Friday, October 31, 2014

The Dirty Little Secret about Analytics

John Cage used to talk frequently about how he would consult the I Ching to make choices for him when composing music. What I remember most is when he said that the I Ching never made a bad decision. If a decision turned out to be problematic (leading, for example, to music that was impossible for a single performer to play), then Cage took this as an indication that he had formulated his question poorly.

This is not just an anecdote about avant-garde practices. It may also tell us something about what happens when Microsoft, Google, and Apple all decide that they need "market share" in the health care industry. This is just the latest data point in the litany of evidence as to why health care is in such a sorry state because industry and business groups feel it is necessary to see to the "health" of their revenue streams by telling expertly-trained doctors and nurses how to treat patients. These days it is all about getting everyone to invest in wearables that will automatically transmit all necessary "health care data" to some cloud site where the resulting data base can enjoy all the benefits of being massaged by the best analytic software that can be dreamed up by analysts (most of whom, of course, are business analysts, rather than health care practitioners).

The thing is that such a data base is ultimately no different from the I Ching. The quality of the answer you get depends on the quality of the question you ask. This is particularly true in non-routine situations. Good doctors know when they are stumped, but they also know that they are stumped because they have not yet figured out the right question to ask. The best ones persist until they finally land on that right question.

The problem is that we live (for over half a century now) in a world in which the judgment of an algorithm is always taken as superior to human judgment. Indeed, we are so addicted to that believe that we cannot conceive of an alternative. This latest phase in the industrialization of health care is yet another step in pushing the most valuable expertise of practitioners out of the system. In other words the price of a higher revenue stream will be a lot more sick people, many of whom will probably turn out to be incurable.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Marvel Thinks on the Scale of Marcel Proust

As a kid my interest in comic books pretty much evaporated when I discovered Mad Magazine (particularly after I read some of the Mad parodies of what used to be my favorite comics). However, as an undergraduate I had my first encounter with Marvel Comics. It seemed as if they were getting more hip as Mad began its decline; and, while my grasp of narrative theory was still many decades to come, I realized that the series was doing things with storytelling that I had not previously encountered. When Marvel first decided to venture into film, I was curious but skeptical; but many of the early efforts succeeded in hooking me.

Marvel is now a presence that cannot be ignored. So I was not surprised to read in a story filed yesterday on the BBC Newsbeat Web site that Marvel had announces its release schedule for films extending into 2019. This led me to think about past writing projects that were planned out and then realized over a significant duration of time. The most ambitious literary narrative would have to be Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time, which first began to take shape in 1909 and only concluded with the publication of the seventh volume, Finding Time Again, in 1927. Bearing in mind a recent effort to present James Joyce's Ulysses as a graphic novel, I suspect that Proust is probably not yet ready for the Marvel Universe, at least in a printed edition. On the other hand who know's what they could do with all that outpouring of idle chatter, most of which has more to do with connotation than denotation, if they decided to plan a series of films?

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Mozart the Islamic Terrorist?

According to an article on the Web site of the London Telegraph:
Speculation is rife that Isis, Lord Grantham’s yellow Labrador in the ITV period soap-opera [Downton Abbey, for those who need to be told], may be on the verge of being killed off, as programme bosses scramble to avoid any association with the terrorist group.
Julian Fellowes, who created the series, claims that any comment on the plot would be a "slope," by which I assume he means "slippery slope." However, things are already slipping pretty badly if we are to judge by another sentence in the Telegraph article:
Isis Martinez, a woman from Florida, started a global petition urging the media to “stop calling the terrorists by our name”, while an Australian construction firm urged staff not to wear uniforms, and Isis Equity Partners recently announced plans for a re-brand.
I guess we shall known when we have slipped into the gutter when a call goes out to change Sarastro's aria at the beginning of the second act of The Magic Flute.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

A New BFF?

My thoughts about Serge Koussevitsky have tended to be on the minimal side, and I have not had any particular qualms about keeping them there. I appreciate the many things he did to advance modernism during the twentieth century, particularly in the United States through his leadership of the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO). On the other hand I have never really been able to get beyond his inability to "get" Sergei Prokofiev's second symphony (Opus 40 in D minor), much to the composer's justified annoyance.

Recently, however, I have been reading the new Library of America collection of the writings of Virgil Thomson, the bulk of which are concert reviews. Thomson seems to have had great admiration for both Koussevitsky and how the BSO performed under his direction. Mind you, he may have been using both conductor and orchestra as sticks for bashing both John Barbirolli and the New York Philharmonic; and much of that beating seems to have arisen from the fact that modernism fared far more poorly in Thomson's home town of New York than it did in Boston.

Modernism aside, though, Thomson's perspective seems to have had an effect on how I listen to the few recordings of Koussevitsky in my collection. The most interesting of these is probably the one in the RCA anthology The Heifetz Collection. One of the CDs has Heifetz performing both the Opus 63 (second) concerto of Sergei Prokofiev and the Johannes Brahms Opus 77 violin concerto with Koussevitsky and the BSO. In the past I have tended to prefer the later recording of the Brahms that Heifetz made with Fritz Reiner conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. While I continue to be impressed with the meticulous detail that Reiner brought to that recording, I am now more willing to grant Koussevitsky's throbbing expressiveness as another valid reading of this concerto.

This probably will not send me out on an enthusiastic pursuit of more Koussevitsky recordings; but I think I am glad to have come to a mental state that is more willing to accept what he does on his own terms, as long as it does not lead to egregious misinterpretation!

Thursday, October 23, 2014

The Jazzy Side of Bach: An Impressive Predecessor

Regular readers know that I find it hard to resist writing about Johann Sebastian Bach as a master improviser whose talent would not be equalled until John Coltrane came into his own maturity. Much of this has to do with a capacity for improvisation imaginative enough to defer coming to closure for such a long period of time that it can drive some listeners crazy. Bach's skill at such jamming then finds its way into his work on composition in the form of what I still like to call his "and another thing" style, always coming up with one more thing to say before giving in to a perfect cadence. Imagine my surprise, then, to discover that Virgil Thomson was also aware of Bach having this jazzy side.

Consider this passage from one of his reviews:
The closer the performing conditions for Sebastian Bach’s concerted music are approximated to those of early eighteenth-century provincial Germany the more the music sounds like twentieth-century American swing.
To be fair, he wrote this on December 31, 1940, when he was reviewing the first time in the United States that the BWV 248 Weihnachtsoratorium was being performed as a single coherent concert piece. Coltrane would have been fourteen years old at that time. Also, Thomson was more interested in the style with which swing was executed, rather than the improvisatory practices of jamming. Nevertheless, it is humbling to know that my approach to Bach had been "scooped;" but I was delighted to discover that I had been scooped by such an impressive writer!

Monday, October 20, 2014

Remembering my Netbook

This morning Luke Westaway has an article on CNET that is basically a companion piece for his latest Adventures in Tech video. He tries to analyze the failure of netbooks to make it as a marketable item, ultimately "squashed by the iPad, and the dawn of tablets." He sees this displacement as a consequent of the antecedent proposition that netbooks "were never much fun to use."

I have known for some time that I am far from what marketers seek out as a representative sample. With that disclaimer, however, I have to make it clear that, when I bought my own netbook, it was not for "fun." At the time I had only one computer, and I was reluctant to take it on a trip I was planning. However, I am a writer; so I wanted to have something that would allow me to continue my writing practices while on the road. Thus, while I agree with Westaway that the netbook keyboard left much to be desired, at least it was a keyboard that was at least moderately conducive to my typing habits, which is more than I can say about the emergence of a tablet technology that continues to strike me as little more than a fancy toy. I also agree with Westaway that I could not argue about the price of a netbook. Ultimately, it served me better than I expected. I even got to view a YouTube video of ballets about which I wanted to write.

These days I travel as little as possible. I now have a MacBook Pro, which is an excellent traveling companion. A set of headphones to plug into my iTunes library usually escalates an airplane flight to the lower level of tolerable. Indeed, on one occasion when United bought the farm so badly that we had to change our plans to a train from Newark to Pittsburgh, the increased legroom over a longer period of time served me well while I was getting to know the keyboard music of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach. I suspect that, as long as the toymakers see no need to provide me with the sort of keyboard necessary for the writing I do, I shall continue to live in the world of laptops in the hope that the product line is never abandoned.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

International Readers for my "National" Site

I have come to expect that the readership levels on my national site fall far short of those on my San Francisco site. Still, I track both of these site with Google Analytics. It gives me a certain sense of humility with regard to "national" readership; but, every now and then, it surprises me with bumps of interest on the national level. Of course the main thing that Google Analytics tells me about those who read the national site is that most of them are from the San Francisco Bay Area. For a while there is been a level of interest in New York that tends to follow, but never rises to the level of, Bay Area interest. This morning, however, I discovered that, while New York interest has fallen off, it is at the same level as interest coming from Berlin.

I know that I have had overseas readers sprinkled around my Google Analytics data for some time. These often involve occasional surges in unlikely places, such as the Philippines. However, having lived in Singapore, I know how those living in area in which classical music does not received a lot of attention tend to read just about anything they can find on the topic. Berlin, on the other hand, is quite a different matter. I suspect that Berliners have plenty of sources to consult without having to worry about renegade views from San Francisco.

One possibility is that this bump is due to a recent piece I wrote about the harmonia mundi album of Ludwig van Beethoven's chamber music for cello and piano featuring Jean-Guihen Queyras on cello and Alexander Menikov on piano. I know that Melnikov has performed several times in the United States, even making it out to San Francisco; but I suspect that Queyras is still known here only through his recordings. On the other hand both of them are probably much better known among the music lovers in Berlin; so perhaps there is a "critical mass" of them curious about American impressions of how they perform as a duo!

Friday, October 17, 2014

Anthony Tommasini Misses the Point

The Web site for The New York Times has the review by Anthony Tommasini of the performance given by the London Philharmonic Orchestra at Carnegie Hall, which will appear in tomorrow print edition. This was the same program that was given here in San Francisco this past Monday night. I was particularly struck that Tommasini used the adjective "enigmatic" to describe Dmitri Shostakovich's Opus 65 symphony in C minor (his eighth). I have heard this symphony described in many ways, but never as enigmatic.

Perhaps this was because Tommasini tried to take a context-free approach to it. This would overlook two critical elements of context that are at least somewhat connected. The more important is one that Scott Foglesong raised in a pre-concert talk the last time this symphony was performed by the San Francisco Symphony. Foglesong provided the context of the agonizingly prolonged battles between the Soviet armed forces and the invading Nazis. By the time Shostakovich completed Opus 65 in September of 1943, Russia had lived through both Leningrad and Stalingrad; and I tend to agree with Foglesong that Shostakovich had a strong case of war-weariness when it worked on this symphony. This then takes us to the second point of context, which is Shostakovich's interest in Gustav Mahler, a perfect source of inspiration when contemplating the sorrows of the world and man's helplessness in the face of all of them.

Here in San Francisco, Music Director Vladimir Jurowski's interpretation of Opus 65 seemed to register with much of the audience in Davies with little difficulty. Indeed, during the intermission of the piano recital I attended on Tuesday night, it seemed as if almost everyone wanted to share their impressions of Opus 65, rather than talk about the recitalist. Tommasini is probably right in claiming that the premiere performance of Opus 65 "baffled audiences and the autocratic Soviet officials who oversaw culture." My personal opinion is that the latter group of listeners were too dense to get the message, while the former group dared not do so. We, on the other hand, have the advantages of a broader view of history and the freedom to think what we wish. If nothing about Opus 65 left San Francisco audiences perplexed, why was Tommasini sympathizing with the Russians?

Myopic Elitism

According to a post on the ArtsBeat blog of The New York Times, the next TED conference will be a one-day gathering to ponder the question: "What is the best Broadway can be?" This seems like a vivid example of our inability to look into the past beyond a distance of 24 hours. Here we have one institution that used to be a ritual celebration allowing corporate elites to rub shoulders with "the best and the brightest" hand-picked by Richard Wurman deciding to ponder another institution, which, over the course of about a century, has deteriorated from a major form of popular entertainment to an evening (or matinee) spectacle that only the elite can afford. The good news is that dramatic creativity has plenty of outlets in far more modest settings across this country; but, in that world of market-based thinking that I bemoaned yesterday, creativity is no longer of interest to those in power unless it can be converted into economic value.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

One Cheer for the Liverpool Everyman Theatre

While I continue to take a dim view of competitions and prizes based on matters of aesthetic judgment, I have to say that I was pleased with the awarding of the 2014 Ribe Stirling Prize for architecture. Watching World Service News on television over lunch, I appreciated being given a brief tour of each of the shortlisted candidates; and I have to say that the Liverpool Everyman Theatre caught and sustained my attention most of all. By the same count I have to say that, however striking its appearance may be, the more I see of the Shard. If ever there were a monument to the many dimensions of capitalism, the Shard would have to be it, even more so than the old World Trade Center buildings. It is one thing to acknowledge the massive amount of power that has now accrued to commitment to market-based thinking. However, like Max Weber, I believe we should devote more attention to the corrupting influence of that thinking, rather than celebrating it with architectural monuments.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

What Price Massive Revenue?

According to an item on the ABC7 News Web site, the Salesforce Dreamforce conference is expected to bring in $100 million. Last night at the SFJAZZ Center, a lot of irate people in the audience probably want to know who will benefit from all of that money and how it will be put to good use. They are the ones who missed the beginning of last night's first recital in San Francisco Performances Piano Series because they were stuck in traffic. As if to add insult to injury, after the concert they (along with the rest of us) were bombarded by the mega-decibels coming from the mother of all parties in the Civic Center. Now I am willing to admit that the Giants probably also had a hand in last night's traffic problem, but congestion has been a long standing problem in the city of San Francisco. So how much of that $100 million will be applied to preventing such problems to arise the next time the city is hosting one of these massive conferences? Enquiring minds want to know!

Monday, October 13, 2014

The Messenger Could Have Done a Better Job

I was glad to see the Al Jazeera English report about a possible change in the position of the Catholic Church on homosexuality; but I worry that a headline like "Bishops push Vatican to embrace homosexuals" might turn out to be counterproductive!

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Is Comcast Being Hacked?

For about half a week I have noticed that specific channels have been unavailable through my Comcast box. Over that period I have watched BBC World Service News go away, come back on Saturday morning, and be gone again later that day. This morning I noticed that Al Jazeera English had been lost, having been my primary alternative to BBC during these "troubles." There have also been some interesting examples of channels, such as BBC America and Showtime, which are unavailable but are accessible through their HD alternatives.

According to the Comcast Customer Service Web site, everything is in great shape. All they know is whether or not there is a signal for my set-top box to detect. They do not care about any of the specifics of that signal. At least through the automated phone service I have been able to confirm that this is a real problem; but, of course, no specifics are to be had. Given the current tenor of the times, it would not surprise me if this is all the result of some external hacking. (Is someone over at AT&T trying to bring down Comcast channel by channel?) What particularly interests me, however, is that this has all the earmarks of a problem with software confronting service technicians who are primarily trained in fixing hardware. Is it only a matter of time before the whole machine stops?

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Do We Need a Conspiracy Theory about Education?

"How Bad Are the Colleges?," Christopher Benfey's article in the latest issue of The New York Review, provides a reasonable account of how badly higher education has deteriorated at even the most elite universities (while, at the same time, skewering the book he is reviewing trying to make the same case). He does this without even adding the student debt problem to the mix. However, these days I tend to apply follow-the-money logic to any major problem; and this leads to a question that neither Benfey nor the author he is reviewing dares to ask.

Unfortunately, the question has all the earmarks of a conspiracy theory: Could it be that those moneied powers behind every policy decision our government makes want to undermine the entire framework for education, at all levels, in our country? After all, those powers live by the sword of consumerism: They prosper when people buy their stuff, whether it is breakfast cereal or health insurance; and, as a corollary, their revenue stream benefits most from those who buy on impulse. The very idea that people should be capable of reasoning skills behind the decisions they make in matters such as how they see to their medical care, what they eat, what they drive, and, yes, what kind of education their kids get, is anathema to impulse buying.

Back in 1951 Cyril M. Kornbluth wrote a science fiction story entitled "The Marching Moron." He envisaged a dystopian future in which the intelligent do not produce as rapidly as those referred to in the title and, for all intents and purposes, go extinct. As I see it, this would be an ideal world for those who make their money off of impulse buying. So could it be that there is a strategy in play aimed at achieving the extinction of intelligence through the planned deterioration of our educational system?

Friday, October 10, 2014

Fight Back Against the Politicians!

Election Day is near. So we have any number of volunteers manning telephones to tell you how you are supposed to vote. Unlike the better endowed commercial institutions, they cannot afford robocalls to invade your privacy. These are, believe it or not, flesh-and-blood individuals who think they are aiding the democratic system.

I have decided that the best way to deal with them it to teach them some manners. As soon as one of those hesitating voices says anything about what is on my ballot, I remind them that they should begin by asking:
Am I interrupting anything?
Obviously, this is not part of the script they have been given. Some are immediately flummoxed and hang up the phone (which may take away the personal gratification of you hanging up on them). Others, try to bull on ahead, in which case you can remind them of their lack of proper telephone etiquette. If they give them an argument, you can then tell them they just screwed up getting your vote. Basically, there are any number of ways to turn their invasion into your entertainment, which may be the only way to get those idiots on the right learning curve.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Easy Come, Easy Go

I cannot say I was surprised to read that yesterday's biggest gain of the year on the Dow index was followed by today's biggest loss of the year. Now was I surprised that the size of the biggest loss was greater than the size of the biggest gain. Nevertheless, it is hard to avoid thinking that this is just another gambling game where the tables are rigged in favor of a too-big-to-fail elite and against the rest of us. If the very idea of money is a fiction of convenience, then I suspect that the Dow, if not the New York Stock Exchange, is one big fiction of inconvenience!

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

The Virtue (of Vice) of Keeping Busy

When retirement was first thrust upon me, I felt as if my greatest enemy was idleness. I felt that, if I did not keep my mind totally engaged for all of my waking hours, that it would suffer for lack of exercise. However, I have built up steam in my writing for, I find that I have now built myself a task queue, partly as a result of the impact that my writing has had. From this I have discovered that not only can that queue not be taken care of on any given day but also that I need to give myself breaks if particular tasks of that queue are to be given the attention they deserve. Those breaks often involve afternoon naps, facilitated by my habit of getting up around 4 AM to swim laps for about half an hour. Somehow I have come to recognizing that keeping busy all of the time can be counterproductive and that the breaks I take (and how I take them) have become a fundamental part of my game plan to work through my task queue in productive manner. I suspect that there are work cultures out there that appreciate this approach. However, it took my getting out of the Silicon Valley rat race to find that appreciation for myself.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Believe None of What you Read?

Something fishy may be going on in Robert F. Worth's article, "The Pillars of Arab Despotism," in the latest issue of The New York Review. This piece is, in part, a review of Juan Cole's latest book, The New Arabs: How the Millennial Generation Is Changing the Middle East. Worth clearly does not buy Cole's arguments, but I have to wonder whether he is more interested in grinding axes, rather than defeating propositions. For one thing he describes Cole as "a prominent liberal blogger and scholar of the Middle East." Worth himself is currently a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, writing his own book about the Arab Spring and its aftermath. This is a sufficiently reputable establishment that one wonders whether or not Cole's description was intended as a swipe at Cole for not having more legitimate credentials. Worth's biographical statement also describes him as "a frequent contributor to The New York Times Magazine." At the very least there is a distinctive odor of one writer whose work holds up through the editing process disparaging another who lives in the world of unedited blog posts.

This is the new world the Internet has made. Back when I was part of the evangelical promotion of "knowledge management," I remember that one of the slogans was, "We are drowning in information and thirsty for knowledge." Actually, we are drowning in opinions; and we lack any kind of "life preserver" for determining which of those opinions have any warranted substance.