Monday, December 31, 2007

Bringing Mahler to Michael's House

When Queen Elizabeth invoked the phrase "Annus Horribilis" to describe the year 1992 in her speech at Guildhall to mark the 40th anniversary of her Accession, she was speaking from an intensely personal point of view. However, there are so many ways in which the phrase may be applied to 2007 from a global point of view that the last thing I want out of end-of-year journalism is that inevitable flood of retrospective impressions. For this reason the only page I felt was worth reading in the "Datebook" section of the Sunday San Francisco Chronicle was the weekly full-page advertisement placed by the San Francisco Symphony to announce the coming events at Davies Symphony Hall. Looking forward to something is the only way to drive off the mean reds that are an inevitable part of this year's retrospection.

January promises to be a truly fascinating month at Davies. Much of the reputation of Michael Tilson Thomas here has been made by his performances of the Mahler canon, so it might almost be an act of chutzpah for any other conductor to bring Mahler into "Michael's house" (as they would say, or used to say, in the National Basketball Association). Nevertheless, this will happen twice during the month of January; and I suspect that I am far from the only "good listener" (as Stravinsky had put it) anxiously anticipating both events. The more ambitious is the second one: Mariss Jansons conducting the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam in the fifth symphony.

Ironically, the last time I heard the Concertgebouw was also for Mahler. It was about 25 years ago, back when Bernard Haitink was "running the shop." My own story actually began on a business trip to Den Hague, at which my host expressed surprise that I would travel all the way to Holland and not try to visit the Concertgebouw. We consulted the newspaper and saw that Haitink was conducting the Mahler seventh symphony. He then had his assistant arrange a ticket for me with absolutely no success: the demand for Haitink's Mahler performances was far too high. The following season, however, the Concertgebouw Orchestra visited Carnegie Hall to give that same concert, thus fulfilling Edward Albee's proposition that "the American Dream" is all about getting a second chance. This time I ordered a ticket as soon as I could and was awe-struck for the entirety of this work that is notoriously unwieldy in just about every imaginable way. In comparison the fifth symphony is a far more orderly composition, but it deploys its orchestral resources in such abundance that it is another one of those works that will never submit to the limitations of recording technology. Thomas recently demonstrated this with the San Francisco Symphony, and now Jansons is bringing the Concertgebouw Orchestra here is establish another point of view of that same mass of orchestral complexity. My only frustration is that the performance will not take place until January 28!

There is another irony in the concert that Jansons has prepared for the preceding night. He will be conducting Hector Berlioz' Symphonie Fantastique a little more than a month after the San Francisco Symphony performance under Thomas. Once again, as I have written, this is a work for which there is no substitute for a live performance. It also demands a radically different approach than any composition by Mahler does, so San Francisco will be getting an excellent opportunity to survey a broad scope of Jansons' capabilities.

Nevertheless, it is one thing to come into Michael's house with your own orchestra and another to conduct his orchestra. This is what Myung-Whun Chung will be doing during the days immediately preceding the Concertgebouw visit. He will be conducting the San Francisco Symphony in his interpretation of the Mahler first; and, just to make the entire program a bit more interesting, he will precede the symphony by Olivier Messiaen's "L'Ascension." For sound alone this should be raising all sorts of challenges for the Symphony, and it will certainly be interesting to hear how Chung leads them through all of those challenges. As a reader of William Blake, I have to wonder whether or not this evening will turn into a marriage of the heaven of Messiaen's mystical pieties and the hell of Mahler's stark worldly realities.

Fortunately, I do not think we need fear that Thomas will be upstaged this coming month. The week before Chung brings out the Messiaen, Thomas will be conducting Iannis Xenakis' "À l'ile de Gorée;" and the preceding week I shall finally get my opportunity to hear Deborah Voigt perform with the Symphony doing the "Four Last Songs" of Richard Strauss. If we add to all these other events the visit that Robert Mann will be paying to the San Francisco Conservatory at the end of January, then this may be an opportunity to enjoy an extensive music education all crammed into the temporal interval of 31 days!

Sunday, December 30, 2007

A Silicon Valley Story from Al Jazeera

I do not normally expect to find Silicon Valley news on the Al Jazeera English Web site; and, in all fairness, this is not strictly an Al Jazeera story. The "Agencies" byline seems to be their way of saying that the report has been compiled from their wire sources, without explicitly naming any of those sources. Nevertheless, it is interesting that I had to wait until examining my Al Jazeera feed before encountering this item, which definitely has its "roots" down the Peninsula in Silicon Valley.

The story concerns eBay launching a new subsidiary, MicroPlace, which will basically allow anyone on the Internet to participate in the microfinancing process for which the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Mohammed Yunis and his Grameen Bank. Here is the lead:

Online auction giant Ebay has launched a microlending website that enables people to invest in entrepreneurs in poor communities around the world and get a return on their money.

"You are actually investing in the world's working poor," Tracey Turner,'s founder, said.

Unlike micro-finance organisations, which make interest-free loans to people in developing countries, offers investors profits in return for funding people across the world who are trying to build better lives, Turner said.

The report is written in a highly positive tone, the only contrarian position being saved for the final paragraphs:

The UN's humanitarian news agency, IRIN, showed that according to research by the a microfinance consortium in 2003, evidence of the effectiveness of microfinance as a tool for development remains slim, partly because of the difficulty in monitoring and measuring impact.

Questions have arisen about whether microfinance can ever be as important a tool for poverty alleviation as its proponents and practitioners suggest.

In the IRIN article, Thomas Dichter of the Cato Institute, a Washington DC-based think-tank, called the potential of microfinance "grossly overestimated".

Dichter also criticised the influx of microfinance institutions, claiming that agencies are "jumping into this field" under the assumption they can alleviate poverty without actually looking at the different causes of poverty in different regions.

I am not suggesting that Al Jazeera should have done a more thorough job of pursuing both sides of this argument. I think it is more important that they bothered to release this story at all, particularly in light of the particular approach to the profit motive that seems to be taking (which I suspect would be of interest to the Cato Foundation). There are plenty of "grass roots" foundations out there through which people can make small contributions that matter. (My wife and I have been partial to the Heifer Foundation, partly through our interest in animals.) However, if this particular project does not succumb to the potential flaws and pitfalls that it faces, it may become a case study of how the Internet may be harnessed for the public good on a global scale in far more substantive ways than those observed thus far in, for example, the One Laptop Per Child program.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

I'm Not Alone (But I Don't Like the Company)!

The time stamp on yesterday's post indicates that I completed and filed it at 8:09 AM (Pacific Time). This was after John Bolton's appearance on Hannity & Colmes on Thursday. However, because I think the last time I spent more than 60 seconds with Fox News was several years ago in a Tokyo hotel room when I was trying to find any source of "straight news" in English, I did not know about Bolton's opportunity to reflect on the assassination of Benazir Bhutto until I read yesterday's account of it by Mike Aivaz and Nick Juliano for The Raw Story. If I read this account properly, then it would appear that Bolton and I are in the same camp when it comes to stray conspiracy theories: this was not (as I put it) a "pathology of contempt" but a "pathology of ignorance."

At this point, however, our ways depart, at least somewhat. From my perspective the ignorance resided in ill-considered actions towards the promotion of democracy in Pakistan (which, in the context of our more "visceral" goals of capturing Osama bin Laden and/or bringing down Al Qaeda, may, itself, have been an ill-considered goal). As Aivaz and Juliano reported, Bolton was concerned with a different context:

Bolton said the primary concern of the US needs to be the security of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal. With Bhutto's death plunging the country into chaos, there is now a "very grave danger" the weapons will fall under control of radical Islamist militants within the Pakistani military.

"What we have now is a prescription for chaos," Bolton said.

Another foreign policy expert told RAW STORY Thursday that the death of the opposition leader likely has caused the so-called atomic "Doomsday Clock" to tick closer to midnight.

This distinction reveals what may be an interesting difference in decision-making strategy that may explain not only the ignorance leading up to the Bhutto tragedy but also Bolton's abrasive tenure at the United Nations, not to mention the more fundamental question of whether or not our "War on Terror" has been either legitimate or effective.

It all goes back to the distinction that Gore Vidal stressed in the wake of 9/11: The only way to view those attacks was a criminal acts. Since we are all reared on the "law" and "order" perspectives of crime prevention by our television viewing habits, we should all remember that the prosecution of a criminal act is grounded on three factors: means, motive, and opportunity. Bolton's reflection on Hannity & Colmes seems to indicate that he believes that any "War on Terror" should be based on "battles over means," so to speak. In terms of Republican ideology, this is slightly ironic, since it comes down to the principles behind gun control, but on a much larger scale that includes nuclear weapons. My own belief, which I have tried to write about in the past but never particularly clearly, is that we can only understand terrorism by viewing it through the lenses of motives: If we can undermine or disable the motives, the threat of those motivated to attack us will be reduced. (It is with a bit of trepidation that I suggest that just about every story about an Al Qaeda video I have seen, particularly those issued by bin Laden himself, are focused primarily on "messages of motive.")

Why is this distinction important? The answer resides in another one of my favorite themes, which I usually discuss when I am writing about technology. One can try to address the problem of means in the "objective world;" but problems of motive reside strictly in the "social world," with all the messiness it entails with regard to communicative actions. At the risk of being too reductive, Bolton came across as so disagreeable at the United Nations because his fixation on the objective world blinded him to all that messiness; and, as a result, his communicative actions just made our social relations in the global community messier. This is not to dismiss the value of an objective perspective (or, for that matter, the importance of means of access to nuclear and other dangerous weapons); it is to dismiss the view that the objective perspective is the only perspective, which seems to be a view that Bolton shares with most of the neoconservative community. Unfortunately, the mess we are now in is, more than anything else, a consequence of "a failure to communicate" (thank you, Paul Newman, not to mention Winston Churchill's remark at the White House on June 26, 1954: "To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war"); and, if we persist in our dismissive attitude towards the importance of communicative actions, particularly where the social world is concerned, that mess will only get worse.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Conspiracies, Anyone?

I first heard a report of the Associated Press/Yahoo! News poll on NPR this morning, so I was glad to see a more extensive written account by Associated Press Writers Jim Kuhnhenn and Trevor Tompson on the Yahoo! News Web site. Here is the lead:

Voters began to worry more about their pocketbooks over the last month — even more than about the war in Iraq.

More than half the voters in an ongoing survey for The Associated Press and Yahoo! News now say the economy and health care are extremely important to them personally. They fear they will face unexpected medical expenses, their homes will lose value or mortgage and credit card payments will overwhelm them.

Events, however, can quickly change public opinion. Thursday's assassination of Pakistan opposition leader Benazir Bhutto could draw more attention to terrorism and national security, an issue that still ranked highly with the public and which 45 percent of those polled considered extremely important.

Most of the article is devoted to the first two paragraphs, the only surprise being the extraordinary strength that the writers must have exercised to avoid hauling out the old Clinton campaign slogan, "It's the economy, stupid!" The reader who persists through this portion of the discussion, however, will be rewarded by the following elaboration of the third paragraph:

The impact of Bhutto's assassination on public opinion depends on whether Americans perceive her death as an added threat to the United States. Terrorism was the only issue polled that Republicans were trusted to handle better than Democrats.

Republican Rudy Giuliani had benefited most from people's fears of terrorism. But over the past month his level of support dropped, even among voters who said terrorism was an important issue. Giuliani is now trying to get some of those voters back, releasing an ad Thursday that uses images of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack on New York.

Assassinations have long been a notorious breeding ground for conspiracy theories. I sometimes wonder if the shock of the tragedy leads people to dispense with rationality, perhaps out of the despairing feeling that rationality no longer does any good. Thus, the more hare-brained the conspiracy theory, the more likely it is to proliferate. It is a game anyone can play and is thus best avoided.

Nevertheless, it is hard for me to shake free of the contextual knowledge that the Bush Administration played a major role in persuading Bhutto to return to Pakistan with the promise of her concluding a power-sharing agreement with President Pervez Musharraf. The reasoning probably was based on the premise that a powerful secular authority was more important to American interests than a government that reflected the voice of the people at a time when many of those voices were being drawn to fundamentalist Islam. On the basis of the news reports, we can assume that Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice knew that it would be difficult to cultivate any beneficial dialog between Bhutto and Musharraf, particularly if the only real beneficiary would be the United States; but we can probably also assume that her reasoning was heavily (exclusively?) influenced by ideological commitment. That same ideological commitment, however, probably also allowed her to ignore the extent to which her strategy would be putting Bhutto into harm's way, with the possible consequence of losing all the marbles in this game. However, to push that metaphor a bit further, those would be Pakistani marbles, meaning that the strategy was not only blind to risk but also short-sighted with respect to higher-level goals, such as capturing Osama bin Laden or bringing down Al Qaeda. On the other hand, if all the marbles were lost (and there is now a pretty clear threat of this being the case), then the American fear of terrorism would escalate, either of its own accord or with a bit of encouragement from appropriately placed propaganda.

Does all this add up to a conspiracy theory that Bhutto was sacrificed to turn American opinion back in favor of the Republican administration? Before leaping to such a conclusion, recall the three forms of "service pathology" I recently explored (bearing in mind that any government is basically a service provider whose clients are the citizens of the country): ignorance, negligence, and contempt (usually manifested through malice). Any conspiracy theory would have to be grounded in motivated actions directed towards the third form: a willfully malicious contempt of opinions of the electorate that were finally heard in the 2006 election. My guess is that this is not the case, since so much of the narrative in the preceding paragraph involves decision-making that was impeded by excessive ideology. The narrative is one of signification incapacitated by ideology, a fundamental ignorance of how to "read the signs" and "see things as they are," from which one could then anticipate the consequences of one's actions. It is based on the familiar (and usual incorrect) assumption that theory can trump practice. Unfortunately, practice almost always gets the upper hand and can be very cruel when it does so (as it was in this particular situation).

So I seem to have demonstrated my initial point: Thinking about conspiracies tends to eschew rationality. Rationality tends to come up with better explanations. They are not necessarily pleasing explanations; and, when the situation is a tragic one, they tend not to make us feel better. Nevertheless, I continue to support Stephen Flynn's fundamental proposition in his book, The Edge of Disaster: In trying to deal with terrorism, resiliency is more important than preventative security. As in Poe's "Masque of the Red Death," we can never be absolutely secure from all harm; but we can be strong enough to recover quickly and surely when harm attacks. The riots on the streets of Pakistan are now playing out a narrative of the lack of resiliency. They won't make us feel any better either; but we should take them as an object lesson about our own national priorities, which have been severely jeopardized by excessive ideology. Unless we get out from under that jeopardy, we shall be as lacking in resiliency as the Pakistanis currently are; and we definitely will not feel good any the consequences that ensue from such a position!

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Chutzpah for the Sake of Attention

I sometimes worry whether commenting on the "right to bear arms" is riskier than raising questions about either patriotism or extreme religious beliefs; so it is with a certain amount of trepidation that I have decided that the Chutzpah of the Week award should go to the National Rifle Association. However, this is not a case of arguing over what is or is not allowed under the Second Amendment in the Bill of Rights but one of what might be called "indelicately exploiting a delicate situation." The basis for the award is a report filed by Associated Press writer Michael Kunzelman. Here is Kunzelman's lead:

The National Rifle Association has hired private investigators to find hundreds of people whose firearms were seized by city police in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, according to court papers filed this week.

The NRA is trying to locate gun owners for a federal lawsuit that the lobbying group filed against Mayor Ray Nagin and Police Superintendent Warren Riley over the city's seizure of firearms after the Aug. 29, 2005, hurricane.

In the lawsuit, the NRA and the Second Amendment Foundation claim the city violated gun owners' constitutional right to bear arms and left them "at the mercy of roving gangs, home invaders, and other criminals" after Katrina.

The NRA says the city seized more than 1,000 guns that weren't part of any criminal investigation after the hurricane. Police have said they took only guns that had been stolen or found in abandoned homes.

My argument is that this is a situation that was based in a chaos from which those institutions that make the city of New Orleans what it is are still recovering. Now is not that time to exploit that painful recovery process as part of the lobbying interests of the NRA. The implication of the language of the lawsuit that only gun owners' were vulnerable to "roving gangs, home invaders, and other criminals," because they no longer had their guns, is an insult to a police force that was stretched beyond its limits when the entire population was vulnerable.

Yes, in a time of chaos, bad decisions get made: Some are questionable; others are flat out wrong. We all know this. However, this is not the time to be arguing over one of those decisions, particularly when so much positive recover work is taking place. We do not need distractions like this, particularly if this is more a matter of the NRA flexing is muscles of influence in preparation for the candidate selection process that is about to begin. The chutzpah does not reside in "the principle of the thing" but in the rather inept way in which that principle has been converted into action at the wrong time, if not the wrong place.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Slouching towards HABEAS CORPUS

As I was driving down to Palo Alto early this morning, this was the lead story on the BBC World Service Radio:

Iraq's government has backed a draft law that enables the release of thousands of suspected insurgents held captive by US and Iraqi forces.

The amnesty law is thought to specify offences for which prisoners who have been held without charge can be freed.

Parliament must debate the law on Sunday before it is ratified.

Hearing it read (while paying more attention to freeway traffic), my first impression was that Iraq had "discovered" habeas corpus, because I do not think the news reader ever used the word "amnesty," concentrating, instead, on the proposed release of prisoners being held without charge. The text version throws a different light on the whole matter, and it is not a particularly pleasant one. If these are prisoners currently being held without charge, for what are they being granted amnesty? I found it a grim reminder of the sour note that began the administration of President Gerald Ford, when he issued a blanket pardon for Richard Nixon that effectively covered any crimes he had or might have committed while in office. If my initial reaction from the radio account was that Iraq might teach the United States a thing or two about due process of law, my reaction to the text account is that they are learning from our current practices all too well!

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

The Civil Tongue

Most of my attention to C-SPAN is occupied by their XM Satellite Radio feed. For the most part I do not feel I am missing anything by ignoring the visuals. However, this morning on Washington Journal, Frank Luntz came prepared with video clips from the debates of the Presidential contenders, along with an assortment of PowerPoint (yes!) slides; so I traded the radio for the television over today's breakfast. C-SPAN is about the only broadcasting source for which I am willing to sit through phone-in questions and comments. One reason is that they request voluntary classification, providing separate numbers for Democrats, Republicans, and Independents. Another is that the level of discourse is on such a different plane from commercial talk radio (and, more often than not I fear, public radio) that the callers tend to cleave to that plane.

That turned out not to be the case on this morning of Peace on Earth and Good Will Towards Men. The result was a shift in the focus of the discourse itself. It began with a caller going on a rant that departed from the usual level of discourse. There are a variety of explanations for such behavior, all of which have been better analyzed by Steven Pinker in The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature; but in this case the result was that both Luntz and the moderator agreed to cut off the caller. This eventually led to another call that challenged Luntz on whether or not he believed in free speech, to which Luntz replied rather nicely that one can exercise free speech without being uncivil about it. Ironically, this was followed by another less-than-civil call, which was again prematurely dismissed. Luntz then noted whimsically that the two cut-off calls had been equally distributed between the Democrat and Republican telephone lines.

I have been interested in Luntz since I read about his book Words that Work in The New York Review. In that review Michael Tomasky (who has been doing one of the better jobs of putting the pre-primary hysteria into perspective) described Luntz as "the Republicans' most famous spin doctor of the past fifteen years," which made it interesting that Luntz openly resisted C-SPAN labeling him as a "Republican Pollster." (His argument, as I recall, had two prongs. First, his current focus is on focus groups, rather than polls. Second, he offers his service without bias to both parties.) Thus, I do not think that Luntz was being hypocritical in criticizing the erosion of civility in political discourse. Indeed, shortly after reading Tomasky's account of Luntz' book, I wrote a critique of a column by Eugene Robinson, which I felt violated two fundamental "laws" that one could take away from reading either the book or its review:

  1. You are not going to persuade anyone of your position if the first thing you do is call that person stupid.
  2. Furthermore, you are not going to persuade that person if you call anyone that person clearly admires stupid.

I make this observation, because I feel it is important at a time when so much of what gets published may well be obsolete before the end of the first publishing run (or, as I have put it before, has a "knowledge half-life" that can be measured in months, if not weeks, rather than centuries, as would be the case for Plato). Here was an example of a book that had at least a few offerings of enduring value, even if that endurance may not be on the half-life scale of a Plato. Whether or not that value would turn a profit for the author is not particularly relevant, since the author's "day job" seems to be taking care of his "creature comforts" well enough.

In the long run of history, however, I may be biased towards Luntz for tilting at one of my own favorite windmills, knowing full well that his impact will be minimal. Entropy is not restricted to the objective physical world of thermodynamics. There are many other processes that inevitably devolve into chaos; and, whether we like it or not, political discourse may be one of those processes.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Oscar Peterson in Jazz History

After all that writing about Bach, I settled down to watch the 3 PM telecast of the BBC News and learned that Oscar Peterson had died. I was glad to see that the BBC chose this as a "front page" story, even if their coverage left more than a little to be desired. Anyone who has any question as to the importance of reporting the death of such an important jazz pianist would to better to consult Wikipedia over the BBC, since this entry is less concerned with the personality of the man and more with his position in the grand scheme of jazz history.

The difference between the two accounts is most evident in the dog that failed to bark in the BBC account. That dog, of course, was Art Tatum, regarded by many as the strongest influence on Peterson. At the risk of making it all sound too reductive, just about any form of Western music comes down to the art of embellishment, how and where it is applied, how extensive it is, and, as the forms became more developed, how embellishments themselves could be embellished. In the history of classical music, Franz Liszt pushed embellishment to extremes that could be exasperating, if not offensive to some of more disciplined natures. To call Tatum the Liszt of jazz would not constitute offense to either pianist. Indeed, one of the frequent comments made about the vast catalog of Tatum recordings is that a little bit can go a long way.

However, in the spirit of that analogy, if Tatum was the Liszt of jazz, then Peterson was its Busoni, highly virtuosic in his understanding of both how to apply embellishment to the underlying "text" (i.e. song) and how to execute the embellishing without the embellished getting lost in the blur. When the CD was finally released of a session organized by Norman Granz that brought Peterson together with Count Basie, this was the first sentence on the back of the jewel case:

It could be argued that no two pianists could be more unalike than Count Basie, the master of understatement, and Oscar Peterson, the avatar of speed, power, and embellishment.

My own pet name for this CD is "The Minimalist Meets the Maximalist." The "official" name, however, is The Timekeepers, wherein all proper respect resides. Time was of the essence for both of these men, who knew full well that, without an "art of time," there is no "art of music." Thus, time was also the one element that could unite two such disparate performers, each of which understood the other in terms of strategies for how time passes (that last phrase having emerged in the title of an essay by Karlheinz Stockhausen, who may not have been a slouch where jazz was concerned).

Basie died back in 1984. Indeed, too many of the greatest who had performed so well with Peterson are gone as well. Atheist that I am, I still cannot resist the fantasy that they are all up there in heaven waiting for Oscar to join the jam. Meanwhile, there is so much of Oscar in every recording he made that the rest of us can keep learning to be better listeners from those recordings for some time to come.

Collecting Bach

Our household is not particularly big on gifts. Living in a condominium in the San Francisco Civic Center, we had to experience a rather radical downsizing of stuff when we sold the house in Palo Alto, especially when the contents of our garage led to the Mother of All Garage Sales. Consequently, I have a tendency to annoy my wife when, if she is thinking about buying something, I reply "Do we have space for it?" However, every now and then something shows up that deserves the space, even if it means taking space occupied by something else.

Last week, when my wife came home with the Brilliant Classics Bach Edition, which she had received as a gift from someone who knew that she was a serious music-lover, my immediate reaction was to point out that a sizable chunk of the condominium volume was being occupied by the Teldec Bach 2000 collection. However, since I already had the Brilliant collection of the complete works of Mozart, I had the good sense to hold my tongue and do a bit of exploration. After some initial sampling I now feel it important that the puppy can stay.

Those unfamiliar with Brilliant probably do not know that they are the "paperback press" of classical CDs. They are a Dutch outfit basically in the reprinting business, but they have shown a lot of good taste. The Mozart collection is a mixed bag, but how could anything that large be other than mixed? Besides, I got fed up with St. Martin in Neville's Recording Studio decades ago and therefore never had the urge to spring for the Philips Complete Mozart Edition. Furthermore, the packaging is really compact. Each disc is in a rather flimsy paper envelope, and all the liner notes are in PDF files on a CD-ROM. I have not consulted those files very much, particularly since I have so many other sources for Mozart; but I still appreciate the packaging strategy.

My only real beef with Brilliant is that they do not communicate directly with the consumers. As fate would have it, out of the 153 CDs in the Bach 2000 collection, one was missing: The cardboard jacket for the Orgelbüchlein contained a second copy of another disc of chorale partitas and other short organ works. Since I had purchased the collection (at a rather impressive discount) from Collectors' Choice Music, I got in touch with them; but the only thing they could offer was to replace the entire set, which I was hoping to avoid. Fortunately, however, I was able to get in touch with the Hamburg office of Warner Music, where they were only too happy to send me the missing disc (without requiring me to return the duplicated one). On the other hand the Brilliant collection of the complete Haydn symphonies, which I had again ordered from Collectors' Choice, had a similar problem. A duplicate of the final disc (Symphonies 103 and 104) was in the jacket for (among other things) Symphony No. 94 ("Surprise!"). All efforts to reach Brilliant through electronic mail were in vain; but this time the Collectors' Choice invitation to replace the whole set was a bit more palatable, particularly when they made the exchange process so easy (and expense-free). Of course Brilliant must operate on a far smaller scale than Warner, so I was happy enough that the problem could be resolved.

Nevertheless, whatever the virtues of Brilliant may be, if space is such a premium in our condominium, do we really want two distinct sets of the complete works of Bach? Well, it is certainly not conspicuous consumption at the level that Mad Magazine once captured in their Fiddler on the Roof parody:

Headshrinker, headshrinker,
I am his spouse.
Two minks I own;
One's for the house.

The question is more whether my wife and I have world enough and time for two distinct performances of so many compositions. Regular readers probably know my answer already: There is always time to hear a new performance of a piece of music, no matter how familiar it may be; music lives, not through the fixity of marks on a page, but through the diversity of the ways in which those marks can be interpreted. Bach "lives" precisely because living musicians are always coming up with new ways to approach the performance of his work. Having such diversity on so extensive scale does wonders for becoming a better listener!

To be fair, I still have to determine just how diverse that diversity actually is. I am just beginning to listen to the Brilliant discs, and I have not yet tried to do any really serious comparisons. So my initial excitement may be premature, but it is still allowing me to embark on an interesting adventure.

Meanwhile, there are already two areas of difference about which I can comment. One has to do with the contents of the collection and the other with how the collections are organized. The Brilliant collection has 155 CDs, i.e. two more than were in the Bach 2000 collection. I immediately accounted for one of those discs: The Brilliant collection has a Notenbüchlein für Anna Magdalena Bach disc, with 32 tracks, many of which are from the Schmieder Anhang and others of which are not by Bach but were copied in for his wife's enjoyment (presumably). In the Bach 2000 collection, on the other hand, the Notenbüchlein is represented by only eight tracks at the end of the final disc in the "Motets, Chorales & Songs" box, none of which are from the Anhang. Of course much of the Notenbüchlein is for solo keyboard and would therefore not belong in this collection; so the "editorial decision" seems to be based on whether or not the Anhang should be represented. That being the case, there may be other Anhang entries to account for the other additional disc; but I shall have to do some further digging to find them.

This brings us to the matter of organization. Bach 2000 was packaged as a four-by-three array of cubic boxes. The first four boxes contained the sacred cantatas. The fifth box contained the secular cantatas, the sixth the other large sacred choral works, and the seventh the collection cited in the last paragraph. The eighth box contained all the organ music, followed by the keyboard music in the ninth and tenth boxes. The eleventh box contained the chamber music and the final box the orchestral works. This is roughly the way in which Wolfgang Schmieder organized the music for his (BWV) catalog. It is also the basis for the index printed in the 244-page book that comes with the collection, in which dates are attached to each entry (where known and sometimes modified with a question-mark). This has become a great reference for me for far more than finding my way around the collection.

The Brilliant collection uses a simpler grouping into six "volumes."

  1. Orchestra Works/Chamber Music
  2. Keyboard Works
  3. Cantatas I
  4. Cantatas II
  5. Vocal Works
  6. Organ Works

The index on the cover of the box is more than a little arbitrary (probably due to the constraints of printing area) in choosing between text and BWV numbers. My guess is that I am going to continue to use the index in the book for finding my way around this second collection.

Finally, there is the question of what gets classified where. In the Brilliant collection the entire Notenbüchlein für Anna Magdalena Bach is included as chamber music, which, for me at least, makes more sense than singling out the vocal material for a general vocal collection. More problematic is the Art of Fugue. Bach 2000 includes this in the chamber music collection, but it is performed by a solo organ. Brilliant classifies it in Volume II, rather than Volume VI; and the performance appears to be by a harpsichord. I need to figure out whether or not this is a pedal harpsichord, because, unless I am mistaken, there are passages that really cannot be handled by two hands (at least without a damper pedal). Of course, it may be that the performer applied the "Glenn Gould" solution of overdubbing, which my ear may not be able to detect. However, I shall have to think some more about this particularly organizational decision.

On the other hand that may be a waste of cycles. For all the interest we take in the performances of the individual movements of Art of Fugue, there is no reason to assume that Bach ever expected them to be performed. This is a treatise about the "art" of composing fugues, written in the only language in which Bach could write well, music notation. There is something slightly naive about the assumption that anything that looks like music should be played like music. (As one of my thesis readers put it, "Who wants to listen to an entire evening in D minor?") That is actually what infuriated me the most about Gödel, Escher, Bach. The book is overloaded with philosophy grounded in the puzzle canons of the Musikalisches Opfer when there is no reason to believe that those "notes" were ever intended as music to be played by instruments. As the name implies, they were puzzles, intellectual amusements that Bach could share with Frederick the Great without worrying about whether or not any performers would get in the way, let alone whether latter-day theorists would dignify them by calling them "music!"

I have no idea whether or not I shall "file any further dispatches" as I work my way through the Brilliant collection. I have yet to hear a disc that has disappointed me, but I am not yet sure what the impact will be on my overall listening to Bach (or anyone else's music, for that matter). At the very least the Brilliant collection has done an excellent job of keeping the place free of Christmas carols!

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Tim Burton and Stephen Sondheim

I always get suspicious when "everyone" is recommending that I read, see, or listen to something; and my suspicions have a bad tendency to erupt into backlash. (Would I have written a more moderated and less devastating review of Gödel, Escher, Bach had a colleague not forced the book on me, at a gun-point that was powerfully metaphorical, even if it was not literal?) Consequently, I am wondering whether or not my curiosity about Tim Burton's rendering of Sweeny Todd will get the better of me, particularly since I much prefer to spend my entertainment money on "live" performances. That curiosity was dampened when the word got out that the opening chorus of the original musical had been dropped, presumably because it was too much of an artifice of the stage to fit in with Burton's vision. My immediate reaction was that this would be like hearing a performance of Beethoven's fifth symphony from which the first movement had been dropped.

However, upon reading Walter Addiego's interview with Burton in today's Chronicle, it appears that Stephen Sondheim himself did not take it that way. In the course of the interview, Burton dished out a quotation from Sondheim after an early screening:

Listen, this isn't a re-creation of the show. It's a movie based on the show. Don't have any preconceived ideas about it. Just go into it.

Still, it will be hard for me to shake the preconception based on the decision of Houston Opera to include the work in one of their seasons. In my book Sondheim has produced two works that can stand head-to-head with what was "officially" done in the name of opera during the twentieth century. Sweeny Todd is one of them, and Pacific Overtures is the other. Even if Burton has not bought into such an operatic premise, I still tend to be uncomfortable with opera in a movie house and actually prefer it on my own television set.

So, more likely than not, I shall wait until it finds its way to cable, which will probably not take very long, given the competition it will be facing at the box office. Meanwhile, I can dwell on the more interesting question of whether Burton will join the ranks of other directors best known for their films, such as Franco Zeffirelli, Ingmar Bergman, and William Friedkin, and either seek out or accept an opportunity to work on a "real" opera stage? He certainly has the visual chops for the job, along with a keen sense of what it takes to deliver a narrative; but can he work with the neurotic performers of the opera world as well as he can work with the neurotics in the movie business?

Saturday, December 22, 2007

A Narrative of Times that Try Men's Souls

Katrina vanden Heuvel used her post to The Notion, the blog site maintained by The Nation (which she happens to edit) to reproduce the following excerpt of a declaration:

We are lawyers in the United States of America. As such, we have all taken an oath obligating us to defend the Constitution and the rule of law…. We believe the Bush administration has committed numerous offenses against the Constitution and may have violated federal laws…. Moreover, the administration has blatantly defied congressional subpoenas, obstructing constitutional oversight …. Thus, we call on House Judiciary Chairman John Conyers and Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy to launch hearings into the possibility that crimes have been committed by this administration in violation of the Constitution…. We call for the investigations to go where they must, including into the offices of the President and the Vice President. -- American Lawyers Defending the Constitution

The post itself then went on to report on the rising trend of lawyers enjoining the Congress to take more decisive actions against the abuse of the Constitution by the Executive Branch.

In the context of the narrative of history, this makes for an interesting recapitulation. The first serious threat to Pervez Musharraf's assumption of carte blanche in his dictatorial rule of Pakistan came from the community of lawyers, provoked primarily by his attempts to interfere with the operations of the Supreme Court. Ultimately, the lawyers took to the streets; and things got ugly. Unfortunately, in the longer course of the narrative, Musharraf agreed to shed his uniform and to allow an election with a more serious semblance of opposition participation. The reason I chose the words of that last phrase so delicately, however, is that, for all intents and purposes, we are back to business as usual in Pakistan; and, once again, the rest of the world has other things to look at (thank you, Douglas Adams).

In this country the President does not wear a uniform; and the lawyers are not yet protesting in the streets, perhaps because the impact of the Executive on the Supreme Court has been too indirect to be perceived as interference. Thus, even if this statement and similar measures may set off some ripples of discontented consciousness, the fluid in which those ripples form will be too viscous for them to propagate very far. Even Al Gore has told the world basically to ignore President Bush and think forward to the administration that will be elected in November. Such a point of view would probably oppose my objection to those senators who feel that their time on the campaign trail is more important than time spent doing the "people's business" in Washington. However, that kind of chastisement is not enough to persuade me to change my position. Rather, I take it as evidence that Gore is no longer devoting many of his mental cycles to the problems of government and politics, probably because those cycles are being absorbed by the challenge of persuasion on a global scale.

That little joke by Tom Lehrer about allegiance being ruled by expedience goes beyond jibes at former Nazis. When we pay attention to the words we rattle off out of a sense of habit, we find that our allegiance is pledged to that republic symbolized by our flag. That republic is defined by a constitution grounded in laws: making laws (the Legislative branch), enforcing laws (the Executive branch), and deciding when laws have been violated and how violations should be punished (the Judicial branch). That grounding could not exist without the operational processes of those three branches of government, but we must not forget that those processes are there to serve a rule of law without which our republic would no longer be defined. In other words to appeal to needs for expedient implementation of those processes (as we saw in the logic behind the decision not to pursue impeachment proceedings) is to sacrifice our allegiance to our republic.

Perhaps this gets at why so many of our electorate seem so disenchanted. They may not be able to put it in the sort of words I have been concocting, but they are still smart enough to recognize when the machinery of their government is running roughshod over a pledge they have been making since childhood. They also recognize their own helplessness as they witness their most patriotic values being undermined. Hence my title: These are truly times that try men's souls. They are also times in which those who would oppose those souls realize that it is more expedient to narcotize them than to fight them overtly.

In the past the broken record in me tries to wrap up the argument with a conclusion that this is the world the Internet has made. However, this world was in the making long before the networking of computers was a gleam in anyone's mind. I suspect it would be fairer to say that this is the world that the "modern business school education," with its emphasis on the objective identification of goals and the selection of efficient "operators" to achieve them, has made. It is a mindset that was already beginning to emerge during the Second World War and was so entrenched in our national consciousness by the end of the century that any question of an alternative point of view was dismissed as ridiculous. In the past I have suggested that we have now succumbed to an addictive behavior; so I suppose the question is whether or not there is any "program" (Lord only knows how many steps) we can follow to pull out of that addiction. Perhaps Gore should be devoting some of his cycles to this problem, rather than falling back on a this-too-shall-pass attitude towards the mess in which we are all mired.

Interesting News (if it's News)

Bearing in mind that I still hold to the precept that blogging is not journalism, I have to confess that I was curious about a post on Net News Publisher under the headline, "‘Long Shot’ Kucinich Leads Among Online Independent Voters." Posted by "admin," this jumble of assertions, which probably did not go through any fact-checking process, is a perfect poster child for advertising the value of good editing at a time when we are still be deluged by Web 2.0 evangelism. Nevertheless, the headline fascinated me so much that I could not resist dusting off my editor's visor (metaphorically) and trying to figure out for myself if there was actually signal in all the noise. It turns out that there is signal; but you have to read pretty closely to learn that the post is based on the results from a poll conducted by an organization called There is nothing scientific about this poll. If you want to participate, you just sign up on the Web site (using the hyperlink I attached to; and, as far as I can tell, that is all it takes for your voice to be heard.

The result Web page for this organization provides the evidence behind the headline. Among those who declared themselves as Democrats (80,153), 76.7% (61,477 respondents) "voted" for Kucinich. There was also a Republican poll with only 25,269 participants, a whopping 93% of whom selected Ron Paul. In both parties none of the other would-be candidates could muster a double-digit standing (i.e. 10% or higher), meaning that, while the sample itself may not be statistically representative, the results are statistically significant. (If you think that what you just read is a candy-coated way of saying garbage-in-garbage-out, you probably have a good point!)

The Net News Publisher post cites three other polls, each of which may be flawed in its own way. One was conducted by Democracy for America (DFA), whose slogan is "Social Progress; Fiscal Responsibility; Grassroots Activism." Their account of their poll leaves a bit to be desired:

Last month over 154,000 of you voted in the largest primary poll of 2008. The poll made clear two striking facts: A 78% consensus for the top three progressive candidates of Edwards, Kucinich, and Obama¹. And 95% of DFA members voted for someone other than the media's frontrunner.

Once again, the question of sampling has been totally disregarded; but in this case the question of statistical significance of results is not as decisive. The superscript refers to the Web page with the numbers. Kucinich is still at the top with roughly 11,000 "votes" putting him ahead of Al Gore. The way you get that "78% consensus" if to drop Gore from the options and rebalance the percentages over the reduced sample.

Then there is the group called Progressive Democrats of America (PDA). They have provided the most thorough account of their results in a PDF file. The problem here is that their membership is only 80,685; and only 15,810 of the members voted. So we have lots of tables all with lots of relatively small numbers. With these limitations, their own account of the results is about as acceptable as one could anticipate:

Not surprisingly in a field of eight contenders, no candidate came close to gaining a majority of the total vote in PDA's recently completed presidential straw poll. But two candidates--Dennis Kucinich (41%) and John Edwards (26%)--combined for more than 2/3 of the total vote. Over 15,000 PDA activists voted in the presidential straw poll. Full results here.

After Kucinich and Edwards, only one other candidate-Barak Obama (13%)-made it into double digits. All the rest were in single digits: Hillary Clinton (9%), Bill Richardson (5%), Joe Biden (3%), Chris Dodd (1%), Mike Gravel (less than 1%). In contradiction to media reporting on the primary race, PDA's results parallel those of DFA, Daily KOS, the Texas Democratic Party and others whose polls show very weak support for Clinton among the Democratic base.

Finally, The Nation conducted its own poll, presumably among its readers. I have not yet tried to track down these numbers. I do not recall seeing them on my RSS feed. My guess is that the sample would be somewhere in the same league as that of Progressive Democrats of America. Here is the summary from Net News Publisher:

And, in a poll conducted by the progressive The Nation magazine, he [Kucinich] won with 35% of the vote. Obama came in second with 24%, and Edwards was third with 13%.

Now I personally have enough interest in Kucinich and many of the principles he is trying to promote that nothing would please me more than to find him pulled out of the slough of statistical insignificance. I only object to extricating him with methods that justify ranking statistics as worse than damn lies! What depresses me is that these are results that take place out there on the long tail, which means that one only reads about them on that same long tail. Viewed from the other end of the telescope, this means that these results do not "count as news" at the editorial desks of the mainstream media; and, critical as I am of how the mainstream media tries to shape our thoughts, rather than report on them, the statistical methods behind those polls may be sufficiently weak to justify the editorial decisions.

This brings us back to my original theme. The blogosphere is a great place for the stuff that Abraham Lincoln had in mind when he said, "This is the sort of thing that people who like that sort of think like." Call it an echo chamber or a vanity mirror; just do not pretend that it is journalism. Whatever the media business may be doing to undermine the role of journalism as a public trust, there is still a critical mass of practitioners out there trying to carry the flame. We should not abandon them just because we can find places on the Internet where we can read things that make us feel better.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Strengthening this Week's Chutzpah Case

Today's Los Angeles Times has a follow-up article by Janet Wilson about Stephen Johnson the reinforces yesterday's Chutzpah of the Week award decision and one of the hypotheses behind that decision. Here is the lead:

The head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ignored his staff's written findings in denying California's request for a waiver to implement its landmark law to slash greenhouse gases from vehicles, sources inside and outside the agency told The Times on Thursday.

"California met every criteria . . . on the merits. The same criteria we have used for the last 40 years on all the other waivers," said an EPA staffer. "We told him that. All the briefings we have given him laid out the facts."

EPA administrator Stephen L. Johnson announced Wednesday that because President Bush had signed an energy bill raising average fuel economy that there was no need or justification for separate state regulation. He also said that California's request did not meet the legal standard set out in the Clean Air Act.

But his staff, which had worked for months on the waiver decision, concluded just the opposite, the sources said Thursday. The sources spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk with the media or because they feared reprisals.

Thus, this award goes solely to Johnson and should not in any way reflect on all the other members of EPA staff who have been trying to do their respective jobs under what appear to be highly adverse conditions.

The hypothesis that justified the award on the basis of terminology that Johnson shared with the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, on the other hand, may require further investigation:

Some staff members believe Johnson made his decision after auto executives met with Vice President Dick Cheney and after a Chrysler executive delivered a letter to the White House outlining why neither California nor the EPA should be allowed to regulate greenhouse gases, among other reasons. The Detroit News reported Wednesday that chief executives of Ford and Chrysler met with Cheney last month.

"Clearly the White House said, 'We're going to get EPA out of the way and get California out of the way. If you give us this energy bill, then we're done, the deal is done,' " said one staffer.

Chrysler spokesman Colin McBean said that records show that Chrysler submitted position papers on the mileage issue with the Bush administration's Office of Management and Budget about five weeks ago. Neither McBean nor a Ford spokeswoman would comment on whether company executives met with Cheney.

Jennifer Moore, a spokeswoman on environmental issues for Ford in Dearborn, Mich., said her company had no reason to question the EPA administrator's assertion that his decision was independent of the White House.

Charles Territo, spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers in Washington, said there was "absolutely not" any linkage between his trade group's decision to support the final version of the Senate energy bill and the EPA's decision to deny California's request for a waiver. Territo said the industry has always stressed a national mileage standard and opposed the California petition.

My guess (emphasizing that, with the current evidence, it is nothing more than a guess) is that the word "patchwork," which I cited yesterday, first emerged and the Cheney meeting, from which it "migrated" to both Johnson and David McCurdy, president and chief executive of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, both of whom invoked it in the statements they prepared yesterday. Under this scenario, it is still the case that Johnson was acting as a front to deliver a script; and now we know that this script in no way reflected any of the more seriously regulatory activities of the EPA. Whether he was invoking his authority to shill for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers or the Vice President is a minor matter; either way the chutzpah resided in his brazen abuse of authority in a situation so transparent as to be ludicrous to just about any casual observer.

Which Reviewer Actually SEES the Elephant?

I am now close to a point of saturation with reviews of Charlie Wilson's War. This is not to say that I am not interested in the film or do not see its entertainment value. However, I get the impression that most critics, since they are affiliated with media conglomerates that do not want to get on the wrong side of the Bush Administration, neglect the extent to which the film has crafted a synthesis of entertainment and information without degenerating into what we have come to call "infotainment." Thus, their reviews are a bit like the accounts of blind men groping at the elephant, either because they have been fitted with blinders as part of the job description or because they do not pay much attention to the world that exists outside of those darkened screening rooms.

The result is that those critics who know enough about writing to make sure that they end with a concluding paragraph provide one dripping with almost unadulterated drivel. Consider, for example, the final paragraph of the account in The New York Times by A. O. (or "Tony," as Richard Roeper seems to like to call him) Scott:

But there is nonetheless a bracing, cheering present-day moral to be found in Charlie Wilson’s story, a reminder that high principles are not incompatible with the pleasure principle. The good guys are the ones who know how to have a good time, and who counter the somber certainties of totalitarianism with the conviction that fun is woven into the fabric of freedom.

This is fine if all you expect from a movie is to be reaffirmed that "Everybody's happy nowadays" (in the spirit of my recent critique of editorial cartoons). However, if, like me, you are interested in contexts and consequences, you may want to know that the only review I encountered that shared my interest was the one written for SF Weekly by Robert Wilonsky. Wilonsky's final paragraph takes the bull (pun definitely intended) by the horns and reminds us that, in the broader scheme of history, we need to look at fun "woven into the fabric of freedom" through a more jaundiced eye:

The punch line to Charlie Wilson's War is that after spending $1 billion on helping the Afghans liberate their country from the God-hatin' Russkies, we refused to pony up a lousy $1 million to rebuild their schools. Oh, shit, I can't believe we created the devil. Who needs writers? You can't make this oh-shit up.

In other words, if we choose to take the long view (the way Shakespeare did with some of his history plays and in a way that I suspect did not escape either Aaron Sorkin or Mike Nichols), then this is actually a story about how we ended up with the mess of 9/11 in our own backyard. This should not detract from any entertainment you feel in watching this film, as long as you do not mind your entertainment having a sharp edge to it!

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Pronouncing "Chutzpah"

Katty Kaye was holding the anchor for today's 3 PM (Pacific Time) broadcast of the BBC News that I regularly watch courtesy of KQED World. I am not sure whether or not she writes her own copy, but the text she was reading decided to describe Ayman al-Zawahiri's offer to answer questions from individuals, organizations and journalists an act of chutzpah. However, before I get to the question of whether or not this constituted an appropriate use of the word, there was a not-so-small matter of her mangled (to such a degree that I do not think I can reproduce it with phonetic spelling) pronunciation. It certainly would not surprise me to learn that the BBC standard of "received pronunciation" does not extend beyond the boundaries of English, let alone into Yiddish, which is not the national language of any country. Nevertheless, Ms. Kaye is currently stationed in the United States; and she would have had to be living an awfully sheltered life not to have heard the word uttered many times in the popular media over here. It is one thing for our President to mispronounce unfamiliar words, but this may be a case where even he is more familiar with uttering this word than Ms. Kaye is!

As far as usage is concerned, regular readers know that I have done a bit of research to make sure that each week's award is true to the term in both denotation and connotation. In that respect I am not sure I can quibble with invoking the term in its strictest sense; but the strictest sense of Leo Rosten's definition (which I have taken as my standard) does not really capture the extent to which chutzpah constitutes a basis for humor or ridicule. Zawahiri's act was certainly about as brazen (to invoke one of the terms in the Rosten definition) as they come; but I would still liken it more to the hubris of the Greeks, in the spirit, say, of Ulysses taunting the blinded Cyclops. After all, Ulysses' brazen act practically led to the destruction of his ship: The Cyclops was blind, but he could still hurl boulders in the direction from which he heard the taunts. Zawahiri is all but inviting intelligence agencies (not to mention any unaligned hackers who are motivated by nothing more than a good challenge) to turn his invitation into an opportunity to use the Internet to figure out just where he is hiding. Like Ulysses, he is all but inviting his enemies to hurl boulders at him; and that is far more hubris (about which, presumably, any BBC news reader is well educated) than chutzpah!

Needless to say, my vanity would like to believe that Ms. Kaye decided to invoke the term because this was the day I put out the weekly Chutzpah award. However, it is hard for the realist in me to believe that anything I have bothered to write would ever get noticed by the BBC! Nevertheless, I feel it is important to defend words against improper usage; and I would hold to the proposition that Stephen Johnson is still more deserving of this week's award than Zawahiri is!

Regulatory Chutzpah

One thing I have to say about the Executive branch of our Federal Government is that it never seems to be at a loss in coming up with Chutzpah of the Week award candidates. This week's award winner is Stephen L. Johnson, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). It has not been particularly surprising that, under the Bush Administration, the EPA has kept a pretty low profile, so low that some of us were beginning to wonder if it still existed. However, the EPA is back in the spotlight; but the light is not a particularly friendly one. It all comes down to a story that Richard Simon and Janet Wilson wrote for today's Los Angeles Times with the following lead:

The Bush administration Wednesday denied California's bid to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from automobiles, dealing a blow to the state's attempts to combat global warming and prompting an immediate vow from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to take the decision to court.

Environmental Protection Agency administrator Stephen L. Johnson denied the state's request to implement its own landmark law, noting that an energy bill signed by President Bush earlier in the day would go a long way toward reducing emissions throughout the United States. The bill provides the most significant increase in vehicle fuel economy standards in more than three decades.

Is this nothing more than a pissing contest between presidential and gubernatorial authority? One answer may reside in Johnson's own words:

The Bush administration is moving forward with a clear national solution, not a confusing patchwork of state rules.

One might think that all Johnson was doing was invoking a clever metaphor in support of the need for a national agenda to overrule any individual statewide policies. However, Simon and Wilson seem to have figured out who was actually writing Johnson's script:

David McCurdy, president and chief executive of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, said in a prepared statement that a "patchwork quilt of inconsistent and competing fuel economy programs at the state level would only have created confusion, inefficiency and uncertainty for automakers and consumers."

Now we can understand McCurdy's pain. Schwarzenegger's plan would regulate what vehicles can be sold in California. This is in the interest of the vulnerability of much of California geography to emissions pollution, but it means that, as far as American automotive products are concerned, the California market is important enough that the state standards would trump any national standards. Needless to say, if foreign automotive products do meet the standards, then they stand to gain market share from the new California regulations; and that is the real reason why McCurdy is screaming in agony.

This takes us to the question of where the chutzpah resides. From my point of view, McCurdy is doing exactly what he is expected to do as a chief spokesperson for American automobile manufacturers; and that is not chutzpah. Johnson, on the other hand, through his little linguistic slip of the tongue, has put out a rather blatant signal that, with the blessing of the Bush Administration, he is acting as a shill for those automobile manufactures, placing the need to prop up their failing businesses over the need to clean up California's air. By being so overt about what Federal priorities really are, Johnson has earned himself the week's Chutzpah of the Week award!

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Viewing the Hajj from the West

I began this week by considering the nature of a Huntington-like "clash" between Western and Islamic civilizations and the ways in which this clash surfaces in the biases that arise when these two civilizations report the news. One of my conclusions was that it is particularly important for those of us on the Western side to monitor Al Jazeera English for the perspective it provides from the Islamic side. An example of the value of this perspective comes the reporting of the annual Hajj in Mecca. The Western press has a track record of focusing on the large crowds, the dangers of the lack of adequate (by Western standards) crowd control, and sometimes the symbolic acts of violence, such as the stoning of the Devil.

This year, however, Al Jazeera English found a more substantive source of news in their reporting on the Hajj:

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the president of Iran, joined millions of Muslims on Mount Arafat, east of Mecca, to mark the spiritual high point of the Hajj.

He is the first Iranian leader to take part in the annual Muslim pilgrimage.

Ahmadinejad is attending the Hajj at the invitation of King Abdullah, the Saudi king.

Now, in fairness to Western journalism, I need to state that I was first aware of Ahmadinejad's participation in the Hajj when I watched yesterday's 3 PM (live) broadcast of BBC News on KQED World; but, in equal fairness, I need to observe that I have yet to find a text version of this BBC story on their Web site (having just done a search before writing this sentence). More important is that the BBC found this story newsworthy for the same reason that Al Jazeera English provided in their account:

Relations have been rocky between Shia majority Iran and Sunni majority Saudi Arabia, which also has a substantial Shia community in its oil-rich eastern province.

Relations reached an all-time low in July 1987 when 402 people were killed in clashes between Iranians and Saudi security forces during the Hajj.

However, Ahmadinejad's appearance is seen as a sign of warming relations between the two countries.

Now perhaps it would be a bit extreme on my part to suggest that the West is more inclined to report acts of conflict and violence within the Islamic civilization than they are to report the ways in which Islamic precepts and ceremonies may lead to peaceful resolutions of those conflicts. This may just be the capitalist bias and war sells better than peace, but my own view is that the latter principle is the tip of the former principle's iceberg.

The other thing that struck me about the BBC account was the way in which they used images to show all the Hajj pilgrims wearing white robes that were practically identical. The BBC reported explained that this is because Islam views all pilgrims as equal, regardless of wealth, power, or gender (yes, in this setting, women have the same status as men). For me this was a profound reminder that the very concept of civilization clash is Western in origin and is thus a bias that needs to be recognized as such. Karen Armstrong has done much to try to bring that bias to our attention; but, as is almost always the case, the right image can speak louder than even the most eloquent prose. I just wish that more of the Western press shared the value of this particular image with the BBC.

TIME is Out of Joint

Since I take so much pleasure in irony, there was at least one level in which, after having yesterday read Huffington Post blogger Russell Shaw write about the inevitability of Al Gore being this year's selection for Time magazine's Person of the Year, I could enjoy the Associated Press report that the selection was actually Vladimir Putin. What made the report interesting, of course, was not the selection but the reasoning behind the selection:

The nod went to the Russian leader because of Putin's "extraordinary feat of leadership in taking a country that was in chaos and bringing it stability," said Richard Stengel, Time's managing editor.

This one criterion overlooks many dimensions of Putin, which even Stengel could not ignore:

"He's the new czar of Russia and he's dangerous in the sense that he doesn't care about civil liberties, he doesn't care about free speech," Stengel said.

In other words, as Tom Lehrer put it about Werner von Braun, Putin is "a man whose allegiance is ruled by expedience;" and expedience has worked very well in his favor.

So did Time speak for the rest of us? Did it ever? And, even if did, just what was it saying? Perhaps Gore was rejected for precisely the reasons that Shaw found him so inevitable. He has dedicated both his heart and his mind to getting out the word that the planet is in trouble and enjoining as many people in the world as he can to unite in reversing a dire trend. Putin, on the other hand, is perceived as the fixer. Gore warned about a chaos that is descending upon the entire world. Putin took the chaos that had engulfed Russia and returned stability "by any means necessary." I take this to mean that, at least at Time, solving problems is more important than understanding them, even if it means overlooking some of the less savory steps that lead to the solution.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Obesity is Where you Eat It

San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom may have decided to declare economic war on high-calorie soft drinks; but, according to a Reuters report from Los Angeles, a different kind of economic war has erupted in the burger business:

No. 3 U.S. hamburger chain Wendy's International Inc introduced a 99-cent double cheeseburger on Tuesday, a product the company hopes will help it compete with bigger rivals McDonald's Corp and Burger King Corp Inc

In a statement, Wendy's said the new "Stack Attack" burger would help reel in cash-strapped consumers struggling with rising gas prices and other "financial pressures."

The move comes as Burger King plans to test a $1 double cheeseburger that is larger than McDonald's comparable product in several markets next year. Both Wendy's and Burger King hope to steal market share from McDonald's, whose $1 double cheeseburger is its most popular menu item.

This is just what we need: meeting the challenge of affordable food with an onslaught of double cheeseburgers. Can't anyone figure out a way to produce and market a $1 salad bar?

Not All Market-Based Thinking is Dangerous!

Lest my last post be interpreted as a wholesale (pun sort of intended) attack on market-based thinking, I feel a need to cite a story closer to my own home, also reported by Reuters last night, this time by Adam Tanner. Here is the lead:

San Francisco stores selling high-calorie sodas should pay millions of dollars a year to offset the health-care costs related to obesity, the city's mayor said on Monday.

"This is not just hippy-dippy, left-coast, granola stuff," Gavin Newsom said about his proposal to encourage people to drink less Coca-Cola, Pepsi and other soft drinks. "There is a direct correlation between caloric sweetened beverages and obesity."

"What we are doing is proposing a fee against the supermarkets and hypermarkets."

The details do not appear to have been worked out thoroughly yet. However, here is the basic strategy:

The plan, outlined during an interview at City Hall, seeks to raise to between $1.7 million and $7.1 million a year for anti-obesity programs by having stores pay between hundreds and thousands of dollars a year each.

Needless to say my injunctions about thinking, particularly about premises and consequences, still hold. Nevertheless, I find this an interesting strategy, somewhat along the lines of efforts to wean Americans off of the tobacco habit. It is an interesting way to think about problems and solutions in terms of costs and benefits, and I hope it is given the attention it deserves.

Ideology and Expertise

I have not figured out whether it is good news or bad news that, in the wake of making our country an embarrassment in the global community (as was demonstrated most vividly last week in Bali), President Bush has appeared to shift his attention from international to national affairs. After all, I suspect that, if you were to just walk up to people on the street and ask them with what major national event they would associated our President, most of those folks would probably respond, "Hurricane Katrina." So when I read last night's Reuters report by John Crawley under the headline "Bush wants market solutions for U.S. airline delays," my immediate reaction was, "Can this turn into a mess worse than the impact of Katrina?"

Of course air travel is already a pretty awful mess, and there is nothing like a holiday to aggravate the mess. However, when things are at their worst, is it really the best time to experiment with market-based ideology? I cannot help but remember my history lessons about how both Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong tried to apply Communist ideology to agriculture and brought on famines that devastated their respective countries. It is all very well and good to think out of the box, as long as you remember that the operative word is "think!" Even Franklin Roosevelt, who believed that, in confronting the Great Depression, doing anything was better than doing nothing, did not try to attach ideological baggage to the things he tried.

The more fundamental question we need to ask, however, is just what Bush means by "market solutions" and what premises and consequences are associated with that meaning. Fortunately, Crawley has provided us with a few of Bush's own words:

The truth of the matter is, we need a more rational way of allocating gates among airlines.

There are any number of ways to pick apart this assertion. The most important is probably the premise it appears to embody that markets are rational. As far as I can tell, the only settings in which markets are rational are in economics textbooks; and, as more and more economists seem willing to acknowledge that markets are primarily phenomena of the social world, those textbooks are quickly fading out of fashion, if not out of print. Perhaps Bush really meant "efficient," rather than "rational." This is another favorite adjective for economists who prefer the cleanliness of mathematical models to the grubby realities of the social world; and isn't "throughput" the major concern of holiday travelers? Here, however, we have to remember that, particularly from the subjective (and not necessarily rational) perspective of the consumer, "effectiveness" may count for more than efficiency. The last time I raised this distinction, I was discussing the patient's-eye view of health care; but it is just as valid for the traveler's-eye viewpoint of airline operations.

In fairness, however, we should still see what sorts of proposals are on the table, regardless of the weakness of the premises (not to mention their potential consequences):

The Transportation Department has struggled to finalize details of its congestion plan for the New York region -- especially JFK -- after meeting stiff resistance from airlines and some members of Congress to centerpiece initiatives such as the administration-preferred plan that would make airlines pay a premium for flights during the busiest times of the day.

But regulators, according to aviation sources late on Monday, are coalescing around a plan that is to be announced on Wednesday by Transportation Secretary Mary Peters and would, over the longer term, manage capacity and competition by auctioning some takeoff and landing rights.

In the shorter term, the sources said, the government is expected to impose hourly flight caps at JFK for the summer of 2008.

It seems as if, between keyword advertising and eBay, auctioning has become the new hammer (pun intended), wielded by a small boy who sees everything as a nail. This may be due in part to the way in which it has provided mathematicians with new opportunities to experiment with models, even if those models are firmly ensconced in the objective world, safely protected from the messy details of the subjective and social worlds. The problem, of course, is that, when the models are used in a predictive capacity, their predictions are limited to the objective world, which is just not the world of holiday travelers.

I actually had my first taste of auction-based thinking at a talk that John Seely Brown gave in the auditorium of the (then) Xerox PARC Auditorium for an event sponsored by the Wharton School (one of those academic monuments to the objective world). Brown was extolling the virtues of low-level communications in highly distributed networks as an alternative to the hierarchy of a "classical" Weber-style bureaucracy. The example he chose to invoke was air traffic control, which, from the point of view of risk to loss of life and property, is a more critical problem than passenger throughput at airports. Brown suggested that the heavy cognitive load on air traffic controllers could be alleviated if every airplane could carry a software package that would enable individual planes to "bid" for the available landing slots at airports. Cynic that I am, I found the following voice ringing in my ears as I thought about this suggestion:

This is your Captain speaking. We hope you have enjoyed your non-stop flight from Los Angeles. Unfortunately, we were unable to secure a winning bid for a landing slot at Kennedy Airport. However, I am happy to report that we have won a bid for a slot at Logan International Airport outside Boston and will be landing there in about an hour.

While I am clearly serving this up as a joke, it also demonstrates what happens if we fail to think through narrative scenarios when we bury our heads too deep in the mathematics. We remember Hurricane Katrina (and associate it with President Bush) because, after the Gulf Coast was flooded by the elements, the entire nation (if not the world) was flooded with such narrative scenarios; and there was not the slightest thing funny about any of them. As I said in my second paragraph, the operative word behind trying to solve any problem is "think." Depression has become too much of a way of life in this country and the President is perceived as being far too detached from that depression for him to take on another problem and fail to think through those irritating details of premises and consequences.

Monday, December 17, 2007

The Clash of Civilizations Continues with the Immigration Debate!

Having let Samuel P. Huntington's Clash of Civilizations genie out of the bottle, it is interesting to observe some of the other clashes in which Western civilization is now embroiled. Consider the lead from this story filed by Associated Press Writer Bob Lentz:

A small sign that asked customers to order in English at a famous cheesesteak shop was never meant to be offensive, the shop's owner testified Friday at a hearing to decide whether the policy was discriminatory.

Joe Vento, the owner of Geno's Steaks, defended his policy before the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations, which filed the discrimination complaint.

"This country is a melting pot, but what makes it work is the English language," Vento told the commission. "I'm not stupid. I would never put a sign out to hurt my business."

Vento posted two small signs in October 2005 at his shop in a diverse South Philadelphia neighborhood, telling customers, "This is AMERICA: WHEN ORDERING PLEASE 'SPEAK ENGLISH.'"

He said Friday that he posted the sign because of concerns over the debate on immigration reform and the increasing number of people from the area who could not order in English.

But he said he also wanted to keep the line moving at his busy store.

What makes the story particularly interesting is the role of the debate over immigration policy in establishing Vento's motives. Looking at Huntington's "conflict graph," reproduced by Wikipedia, we see Latin America identified as a civilization distinct from Western; and we have to wonder if Vento had Latinos in mind when he deployed his signs.

The other item that attracted my attention was Vento's argument that the signs were posted in the interest of efficiency. Now, writing as someone who looks for someplace else to eat when he sees a long line, I can understand (if not agree with) this argument. On the other hand I suspect that Vento never had the inclination (let alone the time) to figure out whether (a) his revenues were suffering due to declining efficiency in handling the line of customers (long lines mean more customers meaning more sales) and (b) whether that inefficiency, if genuine, had to do with failure to understand customer orders. My guess is that this is all a matter of jumping to a conclusion in the worst possible direction by choosing an action that not only did not address the real problem but also entailed some really unpleasant consequences. Finally, while my own argument accepts the hypothesis that the best business is an efficiency business, I have questioned that hypothesis in the past and continue to do so. Thus, while T. S. Eliot cautioned us about doing "the right deed for the wrong reason" in his tragedy, Murder in the Cathedral, this may be a more comic instance of doing the wrong deed for the wrong reason!

The Clash of Civilizations Begins with Semantics

While I continue to draw upon the BBC as one of my more reliable sources of news, I do so knowing that, every now and then, I can detect a "culture-centric" streak in their reporting. My detection mechanism started buzzing this morning while listening to their report on the radio of the pardoning of the rape victim by the King of Saudi Arabia. Those who have been following this story know that, after having to deal with the trauma of rape, this woman was then sentenced by the Saudi justice system to 200 lashes and a prison term. Nevertheless, there was something in the BBC choice of language that did not register very well with me. Fortunately, I was able to find it in the lead paragraphs of the story on their Web site:

The Saudi king has pardoned a female rape victim sentenced to jail and 200 lashes for being alone with a man raped in the same attack, reports say.

The "Qatif girl" case caused an international outcry with widespread criticism of the Saudi justice system.

There is was: that phrase "international outcry." While my personal ethic felt the King had made a "right and proper" decision, I could not but wonder just how "international" the outcry was in a world that is so large and diverse and has such a substantial population of devout Muslims. Was the BBC interpreting protests from the Western world as an "international outcry;" and, if so, did this put an undesirable bias on their report?

Fortunately, the BBC Web site is not subject to the temporal constraints of their top-of-the-hour radio news summaries. Thus, I was glad to see from further reading that I was not alone in raising these questions:

The BBC's Heba Saleh says the king's decision to pardon the woman victim is already arousing controversy with some contributors to conservative websites, who say he has breached the rules of religion in order to appease critics in the West.

The US had called the punishment "astonishing", although it refused to condemn the Saudi justice system.

Human rights groups had been calling on King Abdullah, who has a reputation as a pro-Western reformer, to change it.

The justice ministry recently rejected what it saw as "foreign interference" in the case and insisted the ruling was legal and that the woman had confessed to having an affair with her fellow rape victim.

In these brief paragraphs we find a deeper story that reminds us that Samuel P. Huntington's Clash of Civilizations theory is still very much with us, even if no longer in the form adopted so rabidly by neoconservative ideologues. This is not to oppose a Western value system, which reacted with such revulsion to a justice system meting out harsh punishment to a rape victim; it is just to observe that when a Western text invokes the adjective "international" in addressing a serious moral question, it usually means "Western world." Huntington's point was that such uses of language can lead to confused communications between civilizations, which, in turn, can lead to more aggressive conflicts. So it is that we now see that the backlash to the King's decision is displaying as much passion as the initial reaction of those (Western) human rights groups.

From a literary point of view, this is a case with which even a Solomon would have struggled; and, alas, King Abdullah does not appear to have such Solomonic wisdom. On the other hand I suspect that he has built up a "core competence" in what Isaiah Berlin called "political judgement;" and I am willing to credit him with bringing the full weight of that competence to bear on the conflictual nature of the relations between the Western and Islamic civilizations (to keep things grounded in Huntington's terminology). Whatever the BBC may say or its listeners may believe, if the King is sincerely trying to act as a change agent, his "political judgement" is sharp enough to recognize that "change" need not necessarily be accepting Western values to such a degree that key Islamic values are sacrificed in the process.

Back when I was active in the debates over knowledge management, trying to tease out fundamental questions of what it should be and how it should be implemented, many of my colleagues liked to talk about the goal of "shared understanding." This usually meant agreement over such matters as how we see the world, how we collect data from the world, and how we interpret those data. However, "understanding" and "agreement" are not necessarily synonymous nouns; and, in my own effort to avoid the confusion of that synonymy, I tried to change my own language. Rather than echoing that phrase "shared understanding," I start to speak of "negotiated understanding." The point I tried to make was that we could still strive to agree about how to act, even if we disagreed passionately over what things mean. In Kantian terms our actions are grounded in "pure reason," "practical reason," and "judgment;" and, particularly when we are in critical decision-making situations, we cannot afford to short-change any of those foundations.

Relations between the Western and Islamic civilizations are in just such a critical situation. We see it in the Western language of our would-be Presidential candidates; and today we saw it in a BBC News "headline" story. One of the reasons why I feel it is important to monitor Al Jazeera English is that it provides at least some opportunity to sample the language from the Islamic side. I just hope that influential figures like King Abdullah appreciate this difference between "shared understanding" and "negotiated understanding" and have both the power and the skill to exercise a "political judgement" that can move us towards a world in which Western and Islamic civilizations no longer feel obliged to clash.