Monday, January 30, 2012

Why I am not (currently) Reading Jonathan Franzen

I always seem to have a built-in skepticism towards books other people try to persuade me to read.  This is probably because Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid was forced on me in its pre-publication form by a colleague I otherwise respected;  and I was ready to throw the damned thing against the wall before I had gotten beyond the first page.  As a result I have never quite figured out why everyone is so excited by Jonathan Franzen for any reason other than his writing books that are thicker than anything they would think of reading.  This has led to my giving more than passing attention to how The New York Review has covered his work, which has only enhanced my skepticism.

Currently Franzen is one of the honored guests at the Hay Festival in Cartagena, Columbia.  My primary source for learning about these events is the London Telegraph;  and today’s Web edition includes a transcript of remarks that Franzen gave at his press conference.  I cannot resist observing that this transcript was prepared by Anita Singh, whom the Telegraph lists as a “Showbusiness Editor.”  This was a slightly amusing red flag.  At the very least it suggested that, while The New York Review was trying to approach Franzen’s work as literature, the Telegraph preferred to think of him as a show business act.  However, this did not soften the blow of my experience of reading Singh’s transcript;  and I should be thankful that my computer configuration cannot easily be thrown at the wall in the matter I had seriously considered for Douglas Hofstadter’s manuscript.

However, while I eventually reviewed GEB with a laundry list of its misconstrued assertions, I think that this time I can contain myself to a single excerpt from Singh’s transcript:

My problem with e-book readers is that one minute I’m reading some trashy website, the next minute I’m reading Jane Austen – on the same screen. I think, for serious readers, a sense of permanence has always been part of the experience. Everything else in your life is fluid, but here is this text that doesn’t change. Will there still be readers 50 years from now who feel that way? Who have that hunger for something permanent and unalterable? I don’t have a crystal ball. I do fear that it’s going to be very hard to make the world work if there’s no permanence like that. That things can be 'whatever', depending on the moment. That kind of radical contingency is not compatible with a system of justice or responsible self-government.

My problem (to assume Franzen’s rhetorical stance) is that this text seems to lack a fundamental understanding of concepts like “reading” and “permanence.”  It seems as if Franzen rejects reading literature from the screen because it is too easy to be distracted by “trash.”  My own experience is that susceptibility to distraction has a lot to do with what you are reading and how well the text has managed to absorb you.  I can read even the most abstruse academic text while sitting in a concert hall full of a chattering audience waiting for the lights to lower;  but, if the author has me hooked, none of that distracts me.  That’s the kind of reader I am, and perhaps I should take this statement as some kind of affirmation that I am really not the right reader for Franzen’s texts!

As to the question of permanence, to revive that old cliché from the MIT Media Lab, bits on the screen are neither more nor less permanent that the atoms necessary to put marks on paper.  After all, it was only yesterday that I was celebrating my ability to relish a facsimile of a first edition of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, which I may never get to do in the world of atoms but can easily do in the world of bits.  I would even go so far as to say that the permanence of that first edition has been enhanced by virtue of being digitized:  While both digital and physical copies are susceptible to destructive forces, I have a certain amount of faith that digital versions have backup versions through which they may be restored should such forces strike.

This kind of logical lapse, unfortunately, is but the tip of the greater iceberg of Singh’s transcript.  Ultimately, one does not have to turn to The New York Review to learn about Franzen.  Mose Allison got his number, even if he never met the guy.  He’s the one who wrote the line, “your mind is on vacation and your mouth is workin' overtime!”

Sunday, January 29, 2012

In Praise of IMSLP

I think I have Scott Foglesong of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music to thank for first making me aware of the Petrucci Music Library at the IMSLP Web site.  For those unfamiliar with this service, here is the “About Us” text from the home page:

IMSLP stands for International Music Score Library Project. The logo [which appears at the top of the home page] is a capital letter A, taken from the very first printed book of music, the Harmonice Musices Odhecaton, published in 1501. Its author, Ottaviano Petrucci, is this library's namesake.

While working on an preview piece for a concert by the San Francisco Chamber Orchestra featuring Dmitry Sitkovetsky’s arrangement of Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 988 (better known as the “Goldberg Variations”), I was delighted to discover that this site included a PDF file of a facsimile of the first edition of this music in Bach’s series of Clavier-Übung (keyboard practice) publications.  This is not the sort of thing you are going to prop up on your piano’s music stand, but it is about as close as you are going to get to Bach’s own account of this body of music.  The Internet really is changing everything, at least when it comes to sparing those of us with limited resources from having to travel to distant libraries, where we then have to worry about handling anything from the stacks with extraordinary care.

Indeed, one could get lost just reading the “Featured” box on the IMSLP home page.  If BWV 988 is not enough, the autograph manuscript of the BWV 582 C minor passacaglia has recently been added to the collection.  For those with more nineteenth-century tastes, there are also autographs of Johannes Brahms Opus 90 F major symphony (his third), Camille Saint-Saëns’s Opus 22 G minor piano concerto (his second), and one of the great hits of bel canto opera, Gaetano Donizetti’s Emilia di Liverpool.  (Say what?)  The source pages for all entries are kind enough to provide both pages counts and file sizes, so you have a pretty good idea what you are getting into before clicking are a download.

The whole site is implemented as a wiki.  So, from a look-and-feel point of view, it follows the basic conventions that any Wikipedia reader (or contributor) knows and loves.  This also means that all contributions are the result of voluntary efforts, which implies the corollary that there are a lot of people out there (probably of varying levels of music scholarship) putting in generous amounts of time for the common good of those for whom “music” means something more than using iPod ear-buds to create “background insulation” from the harsh assaults of the “real world.”  It also appears that these volunteers are less inclined to the “fight club” mentality that has undermined the value of Wikipedia in certain subject domains.  It is nice to know that, where the sharing of scores is concerned, the community of those who both love and study music is a comfortably stodgy bunch!

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Davos Needs Descartes!

Today’s report from Davos by Tim Weber, Business Editor for the BBC News Web site, can be boiled down to a single sentence summary:

Everyone attending the World Economic Forum is worrying about youth unemployment.

My guess is that most of us 99% folks in the real world will respond to this with the immortal line from Rocky Horror:

No shit, Sherlock!

Even those whose knowledge of history is pathetically myopic probably realize that unemployment may well have been a more significant motivating factor behind the Arab Spring than the more idealistic quest for democracy.

So, having been blessed with a flash of insight into the obvious, what are the folks in Davos doing about it?  Given the length of Weber’s article, it is clear that a lot of people are doing a lot of talking.  Then there is this photograph that gives some indication of what else they are doing:

I used to attend meetings where diagrams like this emerged.  They are supposed to be a product of free-for-all brainstorming, drawn by a “facilitator,” who tries to summarize the results of the meeting in a diagram that is as informative as it is attractive.  It is clear from this photograph that Weber’s camera could not fit the whole diagram.  This is a bad sign.  If you cannot go away from a meeting with an image that “fits the mind’s eye,” you are likely to lose your grip on the whole affair.  Unfortunately, the reason this particular diagram is so crowded is that it is filled with platitudes, all the usual content-free phrases that you learn in business school to “keep the conversation going” without sounding like a dummy.  If the 1% are trying to convince the 99% that they are actually trying to do something about the most serious problem on the table, then Weber’s report seems to indicate that they have managed to invest a day in nothing better than shooting themselves in the foot.

It’s time for a modest proposal to break this logjam.  The problem with brainstorming at Davos is that everyone there has pretty much the same mindset.  Put another way, there is some fundamental set of propositions (which could probably fit on one of those whiteboards) that are simply accepted as axiomatic by all conferees.  What is needed, then, is a strong injection of Cartesian doubt.  For René Descartes reasoning began with the capacity to doubt everything and accepting as truth only that which withstands the challenge of doubt.  Thus, if one can create a whiteboard of “Davos axioms,” one should also be able to run each one of them through a wringer of doubt, driven by the likelihood that no individual axiom is necessarily shared by everyone in the room.  If those axioms can be brought down like a house of cards, then there would be at least a fighting chance that the Davos conferees could shift their attention to finding solutions, rather than drawing a big pretty picture of the problem.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Redirecting the Attacks on Apple

This morning Larry Dignan used a post to the Between the Lines blog on ZDNet to give “equal time” to Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, in the face of the beating that Apple has been taking from two extended reports in The New York Times by Charles Duhigg, the first co-authored with Keith Bradsher and the second with David Barboza.  The good news is that Dignan definitely got it right in shifting the focus from Apple to the broader issue of the impact of globalization on supply chain management.  He probably even got his punch line right:

The bottom line here is we enable a supply chain that has a lot of warts. We want to examine those warts, but not really. This flap about worker safety isn’t about Apple, the tech industry or any other vertical. It’s about us.

However, there is still a need to establish a context for this broader view;  and, for me, the best way to set that context is by recalling two movies that, by all rights, should have had greater impact.  The one most relevant to the case Dignan made is Robert Greenwald’s 2005 documentary The High Cost of Low Price, which is basically a systematic study of the consequences that have evolved from the “Wal-Mart economy” that has consumed our culture’s attitude towards just about any commodity.  However, if we also wish to focus on the consequences of brutal working conditions (for which Dignan offers an inadequate gloss on viewing supply chain abuses “through the Western lens”), then we need to turn to Richard Linklater’s 2006 docudrama Fast Food Nation and the book by Eric Schlosser on which it was based.

There is a subtext in Duhigg’s reports based on the old joke that everybody likes to eat sausage, but nobody wants to know how sausage is made.  Upton Sinclair investigated that “inconvenient truth” in The Jungle, which Schlosser acknowledged as a major source for his own writing.  The thing is that, while Schlosser made the case that things have not changed very much for sausages, there has been a change in that the sausage is now a metaphor for the iPad.

Dignan asserts that “the buy American movement never quite worked.”  He has good warrants for this claim;  but, after yesterday’s stake in the ground at Davos, I would suggest that his vision is dangerously narrow.  We now view the global supply chain as a potential risk to “homeland security,” from which we conclude that we need a strategy to protect it (which would mean protecting all of those abusive work practices that make the whole machine tick).  However, if we were really serious about homeland security, we would be strategizing to restore a level of self-sufficiency that started to go down the tubes when we first got bitten by the bug carrying the infection of profits-through-global-outsourcing.  (I would love to single out Tom Friedman as the infecting agent, and he may well have been the first bug to deliver an effective bite.  However, we have to be fair and realize that he was just the messenger of a message whose consequences he could not fathom.)

Ultimately, this is a matter of dueling propaganda campaigns.  The party line of the consciousness industry is the one that Dignan accepts as an axiom:  We are addicted to consumerism and demand to satisfy our addiction through low prices.  The fact that Apple has become a “drug kingpin” for this metaphor is purely incidental.  One way to reject this propaganda is through an alternative campaign that promotes self-sufficiency.  This may be what Barack Obama originally had in  mind by making “Yes, we can” a campaign slogan;  but in all likelihood he had sold out to the consciousness industry even before he had won the election.  We, as a culture, need to believe that we can restore self-sufficiency without retreating into isolationism.  The 1% do not want us to believe this, but we need to see whether or not the 99% will embrace such a vision and decide to move towards it.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

The US Priority at Davos: The Global Supply Chain

A BBC News dispatch from Davos that arrived last night (our time) gives some indication of where our country’s priorities lie with respect to the agenda of the World Economic Forum.  Here is the one-sentence summary of the story:

The US has unveiled a strategy at the Davos World Economic Forum to protect the global supply chain in the event of a terror attack or natural disaster.

Apparently this is a policy that has been approved by President Barack Obama and was the basis for the speech given to the Forum by Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano.  As the BBC observed, there are definitely virtues to this policy:

The supply chain includes provision of food, medicines, fuel or any goods that underpin the American way of life.

The strategy would plan for worst case scenarios, enabling the government and industries to respond quickly to disasters that could disrupt access to vital commodities.

Unfortunately, the virtues of freely-flowing food and medicine may turn out to be a Potemkin village cloaking issues that are less likely to impact the majority of American citizens (if not the whole 99%).

Once we get past the blue-sky side of the story, we read the following:

Ms Napolitano cited a 2010 incident in which al-Qaeda operatives in the Arab Peninsula plotted to send explosive devices into the US via cargo planes that were thought to be carrying printer toner cartridges.

"That really brought to the forefront of my own recognition that we need to have a sense of urgency about the importance of the global supply chain,'' Ms Napolitano said as she addressed a crowd at the World Economic Forum.

However, the free flow of toner cartridges is just the tip of the iceberg.  The real iceberg can be found lurking in what has become an often-cited analysis piece by Charles Duhigg and Keith Bradsher, which appeared in last Sunday’s New York Times under the headline “How U.S. Lost Out On iPhone Work.”  Since Obama is being credited with this new supply chain protection strategy, it is appropriate to recall the opening paragraphs of this Times article:

When Barack Obama joined Silicon Valley’s top luminaries for dinner in California last February, each guest was asked to come with a question for the president.

But as Steven P. Jobs of Apple spoke, President Obama interrupted with an inquiry of his own: what would it take to make iPhones in the United States?

Not long ago, Apple boasted that its products were made in America. Today, few are. Almost all of the 70 million iPhones, 30 million iPads and 59 million other products Apple sold last year were manufactured overseas.

Why can’t that work come home? Mr. Obama asked.

Mr. Jobs’s reply was unambiguous. “Those jobs aren’t coming back,” he said, according to another dinner guest.

The rest of the article explains the logic behind Jobs’ depressing observation;  and, at the core of the lengthy (not to mention disconcerting to the point of harrowing) argument lies the critical role of the global supply chain.  The bottom line is that just about all American manufacturing is dependent on global supply chains, basically because one would not be able to impress shareholders with dazzling profit margins without them.  Put in the bluntest possible language, America has become a country in which just about any production of goods (and often services) has no substantive use for the American worker.

Obama is certainly right that the protection of global supply chains is currently of significant interest to “homeland security.”  However, excessive dependence on such supply chains should also be treated as a matter of homeland security.  It amounts to having a business culture in the throes of an addiction whose withdrawal could well be disastrous.  If our President were really interested in domestic security, he should be thinking about weaning that business culture away from the debilitating effects of globalization and rebuilding that culture of self-sufficiency that served us so well during the twentieth century.  Such self-sufficiency would require putting more Americans back to work.  This, of course, is what the Occupy movements have been crying for;  and Napolitano’s Davos speech makes it clear that the 1% are doing a good job of hanging tough in ignoring such matters.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Revolt of Ortega

One of my professors was very big on José Ortega y Gasset.  This probably had a lot to do with Ortega’s interest in phenomenology (and with my acquisition of the Norton collection of essays Phenomenology and Art).  However, the one time I knew him to invoke a specific Ortega text, it had nothing to do with phenomenology.  Rather, the passage came from the chapter entitled “The Barbarism of ‘Specialisation’” from The Revolt of the Masses.  Here is the passage:

Experimental science has progressed thanks in great part to the work of men astoundingly mediocre, and even less than mediocre.  That is to say, modern science, the root and symbol of our actual civilisation, finds a place for the intellectually commonplace man and allows him to work therein with success.

Ortega wrote The Revolt of the Masses in 1930, so he was probably thinking of how the study of physics at atomic and subatomic levels had shifted from highly sophisticated laboratories filled with expensive equipment to the desks of mathematicians, whose models were successfully predicting results that would then be confirmed through experimental observation.  He was certainly not in a position to predict the impact of computer technology on the practice of science, although I suspect that, had someone explained the concept of crowdsourcing to him, he would have gotten it immediately.

I cite this potential connection between Ortega and crowdsourcing because crowdsourcing seems to have enjoyed a recent triumph in dealing with the complex problems of protein folding.  Biochemist David Baker created a video game called Foldit through which users could play with different ways to fold protein structures and get scored on how viable their results were.  The results were reported today by Martin LaMonica in the Cutting Edge section of CNET News:

Baker's group this week published a paper (click for PDF) in Nature Biotechnology that found that humans' puzzle-solving skills are actually better than computers in designing complex proteins. "Human creativity can extend beyond the macroscopic challenges encountered in everyday life to molecular-scale design problems," the paper concludes.

Note that no prior knowledge of biology or any other science is necessary for playing Foldit.  At a surface level, this is not too far from the old scenario of a million monkeys at a million typewriters putting out the complete works of William Shakespeare.  As Bob Newhart point out, what made this a joke was that the Gedankenexperiment did not account for who would monitor the monkeys.  Foldit has basically built the monitoring process into the game, apparently allowing for more human creativity than would be achieved through brute-force enumeration of all possibilities on a supercomputer.

Is this the celebration of mediocrity that Ortega envisioned?  I am not sure I would call the exploitation of a large population of puzzle solvers a triumph of mediocrity.  Baker had to invoke a fair amount of “hard science” to design the game in such a way that it could be used as a valuable experimental tool;  but, if you want to embrace Ortega’s pessimism, you probably could say that all of those puzzle solvers are nothing but cogs in the vast machinery of that tool.  Personally, however, I am more concerned by the following quote from Baker:

You could imagine where you come home in the evening and you can either stay up all night playing Halo or be designing an HIV vaccine with people around the world. Which would you be happier saying you did when you went to work in the morning?

The implication seems to be that one can harness the masses into the service of scientific research as an alternative to playing Halo because you can associate Foldit with making the world a better place.  Nevertheless, there is also a question of attitude.  People play Halo because the gratification is in winning the game (or, at least, playing it better than your friends).  If the gratification from playing Foldit involved “designing an HIV vaccine,” wouldn’t you feel you deserved some compensation for your efforts?  What do you think, Dr. Baker?

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Tim Weber Calls Out Davos Hypocrisy

I just finished reading Tim Weber’s preview piece on the BBC News Web site for the convening of the World Economic Forum in Davos.  I cannot fault the wording of his headline:

Davos 2012: Has capitalism got a future?

This at least acknowledges that the whole framework in which economic issues are discussed may require serious rethinking.  Weber then suggests that such rethinking may be given serious attention this year:

The eurozone, the financial sector, poverty, inequality, corporate responsibility and the rise of China: They all feature heavily in both the sessions organised by the forum, which is always eager to lob in a few inconvenient questions, and the topics of many of the events organised by banks, industry groups and corporate giants.

However, he then pulls his punch line, which I read as his take on how successful the gathering is likely to be:

It is gloomy business, albeit discussed while scoffing haute cuisine breakfasts, lunches and dinners in Davos' five-star hotels.

This is basically a variation on Colin Quinn’s joke about Davos:  Economic theory may be about mathematical models that analyze quantitative metrics, such as growth;  but such models say nothing about either the nature of quality-of-life or how that factor varies around the world.  It is a reminder that the most hypocritical thing Bill Clinton ever said had nothing to do with sexual indiscretions;  it was:

I feel your pain.

Bill Clinton will never feel the pain of a Haitian who, years after the hurricane disaster, still does not have a decent place to reside, let alone a viable way to earn a living.

The Occupy movement has been right to identify the enormous gulf between the 1% with wealth and everyone else.  However, there is a corollary gap that may be more important, which is that the 99% still do not have a voice in identifying issues in need of innovative policy thinking, let alone offering suggestions as to what those innovations should be.  In other words economic policy is a product of an echo chamber even more insidious than that of Washington political reporting.  All the parties involved in the conversation know exactly what will be said before it is uttered.  No productive thinking can come of this, and the only result will be that the gap separating the 99% will get even wider.

Until Klaus Schwab has the courage to go into the backyards of economic distress, his World Economic Forum will be a waste of time that only benefits those posh Davos hotels.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Counterproductive American Express

I have grown used to the fact that American Express provides me with a summary of all of my charges at the end of the year.  I am pleased to see that I can now download that summary as a PDF;  and this is definitely a good thing, because the “interactive” version on their Web site is one of those products of counterproductive design thinking.  Presumably, the clients who make the heaviest use of this summary are those, like myself, who need to gather and classify all the necessary numbers for filling out their tax forms.  Unfortunately, no one on the design team seems to have bothered to take the trouble to figure out what would be a useful set of categories consistent with those relevant to Form 1040.

Probably the greatest aggravation comes in pulling together those expenses that would qualify for medical deduction.  You would think that “medical” would be a major category;  but this is not the case.  So far I have found three separate categories, each of which contribute to my medical expenses.  “Pharmacies” is a subcategory of “Merchandise & Supplies” (which you cannot see on the online summary sheet, because the space for subcategories runs out when it collides with the “Total” line, meaning that the last subcategory you see is “Clothing Stores”).  “Health Care Services,” on the other hand, is listed under “Business Services” (which is consistent with our “industrial” view of health care).  Finally, Medicare payments show up in “Government Services,” which is a subcategory of “Other.”  The bottom line is that I have to do my own filtering from the summary to get the numbers I need.  The good news is that at least I can use the search tool on the PDF version and see each of my results in its appropriate context.

That “Other” category is also a source of amusement.  My biggest single American Express charge every year is the renewal of the San Francisco Opera subscription for my wife and myself.  I was thus amused to see that my grand total of “Entertainment” expenses was $0.00.  It turns out that the Opera charge was classified under “Other” in the “Charities” subcategory.  I’m not quite sure how the Opera would feel about this classification.  One thing is certain:  Anyone who thinks that they can just copy numbers from this form into their tax returns will probably be opening themselves up for an invitation to an audit!  Do we take this as a sign of what American Express thinks about their clients these days?

Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Strategy of a Failed Candidate?

While my opinions of both CNN and TIME are best kept heavily muted, I continue to have a high opinion of Fareed Zakaria;  and I am impressed that TIME has allowed him to pursue projects leading to articles that plumb far deeper than the usual superficiality we now associate with American news media.  Thus, when his extended interview with President Barack Obama appeared in the Swampland department of the Web site, I felt it was worth more than a casual glance at the screen.  I printed it to allow for more reflective reading, and I was far from disappointed after giving the piece a serious level of attention.

Whether or not it was Zakaria’s intention, the interview helped me to refine my own disappointment with Obama.  While there were several new insights, it struck me that most of the take-away points were reiterating a message that Obama has delivered many times.  This is the message enumerating the significant achievements that have taken place under his Administration, which seems to imply that the strategy for his campaign will be based on broadcasting those achievements early and often until the voters finally go to the polls.

In other words Obama plans to succeed by getting as many voters as possible to “look at the record.”  Personally, I think this is a perfectly valid approach to argumentation.  I invoked it myself back in the days when it seemed as if Sarah Palin would be the rising star of the American political scene.  In doing so, however, I noted the irony that this particular turn of phrase can be traced back to Al Smith, whom I described as “a failed Democratic Presidential candidate.”  Thus, I am both surprised and concerned that Zakaria’s own sense of history did not allow him to pick up on the historical echoes behind Obama’s argumentation and use those echoes as ground for questioning the President’s electoral strategy.

Probably the most important political event since that interview appeared was yesterday’s primary in South Carolina.  Because the primary results thus far have been so mixed, it is hard to tell how significant this latest source of data will turn out to be.  Nevertheless, it provides a context for Obama’s strategy that probably deserves more than passing consideration.

When considered as an academic, Newt Gingrich appears as a man with a solid command of history on a global scale.  However, Newt-the-academic is not running for office;  and Newt-the-politician knows full well that he is campaigning to a culture that almost prides itself in its disregard of history.  For Newt-the-politician, history is, at best, a trigger for what he seems to do best, which is making up stories based more on how compelling the narrative is, rather than whether or not the details are consistent with reality.  (Ingrid Rowland would probably suggest that he has the makings of the perfect Roman politician.)  South Carolina seems to have presented us with a sector of the electorate that is swayed by such stories more than anything else, particularly when the storyteller can apply his craft to attacking the media.  (His tirade at the final debate had all the earmarks of Richard Nixon’s “Checkers” strategy;  but how many people in the audience know what that strategy is?)

The lesson from South Carolina to Obama may thus be that, however admirable “the record” may be, he had better have a “Plan B” when the polls begin to suggest that a tally of significant achievements does not constitute grounds for reelection.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Stockhausen Challenged by Description

I have been reading the University of California Press anthology of articles from Source, which I plan to review on my national site.  In the first issue I found a transcription of a conversation in which one of the participants was Karlheinz Stockhausen.  I was particularly struck by one of his observations:

Every day, working in the electronic studio, the worst problem I have is to describe what I have done.  All you can use are words and numbers.  Incidentally, a studio in Stockholm is almost ready where every action is automatically recorded.  You just fool around, and at the end you get a so-called reportage.  Recently I worked four days in our studio.  At the end, I had to spend another four or five days analyzing what I had done in order to write it down.  It is an awful thing for me.  But without what I describe there will be no culture whatsoever in the new dimension.  If I make a thing, I’m not only interested in the result;  I’m interested in the initial culture.  Let’s say we have no score, but we do have a tape.  The tape alone doesn’t help enough for study.  We can listen, yes;  we can get a kind of idea;  it may stimulate other things one can do.  But one is really not able to go further in that direction.  There wouldn’t be any scientific or philosophical or musical progress in our culture if one couldn’t learn from one’s forefathers.

I suppose there is no reason to assume that Stockhausen would have been aware of what was happening in literary theory at the time he made this remark.  I wonder if he would have been comforted or disturbed by the proposition that description was the most difficult of the major text types, to a point where an entire monograph was eventually written to explain why it was so difficult.

More important, however, is why Stockhausen was obsessing over the difficulty of description.  It concerned what he later called the “medium of transport,” which entailed the principle that one could not “learn from one’s forefathers” without some kind of physical medium.  This strikes me as yet another example of artifact-centered noun-based thinking, overlooking the fact that making music is a verb-based practice.  Thus, while Stockhausen may have had the “secret stash” of jazz records that may have inspired him, he may not have had much of a clue as to how the practice of jazz is passed from musician to musician through verb-based practice, rather than through noun-based artifacts.  This makes for an excellent example of how all of us, no matter what we do or how well we do it, have particular blinders that limit our worldview;  and those blinders are so effective that we do not even know they exist!

Friday, January 20, 2012

Another Toxic Aspect of Innovation

If any serious healing of both the economy and its corollary unemployment crisis is to come from the manufacturing sector, then it is probably time for another cautionary observation that Barack Obama’s mantra about solving problems through innovation is nothing less than the latest brew of Jonestown Kool-Aid.  One would have thought that the aftermath of the Solyndra crash would have been evidence enough.  However, recent news brings a perspective on purported successes in Asia that may support an ugly syllogism:
  1.  Innovation creates markets for new toys
  2. Growing markets make for more manufacturing jobs
  3. To support the increasing demand, manufacturing turns to wage slavery
I like to think of this as the “Foxconn syllogism.”  For better or worse, Foxconn seems to have avoided implications that it has created a new generation of slave labor.  However, as Hanna Stewart Smith reported today in her Unboxing Asia column for ZDNet, Foxconn’s parent company, Hon Hai in Taiwan, seems to be cultivating a vocabulary that is even uglier:

“Hon Hai has a workforce of over one million and as human beings are also animals, to manage one million animals gives me a headache,” said Terry Gou, chairman of Taiwan’s Hon Hai, the parent company of Foxconn.

This was his statement at the end of year party, and considering recent events in Foxconn; Gou picked a regrettable choice of words.

Unfortunately, what could just be poor wording is made much worse by the fact that he also suggested he wanted to learn management techniques from Chin Shin-Chien, director of Tapei [sic] Zoo.

To make matters worse, he invited Chin to speak and asked his general managers to listen to his advice, as well as inviting him to take part in his company’s annual review.

Gou and his general managers apparently listened carefully as Chin provided advice as to how to manage different types of animals, and asked Chin to put himself in the position of Hon Hai’s chairman. It seems, unfortunately, there’s a bit more than just jest to this analogy.

These remarks should resonate with those of us in the United States familiar with the pro-slavery rhetoric that flourished in the years leading up to the Civil War, if not with our own subsequent confrontation with wage slavery that eventually led to the rise of labor unions.

I am not suggesting a Luddite revival committed to the destruction of all machines in factories.  However, the underlying Luddite argument was that innovation was making life better for a select few while making it much worse for the general labor force.  The real toxicity of innovation comes not from the inventiveness of the imaginative mind but from the translation of that inventiveness into benefits for an elite community of investors, taking a public-be-damned attitude to everyone else, even when “everyone else” is a major population sector depending on manufacturing to provide a living wage, whether in Asia on in European countries like Greece.  Meanwhile, that elite community is about to gather, once again, in Davos and play with their numbers and mathematical theories;  and they are likely to continue their games in serene oblivion, since it is unlikely that any of the “Occupy” movements have the scratch to set up camp in Davos!

Thursday, January 19, 2012

"Reinventing the Textbook" (for whom?)

Andrew Nusca’s report for ZDNet on Apple’s education-based press conference, held this past Tuesday, had a bold headline:

Apple: We want to reinvent the textbook

I suppose a more honest headline would be “We want to crack the education market,” because this amounted to a pitch for a hardware-software solution worthy of any of the kingpin consulting organizations.  As might be guessed, the press conference was run by the marketing department;  and those of us who have tried to take education seriously at some time or another would do well to ask just how well any marketing department is connected to the nature of education.  After all, marketing is not about education.  It is about indoctrination (or “brainwashing” among more cynical observers);  so, no matter how good intentions may be, there is good reason to question whether or not “marketing judgment” either knows or cares about the needs of either students or teachers.  In order to take a closer look at what is really going on here, I suggest we divide the analysis into two of the basics of education:  reading and writing.

There is no doubt that Apple has had a significant impact on the nature of reading behavior.  I now know people who have used the iPad as a reading device for any number of purposes, some of which are both work-related and serious.  Nevertheless, I have had a twinge of suspicion for about a year, going back to when the marketing folks decided to mount a billboard blitz with the image of an iPad comfortably settled into a lap at the near end of a pair of outstretched legs.  The message seemed to be that reading from an iPad would be more comfortable than reading from a book, newspaper, or magazine;  and, as a corollary, it would be way cooler.

Now, while I probably would like to be comfortable when reading escapist fiction or People magazine, I am not sure that comfort is the critical factor where education is involved.  Now, while I continue to hold to the position that reading has nothing to do with “productivity” and “efficiency” (concepts that imply that reading a text is a waste of time when one can just do a Google search), I also believe that there is a “work” factor to education that should not be subverted by candy-coating the experience with “play” or the barbarism “edutainment.”  Thus, while I might question that a project on which I was a researcher was called “Productive Reading,” I feel that the project still had value through its efforts to enhance the possibilities for engagement between reader and text.  Education comes about through such engagement, and one has no motive to engage when one is too comfortably relaxed.

To Apple’s credit, they seem to “get” this concept of engagement.  The iPad is definitely an engaging device.  It can support reading by taking a rich-media approach to the text (allowing, for example, an author to make a point about a piece of music by including audio clips), enabling not only annotation but the sharing of annotations, and offering convenience features for things like checking the definition of a word without leaving the “reading space.”  To be fair, however, this is all stuff that was around long before the iPad.  The real question is how much of that stuff has been accounted for in the iPad package;  and, even if it is there, will it actually be used in educational settings?

This is not a question of the nature of reading.  Rather, it is a question of whether or not the texts being read will actually support such reading practices.  In other words it is a question of writing.

Anyone who has read a textbook of substance appreciates the value of an index.  Anyone who has had to write such a textbook knows that preparing such an index is a laborious process.  The index is not just a simplistic linking of words to pages.  At its best it is a structured text in its own right, using techniques like indentation to account not only for words but also for relationships among those words.  Now, if preparing an index demands so much of a good author, what will be the demands to prepare the text in a way that it will support all of those “engagement experiences” that Apple trumpets?

In Nusca’s report, here is how Apple addresses this question:

As for content creators, a new, free iBooks Author app allows you to create interactive e-books. The application has a drag-and-drop, WYSIWYG interface and default templates (math, science) so it’s easy to get existing content into the cloud. It also has a one-click glossary function.

More technically savvy publishers can use Javascript to create their own widgets and HTML 5 for layout, and thus, experience.

The point is that the textbook of the future will require an author of the future.  The writing skills driven by filling blank pages with words (even when mediated by good word processing software) will no longer be sufficient;  and there is likely to be an extended period of trial-and-error as the more adventurous authors have their first experiences sorting out techniques that work from those that don’t.  My guess, however, is that, during this period, very few of those authors will be thinking about the power of JavaScript.  More likely, they will be worrying about the fact that they now have to juggle far more resources than had previously been the case and that integrating all of those resources to make just the right rich-media student text is likely to feel more like movie production than writing a book.

Will all this be good for the currently disappointing state of education in our country?  I continue to hold that the greatest asset for education is a foundation of rich interpersonal experiences.  If the student does not have a strong base of personal engagement with teachers, friends, and family over what happens in the classroom, no amount of cool technology is going to enhance the learning experience.  Indeed, there may even be the risk that a strong “cool factor” may impede those interpersonal experiences, just because the machine is more engaging than any mere human can be.

Put another way, “reinventing the textbook” may introduce changes to the learning experience;  but they are likely to be surface-level changes.  What matters more is what happens at the “deep structure” of the experience.  That “deep structure” does not figure in Apple’s business model;  so we should not expect that they will do anything about it.  In other words the problem of education will remain with us, the mere mortals who use technology.  I cannot feel particularly confident that new technology will do much for how we learn, any more than it has been significantly beneficial in some of the more critical aspects of how we communicate in any setting.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Is History Really a "Tonic of Tragedy?"

I just finished reading Simon Schama’s attack on Downton Abbey.  This apparently first appeared in The New Statesman and then migrated to Newsweek, from which it was picked up by The Daily Beast, which is where I read it.  Schama has a way with words that can only be compared to Jack the Ripper’s way with a knife.  It is at least far more entertaining since the only bloodshed is figurative, rather than literal:

Downton serves up a steaming, silvered tureen of snobbery. It’s a servile soap opera that an American public desperate for something, anything, to take its mind off the perplexities of the present seems only too happy to down in great, grateful gulps.

Since there was a tureen of disgusting material that figured in last Sunday’s episode, this particular turn of phrase could not have been more apposite.  Still, the bottom line is that Downton Abbey is a successfully calculated maneuver to wrest audience share on Sunday night away from HBO by trying to revive the glory days of Upstairs, Downstairs;  and it has been so successful that it has made the attempt at a sequel to Upstairs, Downstairs seem feeble by comparison.

However, while Schama may be entertaining, I am not sure about how informative he is.  His current credentials are as Professor of both History and Art History at Columbia University;  and one would think, at least where the reputation of Columbia is concerned, that he would do better than concentrate on strutting himself about with all the entertainment trappings of a Kenneth Clark-like “television don.”  I was particularly put off by his decision to end his attack with what is posed as an apology but is actually just as caustic as the rest of his text:

Sorry, but history’s meant to be a bummer, not a stroll down memory lane. Done right, it delivers the tonic of tragedy, not the bromide of romance. But then that wouldn’t get the high ratings, would it?

Is that “tonic of tragedy” there are any reason other than clever alliteration?  I agree that history should not be a “bromide of romance;”  but trying to frame history in terms of tragedy (Aristotelian, Marxian, or otherwise) is equally misconceived.  I prefer Hayden White’s position that history is best approached as literature, assessed for its quality of writing as well as its consistency with documented evidence.  It is from that point of view that, on, I waxed so enthusiastically over the history writing of Leta Miller and, by way of contrast, vented such a harsh opinion of Harvey Sachs.  As far as Downton Abbey is concerned, I am willing to take it as the same kind of escapism that I enjoyed in Joss Wheedon’s Dollhouse;  and I can do that without feeling even the slightest tinge of guilt!

Monday, January 16, 2012

Television Trumps Cinema Again at the Golden Globes

Once again curiosity got the better of me when it came to reviewing the results of the Golden Globes.  However, while last year my curiosity was directed at Melissa Leo, this year there really was not anything in the movies category that drew my attention.  It is as if the movie industry now shares with Broadway that “vast wasteland” epithet that Newton Minnow once used to condemn the quality of television in the Fifties.  (This leads me to wonder whether Minnow was aware of Hans Magnus Enzensberger’s theory of a “consciousness industry.”  Given what things were like in the Fifties, if he was, he probably did his best to conceal the influence.)  Now it is television, particularly the pay cable channels, that is willing to take on gutsy substance without worrying about having the narrative get interrupted by commercials or having scripts that will scare away sponsors.  Thus, while many view the Globes as a barometer for the Oscar results, I could care less how those contenders finally get rank-ordered.  I prefer to be drawn into serious extended narrative;  and that just is not Hollywood’s bill-of-fare.

My only problem with the Globes is that I have yet to figure out their criteria for classification.  I have already written about the arbitrariness of how the Emmy Awards have muddled the distinction between drama and comedy (classifying United States of Tara as comedy, almost as if in denial of the more serious subtext of the narrative).  The Globes muddy the waters further by adding “miniseries or movie” as a category along with “drama” and “musical or comedy.”  As a result Homeland ended up classified as drama, while Game of Thrones ended up in the “miniseries or movie” category.  The good news is that this allowed both Kelsey Grammer to be acknowledged for getting to exercise some solid acting chops in Boss (drama), while Idris Elba could be similarly recognized for Luther (miniseries).  It also meant that Game of Thrones (miniseries) did not have to compete with Homeland (drama), even if that means that it was then bested by Downton Abbey.  (It also leads me to wonder if this “game of categories” had been designed to make sure that the judges would not have to choose between Downton Abbey, which is as best a mild, although highly polished, diversion, and Homeland, which left any serious viewer wondering just what has been achieved in “Homeland Security” since 9/11.)

I know better than to kid myself.  I realize that David Simon was able to hone his craft in television while working on Homicide for NBC.  However, I suspect that the constraints imposed by NBC made him seek out a less restrictive environment, which he found in HBO (perhaps by virtue of Charles Dutton, who already had plenty of reputation, making his directing debut with a miniseries for HBO based on The Corner, a book that Simon had co-authored).  Both NBC and HBO make programming decisions that are ultimately “ruled by numbers.”  However, it seems as if HBO and Showtime are more willing to take a “portfolio management” approach to their numbers that makes them less beholden to that consciousness industry and the need to ground everything in a subtext of consumerism and its addictive nature.  In the movie industry, on the other hand, the exceptions to the rule come from those odd independent efforts that may make the occasional splash or two but will never make a wave big enough to shift the status quo.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Debussy and Messiaen

Now that, as a result of my writing for, I have joined the ranks of music critics (even if I continue to believe that “examining” is not the same as criticism), I find that I have become more cautious in what I say about what my colleagues (who call themselves critics) are writing.  I figure it is better to take what I have read from others and use it to reinforce a point, rather than pick a fight.  However, an interesting difference of opinion arose this week over the San Francisco Symphony semi-staged production of Claude Debussy’s Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian that deserves a bit of perspective, without turning the opposing thoughts into grounds for a contentious argument.

I am referring specifically to the review that Joshua Kosman wrote for the San Francisco Chronicle after the opening night performance (which is also the one I attended on my “beat”).  It did not take me long in my reading of Kosman’s text to recognize that he was being more lukewarm than I had been, even though it was clear that he was giving Debussy his due at just about every possible turn.  I suppose what struck me was that he was not giving due acknowledgement to the context of Debussy’s music, which was a five-hour latter-day mystery play with five acts worth of text by Gabriele D’Annunzio and choreography by Michel Fokine for the role of Sebastian being danced by the highly flamboyant Ida Rubinstein.  As I wrote in my own piece, “it would be sadly accurate to describe Debussy’s music for this affair as ‘incidental.’”

Nevertheless, the music was the heart of the San Francisco Symphony performance;  and Kosman kept his focus fixed on Debussy’s score.  However, here is the conclusion he drew:

Yet Debussy never quite gives in to the work's underlying premise; he always seems as embarrassed as we are by the fervid expostulations of d'Annunzio's text, and by the shiny colors of the story. So he buries everything under a layer of propriety, culminating in Sebastian's ascent to a heaven that sounds like some kind of drab gentleman's club.

Again and again through Thursday's performance I kept thinking of Olivier Messiaen, whose brand of unabashed religious frenzy is the only thing that could have made this project whole. When Messiaen depicts heaven, or the saints, or the unearthly bliss of suffering, his belief is so profound and unbridled that it carries you along. Debussy, here, is always hedging his bets.

My own impression is that, if you want to approach this in terms of an ecstatic take on Christian faith, then I am not sure it is fair to use Messiaen as grounds for comparison, simply because Debussy had to work with D’Annunzio’s aesthetic, which, in all likelihood, was far more detached and abstract than Messiaen’s far more sincere professions of faith.  Put another way D’Annunzio’s priorities in conceiving his mystery play were grounded in his particular (some would probably say idiosyncratic) approach to aesthetics.  On the other hand what Kosman calls Messiaen’s “unabashed religious frenzy” was a product of sincere faith of the highest order, far beyond the scope of intellectualization or anything dreamt of in D’Annunzio’s philosophy.

From this point of view, I would not say that Debussy was “hedging his bets.”  Rather, he was, as I like to say, playing the cards that had be dealt to him.  Since I get the impression that his own religious convictions were never as strong as Messiaen’s, I feel he deserves to be judged on his own mindset and the practices that emerged from it.  In that context it is not surprising that Kosman heard “echoes” of Richard Wagner’s Parsifal in Debussy’s score.  Here was a case of one composer with a relatively detached relationship to a religious narrative drawing upon another, who was probably just as detached.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Parties to the Farce?

The London Telegraph, which is, for the record, a Conservative-leaning newspaper, ran a rather interesting take on The Iron Lady this morning.  It was a piece by Arts Correspondent Roya Nikkhah in which she documented the opinions of several of the Conservative politicians who had played key roles as part of Thatcher’s Administration.  As might be guessed, the reaction ran the gamut from aggressively negative (“extremely distasteful” were the words of Michael (now Lord) Heseltine) to a decline to comment at all, as was the case with Thatcher’s successor (now Sir) John Major.

Clearly, no one directly associated with the Thatcher Administration wanted to see themselves depicted as actors in a farce (which, as I suggested yesterday, was one way to view the film), let alone portrayed by an actor best known for his arch sense of mockery (such as Richard E. Grant playing Heseltine).  Only Sir John Nott came right out to say that he was not looking forward to seeing himself portrayed.  Most of the venom, however, seems to have been directed at framing the narrative from the perspective of the dementia of Thatcher’s final years.  Admittedly, this is strong stuff;  but it also carries a strong sense of irony that Thatcher should come to the same end as her American counterpart Ronald Reagan, albeit with less immediate family support.

In his retelling of the story of Oedipus for the libretto of Igor Stravinsky’s “Oedipus Rex” oratorio, Jean Cocteau referred to Oedipus falling from a great height after having been ensnared by a trap that was set before he was even born.  I do not think that either Reagan or Thatcher was brought down by some “trap of destiny;”  but they both ascended to a height from which a fall was inevitable.  Furthermore, enough oxen were gored in the course of that ascent that it should be no surprise that many felt little sympathy (and perhaps even some relief) when the fall occurred.

Nevertheless, those few left who take the trouble to read history know that history, as a discipline, is rarely kind to those about whom it tells its stories.  If one has ascended to a position from which one becomes an agent in those stories, then it is inevitable that at least some of those stories will be unsympathetic, if not downright cruel.  The best one can hope for is to die before the historians set to work;  and, in this case, it is hard to imagine that anyone would have financed the production of a film like The Iron Lady while Thatcher was still alive.

Friday, January 13, 2012

The Dramatic Category of a Margaret Thatcher Biography

There is a telling sentence near the beginning of Martin Filler’s NYRblog post about Meryl Streep’s performance of Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady that is likely to frame the attitude of those of us who still enjoy the study of history.  After having put forth the proposition that Streep’s best roles have always been comic ones, Filler says the following about her latest effort:

But when I watched this strange tour de force of Important Acting, I was uncertain whether I was witnessing a tragedy or a farce.

This left me wondering if Filler was familiar with either Slavoj Žižek’s book First as Tragedy, Then as Farce or the Karl Marx text about how history repeats itself that inspired the title.

Those of us bold enough to voice openly a preference for social democracy would know how to consider that last quarter-century of British politics in these terms.  Thatcher was so rabidly opposed to social democracy that it is hard to perceive her as anything other that the key villain in a major tragedy of what one might archly call “the developed world.”  The problem is that every one of her successors, regardless of party affiliation, seems to have managed to turn this tragedy into farce.  This makes for a grim contrast with American politics, in which, ever since the election of Ronald Reagan, we have had to endure one farce after another until we found ourselves staring tragedy square in the face under the Administration of George W. Bush.

It may be that fiction has provided a better platform for examining the Thatcher phenomenon.  From that point of view, John Mortimer wrote the book.  It was called Paradise Postponed;  and ultimately it is about the evolution of a Prime Minister (who happened to be male in Mortimer’s account) who became a scourge of social democratic values will all the gusto of William Shakespeare’s account of King Richard III.  In such a framework one could appreciate the virtues of an actor particularly skilled in comic talents.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Getting out of the Shadow of History

Recently, while reading Milan Kundera’s extended essay, The Curtain (in Linda Asher’s translation from the French), I came across the following remark:

The novelist’s ambition is not to do something better than his predecessors but to see what they did not see, say what they did not say.  Flaubert’s poetics does not devalue Balzac’s, any more than the discovery of the North Pole renders obsolete the discovery of America.

It occurred to me that this observation applies to more than literature.  It provides a useful framework for thinking about innovation in our culture, which seems obsessed with prioritizing it above all other values.  It also provides a lens through which to examine the processes by which a composer or performer of music can find his/her own “voice” without necessarily engaging in games of abstruse abstraction.

Perhaps these thoughts were influenced by my listening to Igor Stravinsky’s 1924 piano sonata while reading the above text.  Some thought that Stravinsky’s neoclassicism amounted to assigning some dignity to his ridicule of those classics of the past.  Stravinsky was once even coarser about the matter, suggesting that rape may carry the “benefit” of bringing a new life into the world and that, within this metaphor, his music for Pulcinella amounted to a “rape” of Pergolesi.  (Did he ever find out, before his death, that most of the music he had appropriated was actually counterfeit Pergolesi?)

Personally, I find Stravinsky’s metaphor to be in bad taste.  However, I also appreciate that there are those who resort to abusive rhetoric as a way to get attention.  I think that, even though he was writing about literature, Kundera was both more polite and more accurate in capturing what Stravinsky’s neoclassicism brought to musical discourse.

Using Kundera’s language one might say that Pergolesi’s vision was constrained by what we would now call a worldview.  (The same could be said of those composers paid by his publisher to write more “Pergolesi music” after the composer himself had died.)  Furthermore, just as the worldview constrains what one sees, it also constrains what one can express.  Stravinsky’s worldview in 1924 was clearly radically different from Pergolesi’s, and those differences influenced his approach to expression.  One might say the same about Ludwig van Beethoven when he serves up a minuet movement instead of his more characteristic preference for a scherzo.  He is “seeing things,” so to speak, in this now-obsolete dance that those who danced it could not possibly have seen.

The issue is not whether or not any of us can say “something new” and then label it as our own “intellectual property.”  The issue is whether we are capable of saying anything (in whatever text modality is suitable) that others can accept as worth saying.  It is easy to overlook this little point, which is why most of those who evangelize innovation almost always do so.  Perhaps that is also why we have a world overflowing in innovations that still feels depressingly impoverished.