Thursday, October 31, 2013

Bye-Bye Apple Mail?

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 28, 2013

Internet Anarchy Endures

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

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

Apple's Ongoing Talent for Making Things Worse

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

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

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

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

Friday, October 25, 2013


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

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The Deceptive Abstraction of Music Notation

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Edith Wharton's Anthropological Stance

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 21, 2013

Another Kind of Bailout

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

Authority and Prosperity

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

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

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

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Can Silicon Valley Save the Country?

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Spamming the NSA

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

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

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

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

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Snob Pornography

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

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

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

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Profiles in Cowardice

This past Wednesday, Gary Wills put up a particularly caustic post on NYRBlog entitle "Back Door Secession." By taking a historical point of view, he could compare current TEA Party activities, which I have previously called "politics by terrorism," to those of the secessionists in Congress prior to secession itself and the Civil War that followed. His point was that, in both cases, an extremist minority could hold the more moderate majority in check. He further claimed that the minority had such power because of the cowardice of the majority.

I think he has a good point, but it is not a particularly novel one. Politics is not about governance. It is about acquiring and keeping power, and that is not achieved through courageous acts. That is that made John Kennedy's Profiles in Courage book so interesting (and, at the time, so inspiring). We cannot expect any elected official, regardless of position, to be anything other than an abject coward. After all, if "get elected" is the most important rule of politics, the second most important rule is "stay elected." When that is all that matter, the office-holder will yield meekly to all sorts of threatening situations.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Bicycle Follies Cross the Pond

For a while, probably as a result of spending most of my time away from home as a pedestrian on the streets of San Francisco, I was writing about what I called the "defiance culture" of cyclists. When the film Premium Rush came out a couple of years later, I realized that this culture at extended far beyond the Bay Area (and probably beyond more large metropolitan areas than New York). On my own turf, the most dangerous absurdity I had encountered personally was a cyclist who decided to negotiate a bus stop by going down the narrow strip between the bus and the sidewalk, thus endangering those getting on and off the bus at the same time. (Was he keeping score in his head?)

Apparently, the culture has now spread to Great Britain. The following story appeared on the BBC News Web site this morning:
Police are considering what action to take against a Cambridge cyclist who dodged a level crossing barrier, coming within seconds of being hit by a train.
British Transport Police (BTP) confirmed they spoke to a 26-year-old woman from the city on Wednesday. She was filmed cycling through the closed barrier at Waterbeach on 12 September.
The woman came forward voluntarily, and BTP said they were deciding what further action to take.
She was filmed passing the closed barrier and ignoring warning signals and lights.
Rail bosses described it as "one of the closest near misses we've seen".
Hundreds of thousands of people have watched footage of the woman cycling up to the tracks before slamming on her brakes, and edging backwards as the train speeds past.
I know several who attribute this behavior to the extreme sense of self-righteousness that comes with the belief that riding bicycles will save the planet for excess carbon emissions. The fact that this is a fallacy only heightens the self-righteousness, making them an even greater danger to those who come near them, as well as to their own selves.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Yet Another Technology to Trust (whether you want to or not)

Today BBC Technology Reporter Leo Kelion posted an article to the BBC News Web site with the headline "Ford car takes control of steering to avoid collisions." The basic idea is that the car has an elaborate system of sensors to determine if it is on a collision path. The first thing it does is warn the driver; but, if the driver does not respond, it overrides control of the steering wheel. This raises the obvious question: Do any of us really want to trust this new technology any more than a navigation technology that can lead us onto an active runway in Fairbanks, Alaska? Now I am sure that there will be any number of readers, who will immediately reply to that question with the claim:
It's not the same thing!
I would reply:
It's not the technology, but the principle behind its design.
It is one thing to have a lot of sensors checking for possible collisions, but it is worth asking what else is being sensed. As the old cliché goes, context is everything. What happens when the system has to choose between two undesirable situations, one of which can harm a pedestrian in the path of the car and the other of which will harm the driver? I, for one, would not like to be an indirect participant in making such a decision by providing a technology that makes it for the driver. Mind you, since I live in a moderately large city, I see a lot of bad driving; so I suppose I am highly sensitive to new technologies that may ultimately turn bad drivers into worse drivers.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Is Al Jazeera America Covering America?

Readers know that I was pretty pleased when Al Jazeera America showed up as one of my Comcast channels. I was even impressed that they really were taking the trouble to cover American (and particularly United States) stories. However, since I used them as my source for the Navy Yard shootings, it looks as if their American coverage has been slowing down to barely a trickle. I tend to watch the 11 AM slot over an early lunch; and, while they have anchors in Doha (for world news in general) and London (for European news), they do not have an anchor in the United States. This leads me to wonder whether they may be having trouble getting press credentials. Today I found out about the Obama press conference through BBC World Service. I then did a spot check of Al Jazeera America, and they were there as well. However, the background news they reported about the events (or lack of events, if you prefer) leading up to Obama using a press conference to put his cards on the able about both the shutdown and the debts ceiling was, for all intents and purposes, non-existent. To they feel that the current political games in Washington are not newsworthy? There are certainly any number of people in both Europe and Asia who seem to be watching them very closely!

Monday, October 7, 2013

The Guilty Pleasure of STRIKE BACK

I have to confess that I have gotten hooked on the Cinemax series Strike Back. It is all very well and good to promote all of the imaginative work that goes into both drama and documentary work when it comes to original material from HBO, but I have to believe that Strike Back is committed to not taking itself seriously. It thus emerges as the reductio ad absurdum of action narratives based on the buddy genre. It is a bit like Lethal Weapon in that it discovered that its strength resided in its ability not to take itself seriously. However, it made that discovery sooner than Lethal Weapon did; so the question will be whether it has more staying power. The second series managed to slip from my attention, but I have been able to catch up with it through the Comcast On Demand service. That should position me to then move into the third series with a relatively smooth transition. There is a lot to be said for self-parody when so much of what is happening in the real world would also be taken as self-parody by a detached observer.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

From the String Quartet to Representative Government

I just finished reading a fascinating reprint from Administrative Science Quarterly that basically examined the behavior of a string quartet as a model for an "intense work group" (the sort of group that might, for example, be involved in making high-level policy decisions for a large organization). The paper ended with the requisite "lessons learned" section, suggesting that such work groups did, indeed, have something to learn from the work practices of string quartets (at least the successful ones). The sentence that really stuck with me from this section of the paper was the following:
When facing conflict, groups might (a) leave hot topics alone to give everyone a chance to cool off (Pruitt, 1981; Ury, Brett, and Goldberg, 1988); (b) never settle for majority rule which, at a minimum, engenders minority dissatisfaction; and (c) know each other well enough to know what can't be said, i.e., ignore unavoidable dissimilarities and let policies evolve without raising issues explicitly.
One of the key conclusions was the conflict was inevitable. However, good string quartets accept that inevitability as axiomatic and, as a result, are more interested in getting on with making music than with trying to resolve those conflicts.

It is hard to resist reading that quoted sentence without thinking of the currently crippled state of our government. After all, one of the reasons why the TEA Party has come as far as they have through what I recently called "politics by terrorism" is that their leaders appreciate the advantage of keeping hot topics as hot as possible and avoiding any efforts concerned only with cooling down the heat of the situation. Indeed, those steering the TEA Party probably know full well that their group will never assume a controlling majority but can still work the hell out of "minority dissatisfaction." Unfortunately, our President still embraces the virtues of rational efforts to resolve conflicts, not realizing that, from the very beginning, all the TEA Party ever wanted was to keep the government from "getting on with making music;" and they seem to have succeeded on an impressive scale.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

If You Build It, They Will Come … and play games

Regular readers probably know by now that, whenever I hear a sentence beginning with "Wouldn't it be cool if …?," I either rev my capacity of skepticism up into high gear or run like hell in any available direction. Apparently, someone in the Los Angeles Unified School District decided the sentence should be:
Wouldn't it be cool if every student had an iPad?
This came down to investing about $1 billion to provide 650,000 students with iPads, all connected into a network of software apps that would become part of their educational activities. According to an Associated Press report that recently appeared, however, 300 of those students seemed more interested in getting through the security settings of that network, allowing them to get down to using the iPad for the purposes for which it had been intended, "tweeting, posting to Facebook and playing video games." That's what's cool about advanced technology in the classroom!

Friday, October 4, 2013

What the Rockstar Metaphor Really Tells Us

Early this morning Srinivas Kulkarni filed a post to his Startup India blog that got picked up by ZDNet. The title of the post was "Are entrepreneurs the rockstars of biz world?" This post went on for some length, but it tended to downplay two of the most important aspects of the analogy:
  1. From a population-based point of view, there are very few rock stars in the world.
  2. Becoming a rock star involves skill in many areas beyond what you take to be your specialty.
These are the points that tend to receive the least attention from those trying to evangelize entrepreneurism. Presumably, Kulkarni is one of those evangelists, which makes this article a perfect example of why his purported insights should be handled with utmost skepticism!

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

The BBC Tries to Diagnose the US Government Shutdown

From time to time, the BBC News Web site runs articles under the rubric called Viewpoints. The basic idea is to take a critical issue a source out a wide variety of perspectives on the state of play. I am not sure that the BBC always does a good job of providing a representative sample of opinions, but there is still value to the exercise.

Yesterday afternoon's Viewpoints article was based on the question "Is American politics broken?" For the most part the contributions were reasoned, reflecting a variety of points of view. If definitely was more informative than listing to Washington Journal this morning on C-SPAN, which simply alternated between Republican and Democratic congressman accusing each other of bad behavior. Therefore, what I enjoyed the most from the BBC article was a break from the partisan ping-pong provided by Iwan Morgan, who runs the programs at the Institute of the Americas, which is based at University College in London.

Morgan argued that "American politics is working exactly how the founding fathers intended." In other words the current situation was simply a demonstration of separation of powers in action. He then observed that the Founding Fathers had not anticipated the extreme polarization of views that characterizes the current situation.

This is a good point. The prevailing culture of the Founding Fathers believed that "reasonable men may differ." Differences were resolved by compromise. The process was frequently painfully arduous. However, it resulted in a Declaration of Independence that was approved unanimously and a Constitution that was ratified by all thirteen of the existing colonial territories (which then became "states of the union").

This culture no longer prevails. Facilitated by the Internet, every individual is entitled to voice an opinion as loud as possible. Whether or not that opinion may be reconciled with others through reason depends less than how many followers one can muster through Facebook or Twitter. As a result, the American political system has become a deformed dog with lots of little tails all trying to wag it. If I may continue that metaphor, the energy that goes into wagging all of those tails requires so much metabolic energy that, because the dog never gets a break to eat, it will probably starve to death.

The culture of the Founding Fathers emerged from a (relatively new at the time) practice known as the "Republic of Letters." Writing letters had become a medium through which "reasonable men" could share their opinions across great distances. I remember Internet evangelists preaching that the Internet would launch a "new generation" of the Republic of Letters. It didn't happen.

It didn't happen because the Republic of Letters was not simply a matter of "content exchange." It involved a community of participants who but both mental and physical effort into the acts of both writing and reading. Rather than cultivating a new generation of such a community (as Usenet did in the pre-Internet days), the technology of "social software" not only destroyed and remnants of the community but made it virtually impossible for a new such community to arise. As a result, we are now in a terra incognita that the Founding Fathers could not possibly have imagined, meaning that not only are political practices broken but so, too, are the mechanisms for repairing them.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Illicit Reading

Apparently, The New York Times Book Review, once the most austere section of that newspaper's Sunday edition, it planning a Sex Issue for the coming weekend. I was struck by the following sentence on the paper's Web site today promoting that issue:
A select group of writers, including Nicholson Baker, Alison Bechdel, Rachel Kushner, Geoff Dyer and Jackie Collins, will share their memories of the first illicit thing they ever read. They describe the mixture of fear, shame, elation and pure raw nerves they felt reading something without the endorsement of parents or teachers.
What struck me about that "select group" is that I could care less what any of them have to say on this matter.

On the other hand, here behind my own little public megaphone to the world, I have no trouble picking up that bait, since I remember my first experience very vividly. For that I can thank the city of Philadelphia and the management of the Free Library of Philadelphia. Those were the people who decided to pull Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer from the shelves of all of their library collections.

My guess is that, if you ask anyone who lives in Philadelphia, they will tell you that one of the best things about the city is that it is a short train ride to New York. Therefore, I figured that the best way to find out what all the fuss was about was to get on that train. I had no trouble finding a bookstore to get a copy. I even remember starting to read it on the train ride back to Philadelphia. I even remember that the Grove paperback (which I still have) had, as a preface, "The Greatest Living Author" by Karl Shapiro. I knew who Shapiro was because one of his poems was included in the American Literature collection used for junior-year English at my high school. If this was someone my high school respected, I should read what he had to say.

Shapiro excited my desire to read Miller for myself with a single sentence:
Let's assemble a bible from his [Miller's] work … and put one in every hotel room in America, after removing the Gideon Bibles and placing them in the laundry chutes.
The result was that my "first contact" with Tropic of Cancer was more one of solemnity that of any "mixture of fear, shame, elation and pure raw nerves." All that seemed to signify was that an authority I was willing to accept had declared Henry Miller to be an author that mattered, and it did not take me long to appreciate the warrants behind that declaration. Yes, the book was raw: nasty, brutish, and not particularly short. I seemed quickly to find my own pace for reading about his squalid conditions; so I never felt a need to slam the volume shut and shout, "Enough already!" The book had a pace that was missing from many of the books that I had been forced to read as part of my studies. As a result, reading the book was definitely a "first," but not because it had been declared illicit. Rather, it was my first contact with an author who really took the idea of writing as a craft seriously; and that is probably why, in my own reading experience, solemnity prevailed over all of those baser reactions from which the Free Library of Philadelphia had tried to protect me.

I should point out, by the way, that I did not feel particularly revolutionary at the time. Once I was within the Philadelphia city limits, I kept the book safely tucked away in its simple paper bag, the same bag I would have received had I purchased a copy of Anna Karenina. Then, when I got back to my parent's house, I gave the book its own MIT book cover. (This all happened during the summer after my freshman year, when I had my first summer job doing programming for a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania.) That book cover has been gone for some time, but the Black Cat paperback itself is still on my bookshelf as part of the Henry Miller collection.

See, the major impact that came from reading Tropic of Cancer was an intense curiosity to read more of Miller's work. To this day I still prefer Tropic of Capricorn, primarily because it has more of a sense of humor. Above all, however, I like his essays, particularly when he writes about neglected artists, as he did for the two volumes of his Air-Conditioned Nightmare series. As I have previously observed, that collection includes the best essay about Edgard Varèse I have read by any author. Perhaps, after all, there was an element of "pure raw nerves" to Miller's writing, since it was only through that quality that he could get to the essence of Varèse's work so astutely.

Plastic People of the Solar System?

Given the grief we are getting from just about every region on planet Earth, "getting away from it all" might entail traveling a significantly great distance. One would have thought that Titan, a moon of Saturn currently be scanned by the Cassini probe. However, according to a story on BBC News, Cassini has detected what appears to be naturally-occurring propylene. This is, by no means, a rare item on earth. It is strung into long chains (polypropylene) for many of the familiar products of the plastics industry. In other words, until Cassini stuck its nose into Titan, so to speak, we though of it as a synthetic compound. Since Cassini is rich in hydrocarbons, it is not beyond the imagination that propylene would form naturally there. On the other hand, it may turn out that Titan is the home of Franz Zappa's Plastic People and that The Plastic People of the Universe may have set their sights further than necessary.