Sunday, September 30, 2007

A New Season for the San Francisco Symphony

Strictly speaking, the Patron's Gala is the first concert of the season for the San Francisco Symphony. However, I prefer to treat the first subscription concert as the beginning of the season, since this is the first occasion that people attend pretty much strictly for the music (rather than the champagne)! Thus, while the Patron's event was launched with Copland's "Fanfare for the Common Man" (a bit of an oxymoron, considering the price of admission), we more ordinary subscribers got our fanfare from Mozart in the triadic opening of his C major K. 338 symphony with its grand orchestration that included trumpets and timpani. This provided an interesting reflection back on the summer (which probably had not been intentional). Recall that this year's Midsummer Mozart Festival scheduled two works that the Symphony had performed in the course of its preceding season (the K. 317 "Coronation" mass and the K. 482 E-flat major piano concerto). In this context it is also nice to recall that the first of the two Midsummer Mozart concerts concluded with that K. 338 symphony, situating the festival, in a peculiar sort of way, "between past and future," as Hannah Arendt might say.

However, while George Cleve had programmed this symphony to conclude a program that was as fascinating as it was extensive, Michael Tilson Thomas programmed it as a "curtain-raiser" for Gustav Mahler's Lied von der Erde. According to Peter Grunberg, who delivered the pre-concert talk, MTT saw this as a "Vertigo-connection," with the tormented Scottie as Mahler, whose soul is eased when Midge plays some Mozart for him, which happens to be (what else?) the second movement of K. 338. That makes for a great story, but I prefer to think in terms of Mahler's reputation as a conductor. In this case the story has to deal with friends persuading Brahms to join them in their box when Mahler was conducting Don Giovanni. Brahms agreed to come only if they would let him doze on the "fainting couch;" but, as the story goes, as soon as Mahler conducted the opening notes of the opera's overture, Brahms was up from the couch and riveted to the rest of the performance! K. 338 is much earlier than Don Giovanni, and I am not sure how (if at all) Mahler approached the non-operatic Mozart. Nevertheless, it throws an interesting light on the coupling of Mozart and Mahler and reminds us that sometimes biography tells better stories than fiction!

When I wrote about the Midsummer Mozart performance of K. 338, I observed that, with its orchestral resources, it was the grandest sound of the evening. Needless to say, the resources required for the Mahler dwarfed those of the Mozart; and, in spite of the trumpets and timpani, there was a shimmering transparency to Cleve's performance that was absent in Davies Symphony Hall. However, it is unclear that such a sound could have been heard in any but the few front rows of Davies; so what we had was a performance both appropriate to the space and preparatory for all the stops that would then be pulled out after the intermission.

I am never sure whether or not I approve of prefatory remarks that prepare one for disappointment, but in this case it was probably just as well that MTT took the time to tell us that Thomas Hampson, the baritone soloists for Das Lied von der Erde, was dealing with an incipient cold. Personally, I sometimes worry that Hampson is given to over-acting, even in a concert setting; so it may have been just as well that he had to deliver a more subdued performance, even if that performance lapsed into a head tone or two. He certainly paced himself well through the final "Abschied" movement, which takes about as much time as all of the five movements that precede it. For that matter MTT's sense of the architecture of that movement played out in such a way that one just lost track of how much time was elapsing. The ear followed from episode to episode without worrying that any of them were lingering on excessively.

The tenor solo was sung by Stuart Skelton, who approached his performance with a bit more dramatization. However, since he had to deal with two songs that depict drunkenness, one really would not really want the dramatic element to be short-changed. Besides, he also brought just the right physical presence to "Von der Jugend," which he sang between the two "drunk songs" and is one of those Chinese poems that simply focuses on capturing a single pristine moment.

Das Lied von der Erde is another one of those works that can never be captured effectively by current recording techniques. Too much is happening in the orchestra, and almost all of it serves the relationship with the voices and what they are singing. The orchestration is both rich, in the abundance of different sound qualities that are invoked, and spare in giving each of those sound qualities its proper measure and no more. The chinoiserie is kept discreetly minimal, with only a few nods to pentatonic melody lines. However, the sound of the mandolin in the final bars of "Der Abschied" evoked the color of its Chinese cousin without those few pitches having to refer to any particularly "Chinese" melody.

From a personal point of view, this performance also looked back to an earlier time, since Das Lied von der Erde was one of the first performances by MTT and the San Francisco Symphony that I heard when I moved from Singapore (with its own coincidentally Chinese connotations) to the Bay Area. I have begun to make a habit of hearing MTT's "second time around" performances, which he has now done for several (if not most) of the symphonies. I like him because he never repeats himself. There are always new ways to hear Mahler, and he always manages to find them. Sooner or later, I suspect I shall discover the same in the ways in which he conducts Mozart!

Second Thoughts about Tannhäuser

I once heard a great story about John Maynard Keynes. He supposedly gave a lecture, after which some pedantic type came up and challenged him for being inconsistent with several assertions from his published literature. (Today we would say that he was being accused of flip-flopping.) Keynes responded, "When I receive evidence that is inconsistent with a position I have taken, I change my position; what do you do with inconsistent evidence?" By virtue of recent correspondence with a friend who shares the Opera box where my wife and I sit for a "mini-series" (while we attend the entire subscription series), I have stumbled across some evidence that is not very consistent with the reading I was proposing for the Tannhäuser text.

The reading in question concerns the opposition of Venusberg-as-life against the Wartburg-as-death (triggered by the dead animals, which are pretty much the first thing we see when Tannhäuser returns to the Wartburg from Venusberg). Our box-mate observed that she "was distracted by Venus' farmer tan;" and this got me to thinking about the necessity of both light and water for life and how they were handled in this interpretation of the scenario. Let me consider each a bit in turn.

Let's start with light. As I pointed out, there is this tree that runs through all three acts of the opera, almost like, as one of my friends used to put it, the skewer through the shish kebab. In Venusberg "the tree is rich with green foliage;" but how did it get that way? There is very little sense that Venusberg is a place of light or darkness. It is a place of orgies where we have enough light to see what is happening, but is it a place of day and night? In the scenario as it has been set, light only begins to matter when Elizabeth opens up all of the windows to the Minstrel's Hall. Venus can summon a ring of fire; but light and dark do not appear to signify, perhaps because time does not need to be divided into intervals if life is eternal.

A green tree also needs water, but that does not appear to be in Venusberg either. We only see water with the arrival of the staggering pilgrims, one of whom heads straight for a little stream at the edge of the stage. This could be taken as a minor detail; but, where questions of life and death are concerned, the classical elements are a bit more than minor details!

Thus, it may be that Venusberg really is not all about life. It is just about sex and probably sex without procreation. Thus, it is just as sterile as Elizabeth's piety! Now this is not entirely inconsistent with my original conception: If Venusberg is a place of eternal life for those who dwell there, than procreative sex is not necessary. (Take that, James Thurber!) Nevertheless, in the face of all that effort to unify the three acts of the opera with that tree, it feels as if a whole bunch of other contextual details have fallen by the wayside. In other words, to fall back on my previous attempts to view performances through the lenses of the medieval trivium of logic, grammar, and rhetoric, we have some serious problems of logic in this production, not the logic of Aristotle, of course, but just some basis for a rationale behind what we see and hear. I guess my exercise in sense-making for this production still has some work left to do!

Too Much Chutzpah to Choose

This was one of those weeks when the chutzpah candidates just kept coming. Perhaps the full moon had something to do with it. As absurdity followed absurdity, I kept telling myself to wait; but I suppose I cannot wait any longer.

To some extent I find that I had to deal with this week through a process of elimination. Burma was a scene of the raw power of brute force, so chutzpah never really entered into their equation. Presidential politics is just poor theatre, where we still have to put up with summer-stock performances. As to the President himself, he is just getting too predictable to be accused of chutzpah. On the other hand I felt that this story, which Al Jazeera English pulled off of their wire services, deserved a bit more attention:

Pakistani journalists are marking a "black day" to condemn police beatings during opposition protests against Pervez Musharraf's pursuit of another five-year term in office as president.

Musharraf won a legal victory on Saturday when the election commission declared him a qualified candidate for the election on October 6.

Lawyers and opposition activists staging protests outside of the commission building in the capital clashed with police, who wielded batons and fired tear gas to disperse the crowd.

Police then turned on journalists covering the melee, beating several of them.

Now I would guess that some readers now want to ask, "Isn't this just another instance of that 'raw power of brute force' you saw in Burma?" Well, yes, it could be; but what if it were more than that? Pakistan has been trying very hard to flirt with the respectability of responsible governance, so why would Musharraf want to jeopardize his act? Could it be that the word went out that, if the eyes of the world are not fixed so ardently on Burma, it might be possible to let one or two thugs off-leash long enough to let Pakistani's know where the power lies. American politicians know this trick well, often making moves they would prefer be hidden at times when the media are looking elsewhere; and there is every reason to believe that Musharraf both knows and uses that kind of playbook. That is where the chutzpah lies: not in the brutality itself but in deliberately scheduling it at a time when most media sources are "otherwise engaged." Fortunately, Al Jazeera was not "otherwise engaged;" and, as a result of their vigilance, the Chutzpah of the Week award can be assigned to Pervez Musharraf!

Saturday, September 29, 2007

We Don't ALWAYS Live by Metaphors!

It is probably still hard to find anyone in cognitive science these days who does not worship at the temple that George Lakoff and Mark Johnson built with their Metaphors We Live By book, even if most of the important points in this book had been made at least a decade before its publication by Continental literary theorists, such as Roland Barthes and Paul Ricœur. It was therefore refreshing to read what philosopher Colin McGinn had to say about Steven Pinker's latest burnt offering at this temple in the course of his review of Pinker's new book The Stuff of Thought, which appeared in the September 27 issue of The New York Review. McGinn is no slouch when it comes to Continental thinking, which makes his take on metaphor interesting reading:

Our language is transparently shot through with metaphors of one kind or another. But it is far from clear that everything we do with concepts and language can be accounted for in this way; consider how we think and talk about consciousness and the mind, or our moral thinking. The concept of pain, say, is not explicable as a metaphorical variation on some sort of physical concept.

While I appreciate McGinn's effort to deflate blanket generalizations, I am not sure I agree with specific examples. Indeed, because the concept of pain is so subtle, metaphor is often the best, if not the only way, to describe it, particularly when it is necessary to form an effective bridge between our own mundane vocabulary and the far more specialized terminology of the physician we have consulted about the pain. When we get to "consciousness and the mind," our knowledge of what we may call the objective reality is still so impoverished that, as is the case with pain, just about anything we have to say involves invoking one metaphor or another.

No, my beef with the Lakoff-Johnson acolytes and priests is that we engage more than metaphor when we express ourselves through tropes. This is why I feel they committed a great sin of omission in disregarding those Continental literary theorists, because Continental writing tends to example all of the tropes (or, as we were probably taught to call them in school, figures of speech). Indeed, one major spiritual godfather of such Continental thinking, Roman Jakobson, even developed the hypothesis that the decision to invoke metaphor or metonymy may serve as an indicator of a particular cognitive function. (Actually, Jakobson began with the problem of trying to account for cognitive dysfunctions; but this is a case where you can learn from looking through either end of the telescope, if one allows that metaphor!)

Out general ignorance of the breadth of figurative language was brought home to me last night in an amusing way. My wife and I were watching the DVR recording I had made of Akellah and the Bee. One of the words that trips her up was "synecdoche." What tripped me up was the discovery that I had never heard the word pronounced, so I only got it once I heard it defined. I then realized that, for all of the times I had read this word in both books and papers, this was the first time I had ever heard it uttered, even though it is used so frequently in our ordinary speech. Could it be that many of the problems we have in dealing with "real reality" stem from the fact that we are now too vocabulary-impoverished to describe that reality?

Friday, September 28, 2007

The Priorities of our "Reading" Public

Given my general preference for reading books that have withstood some test of time, I have never been a great fan of the New York Times best-sellers list. The Fiction column rarely interests me, and most of the Non-Fiction entries are fluff. Nevertheless, Reuters reporter Steve Gorman decided there was a story in the latest version of the Non-Fiction list; and he may have a point, since, if nothing else, the top three entries may tell us more about our national priorities than many of the more methodical polling systems. Let's take those three entries "from the top," as the say:

  1. The top slot is currently held by Alan Greenspan's The Age of Turbulence. My guess is that most of the people buying this book never listened to any of Greenspan's Congressional testimonies, nor do they know very much about either the why or the how of the Federal Reserve, let alone Greenspan's policies in running it. Nevertheless, the word quickly got out that this would be a "tell-all" book that had a lot to say about our current President; and that seemed to be enough to make Greenspan as much a center attention as he was when the fate of our monetary supply was in his hands.
  2. Coming in behind Greenspan is O. J. Simpson with If I Did It. I suppose you could call this a "subjunctive tell-all book." It had one of the longer build-ups in public relations history, primarily because there was a whole to-do over whether or not the book should actually be released to the public. That was enough to get the general public to lap it up once it went on sale.
  3. Behind O. J. we find Bill Clinton's Giving book. As non-fiction books go, this is definitely the most informative of the bunch. It is even bold enough to recommend an altruistic life-style that can be realized without seriously disrupting one's budget or time. It definitely provides more opportunities for serious reflection that O. J. does and is probably easier to negotiate than Greenspan's text. Could it be that the lower priority has something to do with what the title says about the subject matter?

Of course the Times list says nothing about what people are actually reading. These are books to be set out on the coffee table to identify their owner as a thinking individual who has time for serious reading matter, which is to say that these all serve the purpose of cheap set dressing. In that respect I suspect many will use the overt display of Clinton's book as an excuse for not having the time to heed any of its lessons. Clinton should have known better. He could just as easily have produced a reality television program that could have been kick-started with the examples cited in his manuscript! What if people watching that program started thinking about what they could do to appear on subsequent episodes? That would be a concept!

Antisocial Technology

Perhaps the best way to explain the opposition between the United Nations and the United States with respect to the current environmental crisis is in terms of attitude toward technology and growth. This, at any rate, is how I read the attempt by David Jackson, of USA Today, to summarize the current state of affairs:

"There are two different visions about how you make progress," said David Doniger, policy director for the climate center at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Doniger said Bush's encouragement of voluntary efforts simply won't work. A global treaty with "real limits," he added, would actually force businesses to pursue the kinds of cleaner energy-producing technologies that the president talks about. "If you just call for pledges, you don't get any real changes," he said.

Over the years, Bush and his aides have said that hard-and-fast restrictions would cripple economic growth. In 2006, Bush told an audience that the Kyoto treaty would have been "a lousy deal for America," leading to "massive layoffs and economic destruction."

The United Nations approach to a global treaty basically requires trans-national commitment to a new regime of regulation; and that concept of regulation just does not sit will with our President (or, probably, with most of his supporters). Thus the United States would rather frame the issue in terms of economic growth, presenting the "Clear Skies & Global Change Initiatives" to encourage the development of new technologies that will "solve" environmental problems like global warming. We probably should not be coming down too hard on the President for taking such a position, since ours is a culture that has been seeking a technology fix for every problem for quite some time (at least all the way back to Benjamin Franklin).

However, where this once may been one of our more admirable national traits, it may now be turning into a global hazard; and, for those of us who have been following the DigitalLife conference in New York this week, that hazard may well impact more than the environment. It may involved tampering with the very social fabric through which we engage with each other, often with little regard for what the consequences may be. Let me focus on one example reported by Associated Press Business Writer Mark Jewell:

A new device by iRobot Corp. resembles the company's disc-shaped Roomba vacuum cleaner but has a webcam bulging from the top.

It's designed to enable parents on a business trip to feel they're almost at home. For example, a parent could remotely send the wheeled robot into a bedroom, where the children could open a book in front of the robot's camera. The parent could then read the story aloud and watch and hear the kids' reactions. The family could also converse.

The robot can be controlled from within the home or remotely, using a Web connection to a home wireless network. The user can operate the robot with either a joystick or a computer installed with iRobot-supplied software.

Color digital video streams only one way, meaning a traveling parent could see the kids but not vice versa. Up to 10 parties can have PIN-number access to the gadget, allowing distant relatives or friends to keep in touch, as well as immediate family.

This item was part of a longer article entitled "Robots take on social tasks;" and it should remind us that any pursuit of new technologies cannot ignore the history of what we have tried (not always successfully) to learn about the nature of those social tasks. In this case a good place to begin would be by reviewing the history of Harry Harlow, which, fortunately, Lauren Slater did for the Boston Globe, about three-and-a-half years ago. He is best known for running a series of experiments with monkeys that could teach us about the nature of parenting. Here is Slater's summary of the experiment for which Harlow is best known:

Rhesus macaque monkeys share roughly 94 percent of their genetic heritage with humans. But Harlow felt no kinship with his test subjects. "The only thing I care about is whether a monkey will turn out a property I can publish," he said. "I don't have any love for them. I never have. I don't really like animals. I despise cats. I hate dogs. How could you love monkeys?"

Harlow's experiment required wire cutters, cardboard cones, hot coils, steel nails, and soft cloth. He used the wire cutters to fashion a wire mother, its torso patterned with small squares, a single inflexible breast "on the ventral front." Affixed to this breast, a steel nipple pierced with a tiny hole through which the monkey milk could flow.

Then Harlow fashioned a soft surrogate, a cardboard cone bunted in a terry cloth towel. He wrote, "The result was a mother, soft, warm, and tender, a mother with infinite patience, a mother available 24 hours a day . . .. It is our opinion that we engineered a very superior monkey mother, although this position is not held universally by monkey fathers."

First Harlow took a group of newborn rhesus macaque babies and put them in a cage with the two surrogate mothers: the wire mother full of food, the cloth mother with an empty breast and a sweet smile. After the initial trauma, something amazing started to happen. Within days, the baby macaques transferred their affections from the real mother, who was no longer available, to the cloth surrogate.

The cloth mother, however, had no milk, so when the youngsters were hungry, they would dart over to the chicken-wire mother and then run back to the safety of the soft towel. Harlow graphed the mean amount of time the monkeys spent nursing versus cuddling. The disparity in favor of cuddling, he wrote, was "so great as to suggest that the primary function of nursing . . . is that of insuring frequent and intimate body contact of the infant with the mother."

Harlow was establishing that love grows from touch, not taste, which is why, when the mother's milk dries up, the child continues to love her. The child then takes this love, the memory of it, and recasts it outward, so that every interaction is a replay and a revision of this early touch. "Certainly," writes Harlow, "man cannot live by milk alone."

For a long time psychology classes tended to treat the above summary as a closed story on an experiment, results, and lessons learned. However, the narrative of the real world does not close off quite so nicely. It turns out that the monkeys that participated in Harlow's experiments experienced side effects that did not appear until after they had grown:

When he [Harlow] took the grown-up cloth-mothered monkeys out to play and mate, they were violently antisocial. Some began to display autistic-like behavior. A New York Times reporter came out to Madison to do a follow-up and Harlow led him to his lab, where a troop of rocking, head-banging macaques sat in cages, chewing off their fingers. "I admit it," said Harlow. "I have made a mistake."

Harlow's admission was good news, but he did not necessarily see any mistakes in his underlying methodology. Rather, he saw the mistake as an opportunity to formulate and explore new hypotheses, no more concerned about long-range side effects than he was with his first round of experiments.

This brings us back to the present. The "long view" of Harlow's biography should serve as a cautionary tale to the sorts of visions now being promoted by iRobot, if not the entire vision of DigitalLife, let alone a world-view that sees environmental crisis as a little more than an opportunity to investigate hypotheses and promote the technologies that emerge from experimental results. In the case of the iRobot, we may find ourselves cultivating a new population grounded in norms of autistic behavior; where the environment is concerned, we are faced with the prospect of repeating history with consequences that will be anything but farcical, whatever Marx' assessment of the human condition may have been.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Censorship Censured

"This just in," as they like to say on news broadcasts. A little more than twelve hours after Amy Tiemann's News Blog post about Verizon's refusal to carry text messages from NARAL, Reuters released a report that Verizon has reversed its position:

Verizon Wireless will allow an abortion rights group to set up a text message alert system for its subscribers, after initially refusing the request based on what the company called an outdated policy against unwanted messages, a spokesman said on Thursday.

The second-largest U.S. mobile phone carrier had denied a request from NARAL Pro-Choice America to set up text message alerts for subscribers who sign up for notices with a number known as a short code.

The decision was based on what the company described as a "dusty internal policy" aiming to protect subscribers from unwanted messages.

Verizon Wireless said the policy was created before it had designed spam filters and other measures against anonymous hate messages or adult materials.

"The decision not to allow text messaging on an important, though sensitive, public policy issue was incorrect, and we have fixed the process that led to this isolated incident," Verizon Wireless spokesman Jeffrey Nelson said in a statement.

Verizon should also be lauded for the straightforward language they used to acknowledge the error they made. Apparently, they can hear us now!

The New Censorship

Amy Tiemann put a post on the CNET News Blog under the headline "Verizon refuses to carry activist text messages." She began with a disclaimer:

This news may hit CNET tomorrow as a New York Times cross-post, but I haven't seen anything about it yet so I wanted to be sure it was reported here.

More than twelve hours have now passed is the post was placed, and I have yet to see anything on CNET As a matter of fact, the only one of my sources for national news that seems to have felt this to be worth reporting this morning was Democracy Now! (I no longer trust the signal-to-noise ratio at the Times for anything more serious than its arts reviews.) Here is the full text of the story as Amy Goodman read it over the air:

The telecom giant Verizon is being accused of censorship for barring an abortion rights group from its network for a text-messaging program. Naral Pro-Choice America allows wireless users to receive updates by sending a text message to a five-digit number. But Verizon has blocked the number to its users, calling the program “controversial or unsavory.” Naral president Nancy Keenan said: “No company should be allowed to censor the message we want to send to people who have asked us to send it to them.”

Ms. Tiemann was quick to home in on the implications of this story:

I am no expert on Net Neutrality, but the idea that a telecom carrier will refuse to carry messages based on content is incredibly scary. Could they decide to broadcast messages sent by the Democratic party, but not Republicans? Christian messages but not Jewish? Everybody has a point of view that could be viewed as "controversial or unsavory" to someone else. I thought that controversy and open dialogue were integral parts of our democratic process. Idealism dies hard even in this day and age.

Needless to say, an item like this is as interesting for the comments it raises as for its content. This morning reader "cbratelli" was there with the usual free-market reaction:

Other carriers allowed NARAL to sign up. You are in the nice position of being able to make a unilateral decision in favor of your values. You can switch carriers today. You don't have to start a PAC, run a campaign, try to get your candidates elected, petition voters, etc. and then ultimately lose and be forced to pay for something you disagree with--which is all too common with political solutions to problems.

By switching, you not only immediately get your way, but you also produce a small but potentially cumulative pressure on Verizon to change to more conform to your values.

Competitive market choices provide a far more democratic solution--with far fewer losers--than any political campaign could hope for.

As is often the case when the free market is evangelized above all forms of governmental control, this position offers more confusion than enlightenment. It is one thing to choose the newspaper you read on the basis of its editorial stance on sensitive political issues; but the thought that choosing a telecom carrier the same way is, as Ms. Tiemann put it, "incredibly scary." Does this mean that I shall have to have one wireless plan consistent with my position on abortion rights, another based on my position on religion, and possibly yet another based on my racial background? Verizon has taken the first step down a very slippery slope; and "competitive market choices" will only plummet us further down that slope, rather than providing a new "improved" facility for the democratic expression of political positions.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Consequences in China

Perhaps the Chinese finally are beginning to recognize that consequences matter. While I have not been particularly optimistic about the progress that China has been making in dealing with the problems of hazardous foods and manufactured goods, they at least have come around to recognizing that their public face cannot hide behind veils of denial. It may be possible that the Olympic Committee played a role in this recognition with their threat of cancelling certain events if the air quality was not improved. This brings us to today's dispatch from Beijing by Jamil Anderlini reporting for the Financial Times. It turns out that the Chinese are finally coming around to recognize that the Three Gorges Dam, one of the greatest efforts to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, may, itself, be an environmental disaster:

China’s Three Gorges dam threatens to become an environmental catastrophe if the government does not act quickly, senior Chinese officials have warned in an unusual public nod to the massive project’s ecological impact.

The comments, carried in state media on Wednesday, mark a rare Chinese admission that dire predictions of ecological destruction from international experts and domestic opponents of the world’s largest dam are coming true.

Landslides, silting, and erosion above the dam are creating environmental and safety hazards that cannot be ignored, Wang Xiaofeng, director of the State Council Three Gorges Construction Committee, was quoted as saying. “We cannot exchange environmental destruction for short-term economic gain,” he said.

In all fairness Mr. Anderlini then suggests that there may be a political side to this admission of the problem:

The unusual criticism of such a symbolic project could be politically motivated in the lead-up to the 17th Communist Party Congress, a five-yearly event in which senior officials jockey for power before the top ranks of the party are decided.

In his published remarks, Mr Wang quoted Premier Wen telling China’s cabinet recently that “the environmental cost is the most pressing of the serious problems facing the Three Gorges project.”

The dam was the brainchild of Mao Zedong but construction began under the government of former President Jiang Zemin, who still exercises residual influence in the current government even three years after he relinquished his last official post.

Former Premier Li Peng, the man widely believed to be responsible for sending in troops to quell the 1989 Tiananmen Square student movement, is the official most closely associated with the Three Gorges project.

In other words, whether or not, as is the case with addiction, recognition is the first step to rehabilitation, it can also be the first step to cleaning up a political house. This would be unfortunate, because it would then distract attention from the environmental impact of the dam, which is a serious problem requiring serious attention. Furthermore, since the dam itself was supposed to address the problem of air pollution, this means that the threat of the Olympic Committee still hangs over China's head, with the possibility of resolution more remote than had previously been anticipated.

Now I suppose there are plenty of idealists who would argue that the impact of this problem has now escalated to a global level and should be addressed by (at least) the industrialized nations, acting in concert under the leadership of the United Nations. However, given that the President of the United States chose to ignore a discussion on the environment that took place at the beginning of this week, we would probably be more likely to bet against the idealists. Furthermore, it would probably be unfair to lay all of the blame on our President. Ours is a country of self-determination; and we want to keep it that way. To a great extent China is trying to deal with its problems in that same spirit of self-determination. At least they have now come to a point where they can admit that this approach is not working, but it remains to be seen how they will seek out to design and implement more effective solutions.

The Monsters in the White House Closet

It would seem as if everyone wants to get in print with an opinion of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's performances (I cannot thing of a better word) both prior to (on 60 Minutes) and in the course of his visit to the United States in order to address the General Assembly of the United Nations. So I have tried to invoke a bit of restraint on this particular matter. This is due, in part, to my spending a fair amount of time with transcript texts and realizing that very little has changed since I wrote about Ahmadinejad's approach to discourse back in February. However, now that Tim Dickinson appears to be applying the same level of transcript study to his latest post on the Rolling Stone National Affairs Daily blog, this seems like a good opportunity to compare notes. Here are Dickinson's key observations:

And I was struck by how foreign — alien — Ahmadinejad’s speech was. Starting with his opening, end-timer’s prayer for the return of the 12th imam and running through to his absurd proclamation that “In Iran, we don’t have homosexuals like in your country. I don’t know who’s told you that we have it.” (We do not have it, he ought to have said, because we hang all of our homosexuals.)

It’s worth reading the whole transcript. If only to hear directly from a man who has been diminished to caricature in the collective imagination. He’s clearly dangerous in his Holocaust denial and his designs on wiping out Israel, but he’s also clearly not deranged. He’s clever and dedicated to his worldview. And it’s a mind worth wrapping your head around for a few minutes as you take in U.S. Iranian relations from the Persian perspective.

I agree that Ahmadinejad is "dedicated to his worldview;" but that worldview is so "alien" to the United States that the conceptual distance undermines any hope of fruitful communication. (My first inclination was to invoke the adjective "meaningful;" but I think that would indicate a bias toward our own worldview of rationality.) I would also suggest that the degree of Ahmadinejad’s dedication to his worldview is at the same level of Bush’s to his worldview. At the end of the day, they both see a world whose clean boundaries between good and evil are defined by the wisdom of the heart; and the world, as a whole, is all the worse for each of these men assigning the other to his simplistic “evil” category (not that it would be any better if they were in agreement).

The only thing that depresses me more than this impasse is the way in which the media have decided to make a circus out of it. Meanwhile, Democracy Now spent an hour with Evo Morales this morning; and this was a much better model of what I called a fruitful conversation. Delicate questions were asked with delicacy and were not evaded. Serious questions about relations between Bolivia and the United States were raised and were addressed with calm deliberation. Frankly, I am more concerned about the extent to which our engines of propaganda will be applied to demonize Morales than I am with Ahmadinejad’s “alien” nature.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

This is News?

In the wake of the Associated Press circulating a flawed analysis of the first of the Osama bin Laden video messages released this month, Matt Spetalnick of Reuters has now decided to report on a standard practice as if it were news:

How do you keep a leader as verbally gaffe-prone as U.S. President George W. Bush from making even more slips of the tongue?

When Bush addressed the U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday, the White House inadvertently showed exactly how -- with a phonetic pronunciation guide on the teleprompter to get him past troublesome names of countries and world leaders.

However much fun we may wish to make of that "gaffe-prone" behavior and the follow-up efforts at damage control by Dana Perino, this time Ms. Perino's account was right on the money:

Anyone giving a major speech or delivering a broadcast, like on the morning and nightly network news, has phonetics for cues just for the possibility they're needed.

I should know. Some of my happiest student hours at MIT were spent working at the campus radio station (whose call letters were the omen-laden WTBS). While most of my time went into broadcasting classical music, all of us would have to read the news from time to time; and we would generally just pull it off of our UPI wire feed. Since, more often than not, this was a last minute scramble, those phonetic pronunciation cues were a real asset.

Of course they never solved all of our problems. We had one guy who could always be counted upon to provide us with a worst-case scenario. For me his classic moment was when he was reading a story about race relations and Malcolm X and called the protagonist "Malcolm the Tenth!" After that, there were a few jokes about sending a note to UPI recommending that they insert "Malcolm Ex" as a phonetic cue!

A Writer Writes about Writing in Cyberspace

I found it interesting that The New York Review decided to run a review of Send: The Essential Guide to Email for Office and Home, by David Shipley and Will Schwalbe. I found it more interesting that the reviewing task was assigned to Janet Malcolm, who not only knows more than a thing or two about the general practice of writing but also maintains a historical perspective that includes the now-obsolete genre of the letter-writing manual. Indeed, true to the tradition of one of my own teachers that the first sentence can make or break the rest of the text, Malcolm uses that historical perspective as her point of departure:

To say that Send: The Essential Guide to Email for Office and Home is more a users' manual than a book is not to belittle it.

This then becomes the theme of her review, culminating in the following summary paragraph:

So this is the crux of the matter: Email is a medium of bad writing. Poor word choice is the norm—as is tone deafness. The problem of tone is, of course, the problem of all writing. There is no "universal default tone." When people wrote letters they had the same blank screen to fill. And there were the same boneheads among them, who alienated correspondents with their ghastly oblivious prose. One has only to look at the letter-writing manuals of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to see that most of the problems Shipley and Schwalbe deal with are not unique to email but common to the whole epistolary genre. They are writing problems. Some of us do find the time in the day to write a carefully worded, exclamation-point-free email when the occasion demands. Mostly, though, all of us who use email avail ourselves of its permission to write fast and sloppy. Shipley and Schwalbe's serene acceptance of the unwriterliness of email, of its function as an instrument of speedy, heedless communication, is correct, and their guide is helpful precisely because it doesn't pretend that the instrument is anything but what it is.

This conclusion is then followed by a coda of two observations. The first seems to regard email as a transient phenomenon:

As email's novelty wears off and its limitations become clearer, we will revert to the telephone when something complex, intimate, or low-minded needs to be communicated.

As one of the earliest adopters of email, I find it very hard to think of it as a novelty; but I do recognize that there has been a long trek, which began in the research laboratory, slowly migrated to the workplace, and eventually found its was into people's homes. Even today, someone who is working with me on a writing project (of all things!) has not yet learned to use email (meaning that I cannot send my drafts for review as attachments); but that person's schedule really does not allow time for email, which reminded me that Malcolm never really addressed the hypothesis that the "fast and sloppy" style is a product of that time-consuming Inbox that greets us, not only in the morning but at just about any time we take to check it. This then raises the more critical issue in Malcolm's observation, which is that life no longer seems to afford us the time we need to deal with the complex or, for that matter, the intimate; and that alleged novelty of email is not going to "wear off" precisely because it allows us to weasel out of complexity and intimacy with quick-and-dirty verbal gestures. As I have previously argued, we have sacrificed a commitment to serious communication in favor of "hollow conversations;" and, at the risk of stretching the metaphor, email has provided the altar, the knife, and the victim required to enable the sacrifice.

This provides a useful segue to Malcolm's second coda observation:

Interestingly, the models Shipley and Schwalbe choose to illustrate their section "How to Write a Perfect Email" were written by twelve-year-olds. The really young, evidently, don't need the help the rest of us do; like Blakean innocents, they are untouched by email's evil. Their harmless chatter ("OMG! I was playing yesterday, when this really CUTE boy rode up on his bike") is reminiscent of the notes we used to pass in class, which are, come to think of it, the precursors of email: hastily written, instantly delivered and replied to, and, if intercepted by the wrong person, mortifying.

In making this observation, Malcolm may have missed out on the one way in which email's "novelty" might "wear off," because such "harmless chatter" seems to be migrating away from the formalities of email to the more casual environments of social software (where one has a bit more control over how many eyes see the notes that get passed). For all the debate over whether or not Facebook belongs in the enterprise, I still tend to agree with John Seely Brown that, if we want a glimpse of the workplace of the future, we should look at the kids of the present. Perhaps MySpace is the laboratory where we are most likely to learn about the future of communication at both work and leisure. It can certainly provide us with an abundance of texts; but, situated as we are in an older generation, how skilled can we ever be at interpreting those texts? At the very least I suspect that Malcolm's dismissal of such content as "harmless chatter" is premature!

Monday, September 24, 2007

Another Facebook Reality Check

I have a friend (whom I would prefer not to identify) who once asked me (I'm still not quite sure why) if Second Life was where middle-aged men went to get laid. Given the ongoing interest in whether or not Facebook (or something like it) should be considered part of an enterprise software suite, this question, however sarcastic it may sound, should not be ignored; and it appears, at least according to a recent post on The Blotter, that the New York Office of the Attorney General is of a similar opinion:

New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo said his office is launching a full investigation into the social networking site Facebook and its safeguards against sexual predators.

"My office is concerned that Facebook's promise of a safe Web site is not consistent with its performance in policing its site and responding to complaints," Cuomo said of the investigation.

In recent weeks, AG investigators posing as underage Facebook users were "repeatedly solicited by adult sexual predators" and granted unrestricted access to "a wide range of pornographic images and videos," including such groups as "*For girls that love to share naked pics*" and "Porn Star Trials," according to Cuomo's letter to Facebook.

The review also found that Facebook failed to respond or was slow to respond to complaints filed by investigators posing as the parents of the solicited underage users.

This investigation may end up killing two birds (that are not particularly close to each other) with one stone. From the enterprise software point of view, it reopens the question of whether or not time on Facebook is "wasted," while, at the same time, it also addresses the hypothesis that I claim HBO is investigating in Tell Me You Love Me, which is that sex is all we talk about and that we do so in extremely impoverished ways. The one way in which these "birds" may be closer than we think is in how they reveal our communication practices, whether for business or pleasure, and the danger they expose that all of those conversations are depressingly hollow!

The Tannhäuser Score

Given my slightly disparaging attitude towards Wagner's words, it would be more than a little unfair to write about Tannhäuser and ignore the music. On the other hand so much has been written about Wagner's music that it is hard to imagine adding anything new to the current store of knowledge. On the other hand I can take a more egoistic stance and write about something I heard pretty much for the first time in yesterday's San Francisco Opera performance, and it has to do with this history of the score. As we can learn from a variety of sources (including the Chronicle), it received its first performance in Dresden on October 19, 1845 but was then revised for its first performance in Paris on March 13, 1861. Two things are important about this, both of which were observed by Chronicle critic Joshua Kosman. The more familiar is that, because Parisians insisted on ballet with their opera, Wagner extended the opening Venusberg music by about ten minutes to allow for such a ballet. The second is the Paris date, which means that the new music was written about Tristan und Isolde, which many would regard as a watershed in Wagner's intellectual development.

The implication of this second point is that the four-note chromatic ascents that penetrate the ballet music at its most passionate are most likely deliberate evocations of the same chromaticism in Tristan, particularly in light of the shared carnal context. (Wagner would reflect back on Tristan with a bit more sobriety in Hans Sachs' encounter with Eva in the first scene of the final act of Meistersinger; but here, of course, the Tristan legend is invoked in the text.) What is more interesting, however, is that this is not the only suggestion of cross-reference in the Tannhäuser score. There is at least one brief motif supporting Elizabeth that would later transfer over to Elsa in the second act procession of Lohengrin; and many of the explicitly Christian references presage the fundamental motifs of Parsifal. Thus, if we are to consider this in terms of that duality of Venusberg and the Wartburg, Venusberg "celebrates" the passions of Tristan and Isolde, while Wartburg is part of a "Christian thread" that would subsequently present itself through first Lohengrin and then Parsifal.

As to the first point, I agree with Kosman in two ways. First of all, the new ballet music is pretty damned awesome, all the more so for being informed by Wagner's "linguistic discoveries" in Tristan. Secondly, Ron Howell's choreography for this music did it no justice at all. (I might even suggest that Kosman's negative reaction to the subsequent staging is a result of being put off by that choreography.) Things were probably not any better in 1861 Paris, but the history of ballet has had some very significant ups and downs since then. Furthermore, over that period of time, any music by Wagner has never progressed beyond footnote status; and, in terms of the "Holy Trinity" of modern ballet, neither the "Father" (Michel Fokine), nor the "Son" (George Balanchine), nor even the "Holy Ghost" (Frederick Ashton) ever had anything to do with Wagner. The Venusberg music, along with the overture, was used by Leonide Massine for his ballet "Bacchanale" in 1939; but, in spite of some of the really delightful things that Massine both choreographed and performed ("Gaîté Parisienne" being the most memorable for me), the man had a bad habit of biting off more than he could chew (Beethoven's seventh symphony with its creation of the world in Greek tunics, for crying out loud). So I shall risk being accused of arrogance, and assert that ballet and Wagner just do not mix. They certainly did not mix in Howell's no-such-thing-as-too-much-excess conception. Having recently seen the documentary Absolute Wilson, I found myself longing for the intensity of Robert Wilson's sense of prolonged stasis. The music does so much frantic jumping around that any further depiction of erotic emotion would probably be better conveyed through a frozen tableau!

The Tannhäuser Text

There are many ways in which one can complain about the new production of Tannhäuser at the San Francisco Opera. In his review for the San Francisco Chronicle, Joshua Kosman appeared to want to corner the market on all of them:

Unfortunately, these musical riches had to contend with an unsightly and almost aggressively foolish new production by director Graham Vick and designer Paul Brown, one that seemed determined at nearly every step to undercut the opera's admittedly treacherous dramatic flow.

Kosman has taken this approach to Wagner productions in the past, usually leading up to some punch line to the effect that one is better off closing one's eyes and enjoying the music. Certainly, the music was splendid. Donald Runnicles brought his usual keen understanding of pace to the Wagnerian scale; and orchestra, chorus, and soloists all followed that pace to deliver a performance worthy of recording for posterity. However, in taking the staging to task, Kosman seemed to have overlooked the fact that Wagner had as much of a hand in the libretto for Tannhäuser as he had for the music. Granting that his literary skills never approached the level of his musical talent, we still have to recognize that, by taking responsibility for the words, Wagner was acknowledging that the music could not say everything; and, even when the text offers some pretty specific language about staging, we should recognize that the words provide room for interpretation just as the music does. Therefore, I would suggest that digging into the text provides a good way to come up with evidence that the Chronicle may have given Vick a bad rap.

Before doing that, however, I should put a few of my own cards on the table. I basically learned my Tannhäuser from a Metropolitan Opera production that had experimented with casting a single soprano in the roles of both Venus and Elizabeth. This was at a time long before I had gotten into teasing out subtleties through text interpretation, so I was neither offended nor won over by this particular approach. However, since the very question of identity recurs in so many of Wagner's operas, I had to credit the Met for taking a challenging approach to this question.

The other piece of context that I brought with me to yesterday's performance of Tannhäuser was my past studies of Zen. More specifically, this dual relationship of Venus and Elizabeth reminded me of the Zen parable of the monk who dreamed he was a butterfly; upon awakening, the monk asked himself, "Am I am man who dreamt that I was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming that I am a man?" This seems like the best way to introduce Tannhäuser's first words:

Zu viel! Zu viel!
Oh, daß ich nun erwachte!

Too much! Too much!
Oh, that I now might awake!

[translation from Solti recording]

The world of Venusberg is a dream-world of the Wartburg; but the Wartburg is also a dream-world to Venusberg. With his preference for Schopenhauer over Hegel, Wagner did not seem to have much concern for dialectical synthesis; so this dual relationship of dream-worlds pretty much precludes the possibility of there being any middle way. Just as one can only see either a duck or a rabbit in that classical optical illusion, but never both at the same time, one can never reside in both Venusberg and the Wartburg; and where one chooses to reside is a question of that will that shapes the world.

This now brings us to the question of how Vick and Brown decided to conceive of their production of Tannhäuser; and I came away with a clear sense that, at the end of the day, it was all about this duality and choice. The duality is best revealed through the unit set, which has the walls and ceiling of an enclosed (but still very large) space but a "floor" which is the earth itself in which a tree is rooted. This tree is an important element, since it reflects the two perspectives of the two worlds.

To understand this reflection, it is necessary to turn again to the text. On the Wartburg the very mention of Venus is basically heretical, since it reflects an anti-Christian belief. In Venusberg, however, Tannhäuser never mentions the Warburg specifically, let along its Christian foundation; nor does he ever say anything about Elizabeth. He talks about freedom, which is basically freedom of choice. However, it is when he tries to explain to Venus why he wants this freedom of choice that things get interesting:

Mein Sehnen drängt zum Kampfe,
nicht such ich Wonn Lust!
Ach, mögest du es fassen, Göttin!
Hin zum Tode, den ich suche,
zum Tode drängt es mich!

My longing urges me to combat;
I do not seek pleasure and rapture!
Oh, if you could understand it, goddess!
Hence, to the death I seek!
I am drawn to death!

The choice that Tannhäuser wants to make is that of death (through combat) over the eternal "pleasure and rapture" of the sexual indulgences of Venusberg. He would reject eternal bliss in favor of mortality. The choice between Venusberg and the Wartburg is a choice between life and death.

We are immediately aware of this after the "passage" (for which the tree assumes the symbolic role of portal) between the two world in Act I. We know we have left Venusberg because the music has changed. What we hear are the horns of a hunting party. What we see are the results of the hunt. On that same ground where, half an hour previously, Tannhäuser had been singing his praises of Venus, dead animals are now piled in a heap. The image is as striking and provocative as the images of the ritualized Venusberg orgy, and we are all confronted with the choice in its starkest terms.

This theme continues in the "passage" from Act I to Act II. In Act I the tree is rich with green foliage. In Act II all the branches are still there, but the leaves are gone along with any other evidence of fertility. Indeed, all that remains is an opportunity for a striking visual cue. When Elizabeth intercedes on Tannhäuser's behalf after he has dared to invoke Venus and her world of carnal love, the play of light casts a shadow of the tree as an image of the Cross. I doubt that this was an accident, particularly since all of the women at the song contest assumed the identical appearance of the Virgin Mary. Elizabeth, then, through her act of intercession becomes the ultimate embodiment of the Virgin.

In Act III very few branches remain on the tree. All the time of the journey of pilgrimage has elapsed, and the tree has only decayed. The Wartburg is still the realm of decay and death. Even Elizabeth succumbs to death in order to intercede for Tannhäuser a second time, this time before the Heavenly Throne, to override the judgment of the Pope himself (right at the time in the narrative when Tannhäuser is ready to cash in his Wartburg chips and find the way back to Venusberg). Ironically, Elizabeth's intercession also bring life to the Wartburg. Leaves return to the tree; and, with a symbolism that is bizarrely literal, the earth yields a "crop" of children. This final gesture drove Kosman crazy, since he chose to read the symbolism as "a gang of half-clad children crawling out of holes in the ground like God's own Gopher Scouts."

Still, this gesture leaves us hanging on a nagging metaphysical question. During the song contest, Tannhäuser rejects Wolfram's song of love scornfully:

O Wolfram, der du also sangest,
du has die Liebe arg enstellt!
Wenn du in solchem Schmachten bangest,
versiegte wahrlich wohl die Welt.

Oh Wolfram, you who have sung thus,
have woefully misrepresented love!
If you languish so fearfully,
the world would come to an end, forsooth!

The reason "the world would come to an end," of course, is that the love that Wolfram extols is so pure that is does not allow for sexual intercourse; and no sex means no children. Thus, when, at the end of Act III, life comes to the Wartburg, it is not through that "middle way" that places religious purity beside carnal knowledge but by a divine intervention that offers up a new generation of "Wartburgians!"

Needless to say, I am happy to accept anyone who wishes to challenge this as an empty intellectual exercise. However, I feel it important to point out that, for me at least, this was a production that really benefited from the projection of the English text. This is one of those cases when the text says so much more than the synopsis and then provides the platform upon which one can make sense of how the production was conceived and implemented; and, at the end of the day, is it not that act of sense-making that makes a live performance so enjoyable?

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Teaching (and Learning) Skeptical Inquiry

I realize that much of my passion for skeptical inquiry can be traced back to my personal teaching experience. When I was teaching computer science at the University of Pennsylvania, thoughts about what would constitute a curriculum of a declared major in this area were just beginning to converge; and the idea that there might be "engineering methods" applied to the development of software (known, at that time, as "software engineering") was not yet out of its infancy. In the history of ideas, infancy is the period of lots of fast-and-loose philosophizing in the absence of a support base of data points against which hypotheses can be tested. When this takes place in conjunction with the launching of a new academic curriculum, it is also a period when lots of books get written, which serve as repositories for all of that philosophizing. In other words it is a dangerous time to try to learn, since there is now solid intellectual foundation for what one ought to be learning!

When I had to teach the introductory course for our Department's Master's program, we had an abundance of part-time students; so the course was taught in the evening. Any student who was matriculating part-time came from the "real world" of information technology; and such students were pretty confident that they knew more than their professors did. I figured the best way to deal with this was to leverage it, rather than to try to play power games; and software engineering was the best subject to benefit from such leverage.

So each week I would begin a class with a brief exposition of some insight from the published literature, usually one that appeared to me enough that I could prepare a strong advocacy for the material. I would then open the floor to discussion, making it clear that every student was encouraged to seek out the consistent contrary position. It was what made the learning experience interesting for them. This discussions were lively, and it gave them a sense of the value of personal experiences. It was also an interesting (and highly satisfying) experience for me. Since this was in the Engineering College, I did not bother to tell them that this was called “dialectical inquiry” or that it had been around since Socrates!

My attitude towards the software engineering literature then is not that all different from my attitude to all those evangelical IT books that clamor for our attention without having very much to say. I realize now that what I abhor most about such publications, past and present, is how fast-and-loose they play with blanket generalizations. I am cynical that so many of them fly around today in as much abundance as they flew around thirty years ago, but my teaching experience taught me that such onslaughts of questionable write are best challenged with skepticism rather than cynicism. As I recently observed about the "cultural clash" between the "Cult of the Amateur" and the "Cult of the Expert," we should view it as an “obligation of reason” to view the assertions from both camps in the same skeptical light! This only leaves us all with the problem of what needs to be done about all of those folks out there who seem to have committed themselves to dispense with any such obligations!

Saturday, September 22, 2007

The Price of Amateurism?

It may seem a bit far-fetched to try to diagnose the current banking crisis in terms of Andrew Keen's "cult of the amateur;" but this is a "rehearsal" space. Hypotheses need to be rehearsed before they are ready to be defended through more scrupulous techniques of argumentation. Nevertheless, since so much of what I have written is about the consequences of living in "the world the Internet has made;" I feel a certain need to consider whether or not a crisis that we are all likely to end up paying for is one of those consequences.

Consider the attempt to analyze the situation in the latest issue of The Economist:

This debacle holds lessons for the way Britain regulates its banks. As Mr [Mervyn] King [Governor of the Bank of England] pointed out, defending his performance in front of a House of Commons committee on September 20th, the law prevents the Bank either from staging a covert rescue operation or from engineering a swift takeover; and flaws in the protection of depositors mean that, once an overt rescue operation is under way, depositors will flee. Mr King defended the separation of powers between the Treasury, the Bank and the FSA, but he was wrong to. It has exacerbated the system's flaws: nobody was in charge of the operation.

I have to wonder whether this paragraph has Charles Dickens spinning in his grave or dancing in heaven. Is it not just the latest incarnation of the “nobody’s fault” syndrome that dominated the logic behind the circumstances of Little Dorrit? The only difference seems to be that, thanks to globalization, the syndrome now presents itself through transnational dynamics.

Still, this raises a question of causality. Are we just talking about what happens when the principles of globalization encounter an economic "perfect storm;" or is it relevant to bring the Internet into the scene of this particular narrative? Let me try to make my case through a recent catastrophe that had nothing to do with economics. Back when Kathy Sierra was receiving her death threats, I interpreted the circumstances as an argument that we had to get beyond the “amateur” thinking about governance in cyberspace that was flooding the blogosphere. What happened was that my effort to try to start a conversation about governance provoked a counter-reaction to focus on the problem of "getting identity right." In retrospect, I now see this as revealing a need for a more important conversation that never took place: One of the key factors that determines identity is responsibility; and (surprise!) this is also one of the key factors that needs to be addressed in any system of governance, whether we are talking about countries or banks (or, for that matter, setting the agenda for the YearlyKos Convention). Now in confused of calcutta, which had championed the need to focus on identity, we find a reaction to the Economist analysis that basically bemoans the “state where it is no longer possible to lead or ‘govern’” because it is beset by “whole armies of intermediaries.”

This is an irony that cuts to the core of our current condition: Conversations about governance are easily dismissed as irrelevant when death threats are looming; but, if we are all in danger of losing our money, that is another matter! Nevertheless, the Dickensian logic that I invoked as my point of departure focuses less on how many intermediaries there may be in a social system and more on the extent to which that system is defined by who is responsible for what; and this is where we begin to venture onto the turf of that world the Internet has made. This is a world in which responsibility is assigned to the abstractions of businesses processes, rather than to the individuals who actually implement those processes. The individuals are, thus, amateurs. Theirs is not the amateurism of citizen journalism, which is one of Keen's favorite targets; and but is amateurism nevertheless. Furthermore, it is an amateurism that has insinuated the workplaces of both public and private sectors; and, thanks to the Internet, the consequences of that amateurism are now propagated through those aforementioned transnational dynamics, the same dynamics that Keen examined in analyzing the role of the Internet as an information source. In other words the scope of amateurism is actually far broader than Keen had anticipated!

Is this, then, the ultimate argument that, at least in times of crisis, crowds are more likely to be mad than wise, simply because their "regular social practices" do not encourage, let alone cultivate, wisdom? This would be an extreme position, particularly in light of James Coleman's more disciplined efforts to analyze the "micro-to-macro problem." Nevertheless, Coleman's answer to the question of whether crowds are mad or wise is basically, "It depends;" and I think that one conclusion we can draw is that one of the factors on which the answer to that question depends is that matter of "regular social practices." If these are practices that ignore such social values as responsibility and reflection, then my hypothesis is that madness is the more likely outcome!

Friday, September 21, 2007


My interest in learning more about "wet brain" behavior led me this morning to SPIEGEL ONLINE, which ran an extended feature by Gerald Traufetter (translated into English by Christopher Sultan) on recent research into the phenomenon of error-related negativity (ERN). Traufetter described the phenomenon as follows:

It refers to a characteristic wave of voltage beneath the skullcap, which can be measured whenever the brain detects that an error has been made. Especially surprising is the fact the ERN signal already begins to flicker even before a person is aware of his error.

Traufetter then elaborates on the significance of the concept:

In the early 1990s, Michael Falkenstein, a neurophysiologist from the western German city of Dortmund, observed for the first time how voltage declines by at least 10 millivolts in a specific group of nerve cells, and that this occurs only 100 milliseconds after a person has made an error -- about the time it takes for your cursor to respond to a click of the mouse.

Falkenstein's discovery marked the beginning of a period of systematic study of the brain's fine-tuned error detector. It paved the way for fascinating new theories on questions such as why compulsive disorders occur or why some people hesitate while others make confident decisions. It also shines a new light on the development of addiction.

Suddenly it becomes clear why a person can often avoid making a certain mistake based purely on gut feeling. "The experiences of the error system provide precisely that subconscious knowledge on which intuition is based," explains [project manager Markus] Ullsperger.

Needless to say, for all the thoroughness of Traufetter's exposition, it should be read under the assumption that today's scientists, beholden to funding organizations as they are, tend to take a small-boy-with-a-hammer view of every discovery. Thus, much needs to be done before ERN can be taken as evidence that the brain has an "error system," let alone that this "system" will provide us with new insights into the nature of addiction and/or intuition. Nevertheless, it is certainly an interesting result, particularly in light of recent findings concerned with the memory of emotionally charged events (given how emotionally invested we tend to be in the mistakes we make).

Since I am far from an expert in this discipline, I can do little more than view it through a philosophical lens. That lens is heavily informed by Augustine, whom I cited in my previous blog for his insight into the nature of the concepts of past, present, and future:

What is by now evident and clear is that neither future nor past exists, and it is inexact language to speak of three times—past, present, and future. Perhaps it would be exact to say: there are three times, a present of things past, a present of things present, a present of things to come.

The anxieties that arise from those memories of emotionally charged events are very much "a present of things past." ERN may provide us with physiological evidence of that "present of things to come." If so, it will not be the first brick in this particular wall. That previous blog entry cited results from Washington University, which indicated that the "present of things to come," is localized in the left lateral premotor cortex, the left precuneus and the right posterior cerebellum. Presumably ERN researchers will begin to investigate connections between these voltage drops and activity in the regions identified by the Washington University team, in which case it will be rather nice to see such an eminent medieval philosopher getting his due in such a contemporary scientific issue!

The Story may have been Bogus, but the Buns are still Bad!

Warren McCulloch used to be fond of saying, particularly in the heat of a passionate argument, "Don't bite my finger, look where I'm pointing." This may be a motto worth remembering as we discover that the contaminated Chinese bun story may still be with us. The finger-biting, in this case, surrounded the revelation that a news report about steamed buns sold by street vendors in China that were actually made from cardboard was actually bogus. However, a Reuters dispatch from Beijing this morning revealed that the finger was pointing at a serious problem that has still not been satisfactorily resolved:

An outbreak of food poisoning has put 260 kindergarten children in hospital in China, the offending meal most likely a breakfast of buns and porridge, Xinhua news agency said on Friday.

Most had recovered from Wednesday's poisoning at the kindergarten in Wuwei in the remote northwestern province of Gansu, but 16 were still seriously ill.

Food poisoning is a frequent problem at Chinese schools, especially in rural areas, where lax official supervision encourages canteen contractors to cut costs at the expense of proper hygiene and food safety.

What is most disconcerting about this report is how unsurprising it is. As readers we are well beyond waiting for the other shoe to drop, or perhaps the metaphor might be better captured by the shoes of a centipede! Last week I suggested that Chinese strategic planning had to bite the bullet and navigate a course between "the Scylla of capitalism and the Charybdis of self-serving ideology;" but current conditions seem to indicate that they are more likely to run afoul of both hazards at the same time!

Thursday, September 20, 2007

An Anti-Chutzpah (but Audacious) Republican

Anyone who did the math in yesterday's Chutzpah of the Week award post should know by now that there were, in fact, six Republican senators who support Jim Webb's time-off measure. The BBC article I cited actually quoted one of the, Chuck Hagel. That quote deserves consideration:

We cannot continue to look at war and the people who fight and die in wars as abstractions, as pawns, as objects.

This is a very noble piece of rhetoric, and I wish it had swayed four more Republicans to get the vote count up to the required level of 60. Nevertheless, it also opens up a philosophical can of worms; and we would do better to take a long hard look at the contents rather than quickly shut it up again.

Regular readers know that I share Senator Hagel's disgust for the practice of what I have called "objectifying the subject," whether it is in the interest of commerce or the rationalization of some hopelessly misconceived government policy. However, such readers also know that I get very nervous with the casual use of words that we have never bothered to understand very well. Because of my continuing interest in "social software," one of the words that really bothers me is "community," particularly when it is invoked as a shibboleth by some blathering technology evangelist. However, exactly a week ago I was confronted with the prospect that we were being just as abusive of the noun "humanity" and that this particular abuse seemed to be worming its way into the general global Zeitgeist. Now Senator Hagel did not explicitly use the word "humanity;" but the concept behind that word is the underlying subject matter of the quoted sentence. From this point of view, Senator Hagel has made an assertion about war that is either very ignorant or very revolutionary. I really have no idea which he intended it to be, let alone which I would like it to be; so let me try to pursue the issue.

The verb "continue" implies the extension of something. In this case I take that "something" to be what Giddens would call the "regular social practices" of military operations. What we must first recognize about those practices is that they are trained, which is (as should be obvious) the objective of "Basic Training." The regularity of those practices is important, because it endows them with a property of predictability without which the entire procedural concept of a chain of command would not be able to function. Having been spared my own experience of Basic Training, my understanding of it comes only from conversations with friends and colleagues. Back in my student days I had a friend who enlisted in the Coast Guard. When I saw him after he had completed his Basic Training, he told me, with some amusement, that he was not allowed to keep a copy of Thoreau's "Civil Disobedience" essay; but he then added that, in retrospect, this was entirely consistent with the objective of Basic Training. He recognized that Basic Training was, to a rather high degree, objectifying him, basically for the sake of the quality of his performance once training had been completed. It would appear that, on the basis of the above quotation, Senator Hagel does not want this practice to continue.

If that is really true, then his assertion about war should be taken as very revolutionary; and I think that is the way I would like to read it. Military historians can probably come up with better examples than I can, but I suspect that the overarching narrative of military history has a lot to do with one side understanding the regular social practices of its opposition, identifying the vulnerabilities in those practices, and exploiting them. We have even turned a literary construct from Greek mythology into a metaphor for this process: Achilles' heel. Now we are faced with strident ideologues who want to play fast and loose with the concept of war, itself, enjoining us all to support America's "War on Terror." Such rhetoric is never toned down by suggestions that the speakers are playing dangerously with words and concepts they do not understand; if anything such challenges only escalate the stridency.

Senator Hagel has now taken a different approach. He has been bold enough to suggest that the regular social practices of our Department of Defense (not to mention the Department of State and possibly the entire National Security Council) may be the source of vulnerabilities that have been (and could readily continue to be) exploited by new strategies of terrorism, such as those practiced by al-Qaeda. This is an act of audacity far beyond any of the denotations or connotations that Barack Obama has dared to suggest. Indeed, it would probably be dismissed as impossible (and probably insane) by just about anyone in our "ruling class," possibly while invoking another famous metaphor, which is the problem of getting a battleship to change course. Perhaps Hagel has decided to retire because he really does not want to fight this battle. I would understand this decision and sympathize with it. On the other hand I hope that this remark will inspire at least one reputable journalist to challenge every aspirant to the White House with the assertion that Hagel made: Are we looking at war in a way that can only make us vulnerable to the primary threats of attack that we now face?

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Bringing the Chutzpah Back Home

After spending two weeks in China, the Chutzpah of the Week award seems to be ready to return to the United States; and we have the Senate Republicans to thank for restoring our national "pride." As reported on the BBC NEWS Web site, at stake was a measure proposed by Democratic Senator Jim Webb (hopefully still remembered for his eloquent response to this year's State of the Union Address) that would give our troops time off between their tours in Iraq. As a decorated Vietnam veteran, Webb felt that such a measure was necessary to keep our troops in effective shape. Defense Secretary Robert Gates did not see it that way, though, calling the measure (according to the BBC report) "a backdoor attempt to pull troops off the battlefield." (Gates' own military record was in the Strategic Air Command.) Between toeing the party line and demonstrating that they have the raw power to block the Democrats (60 votes were needed to pass this measure, rather than a simple majority), the Senate Republicans were able to muster 44 opposing votes (presumably this crew included the 43 who voted against restoring habeas corpus); and one more effort to keep our boys in proper fighting shape bit the dust. This was such a blatant exercise of putting party loyalty before loyalty to our armed forced that all 44 of those Republicans definitely deserve this week's chutzpah award! Thanks for bringing it back home, guys!

Confused about the Crater

The BBC did not help matters very much this morning by introducing their story on the "mystery crater" in Peru with an excerpt from the notorious adaptation of The War of the Worlds by Orson Welles into a you-are-there radio drama. However, this rather sensationalist approach confirmed the observation of one of their guests, which is that people, as a rule, tend to prefer catastrophic explanations, no matter how outlandish (such as an alien invasion), to the more ordinary (particularly if the explanation is even a bit more complicated). Indeed, the great value of this particular guest's contribution was the time he took to propose alternatives to the meteorite hypothesis. This is the one that most of the wire sources have adopted without considering alternatives, although, in compiling their own story from those sources, Al Jazeera at least had the good sense to describe the crater as "apparently made by a meteorite." However, the reason the BBC interview put so much time into alternative hypotheses is because of their guest's strong conviction that the chemical composition of a meteorite cannot intoxicate the atmosphere at the site of its landing.

One of the more viable alternatives has found its way onto the BBC NEWS Web site:

"Increasingly we think that people witnessed a fireball, which are not uncommon, went off to investigate and found a lake of sedimentary deposit, which may be full of smelly, methane rich organic matter," said Dr Caroline Smith, a meteorite expert at the London-based Natural History Museum.

"This has been mistaken for a crater."

Unfortunately, you would have had to heard the radio interview to apprehend the proper definition of fireball. The geography of Peru around this area is highly volcanic. Every now and then, rather than erupting, one of the volcanoes will just sort of "spit out" some of its molten contents. The result is called a fireball; and, as Dr. Smith observed, their trajectories are frequently observed. There was also a report on BBC World Service Television of bones having been found at the "crater" site (without saying whether the bones were human or of some other animal). The point is that, between the fireball and the site, they may have been a variety of sources of methane, which would then account for the toxic air quality.

This brings us to the "Q&A" page that BBC NEWS has now prepared, which explores this hypothesis and then pursues another interesting direction that was not covered on the radio interview:

What does a meteorite emit?

Meteorites do not in themselves let off any dangerous fumes. They can however expose rotting organic matter, and the air can be filled with methane, hydrogen sulphite and carbon dioxide.

But there is some debate as to whether this is a meteorite - or indeed an object from space - in the first place.

Some scientists are suggesting that people may have witnessed a fireball, set off to investigate, and found a lake of sedimentary deposit that was already there. The biological process here could mean that the kind of fumes listed above are also emitted.

Can these really make people feel so ill?

Intense smells, even those that are not particularly toxic, can make people feel poorly, while high levels of carbon dioxide mean people at the site may not be getting enough oxygen.

At a purely physiological level, walking some way with some trepidation as to what one might find could well have an impact on the body and produce feelings of nausea and dizziness, sensations which may be compounded by the fact that other people say they are suffering from the same complaint.

So could mass hysteria play a role?

Symptoms could well be caused in part by what is known as a Mass Sociogenic Illness (MSI).

There are countless examples of this through history and up to the present day.

Amid fears of a gas leak late last year for instance, dozens of British pupils were taken to hospital with nausea and other symptoms. However no gas or environmental cause was found, and doctors could establish nothing wrong with the children. It was ascribed to mass hysteria.

Meanwhile, the Belgian Coke scare of 1999 - when many said they fell sick after drinking contaminated cans - was also said to be an example of MSI when laboratory analysis showed levels of contamination were not high enough to cause any of the illnesses reported.

This brings us back to the Welles broadcast of The War of the Worlds, which induced MSI with a vengeance. Even when the outlandish is not involved, the catastrophic still tends to trump the more innocuous. Perhaps there is a side of all of us that draws upon the media to provide us with a steady supply of victims, expecting the same novelty from acts of victimization that we expect from each new season of television programs. When we grow bored with too many stories of victims of exploitation (now that the mass media are finally waking up to this being the underlying story behind the subprime mortgage crisis), our self-indulgent appetites crave victims of "natural causes;" and the reporting of news has become a business of satisfying those cravings that is not particularly different from the junk food business.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Anthologizing Recordings

A recent confused of calcutta post about "little orphan albums" has unleashed a bit too much naive and sentimental claptrap about how music is practiced; but it has also brought to light some interesting comments about "compilations," which have led me to think about my own interest in collecting anthologies. Of course the very word "album" is defined in the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary as a "blank book for the insertion of collected items," meaning that every album is basically a compilation. Back when the duration of a recording was limited to the side of a 78 RPM shellac disc, an album tended to be a collection of songs, either popular or more serious (such as opera solos). As recording technicians became more skillful, they could work with material of longer duration; so an "album" of, for example, Beethoven's third would consist of, say, a dozen of these discs in a "book" that looked a bit like an album for photographs whose pages were envelopes for the discs themselves. So it is that we now have so many valuable audio documents of Wilhelm Furtwängler conducting the symphonies of Ludwig van Beethoven. My parents had albums like these, and they had a lot to do with the formation of my first impressions of music.

These days the duration of the recording process is no longer an issue; and, as a result, the connotation of "compilation" as evolved in some interesting ways. One of the confused of calcutta comments cites an interesting example from the vinyl era:

There is an ‘orphan’ album I would like to find in digital form - about 30 years ago Guitar Player magazine brought together a collection of guitarists such as Lee Ritenour, BB King, Barney Kessell/Herb Ellis, Larry Coryell, Albert Collins and a few others and recorded a double vinyl album - not strictly speaking a supergroup, as they didn’t all play together … but a fine collection of music all the same.

Given my own interest in the nature of performance, I would not mind having a copy of this collection, as it provides an excellent opportunity to appreciate the breadth of variety in the ways that each of these artists approached the same instrument. In a sense what Guitar Player was doing was compiling a synchronic "snapshot" of the state of the art of guitar-playing, illustrating, in audio form, the sorts of issues that would come up in the articles was publishing.

However, as I recently wrote about another compilation project in the classical domain (The Sibelius Edition), my particular interest in anthologies runs more to the diachronic approach to listening. Thus, while I very much enjoy my Music & Arts CD collection of Furtwängler conducting Beethoven symphonies over the period from 1942 through 1994 (which is to say in the midst of the Second World War), I equally enjoy having the EMI Classics collection of the post-War recordings made between 1950 and 1954; and I particularly appreciate the recordings of the third symphony, since both of these were made with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. Thus, while I continue to hold to the belief that there will always be intricacies in the practice of music that can never be captured by recording techniques, I also believe that such practices are very much "organic" processes that develop, grow, and evolve over the course of time. Recordings that provide us the opportunity to track such processes as they emerge in the works of an individual composer (such as Sibelius), performer (Arthur Rubinstein recorded the four Chopin scherzos for RCA three times, in 1932, 1949, and 1959), or ensemble (such as the Vienna Philharmonic, under not only Furtwängler but also so many other conductors).

Furthermore, while I have framed my argument with examples from classical music, I am just as passionate about listening to jazz diachronically. As I have already mentioned, Lennie Tristano did not leave us with very many recordings; but they are one of the few handles we can grasp in trying to understand his approaches to performance, composition, and particularly improvisation. Indeed, the Tristano anthology compiled by the British company, Proper Records, has managed to assemble, where possible, multiple takes from single recording sessions, allowing the listener to follow the path of improvisation as it leads in several different directions. Then, of course, if you really want to get serious about a diachronic approach to improvisation, you can listen to the Mosaic compilation of the recordings that Dean Benedetti made of Charlie Parker. Between March 1, 1947 and July 11, 1948, Benedetti "chased the Bird" to his club engagements with recording equipment, just for the sake of capturing his solos.

Whatever my enthusiasm for diachronic listening may be, I am the first to admit that it is no easy matter. I am not even sure I can yet introspect will enough to write about my own approach to doing it (or, for that matter, how well I feel I can do it). What I do know is that I could not do it at all without the benefit of drawing upon all those recorded documents that are now available through different players in the music business. Some of those players do a better job, and I am never shy about voicing my preferences and peeves. Nevertheless, having the documents at all is important to me; and, whatever Jean Baudrillard may have had to say about the "infantile" nature of collecting objects, these particular objects have become invaluable to me!