Thursday, March 27, 2014

CNET Joins the User-Hostile Design Crew

The new CNET interface seems to be yet another nail in the coffin of those who continue to do their work on a laptop or desktop designed to support serious reading and writing. As someone who has always enjoyed the convenience of Page Up and Page Down buttons, rather that swooping pages with the stroke of a finger, I feel particularly victimized. However, the read addition of insult to injury was the hyperlink for comments about the interface using the most generic form, more interested in collecting personal information than in analyzing the impact of the interface change. Perhaps it is time to give up on CNET as a source of technology news.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Nothing Changes

Back when I was doing research as a member of the Xerox family, I encountered many for whom Elizabeth L. Eisenstein was almost some kind of high priestess. She had written a monumental (two-volume) tome entitled The Printing Press as an Agent of Change; so it should not have surprised me that she would inspire many to look to the copy machine as a comparable "agent of change" and to view similar media-related innovations in the same light. I must confess that I have yet to read that book in its entirety; but I have begun to approach it from the perspective of her reviewers, both positive and negative. A review by Shannon E. Duffy showed up on H-Net and received Eisenstein's blessing in a retrospective article she wrote for The American Historical Review (for a forum piece edited by Anthony Grafton).

One particular sentence from Duffy's article particular impressed me when I read that review:
Moreover, the competitive nature of the printing industry, which was driven by a desire for sales, provided a new, more public outlet for controversies and insured that what began as a scholarly dispute between theologians gained an international audience.
Remember that we are talking about the threshold of the sixteenth century, yet the tension between scholarly and mercantile pursuits is no different today than it was then. The fact is that, over the course of the centuries, the public airing of disputes has had a healthy history as a marketable commodity with far greater impact than any interest in the dissemination of knowledge through reading or other educational practices. If Tim Berners-Lee spent more time reading history, he might have realized that 1) the World Wide Web would become the largest possible public arena for such disputes and 2) there would be those clever enough to make a fast buck out of those disputes by selling advertising space on the "virtual walls" of that arena. Sadly, he still seems to think that the growth of knowledge is all that matters, even if much of Eisenstein's research chose to focus on the plethora of "unexpected results" (a phrase from Duffy's review) that followed in the wake of the printing press.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Self-Editing and its Discontents

After reading yesterday's post, I found three sentences that needed to be corrected because they did not make any sense, reminding me, one again, that self-editing is an invitation to garbled communication (if not worse)!

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

The Motive behind the Manuscript

Yesterday I used my national site on to write about Marie et Marion, the latest recording by Anonymous 4 on harmonia mundi to perform music from the Montpellier Codex. Taking my musicology studies seriously, I took issue with the fact that the Wikipedia entry for this manuscript described the music it contains as having been "composed." Those who have been following my posts on this site know that I have been fascinated with the fact that the very concept of "composing" did not exist (at least in any recognizable form) in the thirteenth century and only began to emerge in the sixteenth (which also happened to be century in which the printing of music emerged). More proper descriptions of the activities of the Montpellier monks would be that they were "compiling" or "documenting" music that was being "made in the field" (or in a more ecclesiastical setting), rather the way Béla Bartók and Zoltán Kodály did on their ethnomusicological adventures.

On the other hand, it would probably be fair to say that those monks did not see themselves as ethnomusicologists. If that was, indeed, the case, then why did they go to so much trouble? As one who is particularly interested in motivated action, I found myself asking just what motivated them to do this task. The simplest answer is that just about anything that any monk did was done "for the greater glory of God" (or words to that effect). While this may have been the primary motivation, it is worth observing that there is a fair amount of secular material in the codex, particularly on the subject of courtly love (thus accounting for "Marion" in the title of the new Anonymous 4 recording). Did the monks include this material, perhaps covertly, for the sake of a "guilty pleasure?"

That is certainly one possibility. Another is that they anticipated a remark that Martin Luther would make when he was compiling his own hymn book a few centuries later. He had no trouble appropriating secular tunes to go with the words of his hymns, and Albert Schweitzer's biography of Johann Sebastian Bach even goes so far as to claim that he was known to observe that the Devil cannot have all of the good tunes to himself! One could imagine the monks of Montpellier feeling the same way. They may not have ever said such a thing to anyone, but they still could have believed it!

Monday, March 17, 2014

A Mercenary Transition

About a month ago I wrote a post about the extent to which the Renaissance could be viewed as a "transitional age." Following the lead of Thomas Kuhn, I tried to make that case that the nature of any transition could be found in what were accepted as "normal practices." However, I did not say very much about the motive behind those practices and how they may have influenced change.

Recently, I have been doing more background reading on what those normal practices were in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries (and, as a sidebar, the role of geography in establishing the normality of those practices). In a paper that Nino Pirotta had published in the Journal of the American Musicological Society I found that he used the phrase "mercenary professionals" to describe those for whom the practice of music was a means of earning a living, rather than one of many intellectual pursuits, often practiced through the support of the church. It occurred to me that one of the key "transitions" of the Renaissance was the rise of market-based thinking through the introduction of currency and exchange that would begin to dislodge traditional sources of authority, whether clerical or temporal, with a "leveling of the playing field," so to speak, based on the power to buy and sell. Musicians thus became players on that field, where "normal" practices were shared with not only the members of craft guilds but also merchants. Put another way, the ancestry of Tin Pan Alley can be traced all the way back to the Renaissance!

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Do People Still Think That Way?

Reading John Wilwol's review of Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philisophy Won't Go Away by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, I was less interested in what she had to say about Plato and more struck by one of her introductory sentences:
I was trained as a philosopher never to put philosophers and their ideas into historical context, since historical context has nothing to do with the validity of the philosopher's positions.
I see from Goldstein's Wikipedia page that her academic background includes the City College of New York, UCLA, and Barnard College; and I have to say that, in the context (word deliberately chosen) of such academic diversity, I was a little surprised to encounter such a strong doctrinal position so entrenched. I am no stranger to it, since I have encountered it in my studies of literature and even music. Arguments between those extremists who believe that "context is everything" and those who hold that "all context is harmful distraction" continue to rage, although they are probably less entertaining than they used to be.

Still, it is probably disconcerting to think that one can devote one's entire academic career to the study of philosophy without considering, even if only in passing, the key ideas behind Randall Collins' The Sociology of Philosophies: A Global Theory of Intellectual Change. For that matter, it would seem to me that anyone who cannot tell the difference between the validity of a position and the consistency of argumentative reasoning has never bothered to pay very much attention to Bertrand Russell. My guess is that Goldstein simply decided that coming up with the sort of sentence that would grab the reader's attention is more important whether or not that sentence actually makes any useful sense. In writing that sentence, she has thus reinforced that general dismay I seem to always take over how MacArthur Fellowships get awarded!

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Wikipedia Comes of Age?

It does not seem that long ago that the very idea of accepting Wikipedia as an authoritative resource for any scholarly pursuit was regarded as a risky, if not totally undesirable, proposition. I therefore found it interesting that, in the conclusion of a letter appearing in the current (April 3) issue of The New York Review of Books taking issue with Freeman Dyson's review of the book Brilliant Blunders by Mario Livio, Michael Konrad's account of errors in Dyson's article concludes by advising the reader to consult "Wikipedia to get a far more insightful (and correct) history" of the careers of the scientists Dyson had discussed. Bearing in mind that any biographical account of the intellectual pursuits of an individual involve a hazardous minefield in which an opinion disguised as fact that can blow up in your face (consider Peter Brooks' "The Strange Case of Paul de Man" in the same issue), I still take this as an indication that there is value in Wikipedia as long as it is not used as some kind of all-purpose crutch.

Two years ago I even wrote a post suggesting that the free service provided by Wikipedia is preferable to the one provided by Encyclopædia Britannica, and I have yet to consider drawing upon the latter since then. Indeed, my articles for frequently use hyperlinks to Wikipedia for those readers who do not have access to the fee-based Grove Music Online. Going even further, in a recent piece about Carlo Grante's project to record the complete keyboard sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti, I even advised by readers to consult "a very valuable Wikipedia page that cross-indexes the catalog numbers provided by Kirkpatrick and Pestelli, as well as the earlier version by Alessandro Longo and an even earlier (and not particularly thorough) one by Carl Czerny."

The bottom line is that scholarship tends to involve a lot of grunt work, and most scholars realize that making the results of that effort readily available to the rest of the community advances the progress made by all. Where music history is concerned, the results have been not merely satisfactory but downright impressive. There is still the risk of using Wikipedia as a crutch, but that is true of just about any resource. Perhaps it is time to recognize that Wikipedia is now playing a valuable role in furthering many scholarly pursuits.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Government by Comedy

BBC Trending just put up an article discussing the impact of Barack Obama's appearance on Between Two Ferns on visits to The results seem to indicate that, at least in the short term, the impact was definitely a positive one. In is unclear how significant these results are, particularly because that "in the short term" qualifier cannot be overemphasized. However, in the longer term these results may add further data points to support the hypothesis that comedians on television are more trusted sources than just about anyone in the government, possibly (probably?) including the President of the United States. There is a tendency to say that this is just the best way to appeal to youth culture. On the other hand it may be worth considering that, in the political arena, there is nothing particularly new about trusting comedians. We are still more inclined to believe the witticisms of Will Rogers and Mark Twain than any official statement released at a Presidential press briefing. Perhaps we trust comedians to recognize bullshit, because bullshit is often the perfect source for a good joke (somewhat like chutzpah). On the other hand there is often an all-too-human tendency to laugh at a joke without necessarily getting what the joke really is. In other words, while we may accept the comedian as an authority, we are not always clear on his/her authenticity, which means that "policy by stand-up" can be just as flawed as "official story" press releases.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Sometimes the Cat is the Offended Party

ABC7 News ran a cat-gone-wild story from Oregon this morning. Apparantly, Lux, a 22-pound Himalayan, did not like having its tail pulled by Jessie, the infant son of Teresa Baker in Oregon. Lux reacted with a swipe to Jessie's forehead, drawing blood. Teresa's boyfriend then decided to separate Jessie from Lux … by kicking Lux. Lux' reaction was enough to send all of the humans to a bedroom, where they locked themselves in and called 911. Let us hope that the unnamed town in Oregon who knows enough about animal welfare to recognize that Lux was the abused party in this matter.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Neelie Kroes: The New Spokesperson for European Cluelessness

According to a report that appeared this morning on the BBC News Web site, Neelie Kroes, Vice-President of the European Commission, gave a speech at Cebit in Hannover at which she declared that billions of people around the world do not trust the Internet. There is something chilling and disconcerting about the fact that there are people in high positions of power who take this to be a significant insight. It is a sure sign that those who see themselves as world leaders are just as clueless about history as those who mindlessly evangelize Internet technology.

To the extent that computer networks were originally designed with little thought of oversight and regulation at the network level, the Internet is fundamentally anarchic. When access was limited to institutions with funding connections to the Advance Research Projects Agency at the Department of Defense, there was a top level of oversight to the extent that those who attempted to abuse the network risked being disconnected from it. (On the other hand some of them were hired for their expertise in finding cracks in the walls of security and became pioneers with a technology that, by all rights, should now be much further developed than it actually is.) However, as those who used to haunt Usenet recall full well, with the first opening of a more public access to what is now the Internet came (almost instantaneously) the first effort to use the network as a medium for advertising. This, in turn, led to the development of a major technology that is less concerned with broadcasting the same message over the entire Internet through spam techniques and more interested in harvesting and analyzing data about individual users for the sake of more "targeted" advertising.

From that point of view, while I sympathize with Angela Merkel's indignation at having been hacked by the National Security Agency (NSA), I wish that she had been more aware that NSA was not doing anything to her that Google was not already capable of doing (and probably was doing as part of their advertising business).

The bottom line is that there was never anything built into the Internet that warranted trust, nor has anything particularly effective been retrofitted. In the early days of this site, I liked to compare the Internet to the frontier town of Deadwood, which, at the time, was the focus of a fascinating series on HBO. The Internet is still Deadwood. All that has changed is that the city limits encompass an even larger area.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Eric Schmidt gets Scary (again)

Those who are not afraid to consider possible connections between futurism and fascism may find some food for thought in the latest proclamations of Google Chairman Eric Schmidt. Last night Bloomberg reporters Andy Fixmer, Brian Womack and Emily Chang ran an article on his participation in Oasis: The Montgomery Summit yesterday in Santa Monica. They were part of the select audience that got to hear Schimdt declare:
Robots will become omnipresent in our lives in a good way.
While Schmidt never came out with an explicit statement of that that "good way" would be, he offered one aspect of his thoughts about artificial intelligence:
Technology is evolving from asking a question to making a relevant recommendation. It will figure out things you care about and make recommendations. That’s possible with today’s technology.
Thus, one possible reading of his declaration may be that the "good way" will be one in which we are surrounded by robots telling us the "right" things to do. While that is far preferable to being surrounded by Daleks determined to exterminate us, I still feel that Schmidt is envisaging a "brave new world" in which the very concept of humanity that has evolved over several millenia will be compromised (if not "exterminated"). Of course there is also the possibility that Schmidt actually is a Dalek designed with a "friendlier user interface!"

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The Inadequate Scholarship of Reza Aslan

I recently started reading Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan. It is one of those books that I had wanted to get around to reading, particularly after having seen the San Francisco Opera production of Mark Adamo's The Gospel of Mary Magdalene. There may be weaknesses in the historical record for events in the Middle East in the first century, but it is hard not to be fascinated with that period.

I was quickly impressed by Aslan's talent as a storyteller. He is particularly good as establishing context for the events he wishes to describe. Much of his language goes into providing the reader with a sense of place, whether the place is in the Temple in Jersusalem or backwater Nazareth. Nevertheless, since I do a lot of scholarly reading, I have had a fair amount to trouble sorting out how much of his storytelling is grounded on authoritative sources and how much was created for the sake of literary impact.

Because he confines his notes to the end of the book as a series of paragraphs, rather than numbered items called out by specific phrases in the main text, his approach to establishing authority never rises about the level of casual. This leads me to worry that it is more inadequate than should be acceptable. Consider his description of the priests of the Jerusalem Temple. He devotes a rich paragraph to describing their elaborate attire, including the breastplate with twelve precious stones, one for each of the tribes of Israel. He then describes the urim and thummim as "a sort of sacred dice made of wood and bone that the high priest carries in a pouch near his breast and through which he reveals the will of God by casting lots."

His notes for the chapter in which his appears never cite a source for this. Since I had always held to the verse in Exodus that associates the urim and thummim with the breastplate, I have to say that I find the Wikipedia page a more useful source than Aslan. Indeed, even Aslan's concept of revelation is a bit of an overstatement, since, if the use of the urim and thummim were used for any sort of divination, it apparently never involved anything other that establishing guilt or innocence.

Zealot tells a good story. Most likely it is a synthesis of other stories, perhaps with a bit of inference added. I happen to be one of those readers who likes to know which "men behind the curtain" played a role in the creation of this story!

Monday, March 3, 2014

Forward-Looking Listeners

If I am to believe this morning's numbers from Google Analytics, then my account of Michael Tilson Thomas returning to Gustav Mahler's third symphony with the San Francisco Symphony received just as much attention as the one for the new Switchboard series of monthly recitals at the Center for New Music (CNM). Granted, it takes a lot fewer people to fill CNM than it does for Davies Symphony Hall. Nevertheless, it was very satisfying to see a full house at CNM (and probably even more so for the performers). I take this as recognition of the "breath of fresh air" provided by new music ensembles in San Francisco, which seems to register with an impact that can be compared with Mahler symphonies!