Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Global Pissing Contest

I suppose I should not be surprised that so much of today's half-hour news telecast on BBC World Service Television should have been consumed by the fireworks displays in countries where it is already January 1. Since I live on the West Coast, I am used to being among the last to enter the New Year; and it has never bothered me very much. Perhaps that was because I was in Hawaii on December 31, 1999, meaning that I was among the very last to greet 2000.

This time, however, I was particularly struck by the determination of Dubai to set a world record for number of fireworks released. I suppose I should have accepted this as an inevitable corollary to the fact that setting up the most elaborate Christmas lights on your home has now become the latest reality television competition. It would appear that the ambitions of globalization have, indeed, been fulfilled. It almost seems as if the entire world's population has been reduced to competitive consumerism in that game where "he who dies with the most toys wins." This is absurd enough on its own; but, when we realize how many of those toys provides ways in which to escape reality (as opposed to other objectives for recreation), the absurd degrades further into a condition which an alien culture might classify as pathological.

Happy New Year!

Monday, December 30, 2013

A Ray of Hope for "Real Work"

Believe it or not, I take some comfort in the interview that Eric Schimdt gave yesterday on Bloomberg TV. As Don Reisinger has reported on the Mobile division of CNET News, mobile has won "the war against computers." Schmidt has worked up an awesome track record of both getting things wrong and saying them in the wrong way ever since he began to fumble the job of "designated grown-up" in the leadership of Google. I am much indebted to Schimdt for inspiring so many of my posts to this site, the most recent having been this past October.

Regular readers also know that I have been a strong advocate for maintaining the practices of "real work," much of which depends on reading documents longer than a tweet, taking the time to reason about what those documents are saying, and acting on those documents, which sometimes requires writing other documents. Those who still believe in such "real work" know how great the extent is to which just about all mobile devices are unsuitable for it. The best approximation remains the laptop. In my own physical space, that is very much a computer, particularly on my physical desk where it is plugged into a larger display and a keyboard more accommodating to the ways of the hand. (Ironically, that keyboard was made by Microsoft; and it is so old I cannot remember when I bought it.) I still find that I have very little need for a mobile phone, which means that I have even less need for anything that device provides beyond mobile telephony.

The other side of the coin, of course, is that the world of work is regressing to a state in which Douglas Englebart's ideal of "augmenting human intellect" is not just irrelevant but downright counterproductive. That is the Walmart version of the world, in which workers are little more than enslaved drones, paid wages that do not buy very much, thus obliged to spend earnings at the only place providing affordable prices … Walmart. There is no place for me in that world. If the time comes when technology no longer wishes to play a role in how I manage my own intellect, chances are I shall dump the technology and spend my final years reading the physical books that have accumulated on my shelves and working harder when I practice the piano.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Local Interest

Given that my page view numbers are pretty modest when compared with the most popular Examiner.com sites, I was glad to see that, even while the concert scene is relatively sparse, I was still able to muster above-average attention for my "memorable concerts of 2013" article. However, I suspect one of the reasons for that attention was that, this year, my list had a heavy focus on local performers. Indeed, the "out of town" talent that made it onto the list consisted of the pianists Richard Goode and András Schiff. Scott Sandmeier also made the last for the "audition" concert he gave for the position of conductor of the Conservatory Orchestra; but, since he won that audition, he is now "local talent." Similarly, there were visiting artists performing with local groups, such as Semyon Bychkov conducting the San Francisco Symphony and all of the people involved in San Francisco Opera productions who do not live in San Francisco. Nevertheless, the message seems to be that San Francisco is an excellent "home" for those committed to performing for serious listeners. Given that, like just about every other city, San Francisco is confronting some hard decisions about its budge, I just hope it can maintain that status.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Better Ways to Rob a Bank

This morning the BBC News Web site has a story by Technology Reporter Dave Lee that presents statistics from both the United Kingdom and the United States to the effect that there has been a marked decline in "bank job" armed robberies of banks. This was run as a Tech department story for two reasons. The first is that new technologies have both made bank building safer and made those who attempt such robberies easier to catch. The other, however, is that there is more to be gained from crime in cyberspace than from brick-and-mortar based robberies.

Lee supports this last claim with the recent theft of credit card information from Target. This is what might be called "approved" evidence to make the case. However, it overlooks what might be called "gross semantic evasiveness" when it comes to many of those major losses in capital that led to arguments that governments (meaning, at the end of the day, taxpayers) would have to bail out failing banks. There was a joke that became popular back in those days that never showed up in Lee's analysis:
The best way to rob a bank is to own one.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Pardoning Alan Turing

There has been a fair amount of tongue waving over the Royal pardoning of Alan Turing for "gross indecency." Given that Turing died in 1954, it is not hard to see the absurdity in the act. On the other hand, it puts his spirit in good company, right there with Galileo, who received a retroactive pardon from the Vatican.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Taking Apart Specious Republican Reasoning (with help from St. Paul)

Gary Wills can always be counted on to bring to light the faulty logic behind the would-be truths of Republican pundits. In the latest issue of The New York Review, the pundit in question is Joe Scarborough. Not only does Wills take apart all of Scarborough's key points, but also he sets up his own three primary factors behind Republican policy. Taking Chapter 13 of 1 Corinthians has his guide, Wills itemizes these as race, religion (not to be confused with faith), and money. Beyond irony that money holds the place that Paul set aside for love (or charity), Wills emphasizes the ordering by explicitly calling money "the greatest of these." There is nothing like enlisting the New Testament for a reality check!

Sunday, December 22, 2013

The Penalty of Forgetting History

It is understandable that Apple would want to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the launch of the Macintosh on January 24, 1984 in a big way. My guess is that more people today know about Ridley Scott's earthshaking "1984" commercial than they do about the original version of the Mac. They may even remember the slogan "Computing for the rest of us;" and therein lies the rub. To remind people of the anniversary is to remind them of that slogan; and bringing that slogan back into "primary consciousness" may well get more people to think about how much that slogan has been compromised, particularly over the tail end of that 30-year span.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Who Will Tolerate How Much Annoyance?

I have been following with some interest the ongoing story of Facebook's plans to introduce video advertising as part of the News Feeds offering. This past Thursday the USA TODAY College Web site ran a story by Akane Otani entitled "Users balk at 'intrusive' Facebook video ads," which I feel provided a useful account of at least one prevalent reaction to the plan. For those unfamiliar with the site, it appears to be a platform upon which college students can prepare to be "e-journalists of the future." I have no idea whether or not they are compensated for their efforts. However, my guess is that they are not under any salaried contract, which may be part of how they are prepared for what real-world work will be like after they graduate. The contributor for this particular article is a senior at Cornell University.

My one problem with the article is that I am not sure whether or not Otani either grasped or communicated the justification for that adjective "intrusive." My doubts come from a quote that presumably came from an interview with another student:
I think that introducing the concept with movie trailers is interesting. I'd probably click to watch them on my computer if they were different films each ad.
What this student (and, perhaps Otani) may not have realized is that the sorts of videos that Facebook has in mind are self-starting. Unlike the video that shows up on, for example, the BBC News Web site, you do not click on it to start it. It starts up all by itself. Because of the many items (including other ads) that are getting loaded on the same page, that start-up is usually not immediate; and, if you do not know that it is coming, it can be a surprise (and, if you do not control your volume setting appropriately, that surprise can be a loud one).

Thanks to my own reading habits, I have had a fair number of encounters with these videos. I really do not like them one bit, but I have resigned myself to being stuck with them. I now know enough about where they lurk that I can usually turn them off preemptively. This is particularly important since, as I discovered with my OS X Activity Monitor, they can eat up a lot of Flash time, basically taking the CPU away from other things that you would rather it be doing! I shall therefore continue to be curious about Facebook's move. I may not be one of their users, but I know how infectious Facebook usage can be. Whether or not user enthusiasm will be attenuated by "force-feeding" remains to be seen.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Unexpected Improvisation

Recently, I took on the commitment to review a recent book by Kate van Orden entitled Music, Authorship, and the Book in the First Century of Print. As I work my way into the final chapter, I have to say that reading this book has been a real treat, primarily for the ways in which van Orden lucidly examines the tension between the documentation of music and the practice of music. Of particular interest has been how van Orden has explored the ways in which practice was not dependent on notation. What sticks with me most, however, is a footnote that identifies current early music performing groups that have been working to acquire the skill of improvising counterpoint in up to four voices. There is even some discussion of the sorts of heuristics that are likely to be invoked in the exercise of that skill. As one who has long believed that "the music is in making," rather than in any marks on paper that might prescribe, or even suggest, that "act of making," reading van Orden's book has been as uplifting an experience as the study of how a text as massive as the Odyssey could be the product of an oral culture!

Thursday, December 19, 2013

The Latest Round of Illiteracy within the IT Community

I had to blink twice when I saw today's Virtually Speaking article by Dan Kusnetzky on ZDNet this morning:
Fusion-IO, flash cache and the importants of a good algorithm
My first reaction was to give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that this was a cute way to abbreviate "important factors" in the interest of a shorter and snappier headline. Reading the article, however, convinced me that this was not the case. The appropriate word here would have been "importance;" but neither author nor editor (assuming there was one) seems to have caught this as an error to be corrected.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

How the Americans have Influenced the British Christmas

While I found it more than a little incongruous that the London Telegraph should run a list of the sixteen best country Christmas songs, I was still pleased to see that "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer" made the list!

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Marissa Mayer Puts a Personal Face on the Yahoo! Mail Problem

Last night Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer used the company's Tumblr blog to post an "official" apology for the Yahoo! Mail outage problem. This was a relatively "frank and open" statement of the nature of the problem; but it was interesting that it said little about whether or not it had been resolved. To the contrary, there was something vaguely disquieting in the final sentences:
While our overall uptime is well above 99.9%, even accounting for this incident, we really let you down this week. We can, and we will, do better in the future.
It almost seemed as if Mayer was saying that things were better than the looked, which was not exactly the right thing to say to those whose Mail service had been affected. My overall impression reminded me of the immortal words of George Burns:
The secret to great acting is sincerity. If you can fake that, you've got it made.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Will the Internet of Things be the New Frontier for Malware?

ZDNet reporter Colin Baker has an article about the Internet of Things this morning. It is based on a Garter report that is predicting that the technology will be a $300B industry by 2020. I used to read Gartner reports as part of my job. They tended to provide useful input for PowerPoint presentation, but I never read one that I felt could be trusted at face value. Eventually, I realized that all reports should be judged on what is missing, rather than what is presented. In this case the "unanswered" question should be obvious, particularly to those who read about the latest crypto ransomware attack this morning:
How long will it take how many devices in the Internet of Things to be compromised by malware, and how destructive can that malware be?
Inquiring minds want to know!

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Fear of the Adventurous

Bearing in mind that, for the most part, the public entertainment business has an almost pathological fear of venturing into unknown territory, I have to say that the Golden Globe nominees for Best Television Series may have pushed the predictably dull to a new level:
  • Breaking Bad
  • Downton Abbey
  • The Good Wife
  • House of Cards
  • Masters of Sex
Yes, I include House of Cards in that "predictably dull" category, since, while it was well-executed, it was still a remake of a British series that had already broken the ground. I would say that the series that may have been most successful at being different while still being compelling to watch was Orphan Black. At least Tatiana Maslany got a Best Performance nomination for taking on the title role. Given the demands of that role, one would have had to have stuck one's head in the sand (or elsewhere) to be oblivious to the quality of her work.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

"Person of the Year"

The Associated Press story about the selection of Pope Francis and the Time Person of the Year was less interesting for the result than it was for the account of the contenders. Apparently it came down to a choice between the Pope and Edward Snowden. No manner how strongly anyone feels about Snowden, positively or negatively, there is no denying his impact on our lives, not just in the United States but around the world. Before his massive leak of data from the National Security Administration, talk about the dangers of a surveillance society were limited to a handful of individuals who could not always substantiate their suspicions. Now the topic is on everyone's lips, and reform is easier to achieve when everyone is talking about the situation from their respective points of view. With that in mind, my own vote would have gone to Snowden; but I have been pretty dismissive of the whole Person of the Year thing for some time. Remember, Mark Zuckerberg was Person of the Year for 2010; and his respect for privacy (sic) has been a public matter for some time.

The Associate Press article also included a few sentences about other contenders:
Besides Snowden, Time had narrowed its finalists down to gay rights activist Edith Windsor, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Time editors made the selection. The magazine polled readers for their choice, and the winner was Egyptian General Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, who didn't even make the top 10 of Time's final list.
For my money (which does not go into a subscription to Time) this "state of the playing field" simply affirms for me just how much of a waste of time this whole project is.

Monday, December 9, 2013

A Google Doodle for Grace Hopper

I was quite pleased to see that Google decided to honor what would have been Grace Hopper's 107th birthday with a Google Doodle. Hopper was definitely one of the more interesting pioneers in that specialty that had not yet acquired the name "computer science." She also deserves credit for introducing the idea of a programming language that would allow individuals to put a digital computer to practical use without having to account for every last detail of what was happening at the bit level.

I was fortunate enough to hear her talk several times. Actually, it would probably be more accurate to say that I listened to her give the same talk several times; but each iteration was still an enjoyable one. Others may remember her for COBOL (COmmon Business Oriented Language). I remember the fact that, in her office at the Pentagon, she had the Jolly Roger flying from a little stand on her desk. I also remember her telling me that she had tried to teach my father programming … without success. Nevertheless, I suspect that what everyone who heard her speak will remember was how she managed to get her head around the concept of the nanosecond.

Every time I watch Linda Hunt go to town in playing the role of Henrietta Lange on NCIS: Los Angeles, I think of Hopper. There is far more depth to Hetty's experiences than there was to those of "Princess Grace." On the other hand Hunt's capacity for catching just the right tone of caustic wit would make her the perfect actress to portray Hopper in a biographical story that would be as interesting as any tale of Alan Turing, albeit for totally different reasons.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Leonard Bernstein: Champion of the Middle-brow?

I have no desire to read all 606 pages of The Leonard Bernstein Letters, no matter how good a job Nigel Simeone did as editor. I figure that reading Robert Gottlieb's account of the book for The New York Review has informed me to a level of satisfaction that does not need to be further advanced. I rather like Gottlieb's dispassionate approach, providing background material when it was necessary and being "frank and open" about many of the warts without getting overly judgmental about any of them.

For better or worse, however, I realize that my own opinions of Bernstein have been shaped, at least in part, by the time I have put into reading Amiria Baraka (writing as LeRoi Jones) writing about jazz. If was from reading Baraka that I confronted that hard truth that not everyone who pays to attend a performance of music is necessarily committed to actually listening (in Igor Stravinsky's sense of that word) to that performance. For Baraka such lackadaisical audiences were simply symptoms of a "culture of middle-brow thinking." Among the middle-brow, Bernstein was the ultimate source of knowledge of the concert repertoire. I have even known music critics capable of writing accounts of concerts that I have felt were worth reading who still, perhaps out of reflex, regard Bernstein as the ultimate authority when it comes to bringing a better understanding of music to the general public.

From my point of view, I recognize that he could labor long and hard to simplify the complex. Unfortunately, there are too many situations when he achieved that goal through distortions that run the gamut from simply confusing to creating dangerously false impressions. The good news is that he tended to focus on topics that he figured would "sell" to the general public. One positive result is thus than Arnold Schoenberg was spared his distortions (as, for that matter, was Thelonious Monk). On the other hand I shall always remember when he decided it was time to explain what was happening to popular music in the wake of The Beatles and eventually came to the conclusion that the epitome of how things had changed could be found in the music of Janis Ian!

I would now like to skate out on some thin ice and suggest that Bernstein could thrive in New York because so many New Yorkers were eager to gobble up the stuff he was dishing out. Baraka was obviously not one of them. Indeed, among those who took teaching very seriously, I get the impression from available biographical material that Lennie Tristano knew the limitations of Bernstein' superficial capacity for perception. One consequence is that, for some time, if you wanted to go to Lincoln Center to inform yourself on how a piece of music ticked, you would learn more from watching the choreography of George Balanchine at the New York State Theater (now the David H. Koch Theater) than you would from buying a ticket to get into Avery Fisher Hall. Those were days when it seemed as if Chicago had better taste in conductors.

Fortunately, the New York Philharmonic now has Alan Gilbert, and life seems to have become more interesting. I am left wondering, however, if Bernstein would ever have figured out what to make of a composer like Magnus Lindberg. My guess is that Lindberg would have been too far from Bernstein's comfort zone; but in that distance Lindberg would have enjoyed the company of Frank Zappa, Edgard Varèse, and John Cage!

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Putting Software in Perspective

While I tend to complain only about the deterioration of software quality, the world received a painful lesson in a more general dependence of technology that lacks a competent maintenance staff when almost all air travel in Great Britain was brought to a screaming halt by a failure in the internal telephone system of the National Air Traffic Service; in conditions like those, folks stalled on the ground should probably feel thankful that they were not up in the sky!

Friday, December 6, 2013

Remember the Man, not the Icon

I found it interesting that both the Associated Press (in an article that appeared on the ABC7 News Web site) and the San Francisco Chronicle invoked the noun "icon" in reporting the death of Nelson Mandela, the latter drawing upon what may have been the largest font size the could muster. As one who has probably spent more time studying semiotics that was good for me, I have to say that I am acutely sensitive to the danger of confusing the signifier with the signified. In our own country we have often tended to allow our knowledge of the actions taken by Martin Luther King to be displaced by undue attention to the image. Earlier generations would have called this idol-worship; and, in many religious practices, "icon" is a working synonym (or, perhaps, a euphemism) for "idol." My guess is that Mandela staunchly resisted all forms of idolatry, whether they had to do with faith, politics, or simply deciding to follow a leader. As a result, he became a model for the philosophy of leading by your own actions; and I hope that at least a few of the ensuing memorial pieces will place those actions at the focal point they deserve.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

In a Democracy, You Make Your Decisions Your Way, Not Ours!

Having just finished Mark Danner's "Rumsfeld's War and Its Consequences Now" in the latest issue of The New York Review, I suspect I am a bit overly sensitive to the delusions of those who think that the United States has some kind of "manifest destiny" to spread its way of life around the world, whether it involves the prioritization of consumerism or our particular approach to a "democratic government." (That latter actually reminds me over Voltaire's witty observation about the Holy Roman Empire. In the current state of affairs, one might say that what we have right now is far from democratic and probably just as far from being a government!) It will therefore be interesting to see how our philosophy of our-way-is-the-only-way will fare now that the Libyan National Assembly has voted that the foundation of all legislation and state institutions will be Sharia Law. The impact of this decision on the rights of those who do not necessarily embrace the faith of Islam remains to be seen, as is the question of whether or not the United States will decide that interference in a decision made by the National Assembly is none of our business.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Putting Promotion in Perspective

Richard Nieva's piece for CNET News about Marisa Mayer's current thoughts about the future was filed this morning at 4 AM. Nevertheless, it seems to have avoided any mention of the Yahoo! Mail outage that lasted about six hours yesterday from about 11:30 AM to 5:30 PM. Would this "reality check" not have added a bit of perspective into what seems on the surface like a middleweight fluff piece?

Monday, December 2, 2013

Drones Cover the News

I had my first encounter with a drone at the end of this past October, when I was covering the first performance of Lisa Bielawa's "Crissy Broadcast" for Examiner.com. I later found out that it was there to provide images for the San Francisco Chronicle, whose music critic, Joshua Kosman, was there out on Crissy Field with me. I only realized this when I saw the photograph accompanying Kosman's piece in the Chronicle.

I was not particularly impressed. Crissy Field is a very large space, and Bielawa was determined to use all of it. The result was a composition whose spatial features vastly outstripped the "auditory source material" provided to the performers on score pages. As Kosman observed, the composition had a much to do with the geometry of how individual performing groups dispersed themselves across the field as with the listening experience that emerged as a result of this dispersal. As far as the drone was concerned, it was flying too close to the ground to do justice the Bielawa's spatial conception. All I really got out of my "first contact" was an appreciation for comments I had heard and read about the sounds that drones make and their psychological impact on those who do not expect them. Lacking any such advanced technology for my own work, I was content to use a photograph of one specific group "on the move" that my wife took on her iPhone.

This morning, however, Tim Hornyak used his post to the Crave blog on CNET to write about a similar drone application being used to cover the riots in Bangkok. The article includes two video clips and one photograph. In many respects the photograph says as much as the video. In that single image one can see both clouds from the tear gas canisters and the streams from the water cannon. One can also see the physical positioning of both the demonstrators and the riot police.

My high school history teacher used to say that the corrupting influence of Boss Tweed's Tammany Hall was finally undone not by any legal processes but by the impact on public opinion of a serious of editorial cartoons drawn by Thomas Nast. (It seems appropriate to write about Nast at this time, since he was also responsible for the still popular public image of Santa Claus.) Tweed would later say after he had been arrested and convicted that his downfall was "them damned pictures."

The images in Hornyak's article are no less damning. There is, of course, an impressive archive of photographic and video journalism coming from on-the-spot capture of images. These aerial views, however, allow us to appreciate that there is more to the story than can be seen on the ground. The obvious question then arises as to when the first of these drones will be shot down by someone who wants to make sure that those images never get seen.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Experimentation Reveals Evidence for Genetic Memory

James Gallagher, Health and Science Reporter for BBC News, filed a fascinating story on the BBC News Web site this morning. In experiments with mice, researches at Emory University appear to have discovered that aversion to a scent (in this case that of cherry blossoms) could result in modification of a specific section of DNA. This would result in offspring sharing that aversion without any past experience of it.

The concept of genetic memory has been a favorite topic in bull sessions about the relationship between environment and heredity. While this experiment involves a highly limited phenomenon is a small sample space, it is still a sign that this concept may be more than a vacuous fantasy. If the mechanism actually works, it can explain how the survival value of avoiding certain toxins can be passed down to future generations. We should be more careful about any phenomena that exist outside of the objective world, but it should not be long before writers of fiction decide to start playing with this concept!

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Diagnosing the HealthCare.gov Fiasco

The latest issue of The New York Review of Books has a well-reasoned and highly readable analysis of the fiasco associated with the launch of HealthCare.gov. It is written by Sue Halpern, no stranger to the complications that arise at the interface between the objective world (such as the world of computer software) and the social world (such as the world of the intended users of that software). The title of her article could not be more apposite: "The Flop."

This is definitely a case in which failure has many parents. It was not, as I had initially assumed, simply another case of the failure of the Federal Government to engage people with a sufficient skill level to take on a project that required designing and implementing both software functionality and a usable interface to that functionality. Ultimately, it was a far more complicated story of the failure to manage properly a highly complex software development project with the misfortune to be embedded in a complex of both inadequate funding and an ideologically crippled government incapable of addressing problems associated with both funding and people management.

Halpern makes a convincing case that just about every aspect of this project was riddled with incompetence. Furthermore, while she never mentions it explicitly, her analysis is likely to remind many readers of the sign that President Harry Truman had on his desk stating simply:
The buck stops here.
In other words all of her accusations of incompetence can ultimately be directed to a single desk, and that is the desk in the Oval Office.

A Serious Category Error

There was an interview on BBC World Service radio a couple of days ago, which seems to have been conceived to provide some enlightenment over what seems to be a monotonically increasing number of instances of public unrest over discontent with government decisions and actions. I was unable to catch the name of the interviewee, but he made one casual remark about the fact that most countries in the developing world did not really "get" the idea of democracy or the concept of free markets. By lumping these two concepts in a single sentence, he seemed to be implying that the two were related.

I would argue the opposite, which is that they are at cross-purposes. The ideal of participatory democracy is one in which all voices are equal, which means that all decisions are subjected to "the wisdom of the crowd." Cooler heads going all the way back to Socrates (at least as he was depicted by Plato) recognized that this system has some key flaws, which is why most successful efforts at a constitutional government have tried to address those flaws without abandoning the concept of general public participation.

On the other hand, the free market mentality is not about a level playing field. Rather, it is about a worldview that equates wealth with power and encourages a brutal Hobbesian approach to the acquisition of wealth. Within this model, the power of wealth may then be applied to manipulate the public, thus undermining the principles that motivated the formation of a constitutional government. The current state of affairs in our own country would suggest that the power of wealth has succeeded in rendering just about every aspect of government ineffectual to the point of irrelevance.

When we try to tell the rest of the world that we live in a democracy, we are really only talking about a flimsy cardboard stage prop erected to conceal that we now live under a plutocracy.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Classical Music Victimized by Wrong-Headed Misrepresentation (again)

I am in total agreement with Ivan Hewett's latest article for the London Telegraph, in which he launches a no-prisoners assault on a new recording entitled Now That’s What I Call Relaxing Classical. Indeed, I am so sympathetic that I cannot resist throwing some fat into his fire. It concerns an allegedly "classical" radio station (whose call letters I have forgotten, probably for the benefit of all involved) that used to describe itself as providing "music that gives your mind a rest!"

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

ZDNet Serves up its own Turkey

In what may go down as the ultimate act of self-reference, today's ZDNet article entitled "2013 in Review: Tech Turkeys of the year" was presented through a truly hostile user interface based on the worst possible layout.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

I Can Haz Better Lerning?

BBC News Technology Reporter Carolyn Rice filed a story about how images of cute cats may have mnemonic value. Apparently, researchers have been investigating the hypothesis that memory retention is enhanced when what needs to be memorized is associated with a cute cat photograph. Here is a screen shot illustrating the principle being applied to learning Spanish:
Note the advertisement on the right.

Innovative Thinking about Revenue

Budget-conscious Republicans may wish to know that the French have taken an innovative approach to creating a revenue stream, as reported today on the Al Jazeera English Web site:
A convicted heroin dealer has been presented with an $108,000 tax bill on his earnings by French authorities, who even gave allowances for personal consumption of the drug and travel expenses.
The dealer, currently in prison in Nancy in eastern France, recently received a demand for payment based on his supposed 2008-11 earnings, his lawyer Samira Boudiba told the AFP news agency.
"He is being treated as if he was a small businessman - it is quite extraordinary," Boudiba said. "How can you tax an activity that is completely illegal?" she said, adding that she was seeking a review of the demand by France's Constitutional Council.
The tax demand received by the prisoner includes a remarkably detailed evaluation of the dealer's likely income and "allowable" expenses, according to the lawyer.
It notes: "Your personal consumption has been evaluated at four grammes per day, which can be deducted from your sales."
It goes on to state that since the dealer's main supplier was based in Namur in Belgium, a total of $2700 a year in travel expenses could be classified as a deductible expense.

Monday, November 25, 2013

An Inconvenient Truth about Making Music

I have been reading Leonard Slatkin's book Conducting Business. The other day I came across a great sentence in which Slatkin compared symphony orchestras to Major League Baseball teams:
Of course, the big leagues are about making money, whereas the orchestras are about trying to lose as little as possible.
Reading this was hardly a surprise, but it made me think. I happened to be teaching at the University of Pennsylvania when the Wharton School of Business launched their arts management program. Thanks to a friend, I had the good fortune to sit in on some of the classes being offered under this specialization. I do not think I can recall that sentence coming up in any of the classes I visited. Indeed, I would be inclined to believe than any mention of losing money violates some fundamental article of faith at Wharton, or any other business school for that matter.

I would therefore be bold enough to suggest that the management of a performing arts organization requires a mindset that differs significantly from one required to manage a leading business venture, particularly when that venture "goes public" and has to worry about shareholders more than customers or employees. Every now and then I hear some grumbling about how adding arts management to the business school curriculum has made things worse, rather than better. Perhaps it has to do with the fact that the profit motive is really out of place in the performing arts. It is not that the performing arts choose to lose money; but, because they will always appeal to a rather limited body of "consumers," the possibility of profit is, at best, very slim.

There is no doubt that every performing arts organization needs at least one bean counter, even if that person is there for the sake of "just getting by." However, counting the beans is an abstract process that has nothing to do with why people are motivated to go into the performing arts in the first place. From that point of view, I would suggest that the very concept of "arts management" is inconvenient, if not dangerous, to those work practices without which the performing arts would not exist.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Something Positive (for a change)

The 50th anniversary broadcast of The Day of the Doctor has now been officially recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records. Here is how the news was reported today by the London Telegraph:
Last night's episode of Doctor Who has received a Guinness World Record for the world's largest ever simulcast of a TV drama.
The special 50th anniversary show set a new world record after being broadcast in 94 countries across six continents following a massive global campaign.
The Doctor Who episode had an average audience of 10.2 million in the UK, which was among the biggest overnight ratings since the programme was rebooted by the BBC in 2005.
In addition to the TV broadcast, the episode was screened in more than 1,500 cinemas worldwide, including in the UK, US, Canada, Latin America, Germany, Russia and Scandinavia.
While I am more of an occasional dabbler than a rabid fan, I was glad to see that today's papers had something closer to good news to offer for a change. There is something to be said about that many people willing to loose themselves in an elaborate narrative of quirky witticisms about the space-time continuum as an alternative to tuning out the world with a pair of earbuds.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Another Thought about Peter Maxwell Davies' Criticism of Educational Systems

I was talking with a colleague about the piece I wrote on Monday, in which Sir Peter Maxwell Davies expressed concern over the number of British youngsters who had never heard of Ludwig van Beethoven. This time I am more interested in the fact that they also never heard of William Shakespeare or Charles Dickens. I remembered that, at the beginning of last month, I had been put off by a composer whose songs sounded as if all he had done was figure out how to match notes to syllables without showing much apparent interest in the text itself. The corollary of never having heard of either Shakespeare or Dickens is that one is also totally devoid of any experience of reading what those authors wrote. Ultimately, what I was complaining about last month was a composer who had apparently not taken the trouble to give serious reading to the poems he was setting to music. Where such "music" is concerned, one had to wonder why a composer would bother to write songs in the first place.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Sir Tim Gets it Wrong Again

Once again the Technology division on the BBC News Web site seems to be providing Sir Tim Berners-Lee with a bully pulpit. This time he is speaking out against surveillance. An article introduced yesterday began with the following summary:
Web creator Sir Tim Berners-Lee has warned that the democratic nature of the net is threatened by a "growing tide of surveillance and censorship".
I assume that the quote marks refer to what Berners-Lee actually said. However, on the basis of his past remarks, I suspect that he believes in "the democratic nature of the net." This would be a dangerous misconception. As it now exists, the Internet is probably the closest instance we have of a viable anarchy. As I observed last month, the very concept of governance is about as alien to the Internet community as you can get. At best the concept receives occasional lip service, but that kind of babble shuts down as soon as any questions about drafting a constitution arise.

In the physical world I am just as glad that I do not live in an anarchy. I may not like much of what government does, but I know that I would like things even less if government were entirely eliminated. In the early days of the Internet, anarchy did not seem to be too risky, since control resided in the hands of those with the necessary technical competence, whose sense of governance involved little more than common sense. These days anything I do on the Internet I do with caution. Common sense no longer prevails, and it is easier for more people to exercise power in more destructive ways. Indeed, anarchy is now so firmly established that the prospect of reining it in through governance is little more than an idle dream. It is about time for Sir Tim to wake up and start smelling the virtual Molotov cocktails!

Thursday, November 21, 2013

The Smarter the Technology the Dumber the People

It is hard to read the news these days without being overwhelmed by stories whose key actions can be attributed to ineptitude. Whether it involves software development by drones who know how to use fancy automated tools but lack any basic understanding of how code actually works, slaves to CRM systems who misread the input and sign up health insurance for the family dog (whose name was given as the answer to a security question), or a pilot who lands his large-economy-sized 747 at the wrong airport and can't take off because the runway is too short, it would seem that relying on "advanced technology" is creating a new culture of incompetence. E. M. Forster predicted that support technology would break down because people would become so dependent that they would forget about principles of maintenance. However, he failed to consider the possibility that "smart technology" would erode cognitive capacity to the point where people would do dumb things with it. In the spirit of Yogi Berra, one might say that, if Foster were alive to witness the direction his prediction actually took, he would be glad that he is dead!

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

A Representative Word of the Year

Towards the end of every calendar year, the division of Oxford University Press responsible for the publication of dictionaries declares a "word of the year." According to the Associated Press account of the annual selection, the chosen word "best reflects the mood of the times." For those who have not yet seen that report, this year's word is "selfie." Presumably, "the mood of the times" is that, while the economy has not yet recovered with any substance, our capacity for self-indulgence is back up to snuff again!

Monday, November 18, 2013

The Wrong Diagnosis for the Right Illness

I just finished reading an article by Simon Johnson that showed up on the Web site yesterday afternoon under the headline:
Queen's official composer: youngsters are ignorant of classical music because of 'elitist' attitude
The composer in question is, of course, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, who has taken a variety of strong positions over the social dimension of how we experience music. In this case he happened to be endorsing the violinist Nicola Benedetti, who believed that the school curriculum should include detailed analyses of the symphonies of composers such as Ludwig van Beethoven, Jean Sibelius, Antonín Dvořák and Gustav Mahler. Personally, I suspect that Benedetti was following my favorite of Brian Eno's Oblique Strategies, "Go to an extreme, come part way back;" but her rhetorical strategy may have been necessary. Maxwell Davies reinforced her point with the observation that "hundreds of thousands of British youngsters" have never heard of Beethoven. He then went on to note that the same is true of William Shakespeare and Charles Dickens. He thus envisages as future generation of a "vacuous celebrity culture and inane talent shows" (his words cited by Johnson).

Maxwell Davies attributes the cause to a government policy that sees "classical music as an elitist fringe activity." This may be true, but I am not sure that it is a diagnosis of the condition. Benedetti may have hit closer to the mark in the following observation:
Music can be fun and enjoyable, but it also provides a way to go as deep as you can into our history and our understanding of humanity.
As I have argued in the past, there are prevailing sources of authority in both government and business that simply do not want to have a population capable of such "understanding of humanity." They simply want a population of consumers that will rush out to buy every bit of stuff dangled before them as a result of operant conditioning, rather than any extended efforts at reflection. That population is well conditioned by "celebrity culture and inane talent shows," which never rise above the level of visceral instincts. What Benedetti see as a virtue of the study of listening to and analyzing music, the Lords of Consumerism see as a Cardinal Sin. The issue is not one of whether or not the activity is elitist but of whether it encourages one to seek out a path different from that of the manipulated masses.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Is Google Making the Next Generation Stupid?

Today's news (which I read as reported by Lance Whitney for CNET News) about Google Play for Education should be taken as a warning that it is probably time for anyone who takes education seriously to return to Nicholas Carr's provocative article for Atlantic Monthly entitled "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" There are a variety of different ways to interpret Carr's thesis and the evidence he submits to warrant his claim. I have written about many of them since the article first appeared. The one that concerns me the most after reading Whitney's article involves Carr's claim that Google is eroding our reflective capacities.

To appreciate the extent to which Carr's claim will apply to future, rather than just present, generations, we need to consider not only what Google Play for Education offers but also what it fails to offer. The former has been fairly summarized by Whitney as follows:
Starting Wednesday, Google Play for Education will be included on the Nexus 7 through the Google in Education program. Google Play for Education offers teacher-approved apps for students, educational videos, and books for those in grades K-12. Teachers can search for approved apps based on grade level and other criteria, buy them via a purchase order, and then deploy them to their students.
The critical part of this description is that the Nexus 7 is the platform. This device is a tablet. Whatever virtues it may have as a reading device, it may be the worst possible technology to cultivate the practice of writing. I mean this in the most general sense of that task: not only assembling words into well-formed sentences but also all the different dimensions of background research (even the most modest of them) that go into figuring out what you want those sentences to say in the first place. Even at the elementary school level, this can (and, by all rights, should) involve practices such as working with multiple sources in an environment in which those sources are conveniently at hand while the writing is taking place. From this point of view, the Nexus 7 is woefully inadequate. Even when the student is reading, it is the worst possible device for allowing the consultation of other material as part of the practice of "active reading."

I would therefore modestly submit that Google Play is not "for Education" but simply for getting kids as hooked on consumerism as their parents already are, dutifully prepared to salivate over technology toys rather than acquiring a toolkit of cognitive skills that will be necessary to reflect on the prevailing problems of the world and then act on them in any meaningful way.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

David Gewirtz Gets a Brand-New Mac without Mavericks

Reading David Gewirtz' DIY-IT post on ZDNet this morning quickly established itself as a working definition of Schandenfreude. The premise behind his story is as follows:
As I mentioned yesterday, I ordered a brand-new, highly maxed out iMac directly from Apple. I waited until after the October 22 Apple event because I wanted to base my decision on the iMac vs. the Mac Pro on as much information as possible.
However, when he fired up the About This Mac window, he discovered that his OS X Version was 10.8.4 (which, as those who follow these things know, is not even the latest version of Mountain Lion).  The Schadenfreude really kicked in with this sentence (including the bold font of the original):
I'm still waiting for Mavericks to download from the Mac App Store.
This led to the following punch line:
Apple's attention to detail is supposed to be legendary. Maybe not so much anymore.
I rather like that word "legendary," since, it most circles, it tends to connote long-held beliefs in things that are not necessarily true. There is, of course, an "Apple of legend" rooted in the announcement of the Mac with one of the best-remembered television commercials of all time. This happened before many (most?) of today's Apple customers were born. Since ours is a culture that celebrates its ignorance of history, that legend has been dead for quite some time. The same is now true of the mythic stature of Steve Jobs.

Gewirtz chose a good punch line. However, it is not just attention to detail that is gone. Attention to larger scale factors, such as entire operating systems it an utter mess, distinguished only by the possibility that the mess may still be less than that of any of the other alternatives "for the rest of us."

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Confidence or Con?

A BBC News report quotes Secretary of State John Kerry on the current round of efforts towards peace in the Middle East as follows:
We have six months ahead of us on the timetable we have set for ourselves and I am confident we have the ability to make progress.
Does Kerry really mean this, or is this just another example of obligatory jawboning. To Kerry's credit, the BBC report also included the following sentence:
Mr Kerry reaffirmed Washington's rejection of Israeli settlement activity as "illegitimate".
I would guess that, in this case, Kerry meant what he said. However, I have to wonder if it will have any effect. It may certainly help in getting the Palestinians to trust him as an "honest broker," which would be a significant improvement over the conditions that I last examined at the end of 2010. The problem is that it is next to impossible to believe that anyone with any power of substance in Israel will take that comment with anything other than a grain of kosher salt.

As "outside observers" we need to recognize that the Executive Branch of our government has little (if any) influence over what happens in Israel. Any influence that does exist at a governmental level derives all of its substance from the American Israel Public Affair Committee (AIPAC). While AIPAC is ostensibly a lobbying organization, we may assume that it can choose to apply its generous budget to objectives other than buying off members of Congress. Indeed, in the spirit of Charlie Wilson, AIPAC could conceivable finance operations in Israel that run contrary to any positions taken by any elected representative of our government.

Meanwhile, public opinion is rallied around the proposition that Israel must be supported because it is the only "real" democracy in the Middle East. (Note the scare quotes.)  Those who continue to embrace this proposition would do well to read Chris Hedges' recent column on Truthdig, a book review of Max Blumenthal's Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel released under the headline "Imploding the Myth of Israel." The bottom line is that what we know about Israel comes entirely from a well-financed propaganda effort and is nothing more than toxic Kool-Aid. Some might even argue that 9/11 was the first serious symptom of its toxicity, but the consciousness industry had thus far been successful in keeping those voices inaudible. Whether or not Hedges' voice suffers the same fate will be up to those of us still willing to read with an open mind.

Sometimes the Rich and Mighty Lose

Here in San Francisco the two ballot measures that would have enabled the implementation of the 8 Washington condominium project were defeated. Apparently, a majority of San Francisco voters (myself included) decided that the rich and mighty do not need another playground, particularly when it cuts off access to the waterfront, one of the best locations for those who like long walks and do not like coping with the hills. I suspect that many voters were influenced by the solid demolition of any pretensions to "public benefit" associated with America's Cup. Through Propositions B and C, many of us had an opportunity to tell the rich and mighty what we think of their conspicuous consumption; and apparently our collective voice was loud enough to be heard.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

A Modest Proposal for the Bicycle: A Motor Vehicle Without the Motor

Watching Heather Ishimaru's report last night on KGO-TV on expanding the bike sharing program, I found myself thinking again about the extent to which too many cyclists seem to behave as if they were not under the jurisdiction of the same "rules of the road" as motorists. I know this is a hot-button item for all parties involved (cyclists, motorists, and pedestrians). However, I also know that having a system in which bicycle riders are obliged by law (and therefore subject to punishment) to operate their vehicles responsibly to the same degree that motorists are is a major problem that has now crossed the Atlantic Ocean and is invading the United Kingdom as well as the United States.

For this reason I decided to visit the Bay Area Bike Share Web site to see what rules were imposed on members, if any. Fortunately, it was not very difficult to find what amounts to a rental agreement. This is not that different from all those agreements you encounter when you are purchasing software over the Web. In other words it is a very long body of text that just about everyone ignores. In this case I was amused to see that the Web page made use of two colors and three font sizes. It took me a while to work my way down this Web page and to finally land on the following text in the smallest of the fonts:
You represent, warrant, and agree that You are a safe and competent bicycle operator, You are sufficiently fit and physically capable to safely ride a bicycle without any risk to Your health, You are knowledgeable about the operation of a bicycle, and You are knowledgeable about the laws pertaining to bicycles operated within the Counties of San Francisco, San Mateo, and Santa Clara. Like any physical activity, riding a Bicycle may cause minor or major injuries or discomfort and may worsen or complicate underlying medical conditions or diseases.
By choosing to ride a Bicycle, You assume all responsibilities and risks for all such injuries or other medical conditions.
From a legal point of view, this establishes that the only person who needs to affirm that an applicant is fit to operate a bicycle is the actual applicant. The idea that any third party should be responsible for validating the applicant's affirmation (as is the case for a motor vehicle operator) is simply not part of the equation.

Like many, I would prefer to see fewer motor vehicles on the streets of San Francisco. On the other hand I have probably seen about as many instances of reckless bicycle operation as anyone reading this text. Isn't it about time that we take the operation of bicycles as seriously as we take the operation of motor vehicles?

Monday, November 4, 2013

From Dante to Yiddish

Antony Shugaar wrote an interesting letter about reading and translating Dante that was printed in the latest (November 21) issue of The New York Review. He establishes his credentials as "a professional translator from the Italian, and a longtime aficionado of Dante." He is commenting on Robert Pogue Harrison's Dante piece in the October 24 issue, specifically to how Dante evokes "a keening sound." He identifies the word "Ahi" in the fourth line of The Divine Comedy as an example of that sound.

The editors ran this letter under the headline "Oy!" In The Joys of Yiddish Leo Rosten insists that"oy! is not ai!" However, he says nothing about Dante or the rather singular spelling that Dante used. Could it be that the most Yiddish of Yiddish words has its roots in Dante?

When Both Parties in Congress Agree with the White House, Something Must be Wrong!

Yesterday's post was written out of a sincere effort to observe that deciding whether or not Edward Snowden is an asset or a liability is no easy matter. It is clear from a BBC News report, updated most recently early this morning, that there are many voices in Germany, in both the government and the press institutions, that have come to recognize him as an asset. Whether or not that trend is simply blow-back from the goring of a precious German ox (Angela Merkel's cell phone), it should provide our own government with issues worth considering.

Unfortunately, the current state of play seems to indicate that the prevailing view in Washington is that Snowden is a serious liability, if not a downright traitor. This has been declared explicitly by White House spokesman Dan Pfeiffer. Meanwhile, both the Democratic and Republican sides of Congress got their licks in during yesterday morning's weekly "Sabbath-Day gasbags" (as Calvin Trillin liked to call it) circuit. Unfortunately, the voice of the Democrats was Dianne Feinstein, whom, in spite of my general voting preferences, has become one of my favorite targets when it comes to any form what amounts to legislation over information. I heard clips of Republican Mike Rogers on Al Jazeera America yesterday. He was no less rabid; but I am not sure that he represented any significant form of authority, informed or otherwise. Is this circling the wagons for protection? It could also be surrounding Snowden with "men with guns" all pointed at him but just as likely to hit someone standing on the opposite side of the circle.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Should We be Biting Snowden's Finger or Looking at Where It is Pointing?

My title draws upon an expression I picked up during my student days at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It was attributed to Warren McCulloch, who was recognized, long after his death, as one of the pioneers of computing based on neural networks. When wrapped up in an intense argument, he was apparently known to say:
Don't bite my finger; look where I'm pointing!
The act of whistle-blowing often involves little more than pointing at something that "everyone knows" but would prefer to disregard. As a result, whistle-blowers are extremely vulnerable to having their fingers bitten. This is particularly the case where "national security" is involved, as I discovered in one of my posts from 2011. Now we have Edward Snowden; and, according to the news from this week, the German government is more interested in looked at where he is pointing than we are.

Thus, by way of retaliation, Dianne Feinstein, Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, decided it was appropriate to run an opinion piece in today's Chronicle under the title:
NSA's call-records program is prudence – not prying
Granted that one man's meat is another man's poison, I have to wonder just how much Feinstein knows about intelligence (in the technical sense of the word) and, more specifically, the complex relationships established in that chain that beings with "raw data" and proceeds through "information" into "intelligence," as a result of what may best be called "acts of interpretation."

Back in the days when laws about communication were being reviewed under the Clinton Administration, there was a rather ludicrous side-show surrounding what was called the Communications Decency Act. Many of us realized that this was a camel trying to get its nose into the tent of Internet censorship. It turned out that Feinstein was a strong supporter of censorship. She saw the Internet as a potentially dangerous environment. Her prime example was that one could go to the Internet to learn how to make bombs. Since this was still a time when Internet access was slow, pricey, and relatively limited, she seemed to forget that, in those days, it was a lot simpler to learn this by going to the public library.

Long before there were networks, there were clever kids hacking into presumably "secure" time-sharing system, many of whom had also figured out how to hack into the telephone company. Many of those kids were subjected to the full force of criminal law. However, in a few of the sites that had been hacked, there were someone in upper management that realized that knowing what these kids know would be useful. This seems to be the German attitude towards Snowden; and, for the life of me, I cannot figure out why we refuse to persist in our belief that the Germans might be on to something, particularly at a time when we should be trying to heal our injured relationship with them.

Friday, November 1, 2013

A Macabre (but Amusing) Juxtaposition

This week's Bay Guardian announces its cover story with the single word
on the cover. Since this is the issue for both Halloween and Dia de los Muertos, this is not surprising, nor is the grim illustration behind the word. What caught my eye, however, was the slightly smaller text below this word:
Given my current thoughts about the practice of politics in this country, I could not help but me amused.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Bye-Bye Apple Mail?

Topher Kessler, who contributes to MaxFixIt on CNET Reviews, finally seems to have gotten around to confronting Mail. Ironically, in his latest post, he is writing about one of the few hassles I have not (yet?) experienced:
When you upgrade to OS X Mavericks, a number of built-in applications will be updated to their latest versions in order to support the various features of the new operating system. One of these is Apple's Mail application, and when upgraded the program will need to update the Mail database in order for its new features to be properly used.
When this happens, you will see a "Welcome to Mail" window appear that instructs you to either continue and download Mail messages, or quit and perform this action later.
This message should only appear the first time you launch Mail, but for some on Mavericks, this message appears every time they open the program.
For better or worse, I never saw this message. Perhaps this was because I was working from a sync with my Yahoo! News source. If my Mail database had to be updated, it may well have been happening in the background without my noticing. The only notice I did take occurred as a result of poor responsiveness when I had accidentally deleted a message that had to be recovered from Trash. That message involved a rather long thread and, as I previously reported, managed to take an inordinate amount of time.

Meanwhile, I have yet to see anything about Mail's tendency to crash (or, in the language of Activity Monitor, "not respond") showing no sign of life other than a spinning rainbow. This has happened a couple of times when I happened to have mail with a lot of images that I wanted to print to PDF. The first time I tried using Export to PDF… explicitly, and that was the kiss of death. The second time Mail died just by my requesting Print, without having a chance to say how I was going to use the Print command.

I made the move over to OS X Mail during a period of transition when att.net Mail ("powered by Yahoo!") was in a state of transition that was basically catastrophic for anything trying to get work done. Things are now far more stable on the Yahoo!-powered side, which I can run from an even more stable Firefox. Will someone remind me just what the virtues of Apple software are supposed to be?

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Is Apple's Memory Compression Better in Theory than in Practice?

As I continue to struggle with Mavericks' substandard performance (which involves responsiveness as well as robustness), I have been fascinated with an article by Robin Harris that showed up on ZDNet on Monday. Harris' opening paragraphs give a good summary of his story:
For most of Mac history using the standard memory configuration meant a world of hurt. The machine would boot and work well - usually - with one app at a time, but open a few Safari tabs, Mail, a media player and a word processor and switching apps gets s-l-o-w.
In a virtual memory OS - all consumer/server OSs today - physical memory is extended by using mass storage - disk or SSD - to store inactive or little used memory pages. That frees physical memory - DRAM - for use by active programs.
The downside is that moving those pages back to DRAM takes a disk several hundred thousand times longer than accessing them in DRAM. An SSD takes thousands of times as long.
Compressed memory
A new feature of Mac OS 10.9 - Mavericks - compressed memory, increases the effective size of DRAM through inline data compression. This isn't a new idea: over 20 years ago the HP Omnibook 300 used inline compression to double the effective size of its 10MB compact flash card.
What is new is that with multiple cores running an optimized compression algorithm the system can compress/decompress data much faster than swapping to disk or SSD. This saves time and energy, since the system isn't idling waiting for memory page swaps - important for notebooks.
And there's nothing to configure: it works automatically in the background. All you see is a more stable Mac with more memory.
Now I rarely try to keep as many independent processes and Safari tabs going as Harris does. However, I tend to have several applications at my disposal; and switching them has never been a problem. Under Mavericks, on the other hand, anything involving memory management, even something as simple as saving a file, consumes so much time that it is wise to schedule it in conjunction with a bathroom break.

The first thing I did by way of reaction to this pathetic state of affairs was to compare Harris' configuration with my own. To my surprise, there were no great differences. The next thing I did was to follow his advice and check out the Memory pane of Activity Monitor. This was where the shock hit. There is now a glut of new processes with the prefix comm.apple. In the grand scheme of things, these are not that large; but com.apple.IconServicesAgent consumes 4.4 MB, leading me to wonder why "icon services" need to be so complex.

Now I do not want to accuse Harris of making false claims. I am sure that everything he says works for him. However, on the basis of my experience, it would appear that what works for him as a "power user" does not necessarily work "for the rest of us" (to invoke the words of the old Apple selling pitch). To invoke a less polite epithet, I would suggest that, somewhere out there in the world of ordinary Mac users, there is a pooch whose rear end is feeling very sore right now!

Monday, October 28, 2013

Internet Anarchy Endures

Larry Seltzer's ZDNet article this morning was entitled "NSA spying will not change Internet governance." It amounted to addressing those governments that have voiced indignation over having their online data compromised by telling them it's their own damned fault. What is missing, however, is that his title involves an nonexistent concept. Any effort to discussion the issue of governance in the wake of any malicious activity has always been shot down. Those responsible for maintaining the [sic] improving the technology of the Internet to not have the sort of mindset that can be brought to a Constitutional Convention.

I think that political leaders, such as Angela Merkel, might do better to avoid the rants of Seltzer and his ilk and turn, instead, to the considered prose of Sue Halpern, whose essay "Are We Puppets in a Wired World?" is in the current issue of The New York Review. There is one particular paragraph that strikes me as getting to the core of why the Internet is what it is:
People choose to use a service like Facebook despite its invasive policies, or Google, knowing that Google’s e-mail service, Gmail, scans private communications for certain keywords that are then parlayed into ads. People choose to make themselves into “micro-celebrities” by broadcasting over Twitter. People choose to carry mobile phones, even though the phones’ geolocation feature makes them prime tracking devices. How prime was recently made clear when it was reported in Der Spiegel that “it is possible for the NSA to tap most sensitive data held on these smart phones, including contact lists, SMS traffic, notes and location information about where a user has been.” But forget about the NSA—the GAP knows we’re in the neighborhood and it’s offering 20 percent off on cashmere sweaters!
The Internet may not have governance, but the fact is that just about every large enterprise in the business of selling stuff knows how to manage in the environment. The bottom line is that such institutions are both tough enough and smart enough to survive in anarchy. As to the rest of us, the corollary to that bottom line is the old adage from the age of the robber-barons: The public be damned. Merkel knows that the benefits she gets from her cell phone extend far beyond the nuts and bolts of running the country into the personal enjoyment she shares with the rest of us of being a consumer. By all rights that joy should not lead to damnation; but, in the minds of those who have mastered the craft of exploitation through the Internet, that is exactly where it does lead.

Apple's Ongoing Talent for Making Things Worse

I just finished reading David Morgenstern's article on ZDNet about how, under Mavericks, Mac Mail does not play very well with Gmail. Thus far my experience has indicated that it is not just Gmail and it is not just Mac Mail. Mac Mail is having just as much trouble synchronizing with Yahoo! Mail and may be just plain sluggish even when it things it is synchronized. I did not have to endure the two-day wait that Margenstern reported. However, I have one particular thread involving CDs I am reviewing, the PDF documents of the accompanying booklets, the online distributor, and a representative of the label. Owing to the bad timing of the Mail display and an accidental mouse click, the who thread got moved to Trash. Restoring it to over half an hour of watching the spinning "Loading" icon. I have begun to entertain the possibility that Apple only highers coders who have absolutely no idea of how anything works.

This weekend, when I got my first update notice, I observed another synchronization problem. Since I have made it a point to avoid App Store as much as possible, since it continues to impress me as a working example of a hostile user interface, I have gotten into the habit of doing all my updates on Terminal using sudo. In this case, however, What sudo suoftwareupdate thought was required had nothing to do with what showed up in the App Store. I have no idea who to believe any more.

This is a bit like my having to check whether the weather information I get on the Dashboard is bogus by comparing it with The Weather Channel, but for software updates I no longer have a reliable point of comparison.

This could, of course, be an omen that Apple is about ready to bail on the laptop/desktop business; but I get the impression that even iPhone software is beginning to show the signs of inept programming practices.

Friday, October 25, 2013


Did anyone notice that insomnia, as a reaction to a traumatic situation, emerged as the narrative theme used in both NCIS and NCIS: LA, each of which treated it in a different manner?

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The Deceptive Abstraction of Music Notation

I have been doing background reading in a variety of areas as a result of my completing my traversal of Music, Language, and the Brain by Aniruddh D. Patel. I have already discussed a tendency in that literature to give too much attention to the nature of mental representations. Nevertheless, when one is dealing with a complex issue, it is often useful to invoke simplifying abstractions, even if they only serve to formulate one's hypotheses more clearly. However, while thoughts of representations may lead to thoughts of such abstractions, there is still the question of whether or not a given abstraction is actually useful.

I have thus been interested in the efforts of Carol Krumhansl and her colleagues to seek out spatial representations of musical phenomena such as tonality. Consider, for example, her description of an experiment she conducted with her colleague Edward Kessler:
In the first [experiment] we obtain a quantitative measure of the degree to which each individual tone in an octave range is related to an abstract tonal center. These quantitative measurements are then used to derive a spatial map of the major and minor keys, representing the distances between different tonal centers.
This pursues the hypothesis that we can abstract concepts such as tonality into a spatial locus and harmonic progression into a path from one such locus to another (possibly through intermediate loci).

The potential risk with this abstraction is that you can only talk about distance if your abstraction happens to be a metric space. As anyone with a smattering of undergraduate topology will tell you, one of the axioms of a metric space is that the distance from here to there is the same as the distance from there back to here (the property of symmetry). The problem is that, where musical progressions are concerned, distance is not necessarily symmetrical. For example, there are qualitative differences between an interval of departure, as in a progression from tonic to dominant in a Schenkerian Ursatz and an interval of arrival, which in an Ursatz is an interval of the same size. My point is that the size of the interval assumes different levels of significance depending on how it is used, and that variation works against it representing any kind of distance in the topological sense.

Of course, if all we do is look at music notation, we do not appreciate this distinction. The properties of tones abstracted into notes on a musical staff fit very nicely into the axioms that a distance metric must satisfy. However, as I have often said, the music is not in those tones but in the acts of making them. When we exchange abstractions based on nouns to abstractions based on verbs, many of our mathematical abstractions go out the window. Instead, we need to find abstractions that better capture the properties of our dispositions to act and then figure out how they apply to the acts of making music. This will not be easy, but it may finally provide a good reason for those who claim to be interest in music theory to get their noses out of the score pages!

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Edith Wharton's Anthropological Stance

I have been working my way through Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence. I have any number to things to complain about in her style, beginning with her decision to pile more characters into her plot-line than Richard Wagner would ever have dreamed of summoning up for the entire scope of his Ring cycle. She also seems to share Wagner's style of prolongation, although what, for Wagner, can be the suspense of spinning out thematic material in such a way that one wonders if resolution will ever come, in Wharton's verbal hands tends to devolve into mere long-windiness.

Nevertheless, one of her lengthy sentences caught my attention. Here is it in all of its unabridged glory:
In reality they all lived in a kind of hieroglyphic world, where the real thing was never said or done or even thought, but only represented by a set of arbitrary signs; as when Mrs. Welland, who knew exactly why Archer had pressed her to announce her daughter's engagement at the Beaufort ball (and had indeed expected him to do no less), yet felt obliged to simulate reluctance, and the air of having had her hand forced, quite as, in the books on Primitive Man that people of advanced culture were beginning to read, the savage bride is dragged with shrieks from her parents' tent.
It took me a while to find the right way to read this sentence so that it would actually parse, by the way. However, I was more curious as to whether or not Wharton had any specific "books on Primitive Man that many people of advanced culture were beginning to read" in mind.

Checking a few dates, I established that Franz Boas' The Mind of Primitive Man was published in 1911. The Age of Innocence first appeared in serialized form in 1920, so Boas' book may well have been that Wharton herself, if not other "people of advanced culture" had read. (If nothing else, it would have given her cause to preen in that sentence.) However, it is generally accepted that the plot of The Age of Innocence predates any of Boas' publications. Since Boas was recognized as a pioneer in these studies, it is unlikely that the "people of advanced culture" in The Age of Innocence would have read anything else.

So, when does the plot take place? The evidence for that may be found in the opening sentence:
On a January evening of the early seventies, Christine Nilsson was singing in Faust at the Academy of Music in New York.
That is enough to seal the deal, while reinforcing the context at the same time. This was when the Academy of Music was the opera house in New York. It was controlled by "old money" that defiantly denied "new money" (such as industrialists and, of course, robber-barons) any chance of getting seats in the hall. The "new money" responded by creating and financing their own opera company. The was the Metropolitan Opera, whose own opera house opened on October 22, 1883. The story is that the original plan for the Met was hatched by 22 "new money" men in Delmonico's on April 28, 1880; so Wharton's first sentence dates from a time when it was not yet a gleam in anyone's eye. More importantly, Wharton's first sentence fixes a time that not only predates the Met but also Boas' first field studies.

The verdict, then, is that, in The Age of Innocence, Wharton is guilty of anachronism!

Monday, October 21, 2013

Another Kind of Bailout

Most people by now know that HealthCare.gov Web site, the "digital portal" to the benefits provided by the Affordable Care Act, was launched in a seriously broken state. Today, President Barack Obama released the following statement:
Experts from some of America's top private-sector tech companies, who have seen things like this happen before, are reaching out and offering to send help. We've had some of the best IT talent in the entire country join the team, and we're well into a tech surge to fix the problem.
This seems to affirm the proposition that the government cannot attract even adequate talent to provide its software needs. However, it also carries the ironic corollary that, in contrast to situations of financial crisis, this is a case in which the private sector is stepping up to bail out the government!

Authority and Prosperity

In my jaundiced view of Janine Zacharia's article for yesterday's San Francisco Chronicle entitled "Silicon Valley innovation—can it save the country?," I suggested that the prosperity of Silicon Valley may owe more to its authoritarian culture than to the inflated apotheosis of innovation. I was particularly amused by the "Prosperous Silicon Valley," which placed the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of Silicon Valley, taken as a "country" unto itself, with those of the leading nations of the world. It turned out that the second-ranking nation was Qatar, whose 2012 GDP was $104,756.

Ironically, Qatar made this morning's news. Al Jazeera English (which is based in Qatar) reported that the Court of Cassation had upheld the sentencing of poet Mohamed Rashid al-Ajami to fifteen years in prison. This was actually the result of a previous appeal, since the original sentence had been life. The crime was "insulting the Emir of Qatar and spreading incendiary material." The evidence was a poem about the Arab Spring, which included the line:
I hope that change will come in countries whose ignorant leaders believe that glory lies in US forces.
I wish to call attention to how discreetly worded this text is as my own evidence of how easily authority can be provoked.

We do not talk very much about poets in Silicon Valley. I suppose we assume that they have all been quarantined to the many institutions of higher learning. where their courses are attended by bored students out of the necessity of core requirements and their academic departments are in danger of being eliminated due to budget problems. All this reminds me of the poet Wilfred Owen, who fought in the First World War and died in battle exactly one week before the Armistice. His most famous line is:
All a poet can do today is warn.
The certainty of authority has no room for warnings. However, the corridors of power, whether in Qatar or Silicon Valley, are so well insulated from warnings that one has to wonder why there should be such a need to lock the poets away in prisons.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Can Silicon Valley Save the Country?

The latest instance of Silicon Valley myopia showed up in the Insight section of today's San Francisco Chronicle by way of a piece entitled "Silicon Valley innovation—can it save the country?," by Janine Zacharia. The author is described as a former reporter for the Washington Post now teaching journalism at Stanford University. The description does not state whether or not Stanford has an actual Department of Journalism. For that matter, in this age in which salaried positions are few and far between, it does not even mention whether Zacharia holds a faculty position, let alone one on a tenure track. Regardless of her status, however, she seems to have access to a break room that serves Silicon Valley Kool-Aid.

Stories like this are always highlighted by a graphic. In this case the graphic is a table entitled "Prosperous Silicon Valley." In it, Silicon Valley is treated as a country that has its own Gross Domestic Product (GDP). This allows its number for 2012 to be compared with those of "real" countries. That number, $76,645 places fifth behind Luxembourg ($106,406), Qatar ($104,756), Norway ($99,170), and Switzerland ($78,881). Expect this to be coming to a PowerPoint presentation near you.

The article itself suffers from the usual weakness that confuses corporate governance with political governance. From a political point of view, the governance structures of most corporations, including those in Silicon Valley, are highly authoritarian. If Zacharia were a Hegelian (assuming knowledge of The Philosophy of History, which would be quite a stretch), she would probably argue that such structures affirm Hegel's belief that monarchy is superior to democracy. This is predicated on the assumption that authority resides in a philosopher-king, who will almost always be wiser than an uninformed majority.

In reality, however, there are few (if any, these days) corporations run by philosopher-kings. The better ones may have benevolent dictators; but there is a general consensus that the authority of the individual is necessary to keep shareholders, customers, and workers equally happy (and, if not equally, with a preference to that particular rank ordering). Furthermore, a good philosopher-king is wise enough to believe that his opinion is not the only one and that it makes sense to treat other opinions as valid, even if all that means is coming up with better reasons for rejecting them. This is a good framework to consider a leader such as Eric Schimdt, who was notorious for believing that his was the only valid opinion, a stance that made any effort at dialog with this country's "real" government virtually impossible. However, Schmidt is merely a symptom of a greater disease, which is a general failure of Internet culture to grasp general principles of governance and appreciate why they are important.

I suppose the bottom line is that the involvement of Silicon Valley in political governance would be equally bad for both Silicon Valley and our current political problems, meaning that, yes, Virginia, things can get worse than they already are!

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Spamming the NSA

I just read David Gerwitz' amusing contribution to ZDNet about how much spam must be overloading the NSA as a result of all the electronic mail they are consuming. In the interest of trying to make lemonade out of what many of us feel is an enormous pile of lemonade, Gerwitz suggests that NSA set up a crack team to develop a more effective spam filter, which they could then share with everyone else in the country. He sees this as an opportunity to raise its social capital in the eyes of those of us who worry about little things like civil liberties. For my part, I would not be surprised if his article has been read with interest at the NSA. I would expect that he might be receiving electronic mail saying something like the following:
Thank you for your productive suggestion. Unfortunately, our current budget is under a bit of a strain right now. The good news is that we expect to add about $50 million to our working capital as a result of reading a very interesting proposal we encountered in some mail we intercepted from Nigeria.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

We're Totally Fed up (and what that connotes)

The latest article on Al Jazeera English about the current stagnation of our government has a really great photograph from Reuters that should not be missed. It shows people protesting the stalemate; and, like all good protesters, these happen to be making their points with placards. One of those placards has the text "We're Totally Fed up," distributed across three lines beginning, respectively with the capital letters W, T, and F. What makes this particularly amusing is that the photograph was taken from an angle that obscures the F, suggesting that the Reuters photographer knew full well the generally accepted meaning of WTF. I am not sure why Reuters chose to be discrete about this, particularly since, back in 2010, to my great delight, I reported that "WTF" had been granted a place in the Oxford English Dictionary. Perhaps Al Jazeera English is more sensitive about these matters than the OED is, and what appeared on the Web page had to do with their own selection, rather than the photographer's.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Snob Pornography

I have not seen much written about The Kraus Project, Jonathan Franzen's latest book, which was released at the beginning of this month. This does not surprise me. Ours is not a culture that knows very much about Karl Kraus, let alone takes interest in him. Kraus could write perfectly devastating aphorisms; but his keenest perceptions were often buried in large masses of opaque (and sometimes untranslatable) German. As Duncan White observed in his review of this new book today for the London Telegraph, the book is basically the product of a writer who has been successful enough to do whatever he wants. Whether or not anyone wants to pay attention is another matter, although, considering how little attention was paid to Kraus in his own lifetime, perhaps Franzen just wanted to experience the same fate.

What strikes me most about White's review, however, is his take on Franzen, rather than either Kraus or the "project" itself. These strike me as the most outstanding sentences:
He cares passionately about literature, has written about it with great intelligence and is more than aware that to make the case for high culture comes with underlying assumptions about social and economic privilege. But then he goes ahead and makes public comments that make him sound like a snob.
I know exactly what White is talking about in that second sentence. Those public comments have led me to use this platform to write about Franzen's ineptitude and to compare him with an earlier writer with an annoying tendency to blither on at great length without having very much to say, Douglas Hofstadter. Indeed, those public comments have annoyed me so much that I have not yet made the commitment to determine whether or not White's first sentence has any validity.

On the other hand reading White led me to wonder whether or not Franzen may have tapped into a pornographic side of snobbery that had been previously unexplored. It may be that the best way to describe The Kraus Project is to declare it a massive exercise in self-indulgence. Looking back on my encounter with Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid (which I read from cover to cover, mind you), I think I would put Hofstadter's book in the same category. Now, in this earlier case, I eventually discovered that, while I knew many people who had Hofstader's book prominently displayed on their shelves, almost all of them had left it up there, letting the rest of the world know how well-read they were without actually undertaking the exercise of reading. The Kraus Project may enjoy a similar fate. However, those who do read it and know a thing or two about the subject matter may find themselves "getting off" on Franzen's self-indulgence, figuring that "being in on it" has as much pornographic value as indulging in "it" in the first place.