Friday, January 30, 2015

Living with Bad Technology

Would you fly on an MD-90 if you knew that the cockpit door can malfunction in a way that prevents the pilot from entering? Would you fly any airplane if this case is representative of how they are built? Just say "No!" to sloppy thinking about technology!

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Does Context Matter in the Face of Controversy

I doubt there will be any disagreement about the controversial nature of the cover Newsweek designed to highlight their "What Silicon Valley Thinks of Women" article (reproduced, for those who have not seen it, on the an ABC7 Web page). It is also not surprising that there are readers calling the cover "obscene, sexist and contributing to sexism" (quoting from that same Web page). However, like the dog that did not bark in the night, it would appear that no one bothered to ask whether the cover was designed by a man or a woman and if the answer to that question would influence how it is judged. For better or worse, the image previews one position on the question raised by the article. If a woman designed it to make sure that readers recognize that particular side of the issue, should she be held to task for committing an "obscene" act; or is she just giving the mule a sharp blow to the head to get its attention?

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The Latest "Authority" on Artificial Intelligence

Those who enjoy irony will probably be amused that the latest voice to speak out about the dangers of artificial intelligence getting out of control is Bill Gates, whose Microsoft has flooded the world with user-hostile dumb technology.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

No Chopin Anthology

Readers of my national site know that I have a particular interest in recorded anthologies. These often require considerable listening time to prepare for writing. However, that listening establishes a context that often provides a sharper view of any individual composition. Even after I have written my piece, many of these collection hold up to frequent repeat listening experience, as I continue to flesh out a broader perspective of music history that is as much auditory as literary.

Such readers will probably also have observed that I have yet to write about any major collection of music by Frédéric Chopin. The fact is that I do not have any such collection, nor am I particularly interested in seeking one out. For overall breadth in my understanding of Chopin, I have long relied on my collection of the complete recordings that Arthur Rubinstein made for RCA. His coverage of Chopin may not have been comprehensive, but I have made up for any missing pieces with other recordings. Furthermore, most of the major chunks of the Chopin repertoire were recorded more than once by Rubinstein; so this collection offers the luxury of multiple points of view, particularly where the major warhorses are concerned.

Meanwhile, I have plenty of other recordings by many different pianists, all of which properly prevent me from falling back on trying to assume that any of Rubinstein's recordings are, in any way, "ultimate authority" recordings!

Saturday, January 24, 2015

On Self-Education Through the Internet

If we are to accept the wisdom of Henry Kett, whose 1814 publication The flowers of wit, or a choice collection of bon mots included the observation "that every man who is his own lawyer, has a fool for a client," what are we to make of Zach Sims? According to Joe Miller, reporting from Davos for BBC News, Sims dropped out of Columbia before completing his degree and, as a result, may hold no academic credentials higher than a high school diploma. Nevertheless, the attendees of the World Economic Forum appear to be in his thrall for the success of his creation Codeacademy. This is a three-year-old Web site that enables visitors to learn six popular languages at no charge. On the basis of the analytics for that site, Sims can apparently claim that he has 26 million students.

Personally, I think that this says more about the Davos attendees than it does about Sims ingenuity. In parallel to Kett's insight, one of my former students (best left unnamed) once declared, "Any idiot can program a computer … and many of them do." It would be fairer to call Codeacademy a valuable resource for skill acquisition, rather than a site for education. Yet it seems as if the rich and mighty at Davos are more inclined to see Sims and his approach as a harbinger for a new age of education. In this case, however, it is neither Sims nor anyone using his site who is the greater fool. The greatest fools are those gullible enough to pass off what Codeacademy does as education. However, since they have been immune to any number of other reality checks, I doubt that they will see the light in this situation.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Nine Cheers for ABC News

It is unclear how much accuracy of content really matters in a State of the Union address. Those who hear what they wanted to hear are happy. Those who heard what they did not what to hear are unhappy. Whether or not what either side heard is actually accurate no longer seems to be part of the equation.

In such a time in which communication seems to serve little more than contention, ABC News should be cited for at least trying to subject Obama's text to serious fact checking. To do this they broke the text down into nine issues and assigned each issue to a separate fact checker, presumably one experienced enough to understand the bigger picture and assess how (if at all) what Obama said fits into that picture. Needless to say, a project of this scope is beyond anything ABC is likely to broadcast. (Given the current state of media in this country, it is probably beyond anything PBS is likely to broadcast.) Recognizing that this material is better given a close reading, rather than television viewing, ABC News then created a Web page for the full analysis, complete with hyperlinks to each of the nine issues.

BBC News has a good reputation for using their Web site to dig deeper into analyses that will not easily "fit" their broadcasting on either radio or television; and it is good to see that ABC News has made a noble attempt to adopt that practice.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The Hazard of Posturing

I am curious as to whether or not the Republican response to the State of the Union is going to try to assume some kind of high moral ground. This is one of those cases in which that kind of posturing can only end up defying logic. Still, the fate of any individual who tries to get up on a really high horse is that (s)he will eventually fall into a really high pile of horse manure.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Sweeping the Problem Under the Rug

Winnie Byanyima, Executive Director of Oxfam, will apparently be co-chair of this year's World Economic Forum. On the surface this looks like she will have a bully pulpit to bring serious issues about world poverty to the attention of the rich and mighty. However, I have come to believe that, when the rich and mighty gather, they are interested in little more than becoming richer and mightier. Thus, while her pulpit may have a prominent location, she may discover that most, if not all, of the congregation has gathered in another chapel.

Consider a recent Oxfam statistic that merited an article on the BBC News Web site. The basic finding is that by 2016 the wealthiest 1% will control more than 50% of the world's wealth. In other words that 1% will be wealthier than the total of the remaining 99%. However, before gasping too deeply, we should consider the work of the BBC's own statistician, Anthony Reuben, who calculated how much wealth it takes to be part of that 1%. The answer is "just over half a million pounds." To put that in local terms, just about anyone owning a house in San Francisco will qualify.

The problem is that there is now a distinction between "rich" and "super-rich," which, thanks to the ability of the super-rich to control the media (and, as a corollary, world governments) is being conveniently ignored. What we might call "extreme wealth" is limited to a very narrow slice at the top of that 1% category. How narrow is that slice? This would require deeper statistical study than has yet been made public. My guess is that those in that slice know how narrow it is and also know that they have the power to maintain it, if not make it narrower. Do we really expect that they will apply any of that extreme wealth to evening out the overall distribution, perhaps to a point at which we no longer have to worry about statistics for extreme poverty?

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Does the Internet Undermine Utilitarianism?

Tim Parks' NYRBlog post about the Charlie Hebdo affair, "The Limits of Satire," basically tries to analyze the situation from a utilitarian point of view. In other words he is more interested in the usefulness of satire than in questions of freedom of speech (or, for that matter, hate speech) that have occupied the mass media ever sense the attack on the Charlie Hebdo office. He argues that the utilitarian objective of satire is "to produce an enlightened perspective on events, not to start riots." While I do not question this position, I feel it overlooks the extent to which it has been undermined by the Internet. When Jonathan Swift wrote his "Modest Proposal" essay in 1729 (the case study behind Parks' analysis), he could reasonably assume that his readers would be members of an "enlightened" class of Englishmen, rather than either the starving Irish or a coven of insane gourmet chefs. American satirists, such as Jon Stewart, Steven Colbert, and Bill Maher, probably also take for granted that most of their regular viewers are similarly "enlightened" and thoughtful, looking for something other than having their opinions reinforced by Fox. The problem is that, thanks to the Internet's capacity for mass distribution of content to sites about which we know little if anything, such content is now encountered by less "enlightened" audiences; and, more often than not, the consequences are not good.

Parks gave another telling example. After it appeared, Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses was just another book, enjoyed by many readers and respected by many others. Then it got on the Booker shortlist, and the newspaper India Today decided that it was now worthy of attention. They ran an interview with Rushdie, after which a large swath of South Asian readers learned that the characters included prostitutes named after Muhammad's wives. That was the one small step that led to Ayatollah Khomeini's fatwa, putting the author's life at risk.

I take the Rushdie story as a case study in pre-Internet mass communication. Charlie Hebdo, on the other hand, is a post-Internet story. Whatever benefits satire may provide for "enlightened" discussion, we can no longer assume that it is read only by those those respect such an enlightened stance.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Truthiness at the Oscars

I see that all three of the films that I called out for truthiness have been recognized with nominations for Academy Awards. Both The Imitation Game and Selma are up for Best Picture, while Foxcatcher has a Best Screenplay nomination, At least the Golden Globes managed to let Manhattan, that grotesque distortion of life at Los Alamos during the development of the atom bomb conceived by WGN America, pass without notice. Those more interested in the reality of that situation (which was far more dramatic than the soap-opera narrative cooked up by WGN) may want to check out The Gallery, an area on The New York Review of Books Web site, which now has a collection of declassified photographs from Los Alamos posted by Jeremy Bernstein.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

How Bad is Mail Delivery in San Francisco?

On those nights when I am not reviewing a concert and can pick up my mail after I return, it no longer makes sense for me to check my mailbox until the next morning.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The Many Faces of Martyrdom

Last Friday I felt it necessary to recognize BBC World Service Radio as one of the few sources willing to acknowledge the complex relationship between free speech and hate speech. In the wake of all of the demonstrations that took place over the weekend (including here in my home town of San Francisco), I have to say that the cool voice of BBC reason seems to have taken a permanent back seat to righteous indignation. However, I use that adjective "righteous" precisely for its religious connotations.

Several sources have now shown an interview with one of the Charlie Hebdo casualties in which he said explicitly that he would not be surprised if he ended up dying as a consequence of his determination to exercise free speech in the cause of biting satire. Had such words been uttered by a Muslim fundamentalist, we would dismiss it as a fanatical embrace of martyrdom; but is Charlie Hebdo any the less fanatical just because it is a secular publication that, for all intents and purposes, lives by the creed that nothing is sacred, whether it involves religious, governmental, or any other establishments? The amount of blood spilled as a consequence of the exercise of free speech by Charlie Hebdo is relatively small in comparison with the lives lost on 9/11, but both incidents seem to share a paralysis of reason on the part of those determined to write analysis in the wake of the catastrophic turn of events. Actually, when one takes into account the many dimensions of mindlessness induced by not only the Internet but also a mass media industry dominated more by consumerism than by any drive to inform, it would be fair to say that paralysis set in a long time ago. It just takes mass tragedies to bring it into the foreground, where, as in Jean-Paul Sartre's play The Flies, we have our official rites of mourning before going back to business (perhaps that should be capitalized) as usual.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Was THE LIBRARIANS Cooked to Order?

Bearing in mind that THE LIBRARIANS emerged from a character who was basically Indiana Jones with a different day job, did someone decided to cook it up from a recipe that took the premise for WAREHOUSE 13 and populate it with characters from FIREFLY?

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Another Movie Adopts Truthiness

Apparently, Selma has now joined those movies I discussed a week ago that had comprised the historical record for the sake of telling a more audience-appealing story. The bad news is that such historical distortion is about the worst thing that could happen at a time when racial tensions are on the rise, particularly where law enforcement is involved. The good news is that Elizabeth Drew used a NYRBooks blog post to set the record straight, but the other bad news is that only those willing to take the time to read and think about her text are likely to benefit from it.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

AT&T Does it Again

It appears that the set-up software for the AT&T Unified Messaging system that is displacing our current voice mail does not know what to do when the computer is a Mac. As was the case with their attempt to compete with Comcast, this is another example of their trying to roll out a technology with absolutely no idea who their users are or what those users do. It is also a reminder that AT&T is not the company formerly known as Ma Bell. Rather, the AT&T brand was purchased by SBC, famous in at least one city where I lived as the "Stupid Solutions People!"

Alternative explanation: AT&T wants to shut down wired service and drive its customers into wireless whether they want it or not.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Covering the Events in Paris

While listening to this morning's NEWSHOUR broadcast on BBC World Service Radio, I was glad to see that commentary on the attack on Charlie Hebdo and its aftermath finally seemed to have stuck a balance of opinion, regarding the complex relationship between free speech and hate speech; pundits take note.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

"Multiplicity of Satire"

Writing about Gilbert and Sullivan's Iolanthe, Virgil Thomson said that the "secret of operetta is multiplicity of satire." When I read this I thought immediately of Galavant on Sunday night. For all of its silliness, the satirical stiletto of the script was capable of jabbing effectively in any number of directions. As used to be the case the the Zucker brothers, Galavant could pick its targets from all over the map of popular culture and deal a fatal (or near-fatal) blow to each of them. Will they be able to keep it up in their next round of two half-hour episodes?

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Does Customer Satisfaction Still Matter?

I began the New Year by asking the question "What Makes a Satisfied Customer?" I concluded that, because expectations regarding customer service have become so diminished, the very concept of customer satisfaction may have lost any meaning of significance, this being Max Weber's envisaged consequence of a dominance of market-based thinking. I think I may have recently experienced a data point to reinforce that position.

It began with my intention to get a cup of coffee at Peet's. I seem to have reached an age at which, whatever the time of day, coffee has become helpful in keeping me focused when I am reviewing a concert. Unfortunately, St. Mark's Lutheran Church, one of the best acoustic venues for concerts in San Francisco, is not in the best location for getting coffee. Since it is a short walk from where I live, the Peet's on the ground of my building is one of the more viable alternatives.

The last time I needed to cover a concert at St. Mark's, I made the short detour into that Peet's. After asking for small coffee to go, I asked what flavor scones were available. They were in the display case; but there were no identifying cards specifying ingredients or, for that matter, price. They guy behind the counter absolutely refused to answer my question. When I finally pointed explicitly about the three (different) scones in the counter, he said, "Tell me which one you want, and I'll tell you what it is." At that point I said, "Forget it; and forget the coffee, too." I got my coffee at the Mel's that is only a couple of blocks away from the church.

Reflecting back on this, I realized that the guy may not even have known what a scone was, let alone that they are made in different flavors. However, he was probably trained that, under no circumstances, should he ever answer a question with, "I don't know." In other words, not only was he not trained properly in techniques of providing useful information, but also he training prevented him from being either honest or useful.

This afternoon I decided it would be a good idea to let the manager of that particular Peet's know there was a problem. I found someone behind the counter willing to give me the time of day. I asked if the manager was around, since I wanted to report an incident that had happened over the weekend. She said, "I'll get her." Several minutes later, she came back and said, "She's on a conference call; can you come back at 8 AM tomorrow?" Rather than be as abrupt as I had been the last time, I asked if I could report the incident on the Peet's Web site and was given a useful reply.

On the other hand, I realized that such a Web page could easily be just like that joke about the suggestion box without a bottom positioned over a waste basket. If I had a problem, I had done exactly what market-based thinking said I would do: I took my money to another vendor. If enough people shared my dissatisfaction, they would do the same; and, sooner or later, the bean-counters at Peet's would take notice. If that critical mass was never reached, then I was a meaningless outlier, whose opinion really did not matter.

Max Weber was right; in a world dominated by market-based thinking, fundamental concepts, such as "customer satisfaction," can lose their meaning!

Monday, January 5, 2015

The God of Television Scheduling has a Sense of Humor

Last night during the 8 PM slot, Rebecca Romijn had to do battle for viewer eyeballs with ex-husband John Stamos, appearing on a rival channel and playing a character named after one of the actor's in Mad Men from yet another channel; both seem to be learning how to play comedy.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Truthiness at the Movies

On the basis of what I have read over the last couple of week, it seems to me that two movies currently being regarded as major contenders for awards, The Imitation Game and Foxcatcher, involve significant distortions of the historical record while purporting to tell as story that is "based on" a factual account. The weasel phrase, of course, is "based on." Just because the historical record provides a point of departure, "based on" essential allows the writer to depart from it. Foxcatcher is the more interesting, since the one protagonist from the historical account who lived to tell the tale is the one planning to take action against the film's director.

Nevertheless, I find The Imitation Game more irritating for a variety of reasons. Most importantly, Hugh Whitemore wrote a brilliant play based on Alan Hodges' biography of Alan Turing called Breaking the Code. It was good enough to be adapted for television in the United Kingdom, and that version showed up here on PBS. What I liked about Whitemore was that he was willing to pay as much attention to the complexity of Turing's work as he did to the complexities (particularly the sexual ones) of the man's life. Thus, rather than trying to create a Turing-against-the-world picture of the lone genius who was right whenever everyone else was wrong, Whitemore actually had Turing explain the origins of the "Turing machine" in a scene which was basically his job interview. I later learned that audiences enjoyed this scene so much that they wanted the play to have similar extended speeches for Turing. When Derek Jacobi, who was playing Turing, was interviewed on the radio about this, the announcer asked when the new speech will be performed. Jacobi replied, "As soon as I can understand it!"

It is hard to imagine very many (any?) members of the Motion Picture Academy expecting this sort of thing from a movie script. While there are the occasional exceptions, awards tend to go to scripts that have been dumbed down to the lowest common denominator of audience comprehension. (Mind you, that is a level that does not understand the concept "lowest common denominator!") Once the decision had been made to cast someone of Cumberbatch's "star quality" as Turing, it was clear that having a box office smash hit was better than having a good film.

I suppose what we have in both of these films is a better understanding of the nature of what Stephen Colbert has called "truthiness." I have tended to associate Colbert's term with the old Italian saying that a good story is better than a true one. On our side of the bond, however, whether or not a story is good is probably not the deciding issue. All that matters is whether the story is marketable when it gets packaged as a movie or a book, since, like it or not, the final judgement will be made on the basis of revenue stream, actual or anticipated according to some model which may, in itself, be no more than a good story. Mr. Colbert, did you, by any chance, come up with that term "truthiness" after reading what Max Weber had to say about loss of meaning in a market-based society?

Friday, January 2, 2015

Thinking Realistically about Performance

While I am not of fan of either Idina Menzel or most of the music she performs, I have to give her points for recognizing the realities of live performance. For those who do not know the context, Menzel was one of the "main attractions" on the New Year's Eve broadcast of Dick Clark's New Year's Rockin' Eve with Ryan Seacrest on ABC. She sang "Let It Go," which has become her signature tune whether she likes it or not (not to mention how the rest of us may feel); and she missed the high note that, for much of her audience, was the only meaningful part of the song.

Virgil Thomson has written that general audiences are much more capable at picking out technical details than at grasping the overall expressiveness of the performer. It should not surprise anyone that those in the former category chose to jump all over Menzel for missing that note. According to an ABC report, Menzel responded by tweeting an image that included her statement about the nature of performance. Were he still alive, Thomson would have beamed at how well she established her understanding of that nature. I know I did.

Whether or not I like Menzel or what she chooses to sing is irrelevant. All that matters is that she has a clear-headed view of the realities of performing music at a time when it seems as if just about everyone is more interested in escaping (or denying) reality than confronting it. Furthermore, when attacked, she decided that there was more value to being informative than the being aggressively defensive ("snarky" for those who prefer fewer syllables). From my point of view, she is a beacon of sanity in a world gone mad.

Now, if you do not mind, I shall go back from my own retreat from the madness by listening to more Charlie Parker.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

What Makes a Satisfied Customer?

I am assuming that Chris Matyszczyk wanted his latest CNET article "Samsung beats Apple in customer satisfaction, says survey" to be read with a jaundiced eye, since that is the way he seems to like to write. Nevertheless, between those factors that might indicate that the survey was flawed and those that suggest that satisfaction with any product or brand tends to depend on a rich context of factors, many of which get abstracted way by survey designers, there remains the question of whether satisfaction itself is context-dependent. The late Mike Nichols used to do a routine with his then wife Elaine May about a guy at a pay phone trying to get satisfactory service from Ma Bell. This involved more escalations than I can remember, but each one brought with it a different attitude from the service provider.

These days I would guess that we really do not expect very much competence from a help desk. We know that the voice on the other end of the line is just reading things the computer is telling him/her to read. Some of us are experienced enough to know bad advice when it is dished out to us, and others are not so fortunate. The point is that, like all of the characters in E.M. Forster's "The Machine Stops," we come to accept the flaws in the system rather than give up all the "improvements" the machine provides, even when it is no longer providing them. In other words we  now live in a world of drastically reduced expectations; and when expectations are that diminished, satisfaction no longer has any meaning. In yet other words, "customer satisfaction" has become yet another phrase that has lost its meaning, thus fulfilling, yet again, Max Weber's proposition that loss of meaning is one of the more dire consequences of a society that is market-based to the exclusion of all other factors.