a question that demands further research. I suspect that Charles Dickens was one of the first to bring attention to this dark side of wealth and power, and it is clear that his influences are still with us. Could it be that he started the trend because he was able to apply his literary skills to his own life experiences? Where does that now leave us as readers and observers? Shall we continue to let Arthur Rimbaud's "savage parade" of pornographic indulgences pass us by; or have we the will to recover that spirit of humanism that once tried to heal the social divisions of the eighteenth century?