Tuesday, November 30, 2010

An Inconvenient Truth about Cyclists

Last May I decided to write a post about the “defiance culture” of cyclists, particularly in urban settings.  It was a response to an Op-Ed piece in The New York Times by Chris Raschka, “Braking Away,” having to do with respecting traffic laws while cycling;  but my own piece also drew upon several comments on the piece addressing both sides of the question behind Raschka’s topic.  I offer this as context for a piece by Gina Kolata in today’s New York Times, which begins with a personal account of a recent bicycle accident (on a country road, rather than in Manhattan).  However, because Kolata is a science writer, she used the incident as a point of departure for a highly informative examination of risk analysis as it pertains to cyclists.

Kolata’s “hook” came from an interview she had previously conducted with exercise physiologist Michael Berry:

With cycling, he said, it’s not if you crash, it’s when.

From this she could proceed to an examination of how individual cyclists perceive the likelihood of an accident, the results of which were remarkably (and perhaps sadly) consistent with the data I drew from Raschka’s piece and its subsequent comments.

Kolata’s primary source for her examination of accident risk in today’s piece is George Loewenstein, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University in both economics and psychology.  Loewenstein’s primary point is that individual risk assessment depends heavily on that individual’s feeling of being in control.  (This strikes me as highly consistent with a technocentric society, which sees technology as the ultimate means for control in any situation.)  The problem is that the bicycle itself offers little by way of control, whether it involves rocks on a country road or a busy city street congested with motor vehicles and pedestrians.  However, the cyclist who accepts the illusion of control is likely to take any number of risks, even when it involves “threading a needle” through those motor vehicles and pedestrians.

Thus, my own conclusion from Kolata’s report is that the greatest hazard that cyclists present in city traffic is their delusional attitude.  By assuming they have more control than they actually do in a dense social setting, they pose a danger to all those around them, motorists, pedestrians, and probably other cyclists.  Sadly, this is not a problem that can be solved by putting in more bike lanes, since the constraints imposed by those bike lanes do not figure in the cyclist’s personal sense of risk any more than traffic lights do.  The real difficulty is that no large American city has been designed for the “peaceful coexistence” of pedestrians, cyclists, and motorists;  and the result is that the pendulum swings from “acceptance of the other” to defiant rage on all parts.  About a month after my post on Rascha’s piece, San Francisco experienced a particularly extreme manifestation of that rage involving a motorist and four cyclists.  Kolata’s piece tended to concentrate on the personal psychology of the cyclist and what happens when an accident refutes that illusory sense of control.  Perhaps her next study should deal with the social side of this story as it pertains to the coexistence of these different modes of transportation on city streets.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Imitating Casals

Recently I have been writing on Examiner.com about the distinction between imitation and reproduction in the performance of music.  I recently wrote that “imitation does not aspire to ‘authentic reproduction,’ because it is more concerned with conveying the significance of that which is being imitated, rather than simply ‘duplicating’ it.”  I realized this morning that this distinction may also apply to a story I discussed back in January of 2009 in which cellist Bernard Greenhouse (formerly of the Beaux Arts Trio) talked about learning “how to improvise in Bach” from Pablo Casals.  Casals began an extended series of lessons by requiring Greenhouse to reproduce, as accurately as possible, his own performance of a movement from one of the solo cello suites.  This took a considerable amount of time and was executed without the benefit of any recording equipment, but Casals wanted Greenhouse to internalize the fact that what he heard was the way to perform this movement.

Eventually, Greenhouse mastered this task and could basically play along with Casals in perfect unison.  Then Casals shifted the lesson to how one could depart from this “standard” in the interests of inventive improvisation.  At the time I concluded that Casals was trying to teach Greenhouse how to be a better listener, because listening was a prerequisite skill for improvising.  However, I think there may have been an equally valid perspective, which is that one cannot find one’s own interpretation of a performance until one has the ability to reproduce another interpretation.  In other words one needs the skill of reproduction in order to master the skill of imitation.  This proposition is still in the conjecture stage but clearly needs further consideration!

Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Malice of Ignorance

Whatever we may say about WikiLeaks and its editor-in-chief Julian Assange, they certainly have come up with a unique way to raise our consciousness about verb tense.  Their announcement to make public what they call the “Embassy cables” has forced our State Department to enable a phrase which I recently quoted from Alfred Schutz:  “to place ourselves mentally in a future state of affairs which we consider as already realized.”  Suddenly the State Department finds itself deep in the throes of what Schutz called “thinking in the future perfect tense,” perhaps, in the spirit of Molière’s Monsieur Jourdain, without having the foggiest idea of what the future perfect tense is.

If Assange were doing this for no other reason than to give a grammar lesson to those in power in order to dissuade them from exercising their power recklessly, it would be easy to recognize his announced intentions (his own “thinking in the future perfect tense”) as positive-connotation chutzpah worthy of a Chutzpah of the Week award.  Unfortunately, we do not know what his intentions really are.  Thus, while there may be no doubt about the degree of chutzpah, there are no criteria for assessing the underlying connotation as positive or negative.

This situation is further complicated by the current Administration having campaigned on the promise that the workings of governance needed to become more transparent.  That is but one of many promises that was not kept;  but, given the chronology of WikiLeaks itself, one wonders whether or not Assange has deliberately managed it as a thorn in the side of the Obama White House, a seriously painful reminder of the failure to make good on this promise.  This might further tilt the balance toward positive connotation were it not for the question of just who would feel the pain.  If that pain were focused on specific reckless acts of specific individuals, Assange’s intended action might, indeed, lead to more members of the State Department acting with a level of discretion that, by all rights, should have been the norm;  but there is no focus at all in Assange’s threat.  If we go by the numbers provided this morning in David Dombey’s report for the Financial Times, we are talking about between 250,000 and 400,000 documents scheduled for release;  and, on the basis of the protestations coming from the State Department, there is a good chance that the State Department knows more about what is in those documents than Assange does, since it is hard to imagine Assange having reviewed them all.

This is where the connotation balance swings to the negative.  It is hard to tell just what Assange takes his job description to be.  The “editor-in-chief” description, which Dombey used in his Financial Times piece, can also be found on Assange’s Wikipedia page;  but the Wikipedia page for WikiLeaks itself names him as “director.”  This may be a fine point;  but it is one way to assess the underlying question of WikiLeaks own “code” of behavior.  (I was pleased to see that “A man gotta have a code” has first place in the Web page of Top 10 Quotes from The Wire.)  If Assange is acting in an editorial capacity, then, according to prevailing normative practices of editing, he is responsible for every piece of text he releases for publication.  Since it is unlikely that he has examined every one of those documents whose numbers run to six figures, the act that he is threatening would be viewed as negligent, at least by any other editor who takes his/her work seriously.  As a “director,” on the other hand, he could either delegate this responsibility to someone with professional editing qualifications (recognizing that the buck would still stop at his own desk) or decide that no such individual was necessary, meaning that WikiLeaks was effectively a conduit, simply moving content from a limited-access site to a public one.  My own feeling is that all of these options place Assange in a very negative light.  The chutzpah still stands, but the connotation is unlikely to be positive.

There remains one other way to read the current state of play, which is that Assange has decided to play a game of chicken with the State Department.  This, too, would be an act of chutzpah;  and, while some might see it as a positive act of one lone individual setting himself up against as monstrous bureaucracy whose interests may be questionable more often than not, there is too much brinksmanship going on in global relations right now to allow for the influence of such a wild player.  In other words Assange’s “code” may be that warped version of an old Sixties motto:

If you are not part of the solution, you can make the problem so bad that someone else will finally get around to fixing it.

Unfortunately, Assange’s strategy for calling attention to the problem runs the gamut from perverse to downright dangerous.  I would thus conclude that Assange has attracted enough attention this week to deserve the Chutzpah of the Week award;  but, at least within the norms of my own worldview, the connotation of his chutzpah is decidedly negative.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Adventures in Opera Repertoire

I see from the announcement for The Future is Now, the gala performance by the Adler Fellows of the San Francisco Opera, which will take place this Wednesday, December 1, in Herbst Theatre at 7:30 PM, that countertenor Ryan Belongie will be singing “Venga pur,” Farnace’s aria from the first act of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 87 Mitridate, Re di Ponto.  As one might guess from the Köchel number, this is very early Mozart.  Specifically, he wrote it at the age of fourteen while touring Italy in 1770;  and it was his first effort in the opera seria genre.  There are only two ensemble numbers in the entire opera, the rest being a rather impressive (not to mention lengthy) array of virtuoso arias separated by recitative passages.  The opera received 21 performances at the Regio Ducal Teatro in Milan, after which it was forgotten until the rise of twentieth-century musical scholarship.  My guess is that this music will be unfamiliar to just about everyone in the audience;  but it demonstrates that, even at the age of fourteen, Mozart was no slouch when it came to writing for solo voice.  This is likely to be a promising bit of programming for those who prefer performances that depart from the beaten path.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Poverty as the Mother of Invention

This morning over breakfast I listened to some of Amy Goodman’s interview with Manfred Max-Neef, author of Outside Looking In:  Experiences in Barefoot Economics, on Democracy Now!  Her summary for this segment included the following quote from Max-Neef:

Economists study and analyze poverty in their nice offices, have all the statistics, make all the models, and are convinced that they know everything that you can know about poverty. But they don’t understand poverty.

This is the usual theory-versus-practice argument;  but Max-Neef gave it an interesting twist in the course of the conversation.  He made the point that one thing economists have never bothered to study is the capacity of the poor to invent new strategies for survival.  Since I do not have the transcript, I cannot reproduce his words;  but he said something like, “You can’t be stupid when you are poor and expect to survive.”

This struck me as a sharp piece of irony when we consider the emphasis that economists, along with the rich and mighty whom they serve, place on “innovation” when they attend mutual admiration gatherings, such as the World Economic Forum.  As I have observed in the past, just about any talk about innovation in such settings is reckless, if not downright delusional;  and I continue to regard it as “the moral equivalent of Jonestown Kool-Aid.”  In one of my attacks on this “Davos set,” I proposed two “corollaries” to the familiar precept that necessity is the mother of invention:
  1. We innovate for the sake of satisfying needs.
  2. An innovation is only as good as the price it entails for satisfying that need.
For anyone who is poor, those corollaries probably constitute a pathetic insight into the obvious.  Needs can be reduced to adequate resources for food, clothing, and shelter.  The pursuit of any “creative solution” that does not directly satisfy at least one of those needs is, for all intents and purposes, nothing more than a waste of time.  Furthermore, if the resources available to “invest” in any such solution are limited, you need to make sure that the solution will be worth the commitment of such resources, as well as of time.

I did not listen to enough of the interview to determine whether Max-Neef has had any impact on any of those innovation evangelists who see economics as little more than a set of guidelines for making a fast buck.  I suspect he would be about as welcome at any gathering of such evangelists and their flocks as Muhammad Yunus, who has been as serious about understanding poverty as Max-Neef is.  The challenge that both of these gentlemen face is that those in power really do not want to understand poverty.  They want to keep it at arm’s length, using it for political gain, if they bother to recognize it at all.  However, there will always be the possibility that those poor clever enough to survive may come up with inventions through which the rich and mighty become irrelevant;  so perhaps there is some hope for the future!

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Brahms and Mozart

Writing earlier this morning on Examiner.com about the performances of the music of Johannes Brahms in this week’s subscription concerts by the San Francisco Symphony, I suggested that one of the motives behind Brahms’ first piano concerto (Opus 15 in D minor) may have been to refute, if not attack, the music practices of Franz Liszt, using his first piano concerto in E-flat major as a case in point.  Liszt’s concerto premiered in Weimar in 1855, which puts in in the middle of that period of time Brahms devoted to his own concerto.  It is unclear how much attention Brahms gave to this concerto;  but one could understand that it would have played a role in Brahms coining the adjective “Lisztich” as a synonym for excessive bad taste.

The reason it might have played that role is that Brahms may well have perceived the concerto as an attack on his personal sense of identity.  For better or worse Liszt’s concerto was iconoclastic, and the icon that took the most severe smashing was the concept of the concerto itself as it had developed through the efforts of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven.  From this point of view, Brahms could well have felt that Liszt was undermining his own “presentation of self” (as Goffman put it) as a music-maker.

This would then raise the question of how significant Mozart and Beethoven had been in shaping Brahms’ sense of that “presentation of self.”  There is no question of Beethoven’s role in this process.  I have even described Brahms as having “to live with the influence of Beethoven without succumbing to that influence.”  However, on the basis of the following sentences from Brahms’ Wikipedia entry, we may assume that Mozart’s influence was less of a source of anxiety:

Brahms also loved the Classical composers Mozart and Haydn. He collected first editions and autographs of their works, and edited performing editions.

This has led me to wonder just what performing editions of Mozart were products of Brahms’ editing.  My initial attempt to search for scores in the Library of Congress catalog was not successful, so I am not yet ready with a quick answer.  There is a side of me that wonders whether Brahms’ work on his D minor piano concerto may have been influenced by his preparing a performing edition of Mozart’s concerto in the same key.  (It is hard to imagine that Brahms was not one of the many serious listeners who was most impressed by Mozart when the latter was working in a minor key.)  Hopefully, I shall be able to create some personal research time to investigate this matter further.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010


Fran Lebowitz definitely believes in truth in advertising, at least in the way she presents herself in Martin Scorsese’s documentary Public Speaking, currently airing on HBO.  If Paul Saffo likes to present himself as a purveyor of “strong opinions weakly held,” then Lebowitz clearly believes that, the stronger one’s opinions, the stronger one should hold them, even in the face of refutation.  By adhering to this principle, she may have teased out a diagnosis behind Jennifer Homans’ pessimistic assessment of the current state of ballet.

Lebowitz voices the same pessimism in Scorsese’s film.  However, she does not direct her attack at unimaginative choreography, which constituted the battleground for Claudia La Rocco’s attempt to challenge Homans.  If anything, she seems more sympathetic to my position that the problem resides more in the quality of technique among performers;  but even that requires an explanation.  According to Lebowitz, the real problem is that audiences, particularly for the New York City Ballet, are not what they used to be.

Where things get controversial is in her explanation for why this is the case:  The most discriminating connoisseurs who constituted the heart of the audience in the New York State Theater all died of AIDS.  If we then proceed beyond Lebowitz’ hypothesis to the underlying explanation provided by Randy Shilts’ And the Band Played On:  Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic, we can conclude that the core audience responsible for the high standards of the New York City Ballet was killed off by the combination of negligence and incompetence in our government’s initial response to the onset of the AIDS crisis.

The result is that ours is now a culture of middle-brow thinking, whether in a “culture center” like New York or “middle America.”  Such thinking now dominates in the absence of any forces to make the case that there is anything better (and justifiable).  The result is that all of the creative arts has now fallen victim to the “management class” of organizations such as the World Economic Forum, more interested in audience numbers than in the quality of what is presented to those audiences.  As I observed last February, there are, of course, institutions of learning at which students (and their teachers) can find refuge from this debilitated mindset;  but those institutions are as vulnerable as those for the creative and performing arts.  In our last Gilded Age we had the benefit of those with the presence of mind to apply their ill-gotten gains to philanthropy for the arts.  The current generation cannot see beyond economic growth as a motivation for any action, simply because those who used to see the value in “seeing beyond” are no longer part of our culture.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Sir Tim Rules the Waves (of digital communication)

I find it unpleasantly ironic that, on the day after I filed my obituary piece about Chalmers Johnson and his efforts to stem the combined tides of American imperialists and purveyors of mind rot to impede efforts of the general public to think for themselves, I should encounter an imperialist manifesto in, of all places, Scientific American.  This, of course, is not how things appear on the surface.  The title of the article in question is “Long Live the Web: A Call for Continued Open Standards and Neutrality;”  and the author is Tim Berners-Lee, writing on the occasion of the twentieth anniversary of the launch of the World Wide Web.  The letter of his text embraces principles that many readers are likely to find admirable;  but the spirit is that of nineteenth-century Britain, a time of an unholy alliance of “Enlightenment rationalism” with imperialist statecraft so unbridled that the sun had no place to set over the British Empire.

I thus advise readers to give serious thought to Berners-Lee’s visions and proposals but then to consider the impact of his final paragraph:

Now is an exciting time. Web developers, companies, governments and citizens should work together openly and cooperatively, as we have done thus far, to preserve the Web’s fundamental principles, as well as those of the Internet, ensuring that the technological protocols and social conventions we set up respect basic human values. The goal of the Web is to serve humanity. We build it now so that those who come to it later will be able to create things that we cannot ourselves imagine.

The underlying problem with Berners-Lee’s manifesto is that those who engage objective teleological rationality to arrive at utility commodities, such as the World Wide Web, inevitably ignore the “self-evident truth” that the social world that actually engages those utilities is not the same as the objective world that produced them.  Thus, while it is easy to employ the noun “humanity,” those who build often fall into the trap of equating it with “people like us.”  Such tunnel vision misses out on all sorts of unanticipated consequences, which, in the case of the World Wide Web, can usually be grouped under the rubric of malware.

The very concept of “humanity” is a product of Western rationalism, which assumes that there is some useful category that serves as an umbrella over a vast array of radically different instances.  (This is the same problem that Ludwig Wittgenstein examined in the difficulty of defining the word “game.”)  Each of those “instances of humanity” has a different set of culturally-induced values that reflects an equally different set of interpretations of just what it means to be served.  This does not sit well with the missionary zeal of the builders, particularly when their greatest aspiration is that the next generation of builders “will be able to create things that we cannot ourselves imagine.”

Because of its diversity, however, the social world has always been more robust than the objective world.  However, to the consternation of those in the objective world, the behavior of the social world is rarely teleological, at least in any straightforward manner.  Perhaps those who understand this best are the Zen sages who live by the precept that those who try to change the world only make things worse.  On this anniversary the best I can wish to Sir Tim is that he be visited by the ghost of Ronald Reagan, who will ask him, “Are you better off now than you were twenty years ago?”

Monday, November 22, 2010

Losing Chalmers Johnson

It was only by reading Tom Englehardt’s obituary on the Web site for The Nation that I learned that Chalmers Johnson died on Saturday.  There is no sense in my repeating any of the praises that Engleghardt heaped on Johnson, which are based on far more extensive experiences than my own.  From a more personal point of view, I was never able to get any closer to him than a Book TV broadcast of one of his talks;  but this was enough to convince me that he was as compelling a speaker as he was a writer.

I see from my records that I have not written about him lately.  As a matter of fact, the last time I cited him was during Barack Obama’s Presidential campaign, when I referred to Obama’s “AIPAC debut” as “his first serious encounter with the blowback effect.”  To this day I have no idea how much Obama has read of Johnson’s “Blowback Trilogy” (BlowbackThe Sorrows of Empire and Nemesis).  However, I do know that I took a lot of flack from Obama supporters during the campaign for taking Obama to task for his compromising position toward AIPAC, on the grounds that my critical remarks would only benefit the Republicans.  Today it seems as if Obama has become just as much an imperialist as Bush ever was, and we need look no further than his NATO remarks over the weekend.

However, it was not Johnson’s warnings about imperialism that had the greatest appeal to me.  Rather, it was his understanding about the need for quality writing to stave off the dangers of mind rot and, specifically, his application of that understanding to taking on the likes of Ken Burns.  I encountered this side of Johnson in the book review he prepared for Truthdig concerning the posthumously-published book by David Halberstam about the Korean War, The Coldest Winter.  The best way for me to honor Johnson is to cite the passage I quoted when I wrote about his review:

One aspect of Halberstam’s commitment as a historian and the consequent effect on his writing must be dealt with at the outset and then put aside. That is what he conceives of as his duty to present a populist portrayal of the ordinary soldier in day-to-day, sometimes hand-to-hand, combat and endless homilies on courage, fear, leadership, stamina, cowardice and any other emotions and qualities that might be encountered on the battlefield. I call this the Ken Burns-Tom Brokaw school of writing, hero worship, Great Generationism and military narcissism. Even in ordinary doses it is unimaginably tedious and boring. The amount of it in this 700-page book sometimes generated in me a deep regret that I had agreed to write this review.

I quoted that passage almost exactly three years ago;  and, if the quality of writing on Public Television has changed at all since then, it has only become more narcissistic.  I suppose that means that Johnson’s efforts to sound alarms about writing were no more effective than those about our descent into imperialism, but he kept trying to make his points as long as he could put them in writing.  His shoes will be hard to fill.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Just in Time for Hanukkah

I have to confess that I sometimes surprise myself with what I find in my (rather massive) collection of CDs.  This morning I “discovered” Treyf 1929 a CD released by (the presumably Italian, in spite of its name) El Gallo Rojo Records of a group calling itself the Meshuge Klezmer Band.  I have no idea how this got into my collection;  but, on the basis of its 2005 date, I suspect it was something that caught my eye in a mailing from the Downtown Music Group.

Trying to find out about this group was no mean feat.  The album has a listing on Amazon.com but only for MP3 downloads of its six tracks.  No information about the album, the group, or any of the tracks is provided.  For that one must go to the group’s Web site, which is only in Italian.  As a result I think I have now had my first serious encounter with using Google Translate.

While there were definitely some speed bumps in the translation, I was able to discover that this album was “born from the discovery of two old records in a basement in Hester Street, New York, at the time still [the] beating heart of the Ashkenazi Jewish migration” from Eastern Europe.  Whether or Meshuge performs on top of those records or simply seeks to reconstruct the experience of listening to them remains a mystery;  but that experience includes that characteristically scratchy sound we associate with old vinyls (not to mention old shellac 78s).  Most of the tracks are listed as “Traditional;”  but the two “composed” selections bear the names of two of the major figures in Yiddish music in New York in the Forties and Fifties:  Naftule Brandwein and Mickey Katz.  (Katz, the father of Joel Grey, would later establish himself in the novelty market with Yiddish takeoffs on popular songs.  The one I remember best was “The Ballad of Duvid Crockett,” which begins, “Born in the wilds of Delancy Street,/ Home of gefilte fish and kosher meat.”)  One of the Brandwein tracks, “Oy Tate S’iz Gut” (Oh, Daddy, That’s Good!) seems to be pretty popular with the new klezmer movement;  but I have not yet done enough research to determine whether the thematic lapse into “Caravan” is traditional or Meshuge’s particular brand of mishegoss.

Nevertheless, it seemed appropriate to write about this CD with Hanukkah just around the corner, since the one Katz selection is “Grandma’s Draidel.”  (The misspelling of “dreidel” on the track listing may be an artifact of how Italians have chosen to spell this particular Yiddish word.)  As mishegoss goes I find the full album relatively mild.  However, in the age of the 99-cent download, the Katz track may be suitable for opening presents on the first night of Hanukkah.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Rehearsing and the Future Perfect Tense

One of the interesting consequences of my reading the papers of Alfred Schutz is that he says things that send me back to past things I have written.  Consider the following passage from his paper, “The Problem of Rationality in the Social World:”

The image of a dramatic rehearsal of future action used by Professor Dewey is a very fortunate one.  Indeed, we cannot find out which of the alternatives will lead to the desired end without imagining this act as already accomplished.  So we have to place ourselves mentally in a future state of affairs which we consider as already realised, though to realise it would be the end of our contemplated action.  Only by considering the act as accomplished can we judge whether the contemplated means of bringing it about are appropriate or not, or whether the end to be realised accommodates itself to the general plan of our life.  I like to call this technique of deliberation “thinking in the future perfect tense”.

Back in 2008, when I was reading John Dewey’s Art as Experience, one passage jumped out at me in relation to my thoughts about “rehearsal:”

As the writer composes in his medium of words what he wants to say, his idea takes on for himself perceptible form.

Here is how I reacted to that text at that time:

This is very much the spirit in which I launched this blog in the first place. While language may not be the embodiment of ideas, ideas only achieve functional value when they are made sharable; and they can only be made sharable once they are rendered in some "perceptible form." That perceptible form may not necessarily involve language (which is one of the key points that Dewey develops in Art as Experience); but, at least in the history of Western civilization (such as it is), text has probably become the most popular of perceptible forms when it comes to sharing ideas. Hence the motivation behind the title of this blog: a place where I can "rehearse" ideas by composing them in the medium of words. This "rehearsal" is not just for the benefit of those who choose to read my words; it is also for my own benefit, as I wrestle with the process of composition to bring the idea to a point where it is as perceptible to me as it is to others, after which my attention can shift from wrestling with the text to wrestling with the idea.

From this point of view, rehearsal is not only a matter of thinking in the future perfect tense but also a means by which those thoughts assume that “perceptible form.”  The future perfect is a hypothesized future, which may never emerge as an “actual” future.  Thinking in the future perfect is thus an “art” of reasoning about hypotheses as if they were true, because the reasoning that ensues is more important than the hypotheses themselves.

Lydia Davis escalated this interest in the future perfect to a higher level by dealing with the infinitive form of this construct.  This led me to conclude that the very construct of the future perfect infinitive was a product “of prior generations trying to come to grips with the complexity of their own thoughts in such a way that others could effectively understand those thoughts.”  This “coming to grips” may also be construed as a matter of rehearsal.  We are always having thoughts.  It is hard to imagine our not having any thoughts at all, although I suppose that this is an ideal to which Zen aspires.  The problem is that we do not know what to do with all the thoughts we have.  Schutz’ concept of “thinking in the future perfect tense” offers a guideline which amounts to rehearsing how we can put our thoughts to use.

Jacques Derrida had his own occupation with the future perfect.  We encounter it in the rambling “Outwork” essay in Dissemination, in which he tries to “come to grips” with the concept of a preface.  When I wrote about this essay last month, I suggested that it could be reduced to a relatively simple question:  Why would you say what you are going to say when you have already said it?  I then suggested that another mind would not necessarily understand what you said unless it was endowed with a system of perceptual categories similar to your own.  From this I concluded:

From this point of view, writing a preface is a strategy for making sure that the reader has those categories that are prerequisite for making sense of the text to follow.  Thus, it is less a matter of saying what you are going to say and more one and more one of inducing a set of perceptual categories in the reader such that, when you get around to “saying it,” the reader can then figure out what you “mean.”

I would now carry this one step further.  The preface not only provides the categories but allows (if not obliges) the reader to rehearse working with (or coming to grips with) those categories.

Tempting as all this may sound, I should now make a confession.  I cannot yet honestly say that I have come to grips with Derrida’s “Outwork” essay!  It is a text that almost forcibly resists sustained attention, and I am willing to guess that this may be part of Derrida’s strategy as the writer of this text.  Thus, rather than plug my way through that text, I make ventures into other texts (such as those of Schutz and Friederich Nietzsche), which, in ways I cannot really explain, empower me to return to Derrida.  To some extent I may be following the advice that the Bøyg gives to Peer Gynt in Henrik Ibsen’s play, “Go roundabout!”  As I put it the last time I invoked this literary reference:

It is through a roundabout course that we encounter aspects of the account we seek that we may not have considered, because we thought they had nothing to do with the point we were predisposed to make.

Derrida clearly wants to undermined reader predispositions.  The reader who undermines Derrida by way of a “roundabout” path through other texts may actually be getting into the spirit of his game;  and perhaps reading Derrida’s text has more to do with game playing than with “knowledge sharing!”  As with any game, “practice makes perfect;”  and what is rehearsal is not an act of such practicing?

Friday, November 19, 2010


Chutzpah is about as normative in Italian culture as it is for the Israelis.  Thus, I have never really considered a Chutzpah of the Week award for Silvio Berlusconi, just because even his most outrageous acts always seem to be little more than business as usual over there.  It seemed more appropriate to give an award to Erik Gandini for taking on Berlusconi in his Videocracy documentary.  On the other hand there are lower echelons of Italian governance that can still rise to levels of chutzpah, and today the BBC reported news of such a level involving trying to stick a fast one to the European Union:

The organisers of an Elton John concert in Italy have been told to pay back the money they used to stage the event.

The 720,000 euros (£613,000) came from the European Union as part of a fund to enhance regional development in the Campania region.

Sir Elton was the headline act at a festival in Naples last year.

The European Commission only recently discovered that some of its funds had been used to stage the gig by one of the biggest names in music.

When we consider all of the different instances of corruption that have come down to us from Naples, one might say that the city has lived its life like a candle in its uncollected garbage.  Still, this came down to trying to bilk the EU out of a pretty healthy piece of change;  and I think that the organizers can be honored with a Chutzpah of the Week award without casting any asparagus at Sir Elton!

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Enduring Miles

I have to confess that I have gotten hooked on the ability to track Google Analytics data on my Examiner.com articles.  I am not sure this will change either what I write or how I write it, but it has led to some interesting observations.  For example I was not surprised to see a significant bump up in page views after my account of Rufus Wainwright’s appearance with the San Francisco Symphony got posted.  I pretty much took it for granted that there were far more Google Alerts out their for Wainwright than there were for the Symphony;  and I had no problem with benefitting from his popularity, even if my view of his performance was a pretty dim one.  More surprising, however, was that my review of the early music group Voices of Music was almost as popular as the Wainwright piece.  Then I found out that Voices of Music has a “Facebook presence;”  and their Facebook site included a link to my piece.  This was probably the first time I could say something positive about the “Facebook effect!”

The biggest surprise, however, came from all those Miles Davis fans out there.  At the end of October, SFJAZZ presented a concert called Bitches Brew Revisited;  and the music historian in me did not want to pass up that opportunity.  Given that the original Bitches Brew double album was a product of studio technology through and through, I was really blown away with what this live performance did with the source material.  We are now past the middle of November, and my report on that performance is still getting page views.  Now I find myself curious as to whether or not, over a longer statistical interval, Miles will always surpass Rufus.  I sure hope so!

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

(Mis)Understanding Ballet

The years I spent studying and reviewing ballet and modern dance have been ancient history for quite some time.  Nevertheless, I wonder if I am going to have to bite the bullet and read Jennifer Homans’ new book, Apollo's Angels: A History of Ballet.  I have now watched Homans take it on the chin from reviewers annoyed with her throwing down a gauntlet that allegedly proclaims the death of ballet.  For example, thanks to Alex Ross’ latest blog post, I came across the following paragraph, introducing a review by Claudia La Rocco for the Slate Magazine Web site:

Ballet is dying. Maybe already dead. Impossible, you say, I've got tickets to a show! Alas, dear reader, I've just learned the grim diagnosis in Apollo's Angels: A History of Ballet, Jennifer Homans' account of the classical tradition. Pack up your toe shoes, ballerinas. Shutter the theaters, artistic directors. "The occasional glimmer of a good performance or a fine dancer is not a ray of future hope but the last glow of a dying ember," Homans declares in her epilogue. "Apollo and his angels are understood and appreciated by a shrinking circle of old believers in a closed corner of culture."

I read this review in its entirety.  It struck me that La Rocco chose to challenge Homans primarily on the grounds that the art of choreography did not die with George Balanchine and Frederick Ashton;  and, to the extent that I have tried to follow what has been happening in ballet, I think that the examples she has chosen are credible, if not admirable.  Nevertheless, some of my more consistent readers probably know that Balanchine and Ashton are, respectively, the Son and Holy Ghost of my personal Trinity of modern ballet, whose Father is indisputably Michel Fokine.

At the very least I have to ask just how much of a sense of history La Rocco brings to her critique of a volume whose objective is itself historical.  After that I must then ask to what extent La Rocco equates ballet with the work of choreographers, as opposed to the “work practices” of dancers.  This latter category, of course, covers a lot of ground, beginning with the commitment to study and then proceeding through the necessary day-to-day training into the painstaking details of rehearsal culminating in performances.  For an art form that prompts so many to evoke metaphors of the ephemeral, this is damned heavy stuff.  If La Rocco’s own experience with “the work itself” is indirect, then she better have come to her conclusions with the skill set of an experienced anthropologist, no matter how many reviews she may have written from the audience side.

While I, myself, would not argue that ballet is dead, I feel obliged to note that the fragment that La Rocco quotes in her review does not quite make that assertion.  Writing as a past performer, Homans asserts that what she learned to be “good performance” may now be “the last glow of a dying ember;”  and, from this point of view, I know exactly what she is saying.  When I was writing about ballet, I took the trouble to take “adult beginners” classes;  and, while I was absolutely dreadful in those experiences, I persisted.  In many ways it was my first venture into studying the processes of work practices and my recognition that the artifacts of choreography could not be equated with those practices.  To apply the well-worn analogy, I knew I would never be able to lay an egg;  but I became pretty good at assessing whether the one I was eating was a fresh one.

One reason I do not spent a lot of time going to ballet is that most of the eggs I have encountered recently have been pretty stale.  I do not object to the choreographers La Rocco cites for her counterexamples, but nothing about the execution of any of that choreography appeals to me.  Some time after Balanchine’s death there seemed to emerge a tendency to relax the demands on what dancers were expected to know by way of basic technique, as if the images of the choreography mattered more than the execution of the steps.  Every now and then I see an example that reminds me that this respect for technique is not altogether dead, but I have decided that there are better ways to spend my time than to search out those few examples.  The result is that I have chosen the easy way out of this sad situation:  I now focus my attention on musicians who can exhibit their appreciation of the subtleties of performance rather than get frustrated with dancers who no longer seem to care to do so.

Asking the Wrong Question

The title of Michael Tomasky’s piece for the new (December 9) issue of The New York Review of Books is “Can Obama Rise Again?”  His analysis of the decline of Barack Obama’s popularity and effectiveness is cast in a critical examination of two recent books, Herding Donkeys:  The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics by Ari Berman and The Mendacity of Hope:  Barack Obama and the Betrayal of American Liberalism by Roger D. Hodge.  At the very least Tomasky provides a lot of valuable context for any reader interested in approaching either of these books.  From my point of view, however, the greatest value in his context is the implication that he is probably asking the wrong question in his title.

What is at stake is neither Obama’s popularity nor the strength of the Democratic Party.  The real question is whether those Americans desperately seeking reform in a country that has undermined any sense of security in day-to-day life, whether it involves health care, education, or even fear of inadequate “homeland security,” will have a candidate in any future election for whom they are willing to vote.  By its very nature progressivism has always been anathema to established power, and the Supreme Court has now allowed that established power unbridled use of financial resources to demonize both the ideas of progressivism and the candidates who embrace those ideas.  In other words, the punch line of The American Ruling Class, both Lewis Lapham’s book and John Kirby’s documentary (“Why change City Hall when you can buy it?”), has become more significant in the domain of national politics.

Our country has had a legacy of political parties whose name began with the adjective “progressive.”  One of the earliest even had the backing of a former Republican President, who basically became fed up with what his party was doing.  Unfortunately, our electoral process has deteriorated to a stage in which third-party interests seem to function only as spoilers, rather than as coalition-builders.  This, itself, is part of that status quo that “the American Ruling Class” wishes to preserve, often by spending massive funds that might otherwise benefit the public welfare.

Hodge’s point is that the real “hope” that Obama evoked was that, in the midst of so much adversity, progressivism could still find a voice.  The tragedy is that this hope was held out only to attract voters and was dashed in the earliest months of the new Administration.  That adversity is now stronger than ever, and Max Weber’s risks of loss of meaning and loss of freedom are no longer potential.  They have become the “new reality;”  and any talk of “hope” towards changing that reality is just another casualty in that pile of lost meanings.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

For Serious Capitalists, "Green" Has Only One Meaning!

Josh Lowensohn’s account of this year’s meeting of Microsoft shareholder began with the following item:

At Microsoft's annual shareholder meeting this morning, shareholders voted down a proposal that would create a board committee on environmental sustainability.

The committee, which Microsoft's board members had advised shareholders to vote against, would have put into place a group that would assess Microsoft's energy use, waste disposal, as well as take into consideration things like natural resource limitations. The committee would then share this information with both Microsoft's board and the company's shareholders.

As the rest of Lowensohn’s report indicates, there was a fair amount of grumbling about return-on-investment is a variety of agenda items;  but this makes for a useful indicator of the capitalist view of environmentalism.  Lowensohn cited other companies that have been more amenable, such as Intel and Monsanto;  so this vote may have more to do with general discontent about Microsoft performance.  Nevertheless, if Microsoft treats environmentalism as a luxury that it cannot afford, how many other major corporations are likely to make the same decision?

Monday, November 15, 2010

How Business Inhibits Democracy

This morning’s post to NYRBlog by William Easterly and Laura Freschi offers an informative, if depressing, appendix to Easterly’s article in the latest New York Review, “Foreign Aid for Scoundrels.”  The opening paragraph, which includes a hyperlink to Easterly’s article, is a useful compression of the entire argument:

Foreign aid observers have often worried that Western aid to Africa is propping up autocratic regimes. Yet seldom has such a direct link from aid to political repression been demonstrated as in “Development without Freedom,” an extensively documented new report on Ethiopia by Human Rights Watch. Based on interviews with 200 people in 53 villages and cities throughout the country, the report concludes that the Ethiopian government, headed by prime minister Meles Zenawi, uses aid as a political weapon to discriminate against non-party members and punish dissenters, sending the population the draconian message that “survival depends on political loyalty to the state and the ruling party.”

This lays the groundwork for the question expressed by the title of the post, “Why Are We Supporting Repression in Ethiopia?”

Easterly’s article makes it clear what the answer to this question used to be:  A repressive anti-Communist government is better than any government with the slightest inclination towards Communism.  However, with the end of the Cold War, this old question deserves a new answer;  and, as usual, the answer comes from following the money.

One of the major sources of that money is the World Bank, and it is clear that both the blog post and Easterly’s article see the World Bank as contributing more to the problem than to any solution.  Neither of these sources, however, tries to assess why this might be the case.  Yet, as we continue to struggle through our economic crisis and question the recovery strategies of our government, we really ought to consider a paraphrase on one of Clinton’s most effective slogans:

It’s the banks, stupid!

The priority of every bank intent on staying in business is a good return-on-investment.  The World Bank is an institution formed by and managed by the “rich and mighty;”  and the rich and mighty tend to believe that their investments can only pay off if they are calling the shots.  Thus, they would rather support ineffective but powerful puppets, rather than democratic institutions that might invest in solutions that are not in the best interests of World Bank members.  This leads to rather perverted statistics of economic growth that ignore any deterioration of public welfare.

However, there is more to the argument than just the desire to maintain control.  Whenever we find one of these repressive states, we almost always discover that it controls some resource that our business leaders need.  Thus, the real beneficiaries of World Bank are those businesses that need cheap and secure flows of those resources;  and those flows are best maintained by puppets whose only priority is to impede any democratic processes that might interfere with those flows.  Thus, the real answer to the question posed by the blog title is the usual one:

It’s good for business!

Beyond Harry Potter

I have no trouble confessing that I have never been a fan of either the books or movies about the adventures of Harry Potter.  Indeed, I was sufficiently impressed with the way in which Harold Bloom took on the novels during an interview with Ray Suarez on NewsHour back in 2002, that I appropriated his summary phrase as a title for one of my blog posts, “Just a Piece of Goo.”  I have therefore been interested in the way in which Daniel Radcliffe has been preparing himself for “life after Potter.”  Putting his stake in the ground with Equus was definitely a good way to make a firm move against type-casting;  but now he seems to be charting a course into the world of light entertainment.

This may turn out to be a good thing, because his idea of “light entertainment” seems to have more to do with wit than with easy gags.  Thus, he is down to play the leading role of J. Pierrepont Finch in a revival of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, with songs that remind us just how clever Abe Burrows could be in coming up with lyrics.  (I would hazard a guess that Bloom would take more pleasure from a single page out of any Oxford anthology of light verse than he would from any one of J. K. Rowling’s publications.  If Burrows has not yet been anthologized by the Oxford University Press, then his appearance in one of their volumes is long overdue.)  However, as Radcliffe revealed on a guest appearance on The Graham Norton Show, now available as a YouTube clip, his real hero is Tom Lehrer.  His delivery of “The Elements” was a bit clunky;  but he was bold enough to sing it without any musical accompaniment.  Perhaps he should apply the “social capital” of his influence to promote a revival of Tomfoolery!

Sunday, November 14, 2010

India's CHUTZPAH of Economic Growth

I was beginning to wonder if I would get through this week without a good candidate for the Chutzpah of the Week award.  However, as is often the case, the BBC came to my rescue with a story released this morning.  This is one of those cases where the chutzpah is in the context.  Nevertheless, the best place to begin is with the story itself:

India is aiming to achieve double-digit economic growth within two years, as the country's recovery from the global downturn picks up pace.

Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee said he was optimistic the economy should soon return to the 9% growth it achieved before the downturn.

The challenge then is "to cross the double-digit growth barrier in the coming year or two", he added.

The Indian economy grew by 8.8% between April and June this year.

It is the second-fastest-growing economy in the world behind China.

"We are all witness to an emerging new world order," Mr Mukherjee said, which would lead to a "more equitable arrangement for global prosperity."

The context comes from that final phrase about a “more equitable arrangement for global prosperity.”  I see that it is exactly two weeks ago that I put up a post intended to serve as preview reflections on Barack Obama’s visit to India.  The relevant context for today’s news comes from an excerpt from an Associated Press report that I cited in my earlier piece:

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.

Mukherjee’s statement reflects a semantic interpretation of “prosperity” that appears to have more concern for how many cell phone connections people have than it does for the sanitary conditions of the people having those connections.  They reveal a man who is more interested in being one of the stars of the next meeting of the World Economic Forum than he is in the well-being of all sectors of his own country’s vast population.  It takes no small amount of chutzpah to thumb your nose at so many people with the expectation of being rewarded for your efforts, so Mukherjee clearly deserves the current Chutzpah of the Week award.  From my point of view, this one was worth the wait!

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Bing Gordon's Rationales

I find it a little bit ironic that Caroline McCarthy’s column for CNET News, The Social, should run an interview with Bing Gordon the day after I put up a post of my own entitled “Beyond Rationality.”  Gordon is certainly one of those Silicon Valley players who can only be viewed through lenses of rationale, rather than rationality (the general point I was trying to make yesterday).  However, it is unclear that one can get a handle on his rationale without exercising a considerable amount of rationality.

I first heard Gordon opine about five years ago.  I was attending a convention that had been organized (and probably financed) by Comcast, primarily with the objective of informing attendees about the rising tide of convergence.  At the time Gordon was an executive at Electronic Arts and sat on a panel to which he contributed his thoughts on the future of gaming in a “converged” digital world.  This included a future in which people would be playing his games on mobile devices, relying on their telephone service providers to give them the opportunity to “reach out and kill someone.”  (How could I forget those words?)

Gordon is now a partner with the venture capital firm of Kleiner, Perkins, Caulfield & Byers, leading me to wonder whether his gift for provocative assertion may provide a means for filtering out would-be entrepreneurs who have “the right stuff.”  This is not necessarily a bad idea.  Entrepreneurial judgment is not necessarily the same as creative thinking, any more than, as Isaiah Berlin demonstrated, political judgment is not necessarily the same as dispassionate objective reasoning.  Nevertheless, according to McCarthy, Gordon is in charge of his firm’s new social-media investment funds;  so, beyond any heuristics he may have for filtering down the pool of candidates, just what do we know about his perception of the social world that may be impacted (and may impact) any commitment of investment funding?

One clue comes from the following excerpt from McCarthy’s column:

Many arguments in favor of limits to online social networking invoke Dunbar's number, the figure proposed by anthropologist Robin Dunbar that suggests that the number of real human relationships that a given individual can have is limited to about 150. That's something that could spell less than sunny forecasts for a industry in which social connections need to keep escalating in order for profits to keep expanding in turn.

Bing Gordon's take is that those limits are going away in the first place.

"Dunbar's number is changing because of the efficiency of social networks. We're going to be able to keep 500 relationships warmed up instead of 120," Gordon said. "Social networks improve social capital so efficiently that more people are doing it. People who start using social networks don't stop. There are just too many advantages. You meet significant others, you get a job, you find out what's going on, you save time."

The implication seems to be that the most promising inventions in social software will be those that most efficiently “improve social capital,” which sounds dangerously like an attempt to reduce the processes of socialization to those of assembly line manufacturing.  In other words, he is taking the premise of those researchers at IBM Almaden Services Research who tried to reduce service to a science and is trying to extend it from the social nature of service provision to all forms of socialization.  Needless to say, I find this premise to be grossly inconsistent with “our knowledge of the social world;”  and these days I would turn to social theorist Alfred Schutz for the right kind of cudgel to apply to Gordon’s head.

However, beyond the abstract properties of the social world that occupy academics (past and present) like Schutz, there is the question of our contemporary social world and the economic crisis that is consuming it.  Is venture capitalism part of the solution to our current problems, as Barack Obama and many others would have us believe;  or is it part of the problem?  Consider this Gordon quote from McCarthy’s column:

I think if you start a company, and you have a vision, and you change the vision, just do it with honor.  I was talking to one guy who's like, 27 years old, and he started a company, and I said, “Dude, if this thing works you could make 10 million bucks in a year. After that it's going to be a boring company. But go do it real fast, because in your 20s to have $5 or $10 million in your pocket changes your whole life. This is not a potential Internet treasure, this is a life foundation. Run like hell.[“]  And that's what he did--I think it's just important for every person to understand their goals.

Quite honestly, I do not know what to make of this.  Is it honorable to flip your entrepreneurial efforts for $10 million in pocket as long as you are clear that this is your goal?  Does it matter that every economic system is as much about how individuals interact as it is about how each individual pursues his/her goals?  If everyone followed Gordon’s advice, would that hasten our steps toward economic recovery?  Would it even lead to steps taken in a productive direction?

For the life of me, I still cannot figure out if Gordon actually means any of the things he says.  With my own background in social theory, I have no trouble trying to interpret his declarations as Goffman-like “moves;”  but that still leaves me puzzled as to whether or not he knows (or cares) where those moves are taking him (or those conversing with him).  I did once have a boss who believed in “rock tumbler” research management:  Bring together all the best minds you can, let them keep bumping into each other, and eventually each will emerge as a polished gem.  Perhaps Gordon sees himself as the agent that tumbles the rocks of both would-be entrepreneurs and would-be investors.  Good rock-tumbling requires considerable patience, however, leaving me to wonder whether or not Kleiner Perkins sees such a strategy as effective for the short-term gains that make for their bread and butter.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Beyond Rationality

Having dwelt yesterday on the possible incompatibility of “wisdom” (or at least rationality) and emotion, I figured it might be useful to pursue further the question of just what rationality is and how we can live with it.  In doing this I think I am making a transition from my current reading of papers by social theorist Alfred Schutz into the domain of the impact of those papers on Jürgen Habermas.  To put the game on a philological playing filed (perhaps in the spirit of Friederich Nietzsche with at bit of Jacques Derrida thrown in for good measure), the question is not whether all human behavior is rational but whether, through observation and analysis, we can identify a rationale for any such behavior that we observe.  It seems that one of Habermas’ primary objectives in his Theory of Communicative Action is to provide guidelines for identifying such rationales and strategies for how we act once those rationales have been identified.

This may be the primary motivation behind his “decomposition” of behavioral actions according to whether their respective “scenes” (in the terminology of Kenneth Burke) are in the objective world, the subjective world, or the social world.  The important point is that each of these worlds has its own set of rationales, and difficulties arise when those rationales are inconsistent.  The inconsistency, however, is not a logical one but a social one, meaning that it cannot be resolved through objective reasoning.  Ultimately, the rationales differ because they arise from different motives:
  1. The motives in the objective world are teleological, concerned with achieving well-defined goals.
  2. The motives in the subjective world are concerned with identity and Goffman’s concept of the “presentation of self.”
  3. The motives in the social world are concerned with how actions fit into socially-defined norms.

Since these motives are incompatible, it should be no surprise that the associated rationales are inconsistent.

For Habermas this was all concerned with how we can ultimately understand each other through our communicative actions.  However, the story goes beyond how we communicate to the more general domain of how we act.  One might say that those who evangelize technology cannot see beyond the teleological actions of the objective world;  and this locks out two-thirds of the motives behind how we act.  This is not myopia.  It is flat-out ignorance based on denial;  and no “wisdom” can possibly come from it.