Monday, February 28, 2011

Further Reflections on the 1970 Time Frame

Writing yesterday about the 1970 concerts at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York reminded me just how exciting that time was.  I suppose I had the good fortune to be in the right place at the right time as a corollary to a series of writing and composing activities that began in the summer of 1968, a pivotal time in my life about which I have written in other contexts.  This morning I found myself thinking about the various ways that I came to know about Cornelius Cardew.

I first became aware of Cardew when the MIT Music Library purchased a copy Treatise.  I was not sure what to make it at the time, and I am not sure I know any better today.  Cardew’s Wikipedia page describes it as “a 193-page graphic score which allows for considerable freedom of interpretation;”  and I doubt that I can come up with a better description.  (John Cage included a preliminary sketch of a page in his Notations anthology.)  The thing is that the phrase “considerable freedom of interpretation” may be the height of understatement.  The American edition was published by Gallery Upstairs Press in Buffalo.  So, from my point of view, it is highly reasonable that one reader (such as the Wikipedia author) would “interpret” this document as the score for a piece of music, another might take it as an innovative approach to graphic art, and yet another might take it as a semiotic exercise of a text represented by a non-standard repertoire of signs.  (I was actually surprised that this breadth of “interpreting interpretation” has not yet come up on the Wikipedia Talk:Cornelius Cardew page.  There is a Mode recording of a “performance of the score” by Petr Kotik’s QUaX Ensemble (Petr Kotik, flute; Pavel Kondelik, tenor sax; Jan Hyncica, trombone; Josef Vejvoda, percussion; Vaclav Zahradnik, piano).  It is from a live performance in  Prague on October 15, 1967 lasting about two hours.  Having spent a fair amount of time with this score, I agree with reviewer Michael A. Duvernois that the performance itself is rather a “short take” for the number of pages;  but I am still impressed that someone decided to follow up on this approach so soon after the “score” was published.

As a result of my own fascination with Treatise, I later leapt at the opportunity to hear Cardew speak when Christian Wolff invited him to the Goethe Institute in Manhattan.  His topic was the Scratch Orchestra, an improvisatory ensemble that Cardew formed for the performance of another one of his major projects, The Great Learning, a work in seven parts or "Paragraphs," based on translations of Confucius by Ezra Pound.  To the best of my knowledge, The Great Learning has yet to be performed in its entirety;  and, according to its Wikipedia page, the Scratch Orchestra was “effectively inoperative” by 1974.  However, the Deutsche Grammophon recording of their performance of Paragraph 2 and Paragraph 7 is still available from;  and there may still be copies of the organ of Corti CD that includes these two performances, recorded in 1971, as well as one of Paragraph 1 made in 1982 (after the date Wikipedia gives as that of the ensemble’s “demise”).

Those familiar with Cardew will probably notice that I have judiciously avoided saying anything about his politics.  This is because politics never came up during the talk I heard him give and because I never saw anything to be gained from a “political reading” of Treatise.  According to his Wikipedia page, Cardew did not turn to his extreme left-wing politics until after he lost hope of The Great Learning ever receiving a complete performance.  His beliefs were sufficiently extreme and vociferous that, when he died of a hit-and-run accident on December 13, 1981, his friend John Maharg told his biographer, John Tilbury, that MI6 had probably been involved.

I could care less about his politics.  Musically he was an anarchist, but I have never been afraid of anarchy.  After all, the Internet is also anarchic;  and I figure that I can approach Cardew’s anything-goes attitudes about making music with the same cautious awareness I now bring to the Internet.  I would like to believe that, if Cardew were alive today, he would be more interested in the Internet as a new medium for performance, rather than for the promotion of his extremist political positions;  but this is a moot point based on my having him speak only once, and then in better times for all of us.  The bottom line is that I continue to enjoy listening to recordings of his music and would welcome an opportunity to encounter that music in concert performance.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

1970: The "Guggenheim Year"

I have written in the past about the significance of the year 1970 at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, not just for myself but for its general impact on a shift in listening habits and the expectations shaping them.  This was the year in which three avant-garde performing groups each presented a concert in the Auditorium of that Museum.  This was, admittedly, a major personal experience, because it gave me the opportunity to perform with one of them, the Sonic Arts Union.  (My “instrument” was one of the earliest computer keyboards equipped with a modem.  I was connected by telephone to my computer back at the MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, where a computer was issuing instructions to other performers in the work “Conspiracy 8,” which I had co-composed with Gordon Mumma.)

Over on my attention to this concert series focused on the concert given over to Philip Glass, which I previously described as follows:

By that time Glass had built up enough repertoire to fill an entire program with three compositions embodying what he now tends to call "music with repetitive structures," the description he seems to prefer to "minimalism."  On the basis of his Wikipedia entry, I would guess that the works I heard were "Music in Similar Motion," "Music with Changing Parts," and "Music in Fifths."  I am pretty sure about the last one, because it was written in parallel fifths;  and I knew that this was music that would drive all of my music teachers crazy!  Beyond this obvious bit of nose-thumbing, however, the music was challenging in its exhaustive repetitions over a sustained duration with little sense of a journey from a beginning through a middle to an end;  but it was exhilarating for being so damned different from just about anything I had previously heard (almost all of which had been mediated by the approval of my teachers).

What I realized today is that I have not given any attention to the third of these concerts.  A major reason is that this is the of the three that I missed, but it is important to recognized that this third concert consisted of early works by Steve Reich.  The only work that I know for sure was on the program was “Four Organs,” which remains one of Reich’s most demanding works.  I know this because I have the Mantra CD of this performance, from which I discovered that one of the four organists was Philip Glass!  This was, indeed, a time when those breaking new ground had no problems about working together closely!

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Reality-Denial as Lifestyle

I was not sure how much I cared about My Father at 100, Ron Reagan’s biography of his father.  However, The New York Review selected Russell Baker to cover this book;  and I never seem to be disappointed when I read Baker.  Sure enough, Baker hit on a sentence that uses the Warner Brothers film Knute Rockne, All American to encapsulate the relationship between the Reagan of Hollywood and the Reagan of the White House:

Hailed as “the Gipper” for years after George Gipp had disappeared from memory, Reagan had seen show business’s power to make the impossible dream come true:  the world of let’s pretend had brought him a make-believe glory more glorious than the real thing.

In other words, within the terminology of semiotics, Reagan the actor became an icon whose signification was more powerful than that of the individual originally signified.  It was, in fact, a signification that not only disregarded reality but also transcended it.

I suspect that most of us would like to transcend reality, particularly when it is unbearably harsh.  I would propose that the sociological value of faith, so to speak, involves the promise it offers of such transcendence and the commitment of the faithful to buy into that promise whether or not it shows any sign of being fulfilled.  Within this framework, of course, monetary value also arises from an act of faith;  and one might suggest that the viability of any market is tightly coupled to its capacity to regulate itself through “reality checks,” rather than promises of “make-believe glory.”

Thus, what was particularly insidious about the Reagan myth was that it encouraged the belief that anyone could transcend reality, thus “denying the reality” of the complex combinations of factors that led Reagan from childhood pastimes to Hollywood and then to a successful career in politics.  In the context of current behavioral patterns, one might say that Reagan established himself as a “war hero” in what I like to call the “war against reality.”  In earlier days those who exhibited heroic behavior furthering the transcendence of reality would earn themselves congregations.  Reagan demonstrated that they could just as easily earn themselves votes;  and today’s normative political behavior may well be his most enduring legacy.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Yet Another "Failure to Communicate"

Caroline McCarthy’s article today in her “department,” The Social, raises the question of whether or not social media can play a productive role in improving health care by providing richer opportunities for doctors to communicate with “the rest of the world.”  It is a moderately long piece;  and it should be, because ultimately the conclusion is that this is a very messy situation.  Furthermore, the fourteen comments she had fielded by the time I read the piece indicate that at least a moderate number of her readers accept the complexity of the situation.  What is missing from both article and comments, however, is an attempt to come to grips with why the situation is so complex.

As I see it, this article address a problem broader than the scope of either health care or the ways in which social media can work.  There is a bigger picture that needs to be addressed;  and this concerns the more general need for effective communication between service providers and their clients.  After all, service activities take place in the social world, regardless of the service being provided;  and, whatever technologies the Internet may offer, the primary medium of service is human communication in all of its rich social complexity.  Like it or not, neither the Internet nor any of the software it supports is equipped to address those social complexities (nor was it ever designed to do so).  This is particularly evident in the case of the overall social context of the health care industry (and I think we are still the only country that calls health care an "industry," rather than a public service) and the various ways in which it impedes even the best efforts at effective communication.  Thus, the only way in which we are likely to make any progress towards using the Internet to support any form of service, health care or otherwise, is by beginning with accepting the premise that treating any service as a profit-driven industry does nothing more than preventing it from performing the services for which it was intended.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

A Neglected "Science of the Artificial?"

While I appreciate the “shock value” of Brigitt Hauck’s piece for the BBC News Magazine Web site, “Andrej Pejic: The man modelling womenswear,” I wish she would have shown a bit of respect for keener minds who were addressing this topic before both she and her subject were born.  I raise this point because she ended up covering pretty much the same ground that Colette (one of my favorite authors, not to mention librettist for Maurice Ravel) pursued when she was writing about fashion in the early decades of the twentieth century.  Consider the concluding paragraphs of her essay “Logic” (entitled probably with tongue in cheek), included in the collection of translations by David Le Vay entitled Journey for Myself:

Logic, feminine logic, astounding decisions, sudden, possibly long-meditated changes, secrets of little boyish heads, arrogant above sheathes of gold and pearls. … At the couturier’s a Byzantine splendor promenades on shorn collegians.  Lelong drapes ravishing little emperors of the decadence, sexless types accomplished in grace, so young and so ambiguous that I could not refrain from suggestion to the young couturier, on a day of upheaval in his court of models:  ‘Why don’t you employ—oh, quite innocently—some adolescent boys?  The lively shoulder, the well-poised neck, the long leg, the absent breast and hip, there are plenty who’d give good value …’

‘I understand perfectly,’ interrupted the young master couturier.  ‘But the boys who get used to dresses very soon acquire a gain, an exaggerated feminine grace in comparison with which my young female models, I assure you, would come to resemble transvestites.’

The logic of that first paragraph has returned.  Only the context has changed.

As one who knows absolutely nothing about the world of fashion, I have to believe that this discipline comes closer to being a “science of the artificial” than anything that ever occupied the attention of Herbert Simon.  As we know from the “semiological adventures” of Roland Barthes, what Simon would have called “symbol manipulation” figures just as strongly in fashion as it does in artificial intelligence;  and in both settings it is too easy to accept how arbitrary a signifier can be, preferring instead to confuse it with the signified.  Out of curiosity, did Watson have to answer any Jeopardy questions that would have required familiarity with material published in Vogue?

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

A Pierrot Connection?

As just about every source tells us, Arnold Schoenberg conceived of Pierrot Lunaire as a cycle of “three times seven melodramas,” each based on the German translation  of a poem by Albert Giraud.  Furthermore, in addition to their common orientation around the Pierrot figure, each poem adheres to the common, highly rigid, structural form of the rondeau.  We may also accept the claim made on the Tarantino Music Humanities site, on a page dedicated to Pierrot Lunaire, that Giraud’s decision to follow such a rigid archaic structure was a product of the influence of French symbolist poets, such as Stéphane Mallarmé.

However, one consequence of my immersion in the writings of Jacques Derrida has been the discovery that the very idea of composing a grotesque collection of poems about Pierrot may also be attributed to Mallarmé.  One of the two sources for Derrida’s “The Double Session” is a rather impenetrable vignette (I am not sure I can think of anything else to call those two paragraphs) that Mallarmé entitled “Mimique.”  This obscure meditation on mime theatre appears to have been inspired by a mimed soliloquy entitled Pierrot Murderer of his Wife.  Since Giraud’s Pierrot goes through a criminal stage in which he commits murder and then faces execution, is it possible that his venture into this dark side of Pierrot’s character was inspired by Mallarmé, if not by the source that inspired Mallarmé himself?

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

No Time for Political Theater

If I am to believe this morning’s BBC News report, David Cameron had planned a trade mission to the Middle East long before the spirit of revolution had begun to spread like a contagion.  As I suggested in my own feeble efforts at analysis, we have no idea whether the connotation of this “infection” metaphor is positive or negative, which is why I took our own government to task for succumbing to the urge “to comment on everything, even when they really do not know what to say.”  It is bad enough that Cameron should be responding to that urge when he should be thinking, waiting, and “fasting” (as per my interpretation of that latter term taken from Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha);  but the idea that he is trying to “reprogram” a trip originally conceived to drum up business just makes the whole affair a ludicrous piece of political theater.  Worse, it may demonstrate the extent to which conservatism, regardless of its country of origin, is trying to cling to old solutions to apply to new problems with no regard to the role that those old solutions may have played in causing those problems in the first place.  The Chinese probably have the better idea, betting on the future with their $2.6 billion resort project in the Bahamas!

Monday, February 21, 2011

The Audacity of Politics

Last week Jeff Madrick used NYRBlog to post an analysis of the budget proposal released by the White House, which has received considerable media attention even under the risk of being upstaged by the revolutions currently brewing across the Middle East.  As usual his objective analysis of specific items in terms of both short-term and long-term consequences was admirable.  However, I was not prepared for his conclusion, however obvious it may now seem in retrospect.

The most important paragraph, which comes near the end of the piece, is the following:

In the end, what this document tells us is that the Obama 2012 presidential campaign has begun. Unfortunately, the political priorities addressed here do not coincide with what is best for the economy. Federal stimulus is running out and the economic recovery could weaken again. Additional stimulus by Congress could have taken pressure off the Federal Reserve, which is now bearing the burden of doing its own stimulus through quantitative easing, involving purchasing up to $600 billion in Treasury bills from large banks. Down the road that could lead to inflation.

That first sentence is then reinforced by two sentences about Barack Obama in the final paragraph:

He is now doing what he seems to do best. He is campaigning for the 2012 election.

Ultimately, the lesson of the 2010 elections is that the economic future of our country will not be determined by the best rational analysis that economists and other social scientists can offer (not that we ever assumed it would be).  Rather, it will be decided by which campaigns best appeal to the emotional frustration of an electorate that has been robbed of any viable future for themselves and their children.  In other words those who will vote in 2012 currently find themselves in the same boat as those currently protesting in the Middle East (at least according to my own take on Fareed Zakaria’s recent analysis on the Web site).

Can we recover our sense of the future?  The prospect is not good, considering the opposition we face.  On the one hand we have the consciousness industry controlled by businesses that never seem to be able to look beyond the numbers projected for the next quarterly report.  On the other we have politicians, who can only see as far as the next election and the balance of partisan power likely to result.  These are not factors that will put Americans back to work, address the weaknesses of an infrastructure one step away for life-support, or recognize the extent to which our future now depends on what China chooses to do with their stake in our debt.

Those familiar with Plato’s “Laws” are probably well aware of the dim view he took of factionalism.  He goes so far as to compare factional warfare with the need to combat an “external alien.”  He does not go so far as to consider the extent to which the general public can become victims of factional warfare;  but that is basically the future that every American must now consider seriously, however hard the consciousness industry may try to distract us.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

When is an Orchestra More than an Orchestra?

After having given the matter much consideration, I feel it important to give a shout-out in favor of Joshua Kosman for his article about the Vienna Philharmonic (“Top orchestra must answer for exclusion”), which appeared in print in the Sunday Datebook section of today’s San Francisco Chronicle.  When you have performers like Daniel Barenboim doing so much to try to heal antagonisms by building cultural divides through the simple idea of people with opposing thoughts coming together to make music, even the strongest opponent of cultural relativism is likely to have a hard time apologizing for the overt racism and sexism of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.  All that, of course, does not even account for their controversial performance of Ludwig van Beethoven’s ninth symphony at the Mauthausen concentration camp, which was so warped by anti-Semitic connotations that Elie Wiesel felt obliged to withdraw his support for the event.  (This was all nicely documented by Paul M. Ellison in the Summer 2000 issue of The Beethoven Journal, published by the American Beethoven Society at San Jose State University.)  Now that Kosman has posed the question, it will be interesting to see whether or not Dr. Clemens Hellsberg, Vienna Philharmonic historian, will address it in the Artist Talk he is scheduled to give at Berkeley at 6:30 PM on February 25.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Lexical Stupidity Strikes Again!

It’s getting too easy to bash the ineptitude of Yahoo! News.  However, when the results are good for a giggle or two, they are worth citing.  Fortunately, this time the case has nothing to do with the bungled management of what purport to be “Top Stories.”  Instead, the humor can be found further down the page under “Explore Related Content.”

The story at the top of the page has to do with the arrival of Sutter, a seven-year-old Welsh corgi (with a Facebook page and a Twitter account), at the Governor’s Mansion in Sacramento, California.  Sutter originally belonged to Governor Jerry Brown’s sister, Kathleen;  but she decided that the dog would prefer staying in California to moving with her to Chicago.  So brother Jerry is now responsible for Sutter, and the two seem to be getting along nicely.

Now we get to the fun part.  Of the four “related content” items, one is a rather attractive photograph of Sutter posing with Brown’s wife, Anne Gust Brown.  Then there is a video of state senate proceedings, but it turns out that the state is Illinois, meaning it was triggered by references to state government and that mention of Chicago.  Then there is a new story about Kaiser Permanente.  No, Kaiser is not expanding into animal care;  but one of their competitors is Sutter Health Care.  So, even though Sutter is not mentioned in the article, this poor dog’s name clearly triggered the selection of the item.  Finally, there is a photograph of the latest version of the Boeing 747-8.  Posing in front of the new plane is the engineer known as the “father of the 747.”  His name is Joe Sutter.  Would Yahoo! News have “thrown him this bone” had it not been for the “political appointment” of his namesake?

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Youth without Future

The article “Why There's No Turning Back in the Middle East” has two things going against it.  The first is that it was included on the Top Stories list of Yahoo! News (in second place as of this writing), demonstrating once again the inability of Yahoo! to recognize the difference between news and opinion.  The second is that it appeared on the Web site, which is likely to make it suspect as an instrument of the consciousness industry rather than informed opinion.  Nevertheless, Fareed Zakaria has a reputation for keen analysis that deserves to transcend the dubious nature of this particular platform;  and, if Yahoo! is clueless enough to treat “Fareed Zakaria has an opinion” as news, then at least some (like myself) might be willing to seek out that opinion from a site they might otherwise avoid.

One of Zakaria’s great virtues is his ability to examine present situations in the context of the broader context of history.  In other words he is one of the best cudgels at my disposal when I choose to rant about our prevailing cultural ignorance of history.  Another, is that he recognizes that this is a situation in which the lessons of history (specifically the events of the revolutions of 1848) deliver some pretty bad news, since the “old and sclerotic” oppressive regimes targeted by those revolutions ultimately prevailed.  He thus approached his essay by appealing to that old this-time-it’s-different motto, with the intention of coming up with sounder arguments than those of the economists who got us into our current crisis situation.

Indeed, the fact that the current economic crisis is a global phenomenon is Zakaria’s primary reason why things are different.  Yes, there were economic problems in 1848;  Zakaria cited both recession and rising food prices.  What he did not cite, however, was the problem of unemployment and the extent to which that problem is tightly coupled with an ideology of globalization, whose primary consequence has been to widen the gap between rich and poor.  When we see all of those images of protestors, their distinguishing attribute is not that they are young but that they are young, unemployed, and with little, if any, prospect of a future of gainful employment.  It is not that they are protesting against authoritarian forms of government.  It is that they hold those authorities responsible for robbing them of any possibility of a future.

This then leads to Zakaria’s second reason, which is the role of technology.  Here is his analysis:

In the old days, information technology favored those in power, because it was one to many. That's why revolutionaries tried to take over radio stations in the 1930s — so they could broadcast information to the masses. Today's technologies are all many to many, networks in which everyone is connected but no one is in control. That's bad for anyone trying to suppress information.

At first blush this would appear to support all that cant from technology evangelists about how the Internet promotes democracy on a global scale;  but, as Zakaria is quick to observe, things are never as simple as evangelists wish them to be.  His case in point was the attempt of the Egyptian government to shut down access to the Internet.  Yes, this meant that the protestors could not communicate through Facebook or electronic mail;  but it also disabled just about all banking operations.  Yes, “everyone is connected but no one is in control;”  but what is more important is that those in power are as dependent on the Internet as those in protest.  To revisit “Stormin’” Norman Schwarzkopf’s famous epithet, the Internet is the mother of all double-edged swords.

This then leads to the question of how the United States should be reacting to this flood of events, which, whatever the quality of our intelligence services may be, appears to be unanticipated.  My personal feeling is that our government seem to feel obliged to comment on everything, even when they really do not know what to say.  Zakaria’s piece had the virtue of not trying to give advice to our government.  Personally, I think the best advice can be found in the fifth chapter of Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha.  I suggest that those inclined to let their eyes roll upward at this advice consider this passage:

… everyone can reach his goal if he can think, wait, and fast.

We are pretty bad at waiting for just about anything, which means we overlook the simple proposition that waiting gives us time to think.  As to the part about fasting, I would generalize it to refraining from our usual indulgences, such as making decisions on the basis of special interest groups (whose members do not need to be named because they know who they are).  As I see it, our country is being put to the test of whether or not we can be that “knowledge society” that the late Daniel Bell had in mind when he wrote The Coming of Post-Industrial Society;  and, given the extent to which our current work practices have stripped the word “knowledge” of just about all meaning, I am not particularly optimistic!

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Insecure about Security

Bruce Schneier, Chief Security Officer for BT, has got at least one thing right.  In her article this morning previewing the RSA security conference here in San Francisco, Maggie Shiels, Technology Reporter for BBC News cited Schneier’s attack on the use of phrases like “cyber warfare,” dismissing them as “emotive rhetoric” that “does not match the reality.”  This is true as far as it goes, but where does it actually take us?

Like it or not, emotive rhetoric is a fundamental part of human nature.  Where human relations are concerned, it is basically a less violent way of whacking a mule with a two-by-four in order to get its attention;  or, as Warren McCulloch would say, it provides a way to keep others from biting your finger when they should be looking at where you are pointing.  This happens to be a case in which there are a variety of instances of behavior on the Internet that serve as pointers, and it is unclear whether Schneier is bothering to look in the right direction.  Instead, he seems to prefer quibbling over the rhetoric itself, at least if we are to take his words, as quoted by Shiels, seriously:

Stuxnet and the Google infiltration are not cyber war - who died?

We know what war looks like and it involves tanks and bombs.

These are the sorts of words I used to hear in those never-ending bull sessions that took place among undergraduates at MIT, back when I was one of them.  They come from immature minds that never heard of Carl von Clausewitz, let alone thought of reading him when there were much cooler things to do in the laboratory (say I, pleading guilty on all counts).

Yet the Internet is now experiencing phenomena that amount to standing Clausewitz’ most famous aphorism on its head.  Where once war was diplomacy by other means, the flourishing of malware has opened up a world of “war by other means.”  The question is no longer one of what war is but of the more fundamental exercise of domination and the motives behind such exercise.

RSA may have begun as a cryptography conference, but the underlying theme has always been security.  Since I do not attend this conference, I am not sure how often the conferees revisit the implied question, “Security against what?”  However, I suspect that there is some agreement that, at its basic level, we all worry about secure protection from sociopathic behavior, whether it involves destruction of data or physical harm (or threat) to life or property.  Tanks and bombs are the physical instruments of such sociopathic behavior;  but on the Internet that behavior manifests itself “by other means.”  I would have thought that anyone in today’s telecommunications business would have recognized that this is where the real problem lies, but I keep forgetting that specialists rarely seem to look at fingers pointing beyond the horizons of their respective specialties.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Blaming Those who Try to Blame the Victim

One of the greatest problems that victims of sexual assault face is that they, themselves, become objects of blame.  In other words counsel for the defendant(s) engages the time-old strategic principle that the best defense is a good offense.  One wonders whether this strategy will be engaged again when the Department of Defense is the defendant.

We may find the answer to this question soon enough.  According to a story filed by Jesse Ellison for The Daily Beast, Rebecca Havrilla, a former sergeant and explosive-ordnance-disposal technician in the United States Army, and sixteen of her fellow soldiers will be “plaintiffs in a class action suit filed Tuesday against Defense Secretary Robert Gates and his predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld, alleging that their failure to act [on accusations of sexual assault] amounted to a violation of the plaintiffs’ Constitutional rights.”  Ellison provides further details as follows:

The suit, brought by Washington, D.C. attorney Susan Burke, and filed in the Eastern Virginia federal court, charges that despite ample evidence of the problem, both Gates and Rumsfeld “ran institutions in which perpetrators were promoted; … in which Plaintiffs and other victims were openly subject to retaliation… and ordered to keep quiet.” The plaintiffs, in turn, have been “directly and seriously injured by Defendants’ actions and omissions.”

Last week, when I was writing about the current argument over the virtues of Mad Men, I suggested “that just about all of the adults in the Mad Men cast amount to infantile minds in aged bodies;  and, when we consider the many scenes of ‘men at play,’ this deduction is not as preposterous as it may first seem.”  We need to consider seriously the possibility that the primary difference between Mad Men and the Department of Defense is that those in the advertising business comprise a relatively elite class, while the charges against our armed forces have nothing to do with elitism.

In other words, when it comes to matters of the defense of our country, we are not talking about some perverse updating of that old (European) practice of droit de seigneur;  we are talking about the normative behavior of those “jes’ plain folks,” who always seemed to be the audience of preference for Former President George W. Bush.  The critical difference is that these particular “jes’ plain folks” have been trained to handle weapons of all shapes and sizes, often including their own bodies.  Thus, the proposition that such bodies are inhabited by infantile minds deserves serious consideration.

My guess is that there are those above the lowest rank who might argue that adult minds are not as good at following orders, but I do not think that washes.  When I was growing up, our military was promoted as the best place to learn about skills such as leadership;  and this entailed the corollary that military service was the last hurdle one would jump before entering adult life.  This has probably always been a fiction of convenience, particularly in wartime;  but, even if it is only an ideal, it probably still deserves to be taken seriously.  This class action suit may be the best way to raise the question of just how seriously that ideal either is or should be taken.  The fact is that the normative conventions of our military forces have gone through some major changes since I was a kid, but it remains to be seen whether or not our Department of Defense is willing to implement an effective policy to deal with those changes with adult minds.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Troping through Music History

The biggest problem I had with writing about yesterday’s recital of the Borodin Quartet for was that I could not stop coming up with things to say about it.  Thus, I tried to stick to the basics, trying as best as I could to address features of the music that disclosed the talents of the Quartet.  However, there was at least one topic that I could only mention in passing and wished I had done otherwise.  That was my observation that Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 59, Number 2 string quartet in E minor drew “heavily on rhetorical devices and tropes to maximum effect.”

My guess is that most of my readers are used to my taking this rhetorical stance;  but I do not always dive down to the layer of frequently-used figures, even though this layer figures significantly in just about every composition.  Thus, one can examine those figures in this particular quartet, trace some of them back to earlier Beethoven compositions and others to Beethoven’s familiarity with works by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Joseph Haydn (not to mention others).  However, the nice thing about this game is that you can play it in both directions along the time line, which is what I caught myself doing during the performance.

The Molto Adagio second movement of this concerto is one of those gentle reminders that Robert Schumann’s concept of “heavenly length” did not originate (as Schumann had suggested) with Franz Schubert.  That sense of prolongation did not spring full-born from Schubert’s brow;  and, if we are to assume that he learned it from another source, then the best bet is that the source was Beethoven.  One of the more fascinating figures in this bold effort to make time stand still is a somewhat wistful use of horn fifths, perhaps the mother of all stock-in-trade tropes.  What struck me in this particular performance was that the way in which Beethoven shaped that trope bore an uncanny resemblance to how Johannes Brahms handled the same trope in the Andante con moto movement of his Opus 25 piano quartet in G minor (which just happened to be another minor key work).  It is hard to imagine Brahms not being familiar with Beethoven’s quartet, so the question is whether this is an example of imitation as the greatest form of flattery.

I suspect that scholars could argue forever over this point.  However, what may be relevant is that Beethoven often used horn fifths in the interest of establishing a nostalgic effect.  Brahms may have been going for the same effect in his piano quartet.  Whether the effect emerge from a “common cause” is still debatable;  but I figure it is a hypothesis worth considering!

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Is Liszt a Guilty Pleasure?

When Michael Tilson Thomas decided to introduce Franz Liszt’s tone poem, “Tasso, Lamento e Trionfo” to San Francisco Symphony audiences in March of 2009, he decided to preface the performance with some spoken remarks that seemed to verge on the apologetic.  (That stance, however, did not seem to impede his giving the music a second airing almost exactly a year later.)  I suspect that the need for apology had something to do not only with Liszt’s extravagances but also with the fact that the performance had been preceded by György Ligeti’s settings of four excerpts from the text for the requiem mass.  Personally, I felt that the prefatory remarks were not necessary, nor was any need for apology.  After that performance I wrote the following in a post to this blog:

Conductor Michael Tilson Thomas introduced the work to the audience by casting it in the same extravagant mold as that of Freddie Mercury's "Bohemian Rhapsody." I suspect that the setting for "Bohemian Rhapsody" in Wayne's World might have been more appropriate; and even better probably would have been We're Only in It for the Money, Frank Zappa's absurdist retaliation against the idea of escalating rock to epic proportions. Still, given Ligeti's own appreciation of the absurd, he probably would have appreciated being coupled with his Hungarian forebear Liszt in this manner.

I suppose the real point is that the very idea of a guilty pleasure is someone oxymoronic.  There is no need to feel guilty about it, let alone apologize, if it does not frighten the horses, as they used to say.  I doubt that Ligeti ever felt particularly guilty about anything he threw into Le Grand Macabre, whether it involved the fornication in an open grave in Scene 1 or the obscenity-laden debate in Scene 3.  We should not feel any guilt in enjoying those theatrical episodes, nor should we feel it over the over-the-top excesses of Liszt’s compositions, whether for orchestra or solo piano.  There may even be knowledge to be gained from the analysis of such musical efforts, just as there is from a scrupulous examination of the polyphony that Giovanni Gabrieli wrote for San Marco (which happened to be on the same San Francisco Symphony program that coupled Liszt with Ligeti).

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Some Items do not Require Further Comment

Ironic as it may seem, I was glad to see that BBC News felt that the current Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) is worth covering.  CPAC provides us with a valuable reminder of Elmer Davis’ lesson from Thomas Jefferson (not to mention John Philpot Curran) that eternal vigilance is the price of freedom.  Besides, any irony on my part will be surpassed by CPAC activities.  After all, a highlight of the event this year will be when Donald Rumsfeld is given the CPAC Defender of the Constitution Award.  In the immortal words of Eric Idle, “Say no more!”

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Drawing Conclusions about MAD MEN

The Mad Men Account,” Daniel Mendelsohn’s assessment of the first four seasons of Mad Men for the current issue of The New York Review of Books certainly has a clever title;  but, in spite of its clearly deliberate play on the word “account,” it could have been more accurate.  It would have been more appropriate to call this piece a “journey,” rather than an “account,” since it navigates its way through a variety of points of view, dwelling on several grounds for negative opinion, before arriving at the conclusion that, for all of his dislikes, Mendelsohn found himself hooked.  Thus, this may be a case in which readers might prefer to “cut to the chase” and address the conclusion of the review independent of the context of all of the bashing that precedes it.

The crux of that conclusion basically turns the premise of the entire series on its head.  Contrary to what we were told in the introduction to the very first episode, Mad Men is not about the men (and almost all of them were) in the advertising business in the late Fifties and early Sixties.  Rather, it is about the children of these men, among whom Sally Draper may be most representative.  Mendelsohn argues his case with the warrant that the demographic group most prominent among the show’s fans consists of those who would have been Sally’s contemporaries during the time in which the show is set.

I appreciate this argument.  I might even go so far as to agree that the whole conception is about childhood;  but I would take the position further, because Sally’s contemporaries are not the only children in the series.  The reason Mad Men registers with me is that the program is essentially a narrative riff on the fundamental premise of Paul Goodman’s Growing up AbsurdGoodman’s argument was that, traditionally, the status of being “grown up” had to do with the ability to provide food, clothing, and shelter.  Because earning money to do these things is not directly related to the actions of provision, those who survive only on the basis of their earning power lack grown-up status.  (This makes for chilling thinking in the setting of earning power in the current economic crisis.)  We may thus apply syllogistic reasoning to Goodman’s premise and conclude that just about all of the adults in the Mad Men cast amount to infantile minds in aged bodies;  and, when we consider the many scenes of “men at play,” this deduction is not as preposterous as it may first seem.

This then leads to the premise that we, the viewers of Mad Men, are as infantile as our fathers depicted in the series were.  From at least one point of view, the two generations fall back on a common explanation.  They are both generations addicted to consumerism, because, after all, those purveyors of advertising were as hooked on consumerism as those they strove to hook through their ads.  The only thing that separates then from now is what marketers call the “media mix.”  Then it was a question of how much television went into the mix.  Now it is a question of how much Google is applied.

This provides a different take on Nicholas Carr’s “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”  It is not about Google, nor is it about any other medium in the mix.  It is about our commitment as a culture to the marketing of consumerism itself as prerequisite to the marketing of any product or service.  This has made infants of us all.  Even Sally Draper knows this, since her own capacity for judgment tends to rise above that of either of her parents.

Do We Need a Sociology of Robots?

It took me a while to appreciate that Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics were not primarily about engineering.  Rather, they presumed that, because robots shared the social world with humans, robot-makers should strive to endow them with a code of normative behavior.  Whether or not such a “normative code” could be “engineered” into “software code” remains a debatable issue (one for which Lawrence Lessig has had much to say);  but, since Asimov had confined himself to fiction, he could presume this to be the case and then use his stories and novels to pursue the likely consequences.

Dr. Markus Waibel of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich is not interested in the world of fiction.  He is interested in a decidedly likely future in which robots will be part of everyday human life.  What will that part be?  Waibel plans to approach that question through a project called RoboEarth, which he described to Mark Ward, Technology Correspondent for BBC News, in a story posted this morning:

"Most current robots see the world their own way and there's very little standardisation going on," he said. Most researchers using robots typically develop their own way for that machine to build up a corpus of data about the world.

This, said Dr Waibel, made it very difficult for roboticists to share knowledge or for the field to advance rapidly because everyone started off solving the same problems.

By contrast, RoboEarth hopes to start showing how the information that robots discover about the world can be defined so any other robot can find it and use it.

RoboEarth will be a communication system and a database, he said.

In the database will be maps of places that robots work, descriptions of objects they encounter and instructions for how to complete distinct actions.

The human equivalent would be Wikipedia, said Dr Waibel.

"Wikipedia is something that humans use to share knowledge, that everyone can edit, contribute knowledge to and access," he said. "Something like that does not exist for robots."

Waibel clearly has some sorting-out to do.  He does not seem to appreciate the distinction that social theorists draw that separates objective, subjective, and social worlds;  so Waibel thinks he can reduce everything to storing and communicating data.  Thus, it is unclear whether his verb phrase “see the world” is merely an overly-enthusiastic metaphor or a serious failure to grasp the subtleties behind bringing order to sensory signals.  Similarly, he seems to view Wikipedia as a data resource maintained by multiple individuals, rather than an ongoing process of social interactions that sometime take a turn for the pathological.

Asimov projected a future that remains beyond our grasp.  However, in writing the history of that future, so to speak, he envisaged agents who anticipated serious consequences and tried to plan for them.  This made him far more utopian than, for example, Lessig, who recognizes, along with James Madison (or possibly Alexander Hamilton), that men are not angels and are definitely not the puppets of a benevolent author.  Thus far at least, his speculations have not led him onto the turf of social theory;  but, in the face of Waibel’s aspirations, it is probably time to start exploring that turf.  After all, the question is not whether robots are capable of sharing data as self-motivated agents;  clearly they can do this,  The more important question is what they will do with that capability, and it is about time for those in “real-world” robotics to take that question as serious as Asimov did.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Mortal or Venial? There's an App for That!

Get in line in that processional,
Step into that small confessional,
There the guy who’s got religion’ll
Tell you if your sin’s original.
Tom Lehrer

Whatever his traditional values may be, Pope Benedict XVI seems to take seriously the idea of being a pontiff of the Digital Age.  On January 24 he gave a World Communications Address in which he asserted that the use of social networks was not a sin and could, on the contrary, facilitate communicating the Good News.  However, there is more to communicating than proselytizing;  so it was interesting to see how the Catholic Church would respond to a less orthodox approach to communications and information technology.

This morning the BBC News Web site ran a story about a new technology that might well put the Pope’s convictions about “world communications” to the test:

The Catholic Church has approved an iPhone app that helps guide worshippers through confession.

The Confession program has gone on sale through iTunes for £1.19 ($1.99).

Described as "the perfect aid for every penitent", it offers users tips and guidelines to help them with the sacrament.

Now senior church officials in both the UK and US have given it their seal of approval, in what is thought to be a first.

The app takes users through the sacrament - in which Catholics admit their wrongdoings - and allows them to keep track of their sins.
It also allows them to examine their conscience based on personalised factors such as age, sex and marital status - but it is not intended to replace traditional confession entirely.

Instead, it encourages users to understand their actions and then visit their priest for absolution.

The story also reported one “official” reaction to this technology:

A spokesperson from the Catholic Bishops' Conference of England and Wales told BBC News the app was a "useful tool to help people prepare for the Sacrament of Reconciliation".

"The Church believes in embracing new technology and this creative app will hopefully help people to make a good confession."

It is thought to be the first time the church has approved a mobile phone application, although it is not entirely unfamiliar with the digital world.

I suspect that there will be many who will have a good laugh over this story, viewing it as yet another example of how the BBC stalks news of the weird with gun and camera.  On the other hand I had a flashback to a post that I filed almost exactly two years ago entitled “Communicating with God.”  This was one of those pieces that gave me an excuse for giving a history lesson.  I think that lesson is worth repeating in this new context:

I was a student when Joseph Weizenbaum first released his Eliza program on the MIT Compatible Time-Sharing System (CTSS) in 1966. Following the "non-intrusive" precepts of psychoanalyst Carl Rogers, this program "conversed" with the user by doing little more that providing cues to encourage the user to maintain the conversation. The "doctor" version of this program structured its cues around the sorts of things that a Rogerian might say in an analysis session. As Weizenbaum's Wikipedia entry puts it:

Weizenbaum was shocked that his program was taken seriously by many users, who would open their hearts to it.

Weizenbaum further observed that many (including his own secretary) would only use the program if they were left alone in a room with a connection to it. However, his "shocked" reaction missed the point: His software had provided users with the opportunity to converse with themselves about their problems, thus satisfying Rogers' hypothesis that conversation-with-self … provided the best path to working through those problems. Eliza offered the first technology-based secularization of prayer.

At one level this new software provides yet another platform for conversation-with-self;  but it also entails that critical attribute that so horrified Weizenbaum.  It recognizes that communication through a digital device can deserve the privacy of the sanctity of the confessional, since one can only confront one’s moral behavior in a setting that insures such privacy.

That is the positive side of the story.  The negative one is that the issue of privacy of any form of digital communication has not been clearly or satisfactorily resolved, whether the context involves the laws of the state or the moral convictions of any religious faith.  The World Communications Address restricted its attention to public speaking.  Questions of moral behavior are generally not discussed in a public forum (unless one chooses to be a guest of Jerry Springer).  Given that just about anything that takes place on a mobile device immediately goes into the air with little protection against intrusion, the Catholic Church may wish to reflect on its approving actions towards this technology, just as they expect the congregants to reflect in the privacy of the confessional.

Monday, February 7, 2011

You've Got Arianna Huffington!

The best way to approach this morning’s news about AOL and Huffington Post may well be through the first sentence of the story filed by Associated Press Technology Writer Michael Liedtke:

Internet company AOL Inc. is buying news hub Huffington Post in a $315 million deal that represents a bold bet on the future of online news.

However, those curious about just what the future behind that bet is likely to be will have to wade all the way through the Liedtke’s final paragraph, which basically tells you everything about Huffington Post that you need to know:

Huffington Post grew quickly from startup to online colossus. Over time, it launched city-specific pages and developed a roster of sections such as food and books. The work of its 70-person paid staff is augmented by content from news outlets and 6,000 bloggers who write for free.

In other words “the future of online news” is one of 6000 unpaid bloggers.  Put another way, online news will be “liberated” from professional journalism.  It is hard to imagine how a paid staff of 70 can effectively edit 6000 bloggers.  Those familiar with the Huffington Post know how this problem is resolved.  The paid staff is not responsible for editing.  Editing is a “community-based” undertaking, basically managed through comments submitted to articles, often with the style and substance of the “Wikipedia Fight Club.”  However, since the future of the press conference seems to be heading in the same direction, that just means that the future will be one of press conferences without journalists, just as those journalists will also fade from the platforms of online news.  In other words these are just more bricks in the wall of ignorance behind which the consciousness industry ultimately plans to isolate the American public.  After all, the uninformed voter is the demagogue’s strongest weapon!

Saturday, February 5, 2011

The Debate Continues over Opera "Ripped from the Headlines"

I was not particularly surprised to find, through Google Analytics, that my “Existential questions about opera and Anna Nicole Smith” piece for rewarded me with an uptick in page views.  My guess is that there are still quite a few Google Alerts out there for Anna Nicole’s name, and the technology just happened to be doing its job on my behalf.  I even wonder whether or not the two comments, both of which had to do with why the sleazy nature of this woman’s character made her totally unfit for opera, came from readers who had set up Google Alerts explicitly to fulminate over the subject.

As I made clear in an earlier piece on, I have no strong feelings about Smith one way or the other;  and I suspect that, were I fortunate enough to be at Covent Garden for the world premiere of the Anna Nicole opera, this would be to my advantage.  The sorts of personal feelings that surfaced in those comments would not influence my experience of either the music or the staging, whether it involves the invention of score and libretto or the execution of those inventions through performance.  However, the authors of those comments seem to have missed the point I had been trying to make, which had to do with whether or not John Adams’ Nixon in China (which received its first performance at the Metropolitan Opera on Wednesday night) had grounds for comparison with Anna Nicole.

As I see it, the arguments I made about Adams’ opera can address those comments I received about Smith herself.  This also has to do with my conclusion that Nixon in China is less an opera and more a meditative oratorio (like a setting of the Passion), where the primary topic of meditation is the abuse of power.  From this point of view, at least four of the characters are responsible for such abuses at a level that is, at best, reprehensible.  Those characters are Richard Nixon himself, Mao Tse-tung, Henry Kissinger, and Chiang Ch’ing;  and my personal feelings towards these individuals definitely color my experience of Adams’ opera, for better or for worse (mostly, I am afraid, the latter).

I suppose the important conclusion is that any opera that is “ripped from the headlines” takes on a great risk.  This is the risk that most of the people in the audience will be paying more attention to the headlines than the opera.  This puts Anna Nicole at an advantage.  Unlike Nixon, she was never more than a sideshow for American journalists and probably not even that much for British tabloids.  Thus, for Covent Garden audiences, there is no reason that the subject matter should be any more (or less) distasteful than that of Dmitri Shostakovich's 1932 opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District.  (I give this example because Eva-Maria Westbroek, who will be singing the role of Smith herself, has also performed the title role in the Shostakovich opera.)  My guess (or at least hope) is that, when (note that I do not say “if”) this opera receives its American premiere, its audiences, regardless of the city of the performance, will be about as neutral as the Covent Garden set.