Saturday, July 31, 2010


I received an interesting piece of electronic mail from a friend who is greatly interested in Friedrich Nietzsche and wanted to respond to my efforts to compare him with Slavoj Žižek. In concluding her argumentation, she provided the disclaimer of unfamiliarity with the concept of chutzpah and then made a final observation based on the Wikipedia entry for the word. Needless to say, it had never occurred to me to check out what Wikipedia would have to say about this word, which might be a bit like a fish consulting Wikipedia to find out about water! However, in the interest of being able to provide a better response to the points she raised, I realized that I was now obliged to find out just what kind of "world model" she had constructed for this little gem of Yiddish wisdom.

For my part, when I have felt it necessary to tease out the finer semantics of the word, I have always turned to Leo Rosten's The Joys of Yiddish, which is my source for appreciating the rich context of any Yiddish word. I was therefore glad to see that the "wisdom of the Wikipedia crowd" had taken the trouble to consult Rosten; but the article still falls far short of establishing context as well as Rosten did. Indeed, there is a fair amount of material on the Discussion tab, which is prefaced by a statement attesting that the entry has not yet been rated for either quality or importance by the "WikiProject Jewish culture, a collaborative effort to improve the coverage of Jewish culture on Wikipedia." In other words, in true Talmudic tradition, there is a lot of haggling going on over just what to do with this piece of text.

I have no intention of joining that haggling. However, when I say that the current entry does not capture the spirit of Rosten's in The Joys of Yiddish, my primary warrant is that the Wikipedia entry says nothing about wit. To be fair Rosten never uses that word himself; but, in the rather broad palette of usage examples he provides, wit is always present, often as the most salient ingredient. Far more important than the question of whether the word can carry a positive connotation (and I believe that it can) is the question of whether or not wit figures significantly in the account of chutzpah. I may not have always followed this rule as strongly as possible in assigning Chutzpah of the Week awards, but that is a fault of my own judgment rather than a question of semantics and pragmatics.

This provides the perspective for considering what I actually wrote:

Nietzsche took himself far too seriously to admit any spirit of chutzpah in his writing (which may have led to his descent into madness, if I may exercise some chutzpah of my own); but Žižek has no such compunctions.

While Nietzsche's language can be poetic, it is hard for me to read it in any tone other than dead seriousness. Hence, my implication that Nietzsche might have staved off madness had he been more amenable to the lighter touches of wit from time to time. (Jack Point makes this sort of observation in The Yeomen of the Guard, but at the end of that operetta he is so thoroughly devastated that those more romantically inclined might think him capable of suicide.) Žižek is diametrically opposed to Nietzsche where wit is concerned. His wit is so virtuosic that he is positively manic about it, which may yet lead to his own descent into madness. Nevertheless, as John Cage once put it, Žižek has a "sunny disposition;" and that may be sufficient for him to maintain society's arbitrary criteria for sanity!

Friday, July 30, 2010

The Will to Polemic

I sometimes think that one of Slavoj Žižek missions is to confound the efforts of anyone who tries to make sense of his writings, his interviews, his lectures, or any other of his "performance media." So Brian Dillon deserves plenty of points for his review of Žižek's latest book, Living in the End Times, now available on the Web site for the London Telegraph. Dillon seems to "get" that Žižek is, first and foremost, a performer (as I suggest in my own first sentence); and any other labels, such as "philosopher" (which determines the shelf on which I put his books) or "social theorist," are purely incidental. Actually, the labels Dillon invokes tend to do a much better job than any others I have encountered in writings about Žižek:

Rather, it’s his range that impresses – he’s equal parts forbidding theorist of the contemporary political and cultural scene, and contriver of entertainingly elaborate paradoxes. If it weren’t for the hangdog persona and residual communism, he’d be an intellectual dandy: the closest thing we have to the mock-aristocratic socialist Oscar Wilde.

Dillon even goes so far as to assert that Living in the End Times makes a single unifying point (the sort of claim that is likely to have a jaw-dropping effect on anyone who has heard Žižek speak):

At the heart of the book is an argument that will be familiar to readers of his recent work. The language of social liberalism espoused in the West on the Right and Left alike is, Žižek contends, nothing less than the purest form of intolerance. In fact, “tolerance” is precisely the problem: a weasel word that allows politicians of any ideological stripe to claim that they act in the name of freedom.

What Dillon seems to have missed, however, is that this is Žižek-as-performer in action; and, if, in the spirit of Jacques Derrida, rhetoric is the key element of a Žižek performance, then the actual unifying force is the rhetoric of polemic. When we then look at what the polemic is attacking, we discover, as Matthew Sharpe did in his Žižek entry for The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, that reading Žižek is "oddly reminiscent of Nietzsche;" and that reminiscence is readily triggered by Dillon's above observation.

There is, however, one element of Žižek's "texts" (scare quotes to allow for his diversity of media) that definitely does not remind the reader of Friedrich Nietzsche. That is the element of chutzpah. Nietzsche took himself far too seriously to admit any spirit of chutzpah in his writing (which may have led to his descent into madness, if I may exercise some chutzpah of my own); but Žižek has no such compunctions. Consider the final example of his work that Dillon examines:

Take, for example, his – on the face of it, bizarre and tasteless – comparison of the crimes of Josef Fritzl with “a much more respectable Austrian myth, that of the von Trapp family in The Sound of Music”. Fritzl’s incarceration and rape of his daughter, his abuse and neglect of the children she bore him: all of this is appalling but, Žižek ventures, also entirely of a piece with kitsch visions of the perfect nuclear family. Fritzl, to an admittedly extreme degree, had merely fulfilled the deepest fantasy of the patriarchal father: to “protect” his family to the extent of destroying it.

Žižek’s point – which he surely shares with a long line of philosophical moralists, from St Augustine to Freud – is that it is our most “natural” and “caring” urges that can lead us either into the silliest fantasies (the “sacred intensity” of The Sound of Music) or the horrors enacted by the likes of Fritzl. It’s a thesis with vast geopolitical implications, and Living in the End Times elaborates some of them with extraordinary wit and rigour.

Pauline Kael once said in a radio interview that she would rather take an eight-year-old child to see La Dolce Vita than any full-length Walt Disney cartoon, her point being that the latter was far more traumatic than the former. It is no secret that many of our favorite myths are just as traumatizing. We need only look at the original sources collected by the Brothers Grimm. However, turning this observation of a Christmas institution of a television-watching community by drawing an analogy with such an extreme act of depravity requires far more chutzpah than "the average bear" is capable of mustering. If we are to accept Dillon's "intellectual dandy" label, then Žižek sports the apparel of chutzpah. Thus, while the Telegraph may wish to celebrate the release of his latest book with such a perceptive review, I would prefer to celebrate by offering Žižek a Chutzpah of the Week award!

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Information Wants to be Expensive

It would appear that the United Kingdom has discovered, rather painfully, just how delusional the information-wants-to-be-free precept is. BBC Political Correspondent Ross Hawkins just filed the following report on the BBC News Web site:

Four government departments spent almost £6m ensuring their websites appeared on search engine results pages in the last two financial years, according to newly released figures.

The Department of Health was the biggest spender, running up a bill of £4.4m in "paid search" fees.

It said the money was spent supporting campaigns on smoking and the flu pandemic.

Organisations can pay search engines to ensure their websites appear at the top of users' searches. They are often charged for each person who accesses their sites via the link.

The Department for Communities and Local Government spent over £750,000 promoting campaign websites including those for Home Information Packs, Eco Towns and Energy Performance Certificates.

The Department of Energy and Climate Change spent more than £309,000 last year. The Department of the environment, food and rural affairs (Defra) spent almost £500,000.

It other words the British government is trying to use the World Wide Web to circulate useful information to the public; but, if they want the public to find that information through the search engines they tend to use (which probably means Google), then they have to pay to get those pages assigned a sufficiently high page rank. Put yet another way, it looks as if Google is making a tidy profit over the efforts of the British government to keep the British public well informed. Is this what they mean by making money without doing evil?

As a rule I do not think of myself as conservative. In this case however I have to credit a Tory Member of Parliament with recognizing how naked the emperor is and trying to get others to see the same:

Conservative MP Damian Hinds, who uncovered the figures in a series of Parliamentary questions, said: "Of course there are times and subjects when getting the information out there is an absolute imperative.

"But in general I don't see why government departments should spend large sums improving their showing on search engines.

"I would have thought the search engines themselves should ensure official information is easy to find."

Furthermore, in the context of what I just wrote about public libraries, I find myself entertaining the hypothesis that beyond the opposition between service-as-business and public service is the illusion provided by Internet technology that disguises the former as the latter.

Rediscovering the Public Library

In hard economic times free is good, and the public discovers that there is value in a variety of free resources that tend to be ignored when money flows readily. It is therefore nice to see that one of the most ubiquitous of those free resources is experiencing a revival at a time when it sometimes seems as if it is under siege from the world of the Internet. That institution is the public library, one of those service organizations with a long tradition of both understanding and appreciating the value of service. Because these institutions are financed primarily out of government budgets, they can apply most of their efforts to providing services, rather than figuring out the best fee-for-service price points.

When it comes to video entertainment, it turns out that our cash-strapped public is beginning to appreciate that the public library offers a better deal than the fee-for-service businesses that have been praised by technology evangelists for their innovative thinking. Earlier this week, Kim Velsey filed a report for the Harford Courant, which began as follows:

Red boxes, red envelopes and the blue and yellow Blockbuster stores may dominate the movie rental landscape, but according to a recent survey, when Americans want to watch a DVD, they are most likely to turn to their local library.

The survey, released this year by OCLC, a nonprofit library co-operative and research organization, found that public libraries in the United States lend an average 2.1 million videos every day, slightly more than the 2 million that Netflix ships. The other top two competitors, Redbox and Blockbuster, come in at 1.4 million and 1.2 million respectively, according to daily averages provided by company representatives.

The findings were part of a report called "How Libraries Stack Up," which highlights the many roles that libraries play in communities, according to OCLC market analysis manager Peggy Gallagher. It also includes statistics on career assistance and Wi-Fi use — the extent of which might be surprising to the general public or even to businesses offering similar services.

The story is saturated with ironies, but the best of them is not actually in the text. Like many online versions of a newspaper, derives revenue from advertising content on each of its Web pages. Velsey's report covers two such pages, each of which is practically saturated with Google-placed Netflix ads, three on the first page and two on the second! It is as if the ads are screaming, "Don't read this article when you can click here instead!"

(I noticed that, as soon as this piece was posted, a Netflix ad was assigned by Google to its newly-created page.)

Actually "Netflix" is in the text content of the story in a rather amusing manner:

"I think of libraries as places for books," said Steve Swasey, Netflix's vice president of corporate communications, adding that Netflix doesn't view public libraries as a competitor.

"It's free," said Swasey, "so it's a whole different model."

The first quote is just a matter of bald ignorance. If this came from an interview conducted by Velsey in preparing the story, one should wonder if the reporter had the backbone to ask this guy about the last time he had bothered to enter a public library, when (if ever) it was and what he experienced there. The second quote then takes us back to my initial point, which is that services are provided most effectively when the service providers are not spending all of their time worrying about fee-for-service (as is so painfully the case in our health care system).

Then there is Jose Rosa, who still maintains his streaming Netflix subscription but is spending more time at this public library:

Largely, though, he likes the library because it's a library. He can look at movies while his 12-year-old son finds books to take home.

I am reminded of a public library branch in Singapore that was deliberately set up in a major shopping mall. Beyond an extensive collection of children's books, they had enough of a facility and personnel to qualify as a day care center. When I visited the place, one of the librarians explained (with a thoroughly straight face) that they provided the perfect place for mothers to leave their kids while shopping. However, underneath the humor on the surface is a more important generalization that applies to us as much as it does to Singapore: A public library is far more than a "content repository" (to invoke a bit of Internet-speak). It is a community institution. Its very presence enriches the community and may even play a signifying role in defining the community's sense of identity. That sense of community identity is, itself, under siege through the impact of "social networks," which, by many criteria of social theory, may better be described as antisocial. Perhaps, as people have to be more careful about how they spend their money, they will discover, rather like Hans Christian Andersen's Chinese emperor with his mechanical nightingale, that technology really is not the solution for everything!

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Alex Ross Discovers Diachronic Listening

I have to confess that, while I have not been shy about my negative impressions, I really enjoyed reading Alex Ross' post to his The Rest is Noise blog this morning, entitled "Chord of the curse." In all fairness, however, I should note that the primary source of my joy was this post's reinforcement of a personal ideology that I have explored and promoted here from my own pulpit. This ideology surfaced most recently last Christmas Day, when I was enthusiastically praising the presence of Robin D. G. Kelley's Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original on so many Christmas recommendation lists. This was one of those books I could not wait to start, in no small part because Monk occupies a generous portion of my CD collection. For all of that enthusiasm, however, I would be the first to admit that learning to listen to Monk was no casual matter, let alone an easy one, which is why I wrote in my Christmas post:

With Kelley's book, however, I now have the motivation to move from my past synchronic approach to listening (considering each track on its own terms) to a more diachronic one (embedding each track in its proper historical context).

Today's post by Ross basically takes this same approach to a passage in Richard Strauss' opera Salome (a rather interesting selection when one considers that Salome is the point of departure for the thrust of the principal argument in Ross' The Rest is Noise book). He considers the hypothesis that the musical setting of Jochanaan's curse has its origins in Richard Wagner's first completed (and all but forgotten before CD producers realized how exhaustive their efforts could be) opera Die Feen, in which there is a curse motif with an uncanny "family resemblance" (in Ludwig Wittgenstein's sense of that phrase). Furthermore, Ross offers a powerful warrant to affirm the claim of his hypothesis:

… when Die Feen had its belated world premiere, in Munich, in 1888, the young Richard Strauss conducted the rehearsals. "Wagner's lion's paw is already quite strong," he remarked.

In other words Strauss was not only aware of this music but also highly appreciative.

This is the basic methodology of diachronic reasoning. Given a specific instance, whether in a score or in the experience of a performance, how do we establish "its proper historical context?" Basically, we need to get beyond the "thing-in-itself" (that German philosophical concept that drew so much venom from Friedrich Nietzsche) and understand the past experiences of the agent responsible for bringing that "thing" into being, so to speak. Fortunately, Ross could rely on documentary evidence to identify a specific experience that would furnish a warrant for his Salome hypothesis. Where the performance of jazz improvisation is concerned, such evidence is not always as clear-cut, which is why biographies like Kelley's can be so valuable in informing the serious present-day listener. My fondest hope is that, now that Ross has provided a nice example of how this game is played, others will be tempted to follow that example.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Historically Informed Reviewing?

One of my readers took me to task with a comment on my "SummerFest concludes" piece, observing that I never got around to "an actual REVIEW" of the performance of Johann Sebastian Bach's BWV 232 B minor mass setting by the American Bach Soloists and their Academy students, providing only "liner notes" instead. There is some validity to the comment; but I would argue that the article itself was actually wrestling with this whole issue of "historically informed performance" and its implications with regard to any act of writing. Strictly speaking, one does not "review" (or, for that matter, "examine") the celebration of the mass; and the same can be said of any music performed by the organist in the course of the service. There is thus the rather "historically informed" proposition that BWV 232 was never intended for review any more than were all the pedagogical efforts of Bach's Clavierübung volumes. Rather than providing liner notes about the music, I found myself wrapped up in writing an essay about why I should not be writing a review!

I suppose that, in some ways, I was either picking or avoiding (or both?) a fight with the "mission" of American Bach Soloists by observing that there were all sorts of messy details surrounding the concept of a "historically informed performance," most of which tended to get swept under the rug in the face of less messy requirements, like organizing concerts for which people would pay money to attend. When I was at the University of Pennsylvania, I was able to enjoy many advantages of collegium musicum approaches to the performance of early music; but these were entirely academic affairs. Those of us who were not direct participants were more like auditors, in the collegiate sense of the word, than audience. I suppose the problem is that, when the collegium musicum leaves the campus and sets itself up in a public venue (and charges admission), then it ceases to be a collegium musicum; and I find that I am still puzzled as to what it becomes when it moves into that new setting.

So I guess I am making a public apology for being so occupied with questions of being "historically informed" that I let the bread-and-butter of "examining" a performance slip through the cracks; and in the future I shall resist the urge to get too academic!

Monday, July 26, 2010

A New Generation of Rock Critics?

Given the amount of attention I have given to questions of how one criticizes or examines music performance, I found it impossible to pass up the following BBC News report this morning:

Rock band the Kings of Leon have been forced to end a concert early after pigeons defecated on them from the rafters of a US venue.

The rockers abandoned the gig in St Louis after three songs when bass player Jared Followill was hit in the mouth and face by pigeon droppings.

Drummer Nathan Followill later apologised to fans via Twitter, saying "it was too unsanitary to continue".

Their publicist added the band found it hard to carry on after the incident.

"Jared was hit several times during the first two songs. On the third song, when he was hit in the cheek and some of it landed near his mouth, they couldn't deal [with it] any longer," said Amy Mendelsohn.

"It's not only disgusting - it's a toxic hazard. They really tried to hang in there."

Opening acts The Postelles and The Stills had also come off stage after their sets were covered in excrement.

There are any number of animals-as-critics stories. Most of them are about animals on the opera stage (along with one great story about raccoons at the Hollywood Bowl). This puts a new twist on such stories!

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Attacking Plato

When I read Friedrich Nietzsche's bald "Plato is boring" declaration in Twilight of the Idols (at least in Walter Kaufmann's translation), my thoughts almost immediately turned to Louis Andriessen and his setting of passages about music from "Republic" in "De Staat." Here were two men from two adjacent centuries, who decided to have it out with Plato in ways whose similarities may ultimately be more interesting than their differences. This set me wondering just what intentions and motives they had brought to their respective efforts and what it was that each of them was really trying to say. At the very least it is clear that both philosopher and composer were interested in taking a polemic stance, but that observation means relatively little without homing in on the target of the polemic in each case.

In "Twilight of the Idols" it is too easy to read Nietzsche's sentence out of context, exactly the same problem we encounter with his more famous (infamous?) "God is dead" proclamation. I suspect that the best way to appreciate his attack on Plato leads through the opening paragraph of the section in which it appears and in the following sentences from that paragraph:
One does not learn from the Greeks—their manner is too foreign, and too fluid, to have an imperative, a "classical" effect. Who could ever have learned to write from a Greek? Who could ever have learned it without the Romans?
This paragraph, in turn, can only really be appreciated in Nietzsche's praise of Horace in the preceding section:
To this day, no other poet has given me the same artistic delight that a Horatian ode have me from the first. In certain languages that which has been achieved here could not even be attempted. This mosaic of words, in which every word—as sound, as place, as concept—pours out its strength right and left and over the whole, this minimum in the extent and number of the signs, and the maximum thereby attained in the energy of the signs—all that is Roman and, if one will believe me, noble par excellence. All the test of poetry becomes, in contrast, something too popular—a mere garrulity of feelings.
In other words the appeal of Horace lies in his "way with words." At the risk of making too great a stretch, I would venture a guess that the virtue of Horace's "mosaic of words" resides in the way it integrates the three strands of the medieval trivium, which has influenced my writing about the performance of music so profoundly. Specifically, "concept" captures the relationship to logic, "place" the relationship to grammatical structure, and "sound" the relationship to rhetoric.

From this point of view, we can appreciate at least one aspect of why Nietzsche should have found Plato so annoying. Plato is strongly suspicious of rhetoric, and that suspicion surfaces in several of his dialogs. Logic is paramount, and grammar is there only to provide structural support for the expression of logical statements. Rhetoric is at best mere embellishment and at worst a distraction from the logic. Nietzsche, on the other hand, makes it clear after his bald declaration that he totally rejects these priorities:
My recreation, my preference, my cure from all Platonism has always been Thucydides. Thucydides and, perhaps, Machiavelli’s Principe are most closely related to myself by the unconditional will not to full oneself and to see reason in reality—not in "reason," still less in "morality."
In the context of "Twilight of the Idols" read in its entirety, this is a rejection of Plato's prioritizing logic in the face of the messiness of reality, not only in regard to man but also accounting for man's place in the overall natural world.

Here is where we may find a link to Andriessen, who in many respects is more interested in the messiness of reality (particularly the realities of making music) than in the pristine order of Plato's appeals to reason. His point of departure for "De Staat," at least according to the notes in the Elektra Nonesuch recording of the performance by the Schoenberg Ensemble, is the semantic absurdity of the excepts from "Republic" that he chose to set, particularly pertaining to the damaging effects of music that departs from the constraints imposed in "Republic." Andriessen flaunts Plato, not through the sort of highly charged words invoked by Nietzsche but through a deliberately iconoclastic approach to both composition and performance. The result strives to be an assault on our capacity as audience to find Friedrich Hayek's "sensory order" in the auditory signals that impose themselves on our ears. Indeed, if, in its minimalist unfolding of motifs, that assault was not strong enough, Andriessen strengthened it even further with "Hoketus," for two identical instrumental ensembles, each of which "fills in the rests" of the other (a device already exercised towards the end of "De Staat"), resulting in a maddening level of raw musical mechanism.

There is thus at least one way of approaching Andriessen has having carried the polemic torch that Nietzsche passed and expressing it through the composition of music. From this point of view, it should not be surprising that, a little more than ten years after the completion of "Hoketus," Andriessen composed "Nietzsche Redet" for speaker and chamber ensemble. I still need to track down the text he chose to set (let alone listen to this later work); but I now feel inclined to research this matter in greater depth!

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Andrew Marr's "New Journalism"

In writing about the impact of the Internet on how we receive and read news, I have been less concerned with all the evangelical talk about media (which may or may not "converge") and more worried about whether the world the Internet has made is one that will sustain the practices of journalism that have evolved in the "cultures of the free press." This is not the reckless world of Stanford University's recent "Innovation Journalism" conference but the world of a vital public institution made sacrosanct by the dialect liturgy of Mr. Dooley. It is from this point of view that I approached the received pronunciations of BBC presenter Andrew Marr and his recent piece for BBC News Magazine, "A New Journalism on the Horizon."

To his credit Marr tries to find the right balance between the world of those who would practice journalism according to its traditional standards and those would seek to read (or, as much of his subtext suggests, "consume") the daily news. There is much to ponder in these concluding paragraphs:

Our appetite for long-term campaigning and focus fritters away. Fast news has had the same effect on our minds as fast food has had on our physiques.

The next media age may be differently configured. We may have a group of very large "aggregators" bringing busy people the most important new news of the day, rather as now, but there will be fewer of them.

But underneath that, we will have large numbers of specialist news sites - for specific companies or sectors, for different environmental issues, for overseas crises - which bring together journalists, academics, specialists, campaigners, professionals, lobbyists and so on. These will be where the expertise and longer-term attention span will be found.

They will pile the pressure onto the powerful, and keep asking the questions. And from time to time their work will break upwards, to the aggregators (we need a better word) and the global headlines.

Whether or not Marr realizes it, the division he envisages has roots in the linguistic theories of Ferdinand de Saussure, particularly in the distinction he draws between "syntagmatic" and "associative" relations. The latter are the domain of what we now call "aggregation." They are concerned with how entities may be collected and classified according to a system of categories. Within that system, categories themselves may be collected and classified, which is why our terminology of concepts tends to be hierarchical: Rin Tin Tin is a German shepherd, which is a dog, which is a mammal, which is an animal, which is a "living system." However, there are no relations that distinguish the entities in a category other than their membership in subcategories in the hierarchy.

Syntagmatic relations arise because there are severe limits to what can be expressed through associative relations. (Database designers and object-oriented programmers might wish you to believe otherwise, but those of us who speak "natural language" know better.) Thus, consistent with the name, it is through syntagmatic relations that we recognize the grammatical distinction in a sentence between an individual acting as a subject and the objects upon which that subject acts.

At the risk of sounding too reductive, Marr seems to envisage a world in which a new class of "specialist" journalists will cope with all the intricacies of syntagmatic relations, summoning them to "pile the pressure onto the powerful," while "the rest of us" can blithely live in the world of associative relations through which we receive and "consume" our news. This seems to be Marr's solution for what will keep the practice of journalism alive and well, but it presumes that the powerful will respond to such pressure. It overlooks the possibility that, consistent with that "fast news" metaphor, a general public that subsists on a diet of associative relations will never care about the results of a practice based on syntagmatic relations. The powerful may be pressured; but will the pressure signify in the world at large? Those of us who still have some sense of history remember what happened when the demagogic Boss Tweed was pressured by the press. He simply shrugged and said, "What’re ya’ gonna do about it?" If the general public is not engaged in what journalists do to apply their pressure, why should the powerful worry about it?

To some extent Saussure's distinction emerges earlier in Marr's piece in a remark he makes about television viewing habits:

A public has emerged which doesn't watch traditional sequential television, or even understands the notion of "channels".

The channel is, of course, an associative construct; but "traditional sequential television" is a diachronic experience that depends heavily on a grasp of syntagmatic relations, such as those studied in the domain of narratology. If we are not engaged by the pressures of investigative journalism, it is primarily because we can only comprehend those results through syntagmatic relations. If we abandon our capacity to comprehend even the simplest narrative of an episode of The Simpsons, we are unlikely either to know or to care about the fruits of journalism's labors; and, once again, the reasoning of Boss Tweed will triumph.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Keep the Torch Burning

There is something to be said for keeping the case of the Israeli assault on the Mavi Marmara, the Turkish vessel trying to carry humanitarian aid for Gaza through the Israeli blockade, in the public eye, particularly when Israel has decided not to honor any effort to investigate the case other than its own. Three of the ships passengers have decided that legal action may provide a viable alternative to stalled diplomacy. Here are the opening paragraphs of the report that was filed on the BBC News Web site this morning:

Two Spanish activists and a journalist arrested in a raid by Israel on a Gaza-bound flotilla are filing charges against Israel's prime minister.

The three accuse Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu, six cabinet ministers and the navy commander of illegal detention, torture and deportation.

This is the sort of action that, under other circumstances, would be dismissed as frivolous; but, as they say, desperate times call for desperate measures. In this case those measures amount to the transformation of frivolity into chutzpah. It is now up to the Spanish judicial system to decide whether or not this case should be accepted; but, since it has been filed on grounds of contravening international law, those making the case deserve a Chutzpah of the Week award for their innovative approach to bringing the Israeli government to account in a manner beyond the scope of any internal investigation.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

An Alternative to the National Guard?

The question of why state National Guard troops have not been more actively involved in cleanup operations along the Gulf Coast continues to go unanswered; but, on the basis of a report by Abe Louise Young for The Nation, the state of Louisiana appears to have provided BP with a better (and possibly more profitable) solution. Young's opening paragraphs offer an interesting hypothesis that reminds us that business-as-usual remains business-as-usual, even when the cast of characters may change:

In the first few days after BP’s Deepwater Horizon wellhead exploded, spewing crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico, cleanup workers could be seen on Louisiana beaches wearing scarlet pants and white t-shirts with the words "Inmate Labor" printed in large red block letters. Coastal residents, many of whom had just seen their livelihoods disappear, expressed outrage at community meetings; why should BP be using cheap or free prison labor when so many people were desperate for work? The outfits disappeared overnight.

Work crews in Grand Isle, La, still stand out. In a region where nine out of ten residents are white, the cleanup workers are almost exclusively African American men. The racialized nature of the cleanup is so conspicuous that Ben Jealous, the president of the NAACP, sent a public letter to BP CEO Tony Hayward on July 9, demanding to know why black people were over-represented in “the most physically difficult, lowest paying jobs, with the most significant exposure to toxins.”

Hiring prison labor is more than a way for BP to save money while cleaning up the biggest oil spill in history. By tapping into the inmate workforce, the company and its subcontractors get workers who are not only cheap but easily silenced—and it gets lucrative tax write-offs in the process.

Further down the page Young offers a rather thorough account of the nature of this work:

Beach cleanup is a Sisyphean task. Shorelines cleaned during the day become newly soaked with oil and dispersant overnight, so crews shovel up the same beaches again and again. Workers wear protective chin-to-boot coveralls (made out of high-density polyethylene and manufactured by Dupont), taped to steel-toed boots covered in yellow plastic. They work twenty minutes on, forty minutes off, as per Occupational Safety and Health Administration safety rules. The limited physical schedule allows workers to recover from the blazing sun and the oppressive heat that builds up inside their impermeable suits.

During their breaks, workers unzip the coveralls for ventilation, drink ice water from gallon thermoses and sit under white fabric tents. They start at 6am, take a half hour lunch and end the day at 6pm, adding up three to four hours of hard physical labor in twenty-minute increments. They are forbidden to speak to the public or the media by BP's now-notorious gag rule. At the end of the day, coveralls are stripped off and thrown in dumpsters, alongside oil-soaked booms and trash bags full of contaminated sand. The dumpsters are emptied into local HazMat landfills, free employees go home and the inmates are returned to work release centers.

Work release inmates are required to work for up to 12 hours a day, six days a week, sometimes averaging 72 hours per week. These are long hours for performing what may arguably be the most toxic job in America. Although the dangers of mixed oil and dispersant exposure are largely unknown, the chemicals in crude oil can damage every system in the body, as well as cell structures and DNA.

Inmates can’t pick and choose their work assignments and they face considerable repercussions for rejecting any job, including loss of earned "good time." The warden of the Terrebonne Parish Work Release Center in Houma explains: "If they say no to a job, they get that time that was taken off their sentence put right back on, and get sent right back to the lockup they came out of." This means that work release inmates who would rather protect their health than participate in the non-stop toxic cleanup run the risk of staying in prison longer.

However, one paragraph in particular relates the preference of inmates over the National Guard to another major national problem:

Prisoners are already subject to well-documented health care deprivations while incarcerated, and are unlikely to have health insurance after release. Work release positions are covered by Worker's Compensation insurance, but pursuing claims long after exposure could be a Kafkaesque task. Besides, there is currently no system for tracking the medical impact of oil and dispersant exposure in cleanup workers or affected communities.

Thus, while our military has always taken care of its own, the Louisiana Department of Corrections does not appear to be bound by similar concerns.

Young's article never mentions the National Guard, whether or not it was ever considered as an option for dealing with this crisis. Indeed, the only mention of the Governor concerns a press release about Inmate Labor clearly calculated to play well with the media but apparently carrying no validity:

In early May, Governor Bobby Jindal's office sent out a press release heralding the training of eighty inmates from Elayn Hunt Correctional Center in "cleaning of oil-impacted wildlife recovered from coastal areas." DOC Spokesperson Pam LaBorde subsequently denied that any inmates participated in wildlife cleaning efforts.

Ultimately, this is a story of the unholy matrimony of business-as-usual at BP to politics-as-usual in the State Government of Louisiana, the perfect combination to taking a bad situation and making it worse.

Of Readers and Vendors

I should begin with the disclaimer that I have never read a book in its entirety through a digital device. I have read chapter-length excerpts in a variety of settings, some of which were experimental; and I make it a point to follow both news and opinion about the emergence of both hardware and software platforms for "digital reading." However, there are too many aspects of my physical approaches to reading (both of which are in play with the two books I am currently reading) that are either ignored or impeded by the technologies that are out there. I should observe, also because it amounts to a disclaimer, that I live within a fifteen-minute walk of the Main Branch of the San Francisco Public Library. I know that most downloads now take less time than a round trip on foot, but, as I hope I can explain, going to a library is often as much of a reading experience as the time I spend with whatever I take home.

I offer these statements in the context of having read David Carnoy's latest post to Crave, the CNET "gadget blog." Here is the crux of Carnoy's report:

The Wylie Agency, which represents authors such as Norman Mailer, Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, and John Updike, is publishing 20 books through its new Odyssey Editions imprint and making them available for sale exclusively in's Kindle Store for $9.99.

Andrew Wylie, the founder and head of the agency, has been locked in a battle with publishing houses over the digital rights to a number of modern classics and "backlist" titles. His new move makes a big statement to big-name publishers, which have been shut out of a potentially lucrative revenue stream. Because digital rights have only been included in more-recent book publishing contracts, the electronic rights to a multitude of famous books are held by authors.

Deals, such as this one with Wylie, have the potential of netting authors or their estates much higher royalties than if they'd signed an e-book deal with a major publishing house.

Currently, the standard cut offered by publishing houses to authors is 25 percent of the net price of an e-book. Amazon offers a 70 percent cut to self-published authors of Kindle titles, so you get an idea how the numbers likely skew much better for authors in the deal struck by Wylie.

Amazon said this is the first time any of the titles--which include Norman Mailer's "The Naked and the Dead," Philip Roth's "Portnoy's Complaint," and Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man"--have been available electronically. All of the books are exclusive to the Kindle Store for two years. Other titles include Hunter S. Thompson's "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," Salman Rushdie's "Midnight's Children," Oliver Sacks' "The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat," Vladimir Nabokov's "Lolita," John Cheever's "The Stories of John Cheever" and four novels from John Updike's Rabbit series.

I was less interested in whether or not this would be a "game-changer" in the publishing industry than I was in the first comment to the post (submitted by "doubtthat"), which began with the following sentence:

As proven by Amazon a year or so ago, you never truly own an eBook on a Kindle or Nook, you are only renting it.

I realized that this comment provided a (gentle?) reminder that most e-commerce promoters still miss out on some fundamental questions of economic foundations where reading matter is concerned. On the one hand we have the publishing industry, where all forms of reading matter are commodities to be manufactured, marketed, and sold. On the other hand we have libraries, which are basically service organizations for readers and are compensated on a fee-for-service basis, either by government for making the service public or by the readers. Because bits cannot be owned (at least not the way that atoms can), "selling" digitized reading matter probably comes closer to the model of a public library than to that of a publisher. Unfortunately, those for whom publishing is a business do not want to see their business turn into a library service; so they will try mightily to maintain the ownership concept, even if it is little more than a "fiction of convenience." Of course since money, itself, is a "fiction of convenience," this distinction may not matter very much in the long run!

What is important, however, is that serious readers, whether they are scholars or simply seekers of the "pleasures of the text," have two major concerns where technology is involved. One has to do with whether or not technology is playing a useful role in making decisions about what to read. The other has to do with how they read (as a "work practice") and whether or not technology facilitates or impedes their activities. The publishing industry has never cared very much about the latter concern. Public libraries have not given it much attention either, but librarians appreciate the nature of the beast and some are generous enough to offer advice in the matter. As far as selecting reading matter is concerned, there is no question that there is less bias from libraries and librarians than there is from the commodity-based publishing industry and any of its channels in both the virtual and physical worlds! On the other hand those with a financial stake in the publishing industry have a lot more clout than the community of serious readers, even if they do not outnumber the population of that community. Thus, however the world of digital reading matter emerges, those serious readers are unlikely to be beneficiaries.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Fixing the Broken

Back when I lived on the East Coast, I would often hear a motto primarily associated with Manhattan that advised: "Dress British; think Yiddish." Over in the People's Republic of China, a rather interesting variation of this theme seems to be emerging: "Live like a communist; invest like a capitalist." In other words it is all very well and good to think about such factors as return-on-investment; just make sure that any thoughts of personal gain account for the society within which you are embedded.

I found myself thinking about this variation while reading an interview that Guan Jianzhong gave to Jamil Anderlini of the Financial Times. Guan is Chairman of Dagong Global Credit Rating, which, while based in China, happens to be privately owned. In the context of the losing battle that Elizabeth Warren continues to fight over our own country's need for "financial regulation we can believe in," Anderlini's report makes fascinating reading:

The head of China’s largest credit rating agency has slammed his western counterparts for causing the global financial crisis and said that as the world’s largest creditor nation China should have a bigger say in how governments and their debt are rated.

“The western rating agencies are politicised and highly ideological and they do not adhere to objective standards,” Guan Jianzhong, chairman of Dagong Global Credit Rating, told the Financial Times in an interview. “China is the biggest creditor nation in the world and with the rise and national rejuvenation of China we should have our say in how the credit risks of states are judged.”

On the corporate side, Mr Guan argues Moody’s Investors Service, Standard & Poor’s and Fitch Ratings – the three companies that dominate the global credit rating industry – have become too close to the clients they are supposed to be objectively assessing.

He specifically criticised the practice of “rating shopping” by companies who offer their business to the agency that provides the most favourable rating.

In the aftermath of the financial crisis “rating shopping” has been one of the key complaints from western regulators , who have heavily criticised the big three agencies for handing top ratings to mortgage-linked securities that turned toxic when the US housing market collapsed in 2007.

“The financial crisis was caused because rating agencies didn’t properly disclose risk and this brought the entire US financial system to the verge of collapse, causing huge damage to the US and its strategic interests,” Mr Guan said.

Now we should read Guan's remarks in the context of a man promoting his own business, which just happens to have published its own sovereign credit rating; but, beyond any context of self-promotion there lies a sobering assessment of just how much the Augean stables of our own financial regulatory system are in need of a good cleaning (and how much those in power would prefer to have the rest of us live with what has accumulated in those stables).

The next time you hear one of your elected representatives go on a rant against socialism as a play for votes, think about this: There is no logical equivalence between sharing the wealth and throwing away your money. China is far from ideal in how it addresses the former; but, now that it finds that it has become a major economic power and creditor, it is learning very quickly about the latter. Think also about the former Soviet Union, which collapsed as a system that its own economy could no longer maintain. Then think about our own economic system and our failure to impose new regulatory measures that could both get us out of our present hole and impose at least some protections against falling into the next one. The bottom line is that, if we do not clean up our own filth, then an economic power that holds much of our debt may, in order to avoid throwing away their investments, exercise its leverage to do the cleaning for us; and that power is unlikely to have the best interests of our citizens in mind!

The Watchdog Barks!

This morning the Senate Finance Committee is meeting to review the extent of the progress of recovery from the economic crisis inherited by the Obama Administration. Testimony is expected from Elizabeth Warren, who chairs a Congressional oversight panel and has not been shy in accusing the general Washington establishment (and Congress in particular) of being the primary impediments to economic recovery. Warren will be joined by Neil Barofsky, who is serving as Special Inspector General for the effectiveness of the bailout bill.

According to a report this morning by James Politi for the Financial Times, today Barofsky may be a greater thorn in the side of the Senate than Warren has been in the past:

The Obama administration’s signature programme to help troubled homeowners is struggling to meet its objectives and suffers from a lack of “transparency and accountability”, according to a scathing assessment by the special inspector-general for the financial bail-out.

The watchdog, which has previously been critical of the Treasury department’s Home Affordable Modification Programme (Hamp), upped its criticism ahead of a Senate finance committee hearing scheduled for Wednesday morning on the progress of the 2008 bail-out, which included more than $50bn to aid the stricken US housing market.

The report charges that more than a year after Hamp began, the programme has not made an “appreciable dent” in foreclosure filings. The quarterly report also slammed the Treasury department for not providing realistic benchmarks for success of the programme, accusing it of “clinging” to a “meaningless” goal of helping 3m-4m Americans in making trial modifications to their mortgages.

“Treasury’s refusal to provide meaningful goals for this important programme is a fundamental failure of transparency and accountability that makes it far more difficult for the American people and their representatives in Congress to assess whether the programme’s benefits are worth its very substantial cost,” the report said.

All this should reinforce the point Warren has been trying to make since she assumed her post. Over the past year the numbers that are watched by the shareholders have tended to be pretty good; but that is a "good" only from those shareholders' point of view. The real victims of the economic crisis do not signify in the shareholders' worldview; and it is becoming increasingly clear that they do not signify in the worldview of the current Administration, regardless of any promises of "change we can believe in" during the last Presidential Election. This is bad news for the American public, but worse news waits around the corner. Republicans now have yet another stick for beating up on the Obama Administration, but we all know that they will use that stick for their own political gain and that of their supporters who want nothing more than a return to the unregulated madness of the Bush Administration. Neither political party speaks for Main Street, because there is neither political nor financial gain in such speech. Whatever happens on Election Day, November may very well be the prologue to the mother of all winters of discontent.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Deceptive Appearances?

Chloe Veltman threw down an interesting gauntlet in her blog post today, suggesting that she would want to explore it further in another post. I figured it would not be a bad idea to pick up that gauntlet over here and see whether it provides grounds for an extended conversation. This is what she wrote:

Is the San Francisco Symphony a happy orchestra? The players generally look like they're dialing it in. It doesn't matter if they're playing the music of John Adams, Bernard Herrmann or Gustav Mahler; they often have sour expressions on their faces. I wonder what's going on?

Ever since the San Francisco Symphony decided to sponsor a "bloggers' night" almost exactly three years ago, I have been using this platform to write about my listening experiences in Davies Symphony Hall; and I have subsequently transferred my focus of attention to my writing (where I see that I have now run up 79 "examinations"). I have definitely felt as if different moods prevailed during different performances that I experienced. However, I have not experienced very many negative moods; and I have witnessed quite a few performances at which spirits at least appeared to be high. For the record, however, I do not think I have ever attended a performance at which I felt that the players were "dialing in" their work.

I would therefore like to suggest that it is easy to confuse an intense focus of attention for the sort of "sour expression" that Veltman claims to have observed. In her BASOTI master class Patricia Racette delivered a fascinating trope on how much multitasking takes place when one is performing opera. A member of a symphony orchestra may have to worry about fewer concurrent issues; but multitasking is still part of the job description, so to speak. The fact is that different people exhibit that focus in different ways, and soloists tend to be the only ones who have to worry about masking it. I would therefore suggest that what is "going on" is nothing more than a surface appearance of a job being taken seriously in the interest of being done well. This, of course, is nothing more than my own interpretation of a "surface structure;" and, for all I know, Veltman may be homing in on an aspect of "deep structure" than has eluded me. However, for the most part, the visual experience of watching the San Francisco Symphony at work has enhanced my listening capabilities; and I take that as a very positive sign!

Monday, July 19, 2010

Intelligence about Intelligence

Today The Washington Post launched its Top Secret America Web site. This is the product of a project of roughly two years' duration involving over a dozen Washington Post journalists under the direction of Dana Priest and William M. Arkin. The report itself is so extensive that it is being published in three installments this week. However, you will not easily find any information about the number of those installments on the Top Secret America home page. The easiest way to learn this useful detail is through the "report on the report" released on the BBC News Web site.

However, the BBC seems to have trumped the Post on more than matters of structural architecture. In contrast with the report "Fixing Intel: A Blueprint for Making Intelligence Relevant in Afghanistan," which received so much attention in January when it was released on a public Web page on the Web site of the Center for a New American Security, the Post web site does not (currently at least) provide an "executive summary" of their project's findings. Those interested in such a summary would to better to visit the BBC Web site and turn to the Post only in pursuit of more in-depth details. Currently, the best the Post seems to be offering is a video trailer for a Frontline documentary that will not be broadcast on PBS until October. Furthermore, in the tradition of covering all sides of the story, the BBC has also provided a reaction to the report from David C. Gompert, acting Director of National Intelligence while Barack Obama's nomination of General James Clapper to replace former Director Dennis Blair is being considered.

The irony is inescapable. In the wake of 9/11, intelligence operations have become so bloated as to be virtually unmanageable. This involves not only an organization chart blown out of all reasonable proportions but also "intelligence content" so abundant as to make all the evangelical proclamations about "knowledge management" seem more ludicrous than ever. In the midst of all this, we seem to have forgotten the axiom that the fundamental objective of terrorism is to cause confusion, if not chaos. As I put it after seeing the documentary Leila Khaled, Hijacker, a terrorist is someone determined to make things worse after having been frustrated in all efforts to make them better. If this does not describe what al-Qaeda has done and how they have done it, I do not know what does; and now we have a report that took two years to prepare, which basically concludes that the impact of al-Qaeda on our intelligence operations is tantamount to the physical destruction they have wrought since the morning of 9/11.

This takes us to Gompert's reaction as reported by the BBC. His bottom line is that the efforts of The Washington Post do not "reflect the intelligence community we know." Whether or not this is the case, one of the points of the report is that it is unclear (and probably unlikely) that anyone knows whether or not Gompert's claim is true. One can neither warrant nor refute the claim because it is virtually impossible to negotiate all the data involved in intelligence operations (which includes being cleared to get much of those data in the first place) in order to formulate a substantive argument in favor of either Gompert or the Post. At the very least this supports the Post's claim that confusion is rife, if not dominant, within intelligence operations; and the worst thing we can do is to ignore this proposition, however sincere Gompert's protestations may be.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Christmas Keeps Coming Earlier!

I know I am showing my age, but I can remember when the Thanksgiving Day Parade in any major city marked the beginning of the Christmas shopping season. By the time this decade began, Christmas advertising campaigns seemed to be launched immediately after Halloween, probably before all of the collected candy had been consumed in most households. The more perceptive comedians started speculating that it would not be long before the Christmas shopping season would be launched on Labor Day.

That time may now be upon us, particularly since the British are now trying to one-up us at this game. The United Kingdom, unlike the United States but like just about every other country in the world, celebrates its Labor Day on May 1; but since 1871 they have had a bank holiday that aligns roughly with the end of summer. I say "roughly" because the August bank holiday is celebrated on the first Monday in August (making it exactly four weeks before our Labor Day); and, according to a report on the BBC News Web site, this year August bank holiday will mark the beginning of the Christmas shopping season, at least at Selfridges (which pretty much guarantees that all other shops will be dragged along in its wake). Apparently, past trade from tourists vacationing in August, who have decided that it would be really cool to give Christmas presents purchased overseas, motivated this early launch.

So that old gag about Labor Day has gone stale. Nevertheless, it should not take long for it to be replaced by a counter-challenge to the British. My guess is that American retailers will be ready to retaliate next year by launching the Christmas shopping season on the Fourth of July. After all, from our point of view, what could be more American than Christmas shopping? Santa can now just make his entrance at the end of the Fourth of July parade, rather than waiting for Thanksgiving!

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Facing Up to the Audience

I have been reading Claire Messud's review of The Collected Stories of Deborah Eisenberg, trying as hard as possible not to brood over not having enough time for fiction, even in the form of short stories. Messud's account of one story particularly intrigued me. "Someone to Talk To" is about Aaron Shapiro, an ex-prodigy pianist whose career is on the rocks, playing at a Pan-American music festival "in an unnamed Latin American country." Between his host, Richard Penwad (a name lacking any sense of Latin American heritage) and a British radio journalist named Beale, he realizes that he is in a setting that has commoditized culture until it is little more than a prop to maintain a despotic status quo. (Those with a broader sense of history may recall the great Persepolis festival that took place at a time when it was finally becoming clear that the days of the Shah of Iran were numbered.) Messud then captures the essence of Eisenberg's story in a single sentence:

The horror of the present is not simply itself, but also its destruction of his [the pianist's] fantasy of the past: Penwad and Beale between them drive home that Shapiro's success was only ever an artifice, that all his audience every encountered was itself.

I wonder if Messud realized the universality of this conclusion and that it applies not only to those whose present has fallen far short of a more glorious past but also to those (such as, say, Messud herself) whose talents are recognized in that same present. For all my own commitment to pursuing Igor Stravinsky's mission in cultivating audiences that listen rather than merely hear, what are the reflections of even the most serious listener? Are they not, ultimately, reflections on self for which the listening experience has been but a catalyst?

These thoughts may have emerged from my current encounter with Friedrich Nietzsche's "Twilight of the Idols." However, where Nietzsche might have seen such reflections as vulgar self-indulgence, I would argue that there is a more positive perspective. The Ancient Greek aphorism γνωθι σεαυτόν (know thyself) still has currency. If, as Plato argues in his "Theaetetus," the very concept of knowledge is tightly coupled to that of being, then knowledge of self might be seen as prerequisite to knowledge of anything else. From this point of view, listening experiences would seed reflections leading to better knowledge of self. It would seem that, if there are objections to such a perspective, they would have to do with the premise that such a sense of self takes priority over both the music and the performers responsible for the listening experience. This would probably aggravate anyone who had made the enormous commitment required to become a capable, if not skilled, performer; but is there any logical reason why the performer should sit on a higher plane than any individual in the audience?

Reflection on self is not, in and of itself, necessarily vulgar. Listening is an act of discovery, and there is no reason why the listener's discoveries should align with those of either composers or performers. If there is vulgarity in the concert hall, it is to be found in those who go for no reason other than to participate in a spectacle of adulation, defining self by the act of applauding louder and longer than the others. This does not require listening, however. One merely needs to hear as Stravinsky's duck does, responding to certain cues to determine when the time for applause has come.

Friday, July 16, 2010


Pat Brown, from the group Catholic Women's Ordination, called it "a slap in the face to women;" and I suspect that her relatively moderate choice of words was appropriate for a practicing Catholic. From my point of view, however, this may be the closest I have come to finding chutzpah in the activities of the Vatican; and it certainly deserves recognition for its negative connotation. "It" is a document released by the Vatican yesterday that, under other circumstances, might have been seen as a step in the right direction towards confronting pedophilia and other abusive practices by its priests. I say "might have been," because it decided to apply the same strong language to another of its major concerns, thereby at least suggesting those two issues were related. The language in question was the phrase "grave crime;" and I doubt that many would question its applicability to pedophilia. However, the Vatican document then began to plow another row by using the same language to describe any attempt to ordain women as priests; and the implication seems to be that a woman celebrating the Mass is as much an affront to the Catholic religion as is the sexual abuse of a child by an ordained priest. I would like to think that any document from the Vatican must go through several layers of vetting and editing before it is released in its official capacity. This would imply that all those layers of review accepted the use of the same language for these two different practices, which would make the document an act of chutzpah on the part of the entire Vatican bureaucracy. Others might see this as evidence for a new "reformation;" but I just see it as the discovery of a new recipient of the Chutzpah of the Week award!

Another Summer Concert Tradition Opens with Mahler

I do not know if the organizers of this summer's BBC Proms season knew about the plans for Tanglewood on this side of the pond; but, as far as gala openings are concerned, one might think that a major game of one-upmanship is being played with the legacy of Gustav Mahler. As we know, James Levine planned to open the Tanglewood season with Mahler's second ("Resurrection") symphony; and, for health reasons, Michael Tilson Thomas filled in to replace him on the podium for that concert. The "Resurrection" requires massive resources to make a mighty noise that, when properly conducted, is truly glorious. Not to be outdone, however, the Proms folks decided to summon even more resources for tonight's opening Proms concert: According to the notice in today's Daily Star, Jiří Bělohlávek will take the podium to conduct the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus (along with several other choirs) in Mahler's eighth ("Symphony of a Thousand") symphony. This is not exactly the best music for "promenading;" but Proms audiences have a reputation for being pretty serious about the music itself, regardless of the social setting. The performance will be broadcast on both radio and television, and I shall want to check out whether at least one of these versions will be archived for the BBC iPlayer!

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Beyond Window Dressing

I just finished reading Jon Kelly's piece for BBC News Magazine, "The High Street bank re-imagined;" and it is a true tribute to the difficulty of out-of-the-box thinking. Kelly has followed in the tradition established by G20 thinking when it comes to perpetuating the status quo in the face of alternative models that threaten to undermine, if not eliminate, that status quo. The most substantive of those models is, of course, the Grameen model founded by Muhammad Yunus, which cares more about the relationship between banks and the societies they are supposed to serve than about profit-making institutions that are beholden to both shareholders and governments that reap taxes from those profits. Kelly's piece never goes beyond reflecting the opinions of High Street bankers, which means that it never addresses anything more than window dressing. If High Street cannot see the extent to which the very nature of its institutions is the fundamental problem of economic crisis, can we expect any better insight from Wall Street?

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Eterrnal Funding is the Price of Censorship

One of my favorite recurring themes has to do with the premise that just about any form of regulation, if it is to be effective, must follow the metaphor of an arms race. Udi Manber introduced this metaphor back when he was at Yahoo!, where his responsibilities included dealing with protection against malware; but more recently the metaphor has resurfaced in the context of preventing the next financial crisis while recovering from the current one. As I put it last February, financial security is more a matter of Wendell Phillips' concept of "eternal vigilance" than one of closing the barn door to keep the horses from being stolen. Unfortunately, whether you are in the Internet business or just chewing the fat with Socrates over the nature of an ideal republic, it quickly becomes apparent that, if you want eternal vigilance, you have to pay for it.

It appears that the People's Republic of China has now confronted this problem as it applies to their own issues of censorship. The following report appeared on the BBC News Web site this morning:

Reports from China say a controversial government-backed software project to filter internet content could be on the brink of collapse.

State media said the developer behind the Green Dam Youth Escort software had closed its Beijing project team because of a lack of government funding.

Its partner in Henan said without funding, its team would soon close too.

The problem appears to be that the Chinese government saw the problem of maintaining censorship as being a matter of a software product that could be developed and deployed with one year of funding. In other words they wanted to put a lock on the door while the horses were pretty much all in the barn. One could think of the locked door as a form of utopian "goal state." Once that state has been achieved, the system will remain in it; and the job is done.

To go back to the question of financial regulation, this is the fallacy that Benjamin Friedman explored in his review of John Cassidy's How Markets Fail: The Logic of Economic Calamities. Friedman advocated Cassidy's plea that we recognize the difference between "utopian economics," which is all about finding goal states in clean mathematically-based systems, and "reality-based economics," which tries to take into account all of the messier aspects of human behavior. I raise these points not to advise the Chinese on how to deal more effectively with achieving their censorship goal. Rather, I see it as an amusing irony that the Chinese are running into the same problems of achieving the goals of their value system that the Western world has been forced to confront in matters of protection, whether from spam or financial malfeasance. The real irony is that we have two cultures with rather significantly different values, both of which have been drinking the technology-based "Kool-Aid of globalization" to dangerous excess. In Kenneth Burke's terminology the same act is taking place in radically different scenes, and in both of those scenes the agents are now forced to confront unanticipated consequences.

Monday, July 12, 2010

A Chilling Parallel

While Bertrand Russell may have been the one to label Friedrich Nietzsche one of the "philosophical progenitors" of Nazis and Fascists in his History of Western Philosophy (published in 1945), I first encountered the connection between Nietzsche and the Nazis through a far more pedestrian path. Indeed, that path came from an essay entitled "Nietzsche and the Nazis," which, as I recall, was in Harry Golden's collection, Only in America (which happened to be a bar mitzvah present). That essay was compelling enough to persuade me to purchase a copy of The Portable Nietzsche, which I still own even if less authority is attached to Walter Kaufmann's translation now than when he was accepted as one of the prime movers to revive interest in Nietzsche after the Second World War. Nevertheless, notwithstanding Russell's protestations, the Wikipedia entry probably chose the right word in describing any Nazi use of Nietzsche's philosophy as "selective."

On the other hand, when one encounters texts that are so rich in aphorism, can one read them in any way that is not selective? Consider the following sentences from Twilight of the Idols (in Kaufmann's translation):

Almost every party understands how it is in the interest of its own self-preservation that the opposition should not lose all strength; the same is true of power politics. A new creation in particular—the new Reich, for example—needs enemies more than friends: in opposition alone does it feel itself necessary, in opposition alone does it become necessary.

This is a key element in the argument developed in the section entitled "Morality as Anti-Nature;" and one can easily start thinking about National Socialism even before one encounters Kaufmann's decision to leave "Reich" untranslated. Unfortunately, in this new century we can now turn to other political ideologies that appear to have thrived from needing enemies more than friends, the closest example of that ideology being the "New American Century" thinking that assumed such a strong hold on the policies of the Administration of George W. Bush. Indeed, I have gone so far as to suggest that The Project for the New American Century may well have been the key factor through which Dick Cheney became "The Ultimate Weapon of Mass Destruction." Is this not evidence enough of the trouble we can get into through our willful cultural ignorance of history?

Reviewing Michael Tilson Thomas at Tanglewood

The opening concert of the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s summer season at Tanglewood has now taken place, and Anthony Tommasini's review is in today's New York Times. In the light of those remarks that Douglas Yeo, bass trombone in the Boston Symphony, made to Daniel J. Wakin of The New York Times, comparing past work with James Levine and present work with Michael Tilson Thomas, I read Tommasini's account with a fair amount of curiosity. Would Yeo find in Thomas that same sense of "gravitas" (his word) that he felt characterized Levine's approach to Gustav Mahler? Since I could not be there to hear the performance for myself, I felt the best evidence for resolving this question resided in one paragraph from Tommasini's piece:

In his best Mahler performances Mr. Levine is uncommonly good at revealing the musical architecture of these teeming, fitful symphonies. Yet in his more overtly dramatic way, Mr. Thomas also brings lucid textures and structural coherence to Mahler, as he did here in the 90-minute "Resurrection" Symphony. The first movement, originally written as a stand-alone "Todtenfeier" (“Funeral Ceremony”), is like a craggy, lurching 20-minute apotheosis of a funeral march, alternately weighty, mystical and crazed. Mr. Thomas conveyed all of the music’s taut intensity while shaping the whole with savvy command and astute musicianship.

I like this choice of words, particularly for the way in which it conveys that gravitas is not necessarily the critical attribute in approaching Mahler, even in his often-used form of the funeral march. Rather, the score of a Mahler funeral march is one that embodies a highly conflicted psychology. The march itself certainly captures the context of a formal ritual in which gravitas is the order of the day; but, as the ritual unfolds, many of the celebrants are afflicted with an intense grief. Indeed, the whole purpose of ritual may be to distract from (and therefore to some extent ease) the intensity of that grief; but the human soul does not necessarily give in to that distraction easily. Furthermore, there is an additional (also distracting) element of context, which Thomas discussed at some length in the talks he gave here during the Gustav Mahler: Origins and Legacies concerts by the San Francisco Symphony last September (much of which has now surfaced in his Keeping Score program). This additional element is "the rest of the world" beyond the celebrants of the funeral, the coarse world of the life of the "human, all-too-human" (an appropriate place to include Mahler's appreciation of Friedrich Nietzsche), unaware (perhaps intentionally) of death in its midst. This element provides the "mother lode" of Mahler's acute sense of irony; and, while gravitas may establish the tone of the ritual, the funeral march as a whole would not be Mahler were that gravitas not challenged by irony.

As Tommasini observed, this concert would have been Levine's first performance of the "Resurrection" symphony. He is still scheduled to perform it with the Boston Symphony in Symphony Hall in October, and it would certainly be valuable to compare his interpretation with Thomas'. Certainly, one cannot evoke the conflicted psychology of a Mahler funeral march without that sense of architecture that Levine brings to his performances; but, as Tommasini also observed, Thomas has established the coherence of his own sense of architecture. On the basis of the Times review, it would appear that the depths of Thomas' understanding of both the scores and the man who penned those scores was clearly evident on opening night at Tanglewood; and the Tanglewood audiences (and hopefully the Boston Symphony itself) should now be well prepared to move on to the challenges of the third symphony.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Reveling in Polemic

Having recently applied Friedrich Hayek as a big stick for beating up any knowledge management evangelists who may still be out their strutting their stuff, I feel a great need to cite an even stronger piece of polemic from the same source. In a vein similar to my previously cited passage, Hayek examines a literature that purports to provide a "philosophy of technology," which he then describes as "the dreariest mixture of pretentious platitudes and revolting nonsense which it has ever been the ill fortune of the present author to peruse." These words reminded me of the many texts I had to endure when I was honing my own writing skills through doing book reviews. It has been quite some time since I have had an I-wish-I'd-said-that moment; but Hayek certainly provided one for me with this particular turn of phrase!

Relibable Sources?

Last night ABC World News Saturday reported on the latest attempt of a ship carrying humanitarian aid for Gaza to run the Israeli naval blockade. In this case the aid was coming from Libya; and the report said little more than that, according to an Israeli source, the challenge had been resolved by diplomatic means. Reading the Al Jazeera English account of this story, filed early this morning, leads me to wonder just how industrious ABC had been about checking their sources. This version includes the material that seems to have supported the one provided by ABC:

The ship set sail from Greece on Saturday, carrying 2,000 tonnes of humanitarian aid for the Gaza Strip, but the Israeli foreign ministry said that it had reached an agreement with Greece and Moldova to have the ship diverted to Egypt.

However, the lead paragraphs of the Al Jazeera version make it clear that no one associated with the ship itself was party to the "agreement" with Israel:

Organisers of a Libya-sponsored aid ship have said they will continue their attempt to break the naval blockade of the Gaza Strip, despite Israeli claims that the vessel would instead sail to Egypt.

Yousseuf Sawani, a director of the Gaddafi International Charity and Development Foundation, told Al Jazeera that there were no plans for the Al-Amal to dock at the port El-Arish.

"This is definitely a part of the campaign against the ship, a campaign of distortion, but we are definitely heading towards Gaza, because that is where aid should be heading to," he told Al Jazeera.

"This is a purely humane mission, it is neither provocative nor hostile," he said.

On further reading one discovers that not only was the ship not part of the agreement but also Egypt, as the site of the alternative docking, was not involved:

Israeli authorities also reportedly contacted Omar Suleiman, the Egyptian intelligence chief, to request that the ship be allowed to dock in El-Arish, close to the border with the Gaza Strip.

But Hossam Zaki, a spokesman for the Egyptian foreign ministry, said that he was not expecting the ship to travel to the Egyptian port.

"This ship is not headed Egypt. We did not get any official request from the Libyan side for the ship to dock in Egypt," he said.

"Its not about the Israelis' request. Its up to the will of the organisers of the ship.

"They said they are heading to Gaza, they did not approach us. The situation as far we are concerned is a ship heading to Gaza."

Beyond the question of whether or not the current state of affairs may lead to a confrontation uglier than what took place on the Mavi Marmara, the Turkish vessel trying to carry humanitarian aid for Gaza through the Israeli blockade, is the equally serious question of how responsible ABC was in its reporting last night. It is clear from the Al Jazeera version that there were plenty of non-Israeli sources available to at least possibly refute the proposition that the blockade challenge had been diplomatically resolved. Did ABC really think it was sufficient to run a story like this strictly on the basis of Israeli sources?

Meanwhile, those who get their news from television continue to be without Al Jazeera English as an option. I have yet to find a cable provider willing to make room for the channel among the hundreds of slots they provide; and, while Public Television has shown signs of broadening their scope of sources, they are still not prepared to include Al Jazeera within that breadth. That leaves the Internet; and, while I continue to rely on the Al Jazeera RSS feed for my own amateur efforts at source-checking, I came away from this morning's San Francisco Chronicle report by James Temple on the "high-tech news war" with the impression that my own practices are unlikely to signify very much in the grand scheme of things. At least the seven comments that have accumulated (as of this writing) on the Web page for Temple's report provide the comfort than I am not alone in my frustration!

Saturday, July 10, 2010


This has not really been a slow week, but it is one in which many of my thoughts about music seem to have taken priority over my thoughts of chutzpah. Thus, in reviewing the week, I realize that I probably could have assigned my Chutzpah of the Week award on Thursday in conjunction with the BBC News report that Marine Corps General James Mattis was nominated to replace General David Petraeus as head of US Central Command. Mattis' name should resonate with anyone who either read Generation Kill or saw the HBO miniseries based on Evan Wright's book. We never saw Mattis in the HBO version, but his name hovered over the Marine First Reconnaissance Battalion in which Wright was embedded rather the way the ghost of King Hamlet hovers over his son.

Reviewing Wright's text, I discovered that Mattis had a motto:

Doctrine is the last refuge of the unimaginative.

Also, his call sign in battle was "Chaos." From a realistic point of view, this may square well with the assessment of Defense Secretary Robert Gates given in the BBC report, even if Gates does not realize this:

He described Gen Mattis as one of the US military's "outstanding combat leaders and strategic thinkers".

One wonders if Gates knew about Mattis' motto before releasing this statement, but all signs point to Mattis having a personal disposition towards leading with chutzpah. Whether the connotation of that chutzpah turns out to be positive or negative remains to be seen, but he seems to be the sort of leader who sees innovation emerging from chaos. It takes chutzpah to bring that kind of thinking to Central Command, which traditionally tries to serve as a stabilizing force; so, under the assumption that he will not get much positive recognition for his new assignment, it seems proper to let him enjoy a Chutzpah of the Week award.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Mahler in Tanglewood

I rarely feel the urge to go back east, but right now I feel it with a heavy tinge of irony. Here we are, two days after Gustav Mahler's 150th birthday in the city where Michael Tilson Thomas has made the San Francisco Symphony one of the leading interpreters of Mahler in the world; but it is July. July is Summer & the Symphony month, captured by the epithet "Cool Nights, Hot Classics." Mahler just does not fit in with that epithet; and, sure enough, none of his music will be performed in Davies Symphony Hall this month. Meanwhile, Michael Tilson Thomas is at Tanglewood, where he will conduct the Boston Symphony Orchestra in a performance of Mahler's second symphony ("Resurrection") tonight to open the annual summer season. Later in the season he will conduct the third symphony, and Juanjo Mena will conduct the fourth. All these programming arrangements were made by James Levine, who will be absent from the entire season for health reasons.

It is not as if San Francisco does not get enough Mahler. However, will we really have to wait until February 27 to hear his music in this celebratory year; and how is it that this first celebratory gesture will be a performance of the fifth symphony by the Israel Philharmonic under the baton of Zubin Mehta? Yes, there will be a far more substantial celebration in May (including the second symphony on May 7 and 8); but one would have thought that Mahler deserved the same kind of ongoing recognition that both Robert Schumann and Frédéric Chopin have been receiving since the beginning of this calendar year. Meanwhile, this coming winter Thomas will take his performance of the second with the Boston Symphony on a European tour.

There is, nevertheless, at least one positive side of Thomas' plans. The great advantage of subscribing to the San Francisco Symphony is that, when he returns to a Mahler composition prepared in an earlier season, the newer performance never sounds like the older one. There is so much in any Mahler score that one can always approach it validly from many different points of view, and Thomas always seems to seek out ways to shift that point of view. Conducting the music with a different orchestra may lead to his discovering yet other such points of view. On the basis of remarks that Douglas Yeo, bass trombone in the Boston Symphony, made to Daniel J. Wakin of The New York Times, Levine and Thomas take significantly different approaches to the score of the second symphony. Chances are that, in the course of his rehearsals, Thomas will get some sense of the "gravitas" (Yeo's word) that Levine brings to the podium and may use it to find yet another approach to performance. That new path may yet lead back to his preparation for the three Mahler symphonies that he will conduct in Davies next May.