Sunday, March 31, 2013

The New Welfare?

I have to do my best to keep this account anonymous.

A particularly talented student I know would stand much to gain from attending a highly prestigious summer school. This institution is likely to benefit her not only in cultivating the techniques necessary for her work but in providing opportunities for gainful employment. As might be guessed such education does not come cheap; and, having been through the several other stages of the educational cycle, this student does not have particularly deep pockets.

On the other hand she has a fair amount of Internet wisdom. As I result I found myself reading an electronic mail message informing me that she was planning to raise the money for her tuition through crowdsourcing. She is not the first of a younger generation of current or recent students who are making a go of things by using crowdsourcing to raise their own financial aid. This raised my own consciousness about the extent to which Internet facility has become the platform for "new resourcefulness."

While this may well turn out to be a story with a happy ending, the benefits of the Internet, like magic on Once Upon a Time, come with a price. The price in this case is a new division of haves and have-nots. Having come to a stage at which "the powers that be" are willing to recognize that the division of wealth is more radical than it has ever been in the past, they have tried to fall back on the belief that the Internet will solve this problem. In a sense the story of this particular student is one of how a "have-not" became a "have," albeit in a rather limited context. However, the transition depended on having the skill to "work the Internet," so to speak. This skill remains in the hands of a very limited few, not unlike the very limited few who control most of the wealth. The price is, as it were, the exchange of one radical, if not punitive, stratification of society for another.

Not too long ago I observed that there was a rise of news reports about labor unrest in a variety of different settings. The led me to wonder whether or not we might be turning to a new era of workers of the world uniting. However, the other proliferation of news reports seems to reflect an increase in violent crimes. In this country some of this may be related to recent efforts to regulate gun control, but this is not a phenomenon restricted to the United States. I would therefore consider that, on a global scale, workers of the world are "coming apart," rather than uniting and that such deterioration may result from the division between those capable of summoning that "new resourcefulness" and those who lack the means to do so.

Those who hold the power, whether in the financial sector or in cyberspace, may wish to consider just how they want to exercise that power. Seeing to the welfare of the needy used to be regarded as a fundamental virtue of a healthy society. If such health no longer matters, then deterioration cannot be far behind.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

The Fight Against Affordable Health Care Continues

Those who continue to oppose the efforts of President Barack Obama to provide affordable health care to all American citizens have still not yet given up their fight. Indeed, according to a Reuters report this morning by David Morgan, they are just ramping up for the next attack. Here are Morgan's opening sentences:
Eight months before President Barack Obama's health care law goes prime time, a confederation of industry and business groups is ramping up its lobbying apparatus for an 11th-hour assault on the web of new taxes and regulations. 
Medical device makers, health insurers, retailers and restaurants are waging what lobbyists call a coordinated effort to gain Senate Democratic support for overturning $130 billion in taxes that will be used to fund the new law, and repealing a mandate requiring employers to provide insurance coverage for full-time workers or pay a fine.
Note that second paragraph summarizing those interest groups that oppose Obama's reform efforts. Note also the absence of doctors (not to mention patients). Indeed, even hospital administrator's are absent from the list. The bottom line is that, in our brave new world in which innovation (whether it involves products or financial transactions) is all that matters, there is a general consensus that illness is more profitable than health. Because these people have enlisted powerful lobbying support, we can all look forward to lives of sickness and malnutrition such as we have previously identified only with "undeveloped" countries, all in the interest of those seeking out further avenues for "economic development."

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Gullible Safari

My latest entry in the litany of things that Apple cannot seem to get right has to do with the dreaded pop-up advertising. Safari preferences allows me to check a box that says "block pop-up-windows." It might as well say "Whistle 'Dixie' while playing the piano accompaniment with your toes." Netflix and all the others of their ilk seem to have found a way to thwart this, and Safari's response is either laughably pathetic or just an example of a perverse semantic interpretation of "block." The windows are there, but they generally hide behind the main Safari window, where, unless they are explicitly deleted (which can only be done one at at time), they will proliferate like the rats of Hamelin. I have no idea whether or not the blocking capabilities of either iPhones or iPads is any smarter, but this seems to be yet another example of why Apple does not seem to care about any of its customers who are trying to get any real work done.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Keeping the Price a Secret

Once a year (I think), Comcast attaches a statement of price information to the monthly bill. The last one I saw ran to four pages. I just tried to find this information on the Comcast Web site. It seemed like good information to track, even if I can only do so for the prices in my own locality. It turns out that this information is not available, even after I have logged in to establish my status as a Comcast customer. Does this mean that current business practices require talking to a human being to find out what costs how much, which is probably predicated on the assumption that most people are unwilling to go to that level of trouble?

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Giving in to Automation

My wife and I set up a new television with a larger HD screen for our bedroom viewing. I was struck by how much of the setup process had been automated. This certainly made getting started simpler; and it meant that the manual was a lot slimmer, which I know means a lot to (probably) most customers. On the other hand it also means that I have less knowledge of what I can control should I want to do so, and I am not sure I like that. Similarly, I do not think I like the total absence of any physical switches. All interaction now goes through the remote control, which means that, if the remote control has any problems of its own (which is possible), there is very little that the user can do about it. Once again, technology has tried to make life simpler while disregarding some of the more annoying consequences in the process.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Is Worker Discontent on the Rise?

Readers of either this site or either my San Francisco or national sites cannot have avoided learning about the current strike of the musicians of the San Francisco Symphony. However, it would appear that worker discontent is breaking out in a variety of different countries. The very source that inspired this article, BBC News, has just run a story about their own workers voting for a strike action. Shortly before that one was filed, a report was released that Lufthansa was canceling 500 flights in advance of a planned five-hour walkout by 33,000 employees.

I have to wonder whether or not these are symptoms of a broader pandemic of worker discontent. The fact is that, however comfortable the financial sector may be about markets having recovered from the economic catastrophe of the last decade, that recovery has not really been felt beyond the limited domains of an elite class whose only expertise is the ability to turn fictions of convenience into exchangable value. The unemployment problem has not yet been resolved in any substantive way. Those who do have jobs tend to find them tenuous with inadequate compensation and basically no job satisfaction. Is this conjunction of articles about strikes a sign that the workers of the world may once again be entertaining thoughts of uniting?

Hardware Malfunction Impedes Diplomacy

The following showed up on the BBC News Web site about half an hour ago:
One of Barack Obama's fleet of armoured limousines has broken down in Israel after being filled with the wrong type of fuel, reports say. 
The car had been waiting for the US president's entourage to arrive when it was filled with diesel instead of petrol, Israel's Channel 2 reported.
Needless to say, there is something a bit ludicrous about arranging a state visit without knowledge of the fuel required for a fleet of armored limousines. However, Israel is the only country I know that sustained an accident in which the innards of an IBM mainframe melted; so very little surprises me about hardware-related mistakes over there any more. On the other hand, the next sentence of the story, which describes how the problem was resolved, brought a smile to my face:
A replacement limousine had to be flown in from neighbouring Jordan, Maariv newspaper said.
You never know when a good neighbor will come in handy! Meanwhile, as of the filing of the story, the damaged vehicle is still in a garage in Jerusalem.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Labor Relations and the News Cycle

The current work stoppage by the musicians of the San Francisco Symphony have kept me busy for about the last half week. Every day I have received a press release about the cancellation of a concert, meaning than none of this week's subscription performances of Gustav Mahler's ninth symphony took place. Now the question is whether or not the tour scheduled to begin at Carnegie Hall on Wednesday, March 20, will also have to be cancelled.

While I have been putting out information about concert cancellations by trying as hard as possible to act on announcements when they show up in my Inbox, I have noticed that, except for a story about the only press conference to be held, the San Francisco Chronicle has been pretty much quiet about the whole affair. Indeed, the San Francisco Symphony advertisement in its usual place on the right side of page 3 of the Sunday Datebook did not even have the word "cancelled" superimposed over the announcement for today's concert.

The problem is that the release of information about negotiations was not following the timing of the news cycle. This was one of those cases when Internet speed trumped print journalism. Also, as might be imagined, the Web site for CBS San Francisco was doing a pretty good job of keeping up with releases as they happened. However, I should also note that my Yahoo! home page, which includes links to "stories of interest" from local sources, never created a link for anything about this work stoppage.

I suppose the prevailing opinion is that the only real way to be informed about such matters is through Twitter.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Another Nail in the Coffin for the Long Attention Span

As a heavy user of Google Reader, I am one of the many who reacted negatively to Google's decision to shut down the service at the beginning of July. I have not actively been part of the petitioning process to persuade Google to reconsider. I recognize that Google does what it does on the basis of revenue stream. Google Reader was never designed to be a cash cow. It was probably just a matter of time until Google decided that they no longer wanted to feel charitable about it any more.

However, while I cannot direct my wrath at Google, I can still complain about what amounts to a good-riddance column written by Ben Parr for CNET. Fortunately, I can credit Parr with giving a clear statement of his position at the very beginning of his column:
Like some of you, I was once a power user of Google Reader. I needed it to do my job. But as Twitter started to gain steam, I started checking it less and less. It was less a pleasure and more a chore. 
And then suddenly, I just stopped. I created a Twitter account to track tech news, and I never looked back.
I must confess that this argument gave me a violent reality check. Never, in my wildest dreams, would I have thought of Twitter as an substitute for Google Reader; but then I have never thought of Twitter as having any utility for the writing that I do. The reason is simple enough, the writing that I do for depends on my having to read material of a fair amount of substance, rather than 140-character tweets. Through Google Reader I track both blogs and periodicals that provide articles of varying length concerned with the performance of music. On the whole I found that I could use the Google Reader display as a convenient way to decide which of those articles demanded more serious attention. To even suggest that Twitter can provide similar utility is nothing short of ludicrous.

Nevertheless, it is a symptom of a disease whose progress (I must admit) I have been afraid to track. That is the deterioration of attention span. As its name implies, Google Reader was designed for readers; but, thanks to Twitter (and other tools that care more about social networking than about content), reading has become a dying art. The very idea that someone might have something to say that deserves more than a few glances at a computer screen has become so "old school" that it no longer carries any currency.

Thus, for better or worse, I attention will now be devoted to finding a viable alternative for managing my RSS streams. If the petitions work, I shall be happy. However, it will be clear that Google Reader will be on life-support. Thus, it would probably be best for me to find a good alternative now, rather than trying to cling to it until its very last gasp.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Movement as Dynamic Interaction

Recently, I have been working my way slowly through a highly informative survey paper by Michael D. Mauk and Dean V. Buonomano entitled "The Neural Basis of Temporal Processing." In the course of last night's reading, I was reminded of a fundamental principle of movement that I had once learned but not retained very well:
Most movements involve the coordinated activation of agonist muscles to initiate motion and antagonist muscles as a brake.
We tend to think of movement as a matter of going from a source to a destination, without giving much regard to the nature of the movement itself. Indeed, most dance notation system tend to use this principle as a basis for what should be abstracted through the notational symbols. However, this masks the physiological principle that all movement involved an ongoing interplay of advancing continuously attenuated by braking. Each of those two dynamics may have its own "energy strategy," which accounts for why there can be so much difference in the quality of the movement itself, as both dancers and actors know full well.

Rudolf von Laban appreciated this distinction. He did not capture it in his Labanotation (Kinetography Laban) system. However, his 1947 book Effort tried to propose a theory of the dynamics of movement to complement all the positional information captured by Labanotation. He developed an alternative set of symbols, intended to augment a Labanotation document, rather the way that symbols for dynamics and tempo augment the basic symbols of pitch and duration in music.

As we know, in music those latter symbols are not as denotational as the former, resulting in the need for considerable contextual knowledge required for their interpretation. The same is true for Laban's "effort" symbols. However, where movement is concerned, the distinction may be greater. One might say that, through those symbols, Laban was trying to add information about velocity and acceleration to the Labanotation symbol base. The problem is that velocity and acceleration are effects of how mind makes the body move, so to speak. We may need to go back to basics to see if there is some abstract notation that can better capture the causes behind such movements.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Running from the Cool

My many years of research in digital technology has taught me one significant lesson. Whenever I hear the words, "Wouldn't it be cool if …;" I immediately run away as fast as possible. Pursuing the cool is nothing more than an exercise in masturbation, except that masturbating has fewer consequences for the world at large. I thought about this while reading Matt Baxter-Reynolds' article "Will 90 percent of users always hate Windows 8?" on ZDNet this morning. Windows 8 is one of those software products dreamed up by designers in pursuit of the cool, and that pursuit is being reflected on how the damned thing is being advertised on television. However, Baxter-Reynolds' 90% figure come from a book by Giles Colborn, which argues that 90% of all users are interested only in utility, getting things done conveniently with as short a learning curve as possible. Cool may be nice, but it is not what matters.

My fear, however, is that Windows 8 will be come the latest weapon in the "arms race" between Microsoft and Apple. Apple has already begun to let utility slip off their radar. If they decide it is time to "out-cool" Microsoft, those remaining remnants of utility in OS X may slip into oblivion.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Much Ado about Joss Whedon

I was glad to see a preview for Joss Whedon's Much Ado About Nothing show up on a post to Blaster. However, this made me curious about casting. Will Nathan Fillion really be playing Dogberry; and, if so, how?

Friday, March 8, 2013

Popular Tastes

Several years ago I attended a lecture delivered to a conference of music critics on the topic of how to attract page views. The one thing I remember was that death and opera were a sure-fire draw. I thought about this while reviewing my recent Google Analytics numbers for San Francisco Symphony (SFS) concerts. I discovered that Nadine Sierra attracted a lot my attention than Yuja Wang, even though, as far as I could tell, Wang was the one who sold out at the SFS Box Office. Granted, as a former Adler Fellow with the San Francisco Opera, Sierra could claim to be a "home town favorite." Perhaps, however, that was more relevant when it came to reading about her, rather than actually attending her performance!

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Scriabin and Rachmaninoff

While preparing to write about yesterday's Noontime Concerts™ recital on my site, for which pianist Ivan Sokolv performed the first of the two poems of Alexander Scriabin’s Opus 32 as an encore, I found myself thinking about the relationship between Scriabin and Sergei Rachmaninoff. Scriabin was only slightly older than Rachmaninoff, born on January 6, 1872 before Rachmaninoff's birth on April 1, 1873 (both dates in our own, rather than the Russian, calendar system). They were fellow students at the Moscow Conservatory and good friends. However, Scriabin died much earlier than Rachmaninoff, in 1915; and Rachmaninoff marked the occasion with a recital consisting only of Scriabin's piano compositions.

Scriabin was the far more adventurous composer, although one runs into signs of influence in some of Rachmaninoff's shorter pieces, such as the Opus 39 set of Études-Tableaux. On the other hand, Scriabin's adventurousness could well have gotten the better of him had he lived into the aftermath of the Russian Revolution. Rachmaninoff at least got himself to the United States and took reasonably well to capitalism. That involved promoting his own style of both performing and composing that Richard Taruskin has dubbed "New Stile Antico." Had circumstances been different, Rachmaninoff might have had more time to reflect on where Scriabin's finger was pointing; but they weren't. As a result history remembers Scriabin as the pioneer who never found his own "promised land" and Rachmaninoff as a technical master who chose to appeal to the popular tastes of his new American homeland from the comfort of a house in Beverly Hills.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

The Performance that Means Something

These days it seems that so much of my listening time is occupied with obligations associated with my writing that I am not always sure what I want to choose when left to my own devices. Perhaps as a result of spending so much time attending performances, I have come to realize that these days I am less interested in the music than I am in who is doing the performing. This feeling has been brewing for some time.

I suppose it can be traced back to when I chose to write about Wilhelm Furtwängler: The Great EMI Recordings. This was a collection of 21 CDs; and I realized that, if I wanted to be fair, I would have to break this down into manageable segments. I also know, even if only intuitively, that the best way to begin would be with the recordings in this collection of the music of Ludwig van Beethoven. Regular readers know that I tend to be very picky about my Beethoven, and I know enough to avoid declaring everything he ever wrote to be a masterpiece. (For that matter, I try very hard to avoid the word "masterpiece" in just about any occasion.)

The point is that there are Beethoven pieces that tend to leave me cold, regardless of the size of audiences that flock to them. The best example is that I am always very cautious when approaching any performance or recording of Fidelio. As fate would have it, this opera was included in the EMI collection in its entirety. To my surprise I found myself drawn into Furtwängler's interpretation of the score. I realized that, however contrived (if not downright silly) the plot was, Furtwängler's was committed enough to that narrative that he was determined to conduct it as if it actually meant something. This was not a matter of one to sit on the edge of his/her seat wondering would happen next. We all know "what happens next!" Rather, Furtwängler approached the music like a storyteller recounting a familiar tale. Whether or not one knew what would happen, one wanted to hear how he would tell that story.

I suppose that is why so many people would prefer to listen to the recording he made in 1953 over any number of other recordings with all the advantages of far more sophisticated technology.

Monday, March 4, 2013

An Enduring Pianist?

I know full well that the readership for the articles on my national site are far more modest than those on the San Francisco site. Nevertheless, I like to check the numbers periodically for both sites on Google Analytics to see just what articles (if any) are attracting attention. I was therefore pleased to see that last month's piece about Pina Napolitano's new CD of the complete piano music of Arnold Schoenberg had made a relatively good standing in the "top ten" articles on the national site over a one-month window ending today. However, I was also a bit perplexed to see that Napolitano's number was practically the same as that for HJ Lim's recording of the complete (at least in her opinion) piano sonatas of Ludwig van Beethoven, a piece I wrote in July of 2012! I wrote that piece because there was a fair amount of buzz about that recording, encouraged in part by EMI putting the whole eight-CD set on iTunes for download for the whopping price of $9.99. I tried to be fair in writing about the collection, but it was clear that my personal feelings were far from positive.

Even more interesting is that Lim always seems to be there whenever I do a spot check. My guess is that curiosity about her endures and that there always seem to be curious readers guided (perhaps by a Google search) to my article. It may also be that there is always a steady stream of people looking to buy one Beethoven piano sonata or another, and I see that the Lim set is still available in its entirety on iTunes for $9.99. However, since people probably think twice before downloading eight CDs of music, they figure they should check things out before initiating that download. Thus, for better or worse, Lim has become the source for at least a modest trickle of readers to my cite, whether she likes what I wrote about her or not!

Friday, March 1, 2013

The Brave New World of Actors without Actors

Back in 1994 I wrote a paper, entitled "On the promises of multimedia authoring," for a recently created journal called Information and Software Technology. This was for a special issue about multimedia; and the paper was basically a speculation of the implications of a recent publication from Japan entitled "IMPACT: An interactive natural-motion-picture dedicated multimedia authoring system." The operative word in that title was "natural;" and I felt it necessary to consider the implications of synthesizing "natural" media objects.

To do this I envisaged using such a system to produce a television commercial. More specifically, I assumed that a "natural" authoring system should be able to synthesize a commercial showing Madonna operating a copy machine. After the paper had been published, one of the editors approached me at a conference and confessed that she thought I had gone a bit too far off the wall with my fantasy, even though she appreciated the point I was trying to make (to distinguish the mechanical processes of filming from the creative processes to dreaming up such a commercial in the first place).

We can now jump ahead less than twenty years. What do we have? According to a report for Crave on CNET News by Christopher MacManus, we have a CGI synthesis of Audrey Hepburn starring in a television commercial for a candy bar! For those of us who remember the real Hepburn, the results are pretty scary. Perhaps that is the point, though. Fewer and fewer people are out there with vivid memories of Hepburn, not just in her films but in the many aspects of her life that managed to catch the attention of cameras. A new generation has taken over for whom Hepburn is a visual artifact rather than a Hollywood star.

I fear it will not be long before a string quartet by Ludwig van Beethoven may be reduced to nothing more than an auditory artifact, rather than a vital part of the education required for the thoroughly human activity of making music.