Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Global Pissing Contest

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

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

Happy New Year!

Monday, December 30, 2013

A Ray of Hope for "Real Work"

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

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

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

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Local Interest

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

Friday, December 27, 2013

Better Ways to Rob a Bank

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

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

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Pardoning Alan Turing

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

Monday, December 23, 2013

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

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

Sunday, December 22, 2013

The Penalty of Forgetting History

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

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Who Will Tolerate How Much Annoyance?

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

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

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

Friday, December 20, 2013

Unexpected Improvisation

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

Thursday, December 19, 2013

The Latest Round of Illiteracy within the IT Community

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

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

How the Americans have Influenced the British Christmas

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

Saturday, December 14, 2013

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

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

Friday, December 13, 2013

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

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

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Fear of the Adventurous

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

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

"Person of the Year"

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

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

Monday, December 9, 2013

A Google Doodle for Grace Hopper

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

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

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

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Leonard Bernstein: Champion of the Middle-brow?

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Putting Software in Perspective

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

Friday, December 6, 2013

Remember the Man, not the Icon

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

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

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

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

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Putting Promotion in Perspective

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

Monday, December 2, 2013

Drones Cover the News

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Experimentation Reveals Evidence for Genetic Memory

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

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