Thursday, May 31, 2012

Howls of “Ivy”

With all the buzz currently building around Intel’s new Ivy Bridge chip, the historian in me has been wondering whether or not anyone over at Intel knew that the name of the first hydrogen bomb to be tested was “Ivy Mike” (or, for that matter, that the result of that test was the total obliteration of the island of Elugelab)!

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Zynga in the Workplace

Rafe Needleman’s latest dispatch from D10 (as in All Things Digital) included a real gem of a quote from Mark Pincus, CEO of Zynga:
Let's not be too quick to jump on mobile. People still spend massive amounts of time on the PC at work ... and on boring conference calls.
I have no trouble with his disputing the current “mobile rules” proposition. The rest of the quote, however, seems to suggest that Zynga’s value can be found in people in the workplace who are supposed to be doing something else but find that “something else” boring. Now I am willing to believe that people who are bored are easily distracted, but I am not sure I would want to support an institution whose mission seems to be to provide the most attractive distractions!

Straight Talk about Globalization from Tim Cook

When Steve Jobs used to appear at the D: All Things Digital conference, he could dazzle his audience with his blue-sky visions, just as he would any other audience. However, as Andrew Nusca observed in his report from the conference for Between the Lines on the ZDNet Web site, Tim Cook has never pretended to live in a world of visionaries. Rather, he deals with harsh realities; and one of the realities he has come to understand best is that of supply chain management.

He thus used his slot at the conference to address the “made in America” question, explaining why Apple, and just about every other major company with a product, bases production on a globalized supply chain and why, as a corollary, there really is no place for the United States in that chain. Nusca’s summary of his remarks is well worth reading. Most important is that it teases out all of the down-side consequences that Tom Friedman either could not or would not put on the table back when he first started riding his globalization hobby-horse.

For those who like to cut to the chase, here is the crux of the argument as to why American manufacturing cannot play in the world of the global supply chain:
The reason: there’s a very real tradeoff between what’s good for workers and what’s good for business. When push comes to shove, business wins — which is why Apple’s American employees enjoy comparatively nice perks while employees of its supply chain partners live in 8,000-strong dormitories, ready to be woken up at midnight to start a 12-hour shift making new parts for an iPhone that received last-minute design changes from California. 
Imagine trying to do the same with an American worker. Unions would never stand for it, obviously, and chances are the rest of the family unit wouldn’t, either. 
My point is not to illustrate the benefits and drawbacks of unions, or even what’s fair; rather, I’m trying to illustrate a landscape in which American companies can go overseas for greater flexibility, lower price and sheer speed. So long as there are nations in this world willing to do work others aren’t, outsourcing will exist. In the capitalist system, businesses can’t win in the free market unless they exploit every advantage.
We happy few who still have a sense of history will probably have trouble reading those paragraphs without hearing a chorus singing “The Internationale” in the back of our collective heads. Written in the aftermath of the Paris Commune, it was probably the first song to state explicitly that “exploit every advantage” always meant exploiting labor to the benefit of both management and shareholders. The basic idea was that workers around they world must group together (“Groupons-nous”) for the “final struggle” (“la lute finale”) between the humanity of those workers and the objective interests of capitalism.

“The Communist Manifesto” echoed the vision of “The Internationale.” All that ensued, however, were new governments, mostly totalitarian. The new boss was the same as the old boss, and the workers were still the “damned of the Earth” (“damnés de la terre”). Several generations of new bosses have now come and gone in both political and manufacturing sectors. The state of the workers has not changed; and the sad truth is that, if the Internet empowers anyone, it is the shareholders for whom return-on-investment matters more than quality-of-product, let alone anything as intangible as worker quality-of-life. Meanwhile, “The Internationale” echoes as a faint memory, even less memorable than “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.”

As an afterthought, it is worth noting that Nusca’s perspective extended beyond Friedman to one of the other great visionary hucksters, Richard Florida. This seemed appropriate since I noticed that Florida’s book, The Rise of the Creative Class, is about to be “revisited” in a revised tenth-anniversary edition (as if a new edition could possibly add value to the first one). Here is how Nusca took on Florida:
Manufacturing is a powerful driver of the American economy, but it’s just one part of it. Whatever happened to the concept of a creative economy? (Answer: we realized we can’t win on creativity alone. There needs to be some elbow grease, too.)
In other words the workers figure in creativity, too. Read the stories about the Manhattan Project or the building of the first programmable digital computers. (Yes, I am beating the drum about history again.) You will find plenty of warrants for that claim in those accounts. Our would-be “visionaries” have forgotten about the workers; and, from that point of view, they are no better than heartless shareholders and may even be significantly worse.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

One Measure of the Gap between the 1% and the 99%

Last night Bernard Condon and Christina Rexrode of Associated Press ran a story on the current state of CEO income. For those who got a bit tired of a parade of symbols beginning with “$” and ending with “M,” the authors came up with one sentence that vividly expresses just how different the 1% are from the rest of us:
The typical American worker would have to labor for 244 years to make what the typical boss of a big public company makes in one.
All those “$-symbols” may amount to little more than a “fiction of convenience;” but, for those for whom work is the only path to providing food, clothing, and shelter, that one sentence is a painful description of how, through that “fiction of convenience,” the 1% will always have the power to keep the 99% in their place.

Monday, May 28, 2012

What Lagarde Meant?

One would have thought that anyone as powerful as Christine Lagarde, in her current position has the head of the International Monetary Fund, would know how to weigh her words when being interviewed. At the same time, I would argue that leftist Greek politicians, such as Evangelos Venizelos and Alexis Tsipras, realized that her words could be turned to their own advantage. Therefore, it seems appropriate to go back to the source to see whether or not Lagarde’s accusation of Greek tax-dodging actually constitutes, as Venizelos put it, an act of “insulting the Greek people.”

Fortunately, the source is available online. It is a page on the Web site for The Guardian. On that page we can read Decca Aitkenhead’s full account of her conversation with Lagarde, the context in which that accusation of tax-dodging emerged:
So when she studies the Greek balance sheet and demands measures she knows may mean women won't have access to a midwife when they give birth, and patients won't get life-saving drugs, and the elderly will die alone for lack of care – does she block all of that out and just look at the sums? 
"No, I think more of the little kids from a school in a little village in Niger who get teaching two hours a day, sharing one chair for three of them, and who are very keen to get an education. I have them in my mind all the time. Because I think they need even more help than the people in Athens." She breaks off for a pointedly meaningful pause, before leaning forward. 
"Do you know what? As far as Athens is concerned, I also think about all those people who are trying to escape tax all the time. All these people in Greece who are trying to escape tax."
Read the wrong way, Lagarde’s words would imply that all Greeks are “trying to escape tax;” but, if we reject the emotionalism of Venizelos and Tsipras in favor of more dispassionate logic (as that more famous Greek, Aristotle, tried to teach us to do), we see that she said no such thing. Rather, she was trying to emphasize that Greece has the same problem as any other developed nation, a 1% sector of the population with more wealth than the 99% can imagine and a determination not to pay their fair of taxes on that wealth. She was venting her frustration that, because of that tax-dodging 1% in Greece, the IMF cannot focus its attention on African countries where there is not enough wealth for there to be such a 1%.

Meanwhile, those Greeks who are feeling the real pain of austerity seem to be going after solutions of their own, which have nothing to do with protesting either in the streets or at the ballot box. The fact is that, when one looks at any of those Greek politicians through the eyes of the cameras of BBC World Service Television, they all look well-fed, whether their agenda it right, left, or centrist. As a result the very issue of political debate may have lost its meaning, or at least its relevance. More important, then, is today’s story by Katya Adler about local garden initiatives taking place on patches of arable land in the suburbs, where those who cannot afford to pay for food have the opportunity to grow it for themselves and their families. (Here in San Francisco, you do not have to go to the suburbs. These gardens have been cropping up, so to speak, on plots of land off of major city streets, in lots previously left to be abandoned.) Voltaire’s punch line about working the garden is a good one, but more important are those settings in which those in the 99% can find land to start a garden to work.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

The Shock Doctrine in Israel

In the latest issue of The New York Review, David Shulman, in his article “Israel in Peril,” seems to have hit on a turn of phrase to describe Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s approach to government that may well be as accurate as it is disconcerting:
Like many Israelis, he inhabits a world where evil forces are always just about to annihilate the Jews, who must strike back in daring and heroic ways in order to snatch life from the jaws of death. I think that, like many other Israelis, he is in love with such a world and would reinvent it even if there were no serious threat from outside.
This statement triggered two key associative memories.

The first is that it stands as a characterization of just about any religious fundamentalism, regardless of the faith providing the foundation, and thus reflects the extent to which the strong religious convictions of those determined to build settlements in occupied territory factor in Netanyahu holding any sort of political office at all.

More generally, it reflects beyond prevailing opinions in Israel to Naomi Klein’s “shock doctrine” thesis, formulated to explain the irrationalities of the policies of the Bush Administration, whether they involved foreign affairs (including military adventurism), the economy, and the environment. At the risk to being a bit too reductive, the basic thesis that that shouting loud enough that the sky is falling tends to be an excellent method for establishing and holding political power. I then realized that the arrow of influence actually points the other way. The very concept of government-by-shock-doctrine may have come about by members of the Bush Administrating examining conditions in Israeli and liking so much that they figured they could appropriate the playbook!

From this point of view, we may to well to face the coming Presidential election armed with the combined wisdom of Slavoj Žižek’s book First as Tragedy, Then as Farce and Karl Marx' thought about how history repeats itself (which inspired Žižek’s title). Barack Obama believed that the American people were smart enough to overcome the shock doctrine once they saw it for what it was. However, the way things are shaping up, there is a good chance that the shock doctrine will find its way into the Republican Party platform for the November election. From this point of view, that election may amount to a test of whether or not the electorate can, indeed, be fooled a second time.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Cookie Calculus

Today in Safeway I happened to notice a package of cookies on the shelf with the brand name Leibniz. It turns out that I was looking at the packaging for Leibniz-Keks, a plain butter cookie (or Butterkeks, as it is stamped on the cookie itself). This amused me enough to see what would happen when I gave Google the keywords “Leibniz” and “cookies.”

I was both surprised and tickled to discover that the damned thing had a Wikipedia entry. However, I’m not sure I accept what that entry says about the name:
The brand name Leibniz comes from the philosopher and mathematician Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. The only connection between man and biscuit is that Leibniz was one of the more famous residents of Hanover, where the Bahlsen company is based. At the time when the biscuit was first made there was a fashion of naming food products after historical celebrities (compare Mozartkugel).
My guess is that there is a connection far more significant than playing catch-up with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. If the company is trying to catch up with anyone or anything, it would have to be Nabisco, who named a fig-filled cookie of their own after Isaac Newton and have recently expanded that particular brand to a wider variety of fillings. Anyone who is English will tell you that Newton invented differential and integral calculus or, as it is known more accurately, the calculus of infinitesimals. Europeans, on the other hand, disagree with opinions on the other side of the English Channel and attribute the invention to a German: Leibnitz. In other words a long-standing argument over a major achievement in mathematics is now being fought between cookie manufacturers. Anything Wikipedia may say about the Fig Newton being named for Newton, Massachusetts, where it was invented, is mere coincidence!

Friday, May 25, 2012

Happy Towel Day!

Today is Towel Day, instituted in 2001 to commemorate the death of Douglas Adams from a heart attack when he was only 49 years old. This is likely to be meaningless to those unacquainted with the five books in the Hitchhiker’s Guide trilogy (not a misprint but representative of Adams’ distinctive brand of humor). What surprised me, however, was that I did not first learn about it through the blastr blog of the SyFy channel. No, it took a report from the London Telegraph reproducing a tweet from Stephen Fry reminding all of the significance of the date. The story went on to document recognition of that significance from England, Brazil, Belgium (highly significant, that one, for those who know the books) and Italy … nothing from the United States. Don’t panic, however; just celebrate in any way you see fit, preferably with a well-mixed G&T.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Programming by API and its Discontents

I am reasonably happy with how Ben Evans, who seems to have been listed as a spokesperson for the London Java Community, prepared a “Viewpoint” piece about the Google-Oracle dispute for BBC News. He seems to have presented a readable account of just what the two sides of this case were:
The dispute had run for years and relatively late in the day it took a somewhat surprising turn when Oracle tried to claim that the APIs that constitute the Java libraries were protected by copyright. 
The implication was that Google were not legally entitled to produce an implementation of those interfaces. 
This development represented a major escalation of the case. 
If APIs were held to be copyrightable, this would have repercussions across the entire tech industry. 
Many developers were concerned that this decision could lead to a chilling effect on the production of software, opening the door to a torrent of lawsuits - affecting firms of all sizes. 
On the other hand, if APIs are not copyrightable, then this would allow significant freedom for companies to implement clones of existing technologies, without requiring full compatibility. 
This could allow substantial innovation, but also has the risk that technology standards could be undermined. 
The resulting externalities of increased testing costs and compatibility risk would be passed on to firms who want to deploy technology stacks covered by such a decision.
For many years programming for me has been a matter of solving logical or mathematical problems, rather than developing systems, which is why my programming-language-of-choice remains LISP. As a result, however, I have been personally detached from how much what passes for programming these days now depends on APIs. There have always been software libraries to draw upon; and, in my most recent work, I needed “library code” to save me the trouble of writing my own software to parse a MIDI file. However, for the sort of things I had to do, such “library consultation” probably never involved more that 25% of the overall design.

I remember the first signs of that percentage changing. Smalltalk was a powerful language whose power derived from an enormous library. It was sort of the ultimate Swiss Army knife. The assumption tended to be that anything you wanted to do in Smalltalk had already been done. You just had to find it with the Smalltalk Browser and use it.

I think that it would be fair to say that this was the birth of the “API mentality.” Software developers now depend on those APIs for just about everything from implementing Web page designs to searching a database. As a result much (most?) of what counts for software engineering these days amounts to providing the right “glue” to join together the right API code. This is why API stability constitutes the crux of Evans’ analysis.

However, stability is only part of the problem. The usual joke about “Swiss Army knife” thinking it that, whenever you search for the blade you need, you cut yourself on at least one other blade. As important as the API is a clear specification of constraints on acceptable inputs, along with an equally clear specification of what it does with those inputs. My guess is that a lot of defective software involves 50% poorly specified APIs and 50% developers who do not pay sufficient attention to the specifications (under the assumption that they are not reliable anyway). This seems like the best explanation for why, when I tried to cancel a Comcast service appointment, I was informed that the appointment had been scheduled for 71:00 PM!

There has been a lot of talk about the need for more “skilled labor” for software development. I would hypothesize, however, the software development has been subjected to the same kind of deskilling that has made such a mess out of help desk operations. Programming by putting together modular blocks when you do not really know what those blocks do is a dangerous proposition. The result is that we are all at the mercy of complex systems with no one who really understands how the whole thing works … a bit like the current state of operations in the financial sector.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

History Forgotten

I found it interesting that, after Google decided to put up a doodle of a mini-Moog synthesizer to celebrate the birthday of its inventor Robert Moog, Ivan Hewett had to write a piece for the London Telegraph explaining what the damned thing was and why it was important. True, the Moog was an analog device that would eventually be dwarfed by digital technology. Also, it now belongs in the ranks of other “historically informed” instruments, whose performers understand the delicate balance between getting what you want and wanting what you get. My guess is that the “Moog sound” has not, itself, been forgotten but that most record collectors neither know nor care very much about its origins. This a bit of a pity, but it seems to indicate that our own cultural disposition to ignore history has migrated across the pond, at least as far as the United Kingdom.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

An Ironic Perspective on my Hypothesis about Damien Hirst

At the beginning of last month (the day after April Fools’ Day, to be specific), I wrote a post entitled “Damien Hirst Tests What the Market will Bear.” This was based on the hypothesis that Hirst was less interested in any aesthetic evaluation of his work than he was in how the market reacted. I observed that he warranted his position in one of his public statements to the press in which he cited a Rembrandt painting as an example of art whose value was determined primarily by market behavior. I concluded that “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.”

Thanks to Julian Bell’s review of the current Hirst exhibition at the Tate Modern, which appeared in the May 24 issue of The New York Review, I encountered an ironically amusing afterthought for that punch line. It turns out that the first major “market endorsement” of Hirst’s work was an “outrageously successful” (Bell’s words) auction of his work in September of 2008. Bell read great significance into that date, citing it as “the very moment of the Lehman Brothers default.” I think Bell may be on to something more than a clever turn of phrase.

Yesterday, when meditating on the misfortunes of the price of Facebook shares (which are continuing today), I felt it necessary to pay attention to the man behind the curtain with the assertion:
Trading on Wall Street is basically a shell game.
A shell game is, of course, a major species in the confidence game genus. The game is rigged against the player (the “mark”), but the guy on the street giving the spiel builds up the player’s confidence that he can actually win. Back in December of 2009 I suggested, drawing upon the work of Mark Taylor, that all of economic behavior is a confidence game (including, of course, how we attribute value to money) and that the collapse of Lehman Brothers was a prime example of what happens when the “marks” finally lose their confidence. From this point of view, the auction revealed a sector of the population (not necessarily a “critical mass”), which had decided that putting money into a piece by Hirst (however outrageous, if not patently offensive, that piece may have been) was more secure that turning it over to Lehman Brothers to mange. Regardless of what you think about Hirst’s aesthetics, on the basis of how things turned out after that auction, it looks like those folks made the right judgment call!

Monday, May 21, 2012

Neil Simon goes British

If I am to believe Sarah Hemming of the Financial Times, then things are looking good for the run of Neil Simon’s The Sunshine Boys at the Savoy Theatre in London. The photograph of Richard Griffiths and Danny DeVito that accompanies her review definitely helps to make her point. Still, I have to wonder: Just when was it that the future of Yiddishkeit get passed over to the responsibility of goyim?

What is under the Facebook Shell?

It will be easy to react to the disappointing “coming out party” for Facebook on NASDAQ with Schadenfreude, particularly for those in the 99% for whom trading on Wall Street is little more than a spectator sport where most of the spectators do not know the rules (and most of the players get the most profit out of trying to change them). The problem is that, as long as the 1% in the financial sector is the tail that wags the dog of the rest of us, not only are their misfortunes our misfortunes; but also they suffer less than we do. If this is a spectator sport, it is one in which violence on the playing field harms the spectators more than the players.

Actually, violent sport is the wrong metaphor. Trading on Wall Street is basically a shell game. The odds are even worse than playing the slots in Vegas. When we think about buying a share of stock, Morningstar can give us more information about the business behind that stock than any racing form at the track. It then adds on its own historical information about past performance of the stock and how that performance compares against a couple of “normative models,” such as a stock index.

All of this is about as informative as the ongoing spiel of the guy on the street moving the three walnut shells around on his table. Only one thing matters to most of us: When you need the money and want to sell that share, will the pea of value be underneath it; or will it be empty? No one (not even the 1%) can answer that question with confidence. The only reason the 1% are different is that they have “instruments” (as they call them) to bump the odds in their favor (along with the power to influence the Government when they need to be rescued from fumbling the wrong way with those instruments).

Let’s just hope that the failure of Facebook to gratify unrealistic expectations (and do so immediately) does not trigger the next economic crisis when we have yet to recover from the last one. We should also hope that the 99% will eventually get legal protection against the 1% who play games that would get them arrested were they to operate on the streets of Manhattan, rather than behind sophisticated workstations. Sadly, however, that would probably be hoping for too much.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

The Dark Side of David Cameron

It’s Sunday. That means a day of rest for news sources, even if the world goes on at its usual pace. When pages are not being dominated by sports, we get things like the following from the London Telegraph:
Is David Cameron trying to tell us something? When asked last week to name his favourite album, the Prime Minister picked Dark Side of the Moon, Pink Floyd’s downbeat prog-rock tribute to conflict, excess and insanity.
I’ve never really thought of Cameron as an advocate for “conflict, excess and insanity;” but maybe, if I try watching The Wizard of Oz while listening to one of his speeches, my thoughts will change!

Thursday, May 17, 2012

France Speaks Out Against Austerity

Regardless of ideology, Francois Hollande definitely deserves credit for hitting the ground running. Almost immediately after being sworn in as President of France, he was on a plane to Germany to meet with Chancellor Angela Merkel, basically to assure her that differences of opinion can be resolved. This was followed almost immediately by a clear statement of just what those differences are.

According to a story filed this morning on Al Jazeera English, taken from their wire sources, Hollande’s Finance Minister, Pierre Moscovici, issued a statement that France would not ratify the European Union’s pact on fiscal discipline in its current form. That form is concerned only with austerity as a means for economic recovery. Apparently Hollande and his team have taken a close look at what austerity has achieved throughout Europe; and they have seen endemic unemployment, large masses of protest rallies, and measures among the general public as extreme as suicide. Hollande is willing to take the bold step of declaring that what is good for financial institutions is not good for the general public and may even be bad for them. Given that one of those financial institutions recently disclosed a loss of $2 billion through “sloppiness and bad judgment,” the timing may be right for Merkel and her colleagues to consider that Hollande may have a point.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Crazy about Semantics

Last March I wrote a post about Google’s plan for “a phased transition from its keyword-based search system into a technology that is more ‘semantic.’” Drawing upon my own study of semantics and my familiarity with the work of others that have been trying to crack this nut, I gave the post the title “Google’s Assault on Semantics.” The intent behind the title was the connotation that Google was more interested in the big stick of authority than in all those complexities that have made the study of semantics so problematic.

According to a CNET News article by Rafe Needleman that appeared this morning, that transition is now under way. Google has introduced a new approach to the display of search results, which they call “Knowledge Graph.” Those familiar with graph theory (and, perhaps, its current applications to social networks) are likely to be disappointed. Any sense that a graph has something to do with connections between entities has been displaced by a display of results based primarily on colocation. As to the “knowledge” part of the title, given the extent to which technology has robbed that word of a legacy of meaning that reaches back millennia, it would suffice to say that Google has just added another brick to the wall.

My March post concluded with the following jaundiced observation:
Thus, a truly “semantic” system will have to have a fair amount of knowledge about your personal psychology and probably the sociology of that corner of the world you inhabit.  Can this be done?  It certainly is a challenging research question, and Google probably has the resources to support an appropriate research program.  However, the more important question is:  Do you really want Google to have a model of your psychology and the sociology of your world?  If you think that advertising is already invasive, imagine what it would be like if Google could tap into your personal psychology and sociology!
This should provide a useful context for considering what Google currently thinks of semantics. In Needleman’s article those thoughts were voiced by Jack Manzel, Product Management Director of Search:
We do continue to work on how to make search semantic but talking about it brings out the crazy people.
My guess is that the slightest suggestion of anything that cannot be readily reduced to what can be expressed in a programming language is immediately classified as “crazy.” That would include both psychology and sociology. Given my concluding cautionary warning, it may be just as well that those willing to recognize these as potentially valuable areas of research are getting summarily dismissed as “crazy!”

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Economic Division and the Rise of the Outlaw Class

There may be a disquieting parallel between the current lead story on the BBC World Service Television news report and yesterday’s reflections on the BBC News report about the Pirate Party conference in Germany. The headline for the former, as it currently appears on the BBC News Web site is:
Scores of mutilated bodies dumped on Mexico highway
I would like to hypothesize that both of these stories are about the rise of an “outlaw class” in reaction to the increasing size of the gap that separates the wealth of the 1% from that of the 99%.

I say this not to suggest that the Pirate Party has anything in common with any of the Mexican drug cartels. Rather it has to do with the extent to which those cartels are now fighting each other, often with collateral damage to a general public just trying to keep its collective head down and avoid any of those cartels. What was clear from the BBC report is that government cannot play any role other than cleaning up the casualties from the various battlefields. Even “rounding up the usual suspects” is beyond the capabilities of the government, whether at the federal or the state level. I cannot think of a better example of how an ostensibly representative government is failing its electorate, which is precisely the situation that the Pirate Party is trying to remedy.

There was a time when we could romanticize our outlaws. Whether or not he really existed, the stories of Robin Hood are basically about a man who organized his own private militia towards the all-but-futile goal of leveling the economic playing field. Clearly, no drug cartel, regardless of “home turf” is run by a Robin Hood leading a “band of merry men.” What is more important is that, in a social context in which the very context of law has become increasingly arbitrary and the mechanisms of enforcement decreasingly effective, outlaw behavior is inevitable. The only question is whether or not it becomes prevalent or never gets beyond “outlier” status.

Both the Pirate Party and the Occupy movements believe that the current defects of government can be corrected through the mechanisms of government itself. Outlaws do not (which is just a matter of the semantics of “outlaw”). Thus, the 1% who exercise authority over the workings of government have a choice regarding those seeking change. They can sit down at the table with those who protest and work seriously towards an equitable solution, or they can go on doing what they are doing and hope that they will be able to buy personal safety as the number of outlaws continues to increase.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

“Power to the People” Reemerges in Germany

Mine is the generation that chanted “Power to the People” in response to the American military presence in Vietnam and a general recognition that large sectors of the population (women being a major example) were being deprived of equal rights. It was an age of considerable irritation. However, with the election of Richard Nixon as President of the United States, it seemed as if that irritation was anesthetized, rather than addressed.

It is thus interesting to see that “the principle of the thing” has resurfaced, just not in the United States. The new manifestation is the rise of the Pirate Party in several European countries. A BBC News report by Stephen Evans covering the recent conference of the Pirate Party in Germany has conferred a certain element of legitimacy on the movement, even if the report seemed to say more about the celebratory (i. e. party) atmosphere, rather than the practice of politics. Nevertheless, “power to the people” was clearly a driving force behind those practices. However, I think it was this quote from Matthias Schrade that escalated the Pirate Party above the protests of my own generation:
We offer what people want. People are really angry at all the other parties because they don't do what politicians should do. We offer transparency, we offer participation. We offer basic democracy.
If we can use a noun as general as “people,” we are talking about a population base that is not particularly interested in governing. They have their own things to do. This is why the world continues to look at our Constitution as a blueprint for not only the concept of representative government but also the nuts and bolts required to implement that concept. To the extent that we can talk about failures of governments, those failures can be traced back to the fact that those chosen as representatives by the electorate reject the tacit obligation to actually represent the voters in favor of representing those with stronger (read financial) powers to influence, exercised in the lobbies of the building in which they are supposed to be doing the work of government. In other words “transparency” may be the most important noun in the above quote.

There has been a lot of talk about the failure of the concept of a nation-state. This seems misplaced. The real question is whether the exercise of representation will always be limited to that 1% targeted by the Occupy movements. In the spirit of those Occupy movements, the Pirate Party is trying to restore representation to the 99%. Their methods, like any other methods, deserve scrutiny; but, if we fall back on a knee-jerk rejection of their basic goal, then we may as well accept the likelihood that we have lost any hope of representation at any level of government.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Narcoleptic Lion

Lion’s days may still be numbered, even if it is unclear when it will be succeeded by Mountain Lion; but it looks like we shall have some time living with its current foibles. I find it interesting that, while Microsoft basically tries to keep its operating system up to date with patches, upgrading Lion has always involved downloading the whole ball of wax. This does not bother me in theory. I have no trouble with setting up a download and the end of the day, turning in for the night, and then checking on things when I wake up the next morning.

What does bother me is when I discover that the download has gone to sleep at some time during the course of the night (perhaps around the same time I did). (This does not involved the computer going to sleep. I have set the Energy Saver to keep it running at all times when under AC power.) This problem has been around for some time, and it only occurs with downloads from Apple. (Most of the recordings I review for are now downloads. I often run those overnight with no problems from any of the several servers to which I now connect. Even the upgrades for Microsoft Office can be downloaded overnight.) My guess is that the Apple download servers are also running Lion, meaning that Apple has to live with eating its own spoiled dog food.

Since I run the download through Software Update, I discovered an interesting solution. If I just stop the download and then start it again in Software Update, it picks up where it had previously stopped in its tracks. Over the last several Lion upgrades, I would guess that, on average, it takes me three or four of these iterations to complete a Lion upgrade download in its entirety.

Will this flawed behavior be addressed in Mountain Lion? Have I any good reason to believe it will be? It seems as if every day brings new persuasions to move over to Linux. Unfortunately, where my music downloads are concerned, at least one of my clients still does not have a Linux version. What a surprise.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Putting Gay Marriage in an Appropriate Christian Context

Since Gary Wills’ “The Myth About Marriage” post yesterday to NYRBlog has a time stamp of 1:30 PM Eastern Time, it probably did not inform President Barack Obama in his interview with Robin Roberts of ABC News. The myth of the title is the proposition that marriage is a religious sacrament, at least within the Christian faith. He traces this proposition back to the writings of Thomas Aquinas and offers the following quote from historian Joseph Martos:
Before the eleventh century there was no such thing as a Christian wedding ceremony in the Latin church, and throughout the Middle Ages there was no single church ritual for solemnizing marriage between Christians.
Wills concludes his post with a rhetorically powerful punch line:
Those who do not want to let gay partners have the sacredness of sacramental marriage are relying on a Scholastic fiction of the thirteenth century to play with people’s lives, as the church has done ever since the time of Aquinas. The myth of the sacrament should not let people deprive gays of the right to natural marriage, whether blessed by Yahweh or not. They surely do not need—since no one does—the blessing of Saint Thomas.
While I doubt that Wills’ reasoned argument will have any effect on the emotional inclinations of all of those North Carolina voters, I found it comforting to find at least one writer with the common sense to put “proper Christian thinking” in perspective.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

One Cheer for North Carolina

So North Carolina joined the ranks of those states that decided that the definition of “marriage” should be determined by secular law, rather than the laws associated with any religious belief or those grounded in the morals of a personal atheistic belief. By a large margin the voters approved a constitutional amendment that bans both same-sex marriage and civil unions. Furthermore, when we look at the advertising in support of this method, which was included in the Democracy Now! report of this story, it is clear that those promoting the amendment were doing so on profoundly religious grounds, far too passionate to have anything to do with any legal provisions concerned with separation of church and state.

Leading up to this election, both Vice President Joseph Biden and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan gave the media explicit statements in favor of gay marriage. What the media chose to report, however, was the extent to which Biden’s remarks may have caused consternation in the office of President Barack Obama, who has treated this issue with extreme delicacy. This is what brings us to why North Carolina deserves a cheer.

Apparently those voters seem to have alerted Obama to the fact that this matter simply cannot be handled with such delicacy. Whether he was responding to the hate-based advertising preceding the election or to the large numbers of voters who followed the lead of that advertising, Obama finally decided to put his neutrality on the shelf. He gave an interview to Robin Roberts of ABC News, which, according to the BBC News account, included the following remarks:
I've stood on the side of broader equality for the LGBT community. I hesitated on gay marriage in part because I thought civil unions would be sufficient. 
I was sensitive to the fact that for a lot of people, the word “marriage” was something that evokes very powerful traditions, religious beliefs and so forth. 
But I have to tell you that over the course of several years as I talked to friends and family and neighbours, when I think about members of my own staff who are in incredibly committed monogamous relationships, same-sex relationships, who are raising kids together, when I think about those soldiers or airmen or marines or sailors who are out there fighting on my behalf and yet feel constrained, even now that “don't ask don't tell” is gone, because they are not able to commit themselves in a marriage. 
At a certain point, I've just concluded that for me personally it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married.
Perhaps Obama is finally remembering what got him elected in the first place: the ways in which he provided hope to those who felt that they had lost all chances of finding someone who would represent them in Washington on the basis of their efforts to find a better life, rather than political expediency. Perhaps Obama finally recognized that elections are based on emotional decisions, rather than rational ones, and that all of his efforts to be rationally deliberative had lost him the support of those who had committed every ounce of their emotions to his support in 2008. Yes, this may mean that Obama has recognized the need to think like a politician, rather than a “rational executive;” but it will only be through shrewd politics that he will be able to win back the enthusiastic support he had rallied four years ago. Let us hope that today’s back-at-you statement to North Carolina is the first step in a long journey he needs to make (and perhaps we should remember to thank North Carolina to provoking him into taking that step).

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The Death of Rationality

Two authors writing about two different topics seem to have converged on a common theme.

The first is David Cole in his “No Accountability for Torture” post to NYRBlog. This is a model of sound reasoning applied to teasing out the flaws behind the decision of the US Court of Appeals to dismiss José Padilla’s lawsuit against John Yoo, holding Yoo responsible for the acts of torture he had to endure. In support of his post’s title, Cole also observed:
President Obama has also resisted even the appointment of a bipartisan commission to investigate and report on our descent into torture and cruel treatment; apparently he thinks such an inquiry would be too divisive.
He seems not to have realized that this is a symptom of the same kind of problem that his analysis has uncovered.

The second author is Paul Krugman, whose article “How to End This Depression” is in the latest issue of The New York Review of Books. Krugman is also really good at giving clear accounts of the rationality behind his arguments. Unfortunately, his argument for why both the Executive and Legislative branches should be following his arguments is less sound. Confronted with the possibility that all decision making is based on partisan loyalties, his response is more than a little naïve:
Well, it shouldn’t be. Tribal allegiance should have no more to do with your views about macroeconomics than with your views on, say, the theory of evolution or climate change. The question of how the economy works should be settled on the basis of evidence, not prejudice.
This seems to overlook the fact that neither the Executive nor Legislative branches have any views about macroeconomics at all.

The bottom line is that both articles assume that problems may be resolved by rational means. This is sort of like Galileo’s decision that, because the Vatican Inquisitor understood how Aristotle’s logic worked, he would recognize the soundness in Galileo’s heliocentric reasoning and agree with Galileo. Fat chance.
Power has not just trumped rationality. It has trounced it, pulverized it to a state in which it is barely (if at all) recognizable. Until folks like Cole and Krugman recognize that power has its own rules that need not be beholden to logic, their will be voices in the wilderness, appealing to those who understand them but still useless for any practical purposes.

A Few Thoughts on How to Remember Maurice Sendak

My guess is that I am still on the ascending curve of what is likely to be an onslaught of obituary and memorial pieces written in response to the news of the death of Maurice Sendak. I wonder, however, whether anything I have yet to read will rise to the level of John Williams’ post to the ArtsBeat blog of The New York Times this morning. Most important was how few of the words in this post were Williams’ own. Mostly, he let Sendak do the talking with two notable exceptions.

One was a quote from Ursula Nordstrom, Sendak’s editor at Harper & Row:
You may not be Tolstoy, but Tolstoy wasn’t Sendak, either. You have a vast and beautiful genius.
The other was the decision to include links to both parts of his interview with Stephen Colbert (in Colbert’s Colbert Report persona). I have no idea how much of this was cooked up in advance. However, Colbert fed him a wonderful assortment of thoroughly clueless lines; and Sendak replied with an unabashed openness that we almost never encounter in more “formal” author interviews. (Also, unlike Geoffrey Nunberg, Sendak never tried to upstage Colbert at his own game. He just played by Colbert Report rules, and played very well.)

Others may wish to remember Sendak for his “vast and beautiful genius;” I prefer to remember the particularly irreverent ways in which he could harness that genius.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Global Warming in the Age of Dinosaurs

My guess is that both Congressmen and comedians (Is there any difference?) will have a field day with this; but it appears that the latest issue of Current Biology offers up some interesting food for thought (so to speak) about global warming in the distant past. Here is how the BBC Nature Web site reported this latest scientific insight:
Giant dinosaurs could have warmed the planet with their flatulence, say researchers. 
British scientists have calculated the methane output of sauropods, including the species known as Brontosaurus. 
By scaling up the digestive wind of cows, they estimate that the population of dinosaurs - as a whole - produced 520 million tonnes of gas annually. 
They suggest the gas could have been a key factor in the warm climate 150 million years ago. 
David Wilkinson from Liverpool John Moore's University, and colleagues from the University of London and the University of Glasgow published their results in the journal Current Biology.
To give that productivity factor some context, Wilkinson estimates that the metric tonnage of methane due to cows comes in at between 50 and 100 million. Could this provide inspiration for the next film in the Jurassic Park franchise?

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Voodoo Austerity

This seems to be the week in which two leading economists presented cogent arguments for why austerity is likely to impede economic recovery, rather than facilitate it. Paul Krugman’s analysis appeared as an online “preview” of the May 24 issue of The New York Review of Books, while Robert Reich offered his views in the Insight section of today’s San Francisco Chronicle. This is all very well and good, but these guys have been systematically ignored by not only all of those Republicans who have taken the oath to oppose any form of taxation but also the Obama Administration, which has basically sold its soul to Goldman Sachs.

Once again we have to recognize the basic lesson that explains why recovery has been so slow and ineffective for so many. It is not in the interest of those in power, regardless of political preference. The reason is that maintaining power is more important than facilitating recovery. Even if recovery would have the long-term effect of increasing growth (regardless of whether or not growth is preferable to economic security for the greatest number), power is always judged by short-term effects. In other words, any decision that does not provide shareholders with the performance numbers they want to see may lead to some decision-maker losing his/her grip on some corporate or governmental power structure. The greatest disaster to those in power is not economic depression or “social insecurity,” it is loss of personal power. Until someone is wise enough to figure out how to change the rules of this game, the behavior of the players who matter will not alter.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Birthdays in Alignment

What do you suppose Pete Seeger thinks about sharing his birthday (today) with Niccolo Machiavelli?

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Reality Checking in Yemen

The disconnect between the real world and the “reality” of the cinema world seems to have had some disappointing (if not dangerous) consequences. Here are the lead paragraphs from a report that just appeared on the Web site for the London Telegraph:

The Yemen Tourism Promotion Board said they had been "inundated" with requests about the Western Asian country following the cinema release of Salmon Fishing in the Yemen.

Benjamin Carey, Yemen Tourism's UK spokesman said today : "There's been a real surge in visitors to our website since the film. There's been thousands of visits to our website.

"One negative is that salmon fishing isn't actually that popular in Yemen, but there are excellent sea fishing opportunities in the country.[“]

Those who try to balance their movie viewing with keeping up with international news know that this is not the only “negative.” Bearing in mind that these days it probably does not make sense to single out any country as the most dangerous place on Earth, the fact remains that Yemen is a serious contender and has been for some time. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office in Britain has given the country a red warning, which amounts to telling everyone to avoid any travel to any part of the country. The irony is that the movie is all about world peace through salmon fishing, so to speak, which should be enough to convince anyone that the movie is pure fiction!

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

From High Technology to Low Skill

The real story behind L. V. Anderson’s post to browbeat, the culture blog maintained on the Slate Web site, has to do with the relationship between technology and work. On the surface the story was about a press screening of The Avengers in which the entire digital file of the film was deleted by the projectionist and needed to be downloaded, requiring a wait of a couple of hours. Anderson used this as an opportunity to revisit an older blog post by Roger Ebert on “the visual pitfalls of digital projection.” At the risk oversimplifying, the basic idea is that using a digital projector is not that different from using an iPod; and Ebert’s point is that projectionists are no longer as skilled as they were in the good old days when you had to worry about things like a smooth transition from one projector to another when the film required more than one reel or monitoring the equipment to make sure that nothing catches fire.

This should not be surprising in a world in which technology has managed to reduce “knowledge work” to just another form of slave labor. The bottom line is that “the owners of the material conditions of labour” (to borrow a phrase from Karl Marx) are not interested in skilled workers; they are only interested in how increased productivity leads to increased revenue, whether it is the productivity of some drone at a call center or a projectionist in a movie house. In the latter case all that seems to matter to those owners is that one projectionist can now easily manage multiple theaters (the metric of productivity); and the risk factors of mistakes do not seem to enter into the equation. Presumably, one could design better interfaces to minimize those errors, but that would involve investing in both the designers and the evaluators. Why go to all that trouble when running a projection room is the same as using an iPod? Last week we saw a vivid demonstration of the answer to that question.