Saturday, January 30, 2010

Misclassifying Werner Pirchner

The Grove Music Online entry for Werner Pirchner by Sigrid Wiesmann cites the print source for information about him to be the second edition of The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz. Oddly enough, this entry fails to mention that Pirchner died on August 10, 2001, which is one of the few useful pieces of information in his Wikipedia entry. A more extensive account (for those who can read German) may be found in his German Wikipedia entry. However, Wiesmann probably establishes the best context for listening to his compositions:

Self-taught as a composer and vibraphone player, he followed the latest trends in jazz music as a youth. Later influences included the theories of Schoenberg, and the music of composers from Bach, Schubert and Bartók to Thelonious Monk and John Cage.

This raises the question of, notwithstanding the influences of youth and the presence of Monk in that list, why the Grove editors choose to classify him as jazz.

My only encounter with Pirchner was in the mid-Eighties. This was a time when I was willing to take a chance on almost anything released through the ECM New Series collection. ECM had put out my first purchase of the music of Gavin Bryars on CD (at a time when I thought the only sources of his music were in Brian Eno's Obscure series); and they were responsible for my "discovery" of Arvo Pärt, after having heard his name dropped by Steve Reich. I suppose I had as much trust in any production decision that Manfred Eicher made as jazz buffs of an earlier generation had in the tastes of Alfred Lion's Blue Note releases.

ECM's Pirchner release was a 2-CD set entitled EU, which was not so much an integrated suite as a representative sample from Pirchner's "PWV" catalog. (His use of that label, which appears only in the German Wikipedia entry, immediately identifies his sense of humor. Perhaps the primary influence from Cage was Cage's famous "sunny disposition.") The title presumably referred to the European Union, which was still far from the reality that would be established by the Maastricht Treaty but was on every "right-thinking" European's mind. On the other hand, when one listens to the music in this collection, one is easily convinced that Pirchner also chose this title for its diphthong, which, depending on the national speaker, could sound like a wail of indigestion or an expletive of disgust. Pirchner was that kind of guy. the sort who could easily come up with the title (translated into English) "String Quartet for Wind Quintet" but still had enough respect for convention to actually score the work for wind quintet (rather than, for example, brass quintet, thus covering all bases).

This is clearly not the sort of work we associate with the jazz category. On the other hand it is the sort of thing that probably makes too many serious listeners cringe, even if the members of the wind quintet on the ECM recording all came from the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. Having just written an piece on how challenging comedy can be, my personal feeling is that we just do not show enough respect to the truly skilled clowns. The problem is that those who insist on categories do not know what to make of Spike Jones, Hoffnung Festival Concerts, and P. D. Q. Bach; and yet, as has been the case since Aristophanes, the clowns often tell us more about the more serious aspects of our behavior than the more "acceptable" composers do.

I did not know until I started to work on this piece that Pirchner was dead and that it will not be long before we come up on the tenth anniversary of his death. Since he was born in 1940, his death came early (and not even the German Wikipedia entry says anything about its circumstances). The good news is that EU is apparently still available; and, according to, it is available on CD, vinyl, and through MP3 download. More interesting is that the Quintett Wien has released a recording (again both CD and MP3 download) of Streichquartett für Bläserquintett, which also includes Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's K. 388 serenade. This should be enough to convince the Grove editors that they have tried to cram Pirchner into the wrong box!

Friday, January 29, 2010

J. D. Salinger and Multiple Readings

I suspect that the prevailing hypothesis over why Jerome David Salinger retreated to Cornish, New Hampshire is that he wanted nothing to do with what, in today's language, is called "buzz." He realized that publicity was an inevitable part of the publishing business and that a writer was just one of the boxes in the organization chart of that business. Ultimately, he had to contend with the risk that any writer who bought into the publicity game would lose his/her grip on the craft of writing and become, to invoke the word that he made so popular, a "phony." So he decided that the best way to minimize that risk would be to leave New York, basically the capital of buzz in the American literary world, and withdraw to the comfort of a more remote location.

As Blake Wilson observed in a post this morning to the ArtsBeat blog of The New York Times, Salinger's death has now prompted a new round of the very buzz that he wanted to avoid. As might be guessed, this buzz is primarily over the question of whether or not Salinger devolved into a phony in spite of himself and his intentions. The problem is that buzz exists more for the benefit of those who generate it than for the topic being addressed, and I suspect that this problem captures the reason why Salinger wanted out of the game. At the end of the day, the game is as senseless as it is self-indulgent; and, while it may have an effect of the posthumous sale of Salinger's works, it is likely to tell us little about the experience of reading his texts.

As far as I am concerned, after I read a book, there is only one question that matters regarding the "legacy" of that book: Do I want to read it again? When Wilson included a quote from Frank Portman about the cult status of Catcher in the Rye, I think he was on to something. When I read the book in high school, it was almost as if I could not wait to read it again. It turned the New York I was just beginning to know into an amusement park ride beyond my wildest dreams, and my personal amusement was enhanced by my knowing a kid in my senior year class who was a ringer for Holden Caulfield. I was similarly drawn into the chronicles of the Glass family, as if reading them would endow me with a far more interesting home life than could be provided by those Philadelphia suburbs that sprang up with the rise of industrial parks.

What has happened to that voracious appetite? The simple answer is that it has moved on to other things (where I have tried to be careful in using "other" rather than "better"). Perhaps one of the lessons of age is that little is to be gained from a life-mission of exposing phonies for what they are. This was basically the theme of Curtiss Clayton's short film, The Man Who Counted, based on a story by John P. Sisk; but there are any number of other literary sources about how those who focus on the flaws of others often do so to hide from their own flaws. So I have no great urge to return to Salinger's texts because reading has now become that process of "Looking for (and Finding) the Beauty" that guides the way I try to listen to music.

Also, I cannot deny that, now that I am older, I have to think more seriously about whether I want to reread a text when I could be giving attention to some other text I have not yet read at all. Between the emergence of new books that I cannot resist (such as Robin D. G. Kelley's book about Thelonious Monk from which I learned about looking for the beauty) and all of those books I have purchased but not yet read, I often feel that I am not putting enough time into reading and must be more discriminating in using the time I have. Thus, while in the recent past I felt a need to return to John Dewey's Art as Experience lectures and Benedetto Croce's treatise on aesthetics, every reading choice I make has to contend with what now amounts to rooms of unread material.

In this context none of the works of Salinger offer much by way of competition. He made his point. I got it. I enjoyed the trip while it lasted. Now I would prefer to focus my attention on other trips.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Disloyal Opposition?

I am not sure how much control C-SPAN has over the cameras in the House chamber; but, during their broadcast last night of the State of the Union address, there seemed to be a deliberate effort to play down the subdued, if not sullen, behavior of the audience on the Republican side. President Barack Obama even tried to make a joke out of it. After emphasizing the extent of the tax cuts he had initiated during his first term in office, he looked over to the Republican side and quipped, "I thought I’d get some applause on that one." Experienced as he may have been in winning over a not-necessarily-sympathetic room in Las Vegas during the Primaries, he never succeeded in breaking the Republican ice. In the official Republican response to the speech, delivered by Virginia Governor Robert F. McDonnell, there was less interest in Obama's acknowledgement of Republican ideology and more in a government "simply trying to do too much." Apparently, it mattered little that Obama had tried to address this counterargument during his speech, reinforcing his position in words that every voter could clearly understand:

How long should we wait? How long should America put its future on hold?

These are the questions that every registered Republican should put to his/her favored candidates in every election. Obama understands that opinions and values can differ, but he also believes that such differences can be addressed through open communication. If one does not come to agreement, one can at least negotiate a position from which one can act, rather than sit in stagnation. That is how one works with a "loyal opposition." The Republican Party is determined to win the next round of elections by rejecting such efforts at negotiation and embracing stagnation; so the next time around they can claim it is their turn to be the "party of change." There is no loyalty in this opposition. I do not mean this in terms of loyalty to the President of the United States; I mean it in terms of loyalty to those voters responsible for your holding the position you have. In our system of government, we elect others to manage our country by doing things that, one way or another, we are not equipped to do. We do not elect them to do nothing other than bicker over not getting all of the marbles all of the time. It's time for Republican voters to ask whether or not they are getting the representation they deserve according to the principles of our Constitution!

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Nicolas Sarkozy Casts the First Stone

The delegates at this year's World Economic Forum may still be circling the wagons to guard against voices of social responsibility that might reflect Archbishop Desmond Tutu's closing address at last year's gathering, but they apparently overlooked the possibility that political leaders may see some relevance in such messages. Thus, there is a good chance that the rich and mighty did not expect that the opening address by Nicolas Sarkozy might pursue the objective of reform to the level of a complete overhaul. Here is how the BBC News Web site reported his address:

French President Nicolas Sarkozy has called for a fundamental rethink of capitalism in the aftermath of the financial crisis.

"We need deep profound change," he said in his keynote speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos.

His comments came as bankers and regulators clashed over proposals to break up banks that threaten the whole financial system.

Mr Sarkozy said he wished to restore a "moral dimension" to free trade.

"Were we not to change, we would be showing tremendous irresponsibility," he told the bankers and politicians that gather annually in the Swiss alpine resort.

Apparently, Sarkozy has decided to lift a page from Barack Obama's playbook and develop his own theme of "change we can believe in;" and what better place to talk about that change than in front of all those who created the circumstances that now necessitate it?

As might be imagined, those who most need to heed his message are putting up the greatest resistance to it. The BBC described the audience response as "scattered applause." Fortunately, they continued their account of his remarks for the benefit of the rest of us:

"We are not asking ourselves what we will replace capitalism with, but what kind of capitalism we want?" he said.

"We must re-engineer capitalism to restore its moral dimension, its conscience," he said. "By placing free trade above all else, what we have is a weakening of democracy.

While saying that those who ran companies that made money deserved to be compensated well, Mr Sarkozy hit out at huge bank bonuses that have caused public outcry in the US and UK.

"There are remuneration packages that will no longer be tolerated because they bear no relation to merit," he said.

The good news is that Sarkozy is not alone. Having already made his case through the bully pulpit of the Financial Times, George Soros continued his variation of Sarkozy's theme at a private lunch in Davos prior to the opening session of the World Economic Forum. The question is whether or not a few clear voices of reform can eventually prevail over an establishment that sustains itself by denying any evidence that runs contrary to the massive inertia of its business-as-usual. It is hard to be optimistic, because we have witnessed too many examples of the power of that inertia, whether it involves health care in our own country or threats to the environment around the world. Nevertheless, Sarkozy should be credited for using his opening remarks to suggest that business-as-usual doesn't work any more. He let the camel's nose of change under the tent. Now it is up to the defenders of the status quo to try to chase away that camel!

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Malicious Get Smarter

A report that Joseph Menn filed from San Francisco last night for the Financial Times seems to indicate that the dangers of malware may be escalating to a new level. Here is the basic story:

Personal friends of employees at Google, Adobe and other companies were targeted by hackers in a string of recently disclosed cyberattacks, raising privacy concerns and pointing to a highly sophisticated operation, security experts said.

Cybersecurity experts analysing the attacks said the hackers spied on individuals and used other sophisticated techniques, making them extremely difficult to stop. The disclosures come amid renewed alarm over cybersecurity after Google said it had been the target of a series of cyberattacks from China.

The most significant discovery is that the attackers had selected employees at the companies with access to proprietary data, then learnt who their friends were. The hackers compromised the social network accounts of those friends, hoping to enhance the probability that their final targets would click on the links they sent.

“We’re seeing a lot more up-front reconnaissance, understanding who the players are at the company and how to reach them,” said George Kurtz, chief technology officer at security firm McAfee.

“Someone went to the trouble to backtrack: ‘Let me look at their friends, who I can target as a secondary person’.”

Just as troubling as the story itself, however, may be the reactions it is likely to provoke. Towards the end of Menn's account we get a hint of some of those reactions:

Another element of the attack code used a formula only published on Chinese language websites, said Joe Stewart, a researcher for security firm SecureWorks. Mr Stewart also found that some of the code had been assembled in 2006, suggesting that the campaign had been not only well organised but enduring.

The evidence pointed to a government-sponsored effort that only large spy agencies or perhaps some of the most advanced big companies could have withstood, experts said. China on Monday described accusations it was behind cyberattacks as “groundless”.

At the risk of finding myself put on some lists that could make my life very unpleasant, I would like to be bold enough to suggest that, in this particular case, the Chinese may have a point. The sad truth is that, whenever bad things happen in cyberspace, there tends to be an outbreak of accusations, most of which come problem people who have the authority to speak from a bully pulpit (such as being interviewed by a reporter for the Financial Times) but who are fundamentally naive about the underlying nature of the world the Internet has made. In spite of all the supporting evidence, these people tend to deny a fundamental rule of Internet culture:

Never underestimate the capacity of Internet technology to empower an individual intent on causing serious damage.

In the world the Internet has made, even the presence of source code for malware on a Chinese language Web site is not an indicator of Chinese involvement at either an institutional or an individual level. Those who cause damage can be very clever at concealing their identities, and one of the best strategies for concealment is the creation of false clues.

I have noticed that, ever since the Massachusetts Senate election, there has been a lot of rhetoric about "circular firing squads," particularly applied to the organization of the Democratic Party. Menn's article may have inadvertently suggested that we now run a similar risk over the issue of cybersecurity. After decades of denying the risks of ignoring security questions, we may now face the formation of a circular firing squad on a global scale, with every offended party aiming to shoot down a "most likely offender." This is likely to have no effect other than to make things easier for those who get their kicks out of causing worldwide damage. Unfortunately, the likelihood of a concerted effort to take cybersecurity seriously is about as high as that for addressing environmental problems!

The New Capitalist Tool for the World Economic Forum

It used to be that Forbes advertised itself as being the "capitalist tool." I am not sure when they decided that this sobriquet had lost its charm; but these days I see that their Web site describes itself as being the "Home Page for the World's Business Leaders." Still, even the world's business leaders cannot be good leaders without a few good tools; and it appears that one of those tools is now available through the World Economic Forum. His name is Richard Edelman (when you are one of the world's business leaders, the best tools are always of the human variety); and he apparently runs a communications consulting business that specializes in telling the rich and mighty what they want to hear. At least that is the impression I got when I read a report by Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson filed from New York yesterday for the Financial Times. Here are the opening paragraphs:

Public confidence in companies, governments and non-governmental organisations has staged a recovery since last year’s “trust Armageddon”, but the rebound is patchy and fragile, according to data to be presented at the World Economic Forum on Wednesday in Davos.

Trust in business has risen from 49 per cent to 53 per cent around the world year-on-year, says the annual “trust barometer” of well-educated, highly paid and engaged “informed publics”, conducted by Edelman, a communications consultancy.

That second paragraph says it all, since it describes Edelman's sample space. Apparently, Edelman is less interested in providing analysis and more interesting in running a massage parlor for data to keep his customers feeling good; and what is the World Economic Forum if not a gathering of the rich and mighty to feel good about themselves without being troubled by the presence of the homeless, the unemployed, and those dying through lack of proper medical care? Edelman is the perfect antidote for all of those dark clouds that Archbishop Desmond Tutu summoned last year at Davos; and, of course, it takes a fair amount of chutzpah to be so oblivious as to ignore those not numbered among the "well-educated, highly paid and engaged 'informed publics!'"

Now I admit that it is early in the week. Considering that the Davos Follies will be getting under way tomorrow, it may even be too early to declare a Chutzpah of the Week award winner. On the other hand think of how much the high spirits of those follies owe to the data that Edelman has served up as an amuse-gueule for the event. So I shall go out on the without-him-you-are-nothing limb and declare Edelman winner of the Chutzpah of the Week award, subject to this year's Forum outdoing its outrageousness once the proceedings get under way!

Monday, January 25, 2010

Sticking it to the Poor as Annual Ritual

With all due respect to Karl Marx, there is one situation in which the tragic history of the past does not repeat itself as farce; and that is in the annual cycle of meetings of the World Economic Forum. Every year there are a few voices that try to call attention to the repeating tragedy. Last year one of those voices even had the privileged position of being the final speaker on the agenda. Archbishop Desmond Tutu used this particular bully pulpit to instill this congregation of the rich and mighty with at least an iota of shame:

We spend billions on banks when we know that a fraction of this money could save all the children in the world.

A year on probably the only thing that has changed is that there are more needy children in the world, and the same is likely to be true of the adult population. So what, then, is on the minds of the rich and mighty as the start to pack their bags for Davos? As usual, one can expect a reasonably good "insider's view" from the Financial Times; and yesterday offered a report complied by Chrystia Freeland in New York, Gillian Tett in London, and Tom Braithwaite in Washington. Unfortunately, the opening paragraphs tell us all we need to know:

Senior Wall Street bankers heading to the World Economic Forum will use the meeting in Davos to lobby regulators against a rigorous implementation of Barack Obama’s plan to cap the size and trading activity of banks.

They will also oppose the break-up of large financial institutions and insist there should be a concerted effort to tackle the “too big to fail” issue by other regulatory means.

“It’s not about being too big but about the interconnections,” said one banker. Executives said they would push quietly against the reforms to avoid giving the US president the “fight” he promised last week.

Even the current Chancellor of the United Kingdom, almost in defiance of the very name of his political party, seems to be siding with the banks on this issue.

Still, that quote from the anonymous banker gets to the heart of the matter. When things are good, people enjoy the benefits of those "interconnections," even if they appreciate them only at the lowest level of paying bills through the computer. When things go bad, however, people are only satisfied when they can engage with other people; and being connected by telephone to a call center operator reading from a script in a language that (s)he may not understand very well is not just a poor excuse for engagement, it is a disgusting one.

Recently The Nation ran an editorial inspiring us all to close our accounts in these mega-banks and move our business to the local level. This was a nice bit of out-of-the-box thinking; and I wish it could be followed. When we moved to Palo Alto our first mortgage was with a California-based bank. This bank was definitely on a scale larger than that of our neighborhood, but the individual branch offices were still highly personalized. In a few years, however, that bank was absorbed into a larger one, which was, itself, absorbed when the economic crisis was at its worst. Not only is it hard to follow The Nation's advice; but, even if you can find such a local bank, can you count on it still managing your assets a year from now?

The idea that current economic problems reside in most of the underlying institutions and that only wholesale reform of those institutions can get us out of the woods has few supporters. (In other words the move towards economic reform is in the same dire straits as the move to reform health care.) The one voice that defends reform seems to come from George Soros, quoted in the Financial Times report as supporting change that "would certainly mean the end of Goldman Sachs as we know it." Presumably, Soros will be in Davos this year; but it is hard to imagine that anything he would say would succeed where Tutu failed to register. The risk that "business as usual" may very well lead to "no business at all" if corrective measures are not applied is simply not part of the mathematical models that are served up as the Kool-Aid of the World Economic Forum.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

The "Other" Bicentennial?

Perhaps it was just a shortcoming in my reading habits, but I found it interesting that The New York Times was already revving itself up for the bicentennial of the birth of Frédéric Chopin on January 2, while the first notice that Chopin shared this bicentennial with Robert Schumann only appeared today in a comparative evaluation piece by Anthony Tommasini. Personally, I suspect that the "Brace Yourselves!" post I wrote in response to the first Times piece is more applicable to Chopin than it is to Schumann. This is because I anticipate that we are less likely to be flooded by bad performances of Schumann this year, simply because those who do not play very well tend to shy away from him. Those who think nothing of having their way with Chopin still tend to be easily intimated by much of the Schumann repertoire.

Nevertheless, I wish to emphasize a point that I just made in an piece, which is that, when properly performed, both of these composers do best when taken in moderation. Both Chopin and Schumann hold up equally well under serious listening, but serious listening is reflective listening. When the performance is a good one, it will provide more than enough over which to reflect, rather than creating an urge to "move on to the next thing," whatever that "thing" may be. So the injunction still holds. We shall probably have to brace ourselves even more for the excesses of a double bicentennial. On the other hand, if we do well in filtering out the mediocrities, we are all likely to be very busy in our serious listening activities. However, as a former resident of Palo Alto who took advantage of the opportunities to hear recitals by Stanford University faculty, including those not in the Music Department, all I ask is that I be spared having to endure yet another attempt by Condoleeza Rice to take on the piano part of Schumann's Opus 44 piano quintet!

Saturday, January 23, 2010

"Go forth and blog"

Apparently the Pope has decided that it is time for the Holy See to venture into cyberspace. Here is how Associated Press Writer Ariel David reported the decision this morning:

Pope Benedict XVI has a new commandment for priests struggling to get their message across: Go forth and blog.

The pope, whose own presence on the Web has heavily grown in recent years, urged priests on Saturday to use all multimedia tools at their disposal to preach the Gospel and engage in dialogue with people of other religions and cultures.

And just using e-mail or surfing the Web is often not enough: Priests should use cutting-edge technologies to express themselves and lead their communities, Benedict said in a message released by the Vatican.

"The spread of multimedia communications and its rich 'menu of options' might make us think it sufficient simply to be present on the Web," but priests are "challenged to proclaim the Gospel by employing the latest generation of audiovisual resources," he said.

The message, prepared for the World Day of Communications, suggests such possibilities as images, videos, animated features, blogs, and Web sites.

Benedict said young priests should become familiar with new media while still in seminary, though he stressed that the use of new technologies must reflect theological and spiritual principles.

"Priests present in the world of digital communications should be less notable for their media savvy than for their priestly heart, their closeness to Christ," he said.

From my own atheist point of view, I was most interested in the extent to which this might indicate a move by the Catholic Church from proclamation to communication. If priests take their blogging seriously, will they pay attention to the comments they receive; or will the blog just be a high-technology pulpit for spreading the Word without paying any attention to whether or not the would-be recipients have anything to say by way of reply? The priestly heart may have to face far more challenges in the blogosphere than it ever encountered in the cathedral!

By the way, Your Holiness, I happen to know this Nigerian diplomat who has come into a lot of money

Thursday, January 21, 2010


This story has now appeared on most of the news resources. However, as usually seems to be the case, I like the BBC News version when it comes to straightforward delivery:

The US Supreme Court has rejected long-standing limits on how much companies can spend on political campaigns.

The ruling is likely to change the way presidential and congressional campaigns are funded, including this year's crucial mid-term elections.

The Supreme Court's 5-4 vote overturns a 20-year-old ban on businesses using money from their own funds to pay for campaign ads.

Critics say it will flood political campaigns with money from companies.

However, analysts suggest that some businesses will recoil at the prospect of being asked for even more election campaign funding.

Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy said the prohibition of direct contributions from companies and unions to political candidates was a form of censorship.

But Justice John Paul Stevens disagreed strongly, saying that the court's ruling threatened "to undermine the integrity of elected institutions around the nation".

The Supreme Court also said that any campaign adverts that were not paid for by the candidate or their party must be clearly marked with the name of the sponsor.

It would appear that our Supreme Court has decided that "the best government money can buy" should not longer be a cheap joke and has reacted by turning it into an expensive one. This is probably what Justice Stevens had in mind in the way he framed his dissenting opinion; but, as befits his station, he opted for more dignified language.

Since this was a 5-4 vote, it was ultimately decided by "swing" Justice Kennedy, which may be why he had the honor (sic) of delivering the opinion. However, his connection to censorship and therefore, by connotation, free speech is too mind-boggling even to be appreciated for its irony. It amounts to selling government out to the highest bidder on the grounds of specious logic and flimsy rhetoric. There can be only one explanation for such an outrageous act, which is that Justice Kennedy has been following the Chutzpah of the Week awards and has probably been coveting one for some time, regardless of whether the connotation is negative or positive. Well, his wish has now been granted; but I have to confess that it is really depressing to give the award to a Supreme Court Justice on the basis of negative connotation!

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Divided we Fall

It is hard to imagine there being much joy in the White House this morning. The Associated Press headline writer applied the adjective "epic" to the Democratic defeat in the Massachusetts Senate election. The lead paragraphs, in the story filed by Glen Johnson and Liz Sidoti, maintained the rhetorical darkness:

Republicans are rejoicing and Democrats reeling in the wake of Scott Brown's stunning triumph in a special Massachusetts Senate election that the GOP victor insists was not simply a referendum on President Barack Obama.

Still, Obama grimly faced a need to both regroup and recoup losses on Wednesday, the anniversary of his inauguration, in a White House shaken by the realization of what a difference a year made. The most likely starting place was finding a way to save the much-criticized health care overhaul he's been trying to push through Congress.

Meanwhile, Joe Garofoli, Staff Writer for the San Francisco Chronicle, reported that things are not looking much better for Obama here in California:

While 56 percent of Californians still support Obama, that's down from 65 percent in March, according to a Field Poll taken Jan. 5-17 of 1,232 registered voters in the state.

Obama's strongest support was among Bay Area voters, at 65 percent, while voters in the Central Valley were least supportive of him, at 46 percent.

Nationally, 50 percent of the respondents to a Gallup Poll this month supported Obama, while 44 percent disapproved.

In California, Democratic and independent voters are turning on Obama, especially on the health care issue. The poll found that 53 percent of respondents disapproved of Obama's handling of health care, while 39 percent approved.

Yesterday, when I was examining comments by Chronicle readers to make a case against the "wisdom of crowds," particularly when violence was concerned, I acknowledged that "one may encounter some useful insights" among those comments. One possible candidate for such insight came in a comment to Garofoli's story from a reader with the handle "starstuff." I found the observation potentially useful:

Such a brilliant orator, and yet he *still* hasn't taken control of the national narrative on health care or anything else. Still the Republicans manage successfully to frame (nearly) every conversation about (nearly) every topic.

As I see it, the whole Obama campaign was grounded in a spirit of unity, enabled by a host of strategies for bringing supporters together, ranging from good old-fashioned door-to-door encounters to the full power of the Internet as a "social medium." The post-election speech was, above all else, a celebration of that unity; and things really have not been the same since then. Thus, by taking control of all conversations, the Republicans have managed to apply all those Obama strategies, which were so successful in winning the election, in a judo-like maneuver to reverse their direction, turning those "engines of unity" into "engines of divisiveness."

I would argue that the Republican leadership has committed itself to winning the next Presidential election, and they have decided that turning the public against the Democrats will be more successful than trying to turn public favor towards the Republicans. My guess is that the main lesson the public has learned from the health care debate is that one can count on neither Democrats nor Republicans to improve matters. That is why I feel our greatest threat right now is one of succumbing to demagoguery through a general mandate, rather than through the usual Constitutional processes.

Divisiveness is sort of like entropy in the social world. Like entropy in the objective world of thermodynamics, it can only increase. However, in that objective world that increase can be checked by an expenditure of energy (which will never be 100% efficient). If "change we can believe in" is to be anything more than hollow rhetoric, a similar expenditure of "social energy" will be necessary to check the inevitability of divisiveness. The sooner Obama realizes that he needs develop a new strategy to muster that social energy as effectively as he had summoned it to get elected in the first place, the more likely will he have the power to satisfy those who brought him into the White House.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

On-the-Job Learning the Microsoft Way

We now accept as axiomatic that proposition that, whatever your job may be (assuming you have one), you will have to be learning new things about how to do it while working at it. Microsoft has decided to take a proactive approach to this proposition when it comes to learning more about the features of productivity software; and, since this is a Microsoft effort, that means learning how to use Office software more productively. Here is their basic approach as reported by Ina Fried for her Beyond Binary column on the CNET News Web site:

I'm not sure it's exactly the approach I would take, but Redmond has decided to make a game out of what I find to be one of the most significant annoyances in Microsoft's Office--finding the command one is looking for.

Introduced on Tuesday, "Ribbon Hero" is aimed at turning into a game the often frustrating task of finding commands on Office's Ribbon toolbar, which debuted as part of Office 2007.

In a blog post, Office program manager (and self-described casual games enthusiast) Jennifer Michelstein said Microsoft was trying to see if the company could tap into the trend of using games as a means of training.

"We set out to understand whether elements of game play (things like scoring points, competing with friends, and earning achievements) could motivate people to explore more of the app, learn new features, and ultimately become more productive," Michelstein wrote. "Could we do it in a way that fit well into the regular Office workflow, without being too much of a distraction?"

Ultimately, Microsoft decided to put it out there and see.

Users can earn points in Ribbon Hero in one of two ways. The first way is just by using Word, Excel, or PowerPoint and using commands. A small number of points are awarded for basic commands, while more complex features earn more points. A second way to earn points is to complete various challenges. It also taps a Facebook connection to let users share their score and see how they stack up against their friends.

Many years ago I floated the hypothesis that there were three ways a "knowledge worker" could learn new things about a software product:

  1. Through the "help" facilities of the software itself, possibly augmented with hyperlinks to Web sites providing FAQ information.
  2. By getting in touch with a human being at a call center.
  3. Through conversations with colleagues about what they were doing.

That last item was a corollary of a discovery made within Xerox that their repair technicians learn a lot of things that were not "in the book" by exchanging war stories about problems they solved over casual conversation (and perhaps some beer) at the end of a long and hard day. The point is that people can be a great resource for learning, and people you know are better than those impersonal call center voices that spend most of the time reading from a prepared script!

Apparently, Microsoft does not see it this way. They figure that the learning process should focus as much as possible on a man-machine relationship. If that relationship can be facilitated by having the user play a game, that just reinforces their position that time spent with the machine will always be more productive than time spent with one's colleagues. My own position is that workplaces are creating enough alienation already. The last thing they need is more software to increase that sense of alienation!

The Violence of Crowds

Perhaps the most compelling reason for skepticism concerning the "wisdom of crowds" is the strong case of historical evidence that, with the reinforcement of a crowd, the individual is more inclined towards violent action than towards considered reflection. This is particularly evident in Gustave Le Bon's "study of the popular mind," The Crowd (originally published in French as La Psychologie des Foules). By the time we get to the fourth chapter of this book, the author has begun a laundry list of crowds swayed to commit atrocities through group psychology. That list includes all the blood shed over the Reformation, the Bartholomew's Day Massacre, and the Reign of Terror. (I find it particularly interesting that Le Bon associates such violence with religious conviction under the proposition that the "Jacobins of the Reign of Terror were at bottom as religious as the Catholics of the Inquisition.")

Recently I have wondered whether or not such violent thoughts may be surfacing in the more innocuous instrument of "crowd wisdom," the ability to have comments on news reports subjected to a thumbs-up/down vote. The San Francisco Chronicle does this; and while, from time to time, one may encounter some useful insights coming from vox populi, that voice is just as likely to be downright scary, particularly when it involves a response to a report of a violent act. It may even be that the disquieting nature of the response is directly proportional to the senselessness of the violence being reported.

Consider, as a case study, a story filed for this morning's Chronicle by Staff Writer Jaxon Van Derbeken. Let us begin with the basic events in the narrative:

Matthew A. Adams, 38, was found dead Saturday night in his room at 1169 Market St. by his girlfriend.

The woman told police that a man attacked Adams without provocation as the couple were walking near Seventh and Market streets at 1:30 a.m. Saturday, said Lt. Mike Stasko of the police homicide detail.

Adams refused medical treatment at the scene, police said.

"He said he was OK," Stasko said, "and he walked home from where he was assaulted."

Adams' girlfriend left later that morning. When she returned to his room about 8:30 p.m., Adams was dead.

On Sunday, police arrested Edward W. Holloway, 54, of San Francisco on suspicion of assault with a deadly weapon and battery, and for 11 outstanding warrants for alleged quality-of-life crimes such as public drunkenness.

Now the police have made it clear that they are not yet certain whether or not Adams' death was related to the attack. Nevertheless, the remainder of the "report" (now using scare quotes) provides "corroborative detail" (as William Schwenck Gilbert put it) about Holloway:

Stasko said Holloway has a history of attacking people on the street without provocation. He also has a long criminal record in Los Angeles and San Francisco for theft, drug offenses and public intoxication, the lieutenant said.

In March, police arrested Holloway on suspicion of felony assault after he allegedly hit another homeless man in the leg with a baseball bat and slammed a can of beer into the side of his head, authorities said. The district attorney's office dismissed the case because the victim was unavailable to testify against Holloway, records show.

Holloway was arrested again later in March on Sixth Street for allegedly carrying a concealed weapon, but prosecutors discharged the case "in the interest of justice," records show.

In May, Holloway was arrested on a domestic violence charge stemming from an incident at Turk and Taylor streets in which he allegedly stabbed a former girlfriend in the hand in a dispute over $30, records show.

A month later, the district attorney's office dropped that case on the day of the preliminary hearing, records show. Prosecutors said the woman was unavailable to testify.

This left me with the feeling that the whole story had been framed in such a way as to draw violent reaction; and, when I scrolled down to the Comments section, I was not surprised with what I saw. First of all the Chronicle has a policy of providing the total number of comments received, followed by the three "most recommended" of these comments, where a recommendation consists of clicking on a thumbs-up icon. The total number of votes both up and down are also provided.

The most recommended comment for this story was:

The wrong person died.

The comment was submitted last night at 5:29 PM; and, by the time I read the story this morning, it had harvested 975 thumbs-up recommendations (against only 15 thumbs-down votes). Now this kind of promotion of journalism [sic] through a variant on Internet gaming may not be as threatening as the lynch mob in Walter Van Tilburg Clark's Ox-Bow Incident; but it may still be an indicator of popular reaction. Furthermore, it may illustrate the extent to which that reaction can be manipulated by the way in which the "report" has been framed.

Manipulation is probably the key factor in this case study, even if the story had not been deliberately written to be manipulative. Many of the anecdotes told to support the "wisdom of crowds" premise tend to take place in an objective world, or at least one in which subjective and social influences appear to be relatively minor. Such a world offers little leverage for manipulation; and one may then encounter reasonably "clean" supporting data. Unfortunately, we cannot live strictly in the objective world; and, if we try to apply objective instruments when the objective world "bumps into" (as Ken Auletta put it in his recent talk at Google) the subjective and social worlds, the consequences may well turn out as ugly as they did in this minor example of mass voting, if not uglier.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Making Our Own Listening History

I just finished reading Chloe Veltman's latest post to her lies like truth blog under the title "Should Composers Conduct Their Own Works?" The claim she was trying to warrant was that, over the course of the two Project San Francisco performances by the San Francisco Symphony featuring the composer George Benjamin, David Robertson, who conducted the first concert, had been more effective than Benjamin himself, who conducted the second. She concluded her case by proposing the hypothesis that this was "a case of the creator 'not being able to see the wood for the trees.'" I found myself in sufficient disagreement with this position that I prepared a rather lengthy comment; and, because that comment reflects some of the more general principles of listening that I have been trying to explore on in this forum, I would like to rehash my position.

Since I believe that every good hypothesis deserves a counterhypothesis, I propose that Veltman's position amounted to a case of the listener being biased by the order of his/her listening experiences. When I wrote my preview piece for, I was eating my own dog food in recommending the Nimbus recording that includes "Ringed by the Flat Horizon" performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Mark Elder. Where Veltman heard little (if any) differentiation in Benjamin's performance of this work, I found the same subtle differentiation that I had heard in the Elder recording; and I think that taking that subtlety to such an extreme heightened my sensitivity to "what the thunder said" in the percussion parts. I have no problem acknowledging that Roberston's performance of Dance Figures involved far more emphatic contrasts; but I suspect most of the emphasis resided the strength of my memory of the "Hammers" section, which, as I observed in my review was the one sharp break in an otherwise seamless integration of the remaining movements.

For better or worse we have no control over the order in which we encounter our musical experiences. As Marx said, we make our own history. However, he also said that we do not make it under the circumstances we choose but under those "given and transmitted from the past." In the same way we can never make the circumstances under which we listen to music.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

One of Monk's More Interesting Sidemen

I have been making it a point to supplement my current reading of Robin D. G. Kelley's Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original by listening more assiduously to the Monk CDs in my collection and, as part of that listening, paying more attention to those who made music with him. There are, of course, an abundance a familiar names; but the advantage of Kelley's book is that it offers useful sidebars on many of the less familiar ones that deserve more attention. One of those names that I realized I should know better is that of Ahmed Abdul-Malik. The opening summary of his Wikipedia entry is brief but informative:

Ahmed Abdul-Malik (January 30, 1927 in Brooklyn – October 2, 1993 in Long Branch, New Jersey) was a jazz double bassist and oud player of Sudanese descent.

In the mid-1970s, Malik was a substitute instructor in Brooklyn, New York, Junior High School 281, teaching strings under the supervision of Andrew Liotta, acclaimed composer of seven operas, choral, and numerous chamber works. While seeking a teaching cerification, in addition to study under Liotta in orchestration and composition, he also taught Sudanese in the junior high school language department.

He is noted for integrating Middle Eastern and North African music styles in his jazz music. He was the bassist for Art Blakey, Randy Weston, and Thelonious Monk among others. As an oud player he did a tour of South America for the United States Department of State and performed at an African jazz festival in Morocco.

Abdul-Malik came to Monk's attention through his having performed with Randy Weston, one of Monk's prize pupils when teaching was Monk's only source of income. What interested me most in the context of Kelley's account was that, like Monk, Abdul-Malik appreciated the need for playing by ear to take precedence over playing from the notes. This was particularly important when he and Weston spent a lot of time listening to North African musicians playing on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn and then trying to play what they had experienced.

From this point of view, Weston was at a disadvantage. The piano was his instrument; and, like many pianists, he was a victim of the psychological phenomenon known as "categorical perception." This meant that he had a natural bias to hear all notes and intervals in terms of how they would sound on a piano keyboard. As a string player, on the other hand, Abdul-Malik could be more receptive to intonation systems that departed from the equal temperament of Weston's instrument; and he could hear that music on Atlantic Avenue in terms of a different tuning system. Thus, when it came to Weston and Abdul-Malik trying to reproduce the North African sound with their own resources, Abdul-Malik was in a better position to take the lead. Kelley offers an account of some of his advice:

He would instruct Weston to play scales rather than chords and to lay out during his solo so that he could explore pitches on his bass that fall outside the Western tempered scale.

Unfortunately, of the five Abdul-Malik CDs listed on, two are marked as "discontinued by the manufacturer;" but two of the remaining three clearly reflect his efforts to capture that North African sound. Once again, I find that pursuing one collection of listening resources has led me in the direction of new resources to be investigated!

Saturday, January 16, 2010

More Disconnected Dots

It has often observed that one reason why metaphors communicate so effectively is that they have extremely strong staying power. That certainly seems to be the case with the application of the connect-the-dots metaphor to missed opportunities to detect terrorists threats. Having resurrected that metaphor for the failed Christmas Day attack, it has now wended its way into the post hoc analysis of Major Nidal Malik Hasan's shooting of 13 people at Fort Hood. In presenting the results of this investigation, its leader, Retired Admiral Vernon Clark declared:

There is not a well-integrated means to gather, evaluate, and disseminate the wide range of indicators that could signal an insider threat.

On the surface this says nothing we have not already heard; or, to put things in a slightly more negative way, it says that we are still not analyzing these situations in search of lessons learned from which new action plans may emerge. Indeed, according to those wire services that Al Jazeera English was using, the most direct language seems to have come from one member of Clark's committee, former Army Secretary Togo West:

What we want is commanders' awareness of what's happening in their units and what's happening with their people.

As I read this, West decided to take a stand on the prevailing rhetoric over whether or not the problem was one of a human or systemic failure by making it clear that the failure was human. It all comes down to what is part of those commanders' job description, meaning that, either the job description needs to be updated to reflect the conditions or those commanders' superiors need to be more vigilant about whether or not their subordinates are doing their jobs properly.

Taken in these blunter terms, West made a really strong statement. Indeed, it may have been so strong that Clark did not want to make it part of the "official executive summary." Thus, I think it is worth considering that it may have taken a fair amount of chutzpah for West to have made the statement at all, particularly if his position is more action-oriented than that of the executive summary. In the face of this analysis being yet another potential example of a willful disregard of even relatively recent history, I have decided that we should accept the "chutzpah value" of West's statement and single him out for the Chutzpah of the Week award.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Alone with the Beauty?

I suspect that one of the major downsides in following that "Monk-Amram" path of finding the beauty in a performance of music and disregarding "the rest of it" is that the trip down that path can be a lonely one.  Not only does it tend to involve going against the grain that everyone else has established (as in the source anecdote of Monk finding beauty in country music records);  but also, simply because it is a matter of search, it can be a time-consuming and difficult process that involves more than a spontaneous reaction to "how the spirit moves you."  I came to appreciate the loneliness of going against the grain this morning as other reviews of Tuesday evening's performance of Franz Schubert's Die Schöne Müllerin (D. 795) by baritone Nathan Gunn, accompanied by his wife Julie, have begun to surface.  All those "elements that rankled me" that I deliberately chose to disregard seem to have been selected for focal attention in both the San Francisco Chronicle and San Francisco Classical Voice!

Now, in all fairness, it is not an easy matter to disregard spontaneous reactions, particularly when those reactions follow normative practices.  I suspect that such an ability to go against the spontaneous was what made Thelonious Monk as brilliant a composer as he was, but on the other hand there is the risk that departing from the beaten path can lead you off a cliff.  There is also the question of whether one wishes to commit to taking a more time-consuming approach if one feels that there are better things that can be done with that time.  Ultimately, the only lesson to be learned from this diversity of approaches is that both serious listening and the task of describing the resulting experience involve hard work that rewards only those willing to commit to doing that work.  Furthermore, the reward may be nothing more than the personal satisfaction at having understood an order in a situation that others have dismissed as confusion.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Tyranny of the Now

Once again, I find myself revisiting the proposition that the very concept of history is alien to our current culture. As a rule I have written this off as an unanticipated consequence of the world the Internet has made, but I found an interesting observation in support of this hypothesis on the BBC News Web site this morning. The observation came from a report of an role-reversal experiment involving two reporters. The author of the story, Zoe Kleinman, was a heavy Twitter user; and she agreed to change places with her colleague, Carolyn Rice, whose use of Twitter was negligible. Basically, each took over the other's account for a 24-hour period (after sending out respective tweets that this exchange would be taking place).

The most interesting observation for me came from Rice:

One of the first things I noticed about using Twitter was the lack of history or the speed which people forget (or perhaps they hadn't paid attention in the first place).

It was my first experience of how instant and transient Twitter can be.

In other words not only is Twitter "all about the Now" (think of some of the tweeting habits of many users) but also it entails an emphasis on the Now that excludes the Then, so to speak. Put another way, anything that is not currently happening is no longer relevant, which seems like a slightly more convoluted way of saying what Henry Ford said (not that anyone remembers this in the Twitter Age), "History is bunk." Worse, this attitude probably only matters to those who still think there is value in an understanding of history! So it goes (as one historical reflection put it).

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Looking for (and Finding) the Beauty

I had an interesting encounter with Thelonious Monk's advice (by way of David Amram) this morning. This was that advice I discussed on Sunday about finding the beauty in a performance of music and disregarding "the rest of it." I was at Herbst Theatre last night for the performance of Franz Schubert's Die Schöne Müllerin (D. 795) by baritone Nathan Gunn, accompanied by his wife Julie. My initial reaction was that there were any number of elements that rankled me. Some had to do with Schubert himself, including his serious treatment of texts that the author had intended to be ironic, as well as a tendency to deal with strophic material with too much flat-out repetition. I also kept thinking that the piano was coming off too loud (that old bugaboo of accompanist Gerald Moore). Against the aggressive piano, it seemed as if Nathan Gunn was not being particularly assertive, leading me to think of all those stories about the impact of marital discord on performance.

By this morning, as I was preparing to write my review, I was figuring out the best way to set up a framework for discussing these problems; but a funny thing happened as that framework began to take form in text. I realized that there were perfectly good justifications for both why the two performers should create a sense of being at cross-purposes and why the piano (which, after all, established the very first impression of the performance) was as forceful as it was. As Amram would have put it, by letting my reason follow its own course, rather than whipping it into shape for the conclusions I had formed last night, I "found the beauty" in the performance; and, having done so, I realized that it made perfect sense to let go of "the rest of it."

Perhaps has the right idea. We should not focus on writing criticism with the implication that we should be seeking out things to criticize. Instead, we should just examine and then set ourselves the task of how we can adequately account (that concept of λόγος from Plato's "Theaetetus" rears its head again) for that examination through description. Of course, description is not easy matter, as we quickly discover if we try to take a head-on approach to this process of account. At the risk of sounding too cryptic, we might do well to remember the advice that the Bøyg gives to Peer Gynt in Ibsen's play: "Go roundabout!" It is through a roundabout course that we encounter aspects of the account we seek that we may not have considered, because we thought they had nothing to do with the point we were predisposed to make. However, those predispositions ultimately undermine the resulting description; and when our description has been undermined, we no longer have a satisfactory account. We have ceased to be good examiners.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Significance of Gustav Mahler's Birthday

Yesterday, in my review of Sunday evening's San Francisco Performances recital by cellist Steven Isserlis and pianist Kirill Gerstein, I made a passing reference to the fact that Benjamin Britten's Opus 65 cello sonata in C major was given its first performance on the 101st anniversary of Gustav Mahler's birth (Mahler's birthday being July 7, 1860). Today I learned, from Allan Kozinn's recent post to the ArtsBeat blog of The New York Times, that the 150th anniversary of Mahler's birth will be celebrated by Ringo Starr with a concert at Radio City Music Hall. That is because that same date, July 7, 2010, will be Starr's 70th birthday! My guess is that, somewhere in the course of those 70 years, someone will have pointed out to Ringo who shares his birthday. I can even hear Ringo's voice coming back with something like, "Gustav who?" Mahler, of course, wrote some pretty mean drum music; but, alas, he never enjoyed the market that the Beatles did!

Keyword Ads: The New Entertainment?

Usually I pick on Google when it comes to calling attention to sponsored links triggered by keywords in unanticipated (and therefore often entertaining) ways. Therefore, it seems only fair that I call out Yahoo! for a couple of links that may strike some as inappropriate and others as ludicrous. By way of context, these links appeared on a Yahoo! News page in a section called The Newsroom (which, in spite of its name, appears to be a blog, at least on the basis of the credit given at the conclusion, where the author, Brett Michael Dykes, is described as "a contributor to the Yahoo! News blog"). The story concerned the tiff on The Today Show this morning between Matt Lauer and John McCain over the claim by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, in their book Game Change, that Sarah Palin was inadequately vetted and McCain's response that suggested that he knew nothing about the vetting process. Here is my snapshot of the links that accompanied this report:

The outer two were clearly triggered by Palin's name. My guess is that both of them are directed at encouraging a groundswell of support for her. This would mean that those who placed the ad would not be particularly happy with the conclusion of this report, the final item in a bullet list of Game Change revelations:

- that Sarah Palin believed Saddam Hussein to be behind the attacks on 9/11, didn't understand why North and South Korea were separate (the Korean War) and that she could not properly pronounce Joe Biden's name. The book contends that Palin was a mentally unstable person prone to wild mood swings, describing her being hopelessly lost in a "catatonic stupor" at one point during the campaign.

On the other hand it may well be that the organization that placed the first ad wants only the most rabid supporters of Palin, meaning those totally unaffected by any of the claims in that bullet list (or, like Palin herself, easily convinced that these are just the lies of the mainstream media). I would also not be surprised in the middle ad were also triggered by Palin's name through its association with the kind of self-sufficiency she associates with her own private Alaska.

This should be entertaining enough to make a great scene in an HBO movie of the sort that seems to interest the electorate more than all those dull processes of governance.

Monday, January 11, 2010

The Latest Neglect of the People's Business

It did not take long for the feeding frenzy to get into full gear over Game Change, the latest move in the gossip-as-journalism game by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann. On the Saturday evening news the only victim that had surfaced was Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, but by last night it seemed as if you could not throw a cat down a Washington street without hitting one of the targets of the book. Michael Calderone called it most accurately this morning on POLITICO when he labeled the whole affair a "freak show." This is hardly the first time such a circus has come to town, but it is interesting to see the way in which such spectacle has migrated from the domain of fiction to that of journalism. Its appeal in fiction was established at least as early as 1880, which is when Democracy: An American Novel was first published anonymously; but in my own student times the mantle of Henry Adams (revealed to be the book's author only after his death) had passed to Allen Drury. Even Hollywood saw gold to be mined from Advise & Consent, particularly in the hands of an expert on the foibles of human nature like Otto Preminger.

In those days, however, it seemed as if we could accept such salacious entertainment for what it was (which is to say little more than a guilty pleasure) without letting it follow us into those voting booths where we had our one opportunity to participate in the workings of our government. The Internet changed all that, and this may be best appreciated through the way in which Calderone outlined the background of Game Change:

Just when the 2008 campaign seemed slipping below the horizon, Mark Halperin and John Heilemann’s “Game Change” blew across the political landscape this weekend in an explosion of Twitter, blog, cable and MSM coverage.

The book’s successful launch was no surprise to Howard Fineman, Newsweek’s chief political writer, given that Halperin, in his opinion, “more or less created the world that we now live in: the 24-7, always-on, hyperlinked, Web-based, D.C. political media world we live in now with ‘The Note.’”

As founder and editor of ABC’s “The Note,” which began targeting the influential Gang of 500 in 2002, Halperin pioneered the transmission of real-time political news, earning a New Yorker profile in 2004, and later distilling what he know about the viral nature of political news in “The Way to Win,” a book he co-wrote in 2006 with POLITICO Editor-in-Chief John Harris.

Given the reams of real-time coverage of the 2008 race, followed by Newsweek’s lengthy post-election tick-tock and “The Battle for America,” a Dan Balz-Haynes Johnson book on the election that came out last fall, it might be expected that the political press corps had picked the campaign carcass clean long ago.

But Fineman said Halperin and Heilemann “very smartly went after stuff that was undercovered,” such as John and Elizabeth Edwards. And once having such juicy, insider material, Fineman noted that the authors — both residing in New York, the television and publishing capital — are savvy enough to effectively market the material.

In today’s media world, Fineman added, the “tweetable nugget” is the type of thing that quick gets the attention of reporters, and subsequently, readers.

“A long analysis of the demographics of the electorate is not going to get you an HBO movie,” Fineman said. “But the tawdry psycho-drama of the Edwards’s and a racist crack by Harry Reid will.”

That last paragraph may get to the heart of the matter. The question of how seriously ordinary Americans take the political process has been around since the arguments between Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, but I doubt that either of those founding fathers could have foreseen a time in which voters would be more interested in being a part of an HBO movie than in the workings of their government.

The quality of those workings has always been a tenuous matter, but it is hard to come away from the Calderone-Fineman interpretation of the events that unfolded over the weekend without wondering whether or not the primary motive behind Game Change was a major disruption of those workings. Consider, as a single example, all of the activities of both Democrats and Republicans around the Reid "revelation" as reported this morning by Mike Allen and Jake Sherman for POLITICO. It seems as if all of the key figures in Washington are now preoccupied with either controlling the damage or exacerbating it. The question that voters should be asking right now is, "Who's minding the store," or, as I prefer to put it, "Who is doing 'the people's business' that they were elected to do?" The primary impact of Game Change may be a reinforcement of current public opinion that we now have a government incapable of getting anything done, whether the issue at stake is health care, unemployment, or military adventurism (or, for that matter, things that "really matter," like whether or not the State of the Union address will conflict with Lost).

If that is the case, then we have good reason to be concerned; and our concern should be directed not as the foibles of the all-too-human but at the vulnerability of government itself. As I recently observed. we know from history that a public that sees its government as bogged down by its own ineffective practices is a public ready to hand a mandate for authority over to a dictator-in-the-making. The sad irony is that this hazardous state of affairs may have been a consequence of the work of those who saw the Internet as an opportunity to increase the scope of democracy, failing to recognize the delicate balance that our own government has tried to maintain between the majority rule of "pure" democracy and the need to respect individual rights.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

"find the beauty … and don't bother with the rest of it"

In light of yesterday's post about the kinship between weirdness and unfamiliarity, it seemed appropriate that last night, when I went over to Davies Symphony Hall for my first exposure to concert performances (as opposed to recordings) of the music of George Benjamin, I should bring along my copy of Robin D. G. Kelley's book about Thelonious Monk. However, I really did not anticipate that reading this book during the intermission might have an impact on my listening behavior. Nevertheless, that seems to be the way in which things turned out; and, rather like Paul Saffo's aphorism about the future, they turned out in a rather unexpected way.

The text I happened to be reading was actually the words of David Amram, who had become sort of a Monk "disciple" in 1955. It is a passage in which Amram described a time when he had visited Monk's house; and Monk was listening to the radio, which happened to be playing country music. Amram, as might be imagined, expressed surprise that Monk would be listening to such music. As usual, Monk had few words by way of reply; and they came in the form of two sentences separated by a rather substantial gulf of time. (This sounds a bit like a setup for any number of jokes about highly scholarly Jewish rabbis.) The first sentence was:

Listen to the drummer.

Then, after that long pause, Monk came out with the second:

Check out his brush work.

This led to Amram discovering the punch line for himself (making the transition from Jewish wisdom to Zen):

So I listened as hard as I could on that little radio with a little bit of static and somehow I could hear something so I realized, of course, what he was trying to tell me was first of all, don’t be judgmental of anybody else, just listen and pay attention and look for the beauty. And then when you find the beauty, study that and don’t bother with the rest of it.

Shortly after I finished reading this passage, David Robertson returned to the podium to conduct the San Francisco Symphony in a performance of Felix Mendelssohn's Opus 56, his third symphony ("Scottish") in A minor. Now I have never made a secret of my not being particularly big on Mendelssohn; and, while there is no question that I would prefer listening to Mendelssohn to just about any cut of country music (with the possible exception of "Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer"), I have often observed that his music tends to be overshadowed by the work of composers (such as Franz Schubert) happening to share the program. On this particular occasion Mendelssohn's symphony was preceded by the first San Francisco Symphony performances of two compositions by Benjamin and Michael Jarrell's orchestrations of three of Claude Debussy's piano etudes. Taken together the first half of the program had made for a rather massive shadow to cast on poor Mendelssohn!

Nevertheless, his music was not consigned to that shadow; and Robertson was probably the key figure responsible for "rescuing" it. To borrow from Amram's punch line, Robertson found the beauty of this symphony in its orchestration and chose not to bother with whether or not the melodies, harmony, and counterpoint tended towards the routine. Furthermore, since both Benjamin and Jarrell had been presented to us as imaginative masters of sonority, Robertson had basically disposed those of us in the audience to be listening for "the sound itself," meaning that our receptiveness to the beauty he had discovered had been primed by the music he had selected to precede the intermission. Thus, while Amram's point runs the risk of sounding like the sort of accentuate-the-positive homily you might find in a fortune cookie, it actually makes a strong case for the subjective and social dimensions of listening behavior. I have no idea whether or not Amram would have put things that way, and maybe it would not hurt to ask him about it!

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Getting Around to the Weird

I came across the following remark made by Thelonious Monk while reading Robin D. G. Kelley's book about him:

Weird means something you never heard before. It’s weird until people get around to it. Then it ceases to be weird.

He made this observation in the late forties, ostensibly about the general bebop movement; but I suspect that, deep down inside, he knew he was talking about his own way of doing things. It got me to thinking about the extent to which audiences have come around to experiences that were first dismissed as "weird." It certainly would be hard to imagine a riot breaking out today at a performance of Igor Stravinsky's Sacre du Printemps, although we would not want to dismiss the impact that the "dynamic duo" of Walt Disney and Leopold Stokowski (who blunted some of the sharper edges and deleted several others) had on bringing audiences around to a general acceptance of that particular score. On the other hand it seems as if the only acknowledgement that radio broadcasters (even in the satellite domain) make of Alban Berg comes about when some prestigious opera company (such as the Met) is performing Wozzeck or Lulu; and more recently Arnold Schoenberg has come to squeak under the same wire with a revived interest in productions of Moses und Aron. Anton Webern, on the other hand, is still pretty much a pariah in the world of broadcasting, which may be one reason why his Opus 6 has yet to be preformed without an outbreak of nervous coughing in Davies Symphony Hall (usually to the demonstrable displeasure of conductor Michael Tilson Thomas).

I wish I could report that things are better where jazz is concerned. However, I think it would be fair to say that it is even harder to find good broadcasting of jazz than it is for classical music; and, while Charlie Parker may receive air time comparable to that given to Igor Stravinsky (which, in the grand scheme of things is still pretty modest), he also shares with Stravinsky a setting in which we hear his music with few, if any, of its sharper edges. This brings me back to Monk. My collection of Monk recordings is, to say the least, generous. (They were as necessary as my recordings of Richard Wagner's Tristan und Isolde during my years in Singapore when it came to reminding me of what I was missing.) I thus have a somewhat eidetic reaction when one of those recordings is played, even if I cannot immediately home in on its source; so I can report with considerable sadness that I cannot remember the last time (or even if there was such a time) when I heard one of those sides on the radio. Basically, Monk is right up there in the same league with Webern.

Back in the days when supported some really solid discussion about "serious" music, there was one contributor whose Signature included the aphorism:

Welcome to the twentieth century; it's almost over!

Well, now it is over; and it seems as if both Webern and Monk (not to mention most of Schoenberg and pretty much anything Lennie Tristano ever did) are as weird to today's listeners as they were fifty years ago. Was Monk just being overly optimistic that the general community of serious listeners would eventually "get around" to his sounds; and he would no longer be dismissed as weird? Perhaps the pessimistic stance is more viable. Our very sense of self may be defined as much by what we dismiss as being too far "over the line" in the "realm of the weird" as it is by what we accept and enjoy; and, if that is the case for how we feel about the music to which we listen, what does that say about how we are likely to react to societies that are also "over the line" (wherever that line may be)?

Friday, January 8, 2010

Setting Priorities?

Now that The Wall Street Journal is ensconced in the blogosphere with its Speakeasy site (with the capital "Y" symbolizing a spilled martini glass, presumably to tweak memories of the original semantics of the world), you can find some of the damndest things there. Consider this tidbit put up by Michelle Kung about an hour ago:

“Lost” fans can relax and retire that #NoStateofUnionFeb2 Twitter hashtag. According to Speakeasy’s sister blog Washington Wire, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs says that he does not “foresee a scenario” where the ABC show would be pre-empted for President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address, as was previously feared by show obsessives (Jan. 26 is now the projected date). In the (tweeted) words of “Lost” Executive Producer Damon Lindelof: OBAMA BACKED DOWN!!!! Groundhog Day is OURS!!!!!!! (God Bless America).” Now, obsessives can resume analyzing the promotional art for the final season of “Lost” for clues as to fate of Jack, Sawyer & Co.

I can think of two ways to read this. On the surface it resolves the kerfuffle that arose when February 2 was announced as the date when the State of the Union address would be delivered, meaning that Lindelof's tweet is justified. I find that a bit chilling; and it strikes me as a contemporary variant on Colonel "Bat" Guano's line in Dr. Strangelove about not messing with the Coca-Cola company. On the other hand I do not think I can remember a State of the Union address being delivered later than January, which leads me to wonder or not this whole affair was a publicity stunt for ABC. That would be even more chilling, particularly if it surfaced that the White House had been complicit in the execution of the stunt! Do we need to appoint a Special Prosecutor to investigate the LostGate affair?

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Enlarging the Courtroom

There is a very strong chance that Protect Marriage, the campaign committee behind the Proposition 8 ballot initiative, whose outcome led to a ban on same-sex marriage in California, wanted their efforts to have national impact. Regardless of their results in California, that wish seems to have been granted, although not always with the results they would have preferred. On the other hand it is hard to guess whether or not they anticipated that their "success" in California would be so vigorously challenged by a lawsuit that will now be heard in a Federal nonjury trial, the first in any court at the Federal level on the question of same-sex marriage. More likely, however, they did not anticipate that, whatever their interest in national impact may have been, this trial will be made accessible to a national audience, as was reported yesterday afternoon by Bob Egelko, Staff Writer for the San Francisco Chronicle:

Next week's trial in San Francisco of a lawsuit challenging the initiative that banned same-sex marriage in California won't be televised live, but it will be videotaped for delayed Internet release on YouTube, a federal judge ruled Wednesday.

Chief U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker in San Francisco ordered the video coverage, the first for a federal trial in California, over the objections of Proposition 8's sponsors. Their lawyer argued that allowing the proceedings to be viewed outside the courthouse would violate their right to a fair trial by intimidating their witnesses.

To some extent Judge Walker may be credited with having the chutzpah to offer Protect Marriage the kind of exposure they seem to have been craving, thus providing the perfect be-careful-what-you-wish-for object lesson. It is only because, in the grand scheme of things, the release of the "Fixing Intel" report is likely to constitute the greater act of chutzpah that Judge Walker is out of the running for the Chutzpah of the Week award; but, since the trial is scheduled to last between two and three weeks, his turn may yet come. Egelko's report continues as follows:

"The knowledge that you're testifying to untold thousands or millions ... can cause some witnesses to become more timid" and induce others to be overly dramatic, attorney Michael Kirk told Walker.

Prop. 8's campaign committee, Protect Marriage, has maintained that some of its supporters have been harassed, and that witnesses whose testimony was widely seen would face further danger.

Walker will have the power to order that individual witnesses' faces be concealed or their voices muted on the YouTube uploads.

Kirk said such actions would only draw attention to the witnesses. But Walker said this case seemed ideal for a pilot program, approved last month by the federal appeals court in San Francisco, to allow telecasting of selected nonjury civil trials.

He cited the wide interest in the case and said most of the witnesses will be campaign officials or academic experts accustomed to speaking in public.

"I've always thought that if the public could see how the judicial process works, they would take a somewhat different view of it," the judge said.

Apparently Protect Marriage believes that the size of the audience in the courtroom will have an impact on how witnesses behave and that scaling that size up to anyone capable of going to a YouTube URL would undermine that judicial process. On the other hand one of the responsibilities of the judge is to see to the welfare of the witness. There are a variety of measures that the judge can take to ensure that welfare, and a lawyer can even formally request that one of those measures be taken. Thus, on the one hand we have a judge who feels that it is appropriate for this case to be heard in a larger "virtual" courtroom; and on the other hand we have Project Marriage challenging his decision to do so. Fortunately, the judicial process has a way to resolve this challenge:

Walker's order, subject to final approval by the appeals court's chief judge, allows live video feeds to public areas of federal appeals courthouses in San Francisco, Pasadena, Seattle and Portland, Ore., and to a federal court in Chicago that has requested it.

The videotape will be posted on a YouTube site ( as soon as possible, which might be later the same day or the next morning, said Buz Rico, the court's technical adviser.

Thus the question of the size of the courtroom now sits on the desk of the Chief Judge of the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which has televised past hearings but not trials. If that approval is given, then the extent of the "virtual courtroom" in both space and time will be strictly defined.

Needless to say, there is the risk that this affair could turn into this century's version of the Scopes Monkey Trial, which also happened to involve a case in which strongly held religious convictions were deliberately set on a collision course with individual secular rights. However, by deliberately allowing such a large audience, Judge Walker is virtually obliging himself to make sure that this case proceeds according to the strictest legal disciplines. He has proposed a noble experiment towards advancing better public appreciation of our judicial system; and I, for one, hope that his proposal will be approved.