Thursday, April 28, 2011

Fučík's Context

With all the attention to Gustav Mahler on Public Television with the airing of the two-part Keeping Score program about him prepared by Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony, I found myself thinking about the concerts in Davies Symphony Hall that provided much of the material for this project.  I recalled that one of those concerts introduced the music of other composers to establish the “origins” aspect of Origins and Legacies subtitle for this series of concerts.  One of those purported influences was Julius Fučík.  Like Mahler, Fučík was Czech;  but he was represented by his “Florentiner Marsch,” which was composed in 1907.  Since this was about four years before Mahler’s death, its selection as “origins” music was, to say the least, anachronistic.

Thomas’ explanation to the audience was that this march represented the spirit of the Austro-Hungarian Empire;  and, when I wrote my piece about this performance, I accepted this as a perfectly valid explanation.  Indeed, Fučík’s embodiment of that spirit is easily appreciated from the biographical summary on his Wikipedia page:

In 1891, he joined the 49th Austro-Hungarian Regiment as a military musician. He initially played in Krems by the Danube under Josef Wagner and later joined Karl Komzak's military band in Vienna. In 1895 Fučík left the army to take up a position as second bassoonist at the German Theatre in Prague. A year later he became the principal conductor of the Prague City Orchestra as well as the conductor of the Danica Choir in the Croatian city of Sisak. During this time, Fučík wrote a number of chamber music pieces, mostly for clarinet and bassoon.

In 1897, he rejoined the army as the bandmaster for the 86th Infantry Regiment based in Sarajevo. Shortly after, he wrote his most famous piece, the Einzug der Gladiatoren or Entrance of the Gladiators. Fučík's interest in Roman history led him to name the march as he did. The tune is now universally associated with the appearance of the clowns in a circus performance. In its circus context, the tune is also known by the title Thunder and Blazes.

In 1900, Fučík's band was moved to Budapest where Fučík found there were nine regimental bands ready to play his compositions, but he also faced more competition to get noticed. Having more musicians at his disposal, Fučík began to experiment with transcriptions of orchestral works.

In 1909, Fučík moved again, returning to Bohemia where he became the bandmaster of the 92nd Infantry Regiment in Theresienstadt. At the time, the band was one of the finest in the Austro-Hungarian empire, and Fučík toured with them giving concerts in Prague and Berlin to audiences of over 10,000 people.

Nothing quite captures that Imperial spirit more than the tub-thumping patriotism of a military band;  and Fučík was clearly prodigious in cranking out music for those bands.  The fact that his best known composition has been appropriated by just about every circus troupe in the Western world says more about the ironies of history than it does about the prevailing jingoism of the time.

I actually still have the Orfeo CD of Fučík selections (including “Einzug der Gladiatoren”).  Václav Neumann is conducting the Tshechische Philharmonie.  His readings are excellently disciplined, but he never tries to restrain the exuberant mood.  Indeed, the spirit is best captured by the title of the CD, K. u. K. Festkonzert.  I remember asking my friend about the abbreviation;  and he explained that it stood for “Kaiser und König.”  My immediate reply was, “Are you sure you don’t mean ‘Kinder und Küchen?’”

Those looking for any further ironies of history may recall that Theresienstadt was where the Nazis built the Terezín transit point concentration camp, which they tried to propagandize as a “paradise ghetto” and which had a rather impressive number of composers as “alumni;”  unless I am mistaken, none of them survived the Second World War.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

From Benjamin to Marx

One nice thing about returning to the writings of Walter Benjamin for their polemic value is that Benjamin was also good for reviving my interest in the writings of Karl Marx;  and, as I have observed frequently (if not tediously), Marx provides good source material for considering the nature of work in the world the Internet has made.  This is particularly the case in his “Marginal Notes to the Programme of the German Workers’ Party,” better known as the “Critique of the Gotha Programme.”  This text is best known for its “From each according to his abilities” slogan;  but there is far more to the entire document.

Most important is that the title itself is a good piece of truth-in-advertising.  Marx works his way through the text of the Programme, taking it apart, often at the phrase-by-phrase level, and pointing out its inconsistencies (if not delusions).  The first “victim” of this process is a premise that we have heard early and often from many Internet evangelists:

Labour is the source of all wealth and all culture …

Marx’ response, written at the end of the nineteenth century, could just as easily have been written today:

The bourgeois have very good grounds for falsely ascribing supernatural creative power to labour;  since precisely from the fact that labour depends on nature it follows that the man who possesses no other property than his labour must, in all conditions of society and culture, be the slave of other men who have made themselves the owners of the material conditions of labour.  He can work only with their permission, hence live only with their permission.

Using this as a point of departure, Anthony Giddens would subsequently develop a model of a social system as an organization of rules and resources in which domination is exercised primarily through the control of resources.  From this point of view, Marx’ invocation of the concept of slavery is not a mere rhetorical turn to attract attention but a recognition that enslavement is an optimal agency for ensuring domination.  Thus, while the Bush Administration may have propagated the myth of war in the interest of spreading democracy, the real war is being waged against the poor;  and it is being waged on a global scale.  Ironically, the power of the Internet to enable such domination is also the power to bring education to the poor;  and, as Fareed Zakaria observed about conditions in Egypt, the power of knowledge can be the power to rebel.  Thus, the only thing we can say with certainty about the War Against the Poor is that it is far from over with no sign of either side prevailing.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

When it Seems as if All Hope is Lost, There is Always Polemic

About a year ago, when there seemed to be no shortage of bad news, I found myself with a strong craving for a good polemic fix;  and, things being what they were at the time, Friedrich Nietzsche turned out to be a good way to satisfy that fix (ironically with a bit of help from Louis Andriessen).  That craving seems to be returning, and this time it looks as if it is going to be satisfied by Walter Benjamin.  If there was irony in the mutual reinforcement of Andriessen and Nietzsche in their approaches to bashing Plato, then it is even more ironic that I returned to reading Benjamin because the winner of the Highsmith Competition for a student-composed orchestra work, held by the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, has turned out to be Nicholas Pavkovic’s “Angelus Novus,” a secular cantata based on the ninth of Benjamin’s “Theses on the Philosophy of History.”

This was enough to send me off to check out the source text.  I quickly discovered that reading those theses was a bit like eating potato chips:  I could not stop with just one.  True, I could not get into Benjamin’s attack on historical materialism with quite the relish that came from reading Nietzsche's bald "Plato is boring" declaration in Twilight of the Idols (in Walter Kaufmann's translation);  but Benjamin hit a rather nice stride when he turned to the immediacy of day-to-day politics.

For those who need some context, it is sufficient to remember that Benjamin died while trying to flee the Nazis.  Where his polemic was at its juiciest was in his observation of the rise of Adolf Hitler and his argument that this was a consequence of not only those with political power but also the political system itself.  Here is how he put it:

At the moment when the politicians in whom the opponents of Fascism had placed their hopes are prostrate and confirm their defeat by betraying their own cause, these observations are intended to disentangle the political worldlings from the snares in which the traitors have entrapped them.  Our consideration proceeds from the insight that the politicians’ stubborn faith in progress, their confidence in their “mass basis,” and, finally, their servile integration in an uncontrollable apparatus have been three aspects of the same thing.

Here we are today, having placed our own (audacious) hopes in a new (at the time) President to turn back forces of conservatism that were laying waste to our financial systems, our prospects for health care, and the very integrity of our planet’s ecosystem.  What have we discovered?  The “new administration” is nothing but a collection of the same insignificant “worldlings” entrapped by the brute-force power of the rich and mighty.

Benjamin was more concerned with the rise of Fascism than with the collapse of democracy.  Nevertheless, his polemic is consistent with my own effort to argue that the very nature of business inhibits democracy.  The point is that my punch line for that argument (“It’s good for business!”) also explains the support of Fascism (not to mention our current dithering over spontaneous outbreaks of protests for democracy across the Middle East, because we do not know if those protesters will be “good for business”).

True, Benjamin did not stop Fascism in its tracks.  Instead, he became one of its victims.  Is that not a reason, however, why his words should be considered again today?

Monday, April 25, 2011

Variation on a Theme

Before browsing ThinkExist, I had not realized that Jean Paul Getty, founder of Getty Oil Company and thus the Getty dynasty of wealth and power, had acquired such a variety of quotable observations.  I had only known of one, which I had encountered in Paul Dickson’s The Official Rules:

The meek shall inherit the Earth, but not its mineral rights.

On this anniversary of the BP disaster, it may be worth thinking about whether or not the meek would have done a better job with the legacy of the Earth than the corporate elites;  but Wiley Miller, the creator of the Non Sequitur comic strip came up with a better idea.  The strip for today (April 25, 2011) is a single panel, depicting those elites (without suggesting whether or not they represent a single corporation or some kind of cartel).  The clearly comfortable (not to mention well-fed) man (everyone at the table is male) at the head of the table says only one thing:

The meek may inherit the Earth, gentlemen, but we’ll still own Congress.

This image also has a title:

The Big Picture

Things may have changed since the days of Getty and those of his ilk, but capitalism has remained resourceful in finding ways to keep the meek in their place!

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Missing the Point

There was a really clever tax-related photograph on “The Back Page” of the Insight section of today’s San Francisco Chronicle.  It did not show up on the Web version, because the source of the photograph was The New York Times.  Ironically, neither the Chronicle caption nor the Times story seems to have grasped the significant of the photograph.  One suspects there is something tongue-in-cheek about a story from Lawrence, Kansas filed by A. G. Sulzberger;  but the basic content presented straightforwardly:

Every year, on tax day, residents of this college town gather in the lobby of a local post office for an upbeat, circus-like celebration as procrastinators rush to meet the deadline to mail off their tax returns.

As a string band played, a crowd formed a gantlet to the door, clapping and cheering to the galloping tune of the William Tell Overture for the last-minute filers.

“It makes you feel a little less guilty about not getting your taxes out until the last minute,” said Bob Dunlap, an auditor, as he made his ritual right-on-deadline filing.

Raquel Alexander, a tax professor at the University of Kansas, had her daughter drop her returns in the collection bin. “I don’t know if we’re more tax compliant than the rest of the country, but we certainly celebrate it more,” Ms. Alexander said.

Across the country, there were numerous anti-tax rallies on Monday, making this event a decided anomaly.

The tradition started 25 years ago by members of the Alferd Packer Memorial String Band, who were looking for a novel place to busk. They were encouraged by the post office workers and supported by community members who, just to add to the theater, sometimes wait to file until the last minute.

This does not really explain the cleverness factor, though.  That resides in the name under which the buskers perform.  Fortunately, they present that explanation on their own Web page with the good humor it deserves:

The Alferd Packer Memorial String Band is named after the gold prospector/guide turned cannibal Alferd Packer. Packer was the only American ever convicted of cannibalism. In the fall of 1870, five miners in Alfred's charge headed for the Colorado gold fields. They ended up in Alfred's stomach! At the conclusion of the trial, the judge's exact words were, "Alferd Packer, you voracious man-eater, there were only seven Democrats in Hinsdale County, and you done et five of 'em."

So, is there a connection between taxation and cannibalism?  Draw your own conclusions.  However, my guess is that there is a Tea Party contingent that delights in the political persuasion of those seven victims.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Good Friday

Since Alex Ross devoted today’s post to his The Rest is Noise to an audio clip from Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 4 cantata, Christ lag in Todesbanden, I figured that a shout-out was due to another media source recognizing Good Friday on a totally different, but equally relevant, axis.  That source is SiriusXM Radio and their Metropolitan Opera Radio channel.  As an early riser, I was able to appreciate that they chose to begin the day with a broadcast of a performance of Richard Wagner’s Parsifal given in the Metropolitan Opera House on April 20, 1974.  The conductor was William Steinberg;  and the leading soloists were Jess Thomas (Parsifal), Janis Martin (Kundry), and Thomas Stewart (Gurnemanz).

It is important to remember that Wagner never called Parsifal an “opera.”  As I observed last October in my review of the live recording taken from the Mariinsky Concert Hall under the direction of Valery Gergiev, Wagner called the work “‘ein Bühnenweihfestspiel,’ which its Wikipedia entry translates as ‘A Festival Play for the Consecration of the Stage.’”  I can imagine that this must have fit nicely into Wagner’s vision of his Bayreuth Festspielhaus;  but, in the context of my somewhat anthropological view of the rich and mighty, I have never really thought of the Met as a site to be consecrated.  Furthermore, I remember an old Opera News article by Michael Steinberg, which observed that Wagner did most of his work on this piece in a perfumed bath.

In spite of these factors, I have never really taken to revisionist productions that try to debunk the undercurrents of faith in the libretto for this music.  (Hans-Jürgen Syberberg’s cinematic conception of the piece probably remains the most ludicrous case in point.)  In any interpretation that does not maliciously distort the basic narrative, even an atheist can appreciate the fundamental role of ritual in the plot line and the ways in which Wagner’s music establishes that role.  Indeed, the music for Good Friday has absolutely nothing to do with the Crucifixion.  It is an orchestral depiction of the return of spring, whose descriptive capacity can be just as effective in the abstract setting of a concert hall as on the most imaginatively equipped opera stage.

Without intending to offend any Christian readers, I would say that there is a perfectly good atheist reading of this narrative.  The plot line is ultimately about rebirth of hope in a time of despair.  Considering current conditions around the world, we could do with a lot more performances of this work right now!

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Slighting Bartók?

It occurred to me this morning, while listening to a recording of Béla Bartók’s fifth string quartet, the first of the Bartók quartets I ever heard, that I have not yet reviewed a performance of any of these quartets on  Indeed, it appears that my only recent account of a performance of Bartók’s music on my San Francisco platform involved the New Century Chamber Orchestra performance of his string orchestra version of six short Romanian folk dances by the New Century Chamber Orchestra at the kick-off concert for their eight-city tour of the Midwest and California this past January.  This is not to suggest that Bartók has been unduly neglected in this city.  The Takás Quartet performed his fourth quartet when they visited last October;  and I even recommended Robert Greenberg’s latest series of lecture-demonstrations in conjunction with the Alexander String Quartet, covering the quartets of both Bartók and his colleague Zoltán Kodály, as an ideal “Christmas gift for the serious listener.”  (The last of these presentations will take place on May 14 and focus on the last two Bartók quartets.)

I am fully aware that concert programming is very much at the mercy of what is fashionable.  Bartók was all the rage when I was a student, but for most audiences that counts as ancient history.  Those who were around may not have memories as vivid as my own.  Still, given the interest that still forms around the music of György Ligeti, one might think that some of that interest might extend to Ligeti’s own listening experiences and the role that Bartók must have played in them.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Whose Recovery?

The optimism in the lead paragraph for this morning’s market report on the BBC News Web site is almost palpable:

Shares in the US and Europe have seen big gains following a raft of strong company results which have boosted hopes of a sustained economic recovery.

One might think this actually means something;  but, as always, the devil is in the details.  At least the BBC had the good sense to keep those details above the fold (in the Web-based sense of that term of art):

Companies such as Goldman Sachs, Intel and IBM reported strong results on Tuesday, and results from Apple and American Express are due on Wednesday.

Are we really supposed to take these decidedly elite data points as grounds for “hopes of a sustained economic recovery?”  Let’s not kid ourselves.  If anyone has experienced any sense of recovery, it has been the high-stakes shareholders, who have never had any serious concerns since they realized that the government would take care of them with bailout money.  All those people in line for any job they can get from McDonald’s, featured on last night’s local news here in San Francisco, do not have the word “recovery” in their working vocabulary, nor do those on (or over) the brink of foreclosure on their homes.

I appreciate that news organizations need to provide thorough business reporting, but those stories are ultimately aimed at an elite class of readers.  I can appreciate that The Wall Street Journal only cares about that class.  However, do we not have reason to expect a broader point of view from those sources that have been established for the rest of us?

Monday, April 18, 2011

Rational Government?

Elizabeth Drew had a post ready for NYRBlog almost as soon as an agreement on the budget had been reached to prevent the shutdown of the United States Government.  As usual, she did an excellent job in providing a “post-game” analysis, with both recent and historical context to put the week’s antics in their proper perspective.  I find it ironic that Donald Trump seems to have taken the closure of these follies as a cue to start testing the waters for his own run for the Presidency, and I can only imagine that Drew is warming up her fingers for her next assault on her keyboard.

Nevertheless, that irony is also a reflection of one of the key assertions in Drew’s Friday post.  Reviewing the who production of political theater over the budget, she concludes that it raises the question of “whether in the current political circumstances, this country can be governed in any rational way.”  That appeal to rationality strikes me as a bit naïve, coming from someone with so much experience in watching politicians at work.  One would have thought that Drew would have recognized Max Weber’s precept that politics is ultimately all about power and who gets to exercise how much of it.  Furthermore, issues of power are situated along the “dimension of domination” in Anthony Giddens’ structuration theory, which Giddens identified as “orthogonal” (my word, not his) to the dimension of “signification,” along which we engage rational thinking to make sense of the world.  To play with words a bit, there may be a rationale behind actions taken over matters of power;  but the motives behind those actions need not necessarily be rational!

Even our Founding Fathers realized that the new country that had just emerged would not (and probably could not) be “governed in any rational way.”  This is why separation of powers and the need for checks and balances played such a significant role in the Constitution that was drafted.  It was also why “selling” those concepts was a major “selling point” in The Federalist, those papers published and circulated to encourage the ratification of that Constitution by all thirteen newly-formed states.  Even Peanuts recognized the inadequacy of rationality in the face of power.  In the words of Lucy van Pelt:

He was beginning to make sense, so I hit him.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Freedom of Speech in the World the Internet has Made

BBC News reported a significant turnout by major figures in British comedy at a benefit to raise money to assist Paul Chambers with his legal expenses.  For those on this side of the pond unfamiliar with the name, Chambers is the frustrated traveler who, upon discovering that his airport was closed due to snow, vented his anger through the following tweet:

Crap! Robin Hood Airport is closed. You've got a week... otherwise I'm blowing the airport sky high!

In a culture that now lives in fear of terrorists, he was prosecuted for sending a menacing communication, found guilty, fined £385, and told to pay £600 costs.  He has appealed the verdict, which he why he needs help with his legal expenses.

The guests of honor at the benefit held to the position that the tweet was never more than a joke.  Addressing the benefit audience, Chamber’s lawyer said:

We should be able to have banter.  We should be able to speak freely without the threat of legal coercion.

The United States has had more than its fair share of freedom-of-speech cases.  Indeed, there have been enough to fill a book;  and Anthony Lewis wrote that book, giving it the title Freedom for the Thought That We Hate.  However, of all the judicial decisions issued over First Amendment rights, the most memorable will always be Oliver Wendell Holmes’ proposition that freedom of speech does not grant the right to shout “Fire!” in a crowded place when there is no fire.

Much as I respect the spirit behind this benefit, I would submit that the Holmes decision still stands as a valuable guideline.  I believe it is relevant because, whatever else we may say about it, the Internet has become a very crowded place.  A decade ago we fretted over a miniscule amount of information triggering automatic trading software and sending the markets into a tailspin.  Ultimately, that was an objective problem that could be reduced to mathematical models.  The complexity of the Internet as a social space cannot be so simply reduced (however hard the online marketing folks may try to do so);  and its dynamics are far less predictable that those of an audience filling every seat in a theater.

Indeed, the dynamics are so complex that the simple question of whether the text of a tweet can be classified as a joke or a terrorist threat is just not a well-defined one.  It is not only that the text cannot be classified by a context-free method;  it is also that it will be read by many readers, each endowed with a different context.  Thus, in the absence of any sound approach to evaluating the incriminating text, the court chose to rule on the side of caution.  Ultimately, the ruling had more to do with the social climate of fear than with the content of the text.

Do I agree with this ruling?  Before I answer this I feel it appropriate to state a bit of my own context that I feel is relevant.  I was living in Singapore when the American teenager Michael Fay was arrested, tried, and convicted for theft and vandalism there.  His sentence included four strokes of the cane, making this the first time that an American citizen had been sentenced to caning.  This happened in 1994, which, in the grander scheme of things, was after Singapore had made its first venture into cable, meaning that I could get my news from both Singapore Broadcasting and CNN;  so I had a good sense of how the American media chose to inflate this story.  I also had a personal sense of what it meant to be an American expatriate in Singapore.

My own opinion of the Fay case was that anyone who lives in another country is obliged to understand enough about the culture of that country to anticipate the consequences of any action within that culture.  Actually, that obligation holds as much in one’s native country as in any other.  We just take it for granted that we understand our own culture, but I would argue that this is a specious assumption.  Indeed, the weakness of that assumption provides a reason for why Holmes’ issued the decision he did;  and we may treat that decision as a corollary of this general “law of culture and consequences.”

Both Fay and Chambers chose to ignore that cultural law.  Fay had to take the consequences of his decisions regarding both his specific criminal act and his lack of cultural awareness.  It is all very well for Chambers’ lawyer to argue that we should be able to banter;  but, between the “crowded conditions” of the Internet and the climate of fear that has become global in scope, we cannot do so casually.  The consequences of what we say are not what they used to be.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Christopher Hitchens Turns "sour and nasty and boring"

The London Telegraph ran a preview of an interview that Christopher Hitchens gave for In Confidence, which will air tonight on Sky Arts.  Apparently, his romance with the United States is officially over.  However, like all too many romances, it may have been based on unrealistic premises.  Here is the key Hitchens quote from the Telegraph piece:

The great thing about the United States and the historically magnetic effect it has had on a lot of people like me is its generosity, to put it simply. Broadness of mind, curiosity, willingness to accept strangers, allowing them to become citizens really quite easily, assimilate to their arrival.

Really?  I was reminded of a stunt that the Philadelphia Bulletin pulled back when I was still in secondary school.  They ran an article whose headline asked if Philadelphia was still the “City of Brotherly Love.”  They sent a reporter into the center of town without a wallet, instructing him to go up to total strangers and ask for help.  The results were upliftingly positive … until the letters appeared in the following issue.  The primary theme among those criticizing the success of the reporter in getting help involved one simple question:  “What if he were black?”  I submit that the same question be put to Hitchens’ above assumptions about our “American character.”

The quote in my title comes from another quote in the Telegraph piece:

There is a tremendously cramped feeling now, a mean spirited feeling, that was very much to be detected in the last election cycle. People talking in what I would once I suppose described as Dennis Thatcherite terms, you know, curmudgeonly, but rather less amusing than him. The country is filling up with riff-raff, the country is going to the dogs, the President doesn’t seem to be sixteen anas to the rupee, he might even be a Kenyan. Petty, spiteful stuff of that kind and coming from some quite senior people. It hardly even deserves the name of cynicism or pessimism, it’s just sour and nasty and boring.

Did it even occur to Hitchens that any mean spirits might be traced back to questions of race associated with recent electoral results;  or did he feel too polite (or too high-valued) to consider this as a hypothesis?

This is not to suggest that any flaws in Hitchens’ idealized American character can be attributed entirely to race.  Rather, America has a historical tradition of being less receptive to any “other” than Hitchens’ wants to believe.  The whole idea of the Turner thesis about the frontier was that, if you were an “alienated other,” you could go past the frontier and stake out turf of your own.

That thesis no longer holds.  Now we have to live with each other.  Guess what?  We are not doing a very good job of it, and this is most evident in the consequences of our outrageous distribution of wealth (which include the increase in mean-spirited politics).  Why should Hitchens expect any higher values from our current culture?

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Useful Data or Self-Serving Junk?

I have never tried to hide my suspicion of the World Economic Forum.  Indeed, I have been so bold as to suggest that they are bogged down in a worldview that is “reckless, if not downright delusional.”  Thus, I really did not know what to make of their latest exercise in rank ordering countries in terms of competitiveness in the digital economy, whose results were reported last night on the BBC News Web site.  Certainly, the top ten “winners” in this “contest” did not particularly surprise me:
  1. Sweden
  2. Singapore
  3. Finland
  4. Switzerland
  5. United States
  6. Taiwan
  7. Denmark
  8. Canada
  9. Norway
  10. South Korea
No, it was the part of the BBC report that discussed how the ordering was determined that got to me:

The report, which covers 138 economies, looks at three areas.

They are the general business, regulatory and infrastructure environment for ICT [information and communications technologies]; the readiness of the three key stakeholder sectors - individuals, businesses and governments - to use and benefit from ICT; and the actual usage of available ICT.

To be both frank and blunt, do those criteria really mean anything;  and, if so, just what do they mean to whom?  Presumably the “infrastructure environment” would come down to how much bandwidth is available to how much of the population;  but how do you evaluate the “regulatory environment?”  Is it evaluated in terms of favoring economic growth, even when such favor may conflict with quality of life for some (many?) sectors of the population?  Does it address conscientious vigilance in protecting all three “stakeholder sectors” from the many forms of pathological behavior that are enabled by network technology?  In the face of current debates over net neutrality, does it evaluate “readiness” in terms of affordability or just some vague assessment of “public attitude?”

In other words have we any good reason to believe that these results are based on anything other than junk data?

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Pastime with Opera Company

I see from Andrew Ross’ latest post to his The Rest is Noise blog that there is a competition to summarize opera plots in at most 140 characters (the size limit of a tweet).  This reminded me of the good old days when Mad Magazine was still clever enough to do some really funny things.  More specifically, I was reminded of the issue that was a parody of Reader’s Digest.  The condensed novel in the issue was Gone with the Wind.  The entire condensation (which seems appropriate to cite on the 75th anniversary of the book) was as follows:



There also used to be a vinyl label called Crossroads that had some very clever cover designs.  The one for Richard Wagner’s Götterdämmerung could easily count for a non-verbal summary of the entire opera (if not the entire Ring cycle).  It was a crumbling cookie.

The Arrogance of Audacity

One of the selling points in Barack Obama’s “audacity of hope” campaign for the Presidency was that, as a mature adult who treated others as mature adults, he would be able to bridge the gap between Democrats and Republicans formed by ideological obsessions.  Many of us (myself included) decided that the most audacious hope would be that “audacity of hope” would be more than just a slogan for winning the election.  As of this morning we know better (if we did not already know this);  and we have Jay Newton-Small of Time to thank for it.

Newton-Small’s article is entitled “Budget Showdown: Five Things Obama Learned about John Boehner;”  and it is not a bad analysis.  However, the “killer message” in this article comes in the opening sentences, before the analysis has begun:

On the night that Republicans won control of the House, the White House Press Office came to a startling realization: They had no contact information for Speaker-to-be John Boehner. In President Obama's first two years in office, he'd reached out to House Republicans so little that they had no reason to get to know - or even get phone numbers or e-mails for - Boehner's staff.

Sure enough, that “mature adults” business was just another “fiction of convenience” for political gain, with the corollary that any hope worthy of audacity is just as fictitious.  The only audacity lies with the arrogance with which political power is exercised, and that is just business as usual!

Monday, April 11, 2011

Loss of Meaning at the International Monetary Fund

For those of us who prefer plain English to the language of economists, the statement of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), just reported on the BBC News Web site, will probably sound perplexing:

The recovery has solidified, but unemployment remains high.

It turns out that the first clause in this sentence presumes that recovery is based on a single quantitative value, the projected rate of economic growth.  This says nothing about those without jobs, let alone those who have lost their homes through foreclosure and those who cannot make monthly payments necessary for rent and groceries, not to mention health care.

Put another way, this is a usage of the noun “recovery” that is directed at investors (particularly those with large quantities to invest).  Furthermore, it is a forecast, which may or may not be substantiated by the same base of credible data that the weatherman uses every night to tell you whether it will rain the next day.  The difference is that the weatherman is usually sensible enough to advise you on the proper precautions to take.  The IMF does no such thing.  It just puts out a statement about the behavior of numbers that are at best a “fiction of convenience” and seldom pretend to have anything to do with abstractions such as “value” or “quality of life.”

This raises an interesting ontological question, if this episode is to be regarded as a matter of loss of meaning.  If the mission of BBC News is to report relevant news to the general public, is an account of a statement released by the IMF (delivered “raw” without commentary or interpretation) a responsible act of reporting?  One might say that the IMF is sufficiently recognized as a major institution in the financial sector that it would be irresponsible to neglect its forecasts.  However, this takes us down the slippery slope dealing with how most major news organizations chose to “report” (scare quotes intended) about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

I suppose my own opinion is that there is never anything wrong with reporting hard data, but most of those data are incomprehensible.  Thus, the general public is unlikely to get very far with them without mediating interpretation of the data.  The problem with most reporting is that it never makes clear where the data end and the interpreting begins, let alone the who and how of the interpreting process.  (Here in San Francisco we now get television reports that explicitly cite the use of computer models for weather forecasting, even going so far as to use the plural.  The reporters never give details about the models, but at least they are more explicit about the need for interpretation than most “news” reporters.)  Furthermore, even more critical than the who and how is the why of interpreting.  Every human interpreter is a motivated agent.  What we learned from the weapons-of-mass-destruction mess was the extent to which motive can interfere with the reliability of an interpretation.  One would think that a few paragraphs about a statement released by the IMF would be rather innocuous;  but, if we recognize that there are neither explicit data points nor any acknowledgement of interpretative processes in those paragraphs, it seems reasonable to classify even this modest blip on the news wire as irresponsible.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Snooki's Rutgers Gig

I rather enjoyed Catherine Rampell’s “Snookinomics” piece, which appeared in the Sunday edition of The New York Times.  It reminded me of the days when spending Sunday morning with the print edition of the paper was a fun experience.  These days no day is particularly fun;  and, to rephrase the old joke, on the Internet no one knows that its Sunday.

Nevertheless, Rampell’s efforts to do the math behind Nicole (Snooki) Polizzi receiving $32,000 to give a talk at Rutgers University made for amusing reading, particularly since Rampell led with the data point that this figure was $2000 more than the fee Toni Morrison will receive for delivering a commencement speech next month.  Rampell also observed that the “Snooki speech” addressed such contemporary issues as “drinking and tanning.”  (You were expecting her to talk about John McCain?  McCain was the beneficiary of that Twitter episode, not Snooki!)

Rampell basically did a cost/benefit analysis using an appearance at LAX in Las Vegas as a baseline.  The bottom line was that the fee for her Vegas appearance at the time was $25,000, and it brought in $259,406 in revenue for LAX.  Rampell then observed, perhaps a bit cattily, that “a university like Rutgers doesn’t have the same profit motives as a nightclub.”  Really?  Rampell might do well to take a look at Peter Brooks account of the economics of American universities in the March 24 issue of The New York Review (even if this is not part of her usual “Fashion & Style” turf).  My guess is that, in the current economic climate, a club in Las Vegas has a more secure revenue stream than any American university!

In its own way, Rampell’s article lends support to Brooks’ jeremiad about contemporary American academic life.  Indeed, she found the perfect punch line in the words of senior Ana Castillo, President of the Rutgers University Programming Association, the student group that booked Snooki.  Here is the Castillo quote that concluded the article:

A large part of what brings students to a school is not just the academics, but what you can offer outside of the classroom.

We have to show applicants what kinds of fun we have, to show that students here aren’t dying from just reading books 24 hours a day.

In other words the whole affair was all about marketing, entirely consistent with the points that Brooks tried to make in far more sober (no offense to Snooki) language.