Monday, September 30, 2013

Politics by Terrorism?

One of the more interesting issues raised by HBO's The Newsroom involved the decision of the news anchor character to refer to the TEA Party as the "American Taliban." This was his way of venting his disgust at the way in which a well-financed minority had succeeded in hijacking what had previously been a rather wide class of values embraced by those who called themselves Republicans. The script for The Newsroom made it clear that the financing is in the hands of a few individuals who cared little for the values of TEA Party constituents themselves but simply (and selfishly) realized that those individual would be the perfect pawns for the large game they wished to play. Indeed, as has been recently observed, the best way to get the pawns to move is to exploit their feelings of "racial resentment."

There was thus some justification to that Taliban metaphor. The implication was that power was all that matters, not only having it but also exercising it for self-interest "by any means necessary." As I write this, the shutdown of the United States Government has pretty much been written off as inevitable. However, by following this story through the BBC, I realized that such terrorist tactics were also jeopardizing basic principles of representative government on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean in Italy. There we have Silvio Berlusconi, convicted guilty of tax-fraud, about to bring down the current government because, regardless of his criminal status, he still maintains control over what had been the ruling coalition.

Is it any wonder that there are so many people out there struggling to make ends meet who are now doubting whether or not the public good is really being served by the principles of government itself?

Mike Nicco can Look out the Window!

Last Friday I ended up ranting about how Apple's Weather widget seemed to lack the sort of input that comes from the common sense of looking out the window. Since I wrote that, I have been playing Apple's worldview off against that of the Web site for The Weather Channel. This morning, however, that common sense trumped both of those resources. In spite of what they agreed were cloudy conditions, the water droplets on my window indicated otherwise. Since it was around 5:15 AM, I knew that this was not the result of any of the work crews that have been active on my building; and, sure enough, upon closer inspection I was able to determine that both the sidewalks and Golden Gate were wet. This led me to wonder if there was any source that could reinforce what I was seeing. What I found was a video clip of Mike Nicco on the ABC7 News Web site. This did not surprise me. I usually only watch ABC7 in the evening, but I like seeing the weather report occasionally being delivered from the roof of their building. It gives the reporting a sense of immediacy that Web-based resources seem to lack.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Is the Social Network Sociopathic?

Chris Matyszczyk had a field day today with his Technically Incorrect blog for CNET news. The title of his post was "Does Facebook prolong heartbreak?;" and, as might be expected, the post was all about an affirmative answer to that question. The basic argument is that Facebook has a tendency to remind you of things you would prefer to neglect, one reason being that it has no way of marking certain links in a social network as leading to an emotional minefield for someone at one end of that link. To be fair, there is probably a good chance that any function capable of making such marks is not Turing-computable; but I think that just makes the point stronger. Those of us who continue to caution against unintended consequences continue to be in the minority, even when those consequences may be sociopathic.

However, while Matyszcyk's post may add fuel to one of my favorite fires, I have to be skeptical about its conclusions. The problem is that Matyszczyk's source for this post happens to be an article on Mail Online, the online service provided by the London Daily Mail. While the Daily Mail may have better claims to legitimacy that, say, the National Enquirer, I am not convinced it is that all much better. This particular story was filed by "DAILY MAIL REPORTER," which strikes me as a red flag that protects any particular individual from taking the rap for bad (or, worse yet, libelous) information.

The primary source then turns out to be Sir Nigel Shadbolt, who has never had any problems in accepting the burden of authority by publishing under his own name. The fact that he spends much of his time drinking Semantic Web Kool-Aid is his own affair. The point is that, because I know about his professional reputation, I am in a better position to assess my skepticism of his assertions than I am when confronted with an anonymous source.

I would, however, observe that Shadbolt is one of the co-founders of the Web Science Research Initiative. His co-founders are Sir Tim Berners-Lee, Dame Wendy Hall, and Daniel Weitzner. Having voice criticism about the IBM "service science" initiative in the past, my reaction to "Web science" is basically "more of the same." Just as "service science" tried to factor the social dimension out of acts of providing service, I fear that "Web science" may have a similar objective. This is likely to have no effect on any general awareness of unintended consequences and may even reinforce those determined to believe that such consequences do not signify.

Fortunately, since my own presence on Facebook is kept to a bare minimum (and that only because it is required for some communications), I do not think I need worry about any new threats to my own sense of psychological well-being.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Another Way Apple has Forgotten about "The Rest of Us"

At the end of last year, I wrote one of my frustration-with-Apple pieces based on what I called "my long-held conviction that 'computing for the rest of us' has now totally devolved from one of Apple's core values to a myth remembered only by older generations (such as my own)." That post was called "Apple's Loss of Significant Values: An Affirmation." These days, between the fallibility of the Weather widget and a map tool that directs you onto the middle of an airstrip in Fairbanks, Alaska, that proposition hardly requires reaffirmation. Nevertheless, there always seemed to remain the principle that, if the appearance of the toy is attractive, reliable content is a secondary matter.

Now we have a situation in which the dynamics of appearance may have gotten out of hand. Charlie Osborne's latest contribution to ZDNet sports the title "Apple's iOS 7 makes users sick." The implication is that the latest generation of animations in the user interface seems to be inducing motion sickness in at least some of the users. Osborne supports her case with excerpts from user comments. Strictly speaking, these may not be sound warrants; but they should at least point to a need for further investigation (rather like some of those fancy digital billboards that turned out to induce epileptic fits in a small segment of the population).

When I argued about that "loss of significant values," the point I wanted to make was that Apple had metamorphosed from a provider of easy-to-use utilities to an inventor of cool toys. My guess is that toys sell better than useful tools and have done so for some time. Unfortunately, we now seem to be stuck in a situation where making toys is so profitable that no one wants to make tools any more.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Time for Another Jesse Owens Moment?

I just finished reading an article of BBC News that begin with the opening summarizing sentence:
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has said a Russian law banning "homosexual propaganda among minors" does not breach the Olympic charter.
It did not really surprise me. I have never felt that the Olympic games deserved much attention, since it struck me as yet another form of self-aggrandizement for yet another form of elitism. Given what I wrote yesterday about the America's Cup, I am not surprised that my mind should be in this state. However, we have to remember that, in the longer view of the history of the Olympic games, human rights has never been a factor in selecting a venue.

However, rather than gnash our teeth over this state of affairs, we should remember that sometimes the athletes were willing to take up the burden that the organizers had made such a point to ignore. I was more than a little impressed to find that, on the Wikipedia page for the 1968 Summer Olympics, the very first item listed under "Highlights" was the following:
In the medal award ceremony for the men's 200 meter race, African-American athletes Tommie Smith (gold) and John Carlos (bronze) took a stand for civil rights by raising their black-gloved fists and wearing black socks in lieu of shoes. The Australian Peter Norman, who had run second, wore an American "civil rights" badge as support to them on the podium. As punishment, the IOC banned Smith and Carlos from the Olympic Games for life, and Norman was left off Australia's Olympic team in 1972.
In 2008 there are an attempt at a parallel effort on the part of Team Darfur. Sadly, it attracted far less attention that seemed to be limited to Riz Kahn on Al Jazeera English and a blog post by Dave Zirin (who wrote a book about Carlos) on the Web site for The Nation. On the other hand, there have also been more passive instances of making an issue by not making an issue, the best example of that being the triumph of Jesse Owens in the face of a stadium full of proponents of the Nazi Master Race ideology, all of whom had expected to hijack the event for no purpose other than to promote their discriminatory propaganda.

In that context it might be appropriate for those affected by the Russian ban and those who wish to challenge that ban openly to train like hell for the Sochi Games and embrace the premise that there is no bully pulpit quite like the one on which an Olympic medal is presented.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Ellison's Empire Puts Out More Flags

So Oracle Team USA won the America's Cup. They did so in the most dramatic manner possible, attracting the attention even of Al Jazeera America, which even decided that the story had more news value over the budget debate (if you wish to dignify it with that noun) in Congress. One might think that this will put an end to the ballyhoo, but it will probably only strengthen the annual fanatic madness that is Oracle OpenWorld. (I am more jaundiced about this ego-fest than usual this year. My wife and I got stuck in a traffic jam on Saturday caused by all the preparations for this Circus Maximus while trying to get to Central Computers to replace a dead backup server.) So I guess we shall all have to wait for this week to drag to its end before any faint signs of normality return.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

On Figuring Out What Truth Is

As always seems to be the case, things got a little screwy after OS X got upgraded to 10.8.5. The most interesting, even if it was a relatively small thing, was that the Weather widget on the Dashboard started turning up showing a date from the past, rather than the present. I am not sure whether or not this was a direct consequence of the upgrade, particularly since my immediate conjecture was that this was a server problem, rather than a client problem. As I write this, the widget is consistently giving the right day (Tuesday); but the temperature keeps bouncing between 70º and 65º. (For the record, the page on The Weather Channel site for my ZIP code says 64º.)

When I lived in Palo Alto, I could put a thermometer outside my bedroom window and check it whenever I wanted. Now I go to my MacBook Pro and my wife goes to her iPhone (and we probably both go to the same server). We sort of take it for granted that the server behind the widget is as reliable as a thermometer. For that matter, I would like to believe that the page on The Weather Channel site really is ZIP-code-specific, even if the commonsense side of me tends to be skeptical (particular in a city like San Francisco, which has all sorts of micro-climates). The real point, however, is that none of these digital resources is as trustworthy as a tube of red-colored alcohol or mercury judiciously placed in the shade. However, as a condominium-dweller I do not have the luxury I used to have as a homeowner, which means I am now obliged to invent my own error-detecting algorithms whenever I want to check the temperature!

Monday, September 23, 2013

Bringing Some Lens Cleaner to the Rose-Colored Glasses

This morning Technology Reporter Jane Wakefield filed a story on the BBC News Web site with the headline "Tomorrow's cities: What's it like to live in a smart city?" Overlooking the fact that this involved little more than fantasizing that probably belonged in the Entertainment department, rather than Technology, this turned out to be the world seen through three sets of rose-colored glasses, one by Julia Michaels, an "Author and blogger" living in Rio de Janeiro. As a result of those credentials, I did some background checking and discovered that Wakefield's piece of fluff was actually a followup to the one she wrote last month entitled "Tomorrow's cities: Do you want to live in a smart city?" That article also read like a Chamber of Commerce pitch for Rio, leading me to write at that time about how those rose-colored glasses had so efficiently managed to obscure any view of the favelas in that city. The other contributors to the new piece were Anthony Townsend, Research Director at the Institute for the Future, and Carlo Ratti, Director of the Sensible City Lab at the MIT Media Lab. Wakefield could not have picked a better collection of three blind persons (noun out of deference to Michaels) groping at an elephant that happens to be virtual, rather than physical.

Ironically, if Wakefield really wanted to speculate about smart cities of the future, she would probably learn far more by reading some good fiction, rather than interviewing self-promoting evangelists. From that point of view, the absence of any mention of E. M. Forster comes across as an act of willful ignorance. "The Machine Stops" raises any number of issues concerned with how things can go wrong with technology that was initially conceived and built to improve the quality of life. This cautionary tale is even more relevant now that This cautionary tale is even more relevant now that some of Forster's predicitions are beginning to come true. If the BBC is going to provide reports about technology, the least they can do is screen their reporters for myopia.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

A Pope Who Knows His Priorities

I do not know how many spin doctors prepare Papal addresses. However, those driven by dogma are probably wringing their hands in agony when Pope Francis decides to go "off script" and start improvising. Consider some of the off-the-cuff remarks he made to the faithful today in Sardinia (where the youth unemployment rate happens to be 51 percent), as reported by Al Jazeera English:
I find suffering here... it weakens you and robs you of hope.
Excuse me if I use strong words, but where there is no work there is no dignity.
We don't want this globalised economic system which does us so much harm. Men and women have to be at the centre [of an economic system] as God wants, not money.
The world has become an idolator of this god called money.
Now regular readers should know by now that I am a "devout atheist." However, that is just the point. None of the above text says anything about turning to the Catholic Church or any other organized religion. The Pope just decided to be "frank and open" about the current state of poverty and how the world got into it. Perhaps it is time for him to say a thing or two to the World Economic Forum.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Legislation by "Racial Resentment"

Michael Tomasky's article about prevailing mentalities in our nation's capital, "Our Town," in the latest issue of The New York Review concludes on a disquieting note. It is actually a reference to a recent book:
In his new book, [Alan I.] Abramowitz performs a multivariate analysis of the factors that are likely to make a citizen a Tea Party supporter. Conservative ideology matters most. But next—are "racial resentment, and dislike of Obama."
The punch line, in Abramowitz' own words, is as follows:
The Tea Party drew its support very disproportionately from Republican identifiers who were white, conservative, and very upset about the presence of a black man in the White House—a black man whose supporters looked very different from themselves.
It is worth keeping these words in mind when reflecting on the decision of the House of Representatives to impose a major cut on food stamp benefits. This vote was lead by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, who claimed that it was the only way to deal with abuse of the program. In other words, Cantor is relying on the fact that telling Ronald Reagan's old stories about "welfare moms" still works, thus concealing the strong tendency of many to attach a racial stereotype to that "welfare moms" concept.

Of course, since the Senate is controlled by Democrats, there is little chance that the House bill will succeed there. This prompted Democratic Senator to declare the entire activity in the House "a monumental waste of time." However, if Abramowitz is right, then it was far from a waste of time for those who voted according to Tea Party demographics. (Note that I did not say "Tea Party ideology." The original ideology behind the Tea Party was a tax policy that was unfair to "the little guy." The food stamp vote was ideological only by extrapolation, under the knee-jerk assumption that the program could only continue through an increase in taxes or a failure to cut taxes.) Because the issue is demographic, we have to accept that every vote against food stamps came from a legislator whose electorate had a majority of voters that fit Abramowitz' profile.

When Obama won the election in 2008, many of us optimistically assumed that the country had taken a significant step forward; if we are to believe Abramowitz, that step forward has been followed by (at least) two steps back.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Searching for Solutions to Aging?

I just finished reading Technology Reporter Jane Wakefield's latest piece on the BBC News Web site entitled "Google spin-off Calico to search for answers to ageing." Early in the article she quotes Larry Page saying that Calico would focus on "health and wellbeing, in particular the challenge of ageing and associated diseases." However, as the article proceeded, what emerged was little more than the sense that Google had found yet another nail that could be driven with the hammer of search.

Hopefully, those at both Calico and Google know that, while "health" and "well-being" are related categories, they are still distinct. Health care has now become flooded with computer-based data resources with results that have been both positive and negative. Thus, the same technology that may help a pathologist make a more informed decision as to whether or not the cells collected in a biopsy are carcinogenic can also help an insurance company increase its profit margins, making its shareholders very happy, usually to the detriment of both physicians and patients. More powerful search technology is not going to change this double-edged sword; and, personally, I am not particularly sanguine about its implications for health care for the aged. From a variety of statistical points of view, age is the final liability.

More importantly, then, is this fuzzier concept of "well-being." Well-being is not just a matter of the body. It is just as much a construct of the psychology of the mind embedded in that body and, by extrapolation, of the capacity of that mind for social engagement. Often, the success of an institution created to care for the aged can be assessed in terms of the vibrancy of the social world in that institution, including the dynamics of interaction both among those who reside there and between the residents and the supporting staff. Making such an institution something more than a "waiting room for the inevitable" is no easy matter; and it is hard to believe that a new company born of an older company that has yet to recognize the social dimension of knowledge itself will have much of ongoing value to offer to those who live day-to-day with the physical and mental changes that come with aging.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Reliable Mail Delivery

It used to be that physical mail would be delivered reliably no matter how adverse the conditions were (as in rain, snow, and sleet). My guess is that most of the current generation using electronic mail never knew that the Postal Service had a motto to that effect, let alone knew the words of the motto. As to the service itself, I doubt that anyone believe the motto any more. (Shortly after my wife and I bought out condominium in San Francisco, the Postal Service managed to lost the bill for our annual property tax. I now use Reminders to let me know when I should be receiving it, since I can now go to a Web page to find the amount if the physical mail fails again in the same way.)

On the other hand is electronic mail any more reliable? We have all received "cannot deliver" bounce messages, even when we know that the address we provided is legitimate. This tends to mean that a server died somewhere along the path. Sometimes there is a place to store accumulated messages while a server recovers; and sometimes (probably more often than not) that storage area fills to capacity before the system is running again. Can we count on being notified one way or another, or could the current bounce system fail because of some other server?

Has the Internet become the latest "rotten fruit," just waiting to fall from a tree that has not been properly tended?

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Four-Hand is Not Necessarily Easier!

I find myself in the midst of an interesting confrontation with the piano music of Maurice Ravel. My general opinion is that just about everything he wrote for two hands is above my pay grade. However, I play four-hand regularly with a neighbor; and she happened to come across of four-hand arrangement of the "Valses nobles et sentimentales" by Lucien Garban. I thought this would be a get to know some music that I did not think I could tackle on my own, but it has been one of our greater struggles.

The main problem seems to be that Garban was more concerned with transcribing Ravel's notes than he was with worrying about where hands could easily go. As a result, the third waltz has been a major frustration. Not only do the two of us have to worry about keeping out of the way, but also Garban seems to have made some weird decisions as to how to divide what between right and left hands.

At my colleagues suggestion, I decided to check out the original version of the third waltz. It is a bit of a struggle, but it seems more accommodating to both body and mind. I thus plan to prepare for the four-hand version by getting a better handle on the original. Hopefully, that will mean that I can just drop out the notes that no longer matter for my half of the four-hand version!

Monday, September 16, 2013

Thanks Jeff Bezos, but …

At 12:46 PM (Pacific Time) today, Desiree Everts DeNunzio filed a story on CNET News to the effect that the The Washington Post had dropped its paywall to provide more readers with access to up-to-the-minute reporting on this morning's shooting at the Washington Navy Yard. She quoted Jeff Bezos as issuing an announcement that "won't be leading The Washington Post day to day," because the "paper's duty will remain to its readers and not to the private interests of its owners." That may be so; but the fact is that, for the better part of the morning, I had been getting my most timely dispatches through the RSS feed from KGO, the local ABC source for San Francisco, followed by lunch at 11 AM with the one-hour news broadcast on Al Jazeera America, which managed to give thorough coverage to both the Navy Yard and the latest findings and repercussions over chemical weapons in Syria. When it came to time for the 1 PM news conference, there was no question what would be the source in our household!

Sunday, September 15, 2013

The Past Future of Recording

Today's progress through the Decca collection of the complete works of Benjamin Britten brought me to "The Burning Fiery Furnace." It therefore seemed appropriate that I follow up the listening experience by viewing Tony Palmer's documentary about how this particular recording was made, included as a DVD in the Decca package. I had gotten a real kick out of The Golden Ring, which had taken a similar approach to the first effort to record Richard Wagner's Ring cycle in its entirety, even if the film itself basically began in the middle of Götterdämmerung and followed through to that opera's final measures and a subsequent "wrap party." Producer John Culshaw is even more of a central character in the Britten film than had been in the Wagner, providing a lot more "color commentary" as background for many of the scenes.

What really stood out, however, was the opportunity to observe Britten himself in action. He was always relatively quiet, always deliberate, and frequently cheerful. Watching him at work reminded me of those occasions I had enjoyed of observing Merce Cunningham running rehearsals.

If watching Britten was the greatest joy, then Culshaw's comments at the end of the film were the greatest sorrow. He speculated that he felt audio recording had gone about as far as it could. This was, of course, a time of analog equipment, magnetic tape, and vinyl discs. The depressing thing, however, is that Culshaw may have been right. Technology has certainly advanced prodigiously from those days, but attention to the priority of the listening experience has declined even more precipitously. It is hard to imagine any producer of recordings not only sharing Culshaw's values but also following through on them with all the effort demanded. The general consensus is that such effort is not really worth while for a "customer base" that is only looking for ways to block out reality with a "personalized soundtrack."

There are, of course, a few of us left committed to what I continue to call "serious listening" in my pieces. However, we know we are dying off; and most of us are resigned to the fact that the young care little about filling our shoes. I suppose it is just as well that Culshaw did not live to discover that those who took listening and seriously as he did have become a vanishing breed with little "survival value" in a Darwinian world dominated by market-based thinking.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Reactionary Avant-Gardism

I just read a fascinating column by Peter Aspden for the Life & Arts section of the Web site for the Financial Times. This was published under the title "Puccini versus the Twitterverse;" and I do not think I could have thought of a better one. It was inspired by his experience of seeing Turandot at the Royal Opera House as respite from "Digital Learning Week" for Financial Times writers (and perhaps other employees as well).

The basic idea was that Puccini's three-act opera, for all of its utterly silly attributes (as well as the transcendent ones), provided much-needed relief from the all-digital-all-the-time indoctrination being thrown at Financial Times staff in a sink-or-swim context. In the key paragraph of the column, Aspden summarized why this "escape into opera" was so important:
The arts need to reassess their role in society. After so many decades of basking in the avant-garde, leading thought revolutions, changing values and behaviour, forcing people to question themselves, they now have the opposite role. An evening at the opera, or the cinema, or the theatre, is where we go to escape from the terrifyingly fast-moving world that is overtaking us by the day. Culture is becoming the refuge of the digitally brutalised.
The fact is that, if the avant-garde is to stay in its "avant" position, it has to lead, rather than follow, the crowd. We saw this sort of thing in the latter half of the twentieth century, when the almost religious worship of atonality and the serial logic were attack by the "heresy" of triads and the simple arpeggios of what came to be called "minimalism." Today a greater heresy may be in order. When once the avant-garde shocked the bourgeoisie by embracing the machine, the time may have come to rage against it. We should revel in the fact that the essence of Turandot cannot be distilled into a tweet or a blog post with "trending potential." The ultimate defense against "digital brutality" as a mind endowed with a long attention span; and the avant-garde should pick up the gauntlet (if it has not yet done so) and attend to the needs of such minds.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Becoming Aware of Other Voices

Last week saw the launch of Al Jazeera America. To my surprise (and delight), Comcast assigned it the channel slot previously held by Current TV (which had been bought out by Al Jazeera). As a result, after several "dry" decades, I actually had the ability to choose between two channels, both of which showed the same attentive respect to the coverage of hard news that had once been the agenda of CNN.

The launch has had major impact on our home viewing habits. When everyone was covering the Senate Committee hearing on taking action against Syria, my wife and I chose Al Jazeera America. We felt that it would be the most likely source of both sides of opinions, and we were not disappointed. The same could be said of the discussion prior to Barack Obama's address on Tuesday evening.

Once again, American television viewers are getting the opportunity to listen to points of view other than those that the rich and mighty want us to hear. One result seems to be a renewal of reluctance to engage in another military exploit being given a more "legitimate" voice than it had received in the wake of 9/11 hysteria. Perhaps that is why Vladimir Putin chose to make his case directly to the American public through an op-ed piece in The New York Times. Regardless of how many people will actually read the piece (which was written with a well-honed sense of convincing rhetoric), the word is sure to circulate heavily that the Times took the trouble to run it today.

Whether this will make a change in what seem to be our culturally-embedded trigger-happy inclinations, it is a sign that at least a few media outlets are beginning to honor the fact that ours is not the only voice in any conversation with global repercussions.

As might be guessed, there seems to have been a general attack on Putin's article coming from a variety of different "establishment" representatives. I was most trouble to read, in a report on the BBC News Web site, that Leon Panetta went "on the record" by declaring that Putin was not in a position to lecture the American people about human rights. On the basis of this country's track record since we first ventured into Afghanistan, does Panetta really believe that Putin is any less qualified than any representative of our own government to take strong positions of human rights?

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Obama as his own Critic

Now that we have heard Barack Obama's speech and had our fill of pundits' reactions to that speech, I thought it might be interesting to harvest a reply form Obama himself, taken from a message he had delivered "to the Iranian People" in March of 2009:
My administration is now committed to diplomacy … and to pursuing constructive ties among the United States, Iran, and the international community. This process will not be advanced by threats. We seek instead engagement that is honest and grounded in mutual respect.
One wonders how Obama would react were he to be visited by the Ghost of Speeches Past!

Monday, September 9, 2013

"Intelligence does not Work That Way"

This morning's "state of play" report on the BBC News Web site, written just before our do-nothing Congress decides to do something when nothing would be preferable, included an interesting statement from White House Chief of Staff Dennis McDonough:
We've seen the video proof of the outcome of those attacks.
Now do we have a picture or do we have irrefutable beyond-a-reasonable-doubt evidence? This is not a court of law and intelligence does not work that way.
There is every reason to believe that ongoing "expert analysis" will confirm that the videos cited by McDonough show victims of some form of chemical warfare. The experts may even be more specific as to the chemicals themselves. They will not, however, say anything about how those attacks came to pass: Who deployed the weapons, and how did they get them to deploy.

It is because of that final point that I have to wonder if, in making that final sentence, McDonough knows anything about how intelligence does work. For example, neither judicial decisions nor the interpretation of intelligence evidence can be based strictly on abstract principles of logic. The concept of reasonable doubt was introduced in recognition of the inadequacy of pure logic. Any case made in court can never be anything more than a well-formulated hypothesis. It is up to subjectivity to then decide whether or not that hypothesis should be rejected on the basis of reasonable doubt..

Having had the opportunity to examine some training material for intelligence analysts, I can state that the way in which intelligence "works" is not that different. The most important difference is that, while in most courts, there are only two hypotheses at stake, those of the prosecution and the defense, respectively, intelligence analysis needs to take a broader point of view. Thus, in the face of a particularly hostile act, disciplined analysis is required to formulate as many viable hypotheses as the imagination will entertain and then consider all of them in the face of available evidence. There are even systematic techniques through which hypotheses can be "scored" with respect to the evidence. These techniques can just as easily lead to a search for more hypotheses (if no hypothesis is conclusively better than others) as to the selection of the most viable hypothesis.

This is a process that can be just as time-consuming as the analysis required to determine whether a particular location was the site of a chemical attack. It probably also involves more creative imagination (which, itself, can be time-consuming) in the interest of building a sufficiently large "space" of different hypotheses. My guess is that neither McDonough nor the members of the press he was briefing realize the extent to which this is how intelligence "works." However, if we end up barreling into Syria on the basis of ignorance, it would be better for the press to devote some attention to where that ignorance resides.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Creeping Vacuity

The latest issue of The New York Review has one of those self-aggrandizing full-page ads from the Harvard University Press, in which they list recent award-winning titles. I used to enjoy reading these lists, even when I knew I would never have time to read the books themselves. This time, however, I was struck by how uninteresting it was. None of the authors' names were familiar, nor were any of the books ones of enough interest that I had read reviews of them. Indeed, I am not sure that I even saw reviews of any of the books on the list.

My interest in Harvard University Press goes back to my student days. There were, after all, the publisher of the Harvard Dictionary of Music, several of whose entries did much to inform my thesis research. I would also argue that Randall Collins' The Sociology of Philosophies remains one of the most influential books I have read in this new century. However, most of the entries in the new list strike me as the work of a "great expert, primarily for the edification of other great experts" (as Anna Russell put it so well). Furthermore, if we drop the constraint of expertise, I realize that my reaction to my daily newspaper is not that different.

It strikes me that serious writing has become little more than a matter of marking time for those who persist in trying to take what they write seriously. In that respect the author of a prize-winning title published by the Harvard University Press is no different from any journalist fortunate enough to still have a full-time salaried position. Both the academic and the journalist must live with assigning more priority to keeping their jobs than to worrying about what they will actually do with those jobs. This reflects a state of affairs in which meaning has not merely been lost, as Max Weber suggested, but sucked up into a waste bin by some massive vacuum cleaner known as the market-based economy.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Our Government's Priorities

Jeff Madrick's latest post to NYRblog, "America's Jobless Generation," injects a major shot of reality into any punditry about the unemployment crisis. Nevertheless, in his efforts to be rational about the crisis, I think he failed to rake up some of the muck that really matters. Consider one of his most important sentences, which actually occupies most of the fourth paragraph of the post:
Many aspects of our current employment crisis have less to do with technology or globalization than with the administration’s failure to adopt policies to strengthen the labor force, and more precisely, those parts of the labor force that are most crucial to the nation’s long-term social and economic health.
This is true enough, but some speculation of the cause of the failure would not have hurt the piece. After all, many of those who voted for Barack Obama did so because they expected him to adopt such policies. What happened?

What happened was that Obama had to choose between dancing "with the one that brung him" and "with the one that paid to get him to ball," so to speak. Obama may have instilled hope among those members of a declining middle class at a time when they had pretty much lost all hope of ever getting their heads above the waters of debt. However, once he occupied the Oval Office, he had just as much sympathy for bailing out all the foolish risky moves by the financial sector as his predecessor had exhibited. In other words the Presidency is as much enslaved to the financial sector as is the Congress and the 99% of the American population. The fact is that the financial sector does not care who the President is as long as they maintain their grip on the controlling strings.

What is the aim of all of that control? It is nothing more than a steady parade of quarterly reports of growth. Whether or not the reports themselves, or the numbers behind them, are nothing more than fictions of convenience, where exchange is concerned, all that matters is having the right numbers in the right places. (Remember what happened when a single cell in an Excel chart turned out to be erroneous.) Unfortunately, well-choreographed numbers have never benefited the labor force. There is no reason for us to assume that this time will be different.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Google Glass in the Wild

Last night, during the "Champagne [actually Prosecco] Walk" in the lobby of Davies Symphony Hall as part of the Opening Night Gala for the San Francisco Symphony, I had my first Google Glass sighting. I told the young woman wearing it that it was the first time I had seen one. She replied that there are plenty in San Francisco, but I clearly do not hang out in the places she frequents. This was affirmed when I observed that she now had a great way to read her program notes while watching the performance. Her blank stare made it pretty clear than she was not interested in either.

Now that it is "the morning after," however, I realize that a more critical issue is at stake. I appreciated that issue after returning to Rachel King's discussion of Google Glass features for ZDNet last May. The critical sentence from her text is the following:
The video recording feature was basically the star of the outrageous show when Glass was unveiled at Google I/O last year.
It goes without saying that video capture of a San Francisco Symphony performance is strongly prohibited, even if the pre-performance announcement (inaudible last night due to the din of the crowd entering the hall) only cites the prohibition of photography. Google Glass is about to push us down a slippery slope where the intellectual property of the performing arts is concerned; and I fear that, once again, the nerds will triumph over the artists.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Considering a Scene as a Character

Once again I find myself involved with a major listening project. This time it is the Decca collection of the complete works of Benjamin Britten. This is structured according to categories, rather than ordered chronologically. This works for me, because it will allow me to deal with each category as a separate article.

The first category in the set is opera; and I have to take satisfaction in having acquired enough experience that each of the operas is familiar to me through at least one staged production, through video when not through experience in an opera house. Every now and then, however, there are certain dramatic elements that are better recognized through the music without visual distraction. This is the way I feel about A Midsummer Night's Dream, which lends itself to imaginative visual design while having to bear the burden of familiarity with William Shakespeare at the same time.

What fascinates me about Britten's opera is how the composer chose to make it his own narrative without ever compromising Shakespeare in any serious way. This is apparent from the very beginning, since the very first music you hear establishes the scene (to use Kenneth Burke's technical term) of the forest in which all acts (from the same Burke terminology) of significance will take place. Indeed, to prepare the audience for Puck's epilogue, it is clear that Britten has chosen to establish the forest as a "dream world" of sorts, rather than merely an untamed piece of land on the outskirts of Athens. One might almost say that, from a musical point of view, the forest matters more to Britten than all those agents (Burke's term again), both supernatural and "natural" that will be bumping into each other (often in comic ways) as the narrative unfolds.

Clearly, the forest does not itself act; but perhaps Britten is trying to prepare the audience for how the scene will create a variety of dispositions through which the acts themselves will be motivated. This strikes me as significant, particularly since the opera never leaves the forest until the final scene of the final act. (The text for that scene actually begins with the very first words of Shakespeare's play.) In other words one only returns to "reality" for the multiple wedding celebration (in which Oberon and Titania are somewhat like "participating bystanders"). Furthermore (notwithstanding the influence of Felix Mendelssohn), that scene has less to do with the wedding and spends most of its time on the "Pyramus and Thisbe" performance, which, since it is the (highly distorted) enactment of a familiar myth, involves yet another move into yet another "dream world."