Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Lysistrata's Daughters

Once upon a time it could be assumed that we all learned the plot of Aristophanes' Lysistrata in college. These days many of us probably have to resort of the Wikipedia entry:

The title character devises a plan to end the war Athens is embroiled in by convincing all the women of Greece to refrain from sex with their husbands until they come to a peace agreement.

On March 3, 2003 there was a "Lysistrata Project" involving thousands of readings of this play around the world in protest against the situation in Iraq; but literature never seems to be a good match against politics (particular when facing politicians with little appreciation, let alone recognition, of literature). However, BBC NEWS has reported that the women of Naples may have more success with this strategy applied to a more modest cause:

Hundreds of Neapolitan women have pledged to go without sex unless their men promise to refrain from setting off dangerous illegal fireworks.

Local authorities are backing the women and have sent out text messages urging the men to "make love, not explosions".

The women say it is the only way to persuade their partners that they are serious about their concerns.

"Setting off illegal fireworks isn't celebrating, it's dangerous," Carolina Staiano, a founder of the campaign, told La Stampa newspaper.

She told women that if their man did not understand the dangers they should "take action and make him sleep on the sofa".

''If a sex strike is what it takes in order to get the attention of our men, husbands, partners and sons, then we're ready for it," Mrs Staiano, 44, told Italy's Ansa news agency.

Staiano appears to have amassed a fair number of followers, so I wish them all the best on their coming New Year's Eve!

Recovery, Not Stimulus

On December 19 the Congressional Progressive Caucus put out a press release outlining an agenda for dealing with the current economic crisis. The HTML version of this press release includes hyperlinks to additional information in the form of Word files. It bears reproduction in its entirety:

Washington, D.C. – As work continues on an economic recovery strategy which is widely expected to take the form of one massive package, the Co-Chairs of the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) Congresswoman Lynn Woolsey (D-CA) and Congressman Raúl M. Grijalva (D-AZ) today released a detailed blueprint of recommendations to provide at least $1 trillion to kick start the U.S. economy out of recession and back on the path to recovery and growth. To view the Cover Letter, click here. To view the blueprint of recommendations, click here.

“What our economy needs, and needs as quickly as we can deliver, is a bold and comprehensive economic recovery package that will kick start our economy into recovery,” CPC Co-Chair Lynn Woolsey (D-CA) underscored. “ It’s got to be big and bold, at least $1 trillion, so that it can reach down to the local level where it can help the people and the communities who need it the most. The only way to do that is to pass a large enough recovery package to shake-up our current situation, anything much less than $1 trillion would be like trying to put out a forest fire with a squirt gun.”

“The Progressive Caucus is determined to bring justice and prosperity to the American economy, and this proposal does both,” stated CPC Co-Chair Raúl M. Grijalva (D-AZ). “The American people’s urgent needs in health care, employment, education and infrastructure have been neglected for so very long that the basic structure of our economic system has been undermined. Now that the American people have the attention of Wall Street and Washington, we intend to lift their voice and demand the profound change the people voted for.”

The priorities highlighted by the CPC focus on providing long term, as well as short term growth, while also ensuring that the funding is targeted to the individuals and communities who need it the most. In addition to already discussed proposals regarding unemployment insurance, food stamps, and health care, the Progressive Caucus Members are ready to work with President-elect Barack Obama to finalize a package that includes the following:

  • Physical infrastructure – Rebuild our nation’s crumbling infrastructure, generating millions of new jobs with established labor practices and meeting environmental regulations.
  • Human capital infrastructure – To build a world-class, 21st century economy, it is vital that the federal government invest in all of our nation’s human capital (our most valuable resource), and create opportunities for everyone, including the most vulnerable, to meet their basic human needs, find jobs, and move up the ladder of economic opportunity.
  • Keeping people in their homes and housing reform – The federal government must preserve the American dream of home ownership by implementing a moratorium on foreclosures, increasing funding for the National Housing Trust Fund, and investing in public housing repairs.
  • Job creation – These investments will be the cornerstone of our new economy as we make immediate and long term investments in education, transportation, and small business development in the field of green energy.
  • Fiscal relief for state, local and tribal governments – Renewal of the federal government’s commitment to its struggling state partners with the reinvigoration of the CDBG [Community Development Block Grant Program], creation of a new energy block grant to transition communities to new, more efficient green energy sources, and temporary suspension of matching grant requirements for infrastructure projects.
  • Education and job training opportunities – Workers who have lost their jobs, as well as those transitioning from other industries, must have access to expanded re-training opportunities so that they can gain the skills sought by local employers. In addition, an increase in funding should be made available through the Workforce Investment Act to train younger workers who are first entering the market.
  • Transitional job opportunities – As unemployment continues to rise, it's more important than ever that the federal government enact policies, such as expanded adult services through the Workforce Investment Act, to expand job opportunities for disabled persons and others facing multiple barriers to employment.
  • Tax relief for impoverished and low-income families – The federal government must provide true economic stimulus to low income, impoverished families with expansion of the EITC [earned income tax credit], and a fully refundable child tax credit.

There is much to be said for this proposal. Most important is that it shifts the focus back from Wall Street (which has been the center of attention of the current administration) to Main Street (without which, as I have argued, Wall Street could not get much business done). Put another way, the priority of "stimulating" financial institutions (usually by bailing them out) in order to get them back to business as usual has been replaced with a plan that tries to account for the condition of the economy as a whole and for how recovery from that condition may be effected. From this point of view, it is worth observing that, according to Katrina vanden Heuvel's latest post to her Editor's Cut blog on the Web site for The Nation, the Obama Administration is planning to follow in the wake of the Bush Administration's stimulus strategies:

Obama political adviser David Axelrod said this weekend that the new Administration is looking at a stimulus bill in the range of $675 to $775 billion over two years.

Note, also, the amount of money that the Obama Administration plans to commit, which is probably what inspired Woolsey's metaphor about putting out a forest fire with a squirt gun.

As I said, the CPC press release was issued on December 19. Apparently, "the usual unreliable sources" for news coverage have decided that it was not newsworthy; and even The Nation took about a week and a half to bring it to the surface. Part of the problem probably resides in the very name of the CPC and the fact that the mainstream media have conditioned us to be as afraid of the adjective "progressive" as we are of "socialist." By virtue of our "conditioned ignorance of history," we seem to overlook that one of the faces on Mount Rushmore is of our only President who represented the Progressive Party and even managed to summon Republican support for the Progressives. (Those who have not picked up on these clues can follow the above hyperlink.)

In these times I can think of no better remedy for our impoverished view of history than a glance at the Wikipedia entry for the Progressive Party of 1912. At the very least I would hope that any reader come away having made note of two points:

  1. The title of the party platform document, issued on August 7, 1912, was "A Contract With the People." This is, to say the least, an ironic contrast with the 1994 Contract with America, which laid the groundwork for the 2000 election turning out the way it did. It also emphasizes the same displaced priorities of the Republican Party that had provoked the Progressives to break with them in 1912. The 1994 contract could hide behind an abstraction of "America" as an excuse for ignoring the fundamental needs of "the People;" and we have now endured eight years of that displaced priority.
  2. From that point of view, we must also make note of a sentence from that platform document given pride of place in the Wikipedia entry:

    To destroy this invisible Government, to dissolve the unholy alliance between corrupt business and corrupt politics is the first task of the statesmanship of the day.

    Whether or not Roosevelt himself was the author of that sentence is beside the point. More important is that the "invisible Government" that the Progressives were trying to unseat in 1912 had become "blatantly visible" by the time of last month's election. The question we must now face is whether or not we have thrown out the rascals or simply replaced them with new rascals who will be better at being "invisible."

Of course the Progressives did not win the 1912 election; but they demonstrated that "the People" deserved a platform worthy of their needs and interests. They also demonstrated that third parties should not be dismissed as irrelevant, since they earned 80 electoral votes, a sharp contrast to the 8 for the Republicans. Was the decline of this Progressive movement a casualty of the fear of the success of the Russian Revolution? There never seemed to have been any connection between the Progressives and the Soviet Communists; but facts were never an obstacle to the "Red Scare" fear tactics of the media and the demagogues they supported (even before the benefits of the Internet). The real fear has always been around the extent to which "the People" should be empowered by their government, a question that has been ferociously debated since the days of Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson (the latter speaking for "the People" and now up there on Mount Rushmore). How we deal with that fear today may determine whether 2009 will be a year of stimulating financial institutions back to their business-as-usual or a year of economic recovery for the entire country (and possibly the rest of the world).

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Post-Darwinian Thinking

Over half of century before Freeman Dyson had declared this to be "the century of biology," Arthur F. Bentley (whose reputation for polemic I have already admired) was assailing the shortcomings of the logicians of his day from a Darwinian perspective. Having already taken those logicians to task for their "vagueness" (which, as I have argued, has metastasized to a malignant scale by virtue of those who continue to promote the "Semantic Web") in The Journal of Philosophy in 1945, Bentley chose to question the very foundations of their positivist agenda the following year in Philosophy of Science in an article entitled "Logicians' Underlying Postulations." An extended quotation from the introduction to this paper should give us an appreciation of why his criticism may be more relevant now than when this paper was published:

We may best characterize the situation by saying that while logicians have spent much time discussing how to apply their logic to the world, they have given almost no examination to their own position, as logicians, within the world that modern science has opened up. We may take Darwin's great demonstration of the "natural" origin of organisms as marking the start of the new era in which man himself is treated as a natural member of a universe under discovery rather than as a superior being endowed with "faculties" from above and beyond, which enable him to "oversee" it. If we do this, we find that almost all logical enterprises are still carried on in pre-Darwinian patterns. The present writer is, indeed, aware of only two systems (and one of these a suggested project rather than a developed construction) which definitely undertakes an approach in a modern manner. The rest are almost wholly operated under the blessing, if not formally in the name, of "thinkers," "selves," or superior realms of "meanings." The present memorandum will sketch the new form of approach and contrast it with typical specimens of the old.

Two great lines of distinction between pre-Darwinian and post-Darwinian types of program and goals for logic may readily be set down.

While the former are found to center their attention basically upon decisions made by individual human beings (as "minds," "deciders," or otherwise "actors"), the latter describe broadly, and appraise directly, the presence and growth of knowings in the world, with "decisions" entering as passing phases of process, but not as the critical acts.

While enterprises of pre-Darwinian types require certainties, and require these to be achieved with perfection, absoluteness, or finality, the post-Darwinian logic is content to hold its results within its present human reach, and not to strive to grasp too far beyond.

Under such tests as these the recent logics of the non-Aristotelian, multivalued, and probability types all still remain in the pre-Darwinian or "non-natural" group, however they may dilute their wordings with respect to the certainties. Boole undertook a century ago to improve logic by mathematical aid, and there was great promise in that; but Russell, following the mind-steeped Frege, and himself already thoroughly indoctrinated to understanding and interpretation by way of "thought" or "judgment," reversed this, and has steadily led the fight to make logic master and guardian in the ancient manner, with never a moment's attention to the underlying problem: Quis custodiet custodes?

The heart of this Darwinian perspective concerns the question of what matters most if we are to try to take a scientific approach to the study of mind. What Bentley is saying is that, under pre-Darwinian thinking, all that really mattered about mind was how it made decisions. We have no better way of seeing how impoverished such a world view is than by examining the many failings of so-called "decision support technology," which essentially bought the positivist bill of goods, lock, stock, and barrel, and proceeded to sell that same bill on to eager customers in no end of business settings, some of which, like air traffic control, were just too "mission critical" to be entrusted with such unreliable support tools. Those post-Darwinian perspective, on the other hand, rejects the "clean" world of decisions based on formal logical calculi in favor of the far "messier" world of deliberations based on far more informal foundations, such as communications among human beings trying to cope with being-in-the-world. While a journal such as Philosophy of Science was probably too elevated a forum (particularly back in 1946) to promote an invitation to "embrace the mess," from our vantage point, from which we can see the many failings of that pre-Darwinian thinking targeted by Bentley, we can appreciate the value of that invitation and might even reflect long enough to see the wisdom of accepting it!

Invective Triumphant

No music library is complete without Nicolas Slonimsky's Lexicon of Musical Invective: Critical Assaults of Composers Since Beethoven's Time. Those who may worry that the age of "Good authors who once knew better words" has passed for such writing may take comfort in the treatment of Three Decembers that Allan Ulrich provided for the Financial Times Web site:

Instead of assigning stars to this two-hour wallow in New Age bathos, one should really award the project sugar bowls and give it the maximum. Hovering in that peculiarly American no man’s land between chamber opera and Broadway tunefest, Jake Heggie’s saga of a dysfunctional family, glimpsed at 10-year intervals, lacks the inflammatory urgency of his wildly popular Dead Man Walking, and in this West Coast premiere, emerges a bland confection enlivened by passing lyrical pleasantries.

Gene Scheer’s libretto, adapted from a Terrence McNally play, peers into the lives of a famous and self-absorbed actress, her gay son whose partner is dying of Aids and her daughter who assuages her problems with alcohol. Nobody actually does anything. Instead, they muse, they accuse, they kvetch, they apologise, they trumpet their neediness, they forgive; and the “shocking” second act revelation hardly illuminates the events that precede or follow it. Call Three Decembers a shameless exercise in Grand Oprah.

Whether or not history will decide that this harsh judgment against Heggie is as misplaced as the early nineteenth-century notices about Ludwig van Beethoven in the London Harmonicon is an open question; and most of us will probably not be around when it is resolved. Still, one must wonder just what it was that could invoke such persiflage from Ulrich's word processor, even if the report was filed long after the performance was actually given in the middle of this month. Perhaps Heggie can make some lemonade from Ulrich's lemons and prepare a new work entitled "Eine Kleine Kvetchmusik" dedicated to this verbally adept critic.

Remembering Freddie Hubbard

I was glad to see that the obituary for Freddie Hubbard on the Telegraph Web site made particular note of his participation in both John Coltrane's "Ascension" and Ornette Coleman's "Free Jazz." "Ascension" was my first exposure to Hubbard at a time when, as I have previously noted, I was spending much of my time listening to the music of Anton Webern. It was through "Ascension" that I recognized that jazz deserved listening as serious as that I was devoting to Webern; and, since the liner notes gave a meticulous account of the order of the solos, much of that serious listening became a matter of learning each of those solo voices. I had heard wild trumpet playing before, particularly since the trumpet players in my high school band all idolized Maynard Ferguson; but Hubbard was different. He was downright scary, totally embracing the no-boundaries spirit that Coleman and Coltrane had been cultivating. Ultimately, he paid a price for his adventurism, since, as Peter Keepnews wrote in his International Herald Tribute obituary, his forceful style ultimately led to lip problems, compelling him to mellow out his style. Keepnews quoted his advice to younger musicians:

Don't make the mistake I made of not taking care of myself. Please, keep your chops cool and don't overblow.

One summer when Curtis Fuller was visiting the Stanford Jazz Festival, he spoke about Hubbard the same way. Nevertheless, there was something unique about the ways in which Hubbard challenged us to listen to him; and I find those challenges missing in most of today's jazz performers. Taking care of yourself is important, but just because you have the good sense to be careful about things does not mean that you should avoid risks that may ultimately lead you to new territories. A cool body is the best vessel for a hot mind.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Addicted to Google?

I have frequently tried to develop the premise that Google plays a significant role in our addiction to consumerism (which may now be supported by the preference for online shopping during the current economic hard times). This morning, on his Open Road blog, Matt Asay posted a new perspective on such addictive behavior:

Ultimately, then, I think we use Google out of habit, not superior search. For most of us, it's the search engine to which our trusted computer adviser pointed us, and we've never looked back. Why would we? Because we don't have any way of independently verifying that a competitor would give us better search results, there really is no justification for switching.

In other words our susceptibility to addiction extends to Google itself, which then feeds our addiction to consumerism.

Asay is less interested in how Google plays on our addiction to shopping and more interested in the extent to which the "Google habit" drives off competition, particularly any competition claiming to be a "Google-killer." His conclusion seems simple enough:

In other words, for competitors looking to kick the Google search habit, you can't take the Cuil route and compete on search. It just won't matter if you're better. You need to create a different, compelling habit.

I am inclined to agree, but I am not sure how actionable Asay's advice is. From my point of view, the lesson to be learned from Asay's story is that user behavior is always more important than the power of any new technology (at least as long as the assumption that your users are human beings still holds). The worst mistake any innovator can make (and just about all of them do) is to assume that the user's behavior is equivalent to his/her own. The failure to even recognize that this is a mistake that matters is the primary reason why I tend to go into a rant at even the slightest sign of "innovation hunger." The situation is further complicated by the complexity and subtlety of human behavior, particularly where critical factors like motive are concerned. The instruments most often applied (from fields such as market research) are far too blunt to bring out the data that tend to matter the most. The good news is that Google has yet to find better instruments. The bad news is that Yahoo! and Microsoft are in the same boat!

Reporting or Rubbing it in?

Last night NBC Nightly News decided that the Chip Saltsman/Rush Limbaugh story was worthy of inclusion in their half-hour report. However, their version was a far cry from how Michael D. Shear had presented the story in The Washington Post. Of course Shear had the luxury of working in column-inches rather than sound bytes; but that was the crux of the problem. To this viewer it seemed as if NBC had decided to invest more than a few "bytes of sound" in playing the recording that Limbaugh had aired and Saltsman had distributed on a holiday CD. NBC thus gave us a far more thorough sampling of the offending material, displaying the text on the screen while the song was performed. This was then followed by a few "bytes" concerned with who was offended and how.

Yesterday I tried to frame the episode in terms of what Saltsman thought he was doing. This morning I find myself wondering just what the NBC producers thought they were doing. Did they think we would not get the point with a sample as brief as the one Shear had provided; or was this their way of providing Limbaugh with a broader audience under the pretext of "thoroughness?" Enquiring minds want to know!

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Damage-Causing Damage Control

Yesterday morning my wife and I were watching the Book TV broadcast of the event at the 2008 Miami Book Fair at which Tavis Smiley shared the stage with Cornel West. This event took place approximately one week after this past Election Day and made for fascinating viewing. It was, as one might imagine, a highly forward-looking discussion, all the more interesting when viewed in the context of the transition activities that took place between the Book Fair and Barack Obama's departure for a vacation in Hawaii. Most important, however, was how Smiley and West framed their discussion in terms of both hopes and concerns.

A major concern had to do with the amount of flack that Obama would have to face over matters of race. They both agreed that the Election results did not mean that the United States had become "color-blind" and that race would continue to be an issue. They also shared the hope that Obama would be able to hold himself above most of that flack and simply sustain the rest of it.

Ironically, on the morning of this Book TV broadcast The Washington Post was running a story by Michael D. Shear about an example of that flack:

Chip Saltsman, a candidate for chairman of the Republican National Committee, sent committee members this month a holiday music CD that included "Barack the Magic Negro," a parody song first aired in 2007 by talk show host Rush Limbaugh.

As of the appearance of this story, there has been no comment from Obama, which is consistent with that shared hope of Smiley and West. To the contrary, it seems as if most, if not all, of the backlash has been coming from within the Republican National Committee (RNC) itself (which, according to a follow-up post on Ben Smith's Blog for Politico, has all of three black members). Still, the real question behind the episode is the usual one: What was Saltsman thinking in circulating this CD to endorse his candidacy? Interestingly enough, when this story was first coming to a boil, Saltsman issued a statement to The Hill:

Paul Shanklin [who composed the song for airing on Limbaugh's show] is a long-time friend, and I think that RNC members have the good humor and good sense to recognize that his songs for the Rush Limbaugh show are light-hearted political parodies.

In other words Saltsman's response seems to be, "Can't anyone take a joke?" As I recall, this was one of the argumentative moves made in reaction to whether or not Don Imus crossed the line with a line that could easily be taken as a racial slur. However, that episode is now over a year old, making it beyond the attention span of Limbaugh, Shanklin, Saltsman, and probably the RNC membership, most (all?) of whom are worthy of my "history dunces" epithet. Particularly ironic, though, is that, according to Shear's report, two of Saltsman's rivals for chairing the RNC are African American, thus fulfilling one of West's futurist speculations voiced in his dialog with Smiley.

So where does this leave the Republican party? Personally, I am less concerned with Shanklin's role than I am with the idea that any of the content on Rush Limbaugh's broadcasts can be taken as "light-hearted." Whether or not Limbaugh should be subjected to the same extreme measures taken against Imus is for others to decide; but, if the Republican Party wants to assume the role of a "loyal opposition," then it is about time for them to distance themselves as far as possible from Limbaugh and others of his hate-speaking ilk. Obama's transition team has gone to great lengths to prepare an Administration that will take a bipartisan approach to the practice of politics. This is not a time for the Republicans to circle their wagons around Limbaugh in preparation for four years of intense divisiveness. Saltsman's unapologetic apology is that last thing the RNC needs, and I hope the Republicans recognize that when they choose their new chairman at the end of next month.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Empire Descending

I only began listening to the music of Edward Elgar seriously after I had begun to build up my "listening chops" for the music of Gustav Mahler. This may seem like an odd juxtaposition; but I feel that it was through the ways in which Mahler prepared my ears for long-scale prolongations that I could then quickly pick up on similar prolongations in Elgar's first symphony. Since my previous exposures to Elgar had been through the tub-thumping performances of Pomp and Circumstance marches and the string serenade, that symphony was a real ear-opener for me. I first encountered it on a radio broadcast in Philadelphia, and I was riveted to the radio from beginning to end.

In retrospect I now wonder whether or not there were also socio-political grounds for an association between Elgar and Mahler. Both lived under monarchies whose monarchs were not particularly effective, even for ceremonial purposes, resulting in a climate of social unrest, which we can now say was just waiting to erupt into the First World War. I sometimes wondered whether or not the funeral marches that occur so frequently in Mahler symphonies were to some extent motivated by his sense of societal decay. In his own correspondence he stated that the funeral march that begins his second symphony was for the funeral of the "hero" of his first symphony, deliberately being cryptic about just who that hero was. This "funereal Mahler" probably influenced my hearing the opening Andante of Elgar's first symphony as an Edwardian funeral march, leading me to feel that Hugh Hudson had decided to incorporate this music in his Greystoke soundtrack to represent the funeral of the British Empire itself (even if imperial control would only be relinquished after the Second World War).

Mahler died before the outbreak of the First World War, while Elgar lived through that whole damned mess. He also had to endure the trivialization of his Pomp and Circumstance marches and found the incorporation of the "Land of Hope and Glory" text in the first of these marches particularly jingoistic. In the period after the War, his most significant achievement was the cello concerto he composed shortly before the death of his wife. Nevertheless, Elgar's "endurance" gave him one major leg up over Mahler, which was his participating in conducting a significant body of his work for the posterity of recordings, including a performance of his violin concerto by a sixteen-year-old Yehudi Menuhin. I acquired the three volumes of CDs in EMI's Elgar Edition while I was living in Singapore, and they remain a significant asset in my personal collection of recordings. The first symphony was recorded in November of 1930 over the days 20–22, and the result is pretty impressive when we remember that Elgar was born in 1857. The man was a survivor, and this shows in how he transforms the funereal opening of that symphony into the "hymn of survival" that concludes the fourth movement. "Audiophiliacs" like Steve Guttenberg, who blogs over at CNET, would probably be put off by the "acoustic imperfections" of these recordings; but, given that we no longer have the opportunity to hear Elgar conduct "in the flesh," these are the closest we shall get to such an experience. The quality is so much better than merely adequate that we should relish these documents that EMI has made available as listening opportunities of the highest order.

The Moneylenders in the Temple

I first learned about Hugo Chávez' abrupt cessation of the construction of a shopping mall in Caracas (for which I gave Chávez this week's Chutzpah of the Week award) through Truthdig; and I was not surprised to see that this report attracted so many Comments from Truthdig readers. What I had not anticipated was the way in which many of these Comments have shifted attention from addressing an authoritarian action against the construction of one mall in a highly congested area of Caracas to the more general issue of the proliferation of malls, particularly since this proliferation is on a global scale. Whatever the religious values of the host country may be, a mall is fundamentally (adverb chosen deliberately) a "high temple" of capitalism, from which it follows that the rituals practiced within that temple are those of consumerism. From this point of view, I found it interesting that the primary analysis of holiday shopping (which, through a well-placed pun, we may regard as the "holiest" of those rituals) comes from SpendingPulse, which is the retail data service of MasterCard Advisors.

Needless to say, MasterCard is interested in this analysis not so much for their revenue from transaction fees as for their revenue from interest on debt. In other words MasterCard is trying to measure the extent to which they will gain from those practices that have so much to do with our current economic crisis. Chávez may subscribe to socialism grounded in atheism; but one way to view his action, particularly at this time of year, is through the Gospels. However, rather than expel the (MasterCard) moneylenders from the temple, he chose to defy the building of the temple itself! Then, again in the spirit of the Gospels, he proposed that the structure be repurposed for healing the sick! My guess is that, if he has no other apostles, the Reverend Billy will be prepared to embrace his action as the sign of a Second Coming! Reverend Billy was one of the first to recognize consumerism as the addictive behavior it really is, which is why I think it is fair to view Chávez, for better or worse, as an agent of rehabilitation.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Understanding a Word by Playing with It

Through a fascinating comment that I read on Truthdig, I found myself searching for information about the memory research work of Karim Nader. As a point of departure, I found the following abstract for a talk he had given at the Institut des Neurosciences de Bordeaux on September 10, 2007:

It was thought that memories consolidate only once. Considerable evidence has now accumulated to demonstrate that when consolidated memories are remembered, they can undergo another consolidation-like process, called reconsolidation. Reconsolidation has now been found across paradigms and tasks suggesting that it is a fundamental process.
The next questions that we need to address is how does a consolidated memory become
un-consolidated” during reactivation. Furthermore, given that not all memories undergo reconsolidation what are the neurobiological mechanisms that determine when a memory will and will not undergo reconsolidation? We have identified some mechanisms in that must occur in order for fear memories to become “un-fixed” and begun to understand the principles of how behavioral conditions control whether a memory does or does not under go reconsolidation. Lastly, I will discuss the theoretical and historical issues surrounding interpretations of amnesia as being the absence of a memory vs the inability to retrieve the memory. I will discuss a new framework for testing this issue which has not been resolved

This idea of reconsolidation reminded me of the model that Gerald Edelman had proposed. Beginning with perceptual categorization as his point of departure, Edelman suggested that memory was a matter of the ongoing recategorization of existing categories. Between Edelman and Nader I found myself playing a sort of pun on "re-membering," through which the association of objects with categories is formed through the sort of consolidation that Nader seems to have in mind and then maintained through what he calls reconsolidation. Ideologically, Edelman had been searching for a model that would do away with database storage as a metaphor for memory; and, while Nader and his colleagues were talking about "memory storage" in earlier papers, reconsolidation seems to be one approach to honor Edelman's postulation of memory-without-storage. Furthermore, in honor of Aristotle's pioneering study of the subject, reconsolidation may also be associated with the pun "re-collection." What is most interesting is that the prefix "re" emphasizes the extent to which we are more concerned with an ongoing process than with any state-based model, placing us firmly in the discourse of verb-based, rather than noun-based, description.

Innovative Intelligence Gathering

It would appear that, for all those jokes about winning hearts and minds, the CIA understands the process better than we might have suspected. Drawing upon a Washington Post report, BBC NEWS has run a story on a rather innovative approach to cultivating Afghan warlords as sources of strategic information:

America's CIA has found a novel way to gain information from fickle Afghan warlords - supplying sex-enhancing drug Viagra, a US media report says.

The Washington Post said it was one of a number of enticements being used.

In one case, a 60-year-old warlord with four wives was given four pills and four days later detailed Taleban movements in return for more.

"Whatever it takes to make friends and influence people," the Post quoted one agent as saying.

"Whether it's building a school or handing out Viagra."

Now it would not surprise me if Taliban fundamentalists would view any drug concerned with sexual performance as more deleterious than opium poppies. If this is the case, then the CIA may have tapped into a cultural divide significant enough to promote "the American way of life" as more favorable than Taliban orthodoxy. We should thus give the CIA the credit they deserve for out-of-the-box thinking!

Two Voices Speaking Truth to Power

Much has been made of the extent to which Harold Pinter dedicated his final years to outspoken condemnation of the follies of the Bush Administration with the mindless consent of the United Kingdom. The obituary by Alastair Jamieson for the London Telegraph provides one of the better summaries of the aggressive way in which Pinter could use his bully pulpit to speak truth to power:

In 2002 he described the Bush administration in the United States as "a bloodthirsty wild animal", adding: "Bombs are its only vocabulary." He said: "Many Americans, we know, are horrified by the posture of their government but seem to be helpless".

He has called President Bush as "mass-murdering" and former prime minister Tony Blair as a "deluded idiot".

In accepting the Wilfred Owen Award for Poetry, on 18 March 2005, he said: "I believe Wilfred Owen would share our contempt, our revulsion, our nausea and our shame at both the language and the actions of the American and British governments".

I do not know if Pinter cited any of Owen's texts in his acceptance speech. However, reading that last sentence reminded me of the epigraph passage from Owen that Benjamin Britten placed on the title page of his War Requiem:

My subject is War, and the pity of War.
The Poetry is in the pity…
All a poet can do today is warn.

Pinter tried to shift his role from one who warns to one who could change, and it remains to be seen if his words and actions have made a difference.

Meanwhile, lest we dwell too much on the Pinter obituaries, we should remember that Eartha Kitt, whose death was also reported yesterday, spoke truth to power in her own way during the nightmare of our engagement in Vietnam. BBC NEWS made it a point to recognize this aspect of her life in their obituary:

In the late sixties, however, Kitt's career encountered a substantial setback after she made her anti-Vietnam war views explicit during a White House luncheon.

The CIA put together a dossier on her and she became professionally exiled from the US. She worked abroad for 11 years, where her reputation remained unscathed, but returned triumphantly to New York in 1974 to star in a Broadway spectacle of Timbuktu!

There is little similarity between the respective career paths of Pinter and Kitt, but each had and took the opportunity to speak truth to power. It seems appropriate to remember them together and a time when the checks on power are still being strained.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Permanence, Change, and the Civil Rights Movement

Much as I tend to enjoy the blogging of Andrew Keen, I was very glad to see that Book TV chose to use this day to provide me with an escape from Keen's recent indulgence in what I can only call "second-rate reading." This has included yesterday's reaction to Fareed Zakaria's recent palaver in Newsweek about Barack Obama as the savior of capitalism and today's attack on Thomas Friedman's laptop metaphor in The New York Times, with a swipe at Malcolm Gladwell's "fascinatingly obvious" Outliers thrown in for good measure. I used to sympathize with Harlan Ellison, who felt that we read was more important than what we read; but he used to make that point before the Internet had opened so many reading possibilities for us. These days I feel that life is too short to waste on rubbish; and, while I do not always agree with their editorial decisions, I find both The New York Review and Book TV to be rather good at helping me steer clear of the sort of rubbish that shows up all to often in Newsweek and The New York Times.

This morning I watched a Book TV video that was recorded last May at the Sunflower County Public Library in Indianola, Mississippi, which had hosted Chris Myers Asch to talk about his book, The Senator & the Sharecropper: The Freedom Struggles of James O. Eastland & Fannie Lou Hamer. This was a case in which the audience was as interesting as the author, since both Eastland and Hamer were from Sunflower County and have descendants who are working in the County. However, even more important was the way in which Asch framed the conservative thinking of the segregationists for whom Eastland became a major champion in the Senate, particularly when he became Chairman of the Judiciary Committee.

Asch's critical point was his decision to view Eastland more as a planter than as a politician. From this point of view, plantation life embodied "the natural order of things." As Anthony Giddens would have put it in his more elaborate terminology of social theory, plantation life legitimized a structure of domination, which determined who got to exercise authority over whom and how that authority was exercised. From this point of view, the civil rights movement was less about whether blacks should have the same rights as whites (or, for that matter, whether the abolition of slavery had been a great mistake) and more about how it had challenged that "natural order." The underlying struggle, in the words of Kenneth Burke, was the "challenge of change" imposed by the civil rights movement on the assumed permanence that Eastland and other segregationists were determined to maintain.

Needless to say, the scope of such opposition to permanence by change extends far beyond the history of the civil rights movement. Political conservatism is basically grounded on the virtues of permanence, whether or not that permanence is justified by rhetorical invocations of "natural order." Change is perceived as dangerous; and, to the extent that it entails a volatility that undermines the predictability of "life as we know it," it is dangerous. On the other hand, as Isaiah Berlin would work out for himself about a quarter of a century after the material in Burke's Permanence and Change first appeared, "permanence" is just another word for "stasis;" and stasis is fundamentally opposed to the dynamics of life itself and the social interactions that establish our very humanity (an insight developed by another of Berlin's predecessors, George Herbert Mead, who, in turn, had been preceded by Karl Marx, whose influence is clear in both Burke and Berlin).

I make these points because, as we approach Inauguration Day, it is important to recognize that change is far too complex a matter to be reduced to an election-winning buzz word. My guess is that Obama appreciates this, as he appreciates why the stability of permanence is so important to all of us. What we need is a subtle negotiation of a course between permanence and change; and I fear that the subtlety of that course is too much for consideration by the likes of journalistic hacks like Zakaria and Friedman.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Venezuelan Chutzpah

I doubt that anyone would challenge Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez' capacity for chutzpah, but the luck of the draw never seems to have favored him with a Chutzpah of the Week award … until this week. Just in time for the recognition of that religious holiday that does more to honor consumerism than any other, President Chávez has seen fit to launch an attack against the imminent nativity of a shopping mall. Here is the Associated Press account as it appeared in The Guardian:

Venezuela's president, Hugo Chávez, has halted the construction of a shopping mall in the capital and announced that the prime block of urban real estate should be expropriated after being shocked at the "monster" development.

In his Sunday address Chávez said he was heading through downtown Caracas when he was shocked by the sight of a huge, nearly-finished mall amid the high-rise offices and apartments. "They had already built a monster there," Chávez said. "I passed by there just recently and said, 'What is this? My God!'"

He ordered the local mayor to halt construction, and suggested the sprawling six-storey building might be put to better use as a hospital or university. The new Sambil mall was scheduled to open in the La Candelaria district early next year, packed with 273 shops, cinemas and offices. Chávez complained that it would add more traffic to an area that was already so crowded "not a soul fits".

Whether or not this "attack" on the almost-completed mall will be as effective as Don Quixote's windmill siege, there is something gloriously outrageous about this latest Chávez antic that just cries to be recognized as chutzpah. While I would hardly call myself one of Chávez' staunch supporters, I strongly sympathize with his attitude towards consumerism and am willing to grant that desperate times (when consumerism has reached addictive levels) call for desperate measures. Besides, we know from the Tao Teh Ching that the thousand-mile journey begins with a single step (and that precept was good enough for Mao Zedong to appropriate for his Little Red Book). If no one else is willing to take the first step towards consumerism rehabilitation, then President Chávez deserves credit for trying; and a Chutzpah of the Week award seems like a suitable way to grant that credit.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

"The Hobgoblin of Little Minds"

To some extent yesterday's polemical attack on logic can be attributed to what we might call the fundamental fallacy of positivism, which is its attempt to equate certainty with consistency. If, as I suggested yesterday, much of the mind-rot of our current "reckless thinking about semantics" can be attributed to computer science education, then the problem with such education is that, where artifacts of both hardware and software are concerned, consistency is the only form of certainty that matters. Thus, if we talk about compiler construction in terms of the formal description of a programming language and an equally formal description of the capabilities of a computer, then the "proof that the compiler works" amounts to establishing the consistency of the programming-language-representation with the compiled internal-machine-representation. Whether or not that former representation has anything to do with what a programmer "intends" (let alone what a client who has hired that programmer "wants") never signifies in establishing such consistency. Consequently, it is no surprise that such a question of "customer satisfaction" should, itself, be reduced to a consistency problem by introducing a discipline called "requirements analysis," through which "what the client wants" could be represented through a formal "specification language." In this positivist framework all that mattered was that the programming-language-representation be consistent with the specification-language-representation.

To some extent we should probably grant that the positivist assumption is correct: Consistency is the only thing of which we can be certain. My point is that we put too much stock in accepting that assumption. Like the World Wide Web, the world itself is too messy for us to expect certainty. Indeed, the whole point of Werner Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle is that there is quantifiable uncertainty in any "instruments of measurement" that we apply to observing that world. Consistency is thus worse than Ralph Waldo Emerson's "hobgoblin of little minds;" it is a pragmatically unattainable goal that distracts us from more realistic goals concerned with "living with the mess" (otherwise known as being-in-the-world). This does not mean that we cannot, from time to time, "clean up" some of the mess. This is basically how we deal with what Henry Miller called the "order which is not understood;" and it is our natural capacity to deal with the mess that motivates what I have called the "hermeneutic imperative" of our approach to education. However, the mess will never be entirely eliminated; and we shall never drink from the Holy Grail of certainty. Were we do to so, we would arrive at a utopian state; and, as Isaiah Berlin has observed, the fact that such a utopia is a state means that, once it has been attained, there is no reason for anything else to happen. In other words "living with the mess" turns out to be the fundamental reason for living at all!

Negligence Begets Arrogance

This month began with a report from our Government Accountability Office (GAO) that basically took the Treasury Department to task for failing to monitor just how funds from the $700 billion bailout package would be spent. So, if the Treasury Department is not interested in following the money and if our Congressional representatives are not doing anything because they are on vacation, does that mean that we, as the public, have no right to know what is happening to our money? Associated Press Writer Matt Apuzzo decided to take on the role of concerned citizen and address that question by going directly to banks that had received bailout money. He filed his story last night, and it is not particularly pleasant reading.

The bottom line is that, when asked to give an account of what they were doing with the government support money they received, the banks chose to pull a Bartleby and reply that they would prefer not to do so:

After receiving billions in aid from U.S. taxpayers, the nation's largest banks say they can't track exactly how they're spending it. Some won't even talk about it.

"We're choosing not to disclose that," said Kevin Heine, spokesman for Bank of New York Mellon, which received about $3 billion.

Thomas Kelly, a spokesman for JPMorgan Chase, which received $25 billion in emergency bailout money, said that while some of the money was lent, some was not, and the bank has not given any accounting of exactly how the money is being used.

"We have not disclosed that to the public. We're declining to," Kelly said.

The Associated Press contacted 21 banks that received at least $1 billion in government money and asked four questions: How much has been spent? What was it spent on? How much is being held in savings, and what's the plan for the rest?

None of the banks provided specific answers.

"We're not providing dollar-in, dollar-out tracking," said Barry Koling, a spokesman for Atlanta, Ga.-based SunTrust Banks Inc., which got $3.5 billion in taxpayer dollars.

Some banks said they simply didn't know where the money was going.

Depressing as this may be, it is hardly surprising. If our current Administration has turned laissez-faire policy into "a failure to govern at all," why should the public assume that their representatives through the press will be any more effective than their representatives in the Congress? We are back on the turf that Jürgen Habermas tried the chart in The Theory of Communicative Action in his examination of Max Weber's "Diagnosis of the Times." I examined this diagnosis on my old blog, and this seems like a good time to review it. Here is how Habermas introduced his findings:

In his diagnosis of the times Weber keeps closer than usual to the theoretical perspective in which modernization is represented as a continuation of the world-historical process of disenchantment. The differentiation of independent cultural value spheres that is important for the phase of capitalism's emergence, and the growing autonomy of subsystems of purposive-rational action that is characteristic of the development of capitalist society since the late eighteenth century, are the two trends that Weber combines into an existential-individualistic critique of the present age. The first component is represented in the thesis of a loss of meaning, the second in the thesis of a loss of freedom.

If we do not believe we are suffering from a loss of meaning, then consider the basic concept of banking in terms of the models of operation initially conceived, the motives for those models, the disconnect between those models and the practices that brought about economic collapse, and now what appears to be the willful disregard of that disconnect. Were we to reduce it all to a question of "production," then our banks are no better at putting out beneficial products that the public wants than General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler are. By placing the needs of the customer below the needs of the shareholders (whose latter needs have never amounted to anything more than greed-satisfaction), every bank now on the Government dole has basically sacrificed the very meaning of banking; and, as always seems to be the case, we get stuck paying for that sacrifice. That, of course, is Weber's second loss: Because our collective voice, even when we vote, is ultimately drowned out by the more powerful voices of those who deal in the exchange of shares, the concept of banking may have lost its meaning; but we have lost our freedom (perhaps best illustrated in my recent attempt to describe our "hostage situation") through "collateral damage."

Both Weber and Habermas chose to attribute these losses to the underlying nature of capitalism itself, and I think there are some valid grounds for doing so. However, I am optimistic enough to believe that these losses can be regained not through the abandonment of capitalism but through a rejection of faith in "free markets" in favor of an ongoing regulatory framework that provides a cushion against the greatest hazards of poorly calculated risk. As I previously suggested, the danger of "serfdom" that so concerned Friedrich Hayek does not necessarily come from the control of fascist authority; it can also come from a willingness to accept the control of instruments we do not really understand, such as those instruments used in the exchange of "shares of debt" as if they were shares of a corporation, which played such a major role in debilitating our economy. More important, however, is that, as is the case with addiction, we seem to be either unwilling or unable to acknowledge our losses; and we shall not regain them until we are willing to recognize that they have been lost. In the wake of the Great Depression, Franklin Roosevelt was remembered by history as our "recovery president." Will Barack Obama summon the necessary leadership to be remembered as our "rehabilitation president?"

Monday, December 22, 2008

Illogical Logic

I see that, even in a time of economic crisis when there is great reluctance to commit significant funding to fantasy, the term "Web 3.0" is beginning to weasel its way into the working vocabulary of the technical press, often as a way of trying to breath life back into that beast-that-will-not-die, the "Semantic Web." I have long argued that the very concept of a Semantic Web is a product of the unfortunate collision of reckless thinking about semantics with a World Wide Web that turned out to be far messier than its credited inventor, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, either expected or now seems willing to acknowledge. What I had not realized was the extent to which that reckless thinking about semantics has a long history that extends back at least ten years before Sir Tim was a gleam in his parents' eyes.

I have the Center for Dewey Studies to thank for this historical perspective, particularly through their publication of the volume Knowing and the Known, a collection of papers by John Dewey and Arthur F. Bentley (most of them jointly authored). The first chapter in this collection, "Vagueness in Logic," was written by Bentley and first published in The Journal of Philosophy in 1945; and Bentley uses this study to expose how some of the most reputable minds of the first half of the twentieth century had been incredibly sloppy in their use of words such as "proposition," "truth," "meaning, "language," and (yes, indeed) "fact." About the only one of those minds that does not get a thorough drubbing from Bentley is that of the Polish logician Alfred Tarski, whose work Bentley describes as "like a breath of fresh air after the murky atmosphere" of the other logicians he has examined. Bentley even allows us to sample that air with the following bit of Tarski's text (translated from the Polish):

It is perhaps worth-while saying that semantics as it is conceived in this paper (and in former papers of the author) is a sober and modest discipline which has no pretensions of being a universal patent medicine for all the ills and diseases of mankind whether imaginary or real. You will not find in semantics any remedy for decayed teeth of illusions of grandeur or class conflicts. Nor is semantics a device for establishing that every one except the speaker and his friends is speaking nonsense.

Why should I strain to aim my best polemic efforts at the likes of Berners-Lee when a deceased Polish logician has already said all that needs to be said about his visions? More important is the question of why this fixation on the Semantic Web as "a universal patent medicine" should be so persistent.

My proposed answer to this latter question is to blame everything on computer science education (having been part of the early "strike force" to design and implement both undergraduate and graduate curricula for this would-be degree program). Back in the day (as we now say), it seemed as if the best way to understand the ultimate capability of computer software was to study the theory and practice of compiler construction, through which one could get the computer to do what one had expressed in some "programming language." The theory side of the discipline could be broken down into two sub-disciplines:

  1. Syntax: The study of how one recognized the "well-formed forms" of expression in a programming language and could then describe their well-formedness by parsing them into structural representations.
  2. Semantics: The conversion of each of those structural representations into a sequence of operations grounded in the "machine language" of the computer that would actually be running the program.

In the world of compiler construction, the concepts of syntax and semantics were "very fresh and clean" (with apologies to Robert Wilson). Programming languages were never ambiguous; and they could only be literal, never figurative. Indeed, the theory was so "fresh and clean" that it did not take long to discover that, given the right formal description of a programming language, one could go so far as to "compile a compiler" for it based on a equally formal description of the capabilities of the computer that would be running the program.

The result of this triumph of technology was that the technologists assumed they now knew "all about" syntax and semantics. In the words of Michael Feingold's translation of Bertolt Brecht, they screamed "I've mastered it without half trying," when, in fact, the compiler-compiler itself offered so little insight into the roles that syntax and semantics play in how intelligent beings actually communicate that it now stands as prime example of what José Ortega y Gasset, in The Revolt of the Masses, called "the work of men astoundingly mediocre, and even less than mediocre." Where technologists sought the crystal clarity of engineering in their understanding of human communication, they served only to muddy the waters; and these days it seems that the increase in both available data and computational power does little than muddy those waters even more.

If we want to filter out that mud, we would do well to go back to Bentley's critique, rather than trying to seek out new technological tricks to prop up such a blatantly deficient understanding of what we know and how we communicate what we know. We should begin with the paragraph with which Bentley concluded his article:

This problem [of our understanding of knowledge and communication], we believe, should be faced naturalistically. Passage should be made from the older half-light to such fuller light as modern science offers. In this fuller light the man who talks and thinks and knows belongs to the world in which he has been evolved in all his talkings, thinkings and knowings; while at the same time this world in which he had been evolved is the world of his knowing. Not even in his latest and most complex activities is it well to survey this natural man as magically "emergent" into something new and strange. Logic, we believe, must learn to accept him simply and naturally, if it is to begin the progress to future demands.

With any luck (and with the even fuller light that today's modern science now sheds) we may then transcend the work of the mediocre and prevent it from engendering further disappointingly ineffective mediocrity!

The Economic Elephant

It would be unfair to describe the Book TV broadcast of a panel discussion on the economy organized by The Washington Post as three blind men grabbing at an elephant. For one thing only one of the panelists, Thomas Friedman, was male, although he compensated for his minority status by definitely being the most myopic of the group. The women on the panel, Barbara Ehrenreich and Michelle Singletary, could not be accused on blindness, although in a situation as complex as this one, it is often hard to tell the difference between sharp focus and tunnel vision. I suspect that I tended to see focus in Ehrenreich's remarks because they were so sympathetic to my own. Much of Ehrenreich's writing has examined the lives (perhaps it would be more accurate to call them "survival tactics") of the so-called "working poor" and the widening of the gap that separates their incomes from those of the wealthy. Ehrenreich is a champion for those of us who react strongly against Main Street being forced to foot the bill for the mistakes made by Wall Street, and she would probably even reject my one grasp at optimism in the belief that Wall Street cannot survive without Main Street. However, I was advocating that position on the basis of economic theory and history. Ehrenreich is neither an economist nor a historian. She is a journalist who usually shares David Simon's intuitive talent for anthropological field work without necessarily making any claims to anthropological training. She goes into the field of the working poor the way Simon has gone into the field of urban Baltimore to examine its decay from multiple points of view. She thus distinguished herself from both Friedman and Singletary by coming to this panel informed by data, rather than anecdotes and factoids; and I can hardly fault her for wanting to focus on data while all around her preferred to ignore the data by telling pleasant stories.

Singletary is also a journalist who apparently covered some of the same Baltimore beats that Simon did; and, while she now writes the nationally syndicated column, "The Color of Money," for The Washington Post, her performance on this particular panel was closer to that of a motivational speaker. Like Ehrenreich she has been exposed to the world of the working poor; but, if that exposure was limited to her grandmother ("Big Momma"), then it is easier to accuse her of succumbing to tunnel vision. There is nothing wrong with her holding up Big Momma as a model for how to live frugally; but, in the current crisis conditions, motivational lectures about the virtues of frugality are about as helpful as just-say-no sermons were for dealing with drug addiction. Indeed, to the extent that consumerism is, as I have suggested, just another form of addiction, Singletary was basically bringing Nancy Reagan into the arena of personal finance management.

Friedman's myopia is best understood in terms of his single-minded focus on creating wealth, even when surrounded with those trying to get their heads wrapped around the problem of poverty. Listening to his mile-a-minute declarations, one could easily wonder whether or not the noun "poverty" is even in his working vocabulary. Another noun that appears to be absent from his vocabulary is "bubble," which means that he is blithely oblivious to factors that cause economic bubbles, as well as the consequences that arise when those bubbles burst. Nevertheless, his rhetorical style carries such a compelling sense of conviction that he is a real-life embodiment of the Old Lady in Maria Irene Fornes' musical Promenade, whose one major song includes the lines:

I know everything.
Some of it I really know.
The rest I make up.

One has to be very alert in reading Friedman to catch him when he is making things up, and following his flamboyant speaking style is even more challenging.

Needless to say, meaningful discussion among such different minds is about as unlikely as the three blind men finally coming to agreement about what an elephant it. The result was more like a something-for-everybody variety show. Some were probably ready to shell out their money to buy Friedman's wealth-making patent medicine. Others were content to nod knowingly at the stories of Big Momma's lessons in frugality. My guess is that few wanted to hear Ehrenreich talk about all those poor who are still scraping at the door, and that does not bode well for Barack Obama's intentions to get us all to work together towards repairing our seriously broken economic system.

Sunday, December 21, 2008


Here in San Francisco the increase in high-definition-video performing arts content is leading to an increase in the venues offering such documents. As I recently observed, there are advantages to presenting this material in a public place, as opposed to delivering it to individual computers. The Vogue Theatre, which claims to be the oldest operating movie theater in San Francisco, is now one of these venues, although it seems to be equipped only for projecting video recordings, rather than "live" transmissions. I just experienced one of these recordings of a performance of The Nutcracker at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, made on January 2, 2007. This production is a thorough reconception of the original scenario by Marius Petipa executed by Mikhail Shemyakin, described in his Wikipedia entry as "a Russian (ethnic Kabardian) painter, stage designer, sculptor and publisher, and a controversial representative of the nonconformist art tradition of St. Petersburg." Shemyakin clearly had little interest to conforming to any of Petipa's dramatic ideas; but, given how little Petipa conformed to the letter of Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffman's "Nutcracker and the King of Mice," there is no reason to expect that he receive better treatment in the 21st century.
Shemyakin has been living in New York since 1981, and it is clear that he has thrived on Western influences. In the spirit of the way in which The Nutcracker is usually conceived, his production is almost a candy store of influences that he has appropriated and refashioned into a ballet that still honors the structure of Pyotr Tchaikovsky's score. Most importantly, however, is the way in which he has rejected Hoffman's original Christmas setting, choosing instead to develop a fantasy world that provides an escape from the most distasteful character traits of bourgeois prosperity. He captures much of Hoffman's original darkness but shades it with a broad range of other sources.
Most important of those sources may be Angela Carter, whose "Company of Wolves" makes a clear case for the "Red Riding Hood" story being a tale of both the agonies and joys of puberty. While Hoffman presents Marie as a child receiving a very special present, Shemyakin chose to endow her with blossoming sexuality that colors her relationship to her toy. That relationship is ultimately consummated by having her (rather than the Sugar Plum Fairy) dance the second act pas de deux with her "companion," who has just shed his "impassive toy" mask and is revealed as a young man of her age. Shemyakin uses this moment to blend his sources, shifting from Red Riding Hood's puberty to an adagio duet whose roots can clearly be traced back to the Balcony Scene from the Romeo and Juliet ballet set to the score by Sergei Prokofiev. Never before have I seen such an erotically charged pas de deux (in any ballet); and never before has that eroticism seemed so relevant. Kirill Simonov, who conceived the actual choreography, deserves considerable praise for realizing this vision, as does Irina Golub for dancing it so passionately.
I also suspect that, perhaps as a result of leaving the Soviet Union, Shemyakin developed an acquaintance with the work of Mervyn Peake, particularly with regard to his Gormenghast books. The decision to begin the scenario in a vast and extremely sinister kitchen struck me as a nod to the way in which Peake launched the critical conflict of his Gormenghast epic. If recent stagings of Hansel and Gretel have focused on the theme of hunger, the "real world" of this Nutcracker is one of abundant food and the gluttony it engenders. Hoffman never goes so far as to suggest that Marie was an abused child; but, between Shemyakin's suggestions that her father hungers for more than good and Golub's composure in dancing this role, that suggestion carries at least moderate believability. Indeed, gluttony gets that last word at the conclusion of the apotheosis, when the "candy-land" set is recast as an enormous wedding cake, with Marie and her Nutcracker reduced to bride-and-groom dolls atop the cake while the mice from the battle in the first act are nibbling away at the lower layers (possibly with a nod to Charles Dickens' Miss Havisham).
In the wrong hands Shemyakin's everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach could have been tedious. However, in Simonov he had someone who understood how to make the language of dance speak with dramatic clarity; and in conductor Valery Gergiev he had a conductor who understood how to pace Tchaikovsky's music to the progress of the narrative. Most important, however, is that the Mariinsky dancers have been trained with an inherent understanding that dance is not about the movement of the body but about the modulation of the body's energy. The character that Golub made of Marie did not emerge from posture and gesture but from her command of her entire body (which apparently had internalized the basics of the Graham contraction along with all of Agrippina Vaganova's basics of classical ballet technique). This was hardly the conventional Nutcracker I might find down the street at the War Memorial Opera House; but it was worth hiking for about half an hour to a movie house in another neighborhood to see a high-definition projection. It may even be worth my deciding to add ballet to my current DVD collection.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Remote Mismanagement Revisited

On December 10 I wrote up a narrative account of how Canon had bungled the rebate for a printer/scanner I had purchased through Staples and then resolved the problem, blaming the bungle on a third-party "processing company" and then providing the previously denied rebate check. At that time I expressed serious doubts that finding an alternative third party to process rebates would be much of an improvement. A letter I received today seems to support those doubts:

This letter was clearly automatically generated, rather than "written;" and, on the basis of my earlier account, it seems to have been generated from the faulty data records of which I had run afoul in the first place. Since I deposited my rebate check on the same day as I wrote my earlier post, this strikes me as a clear instance of history repeating itself as farce!

The Hermeneutic Imperative of Elementary Education

Last night's story by Associated Press Writer Samantha Young about the politicization of mathematics education in the State of California reminded me that the arguments that Chris Hedges explored in his "America the Illiterate" column for Truthdig are as relevant to the study of mathematics as they are to the "basics" of reading and writing. Let us begin with what Young was reporting in the account she filed from Sacramento:

A judge on Friday blocked a plan to make California the first state in the nation to require algebra testing for all eighth-graders.

The ruling sidelines an ambitious mandate approved by the state Board of Education in July after Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger recommended it over the concerns of California's school superintendent and education groups.

The board pushed through the effort in order for the state to meet federal testing requirements or face losing up to $4.1 million in funding. The mandate would have affected students in the 2011-12 school year.

But the California School Boards Association and the Association of California School Administrators sued in September to overturn the requirement. They questioned whether the state had the money, staff and training to comply with the state board's decision.

The idea that the education of young Californians should be determined by either the Executive or Judiciary branches of California government (not to mention conditions on Federal funding) to the exclusion of the boots-on-the-ground realities that confront the teachers of those kids may tell us more about our incapacities for getting on in the world than any of Hedges' talents for intellectual inquiry. Basically, this is just a story about the latest chickens that have come home to roost in a fundamentally flawed educational system that appears to reflect our national priorities. We need some reality checking, and the professional activities of neither judges nor governors are going to inform them of those realities.

Bringing reality to the practice of education has a long and troubled history. Leo Tolstoy was trying to do it back in 1862:

Among people who stand on a low level of education we notice that the knowledge or ignorance of reading and writing in no way changes the degree of their education. We see people who are well acquainted with all the facts necessary for farming, and with a large number of interrelations of these facts, who can neither read nor write; or excellent military commanders, excellent merchants, managers, superintendents of work, master mechanics, artisans, contractors, and people simply educated by life, who possess a great store of information and sound reasoning, based on that information, who can neither read nor write. On the other hand, we see those who can read and write, and who on account of that skill have acquired no new information. Everybody who will seriously examine the education of the people, not only in Russia, but also in Europe, will involuntarily come to the conclusion that education is acquired by the people quite independently of the knowledge of reading and writing, and that these rudiments, with the rare exceptions of extraordinary ability, remain in the majority of cases an unapplied skill, even a dangerous skill,—dangerous because nothing in life may remain indifferent. If the rudiments are inapplicable and useless, they must become injurious.

Later in this particular essay, "On Methods of Teaching the Rudiments," Tolstoy added:

The rudiments are necessary for the beginning of education, and we persist in leading the masses by that road up to our education. Considering the education which I possess, it would please me very much to agree with that opinion; I am even convinced that the rudiments are a necessary condition of a certain degree of education, but I cannot be convinced that my education is good, that the road over which science is travelling is the right one, and, above all, I cannot leave out of account three-fourths of the human race, who receive their education without the rudiments.

Tolstoy tried to examine education from the perspective of "being in the world" long before Martin Heidegger started milking that phrase for all it was worth; but our own culture has preferred to view his perspective as the opinions of a crackpot revolutionary. Instead, as Raymond Callahan demonstrated so effectively (and painfully), we chose to view education as just another manufacturing process, best administered through the Principles of Scientific Management of Frederick Winslow Taylor. From this point of view, the dispute between Governor Schwarzenegger and Judge Shelleyanne Chang is not about what eight-graders learn and how they demonstrate what they learn but only about where Algebra I fits in the State-defined assembly line that "manages" the education of its children.

Tolstoy was neither the first nor the last to grab the bull (double meaning vigorously intended) of assembly-line thinking about education by the horns. Nevertheless, the idea that education should serve being-in-the-world remains left in the dust, which is why my own reflections on Hedges' essay tried to bring the very concept of "literacy" back on this track:

At the end of the day, we negotiate the world in terms of how we perceive it; and what is often critically overlooked is that the act of perception is fundamentally an act of interpretation. We have to interpret all sorts of things, including the signals we acquire through our sense organs, the kinesthetic sensations of our own bodies, and, of course, all those signs that confront us, which form the basis for semiotic theory. If we want to invoke the noun "literacy," we should invoke it in terms of "reading the world," rather than just reading all the many sign-based artifacts (otherwise known as "texts") of semiotics.

In the context of the current dispute here in California, I would append the observation that those "sign-based artifacts" include the mathematical expressions that are introduced to students in Algebra I. My point, however, is that education is not about the artifacts but about how those artifacts are interpreted. So the challenge of education is to arrive at a better understanding of acts of interpretation through which we may better prepare student skills in those acts. I would like to submit that one way to approach this challenge is through a better appreciation of hermeneutic thinking, which, in many respects, is one of the oldest disciplines to take on the nature of interpretation itself.

As I wrote on my previous blog, my own appreciation has been shaped significantly by the work of Paul Ricœur. Here is a summary of Ricœur's approach that I attempted back in my earliest days of blogging:

He begins with the exploration of two opposing concepts: explanation and understanding. From his point of view, "explanation" means "structural explanation," a syntactic perspective that can be generalized beyond the sentence to the broader scale of a paragraph or an entire work (if not an entire corpus). "Understanding," on the other hand, is concerned with interpretation and thus involves a semantic perspective. The opposition comes from the fact that, often, you cannot determine the syntactic structure of the text unless you know what it is trying to say; and you cannot interpret the text without knowing how it has been structured.

The bottom line is that all of those sign-based artifacts through which we read the world, whether the signs are linguistic or mathematical, have structure. Grasping the structure is prerequisite to understanding what they mean, but recognizing that structure often requires a grasp of the meaning trying to be conveyed. This is what puts those sign-based artifacts in a league entirely different from the world of computer languages and the programs they express; and, as I previously tried to argue, the very messiness of the relationship between explanation and understanding has a lot to do with what makes us humans, rather than biology-based computers.

The danger of taking this approach, of course, is that, if the bureaucrats decide to run with it, they will begin to argue over where Hermeneutics I belongs in the assembly line, thus failing to recognize that hermeneutic thinking is the ultimate wooden shoe that can bring the mind-numbing workings of that assembly line to a grinding halt. The only sensible political reaction to such a proposal is to write it off as the same sort of crackpot revolutionary thinking behind Tolstoy's proposals. We may thus have to live with the conclusions of a subsequent Hedges column, "The Best and the Brightest Led America Off a Cliff" and cede the responsibility for education to other countries that take the role of education far more seriously. In other words we recognize that we are now a culture that is more content to live with our failures than to muster the will to do anything about them. That would certainly be one way to address the nationwide shortcomings of education budgets!

Friday, December 19, 2008

Discrimination Chutzpah

Having gone against the international grain on such matters as the Kyoto Protocol and the International Criminal Court (ICC), it is no surprise that the United States chose not to sign a United Nations declaration on the decriminalization of homosexuality; but surprise is not a precondition for chutzpah. Presumably the decision by our Ambassador to the United Nations was a reflection of the policy of the Bush Administration, just as the Kyoto and ICC decisions were. Ironically, as Laura Trevelyan observed in her report for BBC NEWS, the policy of the United States has to honor the decisions of its own Judiciary Branch:

Even though the US Supreme Court has ruled that states cannot make homosexuality a crime, diplomats claimed the declaration was not compatible with the division between between state and federal law.

Thus, the Bush Administration was effectively making its point through a loophole that may not actually be a valid one. Trevelyan also observed that, once again, the Administration has distinguished itself within the community of nations:

The US was the only major Western nation not to sign the declaration.

Taken together, these seem to constitute sufficient grounds for giving the entire Administration (rather than just Bush himself) a Chutzpah of the Week Award.

How We Got into this Mess: A Faith-Based Perspective

I suppose that Tim Dickinson decided to post a pointer to the Invocation and Benediction texts from the 2001 Inauguration in his National Affairs blog to put the selection of Pastor Rick Warren into "perspective" (Dickinson's word choice). The real perspective, however, is the recognition of just how meaningless these shards of religious ritual are. Let us assume that in 2001 the Reverend Kirbyjohn Caldwell uttered the following text in all sincerity:

Forgive us for choosing pride over purpose, forgive us for choosing popularity over principles and forgive us for choosing materialism over morals.

How was this text received? Was it received as a warning of the abuses of Presidential power (to appropriate the title of the book by Richard Neustadt); or was it a sop to comfort those who saw themselves as "the faithful" with the assurance that they would be forgiven for sins even as dire as those the Reverend Caldwell chose to enumerate? My guess is that Bush's faith will continue to delude him into taking the second reading. Will the 2009 Inauguration portend a similar round of delusional thinking? In the interest of the separation of Church and State, would it be too much to ask for a "faith-free" (not faithless) Inauguration ceremony?