Friday, August 28, 2015

Daniel Barenboim Gets Enemies to Agree

Had Daniel Barenboim checked in with Jimmy Carter, he probably would have gotten an earful about how the course of true peacemaking never runs smooth. His plans to bring the Berlin Staastskapelle to Tehran has apparently been met with rejection from both Iran and Israel. Israel felt they had grounds to object because Barenboim is Israeli, conveniently overlooking the fact that he also has Palestinian citizenship. Ironically, Iran is also objecting because Barenboim is Israeli. Carter would probably tell Barenboim to look on the bright side: At least he managed to get Iran and Israel to agree on something.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Plagiarism or Appropriation?

Today's BBC News Web site includes an article from the Magazine division entitled "How many national anthems are plagiarized?" The author is Alex Marshall, who has apparently written a book on the history of national anthems. Sadly, this is a case where specialization may have induced misleading myopia. Many of the acts of making music, whether it involves composing or performing, are informed by influence from the past. Sometimes the source of influence can be identified; but that does not necessarily translate into plagiarism, which carries connotations of theft. Paul Ricœur, who counts as both a literary theorist and a philosopher in my book, used to write at length on the nature and significance of appropriation; and, where making music is concerned, the idea that any evidence of appropriation should be expunged was basically a twentieth-century idea that emerged after the Second World War with a crop of composers who, in the wake of the meticulous detail in the music of Anton Webern, became what I like to call "composers of 'principles.'"

One of Marshall's case studies was a national anthem that could be traced back to the theme music from Animal House. The composer claimed not to have known the music. He then listened to it and immediately recognized the similarity. Nevertheless, he was vilified for his work. For my part, he reminds me of one of the most delightful episodes in Albert Schweitzer's biography of Johann Sebastian Bach. It concerns not Bach but the making of Martin Luther's first hymnal. Luther himself would play tunes for the words on a recorder, and they would be transcribed by an assistant. When someone observed that one of the tunes resembled a popular song heard out on the streets, Luther supposedly replied that the Devil could not have all the good tunes to himself! This tells us more about music for national anthems than the whole of Marshall's article.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Bad Gecko!

The following was released on the ABC7 News Web site late last night:
Insurance giant GEICO, Government Employees Insurance Company, says it will pay $6 million to settle a complaint accusing the company of unfairly over charging poor, low-and-moderate income women, and single drivers.
This is the sort of thing that happens when a company spends more money on its advertising budget than it does on providing customers with the services they think they are going to get after paying attention to those ads. (In GEICO's case, that involved a veritable deluge of clever advertising.) I am reminded of the terrible service from United Van Lines back when they were sinking all of their money into Stiller & Meara radio commercials.

Monday, August 24, 2015

The Joy of Reading Things the Wrong Way

Safeway invaded my electronic mail with an ad encouraging me to use their electronic coupons. One of the items they were flogging was listed as "Grass Fed Beef Hotdogs." This conjured up an image of hundreds of hotdogs grazing on an open meadow!

Sunday, August 23, 2015

The Semantics of "Good"

I've pretty much gotten beyond taking the San Francisco Chronicle seriously for anything other than the comics. (On the positive side my wife still has good thoughts about their sports reporting and commentary.) Occasionally, however, there is amusement beyond the "funny papers," as such. On Sundays I tend to check the back page of the Insight section to see what counts as the past week being "good" or "bad."

Today was a case of the Chronicle not being able to make up its mind and erring on the side of optimism. One of the "good week" items was:
BayArea home prices rise to their highest point since 2007 peak: $661,000 median.
This counted as a good week for home sellers. Perhaps it will be. It remains to be seen whether or not the current economic crisis in China will become the next full-fledged global economic crisis; but, on the basis of past history, that is the sort of transition that can take place very abruptly. (Given how divided our nation has become, one can even imagine moneyed interests hastening such a catastrophe, just of the sake of leaving a black mark on Obama's record before he leaves office.) So anyone thinking this would be a good time to sell might consider that any real estate transaction that does not take place today will be far from certain in its outcome.

Meanwhile, the Chronicle was perceptive enough to realize that good news for those with a home to sell does not necessarily translated to good news for anyone else. That sentence quoted above was followed by another:
Affordability crisis persists.
In other words, even if you make a killing selling your home, you may not be able to buy a satisfactory replacement for it. So much for this being a good week in the world of real estate.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Welcome to Dismaland

I thoroughly enjoyed the video tour of Banksy's Dismaland that showed up recently on BBC World Service News on television. Today's article by Bryony Gordon on the Telegraph Web site was the perfect follow-up. However, I am old enough to remember when the satirical magazine Mad had its way with the original Anaheim Disneyland and its creator "Walt Dizzy" (as they were probably obliged to call him to avoid libel). They went through the different sections, such as Adventureland and Tomorrowland, concluding with Fantasyland and its epithet, "the happiest land of them all." They then moved on to "the happiest land of them all (for Walt Dizzy)," which was Moneyland! That was all one needed to know about this initial venture by the Disney empire into new territory!

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Another Toy for the Idle Rich

These days it seems as if there is some kind of competition over who can the most absurd pastimes for the idle rich. The latest competitor is the property developer currently planning a pair of ten-story towers of luxury properties called Embassy Gardens at Nine Elms in London. Ten stories is not very high, but the place is likely to attract attention because the towers will be bridged by a swimming pool. According to a BBC News report, this idea was commissioned by Ballymore Group, whose chief executive described swimming in it as being like "floating through the air in central London." It least he was tactful enough to omit saying that it would provided a new way to look down on the poor people at street level. Meanwhile, points go to the BBC for an excellent account of all the engineering problems behind this fatuous vision. Anyone reading the story is probably already making mental notes about making sure not to walk under the damned thing!

Staples does not Understand "Now"

This morning (August 20) I received an electronic reminder from Staples. It informed me that, as of August 14, I had not used to rewards I had accrued for recycling my ink cartridges. This was true. However, it overlooked the fact that I had used those rewards on August 18. What is it about their software that is oblivious to transactions that took place within the last 48 hours?

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Who Serves Whom?

In the latest issue of The New York Review, David Cole, in his article "The New America: Little Privacy, Big Terror," makes the following statement:
When we carry our cell phone, use (or have downloaded) apps on those phones, browse websites, send e-mails or texts, drive in our cars, or make purchases with a credit card, we send digital information about our whereabouts, our association, our interests, and our needs and desires to the corporations that serve us.
It is that last phrase that gets to me. We may be customers or clients; but, thanks to all those opportunities that Cole outlines, it is no longer fair to say that any corporation "serves" is customer or client base. Simply by providing all those data, we now serve them. It is almost as if, by virtue of the data they acquire, corporations now, for all intents and purposes, own us and deliberately manipulate us to generate numbers that look good on balance sheets and stockholders' reports.

I should have seen this coming. Back when I was trying to pursue "knowledge management" as a legitimate domain for research, I was first exposed to Customer Relationship Management (CRM). While the ideals of CRM looked good enough on paper, allowing me to address questions of how knowledge management might leverage CRM by providing more personalized interactions with customers, once I saw the technology in use, I realized that it was pointing in the opposite direction. As I put it in a post back in 2010, it was basically a technology for "desubjectivizing" customers, transforming them from agents acting according to their personal motivations into data points to feed banks of analytical software. While others were looking for technologies that would commoditize knowledge, the game was going to those who had figured out how to commoditize their own customers!

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Self-Documenting without Self

Financial Times writer Gautam Malkani was apparently given permission to write an opinion piece about Benedict Cumberbatch's (probably futile) attempt to get those attending his performances in Hamlet to cease and desist from capturing him (through photographs and/or video) on their personal portable devices. Whether or not Malkani himself wrote the sub-headline, it is a useful enough summary to spare the reader from some of the verbal games he plays that do not contribute very much to advancing his argument, particularly if that argument is flawed in the first place. That sub-headline is:
If we did not digitally document our life, our ‘self’ might cease to exist
That is quite a claim; but, in all likelihood it is as specious as it is compelling.

The logical flaw lies in that verb "document." Digital devices do not document. They capture signals that would otherwise stimulate our visual (and sometimes auditory) sensory organs. In the latter case those signals are, for all intents and purposes, meaningless until mind imposes order on them through a process that I like to call "sensemaking," having picked up that word from former colleagues.

Documentation is a similar process by which we try to make sense out of bodies of objective data that confront us (which may include the images we have captured on our portable devices). In other words documentation is, in a sense, an attempt, usually through writing, to reproduce the results of sensemaking achieved by mind. This brings us to Malkani's scare quotes. Many researchers of the nature of consciousness, such as Gerald Edelman and his acknowledged predecessor Friedrich Hayek, have made compelling arguments that "self" is not only the "engine" of sensemaking but also its product. In other words, to use Malkani's turn of phrase, "self" exists as a result of how we make sense of the signals we capture. It is neither the process of capturing nor the signals themselves.

This allows us to turn Malkani's conclusion on its head. The more obsessed we get with capturing the signals around us, the less obliged we seem to feel to "make sense" of them, which is to say to "document" them. The reductio ad absurdum is that we shall become mindless drones, sucking up all of the signals around us but leaving interpretation to someone else (except that there is no "someone else"). Rather than compensating for dementia, an obsession with capture contributes to further erosion of the capacity for sensemaking. Welcome to the world of the "hollow men!"

Monday, August 10, 2015

Virgin Ignorance

Apparently, The New York Times has decided to run a series of retrospective reviews under the rubric Virgin Eyes. The idea seems to be for the reviewer to recall a particularly intense "first contact" experience. Today's piece is by Ben Brantley, and it is about David Lynch's Blue Velvet. To be fair, I have enjoyed quite a few of Lynch's projects, one of which was actually a totally riveting stage piece with music by Angelo Badalamenti. However, Blue Velvet left me cold, probably because, by the time I saw it, I had enjoyed an abundance of plays by Sam Shepard; and Blue Velvet felt like familiar material warmed over inadequately. I can appreciate that, out in Kips Bay, Brantley did not approach the film with the same background, which just goes to show how mercilessly subjective aesthetic judgement can only be.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Is it All About Having the Biggest Gun?

Today is one of those days on which history has designed some ironic coincidences. In Japan it is the 70th anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Nagasaki, based on our logic that it would take two such bombings to convince Japan to sue for peace. On our own soil it is the first anniversary to the death of Michael Brown by police shooting, a memorial occasion that was interrupted by the firing of six more shots, whose origins have yet to be determined. If that were not enough to remind us that the juggernaut keeps rolling, last night gunfire broke out at a home in Harris County in Texas; and, by the time the shooting had stopped, six children and two adults were dead. Such is the legacy of a country that seems to believe that conflict can only be resolved though violent deaths.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Blinded by Rose-Colored Glasses

Last night Jason Hiner filed a story on ZDNet that served up enough Kool-Aid to last the entire month. His title was "When robots eliminate jobs, humans will find better things to do;" I suppose the best way to describe it is that excessive focus on work as little more than a schedule of tasks has led to a complete disregard of the many roles that the workers play, regardless of the area in which they are earning a living (or trying to do so). Probably because his own reading never extends beyond the Web pages of ZDNet, there are clear signs that he has never read any analyses about the role that work, simply as an activity, plays is establishing human well-being.

On the other hand, it is hard to pick up a newspaper these days and avoid reports of a rise in sociopathic behavior that can be traced back to not only desperate economic straits but an absence of both gainful and meaningful employment for those hit hardest by that economic meltdown we continue to bowdlerize as a "recession." Without flaunting a bias for rhyme, I would suggest that, rather than an economic recovery, we have entered an "Age of Rage." That rage found an ironic means of expression recently when a robot deployed on a project of hitchhiking across the United States was assaulted, meaning that most of the structure was trashed and the head was removed. (Think of the conclusion of Easy Rider happening shortly into the first reel.) According to Trent Moore's account on blastr this morning, the perpetrators have not yet been found. Once they are identified, I suggest that Hiner have a meeting with them in a small room with the doors locked!