Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Dangerous Generalization

Today’s post to the Social Business blog by Rich Harris on ZDNet has a fascinating headline:

Will advertising lose the war against word of mouth?

While this question may entail “a consummation/Devoutly to be wished,” Harris’ supporting argument has at least one questionable proposition:

59% of Americans believe offline word of mouth is highly credible, 49% believe online is.

Is this really true?  My guess is that the answer to this question is the rabbinical one:

It depends.

In other words it depends on just whose mouth is the source, whether that source is offline or online.  Thus, my neighbor may spend as lot of time reading Consumer Reports;  but, if he has never driven a car, I would be unlikely to hold a conversation about the best car for me to buy.  My guess is that there is an analogy to this assertion for just about anything I would be thinking about buying.

This does not negate Harris’ assertion that most people recognize that any advertising source is suspect.  However, that is a trivial conclusion to draw once you accept the premise that any communicative action has a motive, since you are unlikely to share the motive of the advertiser.  Nevertheless, identifying motive is never easy, even in the most conducive of settings.  Thus, however effective word-of-mouth may be, the question of finding a reliable and authoritative “mouth” is still with us and not easily solved.

Friday, November 25, 2011

On the Balance between Saving and Consumption

Sheldon Garon has a provocative and informative piece on the op-ed page of today’s New York Times.  His title is “Why We Spend, Why They Save;”  and his argument is distilled from his recent book, Beyond Our Means:  Why America Spends While the World Saves.  The “they” of his piece today is a bit more specific than the title of his book, since all of his contrasting examples come from European countries.  I suspect that “the world” is a bit too much of a generalization, Particularly if you are going to include much of the African and Asian continents.

Nevertheless, his point is a good one.  The key differentiating factor between the United States and his counterexamples, according to Garon, is that, as a culture, we lack “a balanced approach to saving and spending.”  He then offers several examples of how saving is accepted as a way of life in major European cultures.  By contrast, he describes conditions in the United States following the Second World War as follows:

The United States emerged from the war with unparalleled prosperity and hardly needed further savings campaigns. Instead politicians, businessmen and labor leaders all promoted consumption as the new driver of economic growth. Rather than democratize saving, the American system rapidly democratized credit. An array of federal housing and tax policies enabled Americans to borrow to buy homes and products as no other people could.

This “unparalleled prosperity” ultimately led to unparalleled deregulation, reinforced with an apparent amnesiac attitude towards the past history of the Great Depression.  Garon then traces the nuts and bolts of the consequences of deregulation to current conditions in which most of the 99% have enough wealth to consider saving any of it.

I would like to suggest that another approach to Garon’s argument may be framed in terms of how we think about time.  Consumption is driven by thinking about the present, which entails an entirely different mindset from thinking about the future, that being the motivation behind spending.  Furthermore, that motivation can be reinforced by thinking about the past, at least as far back as that history of the Great Depression.  I have argued often that we are a culture that has lost touch with the value of history and that this has induced an underlying amnesia in our thinking about economics.  I have further argued that our consumerism is an addiction that may have emerged from that “unparalleled prosperity” but is now aggravated by the power of our many recent technological innovations.  It is through that addiction that our ability to think about the future has been suppressed, resulting in our radical imbalance between saving and consumption, particularly in comparison to our European cousins.

In other words consumerism may have undermined more than our grasp of history and savings in “economic reasoning;”  we may also be experiencing a more pernicious atrophy of time-consciousness itself!

Thursday, November 24, 2011

The Potential for Dialog

Whatever we may say about issues, it would appear that the British Parliament is better equipped in argue its way out of economic crisis than is the United States government.  One reason may be that none of the Members of Parliament have achieved their seats by taking a pledge to oppose taxation in any form or by appealing to an electorate motivated only by personal hatred (which seems to be a not insignificant sentiment towards our President).  Rather the debate is one over strategies and tactics for achieving a substantive recovery before the United Kingdom finds itself in the same dire straits as Greece.

Thus this morning we have the BBC News report of a speech by Labour leader Ed Miliband that cuts right to the fundamental strategic difference between his party and the Conservatives.  As is the case in our own country and in most of the European Union, the prevailing Conservative opinion is that the most important problem is one of a growing deficit than can only be managed by austerity.  This is based on the prevailing opinions of economists with close ties to major financial institutions, often called “technocrats” by the news media.  The Labour argument, on the other hand, is that those beholden to such financial institutions care only about the success of those institutions, with little concern for that “99% segment” of the general population.  That negligence is the primary reason for popular demonstrations that have sprung up not only in the United States but in most other “developed” countries.

The Labour argument is that recovery and growth can only come at a price.  Unfortunately, that price can only be paid by that “1%” with the capital to do so.  Such spending, however, would look bad on the balance sheets that have to be presented to their shareholders.  Thus, we have the technocrat philosophy that a choice between unhappy shareholders and an unhappy electorate is a no-brainer.  The shareholders will win every time.

This is a good time for us to watch what is happening in the United Kingdom.  Politics is still local over there.   Representatives are still elected on the basis of whether or not their own segment of the population believes that their interests will be served.  Furthermore, the United Kingdom is not locked into our fixed scheduling of which elections are held when.  If things come to a head, a general election can be called, which would lead to a referendum on the public reaction to austerity.  True, most voters do not understand economics with the sophistication of technocrats.  However, as the saying goes, they tend to be good at recognizing when an egg is fresh, even if they cannot lay the eggs themselves.

The current economic crisis is also a crisis over philosophies of governance itself, and what happens in Great Britain may tell us a thing or two about the future of other governmental institutions.

Confusing the Reader

Normally, my rants over sloppy news coverage are directed at Yahoo!  However, every now and then a blooper pops up from the other side of the pond;  and fairness dictates that I recognize that more reputable sources blunder, too.  It was not that long ago that I took Ivan Hewitt of the London Telegraph to task for his silly declaration of Wayne Shorter as “the Wagner of jazz;”  but this time we are dealing with news rather than opinion (at least on The Telegraph’s part).

This morning the Music News section on the Web site for The Telegraph has a story sporting the following headline:

Jimi Hendrix named 'greatest guitar player in history'

That hyperbole is supplemented with a sub-headline:

Legendary musician Jimi Hendrix has been named the greatest guitar player in history by Rolling Stone magazine in a list compiled by a panel of music experts and top guitar players.

Fortunately, the report itself begins with a quote from Tom Morello that is far less sloppy:

Jimi Hendrix exploded our idea of what rock music could be: He manipulated the guitar, the whammy bar, the studio and the stage.

Kudos go to Morello for appreciating the value of that adjectival “rock.”  Why The Telegraph decided to omit those four letters from its headline is a mystery.  Did they really think that the guitar did not exist before the rock era?  My guess is that Rolling Stone knew better, designing their poll around the genre they knew best.  I guess The Telegraph, conservative as it may be, could not resist the temptation to look cool for this story.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Getting Rid of Dead Wood

This morning BBC News reported that Google is getting rid of seven of its products.  The general consensus is that Google is finally recognizing the seriousness of competition, and the BBC story cited Facebook as a specific example.  It described Google’s action as a “cull” and observed that this was the third such effort.

I suppose it comes down to whether you prefer animal or vegetable metaphors.  Personally, I thought that Knol was dead wood from the day of its launch.  In this case I suppose that I preferred vegetable to animal because, at the time of launch, no one bothered to take word “BETA” off of its Web site.  It was as if one faction thought this “knowledge product” was cool but another likened it to a bowl of leftover lima beans.  It was definitely hard to think of Knol having any animal qualities.  At best is was a product of let-a-thousand-flowers-bloom thinking;  and now it has suffered the fate of all those flowers that bloomed in Mao’s garden!

Monday, November 21, 2011

Freedom to Consume?

I have been reading Tim Parks’ New York Review account of Ingo Schulze’s novel Adam and Evelyn.  This is basically a comic novel, much of whose plot depends on the division of Germany into East and West,  The “Adam” is a skilled Taylor in East Germany, who has, by Eastern standards, made a comfortable life for himself.  Nevertheless, he follows his girlfriend into the West after Hungary opens its border with Austria.  Adam’s life changes, but not for the better.  A tailor cannot make a living in a culture where people have no end of choices of clothes they can buy off the rack, even if those clothes do not fit very well.  What struck me was how Schultze (at least in the English translation by John E. Woods) was able to encapsulate Adam’s plight in a single sentence:

Too much, too many, an inflation of stuff that buries everything else, the essential things, the real things.

I do not take this as nostalgia for either the ideals of Marxism or the reality of Communism.  However, in the wake of Woodrow Wilson’s ideal vision of an America that would make the world safe for democracy, it seems as if our country has succumbed to a distorting conflation of democracy with consumerism.  Freedom of choice has less to do with selecting those who govern and more to do with choosing Coke over Pepsi (or, in the case of a recent Harry’s Law episode, choosing to ban the presence of foreign cars within the limits of one’s city).

In the past I have written about losing touch with the real as it pertains to people so absorbed in their personal mobile devices that they are oblivious to the real world around them (such as traffic).  However, reality has also been buried (to use Schulze’s metaphor) under mounds of ideology that have, once again, crippled our government to the point of failure (or so it seems in the wake of the deadlocked “super-committee” on spending cuts).  This is the sort of thing that makes the 138 members of “Patriotic Millionaires for Fiscal Strength" look pretty good in their petition to have their taxes increased;  but here, too, we need a reality check.  These millionaires may appreciate the value of a “public good;”  but that does not mean that they recognize the differences between corporate management and governance.  Perhaps the more dire consequence of Max Weber’s “loss of meaning” is that, through our addiction to consumerism, we have become a culture that can no longer accommodate reality in our shared life-world (let alone the proposition that the life-world must, out of the necessities of social theory, be shared).  From a Darwinian perspective, I would think that this will make our chances for survival pretty low.  Then again, most fundamentalists, regardless of their specific faith, always seem to have a pretty low opinion of Darwin!

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Ubiquity of Mozart's Opera Technique

Earlier this year, at the Annual Meeting of the Music Critics Association of North America, I saw a video by New York Times music critic Anthony Tommasini, produced as part of an effort to build up his “Web presence.”  In introducing the video, he said he was motivated by a desire to promote the same interest in serious music that Leonard Bernstein had achieved through television.  His example involved a keyboard demonstration to warrant the hypothesis that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s finest operatic qualities could also be found in his instrumental music, Tommasini’s example being a movement from one of the piano sonatas, easily demonstrated through his talking above his own keyboard performance.

I have to confess that I like this thesis.  However, I can also confess that my interest in Bernstein was already waning once I got out of high school.  I think that one of his problems was that he always seemed to resolve everything into cut-and-dried answers;  and now, looking back on all of that stuff, I realize that the greatest joy in listening is that it is always capable of stimulating new questions and new perspectives.

I also later learned that Bernstein could be sloppy when it came to giving credit where credit was due.  His best ideas often came from some source that tended to be left unacknowledged.  (Television is not very kind to footnotes.)  Therefore, I was not surprised to discover that Tommasini’s thesis about Mozart was not original.  By the same count I should not have been surprised to discover that the “prior art” could be attributed to Arnold Schoenberg.  I guess I was surprised because I encountered it in Schoenberg’s famous “Brahms the Progressive” essay.  Here is the text from Schoenberg that he then generalizes from opera to other genres:

Accommodation of the music to every change of mood and action, materially or psychologically, is the most essential problem an opera composer has to master.  Inability in this respect might produce incoherence—or worse, boredom.  The technique of the recitative escapes this danger by avoiding motival and harmonic obligations in which it might have engaged.  But the ‘Finales’ and many ‘Ensembles’ and even ‘Arias’ contain heterogeneous elements to which the technique of lyric condensation is not applicable.  In pieces of this type a composer must be capable of turning within the smallest space.  Mozart, anticipating this necessity, begins such a piece with a melody consisting of a number of phrases of various lengths and characters, each of them pertaining to a different phase of the action and the mood.  They are, in their first formulation, loosely joined together, and after simply juxtaposed, thus admitting to be broken asunder and used independently as motival materials for small formal segments.

This may lack the “multimedia appeal” of talking over a keyboard performance;  but it also goes beyond the what-a-pretty-mud-pie rhetoric to seek out just which nuts and bolts of Mozart’s operatic scores generalize so well.  Alas, this is the sort of argument that ultimately resides in the power of words and the kind of reflective thought we can bring to reading from the page, rather than watching a demonstration through video.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Some (138) of the One Percent Speak!

Here is a tidbit from what appears to be Al Jazeera English’s own sources:

Nearly 140 millionaires have asked a divided US congress to increase their taxes for the sake of the nation.

"Please do the right thing, raise our taxes," the entrepreneurs and business leaders wrote to President Barack Obama and congressional leaders on Wednesday, noting that they benefited from a sound economy and now want others to do so.

The letter was signed by 138 members of "Patriotic Millionaires for Fiscal Strength".

The group was created a year ago during a failed bid to persuade congress to end tax cuts for millionaires enacted under Obama's predecessor, the Republican George Bush.

Al Jazeera's Alan Fisher, reporting from Washington DC, said the group is now making the same request of a 12-member congressional "super committee", which is struggling to reach a bipartisan deal to cut the deficit by at least $1.2tn over the next decade in order to help put the nation on sound financial footing.

While I do not wish to question the patriotism of those 138 members, I am not sure their strategy is the most effective approach.  The Occupy movement is as much about the failure of our government to “do the right thing” as it is about the prevailing obscene division of wealth.  It is time to give serious consideration to the hypothesis that our government may be responsible for the lion’s share of the problem, not because (as the TEA Party wishes us to believe) it is too big but because (as Senator Bernie Sanders observed this morning on C-SPAN) it just is not working very well for reasons having more to do with preoccupation with power than with the inefficiencies of size.

Thus, it may be better for those 138 millionaires to circumvent the government, rather than petition it.  It should not be difficult for them to set up their own non-profit beneficent organization that can make its own decisions as to how wealth can be distributed to address problems such as health care and unemployment.  They could then donate their wealth to this organization (in an amount that factors in the tax break they would receive for doing so).  This could well be a major shift from current European logic, where it appears that power is passing to technocrats who only want to think about austerity.  The premise seems simple enough:  If you have 138 individuals who care more about the public good than our elected representative do and they have the fiscal clout to do something about the degradation of that public good, why should they assume that only government can provide a solution?

Occupy Apple?

Raj Jayadev offers a new perspective on the Occupy movement in his “Occupy 101” column for the San Francisco Bay Guardian.  His first sentence provides the perfect summary:

The One Percent are not only the bankers and traders on Wall Street — they’re alive and thriving in Silicon Valley.

If this point needed reinforcing, one only has to turn to yesterday’s Apple Talk report by Josh Lowensohn for CNET News:

Disney President and CEO Robert Iger will be pulling in just over six figures after joining Apple's board, when you consider both his annual retainer and his initial grant of restricted stock units.

In an SEC filing today, Apple noted that Iger--who joined Apple's board of directors yesterday--will get "the standard $50,000 annual retainer" which is to be paid out in quarterly installments.

Additionally, Iger gets an initial grant of 142 restricted stock units, as part of the company's Director Plan, worth about $55,000 based on Apple's current trading price. According to Apple's annual proxy filing earlier year, those shares are set to vest in February.

Other perks Iger gets as an Apple board member include "one of each new product" Apple introduces, free of charge, under the company's Board of Directors Equipment Program; that's if he requests them, the program's description says.

As a frame of reference, Iger's base salary last year as the CEO of Walt Disney was just shy of $2.8 million. However he pulled in more than $28 million when including a mix of performance-based bonuses and annual equity awards.

In many ways this is yet another version of the premise that Silicon Valley is a hotbed of elitist discrimination, which is why there was a recent debate on ZDNet over whether or not Silicon Valley is racist.  As I put it in my comment on that debate, “elites neither know nor care very much about the broader social consequences of all that innovation they are so eager to promote.”  In other words Silicon Valley is no different from Wall Street in that, for those who succeed, it’s all about the money;  and nothing else matters other than indulging in that money once you have it.  The Macintosh used to be advertised as the computer “for the rest of us;”  but, now that Apple has its current farm full of cash cows, they could care less about anyone who does not keep bumping up the bottom line on their balance sheets.

Monday, November 14, 2011

The World is Watching

Just for the record, the police raid to clear Frank Ogawa Plaza of the Occupy Oakland protestors received coverage from both BBC News and Al Jazeera English.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

The Luxury of Scholarship

Last night’s San Francisco Symphony subscription concert, with its emphasis on the chamber music of Franz Schubert, was more disappointing than I had anticipated.  However, when I set about trying to write my “examination” of the event for Examiner.com, I realized that this was one of those cases where the usual techniques of criticism would not necessarily serve either the performers or myself very well.  Indeed, because last night’s audience seemed to be a bit at sea over the whole affair, this struck me as one of those situations in which “examining” would be more useful than “reviewing.”

The thing about examining, however, is that it tends to be highly context-dependent;  and one is not always certain, when undertaking the task, just what contextual elements are likely to be appropriate.  Therefore, I find it is useful, when dealing with context, to defer the usual introduction of the basic facts about the performance itself and follow the lead from Aristotle’s “Rhetoric” in preparing a suitable introduction.  (Aristotle talks about this as “paving the way, as it were, for what is to follow.”)  Thus, I found that I needed two introductory paragraphs to address the nature of performing chamber music before launching into any account of what actually happened on the stage of Davies Symphony Hall.

This strikes me as more than the usual question of how many “column inches” should go into writing about a performance (although I certainly enjoy the luxury of not having to worry about how many paragraphs it is going to take me to say what I want to say).  Rather, it is a matter of recognizing, at the outset, that any fair account entails some prerequisite level of scholarship.  Now I realize that the very concept of scholarship tends to turn off many readers, particularly those “enthusiasts” who bring their I-know-what-I-like attitude to the performance;  so there is the added challenge of making the scholarship not only palatable but also interesting.

Aristotle may have drawn upon flute music for his advice about introduction;  but I have discovered (often from the efforts of others) than a well-chosen anecdote is often the best way to lure the reader into territory that (s)he tends to be disposed to dislike for being too “heavy.”  In this case I had the luxury of being able to tell a story of personal experience, whose authority could be reinforced because it had taken place at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and had “name appeal” (in the form of Robert Mann, founder of the Julliard String Quartet).  Whether or not my strategy was a good one from the reader’s point of view, it definitely provided me with the framework I needed then to write down the points that mattered most about my disappointment with last night.  I suppose what mattered most to me was that I could make a case that involved something less superficial than merely picking nits, but I could not do this without first establishing what it was below the surface that was so significant.  This required Aristotelian introduction, and I guess that whether or not that strategy worked is a matter between me and my readers!

Thursday, November 10, 2011

What Matters to Today's College Students

Stephen Douglas seems to have come up with a relatively thorough on-the-spot account on The Big Lead of last night’s reaction at State College, Pennsylvania, to the dismissal of Penn State football coach Joe Paterno.  The climax seemed to come with the flipping of the media van for the local CBS affiliate.  Having just read Anthony Grafton’s “Our Universities:  Why Are They Failing?” in the latest New York Review, I wonder how he feels about this adding to his rather impressive pile of evidence.  No one is spared in Grafton’s jeremiad;  but probably the most depressing part of his account is that, by and large, college students are interested in just about every aspect of college life except for getting an education.  Is it any wonder that this leads to a crop of alumni that would rather shell out to support the football team rather than provide the library with the funds to purchase the latest professional journals?

Yes, my point of view is biased.  I had more than my share of student unrest during my time as both undergraduate and graduate student.  To this day, however, I continue to be thankful that I went to a school that did not have a football team (and was proud of it).

Hopefully, this is all a side show that will evaporate after its fifteen minutes of fame have passed.  Students may have led the protests against the Vietnam War and racism;  but today the Occupy protestors are those who have been burned by the real world, rather than sheltered by college life.  The Paterno affair was important enough to make it to BBC News World Service Radio this morning, but what must listeners outside the United States think?

Actually, scratch that question.  The BBC ran their Penn State report in the same segment that reported Rick Perry’s debate fumble.  We know what the rest of the world thinks, and we know their grounds for thinking it.  Over at Penn State, however, I would guess that few, if any, of the students care very much about what our country has become or how the rest of the world perceives it.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Preparing for Melnikov

I write a lot of preview pieces for my site at Examiner.com.  I try not to play favorites, because I feel it is important to give a fair account of the many options available for concert-going;  and that is within the constraint that, with very few exceptions, I only write about events within the San Francisco city limits.  Every now and then, however, I find myself previewing an event that has me personally champing at the bit in anticipation of the concert itself.  That is definitely the case with the San Francisco debut of Moscow-born pianist Alexander Melnikov, whose concert will finally take place this coming Saturday.

For the most part I try to focus my preview pieces on the music to be performed, rather than the personalities and/or reputations of the performers.  The program Melnikov has prepared is a doozy:  He will perform the fully cycle of 24 pairings of preludes and fugues in Dmitri Shostakovich’s Opus 87.  This is far from an ordinary recital.  It will begin at 1:30 PM (a nonstandard time unless German opera is involved);  and, including time for a single intermission, it is expected to conclude at 4:30 PM.  I shall be interested to see when the intermission takes place.  There is an obvious midpoint in the set;  but two of the fugues in the second half are particularly long:  the three-voice fugue in B-flat minor and the concluding D minor fugue, which is a four-voice double fugue.

Melnikov is currently in the middle of a North American tour, which began this past Sunday.  However, while he will play portions for Opus 87 at each of his stops, he is playing the entirety of the collection at only two venues, here in San Francisco and at the Mahaney Center for the Arts at Middlebury College in Vermont.  Fortunately, he has also recorded Opus 87 in its entirety, released last year on the harmonia mundi label.  I have been listening to it religiously in preparation for Saturday’s concert.  I have found that, as is the case with Johann Sebastian Bach’s similar effort (BWV 846–893), it helps for me to get a general sense of the whole work into my head through repeated listening.  In the case of Bach, I often try to put in time attempting to play some of the preludes and fugues myself;  but I have not yet worked up the courage to do the same with Shostakovich.  Indeed, I have not even purchased a copy of the sheet music, simply because I feel an obligation to get my ears in shape before worrying about burying my eyes in the score pages.  Yes, I know this will be a bit of a marathon experience;  but I am now sufficiently stoked for the occasion that I feel it will be well worth running!

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Where the Jobs Are: Government Informant

Associated Press writers Larry Neumeister and Stephen Braun ran a fascinating profile yesterday which is, to say the least (and with a bit of a pun intended), informative.  The subject of the profile is 40-year-old Guatemalan Carlos Sagastume, who seems to have made a profitable career out of being a government informer.  Consider this itemization of his earnings:

Sagastume made most of his millions through the State Department's Narcotics Rewards Program, collecting $7.5 million from two rewards for work he did for the Drug Enforcement Administration. Another $1.6 million was earned through work on 150 investigations, though some of the money covered expenses.

He was paid $250,000 for the [ex-Soviet officer and gun-runner Viktor] Bout probe. In all, the State Department has paid more than $62 million in rewards since Congress established the program in 1986 to reward individuals who provide information to help arrest and convict drug dealers.

One wonders if the University of Phoenix should introduce a new curriculum for those who aspire to be government informers.  However, when you consider how Sagastume acquired his skills, it becomes clear that this is unlikely to happen in any of our for-profit training institutions.  It turns out that he spent five years in the Guatemalan Army, where he specialized in gathering intelligence on subversive activity and guerilla activists.  After leaving the military he applied his skills to both dealing and transporting drugs.  Here is how Neumeister and Braun then pick up the story:

He [Sagastume] said that after he was kidnapped by federal police in Mexico and a $60,000 ransom was paid to free him, he contacted the DEA in Guatemala, looking for a new line of work.

By 1998, he had moved to the United States and was steadily delivering successful results in DEA investigations.

There you have it, folks, the ultimate alternative to flipping burgers, with no college degree required (not to mention an example of the salary difference between consultants and staff employees)!

Monday, November 7, 2011

The Inconvenient Truth about Politics and the Economy

What may be the most important sentence in Ezra Klein’s rather rambling account of Ron Suskind’s Confidence Men:  Wall Street, Washington, and the Education of a President for The New York Review lies buried in the middle of his text, where it runs the risk of being overlooked:

American’s don’t want leaders so much as they want jobs.

The is a variation of a lesson my wife use to teach to her middle school students about the early days of a Massachusetts Bay Colony.  Most of the residents of the colony recognized the importance of a representative government.  However, they tended not to have strong feelings about who represented.  The one exception to this rule of thumb concerned economic deliberations.  In other words whenever talk of money was involved, they wanted to make sure that they were represented by “one of their own.”

In many ways the Occupy movements amount to a latter-day reiteration of this principle.  American’s across the country look at Washington and see that their representation has been obscured by that elite “1%” of the rich and mighty, who either exert their influence directly or pay lobbyists to do a better job.  The sad conclusion is that it is not going to matter who wins any of the coming elections, because the same people, all of whom are external to the process of government is itself, will be pulling the same strings.  In other words this is further evidence that the very concept of “elected representative” has succumbed to what Max Weber called “loss of meaning.”

Sunday, November 6, 2011

An Aphorism from BOSS

I have not made up my mind whether I shall be watching Boss on the Starz channel regularly.  However, the latest episode had a line that definitely caught my attention:

Music critics answer to God and Mozart.

For those who do not know about this program, it is set in contemporary Chicago and is shaping up to be a changing-of-the-guard narrative about the passing from boss-based politics to the world of the Internet-driven social networks.  Personally, I cannot imagine any story about Chicago that lacks any reference, however much in passing, to the Chicago Symphony;  so I enjoyed an exchange about the ensemble providing the pretext for the above quote (even if I am not sure I subscribe to its assertion)!

Saturday, November 5, 2011

The Counterproductivity of Keyword-Based Advertising Selection

Sometimes it is not a question of how Yahoo! decides what is news.  Rather, the issue is how the news is handled once it is posted.  On Thursday Yahoo! News ran an Associated Press story by Joe Mandak whose lead was guaranteed to attract curious readers to pursue further:

A white man claims he was fired as manager of a suburban Panera Bread shop for repeatedly having a black man work the cash register instead of putting him in a less visible location and having "pretty young girls" be the cashiers.

The shop was located in Mount Lebanon, a relatively upscale suburb of Pittsburgh, which made the story all the more interesting.  From Yahoo!’s point of view, however, it is only about placing advertising based on keywords.  So here is a snapshot of the “Sponsored Links” section on the story’s Web page:
So who will be interested in coupons for buying from Panera after reading this story?  I suspect Panera would like to know as much as I would (although probably not for the same reasons)!

Friday, November 4, 2011

Power, Forbes Style

It has been a long time since I have taken Forbes seriously as a source of either news or background for any matters financial.  As a matter of fact, I am not sure I ever saw them as anything other than the owner of some rather expensive Romanoff artifacts.  That was at least enough for me to have a higher opinion of them than of The National Enquirer.

By keeping myself in blissful ignorance, I did not realize that they maintained an annual list of the world’s most powerful people, also known as “The 70 Who Matter.”  Had it not been for Chris Matyszczyk bringing it to my attention in a post to his Technically Incorrect blog on CNET News, I might have maintained my bliss.  Unfortunately, Chris let this cat out of the bag;  so I figured I would mix metaphors and rant a bit about why this dog just won’t hunt.

As anyone who has taken the trouble to study social theory at a depth greater than Eat, Pray, Love (or, if you prefer, the latest collection of anecdotes from Malcolm Gladwell) knows, power is a very tricky concept.  The ability of one person to influence, let alone force, the actions of another is highly context-dependent.  This means that there is no way power can be reduced to a set of criteria, each of which may be assigned a numeric value, after which those individual values can be weighted into some kind of “score.”  This, of course, is precisely what Forbes did.  To their credit, they have been perfectly up front about those criteria, which were enumerated in an article by staff writer Michael Noer as follows:

The ranking takes into account four factors.  First, we measured how many people a person has power over.  For a religious leader, like Pope Benedict XVI (#7), that would be the number of adherents, or Catholics, in the world.  For a CEO, like General Electric’s Jeffrey Immelt (#28) we counted the number of employees.

Then we looked at the financial resources controlled by each candidate, whether that is revenues (for a company), GDP (for a country) or net worth (for a billionaire). Next we asked: Is a candidate influential in more than one arena, or sphere? This bumped up the ranking of people like New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg (#17), who is a powerful politician, a self-made media billionaire and a major philanthropist.

Finally, we gave consideration to how actively the candidates wield their power.  This measure eliminated inactive heirs to great fortunes, semi-retired industrialists and former heads of state.  In all, 70 people made the final list, one for every 100 million people on the planet.

I also found it interesting that, on the site that gives the actual list, Forbes declares that their sample space includes “Heads of state, business and religious leaders, opinion makers and criminals.”  They seem to be discreet enough to evade any suggestion that these categories may overlap.  In any event here is the prevailing “top ten” on the list:

1.    Barack Obama, President of the United States of America
2.    Vladimir Putin, Prime Minister of Russia
3.    Hu Jintao, President of the People’s Republic of China
4.    Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany
5.    Bill Gates, Co-Chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
6.    Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz al Saud, King of Saudi Arabia
7.    Benedict XVI, Pope of the Roman Catholic Church
8.    Ben Bernanke, Chairman of the Federal Reserve of the United States of America
9.    Mark Zuckerberg, Founder of Facebook
10. David Cameron, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom

Obviously, it was Zuckerberg’s presence among the “top ten” that prompted Matyszczyk to write his post.  Since the criteria are so utterly useless for anything other than an overt declaration of Forbes’ underlying values, I feel there is little that can be taken from this list other than mild amusement at Zuckerberg beating out Cameron.  It is also ironic that the criteria were enumerated right at a time when their irrelevancy and context-sensitivity were being demonstrated by a single man, not on the list, who seems to have the power to bring down the economy of the European Union, if not the entire world:  Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou.