Saturday, December 31, 2011

Giving More Credit than is Due

Simon van Zuylen-Wood has a nice piece on the Web site for The New Republic about Newt Gingrich’s “Earning by Learning” plan for education reform.  This is the one that involves giving kids cash incentives for such things as reading books over the summer.  Zuylen-Wood offers up a reasonable summary of hard research data, from which one can conclude that such incentives work some of the time on some of the subjects.  Indeed, the data seem to indicate just when it does work and for whom.  This allows him to conclude with the punch line:

Newt might have been on to something.

This seems to imply that someone who comes up with a sweeping generalization, disproven in its full generality, “might be on to something” for the special cases that confirm the usefulness of the recommendation.  That kind of approval is dangerous.  All we need is more shoot-from-the-hip generalizations that will do more harm than good if not scrupulously examined.  When was the last time anyone knew Newt to do anything scrupulously?

Friday, December 30, 2011

The Panda with FLAYSHEDIG Tastes

Desperate times call for desperate measures.  As just about anyone who follows stories about these creatures knows, pandas are supposed to subsist entirely on a diet of bamboo.  Indeed, Stephen Jay Gould’s famous essay about the panda’s “thumb” is all about the evolution of the front paw to make it easier for the panda to get at the edible portion of a bamboo stalk.

However, panda followers also know that there has been a problem with a decline in bamboo stocks (associated with an increase in land development).  As a result, there is a story on today’s BBC News Web site about how the panda may be adapting to this change in its environment.  A camera set up in China’s Sichuan Province has captured a panda gnawing on the bones of a dead gnu, apparently relishing it as much as any stalk of bamboo.  (The Web page for this report includes the video.)  This is all very well and good for the interests in survival, but what will the rabbis say if the panda then develops a taste for gnu milk?

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Rediscovering SILENCE

I think I did not purchase my copy of Silence until after I met John Cage (and hunted mushrooms with him) during the summer of 1968.  I probably bought my copy shortly after my return to MIT in the fall.  It was the M. I. T. Press paperback edition (which now seems to be dismissed as a sacrilegious object by Cage purists).  I was not quite sure what I would learn from it.  I suppose one of the first things I discovered was the text version of many of the stories in Merce Cunningham’s “How to Pass, Kick, Fall, and Run;”  but I also used the book as a “score” from which I gave several of my own performances of Cage’s “Lecture on Nothing.”

However, as a result of my “reading from the screen” experience with Leta Miller’s paper about the relationship between Henry Cowell and John Cage between 1933 and 1941, I realize that it may be time for me to revisit some of the essays intended for more theoretical consumption.  In particular there are the texts for the three Composition as Process lectures that Cage gave at Darmstadt in 1958.  Cage’s focus on processes rather than structures may have planted the original seeds of my own interest in distinguishing verb-based and noun-based thinking.  By the time I had purchased Silence I knew that Cage clearly preferred process to structure, but another seed came from one of those mushroom hunts.  Cage mused on what it would be like to treat nouns as if they were verbs, posing as a representative question, “What would ‘to tree’ mean?”

Cage was never particularly deep in his approach to philosophy.  He tended to glean from the surface of Zen parables and the sermons of Meister Eckhardt.  My guess is that he never appreciated the extent to which time-consciousness was far more sophisticated than our capacity for interpreting visual stimuli as objects.  Indeed, I am not sure that he would have had the patience for Friedrich Hayek’s speculative book about how mind imposes order on the sensory signals it receives.  I might even suggest that Cage’s use of chance processes was intended to undermine existing capacities to impose such order by providing signals that challenged classification by those means “wired into” the cerebral cortex.  Still, the only way I may be able resolve such a hypothesis is to go back to Cage’s writings, this time with a better understanding of his work as a composer and my own mind’s working when trying to listen to what he composed.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Peace on Earth, Good Will Towards Men?

This morning BBC News reported an alternative take on the spirit of Christmas:

Scuffles have broken out between rival groups of Greek Orthodox and Armenian Christian clerics over a turf war in Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity.

Around a hundred priests fought with brooms as they cleaned the church in preparation for Orthodox Christmas.

Yes, that’s right:  They were fighting over who got to clear which sections of the church (and, for those who get off on such things, the Web page at the above hyperlink includes video).  If ever there were a need for the what-would-Jesus-do question, this would have to be it!

I am glad I remembered to include that parenthetical “more or less” when writing yesterday about accommodation among practitioners of different faiths in the Holy Land!

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Right Word in the Right Language

This may just be politics as usual in Israel, but it is interesting to see just how the leading opposition party there is using today’s mass protest against “gender segregation” (as one report put it) by the ultra-Orthodox extremists of Beit Shemesh for political capital.  An article about the protest filed late this morning on the BBC News Web site quoted opposition leader Tzipi Livni describing the ultra-Orthodox of Beit Shemesh as “the extremist elements that are rearing their heads and are trying to impose their world view on us.”  Presumably, Livni made her remarks in Hebrew;  but my guess is that she deliberately chose the same noun form that has been applied to violent acts by extreme fundamentalists of other faiths (that need not be enumerated).

I am also struck by the use of words sharing the stem for segregation.  I believe I heard a television report (which I have to confess I have been unable to trace), which claimed that there are Orthodox communities that force women to ride in the back of the bus.  I would guess I heard this on the BBC, because I would find it hard to imagine an American report of such activities that would refrain from a reference to Rosa Parks.  In other words Israel may be facing a civil rights movement that it had not dreamed would arise in a country of Jews.

I would also like to consider a remark that showed up in the same Al Jazeera English report that included the phrase “gender segregation.”  The source is Professor Emeritus Menachem Friedman of Bar Ilan University.  This is what he has to say about the current tension between ultra-Orthodox communities and the predominantly secular majority of Israeli citizens:

It is clear that Israeli society is faced with a challenge that I am not sure it can handle.  A challenge that is no less and no more than an existential challenge,

I agree that “existential” is the right adjective, but I wonder if Friedman had bothered to explain why this is the case.  As I see it, Israel may be forced to decide whether it is a “Jewish state” or a “state that guarantees freedom from persecution to all Jews.”  That is the critical existential distinction;  and it may be that how it is resolved will determine whether the current dispute between Israelis and Palestinians is best resolved with a one-state or two-state solution.  Clearly, the Palestinians would have every reason to reject a one-state solution if that one-state were a “Jewish state.”  Just as clearly, no Jew living in Israel would want to sacrifice the motive for settling there in the first place.  However, a single state that would guarantee freedom of religion to all Jews might satisfy enough of the currently secularized population to make for a viable resolution of the problem.  If the walls of Old Jerusalem can accommodate practitioners of any number of different faiths (more or less), why can’t that accommodation be escalated to the scale of a single country governed by a representative democracy?

Monday, December 26, 2011

Reading from the Screen

I am still pretty ambivalent about whether or not any of those portable reading devices are actually worth the investment.  As a result I have decided to give myself a reading experiment based on my “untethered” MacBook Pro.  I realize that this is larger than most readers;  but, given that I already do a fair amount of Web reading in this mode, I figure I am creating a situation that gives the technology a slight advantage.  Because I rarely read anything on paper without a pencil in my hand, I also decided to base the exercise on my Acrobat Pro, since I am pretty comfortable with the annotation tools it provides.

I should also point out that this not the first time I have done this sort of experiment.  About five years ago I tried it with one of the early portable models that could be used in both tablet and keyboard mode.  At the time the tablet resolution was way too crude to support my pencil habits.  On the other hand I have been annotating PDF files in Acrobat for some time;  so, again, I was giving technology an advantage of familiarity.

The real question I wished to confront was the one of length.  I read most of my news on the screen these days.  So I wanted to see if many of the habits I already had would scale up to longer documents.  My experiment five years ago was with a full-length book;  and I gave up after the first few chapters.  This time I selected an article from the Journal of the American Musicological Society for which I had a really high interest level, since the topic concerned the relationship between Henry Cowell and John Cage between 1933 and 1941.  (As a point of reference, this is the time period during which Cage heard Nicholas Slonimsky conduct Edgard Varèse’s “Ionisation” at the Hollywood Bowl.)  Normally, I print reprints and read them with a very active pencil.  However, this particular article was 66 pages long;  so I had a pretty strong incentive to take a “paperless” approach.

I downloaded the PDF of this article on the afternoon of December 12.  Almost exactly two weeks have elapsed, and my first observation is that I am progressing slower than usual.  Had I been reading from hard copy, I would have been able to fold the paper into one of my copious jacket pockets and take it with me on many of my ventures from home.  I do not do that with the MacBook Pro, and I am not yet sure how inclined I would be to carry around one of the new reading devices.

Nevertheless, I am progressing.  I am about sixteen pages into the paper;  but I had little time for reading it in the midst of last week’s pre-holiday activities.  So I am not unhappy with my rate of progress.  For the record, I have been using the Acrobat commenting tools;  but, so far, that has only involved underlining two passages (one of which confirmed the story about Cage at the Hollywood Bowl).  As to the physical reading experience, I find the MacBook Pro equally comfortable when sitting in a chair or lying on the couch.  The new two-finger scroll control (which I initially disliked) works very nicely since I cannot fit a full Journal page on the screen.  I probably would have preferred being able to look at the screen in portrait mode, but the keyboard would then have been awkward to manage.

I am waiting to see if I find any need for marginal annotations in this reading experience.  I know that I shall not be able to actually “write” in the margins;  but I have used the Acrobat tool for adding notes in the past.  That creates notes with content that can be found with the search tool, and that may prove to be a real advantage.  In other words I am not sure I would want to have any kind of “virtual pencil” with one of the new portable readers;  and I suspect that, when I need to create such notes, I would prefer a physical keyboard to a virtual one.

At this mid-point in the exercise, I have yet to be convinced that any of the new technologies will support my kind of reading;  and I also am willing to admit that “my kind of reading” may be going obsolete even faster than I anticipated!

Sunday, December 25, 2011

NBA Perspectives

My wife has been having a great time reading Harvey Araton’s When the Garden Was Eden, very much a love letter to the New York Knicks of the 1970s.  I was therefore amused to see that Henry Abbott chose to review this book for tomorrow’s New York Times in conjunction with covering Scott Raab’s The Whore of Akron:  One Man’s Search for the Soul of LeBron James.  Raab is from Cleveland, so it is easy to anticipate the nature of this book, although Abbott feels that he may have taken polemic to extremes.  Reading this review on the day of the belated opening of the NBA season, it is hard to avoid thinking about these two books offering takes on what is right with “basketball then” (although Araton’s book is not all about the positive) and what is wrong with “basketball now.”  I fear that, if nothing else, Raab’s bile will sell more books than Araton’s more disciplined account to do justice to history;  but sports fans who used to revel in statistics, past and present, now seem to share our culture’s general scorn for history.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Steve Jobs without the Hagiography

I was wondering whether or not The New York Review of Books would select Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs for consideration and, if so, whom would be assigned the task.  The answer can be found in the latest issue (January 12), in which Sue Halpern is the designated reviewer.  Anyone who takes the trouble to search for Halpern’s name on this site knows that I have a high opinion of her.  When she writes about the objective world of science and technology, she always seems to equip herself with enough background to make it clear that she is speaking from an informed position, rather than just relaying the canned assertions of others.  She then has a knack for projecting her “objective content” into both subjective and social worlds, meaning that she is better equipped to discuss implications and consequences than the usual crowd of evangelists, not to mention many of the more emotional nay-sayers.

By now most people know the basic backstory behind Isaacson’s biography.  Basically, he was hand-picked by Jobs to write the “authorized” account.  Given the single-minded focus Jobs could apply to just about anything he did, one wonders how this selection process occurred.  Did Jobs draw up a “short list,” which, after considerable deliberation, was finally whittled down to a single individual?  My own guess is that this is not likely, particularly since one of the prevailing themes of the book concerns his preference for gut-level decision-making.  That being the case, there is a good chance that Jobs’ gut was informed by browsing the biography section of a physical bookstore, where he would discover that there was this author with reputable credentials, who had already written biographies of Benjamin Franklin and Albert Einstein.  One can almost hear Jobs’ gut shouting out, “That’s the guy for me!”

(I suppose it is possible that this scenario could play out through Amazon recommendations;  but I am not sure it would have as much appeal to the gut, so to speak.)

Yes, I know that sounds irreverent;  but then I have never been particularly interested in writing biography.  I figure that an obituary for some individual who has received comparatively little attention is about as far as I can go, even when the subject is someone who had been involved with a considerable chunk of my personal life.  So I do not have to worry as much about showing the same respect for my subject matter as any good biographer would.  Thus, Halpern is dispassionate enough to recognize hagiography when she reads it.  To her credit, however, she has come up with a balanced account that gives all of the virtues their due without disregarding many of the vices that tend to get ignored in “authorized” accounts (or, in Isaacon’s case, relatively quarantined).  In other words any reader who would like a well-written overview of Jobs’ accomplishments would probably be better off reading the few pages of Halpern’s review, rather than taking total immersion baptism in all 630 of Isaacson’s pages.

Nevertheless, after one has read Halpern’s opening paragraph, one has a clear sense that she is holding herself in check.  She is doing everything that a responsible reviewer should do, but her choices of words reveal that she has bottled up some very strong personal opinions.  Thus, as one works through her essay, one begins to wonder if she will ever uncork that bottle.

Those who dislike spoilers should probably stop right here, because the cork finally pops out in the last three paragraphs of the review.  They have been so artfully constructed that I cannot resist reproducing them:

Steve Jobs cried a lot. This is one of the salient facts about his subject that Isaacson reveals, and it is salient not because it shows Jobs’s emotional depth, but because it is an example of his stunted character. Steve Jobs cried when he didn’t get his own way. He was a bully, a dissembler, a cheapskate, a deadbeat dad, a manipulator, and sometimes he was very nice. Isaacson does not shy away from any of this, and the trouble is that Jobs comes across as such a repellent man, cruel even to his best friend Steve Wozniak, derisive of almost everyone, ruthless to people who thought they were his friends, indifferent to his daughters, that the book is often hard to read. Friends and former friends speculate that his bad behavior was a consequence of being put up for adoption at birth. A former girlfriend, who went on to work in the mental health field, thought he had Narcissistic Personality Disorder. John Sculley, who orchestrated Jobs’s expulsion from Apple, wondered if he was bipolar. Jobs himself dismissed his excesses with a single word: artist. Artists, he seemed to believe, got a pass on bad behavior. Isaacson seems to think so, too, proving that it is possible to write a hagiography even while exposing the worst in a person.

The designation of someone as an artist, like the designation of someone as a genius, is elastic, and anyone can claim it for himself or herself and for each other. There is no doubt that the products Steve Jobs brilliantly conceived of and oversaw at Apple were elegant and beautiful, but they were, in the end, products. Artists, typically, aim to put something of enduring beauty into the world; consumer electronics companies aim to sell a lot of gadgets, manufacturing desire for this year’s model in the hope that people will discard last year’s.

The day before Jobs died, Apple launched the fifth iteration of the iPhone, the 4S, and four million were sold in the first few days. Next year will bring the iPhone 5, and a new MacBook, and more iPods and iMacs. What this means is that somewhere in the third world, poor people are picking through heaps of electronic waste in an effort to recover bits of gold and other metals and maybe make a dollar or two. Piled high and toxic, it is leaking poisons and carcinogens like lead, cadmium, and mercury that leach into their skin, the ground, the air, the water. Such may be the longest-lasting legacy of Steve Jobs’s art.

I agree with Halpern about the elastic nature of the “artist” concept (as well as the “genius” concept).  Since I spend the better part of every day working on what I write about the performing arts for, I find that I use both of those words with extreme caution;  and I am always suspicious when the term is self-applied.  At the same time I appreciate that the connotation of the word “artist” need not be strictly positive.  I seem to recall at least one of my reading sources referring to Adolf Eichmann as an “artist of extermination;”  but, even without such repugnant surface-level usage, history is filled with examples of dark perspectives.  There are any number of reasons (including the religion of my ancestors) why I cannot possibly imagine engaging in a conversation with Richard Wagner;  and I was certainly not surprised to read that Robert Schumann came away frustrated by his attempt to do so.

Still, the thing about Wagner is that we can judge him by what he did, rather than who he was.  Halpern has saved her strongest feelings about what Jobs did for her final paragraph.  The bottom line is that everything he accomplished was done in the service of the addictive powers of consumerism, which I continue to associate with both how we got into our current economic crisis and why our prospects for recovery are so bleak.  When we add to that the impact of Jobs’ activities on both the global environment and working conditions in some of the most destitute parts of the world, that Eichmann comparison seems a bit less absurd, even if it remains distasteful.  The idea that Apple may be guilty of crimes against humanity may be too extreme to stand up under rigorous argumentation;  but sometime it makes sense to follow Brian Eno’s “oblique strategy” of withdrawing from an extreme position, rather than being too weak to recognize that it is a position at all.

Monday, December 19, 2011

The Gilded Cage of Slavery

One of my favorite themes has been the extent to which the world the Internet has made has become a world that is steadily reducing workers to a new generation of slaves.  The general concept is not a new one.  Last April I had quoted Karl Marx on the concept of the worker who had become “the slave of other men who have made themselves the owners of the material conditions of labour.”  For Marx this involved the need for complex and expensive machines required for manufacturing and agriculture.  He could not have conceived of the concept of a “knowledge worker;”  nor could he have imagined that such workers would also be enslaved by the need for similar complex and expensive machines.

Yet that is what knowledge work has become, and today’s Dilbert provided a painfully funny reminder that, while many of the major employers of Silicon Valley have figured out how to gild the bars, a cage is still a cage.  The dialog says it all:

Visitor:  At Google, we’re encouraged to spend 20% of our time developing our own ideas.

Dilbert:  How many hours per week do you work?

Visitor:  About sixty.

Wally:  It sounds better when you don’t do the math.

Yes, Virginia, what Marx has to say today applies as much to Silicon Valley today as it did to the Detroit of Henry Ford in the last century!

A Dynamic Duo of Inventors

As a result of Hedy’s Folly:  The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World, Lamarr’s patent for torpedo guidance based on frequency-hopping (a technology now fundamental to cellular communications) is receiving revived (and probably overdue) attention.  However, for those of us more interested in music than movies, the story has an added twist.  The patent application actually had two authors.  The other author was the composer George Antheil, and one of his contributions was to control the frequency variations with a form of punched tape, an idea Antheil probably got from his work with player pianos.  This may be the ultimate “power couple” in this history of innovation!

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Convincing the Uninformed Voter

As a follow-up to yesterday’s post about the stabilizing force of uninformed individuals in the democratic process, this morning I found myself reading Darryl Pinckney’s latest NYRBlog post, “Misremembering Martin Luther King.”  This amounts to a “frank and open” (in diplomat-speak) assessment of Katori Hall’s play about Martin Luther King, The Mountaintop, currently running on Broadway with Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett.  The title of the post says it all, although I am sure that most ticket-holders are there for an in-the-flesh experience of Jackson and Bassett and could care less whether or not they take home any useful knowledge about King.

Reading Pinckney, on the other hand, was a far more informative experience.  The connection to yesterday comes at the very end of his post, when he quotes a passage from the famous “Letter from the Birmingham jail,” which King wrote in 1963.  More specifically Pinckney quoted King’s observation that “shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute understanding from people of ill will.”  King’s point is that people of ill will tend to be very good at voicing exactly what they believe and why they believe it in clear language, regardless of whether or not that language may be logically flawed.  People of good will, on the other hand, are more wishy-washy in their argumentation, believing that fundamental goodness is all you need to make your case.

Imagine, now, the following thought experiment:  An uninformed individual is faced with having to make a major decision in the next election.  Give that individual the opportunity to hear what the person of good will has to say, and then provide the same exposure to the person of ill will.  Which one do you think will be more effective in swaying the decision of this hypothetical voter?

Friday, December 16, 2011

The Vital Antecedent

Continuing the theme of the objective gathering and interpretation of data concerned with human nature, there is a story this morning on the BBC News Web site relating the recent publication of some fascinating results from Princeton:

Uninformed individuals are vital for achieving a democratic consensus, according to a study in the journal Science.

The researchers say that they dilute the influence of minority factions who would otherwise dominate everyone else.

This is because they tend to side with and embolden the numerical majority.

The findings challenge the commonly held idea that an outspoken minority can manipulate uncommitted voters.

"We show that when the uninformed participate, the group can come to a majority decision even in the face of a powerful minority," said lead author Iain Couzin, from Princeton University.

"They prevent deadlock and fragmentation because the strength of an opinion no longer matters - it comes down to numbers. You can imagine this being a good or bad thing.

"Either way, a certain number of uninformed individuals keep that minority from dictating or complicating the behaviour of the group."

Having not yet read the full article, I am not in a position to dispute Couzin’s findings;  but I think it is important to emphasize the significance of the antecedent in the first sentence of his quoted remarks.  The problem is not a question of how the uninformed vote but of whether they vote at all.

Among those countries that govern on the basis of democratic elections, voter turnout in the United States has a reputation for being pathetically low, if not the lowest of the sample set.  This sets the proper context for the observations of Donald Saari, Professor of Mathematics and Economics and the University of California at Irvine, towards the end of the BBC piece.  Saari sees an arc progressing from minority domination to pluralism to a “noisy” electoral process;  and such an arc makes perfect sense in the absence of any “force of stabilizing inertia,” which is basically how Couzin sees uninformed voters.

Ironically, the need for such stabilizing inertia was made painfully apparent by another BBC News report this morning.  This one concerns the small group that calls itself the “Florida Family Association;”  but the name is a cover for a virulent anti-Muslim agenda.  While this group has been good at distancing itself from Klan-like acts of violence, such as the burning of a mosque in Jacksonville in May of 2010, the BBC report makes it clear that they are doing a good job of making their voice heard, no matter how small their numbers may be.  I suspect that a lot of political eyes are now on Florida to see just how effective that voice will be in the coming year of our next Presidential election.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Trying Again to Escalate the Television Mentality

About two years ago I wrote a post entitled “Yasmina Reza’s Guilty Pleasure?,” basically as a way to blow off some personal steam over the news that Reza’s play God of Carnage was the hottest ticket on Broadway.  I wrote as one who had seen Art and came away feeling as if I had been conned.  I was more explicit in my post:

Leaving the theater, I took a look at my watch and realized that I had just sat through the duration of three Seinfeld episodes; and that seemed to capture the experience in a nutshell: a lot of rapid (but not necessarily quick-witted) banter around a situation that had gotten a bit too long in the tooth to count for an authentic situation any more.

In other words, while Reza may be the French child of an Iranian father and a Hungarian mother (both Jewish), I suggested that her “guilty pleasure” was an addiction to American situation comedy television.  I then considered God of Carnage, also packaged as three half-hour episodes, and concluded that the only way in which Reza had advanced was in replacing Seinfeld with Curb Your Enthusiasm, which has been deliberately calculated to induce far more discomfort among its viewers.

This time, however, the play has become a film, directed by Roman Polanski, one of the great masters of discomfort.  A. O. Scott’s review of the film is now available on the Web site for The New York Times.  Without going into what he says about Polanski, I would observe that Scott managed to catch my own point in some rather nice language:

This may seem like nitpicking, but “Carnage” is partly about the narcissism of small differences — the nuances of rank, taste and behavior that take on disproportionate importance in close quarters — and fudged or sloppy details expose a larger weakness of design. Like Ms. Reza’s “Art” this play consists of a superficially provocative idea slapped onto an almost-probable situation and whipped into a froth of hyper-articulate nonsense.

I do not think that this is nitpicking.  Whatever accolades she may have received, Reza shows signs of being little more than a naked emperor;  and Scott is now the small boy making this point to the international forum of New York Times readers.  God bless him for that!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

We Have Nothing to Fear but the Status Quo Itself

Those who enjoyed (if that is the appropriate verb) Charles Ferguson’s analysis of the economic crisis through his documentary Inside Job (which, incidentally, IMDb lists under their “Crime” category, as well as under “Documentary”), should derive equal satisfaction (if not pleasure) from an article by James Kwak that just appeared on the Web site for The Atlantic.  Kwak is an Associate Professor at the University of Connecticut School of Law, which means that he is more interested in underlying legal foundations, rather than the machinations of finances explored by Ferguson.  The title of his article is “Too Big to Stop:  Why Big Banks Keep Getting Away With Breaking the Law.”

There is no spoiler in revealing that the answer to the question he poses is a simple one:  because it’s worth it.  The bottom line is that few cases of even the most egregious financial abuse are prosecuted;  and, when they are prosecuted, they are frequently settled with punishments that are barely significant.  (Ferguson discussed the almost entire lack of jail sentences.  Kwak runs the numbers on damages and reveals that those “punitive” measures barely make a dent in the balance sheets of the prosecuted institutions.)

In the immediate wake of the financial crisis, one of the popular jokes was that the best way to rob a bank was to own one.  Kwak has taken this proposition up a notch:  The best way to rob the government is to own a bank.  This is not particularly difficult, since the banks have a stranglehold on the electoral process (not to mention public opinion, which these days amounts to stifling the Occupy movements), making the chances for serious reform implemented by those who are supposed to represent us all but negligible.

Meanwhile, according to a story by Beth Duff-Brown of Associated Press, Google is going to fork out $11.5 million to fight “modern slavery;”  do they recognize the extent to which the financial sector is setting up “the 99%” for a new generation of slavery?

Monday, December 12, 2011

Objectivism on the Side of the Angels

After reading Hugo Slim’s review for the London Telegraph of Steven Pinker’s new book The Better Angels of Our Nature:  The Decline of Violence in History and Its Causes, I am not sure I really want to slog through all 802 pages of the book itself.  Having read some of Pinker’s work and having heard him lecture (thanks to Book TV), I have a fairly high level of trust when it comes to his techniques for both gathering and analyzing data.  If Pinker can apply statistics to psychology, political science, and cultural history to conclude that we are progressing towards less violent times, then I am willing to respect his opinion.

On the other hand I also feel obliged to respect the opinions of Isaiah Berlin, even if he was never as gifted in mathematics as Pinker is.  In particular I am referring to a remark by Berlin cited by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. at the beginning of his essay “Has Democracy a Future?”  In an interview he granted towards the end of his life, Berlin declared the twentieth century to be “the most terrible century in Western history.”  Should Berlin’s assessment be dismissed just because his mathematical skills were not as keen as Pinker’s?

One way to approach this question is to consider Freeman Dyson’s piece in the latest issue of The New York Review on the subject of Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking, Fast and Slow.  Here is a case where we have one keen mathematical mind assessing the work of another;  and, through Dyson’s account, one cannot avoid gaining considerable respect for just how much the objectivity of properly applied mathematical techniques can tell us about the complexities of human behavior.  Nevertheless, Dyson is reluctant to let Kahneman have the last word on these matters.  While he does not dismiss the value of scientific thinking, he also does not reject contributions from the literary arts.  To this end he reviews two much earlier thinkers, who may have been less gifted in scientific rigor but whose literary gifts cannot be ignored.  One is Sigmund Freud, and the other is William James.  True, both saw themselves pursuing a more scientific approach to psychology;  and, I agree with Dyson that both have gone out of fashion.  However, I also agree that the lack of attention they now receive may stem from the fact that, by today’s standards, they were not particularly good scientists;  but, in spite of that shortcoming, both of them arrived at significant insights.

The fact is that literary thinking often yields results that are orthogonal to scientific analysis, simply because literature is more accommodating to subjective and social factors that do not readily lend themselves to scientific data gathering and analysis.  We thus find ourselves at a dangerous crossing as readers.  Where human nature is concerned, the objective techniques of scientific reasoning seem to be getting progressively better, while, on the other hand, there are too many instances of literary thinking that just seem to be getting worse (with Malcolm Gladwell as my favorite example).

What I like about Dyson is that he does not take a dialectical approach to these opposing points of view.  He does not advocate the quest for some synthesis that will yield some “ultimate truth” about human nature.  Rather, as Leta Miller has done in her recent book Music & Politics in San Francisco:  From the 1906 Quake to the Second World War, he argues that we, as readers, should embrace the dissimilarity of these perspectives, allowing each to inform us in our own way.  This is a perfectly natural approach to take where aesthetic judgment is concerned, but it may be just as important as we try to come to grips with just how we are equipped to get on in the world.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Newt Gingrich Takes Glenn Beck to the Next Level

I rather like the way in which our vernacular has now coined a phrase for reacting to the truly bizarre:  “You can’t make this shit up!”  Sadly, where Middle East policy is concerned, Newt Gingrich has demonstrated that you can make it up.  His declarations over the past couple of days have run the gamut from half-truths through specious deductions to flat-out misinterpretations of the historical record.  He has escalated confusion to a point where Al Jazeera English is one of the few news media with the patience to tease out a version of the current state of affairs that is more accurate than Gingrich’s fantasies.  Unfortunately, when it comes to dispelling confusion, the logic of Gingrich and his followers dictates that anyone who gets the news from Al Jazeera must be a terrorist.

Of course Gingrich is not interested in accuracy or logical consistency.  His only priority is to build up a base of voters;  and, as a pioneer of postmodern politics, he knows that one wins arguments in the eyes of those voters through rhetoric, rather than logic.  As I follow his words and his actions, I am reminded of the state of affairs about a year ago when Glenn Beck seemed to be the darling of conservative Republic thinking.  When he gave his Restoring Honor rally in Washington, I summarized my thoughts as follows:

The bottom line is that, whether it is a matter of fact-checking or the sort of semantic analysis that I have exercised here, Beck's claims are in sore need of valid warrants. Beck's rhetoric is neither more nor less than the 21st-century incarnation of the Big Lie, which Wikipedia describes as "a propaganda technique which entered mass consciousness with Adolf Hitler's 1925 autobiography Mein Kampf." In the simplest of terms, the principle is that people will believe anything, if you say it loud enough and long enough; and Beck has certainly demonstrated that he can be very good when it comes to being both loud in volume and long in duration.

This is not the first time a conservative Republican has tried to win votes through demagoguery.  After all, Sarah Palin was one of the speakers invited to Beck’s rally.  The real question is whether or not we have enough voters who, even though they may know demagoguery when they see it, have decided that they want it.  After all, last night Mitt Romney took a very confrontational stance in calling out Gingrich’s distortions;  but will it win Romney any percentage points in the polls?  Enquiring minds want to know!

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Is Customer Relevance a Secret?

The good news about Rafe Needleman’s column today for the Rafe’s Radar department of CNET News is that it presents a brief and cogent account of why every new technology business needs to remember that the customer is always more important than the product.  The bad news is that this argument was delivered under the headline “Startup Secret No. 3.”  The connotation is that this is some arcane insight of great value to every would-be entrepreneur but not readily available.  The fact that this precept is not common knowledge (let alone the highest priority) among those obsessed with “innovation Kool-Aid” as the only remedy for our economic crisis goes a long way to explaining why that Kool-Aid is as toxic as it is.

The fact is that our current dire economic straits have a lot to do with the reckless actions of those who never bothered to see customers as anything but “emergent phenomena,” not necessarily directly related to all the data points casually gathered and manipulated on spreadsheets.  Put in the bluntest of terms, you can never have a business without customers;  if you ignore them, then they will ignore you, even if it is later, rather than sooner.  This applies as much to those who have been recklessly innovative with financial products as to those obsessed with promoting the next “killer app” (a metaphor more applicable, so to speak, than most would like to suppose) or the toy to displace the iPad.  Needleman has had a long-standing reputation as a voice of common sense for CNET.  Today’s piece reminded me of just how short the supply of that common sense is!