Thursday, February 28, 2013

Nothing New About Yahoo! News

Apparently, the vision of a "New Yahoo!" is not extending into Yahoo! News. Consider the following display on this morning's FEATURED NEWS on the home page:
To paraphrase the immortal words of Howard Baker, what did the World Health Organization know; and when did they know it?

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Voting Against Business-as-Usual

So the results of the Italian election were indecisive, particularly in the Chamber of Deputies, which is probably more representative of vox populi than the Senate. Thus, Gavin Hewitt's analysis piece for BBC News begins:
The horse-trading will now begin.
While this may be true, it misses the most important point: If the Italian people had a hard time deciding how they would vote for, it was clear what they were voting against. They were voting against a business-as-usual mentality that has rendered the political system ineffective, whether on the right or the left, whether among the seasoned politicians or the technocrats. Beppe Grillo's Five Star Movement won public support for, among other reasons, his personal rejection of coalition building as a way to get Italian governance out of its current mess. All the business-as-usual coalition-building can lead to in another failed government and another election very soon, so soon that many of those who wished they have voted for the Five Star Movement in the last one will get a second chance.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Choreographing Zeinab

I just finished watching the latest half-hour news segment that I can receive now that BBC News is one of my options on Comcast cable. About a month ago the BBC started promoting the fact that they had moved into a new facility with studio facilities that looked more like mission control for a space shot than a television production unit. (Less has been said about the precipitously steep staircases or the cafeteria that serves potatoes hard as rocks.)

One interesting feature of the new facility is that the presenter no longer spends all of his/her time behind a desk. (Philadelphia newscaster Mort Krimm once joked about the luxury of being able to show up for work without pants.) Thus, today we were treated to Zeinab Badawi walking into an open space with a bevy of remotely-controlled cameras appearing to orbit about her. The problem is that, with so many cameras, one does not always know where to look for the little red light (which I hope is still there); and in the 11 AM segment, Zeinab was caught looking in the wrong direction (probably not at any camera). Her recovery was lightning quick, but it still looked like a recovery.

Have we now entered a new age in which news presenters will have to learn choreography before going on the air?

Sunday, February 24, 2013

What Has Mozilla Got Against Printers?

For all of my ongoing frustrations with Safari (which, in my mind, has become a leading contender as poster child for Apple software development incompetence, competing fiercely with OS X itself), I realize that there is still a major obstacle from my bailing on the damned thing and going back to Firefox. That obstacle seems to be Mozilla's institutional commitment to avoid working on any software dealing with interfaces to printers. I gather from comments that I have seen on CNET that this is a high-level corporate decision; but those tools also observe that it amounts to blowing off those users who need powerful enterprise software tools. There is, of course, a work-around. I can print everything to PDF and then decide from there what I want in hard-copy; and, if Safari continues to get worse, I may yet have to do this (at which time I may find out whether or not it is still the case that Firefox crashes whenever I try to download large images).

Saturday, February 23, 2013

No, Brooke, My MacBook is NOT Obsolete

Brooke Crothers certainly has the gift of leading sentences with punch in his latest article about Chromebook technology for CNET News:
Thank you, Google. For obsoleting my MacBook. 
Question: What two killer hardware features are missing on MacBooks? My answer: a touch screen and 4G. 
What a coincidence. Just what Google is offering on the Chromebook Pixel. And in a package that comes close to matching the MacBook's aesthetics. (I'm focusing strictly on the hardware for the moment.) 
Google is saying, at least in the case of touch, hey Apple, you don't get it.
Well, Brooke, I think you have been drinking so much cloud Kool-Aid that you are the one who does not get it. If your work depends on a powerful suite of software tools, you are unlikely to be happy with Google's my-way-or-the-highway (or should we say "the cloud way or the highway") approach. If you need to use software that is not available as a cloud-based service, then it does not matter how much network bandwidth you have. If you cannot load and run the software you need, you are just plain SOL. Assuming that choosing and loading the software you need is obsolete amounts to painting yourself into a corner.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Happy Birthday, Edward Gorey

Were Edward Gorey still alive, today would be his 88th birthday. I am delighted to report that Google decided to celebrate the occasion with one of their "doodles." It is, with a vague effort to honor Gorey's way with words, a beautiful Google doodle:
The doodle, in turn, apparently prompted Alice Vincent, Entertainment Writer for the online version of the London Telegraph, to write a rather nice appreciation of Gorey's work. No one seems to have caught Vincent erroneously calling the New York City Ballet the "New York Ballet;" but I suspect that the British have to endure similar blunders by American writers!

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Planning the Next Economic Catastrophe

At first I thought that Don Reisinger's column this morning for the Apple division of CNET News might be little more than a vanity piece for trends in the technology sector. That, at least, was the impression of the opening paragraphs:
For three years in a row, Apple was the most popular stock among hedge fund managers, but according to new data from Goldman Sachs, it's on the decline. 
Goldman Sachs' data, which was obtained and reported on by AppleInsider, indicates that insurance giant AIG was the most popular hedge fund pick last year, with 80 funds holding its shares. Google came in second place with 73 funds. Apple, which had previously led the space, is down to 67 funds. 
Apple's declining popularity among hedge fund managers might have something to do with its ability to deliver returns. According to Goldman Sachs data, at the end of 2012, Apple delivered a total return of negative 12 percent. AIG and Google, meanwhile, were delivering an 11 percent return on shares.
However, it was in the fourth paragraph that things begin to get interesting:
Hedge funds buy up massive amounts of company stock, believing that shares will rise. When they believe shares will fall, they reduce their positions. Over the last year, Apple's shares are down nearly 11 percent to land at $448.85. That's a far cry from Apple's 52-week high of $705.07.
Considered in the context of the third paragraph, this makes for disconcerting reading. Hedge fund logic is driven by the immediacy of the present, uncontaminated by any historical knowledge. Had it been otherwise, one would have anticipated some reluctance to let AIG back into the pool, considering the critical role they played in the economic catastrophe of the last decade. Mind you, television viewers have probably seen some of the commercials promoting the "new" AIG (strategically placed so as not to run too close to the ones promoting the "new" BP).

Nevertheless, this provides a new angle on the proposition that businesses care more about their shareholders than they do about either their customers or their own employees (at all levels of authority). When a hedge fund makes a commitment, it does so in a big way, big enough to make all other shareholders less significant, if not irrelevant. Ultimately, this story discloses just how it is that economic catastrophes happen. In the simplest of terms, the economic fate of our country is in the hands of a small number of gamblers who play with a very large number of chips. Calvin Coolidge's motto that the business of America is business no longer carries any meaning. The real business of America has been reduced to this elite form of gambling. For the rest of us, the future lies in the hands of those gamblers; and there is not a thing that we can do about it (nor does our government seem to show any sign of imposing new regulations that would take power away from those gamblers).

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Joseph Roth's Literary "Soundtrack"

I have now finished the second of the three parts according to which Joseph Roth structured his novel, The Radetzky March. I have been struck by some of the ways in which he controls the "background music" for his plot line. True to the title of the novel, the "Radetzky-Marsch" of Johann Strauss (the elder) occurs early and often, both in performance and in memory. However, I have been amused to observe that, as the Emperor Franz Joseph I makes more and more of a presence in the book, the reader begins to encounter performances of "Gott erhalte Franz den Kaiser," making it a point to treat the character in fiction the same way he subjects treated him in real life. Here, however, there is an irony: Only a few pages after the reader "hears" the "Kaiserhymne" for the first time, he then encounters "The Internationale" being sung by a popular uprising. Roth has made it a point to underscore those changes that are disrupting the world with appropriate changes in his "soundtrack!"

Monday, February 18, 2013

Software Behaving Badly

Those who bother to read my pieces all the way through may have noticed that, at the end of the article, there is a selection of recommendations, each accompanied by the image used at the top of the article. Today I happened to be reviewing the overall appearance of a preview I wrote for a couple of avant-garde jazz events. Here are the recommendations I discovered at the end of the article:

Remember, this was about jazz; so I was more than a little amused to see Elgar down their in the middle of some rather questionable company. Naturally, that was a pointer to my own Elgar article (actually about a San Francisco Conservatory of Music recital that included Elgar's piano quintet). I have no idea what that has to do with either avant-garde jazz or any of those articles, and I am not sure I want to know!

The Reality of the Natural World

Daisy Bowie-Sell offered up an interesting comment that David Attenenborough apparently made to the London Telegraph:
The United Nations has said that 50 per cent of the population of Planet Earth is urbanised. That means half the people, probably more, are out of touch with the natural world. Some probably don’t see a living wild thing from one day to the next, unless it’s a rat or a pigeon.
This makes me curious as to whether or not Attenborough has had a chance to look at Jim Sterba's recent book Nature Wars: The Incredible Story of How Wildlife Comebacks Turned Backyards into Battlegrounds, reviewed by Russell Baker in the February 21 New York Review. Sterba's backyards are not strictly urban. However, if we follow the logic of his book, then the efforts of the natural world to reclaim suburban backyards will eventually move into the realm of city parks and perhaps even less "natural" urban settings. (San Francisco has had hawks nest in skyscrapers in the Financial District.)

One point on which Sterba and Attenborough appear to agree is that most of the public is out of touch with how this "natural world" works. Unfortunately, too many of the images from Attenborough's own programs tend to overstress the cuteness factor. (Look at the photograph on Bowie-Sell's article for a perfect example.) Russell Baker had a nice way of trying to reorient the natural world away from a "peaceable kingdom" of cute denizens:
Bambi and Lassie are two of the best-known practically human specimens that warm the popular heart. Those who seek something closer to Darwinian reality may prefer Bugs Bunny.
Sterba's principal point is that Darwinian fitness is not obliged to accommodate the human race, whether in suburban, exurban, or urban settings. We should not think that our scientific thinking can always control how selection works. Thus, we may need to prepare ourselves for new residents in the neighborhood!

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Never Enough Mingus

Last December I took great pleasure in preparing an article for my national site about a limited edition box set from Mosaic records covering five performances by Charles Mingus given between April of 1964 and September of 1965, many of which were issued on a label Mingus called "Jazz Workshop." If ever there were a performer who made jazz worthy of my treasured "chamber music by other means" epithet, Mingus was definitely the one. Indeed, I would say that Mingus was one of my major influences that turned me towards listening to jazz with the same mindset I had been bringing to classical music.

I am happy to report that, earlier this week, Christopher Carroll put up a NYRBlog post about both Mingus and this same Mosaic collection. The article spends more time than I did on Mingus' personality, which I simply let pass as "difficult" while citing Richard Wagner as a predecessor. If I were to take issue with Carroll at all, it would be over his placing too much emphasis on Mingus' work on labels other than his own. I am willing to acknowledge that The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady on Impulse! may have been a critical success with a revenue stream that made a difference to Mingus. However, Mingus' discontent with the commercial studios extended even to Impulse!; so I doubt that he, himself, would have called it "one of his greatest albums." Since there is no document of this music in a performance led my Mingus (I do not know if the Mingus Big Band has taken on this piece yet), the recording is all we have; but I shall always prefer listening to recordings made in concert.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Death, Taxes, and Mahler

Yesterday turned out to be the day for pulling together all of my financial records for the annual process of filling out the form used by my tax preparation service. Now that I keep all of my material online, this has become a matter of retrieval and sorting, no longer plagued by digging through draws of paper. Nevertheless, I have to remind myself each year that, in order to get it right, the whole affair usually takes longer than I estimate. So a gave myself a clear afternoon to get the job done.

These days working on a long task seems to be facilitated by putting on a long piece of music. Yesterday afternoon that turned out to be Gustav Mahler's ninth symphony. Given that this music is suffused with the inevitability of death, it seemed to provide the appropriate atmosphere for dealing with the inevitability of taxes.

Friday, February 15, 2013

We're in Better Hands with Bruce Willis

I'm surprised I did not see it coming. This afternoon Charles Cooper filed a story with the following opening paragraph on the Cutting Edge division of CNET News:
Nothing like news of an asteroid suddenly slamming into western Siberia to arouse the folks in Washington from their preoccupation with political blood sport. So it is that the Science, Space, and Technology Committee now plans to hold a hearing soon "to examine ways to better identify and address asteroids that pose a potential threat to Earth."
As they say, all it takes is a shiny thing to distract the short attention span of a weak mind!

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The Apple Store as Prozac?

I have to assume that I am not the only one with raised eyebrows after reading Charles Cooper's account for CNET News of Tim Cook's talk to the audience of the Goldman Sachs investor forum. For those who have not seen the report, here is the relevant excerpt from Cook's remarks:
I was talking to some employees the other day -- I don't have many bad days, but if I think I'm ever dropping down from an excitement level, I go into a store and it changes right away. It's like a Prozac or something. It's unbelievable the energy in our stores and to talk to customers and team members in's a feeling like no other. We're continuing to invest here.
Having had several Apple store experiences of my own, I have to wonder if Cook may be controlling his moods through some mind-altering substance (rather than Prozac), which means I have to wonder if he will be on anything when he is Michelle Obama's guest tonight! Here in San Francisco the Apple store is less of a hive of positive energy and more like a hornet's nest likely to sting anyone going in for any reason more purposeful than playing with the toys on display. When I had to make a serious decision about going over to a MacBook Pro as my primary computer, I went over to the quieter store in Stonestown; and even there I got more "What's that?" answers to some of my critical questions than I expected in my comfort zone. These days my primary cause for concern is that, when that machine starts to give up the ghost, there will no longer be any platform that is likely to be a viable productivity tool for the writing and reading I do every day.

Meanwhile, I have to wonder whether or not CNET shares my jaundiced view, having just seen the advertising placement that emerged for this report:

The Value of Google Reader

I did not have any evident problems with Google Reader this weekend, but I felt it would be a good idea to read Dana Kerr's report for CNET News about those who did. I was a bit surprised at her observation that "the service doesn't have a huge following;" but I suppose I should not have been. As its name implies, Google Reader is valuable for people who are actually interested in reading, rather than casually browsing the snippets that come from Google searches or alerts. Given how many article through my own Google Reader, I do my own share of browsing; but that is to help find those articles that deserve "reading level" attention. I suspect that there are not many people left who are up to that kind of sustained attention, and I might also guess that not very many of them bother with RSS in the first place. Google Reader may turn into an interesting case study of whether or not Google is willing to direct the profits it takes from the many through various channels and direct a modest share of them toward facilities for the few.

Monday, February 11, 2013

GRAMMY Recognition for Kurtág

I am still stunned (in a very pleasant way) by the news that Kim Kashkahsian won a GRAMMY for her recent CD of the music of György Kurtág and György Ligeti. That two such challenging (not to mention witty) modernists should get that kind of attention from such a mainstream institution is rather an achievement. I only regret not seeing her being handed the award by LL Cool J. On the other hand I have no trouble imagining a conversation between LL Cool J's alter ego, Sam Hanna, and Henrietta Lange during an NCIS: Los Angeles episode, during which Hetty would disclose that she had shared many a fine bottle of Tokaj with Kurtág.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

A Perspective on Education

Recently, I have been reading Marc Myers' new book, Why Jazz Happened. My reaction has not been wholeheartedly enthusiastic, but I was fascinated by the chapter describing the impact of free education supported by the G.I. Bill on jazz musicians following the Second World War. I was particularly struck by the following comment by Bill Holman:
If I had not gone to Westlake on the G.I. Bill, I probably would have picked up what I learned from other people. School sped up that process, and provided an atmosphere with a like-minded bunch of people trying to get the same knowledge. That spurred me on. Within the first few weeks I attended, I found out the answers to the problems that had been keeping me from writing. I could have found those things out on my own if I had had a little more curiosity. But I didn’t. Going there was a convenient way to find out those things.
What first struck me was the pragmatism of Holman's attitude. However, after some reflection, that phrase about "an atmosphere with a like-minded bunch of people" began to sink into my consciousness. As more and more colleges try to make ends meet by offering degree programs through the Internet, there is the threat of losing sight of the extent to which education takes place in that social world of "a like-minded bunch of people," rather than the challenges of complex texts clarified through the wisdom of experienced professors. Holman missed the point in thinking that college was more "convenient" than "finding those things out on my own;" but at least he was vaguely aware that finding things out has a social dimension beyond the objective dimension of the things themselves.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Providing the Listener with Useful Information

This may seem like picking nits. However, I would like to know why the new Cedille Records release of Lera Auerbach's Opus 47 preludes for cello and piano does not bother to give the key along with the tempo for each prelude on the track listing on the back cover. Presumably, anyone who knows a thing or two about Auberbach will know that the Opus 47 preludes follow the same circle-of-fifths-in-major-and-relative-minor ordering of Frédéric Chopin's (as well as Dmitri Shostakovich's Opus 34 collection) that she took for her Opus 41 piano preludes and her Opus 46 preludes for violin and piano. Nevertheless, this seems like the sort of useful information that could be provided for everyone in the first place they are likely to look!

Monday, February 4, 2013

Is Kentucky Celebrating Vulgarity?

According to a BBC News Magazine article by Jon Kelly, the state of Kentucky wants to change its motto from "Unbridled Spirit" to "Kentucky Kicks Ass." Kelly then goes on at considerable length as to whether or not this constitutes unacceptable profanity. I therefore need to raise my favorite reference point on this matter. When the Metropolitan Opera did their HD broadcast of Salome, the lead was taken by Karita Mattila. Having seen her at an Opera Insight panel for a San Francisco Opera production, I know that she is outspoken to the point of not allowing anyone else a word edgewise. However, she made it a point to stay in her dressing room (with broadcast hostess Deborah Voigt waiting at the door) until the very last call for places. As Voigt trailed her while she charged for the stage, Voigt asked if she had any words for her HD audience. She replied:
I tell them what I say before every performance: Let's go out an kick some ass!
If that language is good enough for Matilla, it's good enough for me!