Monday, April 30, 2012

Power at its Most Corrupting

A couple of weeks ago the Sundance Channel decided to air the three Red Riding films back-to-back. These were a television adaptation of David Pearce’s Red Riding Quartet, a grisly study of corruption at its worst. Taking the factual circumstances surrounding the Yorkshire Ripper case as a point of departure, the series plays out a convoluted tale of corruption, whose heart resides in the police force, the West Yorkshire Constabulary, whose motto is, “Where we do what we want.”

The underlying plot about the serial killing of children is so complex that, after having viewed all three films, I had to review the plot summaries on Wikipedia to hold the whole thing in my head. Between the complexity of the plot and the thickness of the Yorkshire accents, these were not easy films to follow. Regardless of details, however, they offer up an unrelenting profile of the exercise of power at its most corrupt. Anyone who thinks that West Yorkshire is some kind of bucolic retreat from the crime-ridden streets of London is in for a rude shock.

I suppose that is ultimately what makes the film work. Regardless of how clear the details are, the basic message seems to be that all men are driven by selfishness, exercised first to acquire power and then to draw upon the benefits that come from exerting that power over others. Neither kindness nor rationality prevail in this narrative; and, grim as the prospect may be, the result may be the emblematic plot line for the times in which we now live.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Today is Ludwig Wittgenstein's Birthday!

Be careful how you use your words;  their meaning depends on it!

The Google Initiative to Make the World a Better Place

Faithful to the conviction that technology can solve all problems, Google has launched an online initiative to take on what has begun to seem like a pandemic of violence as a preferred alternative to discussion and deliberation.  At least this seems to be what Dana Kerr reported last night in a post to her Internet & Media blog for CNET News.  The basic idea seems to be that, if you bring together people like “a former violent jihadist from Indonesia, an ex-neo-Nazi from Sweden and a Canadian who was held hostage for 15 months in Somalia,” alternatives to violence will emerge, will be implemented, and will be embraced around the world.  The above quote comes from a blog post by Jared Cohen, Director of Google Ideas, which is supporting this initiative.

For my part I tend to subscribe to the Zen precept that he who tries to change the world can only make matters worse.  Thus, while I have no quibble with Winston Churchill’s declaration that “jaw jaw is better than war war,” I believe that serious problems require serious deliberation.  Thus, before I take this Google initiative seriously, I would like to see it run a gauntlet of some healthy skepticism.

I was a student during the Sixties, so I have had my own previous exposures to those who expressed strong beliefs through violence.  I thus was drawn to a production by a local theater company called Riot, which left a strong mark on my own thinking.  On the surface the piece was staged as a panel discussion.  The premise was that, while reasonable minds may differ, those differences can be resolved by honest efforts at dialog.  Beneath the surface, however, the result was anything but reasonable.  Dialog led to greater divisiveness as each participant became more entrenched in his/her personal convictions;  and, at the risk of trivializing the production, the result was that riot triumphed over reason.

This is actually a very familiar narrative.  The story keeps popping up in different settings based on different events, but the punch line never changes.  One of the more popular voices to repeat the story has been Yasmina Reza with her play God of Carnage, now given a much larger audience through Roman Polanski’s film, titled simply Carnage.  However popular the narrative itself may be, it probably keeps recurring because so few people get the message:  Before bringing together people of radically opposing opinions, it is more important to think in terms of how communication breaks down than it is to ask how technology can broaden the forum in which communication takes place.

Such breakdowns are almost always difficult to analyze.  Often they arise from data points that are too easily dismissed as either irrelevant or insignificant.  However, communication is a complex social system;  and we should think about that complexity they way we think that the butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil can trigger a tornado in Kansas.

Let me, therefore, consider one possible butterfly.  As Jürgen Habermas has observed, the success of a communicative action can sometimes depend critically on the specific words that are exchanged.  In this context we should consider the very name of the Google Ideas initiative:  Against Violent Extremism.  This is admirable, but we live in a world in which names get reduced to acronyms.  In this case the acronym is AVE.  This happens to be a Latin word that was used for greeting when the language was still a living one.  More specifically, it was a standard greeting among the military, often used specifically in reference to Caesar.  To be thoroughly blunt about it, it was used in the same context that the Nazis used “Heil, Hitler!”

Now, the fact that our own culture has become one that is ignorant history should not lead us to assume that all other cultures enjoy that ignorance.  There is thus a good chance that many who might otherwise be interested in participating in dialog will be put off by what amounts to “linguistic provocation” before the conversation even begins.  That will be when the butterfly flap triggers the tornado vortex;  and, as was the case in the Riot play, destruction will ensue.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

It's All Right to Have Fun Again

Having now written my account of last night’s Composers, Inc. concert, which featured works by six composers, all of whom were in the audience, I realized how much things had changed since my student days.  In that dark past the study of music was serious business.  That seriousness was embodied in the character traits of Arnold Schoenberg and underscored by the hyper-intellectualism coming out of the leading institutions of higher learning, such as Princeton University and Yale University.  It was as if pleasure was a luxury that the cerebral demands of “new music” could not afford.

I suppose the “ice-breaker” for me was John Adams, since my earliest exposure to Philip Glass was just as serious as any encounter I had experienced with the music of Elliott Carter.  I was at a performance of “Grand Pianola Music” at the 92nd Street Y;  and the sheer exuberance of it all made my jaw drop.  When I recovered my presence of mind, I discovered that the conclusion of the music seemed to provoke half of the audience to cheer and the other half to boo.  It was as if Adams had decided to attack a sacred cow with a rubber chicken;  and I was definitely in the camp that took this to be a significant (and highly satisfying) event.

These days it is not embarrassing to say that you had fun listening to the music of living composers.  Last night’s concert warranted that proposition admirably.  With any luck, that sense of fun will prevail.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Casting a Vote of No Confidence

Yesterday, Elizabeth Drew put up a post to NYRBlog with the title “Election 2012” (followed by the subtitle “What the Polls Don’t Tell Us”). My guess is that we shall be seeing more and more of this title between now and Election Day, probably by many of the NBYRBlog contributors. The bulk of her post involved discussing the implications of the following premise:
In fact, upward of 98 percent of the voters have already decided, and so the ferocious battle will be over the small remaining number of undecided voters.
However, the most important observation came towards the end of the post, when she observed:
“Staying home” isn’t a passive act.
This has consequences of its own.

Even those who may have decided how they will vote may have misgivings. The problem is that there is no way to give a “vote of no confidence” to the current state of our government. There is no way in which voters cannot speak out against a system that has become too partisan to work for the benefit of the electorate. Indeed, the system is so broken that even the Judiciary Branch, which the Founding Fathers assumed would be above partisanship, has been dragged into the same mud that engulfs both the Legislative and Executive Branches.

Still, it may not be just a matter of staying home for lack of anything better to do. There is a good chance that the “ferocious battle” over 2% of the electorate will appeal to the need to express strong negative opinion. If you cannot raise enthusiasm among the electorate for voting for either Barack Obama or Mitt Romney, you can damned well get a lot of hot blood flowing by encouraging folks to vote against one of these candidates. So what we are likely to see is a massive advertising campaign designed to inculcate hate-based rabble-rousing; and all this will be supported by a media business that loves to do this sort of thing, since it tends to be a guaranteed formula for improving ratings numbers. Where this will lead will remains anyone’s guess; but it is reasonable to anticipate that, whoever wins the next election, the American people will be the losers.

Sharing the Birthday

Today is the birthday of both Barbara Streisand and Shirley MacLaine. To make matters even more interesting, they share the date with both Anthony Trollope and Willem de Kooning. Taking a page from MacLaine’s book, I am trying to imagine what things would be like with the four of them on the same astral plane, perhaps playing bridge with a deck of tarot cards!

Monday, April 23, 2012

Anonymous and Friends

I have been auditioning a recent release of early Renaissance music performed by the Ensemble Obsidienne. The featured composer on this disc is Josquin des Prez, but several of the selections are by anonymous composers. This was the case with the first track, a chanson entitled “Adieu mes amors.” This turned out to be a set of variations, some performed by instruments and others involving instruments and voice. It occurred to me that this performance may well have been a composite. The song was well known enough that a variety of versions ended up being documented, and there is no reason to believe that all of the versions were by the same composer. In other words the label of anonymity did not necessarily imply that this particular track was the coherent work of a single composer. Anonymous may well have had friends interested in the same chanson!

Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Fuzzy Fringe of Science

A week ago I was writing about the occult-driven speculations about psychophysics by Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, the founder of the Futurist movement, as an example of what Freeman Dyson called the “fringe” of scientific thinking.  I have progressed with my reading of Luciano Chessa’s Luigi Russolo, Futurist, the source of my Marinetti quote, I have come to appreciate Dyson’s choice of noun.  The face is that the “boundary” of science is not a particularly well-defined concept.  Indeed, Thomas Kuhn has argued that, if such a boundary exists, it is a fluid one;  and it may be counterproductive to assume that exists at all.

Thus, any questions about the nature of science might do well to turn to the composer Erik Satie and reason by analogy.  I am thinking of Satie’s famous (notorious?) declaration that music is what happens at concerts.  On my site I was willing to grant that this “definition” may have been a throw-away gesture with “no objective other than ‘pour épater les bourgeois’ (to shock the middle classes);”  but it still captures Ludwig Wittgenstein’s core principle that the meaning of any word resides in how that word is used.

The analogy, then, is that science is what scientists do.  In other words, if an individual establishes membership in the “scientific community” by his/her practices, then those practices can be taken as “scientific thinking.”  The problem, of course, is that scientists can venture out to that “fringe,” too, perhaps just out of curiosity about what might be there.  Isaac Newton happened to believe in astrology, and there is no reason to doubt that he probably thought as systematically about it as he did about those laws that explain how bodies move through space.

The example in Chessa’s book is even more striking, since it involves a Nobel Laureate.  Charles-Robert Richet was a physiologist best known for his study of anaphylaxis.  However, he shows up in Chessa’s book for having introduced the term “metapsychic;”  and Chessa describes him as “a scholar of medianic and paranormal phenomena.”  As was the case with Newton, we may assume that he tried to pursue his scholarship with the same systematic order he applied to the study of physiology.

This is not to say that holding scientific credentials provides a guarantee of sound reasoning.  My favorite counterexample is Roger Penrose, who seems to have taken his Nobel Laureate status as a carte blanche allowing him to write about anything.  The result was The Emperor’s New Mind:  Concerning Computers, Minds, and the Laws of Physics.  As I wrote on my earlier blog, this was a shining example of sound reasoning coming to flawed conclusions, although the reasoning was so skillful that, as I put it, “it took one of the most reputable cognitive scientists (Aaron Sloman) a major exertion of effort to tease out the faulty reasoning in the book.

Perhaps this is where the real lesson resides.  Being a scientist may establish that one’s efforts are legitimate enough to be considered seriously by other scientists.  However, consideration does not guarantee acceptance.  Scientific thinking trains one to explore all possibilities of defeating a proposition, no matter how appealing it may sound;  and, if a scientist wishes to indulge in occult studies, then (s)he should expect that any results will have to stand up to rigorous criticism from the rest of the scientific community, not out of any vindictive attempt to “circle the wagons” but just as a check to establish the soundness of the reasoning leading to those results.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Farewell, Sam Wo's

According to today's news (in the San Francisco Chronicle, among other places), Saw Wo's will close tonight.  This has been my restaurant-of-choice for lunch ever since I started writing about the recitals in the Noontime Concerts™ series at Old St. Mary's Cathedral.  I know that I shall have other options, but I am not sure that any of them will satisfy my craving for congee there.

Mine is a generation that depended on The Underground Gourmet for cheap food that was worth eating.  This publication originated in New York, which is where I used it most heavily.  However, it did not take long for a San Francisco edition to surface;  and it was through that publication that many of us visiting from the East discovered Sam Wo's.  I would go back there regularly after my student days had long passed, and I would regularly introduce friends to it.  Yet it was only after I started writing about music that I became a "regular" (of sorts), when it turned out that some of the best chamber music in the City could be found in a Catholic church in the middle of Chinatown.

I appreciate the problem.  Sam Wo's became too old to keep up with regulations.  As a student I was part of a crowd that was always sharing "greasy chopstick" joints.  Now grease does not agree with me, but there was still plenty of good eating at Sam Wo's.  I find it sad that they cannot keep up with these new regulatory times, and I wonder if Chinatown itself will succumb to the same fate.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Mingus Raw

Yesterday I happened to mention that “Charles Mingus used to be very fussy about receiving respectful attention at a club gig.”  Actually, he was very sensitive about being recorded under proper conditions.  If this meant “live” recording, then he simply did not want any extraneous noise coming from the audience.

Nevertheless, “live” conditions are inevitably problematic,  Many of the venues in which Mingus performed were not really set up for good recording conditions.  Worse yet, many of them gave little attention to the risks that the gigs might be illegally recorded.  This was Mingus’ real sore spot;  and one cannot blame him, particularly in light of just how poor those unauthorized recordings can be.

Nevertheless, the age of the CD seems to have brought with it an age of legitimizing such recordings;  and I have to confess that I often buy the stuff.  After all, Mingus’ relationship with the recording industry was so rocky that those of us who want a satisfactory sample of his qualities as a performer have to take what we can get.  That is my feeling about the recordings made at Slug’s in New York in 1970.  The sound quality is dismal, but Mingus’ solo work comes through with enough strength to satisfy the serious listener.  There is also a particularly wild quality to Dannie Richmond’s drumming that was more muted in more “formal” recording situations.  The same can be said of the free-blowing melody work of Charles McPherson and Jimmy Voss on saxophones and Bill Hardman on trumpet.  Meanwhile, since this whole recording was probably made with a concealed microphone on audience side, there is an ample supply of audience chatter (some of which probably had to do with ordering drinks).

In many ways these recordings amount to a study in adverse conditions.  However, when we consider how little attention has been given to listening to jazz under better conditions, they were probably also “business as usual” conditions.  The fact that, in the midst of all that chaos, there is still much for the serious listener says something about how much work Mingus would put into each of his gigs.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Finding the Right Framework for Jazz

I find that I have been casting a broader net in writing about jazz on  It certainly is not that there is not enough to cover in the “traditional classical” domain;  nor do I think it has to do with a need to ride my jazz-as-chamber-music-by-other-means hobby horse more often.  Rather, I think it has to do with my fundamental precept that all listening can only take place in the context of other listening experiences, so I like to keep my contexts both broad and flexible.

One result of my activities is that I sometimes get interesting feedback from those people primarily in the jazz world.  There are, of course, the ones who figure that I don't know what the hell I’m talking about because my mind is cluttered with too much thinking about classical music.  Every now and then, however, I get some feedback to the effect that I am writing at both greater length and depth than most jazz writers do.  I take that as a positive sign.  When I wrote about the SFJAZZ performance by Michel Camilo and his trio this past weekend, it was natural to evoke names from different corners of jazz history (Art Tatum, John Coltrane, Cecil Taylor) to illustrate the breadth of Camilo’s imaginative inventiveness.  On the other hand it also made sense to add Morton Feldman to that mix, not so much because Camilo’s piano solos sounded like Feldman as because he had a way of dwelling on the sonorities of individual notes that struck me as a perfectly valid reflection of Feldman’s aesthetic.

Will this make a difference to jazz lovers?  Quite honestly, I know no more about those who go to SFJAZZ events than I do about those who pay good money for a seat in Davies Symphony Hall and then only seem to care about how loud they shout “Bravo!” at the end.  I suppose one reason why I prefer jazz in Herbst Theatre to any club setting is that Herbst is more conducive to listening than any club is.  Charles Mingus used to be very fussy about receiving respectful attention at a club gig;  but I am not sure how high the listening priority is for most club-goers.  The real point is that today’s jazz holds up to serious listening at the same level as a chamber music recital in Herbst or a symphony concert in Davies.  It may be that most folks at any of these venues do not care about this very much;  but it is nice to discover, from time to time, that my stuff gets read by those who do care.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Performing Precise Research with Blunt Instruments

I began this month with a pretty jaundiced view of Jonah Lehrer’s new book, Imagine:  How Creativity Works, on the basis of the review for the San Francisco Chronicle written by David D’Arcy.  Today, thanks to the London Telegraph, I had the opportunity to sample an excerpt from the book itself.  The bottom line is that I am just as jaundiced, if not more so.

I shall put aside the extended portion of this excerpt that deals with expert surfer Clay Marzo.  This is not because I would contest the proposition that expert surfing is a matter of creativity at work.  Rather, it is an admission that I do not know enough about surfing to assess the value of this portion of the text.  Indeed, had Lehrer applied such humility to his other sources, I suspect he would have had a much shorter book, if he had enough to constitute a book at all.

Fortunately, the excerpt begins with two ventures into music;  and I feel qualified to comment on both of them.  The first has to do with the creativity that Yo-Yo Ma brings to his cello performances, recognizing, as Lehrer does, that those performances have made Ma “as famous for his recordings of Bach’s cello suites as the swing of American bluegrass.”  However, the problem with Lehrer’s purported analysis is that he spends pretty much all of his text analyzing Ma’s physical behavior and what Ma has to say about how he works and gives basically no attention to actually listening to the results.  As far as the former is concerned, I have to worry that, if Lehrer is not much of a listener, then I am a bit skeptical about his capabilities as an observer.

The real fly in the ointment, however, concerns the extent to which the words of Ma’s introspective musings count as data.  In this respect I wish to invoke a key sentence from Tim Parks’ recent post to NYRBlog about Riccardo Manzotti and his radical externalist approach to the study of consciousness.

Language, or at least our modern language, thus encourages a false account of experience.

With all due respect to Parks, any anthropologist could have told him that;  but I suspect that Manzotti could come up with far more vivid examples.  The point is that ethnography is dependent on both observation and interviewing based on the premise that both of these techniques are highly blunt instruments.  Thus, one develops methods to play them against each other and to draw upon other sources, all in the interest of arriving at a consistent data set before attempting to make any inferences.  This discipline does not seem to influence Lehrer one way or the other:  He is ready to start making inferences at the drop of a hat, regardless of the soundness of his data.

The excerpt then moves into the creativity behind jazz improvisation.  This is where Lehrer presumes to “look inside the brain” to find his data:

The story begins in the brain. Charles Limb, a neuroscientist at Johns Hopkins University, has investigated the mental process underlying improvisation. Limb, a self-proclaimed music addict, has long been obsessed with the fleshy substrate of creative performance. “How did Coltrane do it?” Limb asks. “How did he get up there onstage and improvise for an hour or more? I wanted to know how that happened.” Although Limb’s experiment was simple in concept – he was going to watch jazz pianists improvise new tunes while in a brain scanner – it proved difficult to execute. That’s because the giant superconducting magnets in fMRI machines require absolute stillness of the body part being studied, which meant that Limb needed to design a custom keyboard that could be played while the pianists were lying down. (The set-up involved an intricate system of angled mirrors, so the subjects could see their hands.)

Lehrer is not the first to have been seduced by Limb’s experimental studies.  Last June I used my national page for to pick on an equally deceptive piece that Pam Belluck wrote for The New York Times entitled “When the Melody Takes a Detour, the Science Begins.”  The title of my own piece was “Further thoughts on what scientists do not understand about music.”  For a variety of reasons, the most important being that (as any conservatory student will tell you) the performance of music is a “whole body” activity, the apparatus for Limb’s work is as blunt an instrument as language, if not more so.  No matter how the scientist tries to compensate, any efforts to restrain the body are going to distort the data.  The bottom line is that Limb’s equipment does more to promote the prestige of his professional community than to tell us about the creative practices that emerge during jazz improvisation.

The way I put it in my piece is that Belluck bought the bill of goods that Limb was selling.  On the basis of the Telegraph excerpt, it appears that Lehrer bought it too.  Thus, as a corollary, we see that the Telegraph itself, D’Arcy, and all those who have pushed Imagine to the top of best seller lists have eagerly bought Lehrer’s own bill of goods.  As Kurt Vonnegut said, “So it goes.”

Monday, April 16, 2012

Remembering the Titanic without Leaving Dry Land

Last week it seemed as if BBC News broadcasts had become obsessed with the centennial anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic.  Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that they had a reporter on the vessel that was going to duplicate the path of the ship’s voyage all the way up to the point at which it had its fatal encounter with an iceberg.  The intention appeared to be to allow those connected with this tragedy in some substantive way to participate in a memorial ceremony.

As one who has no personal connection to the Titanic other than an aversion to James Cameron’s film, my only association with this tragic event has always been that composition by Gavin Bryars, which he entitled “The Sinking of the Titanic.”  I used to have Brian Eno’s Obscure vinyl, on which this music filled one side.  The other side was “Jesus’ Blood never failed me yet;”  and I was not surprised when I learned that both of these were ongoing projects.  Thus, each has now seen a new release, through which both of them now endure for the length of a full CD recording.  Both amount to extended variations on a theme arising from adding new layers of content, rather than simply embellishing the theme.  Presumably longer versions will emerge for media that can accommodate longer durations.

The idea behind “Titanic” was the hypothesis that the sounds of the ship going down were still, in some way or another, vibrating in the depths of the Atlantic Ocean.  The theme for Bryars’ composition is the Episcopal hymn “Autumn.”  According to an account by Harold Bode, a junior wireless officer, this was the music being played during the last five minutes of the ship’s life (rather than “Nearer my God to Thee,” which is what was played at the centennial memorial service).  I was thus somewhat comforted to read in a piece by Richard Fairman for the Financial Times that a new performance of “Titanic” was given by the Gavin Bryars Ensemble as an “alternative” commemoration of the ship’s sinking.  I cannot imagine that this would have offended any of those on the memorial voyage, and it provided a different perspective from which the rest of us could reflect on this historic occasion.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

At the Boundary between Scientific and Imaginative Thinking

My interests have recently brought my attention to a new book by Luciano Chessa entitled Luigi Russolo, Futurist.  Since I know very little about the Italian Futurists, I figured this might be a good way to fill in a gap that might provide helpful perspective in my general thoughts about the creative arts.  Chessa’s first chapter is entitled “Futurism as a Metaphysical Science;”  and, by a happy coincidence, I started reading it shortly after having read Freeman Dyson’s recent review of Margaret Wertheim’s Physics on the Fringe for The New York Review.  Dyson is a generous critic;  so he never lapses into suggesting that “on the fringe” is a euphemism for “crackpot.”  He is content to observe that there are certain propositions being investigated through methods that run contrary to the accepted practices of scientific method.  He admires both the propositions and their investigation for imaginative thinking, but he dismisses the possibility of anything of scientific value resulting.

When we talk about scientific methods, we are talking basically about how we gather and analyze objective data.  Thus, validity of method is something that can be held to objective standards.  Nevertheless, the data points are only a part of the “big picture” of scientific practice.  Most of the time is spent communicating about data and analyses, rather than collecting and analyzing;  and language is a far more slippery tool than any scientific instrument.  Furthermore, as we know from the research of George Lakoff, we are capable of lapsing into instances of what Giambattista Vico called “poetic wisdom,” often without explicitly recognizing them.  (Lakoff’s favorite example is that we use metaphorical language as if it were literal.)

In this context we should consider the following statement by Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, the founder of the Futurist movement:

Everybody can feel that sight, smell, hearing, touch and taste are modifications of a single, highly perceptive sense:  the sense of touch, which splits into different ways and organizes into different points.

Let us give Marinetti the benefit of the doubt and assume that he knows the rudiments of the excitation of neurons and the fact that such excitations can pass from one neuron to another.  One might then say that neuronal excitation may be viewed as a generalization of touch, particularly since such excitation does not depend on direct physical contact.  That being the case, Marinetti’s reductive hypothesis is not as crackpot as it may seem at first glance.  This does not escalate him to the ranks of what society calls “serious scientists;”  but it means that, on a plane other than the simplest literal interpretation, he may have been on to something that we now recognize as a perfectly legitimate way to approach the processing of sensory signals.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Davis Pepper Spraying Incident Gets Global Attention

Yesterday I ran a piece on how the Occupy movement in London has extended its attention to consumerism in the art world.  Here in the United States, however, the primary focus of Occupy has been the efforts of the 99% to do something about economic inequality.  I do not particularly care how the 1% invest their disposable income in art as long as they begin to recognize, like Warren Buffet, that some of that disposable income might be better applied to giving the 99% a better crack at having any disposable income at all.

One of the more notorious responses to an Occupy protest took place on the campus of the University of California at Davis on November 18, 2011.  This was basically a peaceful student demonstration in sympathy with the Occupy movement that was dispersed through the use of pepper spray by the campus police.  Needless to say, media coverage of this action backfired on the Administration of the University of California, which then appointed a task force, led by retired State Supreme Court Justice Cruz Reynoso, to investigate the incident.

The task force report was released yesterday.  As might be guessed, it came down solidly against Davis for violating policy and using poor judgment.  This was not particularly earthshaking news to those of us here in California.  The University goofed, and it went through the appropriate channels before acknowledging the error.  Nevertheless, I found it interesting that Al Jazeera English had picked up this story by this morning.

Perhaps I should not have been as surprised as I was.  In many ways the Occupy movement was an outgrowth of the Arab Spring, and we know that different countries have responded to Arab Spring protests in radically different ways.  Thus the “due process” that evolved in the wake of the Davis incident is an example of what many Arab Spring protestors want to see taking place in their own countries.  Given that there seem to be fewer and fewer incidents in which the United States can be held up as a role model for the advantages of a constitution-based rule of law, there is much to be said for Al Jazeera English calling attention to a positive aspect of that system.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Occupy Damien Hirst

As a result of a report in the London Telegraph concerning a modest graffiti attack by the Occupy movement on Damien Hirst's “Hymn” sculpture, I found myself reading an article about Hirst prepared by Kester Brewin for The Occupied Times Web site.  This took a somewhat different tack than my own recent analysis, which basically argued that Hirst is at least honest enough to recognize that one can bring far more substance to arguments over what the market will bear than one can to any philosophical questions regarding the nature of art.  Brewin’s own take on this position arises by using Germaine Greer as a point of departure:

Germaine Greer is clear: ‘Damien Hirst is a brand, because the art form of the 21st century is marketing. To develop so strong a brand on so conspicuously threadbare a rationale is hugely creative – revolutionary even.’ She is applying a clever double twist: Hirst isn’t an artist, but a manufacturer of objects who has developed a careful brand. And yet our delight at his doing this – for the forthcoming exhibition is expected to be vastly popular – reflects on us as branded consumers, thus opening up the possibility of returning Hirst to the place of an artist performing social critique.

The thing is that marketing has been a dominating art form throughout history, even before the word “marketing” became part of our working vocabulary.  That is why I cited Hirst’s remarks about Rembrandt in my own analysis.  Where things get complicated in when analysts such as Brewin try to fold questions of value into questions of marketing.

One way to appreciate those complications is through the film Max.  This was an extremely clever attempt to examine Adolf Hitler as an aspiring artist in the period immediately following the First World War.  His paintings are, to say the least, naïve;  but his sense of discipline is encouraged by the art dealer Max Rothman (who happens to be Jewish).  Through that mentoring, Hitler is exposed to the full-frontal assault of the Dada movement and its pioneering efforts in performance art.  He is also drawn to National Socialism while it is still virtually embryonic.  The punch line of the film is Hitler’s discovery that his true métier may be in oratory as performance art and that National Socialism provided the perfect “stage” upon which he could practice that art.

Am I arguing that Hirst is a latter-day Hitler, building an audience of rabid followers of consumerism as Hitler had done for National Socialism?  I am not ready to take quite that extreme position.  Nevertheless, I think that anyone who attracts a mass following should be viewed with suspicion.  The extreme position I can take is that there is little difference between an eager disciple of Hitler and a faith-driven follower of Jesus.  To invoke the language of Marshall McLuhan, both are too susceptible to letting the medium obscure the message.

Ultimately, Brewin is pleading for a more reflective world, which means a world more attentive to messages than media.  It is a worthy ambition.  In a world addicted to consumerism, however, it may also be a futile one.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Are You Ready for Zero-Gravity Whisky?

One of the more profound insights of Douglas Adams The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was the observation that every culture in the cosmos had some variant of the noun phrase “G and T,” the implication being that one could chill out with gin and tonic no matter where one happened to be in the universe.  Whatever the future of gin may be, it would appear that we are on the threshold of the first episode of (with apologies to the Muppets) Whisky in Space.  At least that seems to be what we can conclude from the following report that appeared on the BBC News Web site last night:

Experiments using malt from the Ardbeg distillery on Islay are being carried out on the International Space Station to see how it matures without gravity.

Compounds of unmatured malt were sent to the station in an unmanned cargo spacecraft in October last year, along with particles of charred oak.

Scientists want to understand how they interact at close to zero gravity.

NanoRacks LLC, the US company behind the research, has said understanding the influence of gravity could help a number of industries, including the whisky industry, to develop new products in the future.

The experiment, unveiled at the Edinburgh International Science Centre, will last for at least two years.

Ardbeg happens to be very dear to my heart.  I am pretty sure that this was the distillery that produced the most expensive bottle of spirits I ever purchased, a single-cask offering that I discovered in Menlo Park back in better days.  My wife and I knew this was a one-of-a-kind experience;  and we were pretty good at making that bottle last.

Still, given the perspective of my own experience, I have to say that I find this a rather elitist project in the midst of difficult economic times.  Unfortunately, NanoRacks is not doing much to allay these feelings.  Here is what Michael Johnson, their Chief Technical Officer, has to say:

By doing this microgravity experiment on the interaction of terpenes and other molecules with the wood samples provided by Ardbeg, we will learn much about flavours, even extending to applications like food and perfume.

Goodie.  As far as I can tell, all that will result is that the most expensive bottles of Scotch and perfume will be superseded by new bottles that are even more expensive.  However, when the new brew comes down to Earth after two years, if Ardbeg is looking for volunteers for any taste-testing, I shall be only too happy to hear from them!

Monday, April 9, 2012

Spelling "Blackhawk"

Since the Blackhawk, which used to one of the best places to listen to jazz in San Francisco, was just a few blocks down from where I now live, I decided I needed to educate myself a bit about it.  There is a nice little article about it on Wikipedia, but that piece reveals an interesting curiosity.  There seems to be some inconsistency as to just how the name of this club was spelled.  The title of the Wikipedia entry says “Black Hawk;”  but in the “Selective discography” section, the only recording that uses this spelling is the one of Mongo Santamaria made in 1962.  All the others in the list, Cal Tjader (1958), Shelly Manne (1959), Thelonious Monk (1960), and Miles Davis (1961), have titles that say “Blackhawk.”  The only book I have that cites the place goes with “Blackhawk.”  However, that is Robin D. G. Kelley’s comprehensive study of Monk.  He goes with “Blackhawk;”  but he may just have decided to be consistent with the Monk Riverside recording.  There is no recognition of this variation under the Talk tab.

I would go down to the corner of Turk and Hyde and see for myself, but that paradise is now a parking lot!

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Remembering What I Read

The Chilean novelist and poet Roberto Bolaño died in 2003.  About all I know of him came from articles written about him in The New York Review.  I was therefore surprised to see that, this past Thursday, he had a post on NYRBlog.  I had heard jokes about Facebook presences living on after death, but I had not expected to find a leading author writing from beyond the grave.

The post turned out to be a piece entitled “Scholars of Sodom,” taken from Chris Andrews’ translation of The Secret of Evil, due to be published by New Directions on April 17.  At the very least the post has made me curious about the book, since the text of the post seems to be an almost unclassifiable exercise in writing.  The first part is a “mind’s eye” description of V. S. Naipaul “strolling through the streets of Buenos Aires,” which amounts to two paragraphs of what is probably deliberate textual wandering.  The second part seems to imply that the first part was the beginning of one of Bolaño’s writing projects that never went anywhere.  The project appears to have been a reaction to several of Naipaul’s essays about Argentina;  and, as the bottom of the post observes and provides hyperlinks, three of those essays appeared in The New York Review.

Bolaño’s text is concerned primarily with Naipaul’s disgust for Argentina.  The source of that disgust seems to be Naipaul’s conviction that sodomy is “an Argentinean custom” (Bolaño’s choice of words).  Bolaño explores the path that may have led Naipaul to this conclusion and then asserts that the premises at the source of that path are nothing more than fabrications.

My initial reaction was that Bolaño had composed a clever piece of metafiction in an effort to defend (retroactively) Argentina against Naipaul’s attack.  He even injects himself into the fabric of this metafiction by observing that “Not even a Chilean” would have written “a critique as devastating as Naipaul’s.”  Upon further reflection, however, I realized that this is a more general text that cuts to the dangerously tight coupling between discrimination and raw hatred.  The fact is that, with surprisingly little variation, one could have written the same text about The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and its relation (both cause and effect) to anti-Semitic thinking.

For this reason I decided that this is a text to be remembered, which brought me into a serious confrontation with my current struggles to manage my own memory.  These days when anyone asks me about a point of fact in something I have written for, I reply that I rely on search engines (mostly Google) to remind me of just what I have written in the past.  In other words, if I want to remember something, I have to make sure that I create a trace of it that some search engine will be able to recover.  I have previously written about how I use PowerPoint to provide me with “the moral equivalent of 3 x 5 cards,” that I can use to copy out passages I have read that I want to remember, as well as my own observations about such passages.

Now it seems that I am using blogging as yet another extension of memory.  For this particular text, it seemed more important to reflect on Bolaño’s virtual blog post with a blog post of my own, which would probably get indexed by Google very shortly after I publish it.  This struck me as the best thing for me to have done;  and so, to paraphrase Gertrude Stein’s conclusion to The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, I have and this is it.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Headline Stupidity

The Associated Press headline, at least as it appeared on Yahoo! News, said the following:

The problem is that this headline is not news.  Indeed, the circumstances were so striking that I wrote a post about it last June!  Even more interesting, however, is that it was not really the headline for the story by Gillian Wong that followed!  The real news is that five people were just indicted for their role in this kidney sale.  Citing the Xinhua News Agency as her source, Wong elaborated on who those five people were:

The defendants include a surgeon, a hospital contractor, and brokers who looked for donors online and leased an operating room to conduct the procedure, Xinhua said.

Now we are getting at something more like a real news story!

Friday, April 6, 2012

A Generation of Internet Shut-Ins?

Joan Lowy just filed an Associated Press report based on the following observation:

The share of people in their teens, 20s and 30s with driver's licenses has dropped significantly over the past three decades, not only the United States, but also in some other wealthy nations with a high proportion of Internet users, transportation researchers have found.

The hypothesis she explores by way of explanation has to do with that “high proportion of Internet users” factor.  As she puts it:

Virtual contact through the Internet and other electronic means is reducing the need for face-to-face visits among young people, researchers say.

Those who still have an interest in literature may recognize the literary implications of this proposition.  It means that the world envisaged by E. M. Forster's short story “The Machine Stops,” may be emerging as a reality.  That story, of course, is a cautionary tale about the helplessness that ensues in a society of shut-ins dependent on some “master technology” to satisfy all of their needs.  As you might guess, it does not have a happy ending.

When  I saw the headline for Lowy’s story, I figured that a new generation had emerged that preferred walking and public transportation to gas-guzzling automobiles;  silly me.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

A Primal Scream about Justice

As a rule I try to avoid phone-in shows.  The prevailing rule seems to be that both the hosts and the callers are interested in little more than hearing themselves speak, so I tend to feel best off by ignoring the whole thing.  It provides no entertainment and less information.

The one exception to my rule comes when I occasionally tune in Washington Journal through my satellite radio feed for C-SPAN Radio.  Many of the callers seem to take seriously the proposition that they have an opportunity to communicate with people who might matter, and those in the studio always seem to begin with the presumption that what they are hearing is worth the listening.  When that presumption is clearly refuted, the host is always good about closing things off and moving on to the next caller.

So it was that this morning I was drawn to one caller who, in response to comments on the pending ruling by the Supreme Court on the constitutionality of Barack Obama’s health care legislation, dismissed the High Court for having become “just another political action committee.”  This struck me as the perfect appendix to yesterday’s post, in which I suggested that all of the rational arguments Ronald Dworkin could muster to demonstrate “Why the Health Care Challenge Is Wrong” (the title of his NYRBlog post) were irrelevant in the face of Supreme Court Justices willing to be party to a Republican faction determined to remove Obama from office “by any means necessary.”  This caller put his finger on the crux of the matter:  the Judiciary is no longer a body that acts independently of political matters that can check and balance both the Executive and Legislative branches.

This is nothing new.  History is full of stories of Presidents who packed the Court with Justices sympathetic to their personal ideologies.  Had that not been the case, we might not have witnessed the progress enjoyed by the Civil Rights movement or the freedom of women to make their own choices about abortion, which could or could not draw upon personal convictions of faith.  Thus, it should be no surprise that those wishing to undo such milestones of social progress are willing to engage in the long-range planning of packing the court in favor of new ideologies.

We can debate whether or not this may be counted as an aspect of the Constitution that may undermine that desire for “domestic tranquility” expressed in the Preamble.  I can remember when Gore Vidal went so far as to suggest that things had gotten bad enough that a new Constitutional Convention might be in order.  While I tend to respect Vidal’s wisdom, I fear he may have overlooked just how contentious the last Constitutional Convention was.  Given the way discourse has changed, I cannot imagine a Constitutional Convention coming up with a better document any more than I can imagine our government coming up with a fairer strategy for health care reform.

Can we get out of this mess?  Perhaps the lesson of that phone call to C-SPAN is that our electorate is gradually waking up to just how corrupt our government has become.  Churchill used to call the United States a “sleeping giant” to describe its reluctance to get involved in foreign affairs.  Perhaps the giant is beginning to stir in awareness of what is happening on the domestic front.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Separation of Powers … NOT!

Back when I was studying American history in high school, there was a fair amount of emphasis on how the Founding Fathers’ conception of separation of powers entailed that the Judiciary division should be independent of political squabbling.  Given the current state of education in this country, I have no idea how aware our electorate is of this fundamental premise today.  In that context I have to wonder to what extent Ronald Dworkin’s recent NYRBlog analysis of the arguments over health care before the Supreme Court (blatantly titled “Why the Health Care Challenge Is Wrong”) will have any effect on either the general public or the nine Justices themselves.

Dworkin has a writer’s gift for taking complex issues and explaining them with thoroughly readable clarity;  and his scholarly background allows him to negotiate the complexities of legal argument, often deliberately intended to obfuscate, with consummate skill.  Thus, his post succeeds in arguing that the challenge to Barack Obama’s plan for the first steps of health care reform had no business coming to the Supreme Court in the first place.  He also pulls no punches in explaining why events played out the way they did:  The timing was such that a decision would be handed down at a time when most of the electorate would be focused on the coming Presidential election,  Thus, a rejection of Obama’s plan by an allegedly objective Judiciary would provide support to the Republican Party in this election.  In other words this has never been a question of whether or not Federal reform of health care is Constitutional.  It has only been about the Republican’s extending their power base “by any means necessary.”

Thus, to a great extent, Dworkin’s post was a futile exercise.  Almost from the day on which Obama won the 2008 election, Republicans have turned politics into a totally emotional issue at the heart of which is raw hatred for both Obama and all who sail under his flag.  Even the Supreme Court is now divided by partisan ideology to such an extent that it was easy for Dworkin to pick apart those questions posed by conservative Justices to challenge the legal arguments in favor of the legislation under question.

In a historical context such emotionality in the Judiciary should not surprise.  Emotions ran just as high over the question of civil rights.  This was a problem even before the outbreak of the Civil War, and it is hard to say that the problem has yet been put to rest.  Nevertheless, there is something depressing about such a blatant situation in which Justices of the Supreme Court have essentially assumed the role of agents of vendetta.  It is a reminder of the extent to which corruption has spread through the entire Federal Government;  and, as that spread continues, the opportunities to reverse it will become fewer and less effective.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Damien Hirst Tests What the Market will Bear

There seemed to be a lot of fuss on this morning’s Newshour on BBC World Service Radio over whether or not Damien Hirst should be taken seriously as an artist.  My guess is that Hirst would be the first one to appreciate the irony of the situation:  After all, when we consider how much drivel is aired on Outlook in the name of “human interest,” I can think of any number of listeners wondering whether or not they should take the BBC seriously.  Still, having just read Anita Singh’s piece for the London Telegraph about Hirst’s new show at the Tate Modern, I have to admit that he is doing a damned good job at pushing the envelope, at least for those who believe that all categories must be rigidly defined.

The focus of Singh’s coverage is actually the gift shop, and this should provide the proper context for her entire article.  After all, in the immortal words of Willie Sutton, the gift shop is “where the money is.”  I am less interested in whether or not Hirst is challenging the categorizers over what constitutes an artist and far more interested in the extent of his innovative approaches to testing just what the market will bear.  The featured item in the gift shop is “Hallucinatory Head,” produced in a limited edition of 50.  It is a plastic replica of a human skull, daubed with household gloss paint.  There is nothing particularly challenging about this item until you check the price tag:  £36,800.

At this point the litany of immortal words shifts from Sutton to Billy Mays.  In the full spirit of Mays’ famous “and that’s not all” phrase, Singh then rattles off some of the other offerings:

For those who cannot stretch to the £36,800 skull, there is a set of 12 china plates for £10,500, a spotted skateboard for £480, a deckchair for £310 and a butterfly-print umbrella for £195. Butterfly-print wallpaper costs £700 a roll.

After that, she turns her attention to the exhibition one encounters before getting to the gift shop.

All this arguing over what is art, particularly when it brings the gift shop into the argument, reminds me of an anecdote I related over a year ago:

… I once had to write a review for the Colorado Daily, the student newspaper for the University of Colorado, of an end-of-term exhibit by the Art Department, entitled Colorado Scene, which consisted entirely of plates of dried-out cow pies.  I remember completing my review with the observation that art can be found wherever you set your foot.

I see no reason to withhold applying this wisdom to Hirst, perhaps even extending that final sentence with the world “or whenever you open your wallet.”  Those so obsessed over what art should or should not be (as if that were a valid question in the first place) seem to have blinded themselves to the possibility that Hirst is just testing the current market, which is exactly the point he makes explicitly when holding up a Rembrandt painting as an example.

Back when my wife and I had the resources to collect art, we had a few basic rules to guide our decision-making.  The first was that the object we encountered reached out to both of us in such a way that we felt we really wanted it to be a part of the “landscape” of our home.  Unless that motivation was there in full force, we never bothered to inquire about price.  Having gotten to the level of knowing the price, however, the second rule involved deciding whether that price was within our budget.  If that turned out to be the case, we would have a “family conference” over whether that motivation was still as strong as it had been upon first impressions.  If so, we would close the deal.

These days we really do not have that kind of disposable income;  but, having seen some of Hirst’s stuff, I cannot say that I have encountered anything that would make it past our first rule.  However, to put this decision in an appropriate context, I should note that we recently had a “family conference” over whether we wanted to spend money on a trip to Germany to attend a performance of the Europeras 1 & 2 by John Cage, taking place this summer at the Ruhrtriennale in Bochum.  I know any number of opera lovers who would dismiss such a performance with the full force of their indignation, but the only differences between Cage and Hirst comes down to the facts that Cage is now dead and this year happens to be the centennial of his birth.  Those differences have next to nothing concerning what Cage actually did or what Hirst is now doing;  so, if Hirst can find enough people willing to pay his asking price that he does not have to lower it, then more power to him.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

No Fooling about Creativity

The front page of the Books section in today’s San Francisco Chronicle devoted its left-hand column to a new book by Jonah Lehrer, Imagine:  How Creativity Works, with a review written by David D’Arcy, described as a correspondent for the London monthly Art Newspaper.  My immediate thought was that this was how the Chronicle was going to celebrate April Fool’s Day, but a quick check of revealed that this book really does exist.  The same seems to be true of The Art Newspaper, revealing that the Chronicle had neglected to capitalize “The” in giving D’Arcy’s credentials.  So neither the book nor the reviewer is a joke, but I am not sure we should take either seriously.

D’Arcy’s review does have one merit.  It enables anyone with battle scars from the “knowledge movement” that besotted large chunks of the IT community with the fortune-cookie aphorisms of Ikujiro Nonaka to recognize quickly that Lehrer has not said anything that has not already been said many times over.  Actually, there is one significant exception to that sweeping generalization, which is the one quote from the book that D’Arcy provides, which I take to be Lehrer’s punch line:

We have to make it easy to become a genius.

This, for me, was the real Whiskey Tango Foxtrot moment in reading D’Arcy’s review.  Apparently, there is no room for William Schwenck Gilbert in Lehrer’s frame of reference, at least not for my favorite couplet from The Gondoliers:

When every one is sombodee,
     Then no one’s anybody!

If genius becomes so easily that anyone can attain it, it loses its extraordinary qualities and hence its value.  The good news is that, if this is the punch line, it makes it clear that Lehrer is nothing more than a snake-oil peddler.

This takes us to my favorite blooper from D’Arcy’s own text:

“Imagine” conjures up a mix of Oliver Sacks, Malcolm Gladwell and Richard (“creative class”) Florida.

I have no problem with Gladwell and Florida sharing a category (and, on the basis of D’Arcy’s account, of adding Lehrer to that category).  However, while Sacks has a talent for writing for the lay reader, he also has a strong background in the disciplines of the science he discusses.  (Lehrer should be reminded that his background was not at all easy to obtain, and I cannot imagine that Sacks would be such a valuable resource to so many readers had he not worked his tush off to acquire that background.)

The real punch line for this fiasco, however, is that Imagine holds the number one position on the Chronicle list of best nonfiction sellers in the Bay Area.  Fortunately, it is not on the top ten of the national list.  I guess this means that, where concepts like “genius” are concerned, not only is there a sucker born every minute but also more of them seem to get born in Silicon Valley than in the country at large!