Sunday, October 31, 2010

Values and Priorities

President Barack Obama will visit India at the end of this coming week.  What will he see there (or, perhaps more accurately, what will his hosts allow him top see)?  What conversations will he hold and with whom?  What is the significance of a relationship with India in his own vision of what he wants our own country to be, assuming that any trace of the inspiring visions of Obama-the-candidate remains?

Ravi Nessman has written a valuable background piece for The Associated Press, which has been included as a Yahoo! News selection.  He writes from the perspective of “political economy;”  and, while that phrase is too frequently associated with the writings of Karl Marx (even if it can be traced back to Adam Smith), it is appropriate for a variety of reasons.  For his American readers it is a recognition that our country has still not recovered from its economic crisis;  and, whatever the promising signs may be, the hard numbers indicate that more, rather than fewer people, are suffering from that lack of recovery.  Ironically, the current Prime Minister of India, Manmohan Singh, is himself an economist;  so it is hard to imagine that any discussion of economics will be absent from the meetings that Obama holds and the visits that have been arranged for him.

This seems appropriate enough in the context of India estimating an annual economic growth rate of 8.5 percent.  Among the rich and mighty of the World Economic Forum, this would probably amount to a Holy Grail;  and it is hard to imagine that the White House would not share this opinion.  However, what Wall Street prefers to ignore (and what Main Street has to live with, whether it wants to or not) is that everything comes with a price;  and the value of Nessman’s piece comes from his desire to seek out what that price has been for India.

One approach to that price comes from the usual rhetorical flourishes like “a bloated, corrupt government that has failed to deliver the barest of services.”  With more sober language he summarizes Singh’s approach to economic policy as follows:

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, an economist credited with unleashing India's private sector by loosening government regulation, talks about growth that benefits the masses of poor people as well as a burgeoning middle class of about 300 million. He describes a roaring Maoist insurgency in the east — which feeds in large part on the poor's discontent — as the country's biggest internal security threat.

However, the critical question is whether or not the poor really do benefit from this growth.  Nessman legitimizes this question through a variety of arguments;  but the most striking may be one of those “sign of the times” statistics:

There were more than 670 million cell phone connections in India by the end of August, a number that has been growing by close to 20 million a month, according to government figures.

Yet U.N. figures show that only 366 million Indians have access to a private toilet or latrine, leaving 665 million to defecate in the open.

The point is that economic growth is measured in terms of financial transactions (“buying and selling stuff”).  Within that value system any statistics concerned with the well-being of the population never even enter the equations;  so no one has to worry about sweeping them under the carpet.

We must therefore seriously consider the hypothesis that one price of economic growth may be the growth of poverty.  We experienced such conditions in our own history during a period known as the Gilded Age.  Economic growth was prodigious enough to attract global attention;  but those who benefitted from that growth constituted a thin veneer (or “gilding”) of the overall population.  It took the Great Depression to shake our Government into recognizing that not all social values are economic values.  Now we see India experiencing that same confusion of values, and we see our President heading to India.  The thought that he may be heading there to learn from India (if not to try to grab a ride on their gravy train) is about as disconcerting as his recent aspiration to create “more Googles.”

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Emerson as Nietzsche's Predecessor

I find it an interesting twist of events that brought my attention to Ralph Waldo Emerson so soon after I had finished reading Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra.  Each writer had his own peculiarly characteristic style;  and, in the context of my own interests, I find it amusing that each of them inspired a twentieth-century composer, Charles Ives for Emerson and Richard Strauss for Nietzsche (although my guess is that Ives read his Emerson much more seriously than Strauss read his Nietzsche).  What amuses me most, however, is their shared opinion that “faith-based reasoning” is an oxymoron and their respective styles of polemic in addressing this issue.

However, while Nietzsche never passes up an opportunity to be prankish, Emerson seems to feel obliged to write as a model of New England sobriety.  Thus, we have the following passage in his “Experience” essay:

Nature, as we know her, is no saint.  The lights of the church, the ascetics, Gentoos and corn-eaters, she does not distinguish by any favor.  She comes eating and drinking and sinning.  Her darlings, the great, the strong, the beautiful, are not children of our law;  do not come out of the Sunday School, nor weight their food, nor punctually keep the commandments.  If we will be strong with her strength we must not harbor such disconsolate consciences, borrowed too from the consciences of other nations.  We must set up the strong present tense against all the rumors of wrath, past or to come.  So many things are unsettled which it is of the first importance to settle;—and, pending their settlement, we will do as we do.

This is language fit for a sermon;  and, for all we know, it can be traced back to a sermon delivered from a Unitarian pulpit.  This may be a far cry from the prankishness of Twilight of the Idols;  but it is clear that, where the “revaluation of all values” is concerned, Nietzsche is sort of a kid brother to Emerson.  I am not sure how Nietzsche would have reacted during his lifetime to such a comparison;  but, if he could recognize the prankish spirit in which it was formulated, he would probably accept it!

Friday, October 29, 2010

Those who Should Know Better Ignore History

This week Mikhail Gorbachev gave an interview, excerpts of which were broadcast on the PBS feed of BBC World Service News, in which he talked about Afghanistan.  Speaking from his own unpleasant experience, Gorbachev, who was in an excellent position to deliver the refrain of history being repeated by those who ignore it, suggested that a “war on terrorism” was no justification for that ignorance.  Indeed, I would not be surprised if the excerpts excluded a suggestion that the war on terrorism has clouded our ability to think clearly as much as the Cold War had done in its time.  Think of our efforts to prop up an Afghani government of questionable value strictly of the interest of keeping the country from falling into “terrorist” (more specifically, Taliban) hands.  Then think of the number of downright brutal dictatorships we supported in countries with no goal other than keeping Communists out of those countries.

This strikes me as the lens through which we should view the following report that appeared on Al Jazeera English this morning:

In a decision critics say has undermined a powerful new law, the United States has decided to turn a blind eye to four countries that use child soldiers in their armed forces.

In a brief and little-noticed announcement on Monday, the White House said Barack Obama, the president, had decided to exempt Chad, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Sudan and Yemen from the Child Soldiers Prevention Act of 2008, which prohibits funding for foreign governments' militaries if they recruit or use child soldiers.

On Thursday, Foreign Policy magazine posted  online a nine-page memo from Obama to Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, that linked the continuation of funding to US counterterrorism efforts in some of those countries.

"Everyone’s gotten a pass, and Obama has really completely undercut the law and its intent," Jo Becker, children’s rights advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, told the New York Times newspaper.

Of the six countries identified by the state department as having used child soldiers in 2009, only Somalia and Myanmar were not granted an exemption. Myanmar receives no military aid from the United States, but the vulnerable Transitional Federal Government of Somalia receives significant assistance. In May 2009, the United States applied for exemption from an United Nations arms embargo in order to provide Somalia with assault rifle, mortar and machine gun ammunition, and rocket-propelled grenades.

This is precisely the sort of madness that we readily associated with the previous Bush Administration.  When we voted for “change we can believe in,” we were voting for getting beyond our involvement is such a horrific amalgam of absurdity and atrocity.  Yet we have both the White House and the State Department maintaining the rules of the Bush playbook, presumably to avoid any criticism of being “soft on terrorism”

The ultimate irony is that the Research Briefing section of the Web site for the Republican National Committee ran their own account of the above story;  and they ran it under the headline “Indefensible.”  This, of course, was precisely the language that Democrats rushed to use when George W. Bush was being the “decider” in such matters.  We now are half a week away from an election at which the Republicans are doing all they can to give Obama a beating that will be impossible to ignore or rationalize.  Was it in any way “defensible” for the Administration to give the Republicans yet another stick to use in the beating?

A Question of Priorities

Those interested in a more wired world will probably welcome the following report that ran on the BBC News Web site this morning:

Mount Everest climbers can now surf the internet and make video calls through a 3G network, Nepalese telecoms firm Ncell says.

The company has installed eight 3G base stations along the route to Everest base camp.

The wireless network could help thousands of tourists who visit Mount Everest every year, Ncell claims.

Climbers and trekkers in the Everest region have so far relied on satellite phones and a voice-only mobile network.

Ncell, which is owned by the Swedish company TeliaSonera, says its highest 3G base station is near Everest base camp at 5,200 metres (17,000 ft).

The coverage would reach the summit of the world's highest mountain, company head Pasi Koistinen, said.

He added that this had not been tested yet.

The 3G network will help climbers and trekkers stay in touch with their families and trip organisers, Mr Koistinen said.

It will also enable them to receive weather reports and safety information while they are climbing.

So I appreciate the value of that last sentence;  but I also appreciate Jon Krakauer’s argument that there are too damned many people trying to be tourists on Everest, most of whom are neither physically nor mentally equipped to be there.  Consequently, I cannot help but wonder if this “new connectivity,” whatever benefits it may provide to that elite few who are serious about what they do, will worsen a situation that is already pretty bad.

However, there is another twist to this story, which is the one that really motivated me to write this morning:

Less than one third of Nepal's population have access to telecommunication services.

TeliaSonera announced that it would invest more than $100m (£63m) in the next year to increase mobile coverage in the country.

The good news is that the Nepalese government cut a deal with TeliaSonera through which a major chunk of their population may get telephone service for the first time.  The bad news is the sense of priorities in the arrangements for that deal:  We’ll let you bring connectivity to Everest if you then bring connectivity to the rest of Nepal.  A government that cared more about its own population than about its tourist trade would have reversed the order:  First help us with a national telecommunications solution, after which you can do your thing on Everest.  It takes more that a little chutzpah to be so overt about such priorities, which is why this week’s Chutzpah of the Week award will go to the entire Nepalese government!

Thursday, October 28, 2010

The "Social Reality" of "Negative Actions"

In his paper “Concept and Theory Formation in the Social Sciences,” Alfred Schutz makes several compelling points regarding what he calls dimensions of “social reality” that are not taken into consideration by positivist thinking.  The one that interests me the most is the following:

Moreover, the concept of human action in terms of common-sense thinking and of the social sciences includes what may be called “negative actions,” i.e., intentional refraining from acting, which, of course, escapes sensory observation.  Not top sell certain merchandise at a given price is doubtless as economic an action as to sell it.

From this point of view, it may be a promising sign that the World Bank has decided to recognize not only the legitimacy but also the economic value of such “negative actions.”  Granted, this may simply be a matter of accepting the conclusions of a recent report by the UN-backed project on The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB).  As BBC News put it in a story filed this morning, the report observed “that the natural world's economic value, in terms of its provision of clean water, good-quality soil, pollination and other services, was largely neglected by policymakers because it was ‘invisible’.”  As a result, actions in the interest of “economic development” tend not to be evaluated on the basis of any negative impact on the criteria addressed by TEEB, which means that there are no grounds to establish that not to act may have greater long-term economic consequences that acting.

While this is a promising point of view, there remains the problem of the World Bank trying to reduce the assessment of all projects to the “right value equation.”  For example consider the following statement from Norway’s Environment Minister Erik Solheim:

The full costs of negative impacts on ecosystems must be covered by those who receive a benefit from destroying it.

As we used to say at MIT, “I suppose;” but this idea of covering costs carries the rather distasteful connotation that has been attached to “carbon credits” in the past or the more general efforts to develop a “calculus of social value.”  The problem with such an objective (and positivist) stance is that it tends to carry the implicit message that it is all right for one party to pursue a self interest that is detrimental to others as long as the others are compensated according to such a calculus that all parties are willing to accept.  The fallacy with this reasoning is that it denies the possibility that the planet, itself, may have “interests,” regardless of whether or not any individuals speak up for those interests.

One might say that the real problem is that human nature is not up to the task of the stewardship of the well-being of the environment.  This is not to imply that it ever was up to that task;  but the consequences are greater now than they were when, for example, vast tracts of natural land were destroyed in the interest of building the Panama Canal.  It is almost as if realistic thinking about environmental consequences requires a reversion to an atavism that recognized “Mother Nature” as an agent participating in the affairs of human beings.  The atheist in me is uneasy about such a solution, but I am hard pressed to come up with a better idea!

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Music in the Digital Age

Yesterday afternoon Greg Sandoval put out a commentary piece for his Media Maverick column with the ominous subtitle, “Digital music is ailing.”  While there is much to be gained from reading his analysis, one should not approach it without first accepting the premise that, for Sandoval, “digital music” is a manufactured product that can only be assessed on the basis of return-on-investment.  It is within this context that we must read one of his key analytical observations:

What's killing music services and has depressed the sector is that most consumers just don't want to pay for music. Why should they? For a decade, a generation of music fans have grown up listening to music they obtained free from illegal file-sharing services. On the heels of those services came start-ups that offered more free music if users were willing to put up with a few ads. What nobody has proven yet is whether these free music sites can convince consumers to reach into their pockets to pay for songs or anything else.

I think that this issue of paying for music is significant;  but there is far more historical context than the past decade (which may or may not be relevant to current marketing models but probably should not be ignored).  The concept of free music is far older than that of file-sharing, regardless of any questions of legality.  In a time that is probably unknown to most of Sandoval’s readers, most of us got more free music than we could manage for the price of a cheap radio.  We could get it for just about any genre that interested us;  and for many of us it was an opportunity for remote participation in an actual performance, even if the broadcast was a delayed one.  (As a kid growing up in a Philadelphia suburb, I knew more about our Orchestra through its weekly broadcasts than I did from trips to the Academy of Music;  and through the same radio station I was also learning about the New York Philharmonic at a time when Leonard Bernstein was taking them into all sorts of weird and wonderful domains of new repertoire.)

This leads to another facet of Sandoval’s analysis, which is that he is trying to analyze the earning power of music services in terms of how successfully those services “move product.”  I do not criticize him for taking this stance, because, in our current social setting, it is a perfectly valid one;  but it reflects a corruption of our basic understanding of the nature of services that has been growing in tandem with the deterioration of our manufacturing economy.  We can go all the way back to Daniel Bell’s The Coming of Post-Industrial Society for emerging thoughts about how a “service economy” would displace that manufacturing economy;  but, as an accomplished social scientist, Bell appreciated that providing a service differs in many significant qualitative ways from any of the activities involved with manufacturing and selling a tangible product.  However, as our society has become more and more technocentric, those distinctions have gradually narrowed to a point where major technology companies committed portions of their research budgets to trying to reduce service to a science.

Did they succeed?  One answer lies in a joke I used to tell as a student doing thesis research in computer-composed music.  Back in 1957 one of the pioneers of artificial intelligence research predicted that within ten years people would be listening to original music composed by computer.  1967 happened to be the year I began graduate school, and I would often be asked about that prediction.  The usual question was whether the timing was off or whether the prediction was just plain wrong.  I liked to reply that the prediction would probably eventually be true but not because artificial intelligence would lead to better algorithms.  It would be true because our capacity for listening would deteriorate through exposure to more and more of those computer efforts.

I offer this as an analog to the question of whether service has become a science.  To the extent that service activities take place in the social world, this can never be the case;  and there is a wonderful little talk that Alfred Schutz delivered at a 1953 meeting of the Conference on Methods in Philosophy and the Sciences (included in the first volume of his Collected Papers) that establishes this claim through an elegant set of warrants.  On the other hand technology has now so corrupted our expectations for service that we have come to recognize that any expectations about the social world can only be frustrated.  From this point of view, I would say that service has, indeed, been reduced to a science and that music services, particularly through their tight coupling to “social software” are a perfect example of how our understanding of service itself has been corrupted.

By all rights, the ultimate “service providers” in music are the performers;  but we rarely appreciate this unless we are actually experiencing a performance by attending it, preferably physically but possibly virtually.  I realize that I can say this because I live in a city in which I can experience at least one “live” performance every day (and there are weeks when I do just that);  but the virtual option still stands.  Indeed, as opportunities for broadband access increase, there are likely also to be increased opportunities for concert experience in cyberspace.  Nevertheless, performers never really figure in Sandoval’s analysis.  His service providers run software sites and are driven by the economies of acquiring and distributing content.  Within the framework of Bell’s analysis, they are actually regressing to the manufacturing economy, except that their goods are “soft” enough to be managed at the “cottage industry” level.

From this point of view, my reading of Sandoval’s analysis is at least mildly optimistic.  If digital music really is ailing, then it is the product-based music industry that has succumbed to infection.  The more serious question, however, is whether or not the performance of music (in just about any genre you wish to consider) will survive the disruption of that industry.  Yes, if that industry implodes, then the opportunities for “earning a living” through performance will probably implode along with it;  but, if technology has corrupted our expectations for the nature of work in a service-based economy, then the ideology of globalization has pretty much annihilated the very concept of earning a living through any form of work.  Think about that the next time you pass a busker on the street or in a subway station.  The coins in his/her hat may not be much of a revenue stream, but it may be a more secure revenue stream than that of any skilled worker in manufacturing who may no longer have any viable prospects for employment.

Monday, October 25, 2010

The Bee and the Travelling Salesman

According to an article that appeared yesterday on the Web site for The Guardian, a bee can solve the Travelling Salesman Problem (TSP).  Here is a more specific account of that claim:

Bees can solve complex mathematical problems which keep computers busy for days, research has shown.

The insects learn to fly the shortest route between flowers discovered in random order, effectively solving the "travelling salesman problem" , said scientists at Royal Holloway, University of London.

The conundrum involves finding the shortest route that allows a travelling salesman to call at all the locations he has to visit. Computers solve the problem by comparing the length of all possible routes and choosing the one that is shortest.

Bees manage to reach the same solution using a brain the size of a grass seed.

Dr Nigel Raine, from Royal Holloway's school of biological sciences, said: "Foraging bees solve travelling salesman problems every day. They visit flowers at multiple locations and, because bees use lots of energy to fly, they find a route which keeps flying to a minimum."

Using computer-controlled artificial flowers to test bee behaviour, his wanted to know whether the insects would follow a simple route defined by the order in which they found the flowers, or look for the shortest route.

After exploring the location of the flowers, the bees quickly learned to fly the best route for saving time and energy.

If this is to be more than sensationalist journalism (if one believes that mathematics can ever be a topic for sensationalist journalism), however, there are a few questions that we cannot allow to get swept under the rug.  If this is, indeed, a question of learning, what is the nature of the learning process and how long does it take?  Related to this question of efficiency is the question of how many flowers were in the controlled experiment, which might imply that a bee has only so much channel capacity for planning its route.  (This would make sense under the assumption that there is only so much nectar that the bee can harvest on a single trip.)

The problem is that the lead sentence is about as misleading as it is attractive.  Evidence that bees may be good at route planning within their own behavioral constraints does not warrant the conclusion that they “can solve complex mathematical problems.”  Solving the TSP in its full generality is just not a part of what bees do, particularly when we may not yet have a good idea how many flowers a bee can visit in a single trip.  To reason from the example given in the Wikipedia entry for the TSP, if a bee can visit fifteen flowers, then the number of possible routes from which it would have to select the shortest is 43,589,145,600.  If Raine ran his test on fifteen flowers, then I might be willing to take notice, even if the bee could not come up with a closed-form solution for the general case!

As I recently observed, even a comedian like Ricky Gervais would immediately recognize that this has more to do with Wittgenstein’s Lion than with the mathematics of complexity.  In the spirit of Wittgenstein’s assertion that we could not understand what a lion would have to say, even if that lion had some version of what we would call speech, the bee would be no more capable of describing its “flight planning” than a centipede would in describing how it coordinates its legs.  Indeed, the very concept of “planning” is probably alien to both of these scenarios.  We invoke the concept because we believe it is necessary;  but James Gibson rejected that premise in his Ecological Approach to Visual Perception, where he considered the related problem of how birds seem to follow their migratory paths with great consistency.

According to the Guardian story, Raine’s results have been accepted for publication.  They are due to appear this week in The American Naturalist.  I suggest that anyone curious enough to read this document begin by checking if Gibson is in the bibliography.  If he is missing, then I would worry that Raine may have been a bit too myopic in both his methods and his conclusions.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Emersonian Blogging

The latest (October 28) issue of The New York Review includes a review of the recent publication of selections from the journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson by the Library of America.  The collection consists of two volumes, whose page count runs just shy of 2,000.  Whether or not this selection is representative, it is necessarily sparse:  The Harvard University Press complete edition of The Journals and Miscellaneous Notebook of Ralph Waldo Emerson runs to sixteen “massive” (the adjective selected by Robert Pogue Harrison, author of the current review) volumes.  Neither of these editions is available for search or browsing in digitized form, nor is there any version of this material available through Project Gutenberg.  One can find earlier editions whose copyright has expired through a Book search on Google;  but more impressive (not to mention more useful) is a “digital edition of the Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Centenary Edition, edited and with notes by Edward Waldo Emerson” set up as a Web site by the University of Michigan Digital Library project, whose home page is the source for the above quotation and is marked as last having been updated on March 28, 2006.

None of the twelve volumes in this collection makes any mention of the journals;  but, since this was a digital collection, I decided to try putting it to a test.  I took the first quote from the journals reproduced in Harrison’s review:

Expression is all we want.  Not knowledge, but vent:  we know enough;  but have not leaves & lungs enough for a healthy perspiration & growth.

I decided to use the Boolean search tool on the conjunction of “vent,” “knowledge,” and “perspiration.”  What I discovered was a close approximation of this text in an essay entitled “Persian Poetry;”  and, in the notes for this essay, I found the sentence from the journal (but with “and” in place of the ampersand signs).  In other words material from the journals appears only as notes when relevant.

However, this bears on another observation that Harrison made based on the following quote from the “Self-Reliance” essay:

To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men—that is genius.

Harrison then says of this sentence:

In this respect the bloggers of our age have more Emersonian genius in them than our analytic philosophers, for good or ill.

My guess is that Emerson might sympathize, but in a qualified way, just I suspect that he would not wholeheartedly support the publication of his journals.  At the risk of sounding too self-important, I would like to suggest that, as a man who could write at the drop of a hat, Emerson used his journals as a “rehearsal studio” for his more serious “writing for public consumption.”  Harrison says the same, but in language free of any reference to my own turf:

His journals were the incubator of his sermons, lectures, essays, poems, and translations, almost all of which received their first transcriptions there.

From this point of view, Emerson probably equated genius with his own method of expressing his thoughts through a process of “rehearsal writing” that would culminate in some form of public distribution, even if only through a sermon.  I would suggest that this is not the way of most bloggers, whose own efforts are guided more by spontaneity and possibly a hunger for eyeballs, without being distracted by more elevated concepts such as “thought” or “belief.”  Emerson was probably fortunate enough to avoid ever having to sit in on a panel discussion;   but I would like to believe that he would easily recognize the “ego-strutting” that dominates such events and would probably have felt the same way about a goodly number of blogs that he might sample today.

I realize that what I am now doing would probably open me up to similar accusations of ego-strutting.  To some extent this would be true.  I have low expectations that what I write here gets very much attention, but I certainly enjoy any reaction indicating that what I have written has actually been read.  (I think about this less on, where I know that certain opinions can end up serving as a magnet for hate mail.)  Still, writing is important to me;  and I see it as a performance skill that is very much in the same category as the performance skills of the musicians about whom I write on  Just as rehearsal is fundamental to the work practices of those musicians, it is equally fundamental to me.  However, while I doubt that many professional musicians would feel very good about rehearsing in public, I find that the openness of my own “rehearsal studio” provides an incentive for choosing every word carefully, even in the most casual of settings.  It would not surprise me if Emerson were just as careful in choosing the words he penned into his journals, not because they might some day be made public but because he knew that they would have to withstand the scrupulous review of that most intense of readers, Emerson himself!  Some might dismiss that as just another form of ego-strutting;  but I prefer to think of it as recognizing a crucial coupling of self-criticism to self-reliance!

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Nietzsche Speaks to the Tea Party

I just finished watching a Book TV broadcast of a panel discussion held on September 10, organized by the National Press Club on the subject of the Tea Party movement.  Consistent with my current opinion of panel discussions, this was an event that shed precious little light on its topic area while providing more than the usual heavy dose of ego-strutting.  The result, however, was that I found myself thinking about prevailing Tea Party stereotypes while reading the following passage from Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra:

Rather know nothing than half-know much!  Rather be a fool on one’s own than a sage according to the opinion of others!

Without getting side-tracked by Dick Armey’s participation in the panel, where it seemed as if he could not let the slightest remark pass without trying to maneuver it to his advantage, there is at least one aspect of the fool that is far from pejorative and may tap into the wisdom of Nietzsche’s second sentence.

I would guess that Nietzsche had in mind the fool who knows he is a fool.  In the current political context, this is the Joe-the-Plumber kind of guy, who knows that he cannot keep up with the verbal legerdemain of either politicians or pundits and is not ashamed of his seeming (note the qualifier) inadequacy.  If, through his self-proclaimed foolishness, he has the courage to ask questions that others would deem “foolish,” he stands some chance (perhaps even a good one) of turning the conversation away from the usual formulaic cant and towards matters of substance.  As proud members of the “Republic of Letters,” our Founding Fathers were never afraid to disagree with each other in either face-to-face conversation or the exchange of correspondence;  and often the most heated disagreements could be settled by agreeing on what was the question being asked, rather than any details regarding how that question should be answered.

Ironically, one of the best proponents of this “significance of the question” principle is neither a politician nor a pundit (and is decidedly no fool).  She is the soprano Patricia Racette.  When she ran a master class here last summer, I wrote on that every student she coached was hit with the same message:

You should always be asking questions about what you are doing;  and often being able to express the question is more important than how you decide to answer it.

While I may have serious questions about the motives and values of those under the Tea Party tent (and, where most position statements that Armey has made are concerned, there is not “may” about it), their efforts to ask questions about what both our government and its citizens are doing strike me as the fool’s quality that Nietzsche admires in the above quoted text.  I would even continue his logic and argue that those embarrassed by such questions and respond with ad hominem attacks rather than even hypothesized answers are those who “half-know much” and are the targets of this particular prankish remark.

The most important point I tried to make yesterday was not that economic crisis is still with us.  It was that too many people feel as if they have been excluded from the conversation that still needs to take place;  and that feeling is grounded in the harsh reality of how things are getting done, whatever Barack Obama was saying back when he was trying to get elected.  Being able to ask questions should be grounds enough to justify joining the conversation;  and being able to formulate a question that “only a fool would ask” may ultimately justify sitting closer to the head of the table!

Finding the MOT JUSTE

This year’s Exotic Erotic Ball, San Francisco’s “celebration of flesh, fetish and freedom” (or at least one of several, if not many) has been cancelled.  According to the organizers, the reasons were poor ticket sales and cost overruns, in other words, business as usual in these hard times.  At least the headline writer for the San Francisco Chronicle managed to make a bit of lemonade out of this poor lemon, coming up with a headline that described the ticket sales as “flaccid.”  I am sure it did not make the organizers feel any better, but it was nice to see the spirit of their value system so honored.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Obama Misses the Point

Apparently yesterday evening Barack Obama was fundraising at the Palo Alto home of Zachary Bogue and his wife, Google executive Marissa Meyer.  As reported by Carla Marinucci, Political Writer for the San Francisco Chronicle:

The 7 p.m. fundraiser was first scheduled at Mayer's luxury Four Seasons condo in downtown San Francisco but was moved after organizers realized that the presidential motorcade could disrupt a potentially more important event - the San Francisco Giants' baseball game against the Philadelphia Phillies, which began shortly before 5 p.m.

In this context one can appreciate what is currently the most popular reader comment from yaweno:

Too bad us poor folks don't get to talk to the President. I don't think these gazillionaires can provide a true picture of what life is like in our America. Sad.

Yes, it is sad.  Just as sad, however, is the extent to which Obama fails to recognize that some of the solutions he is trying to promote may actually be the causes of the problems faced on just about every Main Street in the country.  Consider the following paragraphs from Marinucci’s report:

Obama asked the diners to sit down and recalled meeting Mayer on his first visit to Google a few years ago, where he saw that "if people have the tools to let their imaginations run, then there's nothing we can't do in this country."

He said the country has been through "a decade in which, frankly, that can-do spirit had been lost" and that his task as president "hasn't just been to stop the bleeding, but to find out how the country can deal with the issues "that have prevented more Googles from being created."

One possibility is that Obama was saying what he was expected to say among the company he was keeping.  More likely, however, is that he just does not get that creating “more Googles” does not solve the problem of a country controlled by a rich-and-mighty culture that has almost entirely decimated the world of work that the rest of us inhabit.  Yes, Google is now a large enterprise that provides employment for a significant number of people;  but to what end is all this taking place?

First of all, not all of it is strictly for innovation.  Given the number of pies into which Google has now stuck its fingers, its greatest need is for an army of software development drones responsible for making sure that none of the cars of the train (not to mention the locomotive) run off the rails.  This is skilled labor;  and Google can afford to recruit and maintain the “best of the best,” filtering out all lower-grade candidates through a barrage of aptitude and achievement tests.

None of this has anything to do with innovation, however.  Presumably it is that capacity for innovation that Obama had in mind when invoking that “can-do spirit;”  and it is certainly the case that Google became what it is through such spirit.  However, the question still remains:  to what end is Google pursuing innovation?  The simple answer to the question is that the goal is increased dependence on Google, particularly where our national addiction to consumerism is concerned, because, like it or not, that is (as Willie Sutton put it so poetically) “where the money is.”  It is because that addiction to consumerism is so tightly coupled to the economic crisis that continues to plague Main Street that Google is not a source of economic solution and may even continue to aggravate our economic problems.  If we then factor in Nicholas Carr’s arguments about how the use of Google has turned us into an "answer-driven culture" whose reflective capacities have been seriously eroded, it should come as no surprise that the “deep creativity” behind the sorts of innovations that can make significant changes is so alien to Google that it has become a symptom for which Google is the antidote.  (Remember that, in any corporate culture, even one as “innovative” as Google, the prevailing synonym for “significant change” is “disruption,” with all of its contingent unpleasant connotations.  If our country is addicted to consumerism, then Google is addicted to that status quo that keeps the rest of us so addicted.  Why should they want that status quo disrupted?)

To be fair to Obama, he is certainly right that this is a problem that goes deeper than stopping the bleeding.  However, if he wants to use that metaphor, he has to recognize that you cannot stop the bleeding until you identify its source.  This is a case where the hemorrhaging is jugular, not the best place to apply the usual preliminary solutions of pressure and tourniquets.  More importantly, it is not a case where you go for a quick palliative solution rather than dealing with the systemic problem before it is too late.  As yaweno put it, our President has been spending too much time listening to the wrong people, probably to the point that the people he should be listening to no longer see any value in talking to him;  and the patient may well die before even the most appropriate triage measures are taken.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Giving the Software Too Much Control

Consider the following image, just snapped from my ATT.NET home page on Yahoo!:
Compare what it says about the current temperature with today’s forecast high.  The obvious question arises:  When was that forecast formulated, and why is it still in place in the face of contrary data?  (For the record, when I look out the window, I see the sun shining on everything in sight.  I see clouds in the sky, but I figure that this would count for “partly” rather than “mostly” cloudy!)  Clearly, the forecast was generated by software (isn’t everything these days?);  but should not software, particularly software put out there as a public service, be subject to that same injunction that Juvenal proposed for any “authority figure” (bearing in mind that he assumed such figures would be human):  Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?  One would think that such sanity checking would be second nature in any large enterprise that depends on software development expertise;  but maybe this is one of those data points that warrants the sorts of things that the doom-sayers are proclaiming about Yahoo! these days.  After all, can you trust any source that is easily contradicted by looking out the window?

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Digital Art

Bill Thompson’s latest piece on the BBC News Web site, on the subject of “digital art,” gets off to a great start:

At a recent conference on the future of the arts in a digital world the opening night panel was asked to name a digital art work that had impressed them.

All stumbled, perhaps unsure of who was doing 'interesting' work in this rapidly changing field, leaving the delegates at the Media Festival/Arts with the sense that digital might not really count as far as they were concerned.

Unfortunately, he then goes on to compensate for the tongue-tied panelists (whom he never names) and decides to take a crack at answering the question himself.  For my part, however, I found myself more interested in why such a seemingly innocuous question should have been so problematic.

By way of a disclaimer, I have to say that, after many years of sitting on both sides of the table for such events, I find just about all panel discussions to be highly counterproductive.  A panel is rarely anything other than a platform on which a collection of egos can strut.  As such it rarely throws any informative light on the topic being discussed and is at its most entertaining when the boredom of self-preening is disrupted by a heated difference of opinion.  When the panelists are all full-fledged citizens of the world the Internet has made, any available light is further dimmed by a lack of context, particularly historical context, behind any propositions that are asserted (by those with enough linguistic coherence to get beyond meandering and get down to actually hypothesizing or asserting).

There is a good chance that the panelists at this particular event, with its emphasis on art in the age of digital media, could easily have been oblivious to a favorite mantra of the man who may be regarded as the grandfather of media studies, Marshall McLuhan.  The mantra is one that he supposedly picked up on Bali, where he claimed that people said, “We have no art, we do everything as best as we can.”  As a young student I had the usual gee-whiz reaction to this declaration.  Now I realize that it comes close to one of my own hobby-horses and may explain why the question put to the panel so flummoxed them.

Assuming that McLuhan’s account is a faithful one, it strikes me that his Balinese informants had an appreciation for the distinction between the world of nouns and the world of verbs that McLuhan may not have explicitly considered (either when he was in Bali or in any of his subsequent writing).  As I discovered on my own visit, there are lots of Balinese who are very skilled in fashioning artifacts in a variety of media;  but it took me a while to appreciate the extent to which the act of fashioning was more important than the resulting artifact.  Ironically, the lesson was staring me in the face during my visit;  but it took me about a decade to realize what I had learned.

My education took place during a visit to Ubud, an inland village (far from the madding beach crowd) that was home to a community of wood carvers.  When one of those carvers thought we were not impressed with the pieces in his shop, he invited us upstairs to see where the work was actually done.  The first thing I saw in his workspace was a pack of wooden coyotes, all exquisite copies of those Mexican carvings that became popular when urban centers like New York discovered southwest art (many of them making the discovery while going to the Santa Fe Opera, as my wife and I had done).  I pointed at the coyotes.  The carver smiled.  He told me that another American had come to him with a photograph (which he showed me) and asked, “Can you make these?”  The results were now there in great array, all howling at a desert moon halfway around the world.

To an American this might be little more than another story about the extent of the knock-off business progressing from Gucci handbags to Southwest American folk art.  For the carver, however, it was nothing more than the recognition that any “art” (if the word can be used at all) was in the act of carving, regardless of what artifact emerged from the act.  His personal identity was one with the verb-based world of working the wood;  and what the noun-based result of that work happened to signify, whether the reference was to Hindu or Hopi mythology, was virtually irrelevant.

This noun-based misunderstanding of art is as prevalent in the Western world as it is in this remote village in Bali.  In my own writing for, this was particularly evident in my take on The Ninth: Beethoven and the World in 1824 by Harvey Sachs, which was so absorbed in marveling over the artefactual qualities of Ludwig van Beethoven’s final symphony that it lost all track of what I called “a sense of Beethoven as a ‘man at work,’” even if that sense got to the real heart of Beethoven’s own identity.  In our own culture, of course, the resulting artifact has assumed more relevance than any of the artifacts of that Balinese carver;  but too much attention to the artifact still distracts from the fact that, where music is involved, the heart of the experience will always be in the making (both compositing and performing) and the listening, both of which are semantically anchored in verbs, rather than nouns.

From this point of view, any question to the panel about “a digital art work that had impressed them” is, by its very nature, seriously misplaced.  One might better ask which, if any artists, have created lasting impressions based on work with digital media (and it might even be fairer if, in the Balinese tradition, the noun “artists” were replaced with the more general “individuals”).  For example, from a verb-based point of view, I have been thoroughly delighted with some footage I have seen of David Hockney doing finger-painting on his iPhone, even if I could care less whether or not any of the results end up on the walls of gallery or museum here in San Francisco.  Ironically, Hockney’s name never came up in Thompson’s piece, either in his account of the panel or in his own efforts to take on the problematic question put to them.

The subtitle of McLuhan’s Understanding Media book was The Extensions of Man.  The significance of that title seems to have been overshadowed by the title of the first chapter of the book, which is the sentence most associated with McLuhan, “Medium Is the Message.”  (Note that this phrase is frequently distorted by inserting “The” at the beginning.)  I would argue that this noun-based focus on “message” is far less important in understanding McLuhan than is the verb-based question of how media have come to extend the capabilities of “man the message maker.”  Perhaps that is because the extensions have now overwhelmed any thoughts about just what messages we want to make.

Getting Better

I was glad to see that Alex Ross put up an “It gets better” post on his The Rest is Noise blog.  Given the extent of his eclectic musical tastes,  I would assume that Ross recognizes the “family resemblance” of this to the variant “They do get better.”  The latter is, after all, an assessment of the performance quality of the band Wyld Stallyns, which certainly has earned itself a unique place in music history.  (Those who find that last sentence too cryptic can follow the preceding hyperlink!)

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Returning to an Old Friend

One of the most painful decisions I had to make in our "downsizing" move from a house in Palo Alto to a condominium unit in San Francisco involved giving up a sizable collection of vinyl recordings and the turntable for playing them.  Once it was clear that there would not be a good place for the turntable, the sacrifice of the vinyls became an unfortunate corollary.  There are a few losses that I occasionally regret, particularly in the domain of early music;  but, for the most part, I have managed to find the CDs to make up for the vinyl losses on an "on demand" basis.

The most recent compensation has been of the Deutsche Grammophon complete recording of Franz Liszt's Annés de Pèlerinage.  While my interest in Liszt tends to be about as variable as the repertoire of his compositions, I have to accept the fact that he has a lot of enthusiastic supporters here in San Francisco.  Thus, if I am going to write fairly about performances by those supporters, I should keep myself well informed on the repertoire and try to do so through recordings by performers I know and respect.

The Deutsche Grammophon recording was made by Lazar Berman in 1977.  Both my wife and I had been following Berman's performances before we met, and we saw him together at one of his Carnegie Hall recitals.  However, neither of us encountered much awareness of him in the United States outside New York.  Nevertheless, among the pianists I have heard perform, he made a deep impression on me for an approach to Liszt that could tap into the virtuosity and the broad spectrum of emotions without compromising the technical discipline that established a clear sense of control, rather than wild abandon.

I suppose the occasion that triggered my decision to recover Berman's complete Années de Pèrelinage set was last week's student piano recital at the San Francisco Conservatory, at which one of the students took on Liszt's "fantasia quasi sonata," "Après une Lecture de Dante," from the “second year” of this collection.  In terms of clock time, this is the most massive composition in the entire set;  and, while it is based on only two subjects (as I observed in my account), it would be fair to say that Liszt milks each of those subjects to death (an appropriate metaphor given the inspiration from Dante's extended meditation on the afterlife).  I still have problems getting my own head around the excesses of this piece, which I take as a sign that my listening experiences need to be reinforced.  It thus seemed natural that I turn to Berman for that reinforcement, and I have to say that I am delighted to have him back in my personal collection of recordings.

Monday, October 18, 2010


Yes, I know it is really early in the week;  and thinking about the Chutzpah of the Week award runs the risk of being premature.  However, this one is too good to resist for a variety of reasons.  It concerns a recent decision made by Mike Leigh to decline an invitation to teach at the Sam Spiegel Film & TV School in Jerusalem.  Dave Itzkoff documented Leigh’s justification on his ArtsBeat blog for The New York Times as follows:

Mr. Leigh wrote that he “always had serious misgivings about coming,” adding that he almost canceled after an incident in May in which Israeli commandos raided a Gaza-bound flotilla. The “last straw,” Mr. Leigh wrote, was the proposal of legislation by the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, requiring that Israeli citizens pledge a loyalty oath to the “nation-state of the Jewish people.”

Mr. Leigh added that these and other actions by the Israeli government had left him “in an untenable position, which I must confront according to my conscience.”

Under most circumstances this could simply be accepted as an act of conscience;  but what makes this particular episode interesting is the way in which Israeli filmmaker Renen Schorr, director of the Spiegel School, chose to respond to Leigh’s statement:

Mr. Schorr wrote to Mr. Leigh in a letter dated Oct. 15, “I am certain that the decision is sincere and that it reflects your detailed, legitimate political views,” but added, “Boycotts and ostracism are the antithesis of dialogue.”

Mr. Schorr wrote that “the public will interpret your decision as indicating an irrevocable rift between us, a boycott of Israel, and a rebuke of its current and future artists.”

“To me,” he said, “this is a red line. Thus, I cannot justify your decision.”

Schorr basically escalated Leigh’s rather simple statement of conscience into an insult that required riposte, oblivious to the extent to which this intuitive reflex to counterattack would be fraught with irony.  At the simplest level we have the “surface” reading of Schorr’s motive in his final sentence.  If Leigh was following the dictates of his own conscience, Schorr’s “justification” is at least irrelevant and at most intrusive.  However, the strongest irony lurks in that sentence about dialogue.  Schorr is perfectly correct in asserting that ostracism is antithetical to dialogue, but his own ideological blinders prevent him from recognizing the extent to which that same spirit of ostracism by Israelis continues to undermine any substantive dialogue taking place between them and Palestinians.

In other words Schorr’s primary refutation actually serves to reinforce Leigh’s conscience-based motives.  Leigh turned his rejection letter into a judo-like act of disarming his opponent through his opponent’s own weakness.  In the context of the current volatility of the Middle East, such an act may be appreciated as an act of chutzpah, even if it was not initially conceived as such,.  So, while there is always the possibility that a stronger case will arise later in the week, I am going to stick my neck out and name Leigh as the holder of this week’s Chutzpah of the Week award.

Putting the "Social" Back in Social Networking

Sharif Sakr may be on to something.  Those who do not recognize the name may have missed my “Understanding Misunderstanding” post last week, when I introduced him as the “Technology of Business reporter” for BBC News.  The post was concerned with an article that he wrote about the nature of business communication and the extent to which it may be facilitated by “technologies of simulacra” (my phrase, not his), such as avatars.  Today he has a piece about social software in business settings;  and, while a sample space of two rarely provides a meaningful statistic, what he “may be on to” is the recognition of just how fundamental communication is to the operation of just about any business.  Thus, while last week he considered the question of whether communication through avatars could be as effective as face-to-face encounters, this week he takes on the role of communication through social software in the workplace, thereby shifting the topic into the domain of “knowledge sharing” and “knowledge creation” or innovation.

By way of a case study, he considers Salesforce Chatter and its use by Scancom, a small British business that supplies software products for Blackberry users.  For the Managing Director of this company, Chen Kotecha, efficient software development is critical for the survival of the business.  Products have to be delivered rapidly and flawlessly.  Thus, it is important that any developer who hits a snag be able to leverage the experience of other developers who may have encountered similar problems, particularly when one of those others successfully resolved the problem.  Kotecha believes that Chatter encourages ongoing communication in his facility through which such “knowledge sharing” is enabled.

However, Sakr then takes an interesting twist to address whether or not Scancom constitutes a representative case study.  He considers larger and more sophisticated products, such as the Microsoft Business Productivity Online Suite and encounters skepticism from a representative of the Gartner Group, which puts a lot of effort into dispassionate analysis of new technologies:

"Most corporate collaboration tools are designed by people who aren't socially adept", says Gartner analyst Tom Austin.

"Google and Microsoft are populated by engineers and they are failures at social tools."

Austin's view is perhaps borne out by the fate of Google Wave - an attempt to merge document sharing with social networking, which was abandoned due to lack of interest.

The only way in which I might disagree with Austin is that, where he sees ineptitude, which may just be innocuous, I see psychopathology that reveals itself through painful consequences on an all-too-regular basis.  Indeed, in light of the “It Gets Better” movement that has arisen to counteract the bullying of young homosexuals, for which social software has been poignantly instrumental, I would say that, from the technology point of view, things will keep getting worse.

However, through Austin’s skepticism, Sakr finds his way to the conclusion he should have known from the very beginning, which is that effective communication is more important than efficient technology.  This conclusion is reinforced through one final case study:

Meanwhile, folk at the Centre of Creative Collaboration, a small building near London's King's Cross, are quite proud of the way they do things.

People come here at 10 every Friday morning to drink coffee, share ideas and start collaborative projects - and there have been some real commercial successes.

The Centre is not like social networking, because far from immersing themselves in the distracting babble of daily business, these people deliberately remove themselves from it.

But neither is it like the more 'serious' collaborative tools, because people come here to make new acquantainces rather than stick within a regular trusted team.

The approach is based on 'open innovation' and it is far less structured than any online collaboration tool currently available.

"It's a different process, that's all", says co-founder Brian Condon.

"Just because people are having fun in a pretty informal environment, that doesn't mean they're not creating things that can deliver business advantage."

Perhaps Condon and his colleagues know something the software engineers don't.

With all due respect to Condon, what Sakr “discovered” at this Centre is something that the workplace anthropology literature has known for at least fifteen years, one of the best examples being the chapter on “War Stories” in Talking About Machines:  An Ethnography of a Modern Job by Julian E. Orr.  The “modern job” that Orr studied was that of the technicians who repair copy machines, research conducted under support from Xerox Corporation.  The “War Stories” chapter addresses the same issue of benefitting from shared experiences that was so important to efficient operations at Scancom;  but the Xerox technicians did not need technology to share their stories.  Those stories, for the most part, were exchanged in the “real” social world in which technicians would meet at a bar after work and jaw about what had happened during that day;  and, while it is true that Xerox would later try to harness technology to expand the domain of those conversations from the local bar in (for example) Denver to the entire global community of technicians, it is hard to overestimate the value of a localized communication setting in which the “full bandwidth” of social discourse (whose dimensions extend beyond to the linguistic to the paralinguistic) may be utilized.

Thus, we return to the ground that I had staked out in my “Understanding Misunderstanding” post.  The underlying problem that continues to confront business operations, regardless of the size of the business, concerns effectiveness of communication;  and, from an operational point of view, effectiveness may be evaluated on the basis of how well the communicating parties understand each other.  The bad news is that the “problem of misunderstanding,” as I put it in that earlier post, is not an engineering problem;  but this can also be turned into good news, because it means that those who manage business operations must tend to not only the support technologies that are deployed but also the people who actually use them.  Such attention must recognize that those people are as likely to arrive at their “best work” without technology assistance as with it, which means that the workplace must be a social world that can work both with the available technology and beyond any of its limitations.