Saturday, September 27, 2014

Inspiration or Rip-Off?

Michael Cooper is all excited about the documentary that Ethan Hawke made about the 87-year old piano teacher Seymour Bernstein. On the basis of his article for The New York Times, his enthusiasm may be justified. Nevertheless, he says nothing about the fact that the title of the film, Seymour: An Introduction has a precedent. Those of my generation will probably recognize it as the title of the penultimate published novella by J. D. Salinger. My guess is that Hawke selected the title as an in-joke calculated to filter out the unwashed masses from the company of the non-phony (to appropriate from Salinger) hipsters. However, knowing what we know about both the author and those now managing his estate, I have to wonder whether anyone was consulted about this selection of title. Whoever is now responsible for Salinger's legacy may view this as an unauthorized rip-off rather than a well-intentioned homage.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

A Wakeup Call for Apple?

I suppose there are still globalization evangelists out there who like to preach that, in a highly-connected world, a good day for Apple is a good day for everyone. The fact that they never seem to consider that this proposition has an equally invalid inverse would suggest that these guys are incredibly stupid by even the most generous standards or that they know full well that they are pulling off a con of "global" proportions. In either case today is a day when the chickens of that inverse proposition have come home to roost. As reported on today's BBC Business news (and probably just about everywhere else) Apple stock took a 3.5% dive in the wake to the catastrophic mismanagement of the latest release of the iOS operating system. That dive has now reverberated across Wall Street; and, according to my latest global spot-check, it is being felt by just about all other major markets, with the possible exception of Japan.

The irony is that it was hard not to see this as a train-wreck about to happen. Those of us who rely of OS X when it comes to doing "real work" know that Apple software development expertise has been on the skids for several years. For the most part we were willing to accept the hypothesis that Apple had decided to put all of its best talent into the software side of its mobile business, a process that some of us like to call "iOS-ification." In the current situation, the bad news may be that this hypothesis is true, meaning that, even where their most-used software is at stake, Apple simply cannot muster the talent for reliable software development. This may be because "the best and the brightest" no longer want to work for Apple (which may be for any number of reasons, including the absence the the charismatic Steve Jobs); but another explanation is that our whole approach to education has been reduced to such a shambles that, in any area of expertise, "the best and the brightest" are no longer that good and are no capable of much more than pale energy-saving brilliance.

In other words the whole reaction to both Apple stock and global markets in general may simply be a matter of shooting the messenger. It may also involve the significant amount of trading that is now enabled by software, rather than human judgement. In other words not only has the messenger been shot; but also it may well be the case that no one is around to read the message!

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Stealing from the Best of Them

Given the number of times I am subjected to Max Bruch's first violin concerto (Opus 26 in G minor), I probably write enough about it already. However, my writing usually deals with why a particular soloist (or sometimes conductor) deserves attention for an approach to a warhorse that is already being played to death. On this site, however, I can write about less conventional matters, like why I was drawn to, and still enjoy, this concerto in the first place.

It has nothing to do with usual criteria for either performance of composition. Rather, it has to do with what caught my attention in the first place. It also refers to how hack musicians in the entertainment industry often survive by their skills in appropriation, stealing from the best but never from the obvious. In the first movement of this concerto, anyone of my generation should be quick to recognize how a relatively insignificant bit of bridge material became the basis for the theme of the PERRY MASON television series.

According to Wikipedia, the composer was Fred Steiner. He graduated in composition from Oberlin in 1943, and his page is definitely worth visiting simply for the sake of appreciating the breadth of his achievements. Ironically, in the wake of all that success, he went back to school, getting a doctoral degree in musicology from USC in 1981 with a thesis on the work of Alfred Newman. His many achievements may be consigned to the insignificance of hack work produced on spec, but this was a man who knew his stuff. That knowledge seems to have included a knowledge of how to appropriate without losing your personal stamp in the process!

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Handicapping New Drama on Television

I just read Bill Carter's account of the ratings numbers for television last night on the Web site for The New York Times. I was glad to see that The Blacklist is still going strong. I just watched my DVR recording of last night's episode. There is something delightfully fascinating about its capacity to flirt with absurdity at just about every turn in the plot. It almost makes we wish that there would be an EMMY award for Willing Suspension of Disbelief. I do think it is too much of a spoiler to say that the bit about the band getting back together was a bit too predictable, but that brief moment was too minor to cramp the overall style.

My wife and I seem to play this game involving who makes the decision to bail when. In the case of Madame Secretary, we were both ready to give up when the opening credits began to roll. I do not care if they eventually cook up a good plot, I just do not want to be in the same room with those people. Where Scorpion was concerned, it looked like we crossed wires: Each of us thought the other wanted to stick with it. Fortunately, it did not take long for us to resolve that confusion. As far as I am concerned, I am getting enough message about genius being an excuse for infantile behavior from Manhattan (although I got a real kick out of the peyote trip); I do not need Scorpion to give me any more of it.

Next Monday things will start to get tricky, though. We have not yet upgraded our DVR to record more than two programs at the same time. Next Monday the 10 PM slot settles in with Blacklist, Castle, and the new home for NCSI: Los Angeles, each of which is generous with characters who tend to know more about reading and writing than most of the authors of book reviews I encounter these days. Fortunately, our On Demand service will rescue us from our predicament!

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Second-Class Metadata

One advantage to viewing the world through the lens of an RSS reader is that you learn how negligent many information sources can be about their metadata. Where journalism is concerned, we readers already have to contend with a pathetic decline in editing quality. In the RSS world there is a good chance that editors have no idea that metadata sources exist, let alone that they might carry some significance for readers, as well as search engines.

For the rest of us, however, metadata errors may be treated like those little bits of editorial incompetence that The New Yorker collects for available space at the bottom of their columns. The RSS feed for ABC7 news in San Francisco turned up a doozy of a summary this morning:
At San Francisco International Airport federal agents found opium inside 66 bars of hallowed out soap.
I suppose it is possible that there was an editor who did not think this was erroneous. Perhaps (s)he just believed that opium was the religion of the people.

Monday, September 15, 2014

"World Order" and its Discontents

I have only just begun to read "The New World Disorder," Michael Ignatieff's latest contribution to The New York Review; and already my head is swirling with thoughts about the topic. For some time I have been trying to figure out how to set down in writing an argument to the effect that the very concept of governance now seems to have failed. Now I figure I shall hold off on that until I read Ignatieff in his entirety. On the other hand there are a few points about that very concept of "order" that I feel I can get off my chest right now.

The most important seems to have originated with Henri Bergson (even if I first discovered it by way of Henry Miller). This has to do with the premise that the very concept of "disorder" simply indicates that mind has not yet come up with a way to impose order on the associated stimuli. For example, at the end of the First World War, both intellectuals and diplomats looked around the world and saw vast tracts of geography that seemed to be subjected to the disorder of tribal thinking that tended to be ill-defined and/or fluid. As a result the Western world, in its self-appointed superiority, went around drawing boundaries around regions whose inhabitants neither needed nor wanted them. In other words they saw order where "enlightened" intellectuals saw disorder. Should it surprise anyone that, eventually, those inhabitants would find ways to push back and reclaim the land as they had chosen to inhabit it, restoring the concept of a caliphate?

Friday, September 12, 2014

The Second Time is the Charm

Those of us interested in new music have begun to take for granted that fact that just about any opera company worth its salt is going to make some kind of commitment to bringing brand-new works into its repertoire. I have now reached an age at which I can say I have been fortunate enough to experience a generous number of such premiere productions, some of which have left me with some very fond memories. The problem is that, unless someone has taken the trouble to make a first-rate video document, those memories are all I have. I have been straining my opera-going recollections; and, for the life of me, I cannot come up with an opera company that brought one of those premieres back in a later season. There have been plenty of operas that have migrated to other companies, sometimes with a change in the production team, as was the case when John Adams' Doctor Atomic was picked up by the Metropolitan Opera a few years after its premiere with the San Francisco Opera. However, Doctor Atomic has not subsequently returned to the War Memorial Opera House in any staging whatsoever.

I am therefore happy to report that I have finally found an exception. I read today on the Web site of the London Telegraph a review about the return of Mark-Anthony Turnage's Anna Nicole to Covent Garden. Furthermore, it was a very positive review, suggesting that there was more to the opera than the shock value of "first exposure" (pun sort of intended). I take that as a very positive sign, and I am not writing this with tongue in cheek. New music needs for than "first impressions" experiences far more than the classics do, simply because mind needs time to adjust to the fact that it is new. This is not just a matter of in-the-moment adjusting. It also involves after-the-fact reflection. So, when a piece gets revived a couple of years after its premiere, anyone who experienced it the first time around is bringing a whole new set of baggage to the return performance. If such processes are not allowed to kick in, we may as well accept that all new works are to be used once and then simply disposed; and, if that is the case, why bother commissioning them in the first place?

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Follow the Polls Off a Cliff

While I appreciate Al Jazeera English's commitment to keeping a close eye on the referendum in Scotland, I fear they are looking too close. It now seems as if they are running daily articles on the latest poll of how Scots plan to vote. Admittedly, these come from wire services, rather than their own staff. However, no one seems to be in the loop when it comes to qualifying numbers with respect to their statistical significance. Unfortunately, all Al Jazeera English is doing is relaying data from one place to another. However, in this case data that has not been subjected to rigorous interpretation techniques is no better than statistical noise. Al Jazeera English readers deserve better.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Why We Have an Obesity Problem

There is little need to comment on these few sentences that appeared on an ABC7 Web page:
The Olive Garden offered its first-ever "Never Ending Pasta Pass." 
For $100, you get all the pasta, salad, bread and soda you can consume for seven weeks. 
On Monday afternoon, the chain started selling 1,000 of these passes, which quickly sold out. 
There's also an annual promotion right now, which lets you eat all the pasta you want on one visit for $9.99. 
And if you want to bring food home, that's OK because doggie bags are allowed.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Moral Indignation is like Teaching a Pig to Sing

My favorite Mark Twain quote is:
Never try to teach a pig to sing. It's a waste of time, and it annoys the pig.
Facts & Arts ran a reprint of a statement issued by Human Rights Watch Director Bill Frelick on the subject of ISIS. His title was:
Why ISIS is immune to 'naming and shaming'
He makes his case well but then concludes with the sentence:
And even if the perpetrators are beyond shaming, the moral imperative to name names has never been greater.
The question, however, is who is either served or damaged by such a moral imperative. ISIS seems to be taking their playbook from the Nazis, who, in turn got it from Friederich Nietzsche. In Nietzsche's words, they see themselves as "beyond good and evil," at least as those concepts are defined by those they oppose. As a result, having one's name named may actually be treated as a badge of honor, recognition of "a job well done," if you please. The effect is the same as annoying the pig. The real question is how one can respond to such actions without losing one's own moral compass; and, since we now seem to be at the mercy of governmental systems that no longer have such a moral compass, my guess is that we shall never see anything more than dithering jawboning.

Helen Mirren Gets It

In a preview piece for an interview with Helen Mirren that will be broadcast tomorrow night in the United Kingdom on Magic FM, Hannah Furness, Arts Correspondent for the London Telegraph decided to sample some of Mirren's thoughts about the recent incident of hacking into personal cell phones to download nude photographs. Mirren was not particularly kind to either side of this issue. Furness' headline quoted her as saying: "Who on earth would put nude photos of themselves on their phones anyway?" In the article itself, Mirren followed up on this remark by observing that people have not yet learned how to avoid doing stupid things where Internet technology is involved. (To be fair, she used much politer language.)

The fun part came, however, with a quote of her thoughts about the hackers:
I think only women’s phones have been targeted because only 12 year old boys want to look at it. There are an awful lot of 12 year old boys, who are anything between the age of 11 and 45. They think it’s really funny and fun to look at pictures of naked girls.
I wonder whether, in the full interview, she acknowledged that her age bracket probably includes a fair chuck of the Silicon Valley community, particularly those involved with founding and running new companies. Had she taken a broader view, she probably would have acknowledge that there are plenty of men out there who never grow out of being twelve-year-old boys! 

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Technology Enables Living with a Problem, Rather than Solving It

Apparently inspired by Google, the Chinese search company Baidu is now branching into innovating products. According to a report on the BBC News Web site, one of the first steps in that direction has been the announcement of a new electronic implementation of "smart" chopsticks. Stripping away the hype, this amounts to building sensors into a chopstick. In the first release the sensors do not detect very much, temperature and sodium content are the two properties names specifically in the article. The long-range plan, however, is that a single chopstick should be endowed with enough sensors to let you know whether or not your food is safe to eat.

China seems to share with the United States a common predicament regarding food safety. This amounts to the extent to which any regulatory authorities that are created almost immediately find themselves in an arms race with the food processing industry. It is as if the latter has decided that it is more profitable to evade regulation, rather than commit to obeying it. Thus we now have a technology whose long-term goal is to compensate for the fact that regulators are always on the losing side of this battle.

Needless to say, it is unlikely that this new technology will be cheap. Indeed, we shall probably see soon enough a direct correlation between "smart" and "expensive." At some point, probably in the near future, only the rich will be protected from the foibles of the food processing industry. However, ours being a democratic society, the poor will still have a choice: be smart enough to eat what is safe without the assistance of technology or die of food poisoning.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Frances McDormand in Venice

Frances McDormand was given a "visionary talent" award at the Venice Film Festival?

You betcha!