Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Mail Machine Stops

It would appear that I may have dangerously tempted the Fates yesterday with that remark about “the recent degradation of Yahoo! Mail.” As I write this, the system has been consistently responding with its generic “Temporary Error 1” message. At the very least this means that the “try again shortly” advice has seriously warped the semantics of “shortly.” From a more drastic point of view, Yahoo! Mail may have gone down the path of E. M. Forster’s “The Machine Stops,” in which those responsible for the maintenance of “the machine” know less and less about how it works until a generation of technicians has evolved that can neither diagnose nor solve any problems. The result is a new society that learns to live with the machine’s errors until finally the machine … well … stops.

Mostly, I have been using Forster as a stick to beat on Apple over the question of whether their current team of development engineers is as good as past teams have been, particularly where OS X, rather than iOS, is concerned. Needless to say, we all know that Yahoo! is in trouble. Furthermore, in our prevailing culture of instant gratification, I have to say that I have been pleased with those opinion pieces I have read arguing that Marissa Meyer is going to need long-range thinking to get Yahoo! out of its current hole. However, today’s incident with Yahoo! Mail (which I am pretty sure will be resolved, even if it is later, rather than sooner) may be a message that Meyer needs to conduct a rather thorough audit of all aspects of the “public face” of Yahoo! operations. On the basis of her work at Google, I would guess that this is part of her game plan. I would further guess that she will be very good at both implementing and interpreting such an audit; but this may be a sign that she had better get cracking before it is too late!

Added 3:45 PM: Since I was covering Noontime Concerts™ today, I could walk away and just see if things were back on the air when I returned. According to the time stamps in my Inbox, mail started coming in around 12:15 PM, about two hours after I filed the original post. I also watched the latest BBC News report on television and learned about the massive power failure in India. Is that where the Yahoo! Mail servers are? Just askin'.

Monday, July 30, 2012

More Dark Clouds of Technology

It is hard to tell whether the recent degradation of Yahoo! Mail is part of a “perfect storm” conjoined to the release of Mountain Lion. It certainly seems to be the case that Safari has gone through yet another phase of deterioration. The primary difference is that, where you used to be able to see at the bottom of the window where it was hanging, you no longer get that cue.

The good news is that recovery seems to be both simpler and more effective than previously. I have discovered that clicking on the X in the address window now does a more reliable job of enabling the Stop command. You then get the reload arrow, and clicking on it seems to lead to a rapid loading of what you wanted in the first place. Thus, things are better than they were but probably not yet good enough to deserve to be called “improved.”

Yahoo! Mail, on the other hand, seems to be suffering from an acute case of “hyperlink amnesia,” at least on Safari (and I have not tried to test this systematically on other browsers). This is most painful when the Insert Addresses link does not work for composing a mail message. If you need only one address, you can click it in the “new improved” Contacts display (which I actually think is an improvement). If you need to consult multiple addresses, be prepared to open the Contacts in a separate tab and do a lot of copy-and-paste work. Otherwise, you are in a classic SOL situation.

I continue to believe that this is not so much a “perfect storm” as simply a result of engineering talent that is far less skilled than it used to be. This, in turn, is a consequence of tools being more powerful than they used to be. The problem is that, rather than augmenting the skill of the engineers (that great dream that surfaced with the appearance of the mouse at the SRI Augmentation Research Center, Douglas Engelbart’s research project), it seems to be dumbing down the work force. If it can be done by using the right power tool, then it gets done. If it requires more than engaging a single tool, then it is dismissed as too difficult, if not impossible. As a result of too many power tools, no one seems to know what is happening under that metaphorical hood any more; and, to continue that metaphor, one of these days we are going to have a major software product that drives us off a cliff (if that has not already happened).

Meanwhile, most of those academic institutions with reputations for producing quality engineers are turning into Internet-based correspondence schools; so it is hard to imagine that our educational system is going to help solve this problem

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Guns: The New Front Line of Irrationality

It is no secret that there is no longer any place for rationality and deliberation among those of opposing points of view in our political system. The only thing we may fail to appreciate is how many tentacles the behemoth of irrationality has. The one that seems to get the most attention is blind ideology over taxation, culminating in an absurd pledge to oppose all taxation that has destroyed any collegial relationships among our nation’s lawmakers, the fundamental enablers of behind-the-scenes bargaining.

That unbending stand on taxation easily grew into the equally menacing tentacle of socialism as the new “Red menace.” Under the guise of menacing language about “nanny states,” this ideology has managed to promulgate the position that the principle of government seeing to the needs of the public good is just plain un-American. Apparently, we are a nation of rugged individuals who worship at the High Church of Social Darwinism. Those who can’t make it should be allowed to perish before they breed any progeny.

It thus makes sense that the next tentacle should basically deal with the perishing of those who can't make it more specifically. One might say that the Social Darwinist position on gun control is that anyone who cannot defend himself/herself with an assault rifle deserves to be killed off by someone who can. This is, admittedly, a somewhat hyperbolic interpretation of John Diaz’ editorial in today’s San Francisco Chronicle, in which he declares that any debate on gun control is “ruled by absolutism and intimidation;” but, if my wording is exaggerated, I like to think of it as hyperbole in the cause of clarification.

Remember, we are talking about ideology at its most destructive. As Diaz observes, the gun lobby is as dedicated to eliminating opposition as the anti-tax lobby is. This is basic military thinking: The opposition is the enemy, and the best way to defeat the enemy is to wear down its numbers. The Congressional machinery of review, deliberation, debate, and negotiation simply does not figure into the equation. All that matters is strength in numbers. After all, if you win the argument, doesn’t that mean you’re right? Isn’t that the fundamental principle of democracy?

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Shifting Narrators, Shifting Pronouns

I happen to belong to a book group, which, after considerable deliberation and postponement, has finally decided to venture into the world of William Faulkner. Faulkner means a lot to me for a variety of reasons. When I was living in Israel, his texts were my primary link back to the power of the English language, both what it could express and how those thoughts could be expressed. More importantly, however, reading Faulkner has, for me, always been an invitation to research. Few (if any) of his texts allow for casual reading; and I find it impossible to read any of those texts without a pencil at hand. My reading of “The Bear” quickly descended into filling the margins until no room was left, after which I started constructing family trees on larger pieces of paper. It was only later that I discovered books (and now Web pages) that provide those family trees (with considerable annotation). These are helpful for post hoc consultation, but reading Faulkner is all about the sensemaking. If you do not figure these things out for yourself, you are missing out on the fundamental raison d’être for reading him in the first place.

One of my most treasured Faulkner volumes in The Portable Faulkner, edited by Malcolm Cowley for The Viking Press. This is part of a Viking series, each volume of which was intended to introduce an author to the reader by a judicious selection of texts determined and organized by the editor. Because all of Faulkner’s texts amount to an extended (and highly subjective) history of the South from the early nineteenth century to the middle of the twentieth, Cowley made the bold move of organizing his selections in the chronological order of that history, rather than according to the published volumes from which they were taken.

Two of our book group’s selections come from the earliest years of that history, “Wedding in the Rain” from Absalom, Absalom! and “Was,” the first story in Go Down, Moses. There is also a second story from Go Down, Moses, “The Old People.” I cannot remember the last time I read “Wedding in the Rain.” I only remember that I read it in the context of Cowley’s synopsis of Absalom, Absalom! (prepared for his Introduction to The Portable Faulkner); and, at the time, I was focused almost entirely on “reading for the plot” (as Peter Brooks put it in the title of his book). However, one of the things I got out of Brooks’ book is the way in which Faulkner plays fast and loose with who the narrator is as the narrative unfolds. Thus, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that, even in “Wedding in the Rain,” one encounters a major shift in narrator about half way through the story.

Now I find I have to deal with an editorial decision that Cowley made with “Was.” It turns out that, because this is the first story in Go Down, Moses, it has a three-paragraph “overture” (with no periods, by the way) that introduces a few of the names that the reader will then encounter. Following those paragraphs, the second word of the story itself is “he;” and the reader alert to Faulkner’s ways immediately reacts by asking “Who is ‘he?’” For better or worse, Cowley decided to help out the reader in his inclusion of “Was” in The Portable Faulkner, first by dropping the “overture” (probably for being too intimidating) and then replacing the “he” with “Cass Edmonds” (not that the reader would have any idea who this is, but at least “he” has a name).

This is the sort of thing that starts my research antennae twitching. I have decided to read “Was” from the Go Down, Moses volume. It’s not that I do not appreciate Cowley’s help, but I do not want him to spoil the fun. After all, having read “Wedding in the Rain,” I know that the referent of “he” may change abruptly when I least expect it; and I would rather take that as a challenge to my own sensemaking, rather than let an informed editor clarify matters for me!

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Riches Made them Dumb?

I basically agree with Jeff Bakalar’s lukewarm assessment of Mountain Lion in yesterday afternoon’s column for CNET Update. However, we definitely differ over criteria. Bakalar is disappointed by “a lackluster gamecenter and a dictation feature that requires an internet connection.” I could care less about games; and, while I can believe that voice recognition is likely to take too much out of most local machines, I am not convinced that connecting to a remote server is going to make it any better. Meanwhile, the amusement factor of getting Siri to say stupid things seems to be wearing off; and I am not sure it will catch on with those in the non-mobile world.

Bakalar counts cloud functionality as one of the great assets. I cannot buy this. I have yet to trust any of my writing to the cloud, particularly when it is in draft form. Most important is that I worry about getting to it when I have suddenly been hit by a flash of insight requiring my updating one of those drafts. Murphy’s Law predicts that cloud response will be sluggish (if at all) during such periods of urgency; and Apple just does not have the track record to convince me that their infrastructure software will be up to this kind of challenge.

This brings me to my major disagreement with Bakalar, regarding what he calls “useful updates to some core apps.” Thus far my biggest beef is that Apple took a barely manageable iCal and made it worse by peeling off Reminders as separate software. I suppose that both Bakalar and everyone working at Apple uses Outlook for time management, so this may be a matter of colluding with Microsoft to get more Mac users to go over to their product. It may work. The fact is that the old iCal offered a passable display of what you needed to know at the beginning of each day. This has been relegated to an unwieldy display that now shoves your working area off the screen in Dashboard style. It would not surprise me to learn that no one at Apple has ever bothered to study how iCal is actually used on Macs and simply wants things to look more like they do on an iPhone.

This has led me to reconsider that great 1984 commercial heralding the “first coming” of the Mac. We no longer have a vast audience of mindless zombies staring at a big-screen image of Big Brother. The zombies are still there, but now they are all staring at their personal iPhones and iPads. Were the girl with the sledge hammer to appear, they would never notice her, let alone her revolutionary action.

I am also reminded of the song lyrics that Maria Irene Fornes wrote for the musical Promenade. In particular, I think of the ostinato on the text:
Riches make you dumb.
Apple has become very rich, so much so that shareholders now start to worry when the quarterly numbers do not grow fast enough. Wealth has come from “pushing” (in the addicts’ sense of the word) mobile products with great success, while ignoring the rest of the user community. Has Apple’s riches made them dumb?

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Dangerous People

Mitt Romney was on The Kudlow Report on CNBC last night. He said the following about gun control legislation:
Our challenge is not the laws. The challenge is the people who are distracted from reality and do unthinkable, unimaginable, inexplicable things.
I suppose these are the new clothes for the guns-don’t-kill-people-people-kill-people emperor. Still, I suspect that, with proper psychological analysis, we may be able to home in on an explanation for the acts of James Holmes, covering everything from his gradual and methodical accumulation of an arsenal to the horrifying way in which he put that arsenal to use.

It is not that I am not worried about people like Holmes or the circumstances behind their actions. Like everyone else I worry about what seems to be the inevitable recurrence of such actions. For that reason I am more worried about the “unthinkable, unimaginable, inexplicable things” that politicians do. We are a country whose electorate has come to see politicians as part of the problem, rather than part of the solution. As long as they maintain their respective holds on political power, they will remain part of the problem, including that part that makes it impossible for us to find viable alternative candidates for whom we can cast our votes.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

How the Rich are Different

I heard this story about tax-sheltered money on the BBC World Service this morning. I believed it, but I wanted to make sure I got the numbers right. Al Jazeera English now has the story on their Web site, presumably using the same wire source that the BBC used:
Rich individuals and their families have as much as $32 trillion of hidden financial assets in offshore tax havens, representing up to $280bn in lost income tax revenues, according to research published on Sunday. 
The study estimating the extent of global private financial wealth held in offshore accounts - excluding non-financial assets such as real estate, gold, yachts and racehorses - puts the sum at between $21 and $32 trillion.
 This amounts to roughly the US and Japanese GDP combined. Roughly 10 million people worldwide have offshore accounts, with 100,000 people owning half of those secreted assets.
As they say, read it and weep. Al Jazeera did a follow-up by interviewing John Christensen of the Tax Justice Network. He offered the following for quotation:
What's shocking is that some of the world's biggest banks are up to their eyeballs in helping their clients evade taxes and shift their wealth offshore. 
We're talking about very big, well-known brands - HSBC, Citigroup, Bank of America, UBS, Credit Suisse - some of the world's biggest banks are invovled...and they do it knowing fully well that their clients, more often than not, are evading and avoiding taxes.
This should settle any doubts about just how different the rich are and what they will do to sustain that difference. Indeed, the money that goes into lobbying against financial reform probably does not make a noticeable dent in these assets.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Toni Morrison’s “Pierrot Lunaire” Moment

The latest issue of The New York Review has a review by Christopher Benfey of Toni Morrison’s new novella, Home. He quotes a passage in which one of the protagonists, Frank, escapes from the psychiatric ward of a hospital: “maniac moonlight doing the work of absent stars matched his desperate frenzy.” Since this is the centennial year of Arnold Schoenberg’s Dreimal sieben Gedichte aus Albert Girauds ‘Pierrot lunaire’ (three times seven poems from Albert Giraud’s “Pierrot Lunaire”), first performed on October 16, 1912, I found it hard to resist the connection to Giraud’s surrealistic turns of phrase. Of course, it is not just the phrases that are weird.

Each poem in the set is strictly structured as thirteen lines with a four-four-five grouping. The first two lines recur as the seventh and eighth lines, and the first line appears again as the last one. That quote from Morrison could easily be the translation of one of those opening couplets, with that reference to “maniac moonlight” returning in both the seventh and thirteenth lines.

I have no idea if Morrison is familiar with either Giraud or Schoenberg. All I know if that she definitely has a command of imagery that chills through its bizarre qualities. My guess is that there is no real connection to Giraud in her words, but it is a clear case of how one good linguistic turn deserves another!

Friday, July 20, 2012

A Disquieting Story about Leaks

Al Jazeera English ran a story about the “official” position on leaks being taken by our Department of Defense that left me more than a little nervous. The chilling effect came in the very first sentence:
Leon Panetta, the US defence secretary, has ordered senior Pentagon officials to begin monitoring major US news media for disclosures of classified information in an effort to stop the release of government secrets in the wake of a series of high-profile leaks.
I would like to give Panetta the benefit of the doubt and assume that he is not talking about taking intrusive measures towards the operations of these media institutions. Rather, I am willing to assume that “monitoring” means just that, reviewing all of the content that the rest of us get to encounter when we watch the news on television, listen to it on the radio, or read it from either the newspapers or Web pages. What bothers me is the implication that such monitoring is not currently part of Standard Operating Procedure within the Department of Defense.

In my earlier life as a computer scientist, I had only one job that required a security clearance. That “think jar” (as some of us called it, because we felt it was too small to be a think tank) had a Security Officer on staff. He was responsible for such things as reviewing anything submitted for external publication and briefing any researcher planning to travel outside the United States. He was also responsible to writing and distributing a “security handbook,” which every new employee was required to read.

Since this was my first job of this kind, I suppose I had a somewhat escalated sense of diligence. Thus, when I read the sentence about reporting any meeting or planned meeting with a member of the Communist Party of any country, I took it seriously. As a result, when a bunch of us were planning to attend an IEEE conference in Chicago, I asked my project manager if I needed to let the Security Officer know about it. He look wide-eyed and said, “You want clearance for a trip to Chicago?” I replied that Andrey Ershov was one of the keynote speakers, that he was one of Russia’s leading computer scientists, and that, given the opportunity, I would try to corner him with some questions relevant to my current research. My project manager sighed and informed me that such details would probably just aggravate the Security Officer.

I later found out that our project was part of a large scale Army research effort that was also funding a husband-and-wife team of defectors from the Soviet Union. They threw a big party for the Pentagon officials involved with this project in their hotel suite with lots of caviar and freely-flowing vodka. They also invited Ershov. He apparently got very chummy with some of the Pentagon types, who thought he was another defector!

The point of both my anecdote and my frustration with Panetta’s statement is that there is a lot of common knowledge out there that may not only impact our security but also reveal either the presence or the risk of leaks. At a bare minimum, such knowledge would serve as a trigger for more scrupulous investigation. Monitoring that common knowledge is labor intensive, but one would have thought that the Pentagon could draw upon a labor pool to manage the task. If they cannot (or if they can but have not bothered to do so), then we should all have cause for concern. To state the obvious, homeland security begins at home; and, if the Department of Defense wants us all to be vigilant, they should be the ones to set a good example.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Entertainment for the Sake of Distracting Obfuscation

I sometimes think that the unspoken motto of Fortune is “Keep the investors entertained,” since, from the point of view of the 1% that control the economic destiny of the entire world, entertained investors are far less dangerous than informed ones. Part of that entertainment package apparently is the Fortune Brainstorm Tech conference, which may be about as oxymoronic as one can get, since it probably involves absolutely no brainstorming, let alone any serious attempt to deal with major issues of technology. That entertainment factor was stressed by Eric Mack, a freelance contributor to CNET News’ Crave department, who likened the opening event in this conference to a Real Housewives episode.

As Mack reported it, the whole affair sounded like a no-holds-barred verbal slugfest between Google Chairman Eric Schmidt and investor Peter Thiel, whose stake in investment is high enough for him to transcend the entertainment category. Mack’s description evoked the ultimate in Shakespearian sound and fury, signifying even less than the debates that Timothy Leary used to have with G. Gordon Liddy, both of whom had a passionate belief in strong positions strongly held. It is hard to imagine anyone in the 99% coming away from Mack’s article with any feeling other than that the 1% do some awfully strange things to waste their time.

One cannot imagine that anyone at Fortune’s event in Aspen had a passionate belief about anything other than return-on-investment. Reading Mack’s account of the exchanges over innovation was a painful reminder that, to the moneyed class, innovation is nothing other than a new source of revenue. Whether the innovation has positive or negative consequences for the lives of the remaining 99% in the world simply does not enter the evaluative equation.

It would seem that even the “brain” root of “brainstorm” is out of place at this gathering. Why should anyone pay top dollar for this sort of thing? For my part I find it far more entertaining to watch Sigourney Weaver and Carlo Gugino go at each other on Political Animals for the price of a subscription to the USA Network.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Ignoring the Social Reality of the Library Building

Zadie Smith’s “North West London Blues” says more about the role of the library building in the social world than just about any other source I have encountered. True, she is talking about a library in the relatively remote neighborhood of London in which she was raised; but she could just as easily have been writing about the libraries I used to frequent before I want off to become an undergraduate. What is important is that she appreciates the library as a social construct rather than a book repository; and, by doing so, she blows a lot of Internet mythology out of the water.

She makes her most important point about the social world of libraries near the beginning of the final section of her piece:
Well-run libraries are filled with people because what a good library offers cannot be easily found elsewhere: an indoor public space in which you do not have to buy anything in order to stay. 
She then follows through on this point with a nicely elaborating paragraph:
In the modern state there are very few sites where this is possible. The only others that come readily to my mind require belief in an omnipotent creator as a condition for membership. It would seem the most obvious thing in the world to say that the reason why the market is not an efficient solution to libraries is because the market has no use for a library. But it seems we need, right now, to keep restating the obvious. There aren’t many institutions left that fit so precisely Keynes’s definition of things that no one else but the state is willing to take on. Nor can the experience of library life be recreated online. It’s not just a matter of free books. A library is a different kind of social reality (of the three-dimensional kind), which by its very existence teaches a system of values beyond the fiscal.
This sets her up for the final punch line:
But they are still a significant part of our social reality, the only thing left on the high street that doesn’t want either your soul or your wallet.
There is something painfully ironic about a society that seems to care only about consumerism and fundamentalist faith. It is almost as if there really is a God, who finally figured out how to get even with the flowering of the Age of Reason. (I might actually believe in a God with that kind of sense of humor, dark as it may be.) Even more ironic is that, for all we hear about benefits to science, the Internet has become the tool of choice for both religious fundamentalists and those dedicated to selling anything and everything to anyone and everyone. Ray Bradbury may not have been the first to conceive of the library as a refuge from such sinister forces, but he probably was the most artful of those trying to make the point. Now we are in a world where reading Bradbury means paying for the opportunity to do so, one way or another.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

iTunes' Warped Priorities

Like most Mac users, I use iTunes to organize the music I have collected as files on my hard drive. It provides reasonably good support for setting up Classical Music playlists; and, while it does not handle jazz particularly well, I cannot say as I have any good ideas for how to do a better job without truly massive amounts of data entry. For all the virtues of iTunes, however, I have to confess that, in my history of using the system, I have downloaded exactly one track; and that was at the request of a friend.

I get a lot of my music by downloading these days. My problem is with the iTunes store. It is so geared to the iPod set that it seems content to disregard that there might be people who do not listen that way. Everything is designed around tracks, with no regard to how certain tracks are meant to be listened to consecutively, because together they constitute a single piece of music. There are plenty of other sites the show more respect for my kind of listening, and they general provide enough metadata to facilitate my importing their content into iTunes. However, the iTunes Store seems to live in a world of tracks and entire albums, oblivious to any intermediate groupings.

I suppose it comes down to the fact that this world is not really a world of listening. It is a world of providing auditory stimuli, a world in which shuffling tracks is more important that sustained attention over all of the tracks in a three-act opera. (Yes, I have wondered what it would be like to shuffle the tracks of Der Rosenkavalier on an iPod. Fortunately, it is easy for me to dispel those thoughts!) If that is the case, then serious listening may well become a lost art; and, if the people who want to listen to music vanish through extinction, what will happen to those who strive to make music?

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Today is the Day of Long-Winded Narrative

Arlo Guthrie ("Alice's Restaurant") shares his birthday with Marcel Proust.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Kathleen Ferrier Deserved Better

Did Vivien Schweitzer really have to provide such a slipshod account of Kathleen Ferrier for today’s Arts and Leisure section of The New York Times? Her second paragraph gives an account of Ferrier’s legacy that is so inadequate as to make just about anyone familiar with the work of this contralto see red:
In honor of the centennial of her birth, EMI has released her complete recordings on a three-disc set, an impressive showcase of her artistry in trademark works of Bach, Gluck, Handel and Mahler. Decca is offering a new film, directed by Diane Perelsztejn and narrated by the English actress Charlotte Rampling, that explores the life and legacy of Ferrier, who died at 41 from cancer. The film includes a companion CD of unreleased live recordings, including Brahms lieder.
The fact is that the EMI collection barely scratches the surface of Ferrier’s recorded legacy, which is represented far more extensively by the fourteen CDs in the Decca Centenary Edition box. This is not to dismiss the quality of the EMI material, summarized in my Examiner.com account as “how the smaller packages can still offer up some really good things.” Nevertheless, Decca was the label that represented the lion’s share of Ferrier’s recording work, including her recording of Gustav Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde with Bruno Walter conducting the Wiener Philharmoniker and Julius Patzak singing the tenor songs. The Perelsztejn film cited by Schweitzer declares this to be the “gold standard” of recordings of this particular Mahler composition. (My own account simply called it “essential listening for anyone serious about the Mahler repertoire.”) Ironically, Schweitzer also neglects to mention that the Decca box has its own documentary DVD, An Ordinary Diva, made by Suzanne Philips, which, in my own humble opinion, provides the better account of the two films.

Nevertheless, while there are certainly many interesting aspects to Ferrier’s biography, it is through her music that she deserves to be remembered. Her recording legacy may not be as polished as those who would later benefit from improved technology, such as Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau or Herbert von Karajan, who seems to have made it a point to learn as much about microphones as he knew about all of the instruments of the orchestra. Nevertheless, the recorded gems can be found in both the Decca and EMI collections; and any account that neglects both of these sources is doing her memory a great disservice.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Divided We Stand?

Jack Rakove, one of the most reliable sources when it comes to making sure that the words and deed of the Founding Fathers are taken in vain, has come up with in interest analysis of partisanship. This appeared in the Book, the online review site for The New Republic; and the book he was examining is Land of Promise: An Economic History of the United States by Michael Lind. This is a book that tries to use the distinction of Hamiltonian and Jeffersonian thinking as a framework for interpreting economic history.

Lind has apparently attracted many champions, one of whom is David Brooks in his capacity as columnist for The New York Times. As one who believes that any assertion made by Brooks should be taken with less than a grain of salt, this made me curious about both the book and Rakove’s review. When it turned out that Brooks accused Lind of not being Hamiltonian enough, I suspected that Rakove would take me on a delightfully informing ride.

Basically, he manages to kill two birds with one stone. First he offers his own take on economic history. Then, he not only demolishes the whole Hamilton-Jefferson dichotomy (along with partisan divisiveness) but also establishes that all of the Founding Fathers were smart enough to be empirical, rather than ideological. It would make no sense to ask what either Alexander Hamilton or Thomas Jefferson (or, for that matter, Benjamin Franklin or George Washington) would do in the face of our economic crisis. None of them would advocate any action without first assessing the situation in which their actions would be embedded. That assessment would necessitate wrestling out differences of opinion as to just what the situation actually was, something we seem to be very poor at by virtue of the extent to which we have allowed knowledge to become contaminated by divisive partisan ideology.

My guess is that any of the contributors to our original Constitution, if transported to the present day, would barely recognize the government in terms of what had originally be envisaged and ratified.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Relief from Donizetti?

Regular readers of my San Francisco Examiner.com site may be forgiven if they think I have it in for Gaetano Donizetti. I can definitely appreciate their feeling this way, particularly after I was so unforgiving about the excerpt from Anna Bolena I saw at last night's Schwabacher Summer Concert of opera scenes. Actually, I tend to enjoy Donizetti when he ventures into comedy, particularly if the comedy happens to be L'Elisir d'Amore. (I'm afraid what I like best about La Fille du Régiment is the extent to which it keeps the music to a minimum!) I think what I enjoy about his comic operas is that he has a better sense of brevity than he does when he launches into tragedy.

As a result I found myself turning to a new collection of the songs of Arnold Schoenberg to clear my head this morning. What I realized is that the strongest influence on his earliest songs (many of which have only been recently discovered) seems to be Johannes Brahms. So many of Brahms' songs are these crystalline masterpieces of brevity. Schoenberg appears to have recognized this trait and tried to honor it with the harmonic language he was trying to cultivate in his earliest work.

The result is a new approach to song, rather than "warmed-over Brahms," which is decidedly different from other influences of the time, such as Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler. I do not see this as a "German versus Italian thing," although it probably has much to do with seeking out new directions with the end of the nineteenth century. Thus, I come away recommending Schoenberg's vocal writing as an excellent antidote to Donizetti at is most overwrought; and, with the new release of his songs, I hope that this antidote may be recognized for its value!

Thursday, July 5, 2012

A New “Stately Mansion” for the Rich and Mighty

As Al Jazeera English reported this morning, today marks the opening of the Shard tower. For those who either live under a rock or refuse to believe that anything newsworthy happens beyond the boundaries of the United State, this is an 87-story elongated glass pyramid, designed by Renzo Piano, which is now the tallest building in the European Union (EU). Lest one wonder how such a monument to economic excess could be built when most of the EU, not to mention a good chunk of the rest of the world (including the United States), is trying to keep its economic head above water, it is important to note that this entire project was financed by the Qatari royal family. In other words, for practical purposes, this may turn out to be the most expensive pied-à-terre in the world.

That last assertion is not a mere matter of hyperbole for the sake of frivolity. According to the Al Jazeera English report, the building currently has only one tenant. There is a 195-room Shangri-La hotel on floors 34 through 52. 26 of the remaining floors have been allocated for office space, none of which have been filled. Nevertheless, this may not be a simple case of the rich and mighty not “getting the message,” as I put it in one of my economic flames last year. The fact is that Qatar has done an excellent job of keeping a low profile in the face of both the Arab Spring and Occupy movements. Now the rich and mighty of Qatar have a place to camp out in London where they will be “above it all” literally, as well as figuratively!

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

History Moves in Mysterious Ways

As one whose scope of history extends beyond the current decade, I found myself drawn to R. J. W. Evans article in the current issue of The New York Review, “In the Lost World of East Prussia.” Perhaps the best known city in East Prussia is Königsberg, which was renamed to Kaliningrad when the Soviets took over the territory after the Second World War. Königsberg’s most famous citizen is probably Immanuel Kant, who lived to the ripe old age of 79 and never ventured more than ten miles from his home town. Those who prefer mathematics to philosophy, on the other hand, know Königsberg for its configuration of seven bridges and their role in the birth of what we now call graph theory.

Evans saved recognition of this problem for the final paragraph of his article:
In 1735 the mathematician Leonhard Euler tackled the famous problem of the “Seven Bridges of Königsberg,” which crossed onto its two islands in the river Pregel (an aspect not mentioned by Egremont [the author of the book Evans was reviewing], although it mirrors his own deft interweaving of the evidence). In a theorem that initiated the study of topology and graph theory, Euler elegantly demonstrated that no route could be found whereby a walker crossed each of the bridges only once. In 1944–1945 all the bridges were destroyed. Only five have been rebuilt. Ironically, Stunde Null [“zero hour” for the Nazis] made that Eulerian path possible.
History has a reputation for the dispassionate destruction of icons. Carl Sandburg captured that objectivity best in his World War One poem “Grass” with the line:
I am the grass; I cover all.
Königsberg no longer has seven bridges, but graph theory has progressed far beyond the puzzle that inspired Euler. There is, indeed, irony behind the bombing of those two problematic bridges; but neither history nor mathematics (nor Sandburg) cares very much about that irony.

Monday, July 2, 2012

What Alec Baldwin STILL Brings to the New York Philharmonic

Alec Baldwin may attract bad press the way an industrial-strength magnet attracts anything with iron in it; but I continue to believe that his support for the New York Philharmonic is more than a public relations countermeasure. As I observed in December of 2009 about his new job of announcing Philharmonic broadcasts, he brings understanding and appreciation to his work in equal measure, which is more than can be said of many announcers of classical music. My only regret is that Sirius dropped the Philharmonic broadcasts from the Symphony Hall channel. Now, according to Dave Itzkoff’s latest post to the ArtsBeat blog of The New York Times, he has taken his enthusiasm for the Philharmonic to the next level with a donation of $1 million. With so many arts organizations in difficult (if not dire) straits with their finances, Baldwin is stepping up for the performing arts in a way that matters.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Things Haven't Changed!

Those agonizing over the current state of politics in our country might take comfort (or despair) in A History of New York, which Washington Irving published under the pen name of Diedrich Knickerbocker in 1809. He describes a party system in which membership is determined by whether one smokes a short pipe or a long one. He discusses the nature of partisanship as follows:
Whatever was proposed by Short Pipe was opposed by the whole tribe of Long Pipes, who, like true partisans, deemed it their first duty to effect the downfall of their rivals, their second, to elevate themselves, and their third, to consult the public good; though many left the consideration out of question altogether.
Presumably Irving's own reading experiences included Jonathan Swift. After all in Gulliver's Travels, party membership in Lilliput was determined by whether one broke an egg at the big end or the little one; and the idea of public representation by elected officials was not much different from that of Irving's description!