Sunday, August 31, 2008

The Ultimate Weapon of Mass Destruction

Following up on yesterday's attempt to examine the role (or lack thereof) of the United States in the current tensions between the European Union and Russia, it would appear that we shall have to contend with some Americans who are not about to take passing unnoticed sitting down. Indeed, according to a report for Reuters filed this morning by Tabassum Zakaria, one of them has decided to pass on the Republican Convention (not to mention the lightning that may strike New Orleans a second time) and board a plane that will take him to Azerbaijan, Georgia, and the Ukraine, all of which he happens to be visiting for the first time. The happy wanderer (warrior?) in question, for those who have not already guessed, is Dick Cheney. I have to wonder if his absence from the Convention was planned. After all one purpose of these conventions is to build up a good image for the media; and, when it comes to media relations, Cheney has built a reputation for being the Republicans' greatest weapon of mass destruction. However, since that reputation extends to policy (both domestic and foreign), as well as media relations, one has to wonder just what the motives behind this trip are. I am reminded of a physics teacher who taught me that, in order to get the rapid timing right for detonating the first hydrogen bomb, it was necessary to get everything in place to achieve critical mass through four synchronized atom-bomb explosions. Cheney may only be visiting three countries along the "line of tension" with Russia; and, unless his diabolical powers are greater than previously assumed, he will not be able to visit them simultaneously. Nevertheless, this feels a lot like an attempt to create a critical mass that will not only revive the spirit of the Cold War but also raise it to a red-hot temperature.

I have already reviewed Tom Hayden's arguments regarding the validity of this motive as a "double whammy" that, with one blow, can deal a crippling blow the to Democratic Presidential campaign while, at the same time, resurrecting The Project for the New American Century, whose obituaries were written almost two years ago. That motive would then extend to getting NATO "back in the game" at a time when its very relevance is under review, particularly when the European side of the game is being played quite well by both the European Union and the OSCE (Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe). Furthermore, it is clear from remarks by Gordon Brown reported this morning on the BBC NEWS Web site that European leaders do not pose a threat of "pacification" (to invoke the current Republican rhetoric of choice) but are quite capable of standing up for their own principles while trying to ease the current tensions at the same time.

There is little we can do about this. The Vice President is an official a representative of our Executive Branch as the Secretary of State is; and, as far as I can tell, he has not yet committed any impeachable offense in planning this trip. The most comfort I can take is from a story that Howard Fast once wrote, entitled "Cato the Martian" (which I first read in Groff Conklin's 17 X Infinity collection, which also happened to be the first place I read "The Machine Stops"). Fast was an author of both conscience and courage who understood the value of science fiction in setting a cautionary tale. Here is a slightly oversimplified summary I found on the Web:

Martians use broadcasts to study Earth. The protagonist, named after his Roman counterpart, is a specialist in Latin who begins and ends every speech, "Earth must be destroyed." Fearing a nuclear attack from Earth, he persuades the normally peaceful Martians to fire atomic weapons at the planet to precipitate a suicidal war between East and West. Instead, Earth attacks Mars.

Like the fictitious representations of NATO and the Soviet Union in Fast's tale, it would not make much deliberation for the European Union to arrive at the conclusion that there is more to gain from working with Russia in opposing the United States than in breathing life back into NATO and letting the Americans call the shots (perhaps literally, rather than metaphorically) one more time. If the Europeans are not that well read in American science fiction, they probably have a better appreciation for the history of Ancient Rome and Carthage, which would be all that would be required for events to play out along the lines of Fast's plot!

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Who is Passing Unnoticed Now?

As I wrote yesterday, quoting the French anthropologist Pierre Bourdieu:

There is nothing worse than to pass unnoticed ….

This is as true of nations as it is of political candidates, and it may be that no nation understands this better than Russia in the aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union. Whatever we may say about Vladimir Putin, it would be fair to say that he was not a man to tolerate being passed unnoticed; and it may well be that his conviction in this matter is what has given him his strength in the game of Russian politics, whatever the rules may be at any time. Furthermore, if Bourdieu's principle is one of Putin's mottos, then his understanding of retribution for passing unnoticed can probably be captured by another more familiar motto:

What goes around, comes around.

Could it be that this motto is beginning to bear fruit for Russia, not just in Israel, where I last cited it, but in the West as a whole and, more specifically, the United States?

Consider the current state of play over Georgia as reported on the BBC NEWS Web site:

Russia has taken a series of diplomatic steps in an apparent effort to ease tensions with the West over this month's conflict in Georgia.

President Dmitry Medvedev told UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown Moscow wanted more monitors from Europe's security body in Georgia, the Kremlin said.

Separately, Russian and German foreign ministers agreed to seek to calm tensions over the crisis, Moscow said.

The issue is set to dominate the agenda of an EU meeting on Monday.

As of August 8 Russia no longer had to worry about passing unnoticed, and now it will be the center of attention at Monday's European Union meeting. Having received that attention, Russia can now exhibit that understanding of statecraft which I recently attributed to Putin. The BBC reported the following quoted material from the Medvedev-Brown conversation:

During Saturday's telephone conversation with Mr Brown, President Medvedev said Russia was "in favour of the deployment of additional OSCE [Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe] monitors in the security zone" in Georgia, the Kremlin statement said.

It said observers in the security zone would provide "impartial monitoring" of Tbilisi's actions.

However, there is more to this story than the prevailing of cooler heads in both Russia and the European Union. There is also, in a bizarre twist on Arthur Conan Doyle, the dog that would not stop barking in the night that everyone else finally decided to ignore: the United States. While our Administration has been invoking the same rhetoric of sanctions that always seems to stir up trouble in the Middle East, the European Union seems to have decided that, while the United States may continue to dominate any decisions made by NATO, it can only speak to "security and co-operation in Europe" when invited to do so; and it would appear that the current makeup of EU leadership is not particularly interested in extending this invitation, perhaps, as Gabor Steingart has suggested, because it would act at cross purposes to goals such as overall security.

During the Vietnam War, one of my favorite protest slogans was:

What if they declared a war, and nobody came?

This raises an analogous question for today's situation:

What if you were the undisputed superpower, and nobody noticed?

For the first time since the Second Word War, Europe, in all of its current collectivity, seems to have decided that it does not have to notice the United States for every decision it makes, even those concerned with security. My guess is that the White House either does not or will not consider this proposition, but there is every reason to believe that Putin is well aware of it. Someone on our President's team ought to get to work figuring out how "What goes around comes around" translates into Russian!

Beyond Entertainment

If there was little to be gained from the AT&T Yahoo! excuse for a "ratings poll" for Barack Obama's speech on Thursday night, Brian Stelter and Jim Rutenberg, writing for The New York Times, have tapped into a far more interesting set of number, that old standby metric of quality (or whatever), the television ratings:

At least 40 million Americans watched Senator Barack Obama accept the Democratic nomination for president Thursday night, a record for convention viewership that exceeded even the expectations of his aides.

The historic speech by the first African-American presidential nominee of a major political party reached 38.4 million viewers on 10 broadcast and cable networks, Nielsen Media Research said Friday. PBS estimated that an additional 3.5 million had watched its prime-time coverage.

The ratings dwarfed the audience for the Summer Olympics and the season finale of “American Idol” in May, and added to what was already a sense of buoyancy within the Obama campaign that the night had gone better than planned.

As I see it, these numbers are far more than an affirmation of Obama's "celebrity status" (as Truthdig seems to have implied). Rather, it is evidence that, given the opportunity, the American electorate can and will use their television sets for more than the usual diet of trivia. After all, given what television has become, it is not as if these viewers had no choice. As we read the details in the Stelter-Rutenberg report, we see that over 15 million of them were watching cable channels and therefore had any number of ways to avoid anything connected with the Convention. No, people were watching Obama because they wanted to hear what he had to say; and "by the numbers" hearing what he had to say was more important than the entertainment value of either the Summer Olympics or (shudder!) American Idol. Here is another item from the Stelter-Rutenberg analysis from that entertainment value perspective:

Mr. Obama’s speech drew an especially high number of African-American viewers. Excluding sporting events, Nielsen said, the speech ranked second in black viewership among all programs over the last decade. Only a Michael Jackson special in 2001 did better.

Personally, I would have liked to see the numbers without excluding those sporting events. They may have been less impressive; but, taken in the proper context, they probably would have been just as significant!

The primary lesson here may well be that, whatever Internet evangelists choose to preach, television is still America's "window on the world." The question overlooked, however, is how often how many Americans actually want to look through that window. My own opinion is that they currently want to look through the window because they know how bad things are and they are really looking for someone who is going to do something other than try to sell them yet another bill of shoddy goods. They are all in the same boat as the bubeleh in Hester Street who finally talks back to the fast-talker and says, "You can't piss up my back and tell me its rain!" For that matter they don't even want to hear Bill Clinton talking about sharing their pain. Rather, they are an audience that has discovered that, after eight years (if not more) of pap, they are finally caving in under malnutrition, which is why the first adjective that came to mind in my own analysis of Obama's speech was "solid."

Obama connected with 40 million American television viewers. That is approximately one-third of the number of people who voted in the 2004 presidential election; but it would not surprise me if not all of those viewers actually voted in 2004. Perhaps a torch really is being passed. We have known that television matters since the days of John Kennedy's campaign; but in the 21st century television (along with most other media) has been used primarily for negative influence by Karl Rove and his disciples. Now we have a candidate who has demonstrated the value of using it positively; and I, for one, will be watching to see if the strength of that demonstration can be maintained until Election Day.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Party-Spoiling Chutzpah

Google is no stranger to the concept of chutzpah; and Eric Schmidt is one of the earliest Chutzpah of the Week award winners, going back to 2007 when he seemed to be spending much of his time telling Washington what to do. In more recent times the case has not been one of Google transcending chutzpah as much as the competition getting much tougher. So there is something to be said for winning the award at the site of the Democratic National Convention, since political conventions tend to be times when chutzpah runs wild in the streets. However, at a time when the priority seemed to be to let unity run wild in the streets, Google, as reported by Stephanie Condon for CNET, made a bold move in the name of exclusivity:

Yes we can? Sure, unless you're talking about getting into the Google/Vanity Fair party on Thursday night.

Barack Obama's acceptance of the Democratic nomination for president Thursday, in front of thunderous crowd of nearly 80,000 in Invesco Field, evoked inclusivity and unity--two qualities that don't necessarily make for a cool party.

Google managed to build the buzz for its party all week in Denver--limiting tickets, dis-inviting people, and making well-known Washingtonians--gasp!--wait in line. Not helping was that recipients forwarded around the e-mail invitation, resulting in an avalanche of RSVPs.

Also lending an aura of exclusivity was the location at the Exdo Event Center, a nondescript building in an almost-shady part of town, where a red carpet was rolled out and folks hoping to catch a glimpse of a celebrity or two hung around outside. (For the record, Google is planning another similar event for the Republican convention next week.)

Somehow this all seems like nose-thumbing directed at last night's speech by Barack Obama (not to mention the previous night's speech by Joe Biden); and, at the very least, it leads me to think back on just what Schmidt thought he would be able to teach such folks in Washington. (They certainly do not need lessons in throwing parties.) Well, between the sushi and the Krispy Kreme doughnuts (again, as reported by Condon), the party was too intense for me to get the award through the door; so it will be waiting back in the Board Room in Mountain View!

That's Entertainment!

Having made the conscious (conscientious?) decision to avoid approaching Barack Obama's speech last night as a "media event," I feel it fair to cite one source that, for all intents and purposes, addressed it only as a media event. That source is, as one might guess, Variety, whose business is to report on entertainment, not on the basis of any aesthetic foundations of quality, but on the business foundations of how marketable a given commodity is. Lest there be any confusion about the reviewers intentions, they are stated clearly in the final paragraph of the review:

Setting politics aside, graded on his delivery, Obama met high expectations and made the sale, to the extent he can. But like so much in the media today, the distribution channel through which one consumed the speech doubtless forecasts how it will be received more than anything the candidate said or didn’t.

Given my emphasis on a "sense of reality" in my own account, I think it is important to recognize that the "Variety reality" is one that we cannot ignore; and there is every reason to expect that we shall see it in play as early as next week's Republican Convention.

However, while the "commoditizing of a candidate" was clearly the primary concern of this review, I found it interesting that the current state of those "distribution channels" should also be addressed:

Channel surfing through the four days of convention coverage, by the way, only reinforced that the best place to watch was PBS or C-SPAN. Commercial broadcast networks again mostly sat out the convention, while the ever-present cable nets preferred the blather of their insufferable in-house pundits to what the speakers were saying. Desperate to kill time, they preempted Obama’s speech with exhaustive analysis based on advance excerpts — in hindsight an especially silly exercise that ranged from MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow on one end of the political spectrum to Fox News’ pugnacious Dick Morris on the other.

While these channels will doubtless extend Republicans the same discourtesy when they assemble in Minnesota, this approach underscores that CNN, Fox News and MSNBC (whose talent spent the week indulging in silly intramural on-air squabbles) are far more concerned with branding and self-aggrandizement than news.

Indeed, before Obama appeared, cable networks spent almost as much time examining the venue of the speech as its content — the perfect metaphor for a medium that invariably exalts style over substance.

There is thus much to be gained from examining our political process through the eyes of Variety, however incongruous that proposition may seem!

Obama Numbers from AT&T Yahoo!

By way of disclaimer, I should begin by stating that I participated in the AT&T Yahoo! "poll" (scare quotes because any results from this exercise cannot seriously be taken as representative of anything) on the basis of having read the text of Barack Obama's speech, rather than viewing it on television or on my computer. As should be clear by now, I feel very strongly that text matters; so I really wanted to review this speech on the basis of its text, rather than Obama's performance or, for that matter, the performance of everyone else at Invesco Field reacting to Obama's performance. For the record my own vote in the poll was "excellent," although the adjective I preferred in talking to my wife after my reading was "solid." I was reminded of the other time I found myself paying close attention to Obama's words and the ways in which he could use his rhetoric to deliver substance rather than just to promote his personality. That other time, of course, was when he went on television to talk directly about the "race question." More specifically, I remember Jon Stewart's reaction to that speech, which became a point of departure for my own post:

Jon Stewart got it right last week. The most salient feature of Barack Obama's speech was his decision to address the American public as if they were adults.

In last night's speech this "adult approach" came down to a straightforward exposition of what needed to be done, concluding with one of the most important injunctions from the Reverend Martin Luther King, "We cannot walk alone." By concluding on a note of joint commitment and participation, Obama was able to convince me that, at least for now, he was not going to try to win the White House by playing up to that sense of Secular Messianism that had infected so many of his supporters, if not the "American way of life" in general. Having endured eight years of watching reality get trumped by faith at every move coming from our Executive Branch, I felt as if this was a candidate who recognized that any "recovery" of the "American promise," as he put it, must begin with a recovery of our sense of reality.

Of course, when Jon Stewart made his joke about Obama treating the American public as adults, the point of the joke was how different Obama was from everyone else, whether in politics or in the media covering politics. It is hard to act like an adult in a playground full of bullies, but differentiation may be what the electorate needs right now. The last two elections were close because too many voters could not see the difference between the two candidates and, as a result, did not particularly care which way they voted. There may be strength in Obama playing the differentiation card. It may mean that the people who vote for him actually know whom they are selecting and why they are selecting him. This value of differentiation takes me back to considering the AT&T Yahoo! poll.

If nothing else, I hope that all of my words have demonstrated the folly of trying to rate Obama's speech on a five-point scale. Nevertheless, one thing interested me about this snapshot that I took immediately after I bumped the sample space up to 13033 votes. Small as this sample space is, there is the suggestion of a bimodal distribution. Put another way, over three-quarters of the respondents felt strongly about Obama one way or the other; and I am hoping that this is a good sign. As Pierre Bourdieu put it in his Outline of a Theory of Practice:

There is nothing worse than to pass unnoticed ….

Without worrying about how many votes were positive and how many negative, there is at least an indication that, whatever feelings about Obama may be, he is not passing unnoticed; and I am hoping that this will constitute a change from the malaise of the last two elections in which it often felt as if neither candidate was being noticed very much. The question now is whether Obama will be noticed for walking alone or whether a critical mass of those who notice him will choose to walk with him.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Hillary Trumps Bill

There is a good chance that more eyes were on Bill Clinton last night than were on his wife the previous night. On Tuesday night there seemed to be general agreement that Hillary had "gotten on board" the Obama campaign; the only question that remained was whether her rhetoric could stir her loyal followers to get on board with her. On that same Tuesday, however, Bill was still the loose cannon, playing semantic games with unnamed hypothetical candidates almost as smoothly as he had played them over the semantics of "is" during the Lewinsky Affair. I had to wonder whether Obama had come to the Pepsi Center not so much for a "surprise" follow-up to Joe Biden's speech as to be ready for damage control if Bill launched another one of his volleys.

Fortunately, as Al Jazeera English reported, Democrats could all rest easy that this dog did not bark in the night:

Bill Clinton, the former US president, has offered his backing to Barack Obama's presidential bid, hours after the Illinois senator clinched the Democratic nomination.

"Barack Obama is ready to lead America and restore American leadership in the world," Clinton said at the Democratic National Convention in Denver, in his most robust endorsement yet of Obama.

Clinton told the convention on Wednesday night that Obama "has a remarkable ability to inspire people".

The former president's speech had been eagerly awaited by Democrats in view of his own past criticism of Obama and his ambivalence about the Illinois senator.

Clinton said that Obama had "hit one out of the ballpark" when he chose Joseph Biden, the Delware senator who was set to speak at the convention later on Wednesday, as his running mate.

Al Jazeera's Rob Reynolds in Denver said the speech showed the Clinton's had gone out of their way to endorse Obama.

Marwan Bishara, Al Jazeera's senior political analyst, said that Clinton could have seen Obama as continuing his political legacy if wasn't for the bitter primary electioon battle with Hillary Clinton, his wife and the New York senator.

Nevertheless, things are rarely (never?) what they seem in politics. If Hillary's speech provided any number of reasons for the analysts to start scratching their heads and picking apart her words with a fine tooth comb, then there was no shortage of reasons for doing the same for Bill's contribution.

One way to begin this analysis would involve one of my favorite techniques, the sorting out of subjects and objects (particularly in the context of the efforts to call attention to the neglect of Katrina at this week's Convention). This had a lot to do with the morning-after analyses of Hillary's endorsement speech. Borrowing from one of her earlier texts, we were all still left wondering, "What does Hillary want?" Much of our perplexity can be traced back to the number of sentences in Hillary's speech where she, as opposed to Obama, was the subject. However, while some may see this as a coded "objectification" of Obama, I see it as a rhetorical move meant to reinforce the sincerity of not only those sentences but also the entire speech. Hillary is best when she is talking about Hillary. We all know that, but that does not mean we have to take it as a liability. Rather, in this case by "talking about Hillary" she personalized her endorsement in the strategic move to get the most resentful of her followers (the ones talking out loud about going over to John McCain) to follow her one more time, even if it was not to her ultimate leadership.

I would argue that we can examine the text of Bill's speech through the same lenses. Bill is also his own favorite subject; and, to go back to the Lewinsky Affair again, we know how much rhetorical punch he can put in a direct first-person declarative sentence (even when that sentence is false). In a somewhat creepy way Bill is not that different from George W. Bush: He attaches more importance to connecting with us over what he believes than he does to whether there is, as Plato put it, "justified truth" to that belief. I believe that both Clinton and Bush managed to get into the White House on the strength of that rhetorical strategy, but applying that strategy on behalf of someone else is a neat trick for even the best of orators. Hillary pulled it off (even if it was "just a trick"); but, when we back down from the rhetoric and look at the grammar, Bill did not.

This is not to say that Bill avoided those first-person declarative sentences entirely; there just were not enough of them. In this case Obama was the subject of Bill's sentences far more than Bill was (and far more than Obama was in Hillary's speech). The result came close to a reading of Obama's resume; and, even if the tone of the reading was dramatically stirring, the text was not, in part because it has become so familiar. One result of this "over-subjectification" of Obama is that we are more likely to remember the baseball metaphor for the selection of Biden than we are to remember anything else from the speech; and this had more to do with setting the crowd up for Biden's speech that with rallying them behind Obama.

Consider now those last quoted paragraphs of Al Jazeera analysis. I definitely agree with Reynolds that Hillary put a lot of effort into her speech. As Kevin Connolly put it in his analysis for BBC News, she needed to come across as "a lifelong Democratic Party worker;" and this may have been her most important goal in the face of supporters threatening to leave the fold. Bill, on the other hand, is the one who, as Reynolds put it, went "out of his way," because that "way" was not really aligning with the "way" of "a lifelong Democratic Party worker" (and perhaps it never really did). As a result, Hillary's endorsement came "from the heart" (even if it was "faked sincerity," in the spirit of George Burns), while Bill's just came from his going "out of his way."

In that respect I would probably also take issue with Bishara. Perhaps the rift between Bill and Obama had to do with the recognition that Obama was not particularly interested in continuing Bill's "political legacy." It may have been the legacy of economic prosperity, but much of that prosperity burst in an economic bubble with global reverberations. Then there was the ill-managed effort at health care reform and the crisis in the Balkans, which was just as poorly managed. Obama had good reason to ground his own campaign rhetoric in the need for "change we can believe in"—not just change from the messes made by the Bush Administration but also from much of that Clinton "legacy" that involved more ill will than most Democrats would care to remember.

Finally, compare Bill's performance with that of Teddy Kennedy. Kennedy could invoke his late brother's rhetoric and stir his audience with the audacity to hope that, once again, the torch would be passed. Bill just does not want to let go of the torch, and he is not getting the message from either the electorate or his party leadership. In retrospect this may have made him a liability to Hillary's campaign; will we have to worry that he will now be a liability to Obama's?

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Amy Goodman's Inconvenient Truth

Last November I introduced one of my Chutzpah of the Week presentations with the following sentence:

In the tradition of Arthur Conan Doyle's dog that did not bark in the night, chutzpah can sometimes be a matter of a failure to act, rather than a specific action.

In the baroque lexicon of Catholicism, such a failure of act may constitute a "sin of omission;" and in her column this week for Truthdig, Amy Goodman may have hit on the primary sin of omission to come out of the Democratic National Convention. The omission can be distilled down to a single word: poverty. Here is how Goodman introduced her case:

Former Sen. John Edwards was supposed to speak in Denver at the Democratic National Convention. His wife, Elizabeth Edwards, was to speak also. Poverty was their focus. But they are not here because John Edwards had an affair. Will the Democrats now forget about poverty?

The question that Goodman does not address, however, is why the word "poverty" seems to have been dropped from the "national dialog" that the Democrats claim they want to have. To answer that question we have to get beyond sins of omission and finally recognize that this is all about a dead moose on the table. That dead moose is what Lewis Lapham has come to call the "American Ruling Class." Never mind the White House: Anyone who makes it as far as the Senate has most likely been "tapped on the shoulder" by the American Ruling Class, if not with outright membership then at least with permission to speak at the table. (Where is the table? Lapham actually collaborated with John Kirby on a film that nicely illustrates the transition from figurative to literal language where such matters are concerned.) Thus, all three of the "players" in the Presidential election are beholden to the American Ruling Class in one way or another (and this will almost certainly be true of the fourth "player").

This raises the obvious question: Is anyone out there talking sense who is not beholden to the American Ruling Class? Examples about whom I have written include Walter Mosley and Tavis Smiley; and, for those who want a Caucasian example, we have the real dead moose on the table, the would-be candidate whose very name strikes terror into the political establishment, Ralph Nader. You want to know why poverty is not the focus? It is because the American Ruling Class does not want it to be the focus! Doing something about poverty might undermine the authority behind their rule! To draw upon the language of Goodman's title ("Poverty Is the Real Scandal"), the vice-like grip of the American Ruling Class is the real scandal; and it involves far more than Edwards being out of the picture (and may invite conspiracy theorists to speculate on how he was so conveniently removed from the picture)!

Stone Age Mentality in a Space Age Setting

This is not, strictly speaking, "news;" but it was good to see it reported on the BBC NEWS Web site:

Nasa has confirmed that laptops carried to the ISS [International Space Station] in July were infected with a virus known as Gammima.AG.

The worm was first detected on earth in August 2007 and lurks on infected machines waiting to steal login names for popular online games.

Nasa said it was not the first time computer viruses had travelled into space and it was investigating how the machines were infected.

Perhaps the most significant aspect of this item is how unsurprising it is. We have become too used to reading about such NASA bungles. The real irritant, however, comes further down in the BBC text:

The laptops carried by astronauts reportedly do not have any anti-virus software on them to prevent infection.

This seems to imply that just about every business and school takes care of its computers (or at least the ones that get shot up to the ISS) better than NASA does! The BBC report concluded with the following "response" from NASA:

Nasa told Wired News that viruses had infected laptops taken to the ISS on several occasions but the outbreaks always only been a "nuisance".

I suppose E. M. Forster is not required reading over at NASA. After all, in his cautionary tale, "The Machine Stops," the machine in question comes to a halt due to an increasing number of "nuisances" and a decreasing number of people capable of fixing the problems!

Haunted by his Own Punch-Line

Last January, when it felt as if all of the media were watching (and analyzing to death) what they had decided to label the first serious confrontation between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in the Nevada primary, Obama made a bold decision for his final move. Addressing voters in Las Vegas, he adopted a genre very familiar to Las Vegas audiences of all stripes, what Nedra Pickler of the Associated Press called "a biting political standup routine." With my own passion for text analysis, I decided that one way to learn about Obama would be to deconstruct his jokes; but it had not occurred to me that one of those jokes might come back to haunt him. This is Pickler's account of the joke I had in mind:

Obama began by recalling a moment in Tuesday night's debate when he and his rivals were asked to name their biggest weakness. Obama answered first, saying he has a messy desk and needs help managing paperwork _ something his opponents have since used to suggest he's not up to managing the country. Former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards said his biggest weakness is that he has a powerful response to seeing pain in others, and Clinton said she gets impatient to bring change to America.

"Because I'm an ordinary person, I thought that they meant, `What's your biggest weakness?'" Obama said to laughter from a packed house at Rancho High School. "If I had gone last I would have known what the game was. And then I could have said, `Well, ya know, I like to help old ladies across the street. Sometimes they don't want to be helped. It's terrible.'"

"Folks, they don't tell you what they mean!" he said.

That punch-line kept echoing in my mind as I worked my way, paragraph by paragraph, through Kevin Connolly's analysis for BBC News of Clinton's speech last night to the Democratic National Convention. Ultimately, the analysis was about how difficult it was to figure out the meaning behind the words of that speech. Much of what Connolly wrote had to do with Clinton's history of saying what has to be said while phrasing her text in such a way as to indicate the presence of a subtext, without necessarily helping others identify just what that subtext is. She is very good at this sort of thing, and it is a talent that can be very good in negotiations. Writing about it in the business world back in 1984, Eric Eisenberg called it "strategic ambiguity."

One way of reading Obama's joke is as ridicule of strategic ambiguity. Playing to a crowd of "jes' plain folks" in Las Vegas (if that is not an oxymoron), he as much as said, "This whole idea of 'strategic ambiguity' is not for folks like you; and it is not for me." Whether or not it helped his final vote count is moot; but it seemed to have escaped most of the media flacks that this kind of man-of-the-people posturing was basically the same rhetorical strategy that was serving George W. Bush so well. Now my guess is that Obama knows and understands strategic ambiguity very well. He probably even knows how to use it, although it may well be that his skill in exercising it has not been stress-tested the way Clinton's skill has.

Thus, Obama may very well be choking on a punch-line that had originally been invoked to win a few votes. If he was not choking on it while Clinton was delivering her speech, then it would have taken little more than a few paragraphs at the end of Connolly's account to bring it back into his craw:

There is nothing she [Clinton] could have said that would have persuaded either Republicans, or Democrats who don't like her, that she was delivering a straightforward appeal on behalf of Obama without a subtext that suited her own agenda.

It somehow sums her up that she now finds herself in a position where, however hard she works for Mr Obama and however many speeches she makes, people will automatically note that if he wins this election and holds the White House for eight years, her presidential ambitions will be finished.

If he loses, she will start the next campaign as favourite to win the Democratic nomination, just as she did this time around.

It doesn't mean she wants a Republican win of course - she is a lifelong Democratic Party worker - it just means that once again everything that's written about Hillary Clinton will be complex and ambiguous.

Very few people know what Mrs Clinton really thinks, and they never say.

The only thing more ironic than this state of affairs is the point that Eisenberg originally tried to make about strategic ambiguity, that it is a powerful tool for defusing the most contentious disagreements. The contest for the Democratic nomination will be remembered as such a "contentious disagreement;" but Clinton could not ply her strategic ambiguity skill to turn the situation in her favor. Perhaps that tells her something about her style: If she could not make the tool work for her to win enough delegate support, could she have made it work in winning support for health care reform or resolving a crisis situation like the one that just erupted over Georgia?

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The Anxiety of Disintermediation

Reading today's post to Andrew Keen's Great Seduction blog, "The Children's Crusade," reminds me of how much I hate the word "disintermediation" and the cult formed around it by Internet evangelists. Regular readers of this blog should know by now that I see a lot of value in intermediation, and I feel most strongly about the need for an intermediate party that stands between a writer and a reader. For those who find that language too elusive, the intermediate party I have in mind is a talented editor; and, as I previously asserted, this refers specifically to the job of the editor to identify the author's voice and make sure it is speaking clearly to the reader base.

Where communication is concerned, the Age of Disintermediation is the world of the direct channel from the writer to the reader; and the fallacy behind drinking too much Web 2.0 Kool-Aid is a simple one. If one writer has even a moderately large number of readers (whether or not they are out on some "long tail"), then, for all intents and purposes, that "direct channel" is one-way. There is no doubting that communicating through face-to-face conversation can be very informative; but, as Erving Goffman pointed out in Forms of Talk, the "unit of dialog" is not a "semantic unit of text" but a "move," whose content is both linguistic and paralinguistic. The more people are participating in that "dialog" (whose etymology implies only two participants), the harder it becomes to communicate through such moves and the more likely it is that the whole encounter will end in confusion, rather than understanding.

So it is that the writer benefits from the skilled editor. That editor may not understand the writer's area of expertise, but the editor does understand that the text will be distributed to a population of readers and must therefore communicate through means other than the moves of dialog. The editor draws upon knowledge of that population of readers to work with the writer to yield a text, which, while not a simulacrum of face-to-face conversation, will communicate to the reader with the effectiveness of personal dialog. This is no easy matter, but the best editors are the ones who know something about the nature of the reader base and can advise the writer productively on the basis of that knowledge. This is intermediation at its most effective; and, hopefully, it illustrates why I get so aggravated by those who would do away with it.

Now, as my father used to say, "one is not a statistic." Is editing an exceptional case of intermediation, or is it a representative one? Keen's post has offered, perhaps unwittingly, another example on a slightly more elevated plane. He began with the following quote from David Edgerton, the founding director of Imperial College's Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine:

Thinking about the use of things, rather than of technology, connects us directly with the world we know rather than the strange world in which "technology" lives. We speak of "our" technology meaning the technology of an age or a whole society. By contrast, "things" fit into no such totality, and do not evoke what is often taken as an independent historical force. We discuss the world of things as grown-ups, but technology as children.

Keen takes this as a point of departure to serve up his own take on disintermediation; but, while his approach was somewhat in the vein of my argument about the one-way nature of the direct channel, I found an another example of the need for intermediation in Edgerton's text.

As I read this passage, thinking about the use of technology is a matter of thinking about the use of abstract concepts, rather than concrete things. Computation is such an abstract concept, as is communication; and, for most domains of thought and discourse, most of us are not particularly comfortable reasoning with those abstract concepts but have no problem using many of the "things" derived from those concepts. Consider an example from mathematics: "Triangle" is an abstract concept; but any triangle I draw on a sheet of paper is a "thing." I can do things with the "thing," such as measure the lengths of the sides and the sizes of the angles, whereas the "triangle" concept can only tell me about certain "rules" that those sides and angles must "obey." However, if I want to talk to you about the "triangle" concept and you are not a mathematician, chances are that what I say to you will be easiest for you to understand if you can relate to a picture that I draw. That "thing-picture" intermediates between my talking about the "triangle" concept and your understanding what I am trying to tell you; and, as we shall see shortly, it intermediates by giving you something to perceive.

By analogy, then, we tend to discuss the world of technology by using products of that technology (perceivable things) as intermediaries. Saying that we discuss technology "as children" may be a bit overly pejorative; but it is one way to capture the idea that we really do not deeply understand technological concepts. I would prefer to say that we understand it as naïfs, which is to say that our understanding is simplistic but, like naïve physics, can still be functional.

As I see it, the implication of this example may throw light on a connection between disintermediation and the argument that Nicholas Carr was trying to make in his "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" article. As Gerald Edelman has demonstrated in his Neural Darwinism research, our very capacity for understanding is grounded in our ability to form perceptual categories, which means that our understanding of concepts is grounded in those things (which we happen to perceive) that are instances of the concepts we come to understand. Thus, in a context far broader than mathematics, the very workings of the "wet brain" depend on the concrete to intermediate between the mind and any abstraction than needs to be understood. When Carr is complaining that he can no longer read War and Peace, part of that complaint has to do with the extent to which reading provides a surrogate for experiences through which perceptual categories are formed, while the more "efficient" artifacts delivered by Google search results do not serve in such a surrogate capacity (nor were they intended to do so). Thus, by gradually insinuating its role as our "window on the world," Google is (probably unintentionally) subverting our brain's hardware for forming perceptual categories through either the "directly perceived world" or the "world perceived indirectly through text." If Google is making us stupid, it is doing so by allowing the brain functions that "make us smart" to atrophy by not giving them opportunities to "do their thing." (This is at least partially analogous to some of the arguments about why watching too much television makes us poorer readers.) Furthermore, when it comes down to exercising the capacity for perceptual categorization, it may be not only Google that is making us stupid but also a whole set of behavior patterns grounded in disintermediation! No wonder the word aggravates me so much!

"Let's not kid ourselves."

Today's extended analysis at SPIEGEL ONLINE, written by Ullrich Fichtner, Maik Grossekathöfer, and Detlef Hacke in German and translated into English by Christopher Sultan, is the sort of retrospective view of the Beijing Olympics that I had been hoping to see (and was pretty sure that I would not find in any American source). The mood of the piece was best captured by its subtitle, "Olympics-Sized Delusions," which made for an appropriate introduction to the first interview subject in the article. That subject was Thomas Bach, an International Olympic Committee (IOC) vice president (the Committee has four), described by the authors as "a potential candidate to succeed Jacques Rogge as the organization's president." Here is the first Bach quote from the article:

There are two grand delusions in sports. The one delusion is that sport has nothing to do with money. And the other one is that it has nothing to do with politics. Both lead to unnecessary and sometimes disastrous debates.

It is unclear whether this statement was an attempt to clean up the egg on Rogge's face or to attribute that egg to the fact that Rogge should have known better in deliberating over some of the decisions he made. The SPIEGEL authors gave a nice capsule description of Bach:

Bach is the sort of person who, when asked difficult questions, begins by saying: Let's not kid ourselves.

We see this personality in Bach's own words, but that does not necessarily inform us of his motives. Is he trying to restore confidence through clarity, or is he just trying to exude a thicker smoke screen? Like a certain Republican Presidential candidate, he wishes to give the impression of embracing "straight talk;" but, when we (including the SPIEGEL authors) start digging into the words of his text, we find them so twisted as too accommodate whatever motives our fantasies might assign to him. Perhaps we should just accept that this is "business as usual" at the IOC and that, without such "business as usual," there would be no Olympics. In considering that proposition, we would do well to address what the SPIEGEL authors had to say about this year's audiences:

In Beijing, it became clear that audiences had begun splitting into new groups. There are still those who naively believe in the goodness, the beauty and the purity of sports, even if it goes against their better judgment. On the other end of the spectrum are those who have given into despair and turned away from sports entirely because they no longer trust it. A third group blindly worships the winners, no matter how their victories came about -- perhaps even admiring them for their clever, underhanded methods.

From the IOC's point of view, only the second group is "bad for business;" and the best strategy is probably to pitch to the third group, since the first group is already hooked. Let's not kid ourselves.

Ironically, of all the people interviewed by SPIEGEL, the one who seemed best at not kidding himself was the Chinese artist, Ai WeiWei, "who played a decisive role in the design of the Bird's Nest stadium." Here is the account of that interview:

He lives and works in an enormous stone house, an oasis of levelheaded style in the colorful, post-urban cacophony of Beijing. Cats stroll through the garden and employees walk silently so as not to disturb the master of the house, talking in whispers and serving green tea in beautiful glasses.

Ai WeiWei calls the Bird's Nest a "showcase of propaganda." It is a good building, he said, but one that was utilized by the wrong people. In the West, said Ai WeiWei, everyone was excited about the opening ceremony and China in general, and yet every second of these games was poisoned by ideology, and by hidden messages to the Chinese that foreigners were unable to decipher.

"On the day after the opening ceremony, it said in the paper here that good Chinese watch the games on television," said Ai WeiWei. "It was an unconcealed warning not to go out into the streets."

He said that he didn't really watch the opening ceremony. He was in a café with a friend on that evening and happened to see a few images from the event on a wall-mounted TV. But those images, he said, were nothing but the empty productions of an anxious, extremely nervous government. "The state has no vision of what China should be," said Ai WeiWei, "and the games only helped postpone the problems that are now coming."

He contradicted himself several times in the course of a half-hour conversation. He spoke of hidden messages to the Chinese people, but he also said that the games were not meant for the domestic public at all. He argued that China wanted to demonstrate its strength to the rest of the world, but then he claimed that the Beijing leadership couldn't care less about what the world thought of it.

My own reading of this text is that those contradictions had less to do with whether or not Ai was trying (and failing) to kid himself and more to do with that lack of "vision of what China should be." In other words those contradictions were a symptom of his personal anxiety, which, in turn, could probably be attributed, at least in part, to anxiety at the national level.

Of course we (whether individuals or nations) do not like to have attention called to our anxieties. That only makes us more anxious. So we kid ourselves about them, not because we are averse to "straight talk" but because we can only live with those anxieties by cloaking them in delusion. This is the key theme of Eugene O'Neill's play, The Iceman Cometh, whose protagonist tries to tear off all of those cloaks, only to reveal an anxiety of his own that drove him to kill his wife. Of course China has anxieties. So does Great Britain. Perhaps the best cause the United States has for changing "We're Number One!" would be in the extent of its anxieties (if not the abundance of its delusional cloaks, one of which happens to be charging ahead in full force this week)!

Let's not kid ourselves about Bach, then. Every time he says, "Let's not kid ourselves," it's just one of his rhetorical moves to kid us. Do we really want it any other way? Let's not kid ourselves!

Monday, August 25, 2008

Strife as Economic Incentive

Once again I find myself turning to SPIEGEL ONLINE for a timely extended discussion of a complex global problem. The problem in this case (given that there are so many these days) is the current standoff between Georgia and Russia and the question of whether or not the Cold War is "heating up" again, "a proposition devoutly to be wished" by many strident American (Republican?) voices. However, I am less interested in the skillful analytical work that Ralf Beste, Susanne Koelbl and Dirk Kurbjuweit have applied to all of this complexity. Rather, I want to call attention to one paragraph, which is actually highly incidental to their analysis, that calls attention to a piece of context that probably should not be ignored:

Currently, the entire world is sending its emissaries to the Caucasus, transforming Tbilisi into the global capital of international politics. Over the past two weeks, prices at the five-star hotels of Tbilisi have soared, and yet these luxury establishments are still nearly fully booked.

At a time when it seems as if the entire world is suffering an economic crisis (much of which, unfortunately, can be traced back to greed-based poor decisions originating in the United States), here is an (albeit small) economic sector that is doing well: the hotel sector of the travel business (and probably at least one small set of airline routes). This has less to do with whether or not the beneficiary is in the luxury sector than it has to do with the role of crisis as economic stimulus. I am a product of history teachers who believed that it was the Second World War, rather than the New Deal, that pulled the United States out of the Great Depression, basically because the War created an unprecedented demand for manufacturing that revived our key industrial operations in a way that the New Deal never could. However, are we to conclude that war (or at least the threat of war, which is, for all intents and purposes, what the Cold War was) is the only effective way to stimulate a deeply depressed economy?

One answer may be to consider an economic system as if it were a metabolic system, somewhat in the spirit of the approach that James Grier Miller took in his book, Living Systems. (Miller actually viewed "The Society" as a living system in Chapter 11 of his book and addressed economics in terms of regulating production within that system.) Thus, if stress "is an unavoidable effect of living" (as is stated in the Britannica Online Encyclopedia) to which the body responds "with a combination of psychic and physiological defenses," then economic systems, if they are to survive, must have their own "defenses," which have more to do with (not necessarily rational) agent behavior than with psychology or physiology. Put another way, the worst thing that can happen to an economy is that it achieves a state of equilibrium, because, in the spirit of Isaiah Berlin's approach to the history of ideas, that "state," by its very name, is fundamentally static; and the only time a "living system" achieves stasis is in death! Thus, it is the forces that "stress" an economy (such as social crisis) that ultimately keep the economy "alive" and functioning in the best interests of all, rather than languishing in a condition of depression, which, while not strictly static, is not particularly dynamic.

Berlin's arguments against stasis grew out of his critical analysis of utopianism and his conclusion that any utopia must necessarily be static. Thus, if stress keeps the body going (as long as it is at a level that can be managed by the body's copying skills), then social crisis may, indeed, be the most effective economic stimulus. The only problem with this theory is that, in the wrong hands, it may be applied as an excuse for inducing crisis as an economic solution. Sadly, this may explain the motives behind Tom Hayden's analysis of the current Georgian crisis as a product of neoconservative thinking trying, once again, to gain the upper hand. Having bankrupted the American economy with excessive an ineffective spending in the name of the "War on Terror," the agents responsible for this folly would now attempt damage control by seeking economic incentives through a revival of the Cold War. Once again we seem to be experiencing an attempt to repeat history without, as I have previously called it, "any Marxian overtones of farce" (unless one has a really sick sense of farce)!

Sunday, August 24, 2008

A Major Base Camp on Mount Beethoven

My systematic traversal of the Brilliant Classics Gesamtwerk collection of the works of Ludwig van Beethoven has now taken me to the string quartets (in recordings by the Guarneri Quartet at a time when listening to them was still exciting). In many ways the complete cycle of these quartets, like the complete cycle of the piano sonatas, provides a map of the development of Beethoven's approach to composition. (Yes, as a matter of personal opinion, I do not feel that such a map can be found strictly through orchestral writing. Instead, the ways in which we listen to the symphonies and concertos is more likely to be informed by our experiences in listening to the piano sonatas and string quartets.) Chronologically, the piano sonatas get an earlier start: The work on Opus 2 began in 1794 after Beethoven had moved to Vienna; and, as I have previously suggested, his studies with Joseph Haydn are acknowledged by far more than Haydn's name on the dedication page. On the other hand Beethoven began work on the Opus 18 quartets in 1798, by which time he was already building up a healthy portfolio of accomplishments, although the influence of Haydn can still be felt in this first collection of six quartets. At the other end of the scale, however, the piano sonata cycle ends much earlier than the quartet cycle. Work on the final sonatas, Opera 109, 110, and 111, took place in 1821, while the quartet cycle was completed in 1825 with Opera 132 and 135. There is a tendency to attach more importance to Beethoven's envelope-pushing in his late quartets; but this would distract from his equally important experiments, particularly with fugue and highly extended variation, that form the core of the final piano sonatas. The fact is that neither of the two cycles can be ignored by anyone seriously interested in listening to Beethoven; and it probably would have made for an interesting experience had the promoters of András Schiff's performance of the full cycle of sonatas arranged for a string quartet to cover their respective cycle in a parallel series of recitals. This would have been far more than an academic exercise. It would have been an opportunity to experience the rich connectedness of the music listening experience in ways that mere words could never convey.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Profile in Cowardice

Last month I wrote a post suggesting Senator Edward Kennedy as a latter-day example of a politician worthy of the title of his late brother's book, Profiles in Courage. Today the Associated Press provided us with a fascinating report about the other side of that coin:

The city manager of Golden, Colo., has decided to withdraw his invitation to let the Al-Jazeera news network broadcast from a barbecue in his backyard on the final night of the Democratic National Convention.

City manager Mike Bestor has apologized for any divisiveness he caused in the city of about 18,000, about 15 miles west of Denver.

Bestor made his decision after a City Council meeting Thursday at which residents complained the event with the English-language service of the Middle East news network would be disrespectful to veterans and active U.S. soldiers.

The first question that comes to mind is: "Was Bestor familiar with the content of Al Jazeera English-language news broadcasts?" Put another way, did he have at least a vague idea of whom he had invited beyond a generic sense of non-American-television-views-American-behavior? If Bestor had no idea at all, then it would be safe to call him stupid and reckless; and, as the old saying goes, I wouldn't vote for him for dog catcher, let alone city manager. If he was familiar with Al Jazeera, then why didn't he ask any of those complaining residents if they had ever watched an Al Jazeera news broadcast?

I have now watched several of them. I have to do it through my computer, since Comcast still refuses to allocate a channel for them; and the connection through their Web site is not always the best. Nevertheless, unless one of my Public Television channels decides to run a BBC World Service News feed, it is far better than any other televised news that I can get in San Francisco on a Saturday. Most important is that Al Jazeera tends to be much better at objectivity than any of our network news puppets (and, for that matter, many BBC reporters). So I can state categorically that I have never heard anything on Al Jazeera that "would be disrespectful to veterans and active U. S. soldiers;" and I am confident that anyone else who has watched this source can make the same claim.

Therefore, if Bestor knew about Al Jazeera's standard for television news, why did he not stick up for them? Was he too much of a coward in the face of hostile voters, or did he just not have the data to defend Al Jazeera? Either way, he seems to be representing the worst qualities of those who voted for him, rather than the ideals to which they know they can aspire. In other words he is the model of all those dangers in our political system over which the Federalists agonized so long and hard.

Joseph Biden According to the Associated Press

The Associated Press account of Barack Obama's selection of Joseph Biden as his running mate is likely to raise more eyebrows over the handling of the story than over the selection itself. It was written by Liz Sidoti and Nedra Pickler; and it reminded me of the hint of irony I always seem to get when I see that the Associated Press prefers the term "writers" to "reporters." There always seems to be the suggestion that creative writing counts for more than reporting; but, given what passes in this country for news these days, why single out the Associated Press? After all, considering some of the things that spring up as their text progresses, Sidoti and Pickler should at least be awarded points for getting the most out of their lead sentence:

Barack Obama named Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware as his vice presidential running mate early Saturday, balancing his ticket with a seasoned congressional veteran well-versed in foreign policy and defense issues.

Two paragraphs later, however, things get a bit more interesting:

Biden, 65, has twice sought the White House, and is a Catholic with blue-collar roots, a generally liberal voting record and a reputation as a long-winded orator.

This is how Sidoti and Pickler decided to introduce Biden's Senatorial career (with more objective details to follow)—with a sentence that pushes almost as many buttons as it has words, even if it is unclear whether or not there is a pattern to the buttons. The button they missed, however, was the one about Obama and Biden being two of the Senatorial "Gang of Four" (the other two being Hillary Clinton and Chris Dodd), all of whom, often to the distress of their party's leadership, had decided that it was better to spend time on the campaign trail than to spend it doing the people's business in the Congress. Given the way things are going, there could be any number of confrontations between the Executive and Legislative branches of the government between now and Election Day; and the last thing we need in such times are AWOL Senators when debate and vote are likely to really matter.

Far more interesting, however, is the way in which Sidoti and Pickler mangled the most critical point of friction between Obama and Biden:

He had stumbled on his first day in the race, apologizing for having described Obama as "clean." Months later, Obama spoke up on Biden's defense, praising him during a campaign debate for having worked for racial equality.

This was not an episode to be reduced to one word. Since I wrote a post about the aftermath of Biden's "stumble," I can use it to reconstruct the entire phrase, which described Obama as "the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy." As anyone who followed the backlash to this remark recalls, the inflammatory word from this phrase was not "clean" but "articulate." Writing in the Sunday "Week in Review" section of The New York Times, Lynette Clemetson declared that the use of this word "calls out for a national chat, perhaps a national therapy session." The two sentences that Sidoti and Pickler chose were thus misrepresentative and dismissive.

There are a lot of things that we as voters are going to want to know about Biden. Most of these things will arise from quality reporting (as opposed to writing). Shall we assume that we should not expect to find them from the Associated Press?

Friday, August 22, 2008

What Goes Around Comes Around

When I was teaching in Israel, one of the most offensive jokes I heard was actually attributed to former Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion: The way you make a desert is to take perfectly fertile land and give it to the Arabs for a thousand years. Far be it from me to invoke a concept like "divine retribution;" but there is a certain degree of poetic justice in a story that Tobias Buck filed from Jerusalem for the Financial Times today about Israel's water supply:

This summer both the water level and the mood of the people living by the Sea of Galilee are plunging to record lows. The country has suffered four successive seasons of drought, with rainfall no more than half the annual average.

At the same time, Israel’s thirst for fresh water means the country continues to pump vast amounts of water from the lake to meet the needs of farmers, gardeners and ordinary citizens as far away as the Negev desert in the south.

The result is visible everywhere on the lake, which is falling by between one and two centimetres a day. On many beaches the sea has retreated by as much as 150 metres, forcing swimmers to pick their way across an ever-expanding stretch of pebbles.

The small port at Kibbutz Ein Gev has the unhealthy appearance of a pit, with the boats nestling four metres below the boarding planks. In about four weeks, says Mr Onn, the port will have become so shallow that boats will not be able to enter at all.

Apparently, even the "Miracle in the Desert" has not been particularly judicious in planning the consumption of its natural resources.

Perhaps this is a good time to revisit a passage I wrote almost two years ago in a post about "reckless minds" on my previous blog:

Ultimately, one cannot be reckless in a vacuum. One can only be reckless if one has followers. The recklessness then reveals the arrogance that comes with rejecting having become a role model. The Old Testament Prophets railed against recklessness grounded in arrogance. As Ahad Ha'am tried to remind them, the Jews were not chosen to receive the bounty of the One God they worshiped; they were chosen to be role models for all those other cultures that had rejected their One God. When they brought the Ark of the Covenant into battle with them with the arrogance of the confidence that their One God would protect them and lead them to victory, they were sorely punished for being such a truly awful role model. I guess no one reads Ahad Ha'am any more.

I recommend the words of Ahad Ha'am to any Arab who took personal offence from Ben-Gurion's excuse for a joke.

Simplicity Trumps Complexity (again)

The more we learn about what happened in Georgia, not just this month but in the events leading up to this month, the more we need to be reminded (once again) of the wisdom of H. L. Mencken:

For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.

Unfortunately, in this country it seems to be the business of the media to traffic in clarity, even when that clarity is simplistic to the point of being specious. However, this is a Presidential election year; and that happens to be a time when simplicity rules with a vengeance. Most of the electorate (probably even those who do not show up at the polls) value the ability to make a choice (whether or not they exercise it); but they really dislike making decisions that involve a multiplicity of interrelated factors, none of which they understand particularly well. This is why so many voters make a selection of the basis of a single issue, whether it is abortion, gun control, or war. In many ways the last two Presidential elections provided reductio ad absurdum instances of this principle through a candidate who put so much emphasis on faith that selection amounted to choosing good over evil.

Where Georgia is concerned, Europeans are probably more sensitive to the dangers of faulty simplistic reasoning. The consequences of an unwise decision are always too close for comfort. Thus, we see columnists like Gabor Steingart at SPIEGEL ONLINE who try to wean us away from the reflex dismissal of Vladimir Putin as an "agent of evil," best compared with Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler. On this side of the pond, Tom Hayden has now followed suit with an extensive well-reasoned account for The Nation of who is likely to benefit the most from recent events; and, from a rhetorical point of view, it is worth noting that Hayden uses the word "evil" only once. That instance is actually embraced in scare quotes as follows:

The Republicans and neoconservatives should be asked this puzzling question: whatever happened to your triumphal claim that Ronald Reagan won the cold war by destroying the "evil empire"?

In other words the word only comes up in an example of Republican rhetoric!

There is nothing complex about Hayden's thesis:

Barack Obama and the Democrats are heading towards trouble in November because of a new cold war with the Russians triggered largely by a top John McCain adviser and the same neoconservative clique who fabricated evidence to lobby for the Iraq war.

This thesis rests on the support of what Hayden calls "short-term essentials" of evidence:

  • After border skirmishes similar to the 1964 Tonkin Gulf affair, on August 8, Georgia's President Mikheil Saakashvili invaded the autonomous breakaway region of South Ossetia with his US-trained army. The Russians responded with massive force, quickly routing Saakashvili's forces.
  • McCain has traveled to Georgia, nominated his close friend Saakashlivi for a Nobel Prize in 2005, and was the first American leader to blast Russia last April, when Vladimir Putin issued a sharp warning against NATO membership for Georgia and the Ukraine, supported by the United States.
  • The Bush Administration was divided along familiar lines, with the foreign policy "realists" around Condoleezza Rice opposite the pro-Georgia hawks centered in Dick Cheney's office and allied with McCain--enthusiasts for spreading "democracy" from Iraq to the Russian border.
  • Randy Scheunemann, McCain's foreign policy adviser, was a registered foreign agent for Saakashlivi's government from at least 2004, when Saakashvili came to power, until May 15, 2008, when he technically severed his ties to Orion Strategies, his lobbying firm. At that point, Orion had earned at least $800,000 in lobbying fees from Georgia.
  • Saakashvili, with Scheuneman advising him, campaigned on a platform of taking back South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
  • Schuenemann was Georgia's lobbyist when Saakashvili sent troops to retake two separatist enclaves, Ajaria in 2004 and the upper Kodori Gorge in Abhkazia in 2006, over strong Russian objections.
  • Saakashvili tarnished his democratic credentials by sending club-wielding riot police against unarmed demonstrators protesting his abrupt purging of the police, civil servants and universities in 2007, a replay of Paul Bremer's decision to privatize Iraq in 2003.

This should lead us to start asking serious questions about just what agents have been involved in this whole affair, what actions did they take, and what were their motives behind those actions; but, without trying to sound too pejorative, any list with that many bullets is too long for the consumption of most voters. (Hell, I know from personal experience that it is too long for just about any CEO!) Hayden's argumentative technique does not blunt the impact of his thesis; but his rhetoric may leave many wringing their hands in despair, figuring that, once again they will be screwed no matter what selection they make on Election Day (if they bother to show up to make a selection at all). He is a bit like an overly-earnest lawyer, who has become so preoccupied with presenting "the truth" that he has totally forgotten to present it in a way that will sway the jury in his favor.

The good news is that, where rhetoric alone is concerned, Obama seems to have a good pool for resources for standing up to McCain. We are beginning to see the methods behind his use of those resources, and there is a good chance that they will serve him well. However, the idea of a Republican cadre intent in reviving the Cold War goes far beyond silly issues like the number of houses McCain owns. For better or worse, someone on the Obama team needs to start harvesting the talking points (and, dare I say it, sound bytes) that will turn heads and then let those heads know that the Republican party is, once again, trying to play them for suckers. (Recall, for example, when Obama took his last shot at winning Nevada primary voters with what amounted to a standup routine in Las Vegas.) Choosing one candidate because you have discovered that the other one is making a fool out of you is not necessarily the best strategy; but, if you have to cut the corners of complexity, it may be the most effective strategy!

Thursday, August 21, 2008


Will someone (as my title may suggest, I think Aretha Franklin would be a good candidate) please tell Jacques Rogge to shut up before he adds to the damage he has already done? This is the man who led the International Olympic Committee down a garden path of unfulfilled promises by the Chinese government, never raising a fuss in the name of "silent diplomacy." So when he does decide to raise a fuss, his target is not the People's Republic of China (say, for the hazardous conditions under which all Olympic athletes have had to perform); rather, it is Usain Bolt for his exuberant expressions of victory. Furthermore, Rogge has decided to attack Bolt not for that exuberance being "irrational" (to borrow an adjective from Alan Greenspan) but for being disrespectful. Fortunately, Associated Press reporter Karolos Grohmann managed to come up with a quote from Rogge that gives us some sense of the workings of Rogge's mind:

Bolt must be considered now the same way like Jesse Owens should have been in the ’30s.

The operative word here is "should." I am not suggesting that Bolt decided to strut his stuff to get even with Adolf Hitler's treatment (or non-treatment, if you prefer) of Jesse Owens during the Berlin Olympics. I merely wish to point out that the International Olympic Committee has a long-standing history of condoning bad behavior against the athletes, speaking out only when the behavior is by the athletes.

One of the reasons I do not watch any sports any more is that I have grown very weary of watching adults who should know better than to outdo each other with childish behavior. However, I have never suggested that everyone else should avoid such spectacles, just because I have no taste for them. I can even understand why the athletes do what they do: Many of them have achieved something that they have been dreaming of since they were kids. So it almost makes sense that, when they finally get there, they should react the way they would have done when the dream was first conceived.

So perhaps someone ought to tell Bolt that it is time to think about growing up a bit; but Rogge is not the right person to do that (even if he is a former Olympian himself). When the BBC ran a story about Rogge's reaction this morning, they cited Muhammad Ali as the ne plus ultra example of shameless self-promotion in victory; and they pointed out that, in terms of character, Ali is well remembered today. If his capacity for speech has not been totally debilitated, I could see Ali sitting down with Bolt and saying, "Look, son, I know how you feel. You have every right to feel good right now, but you have become someone special. As a special person, you need to start thinking about what folks will think of you a few months from now, when televisions are no longer showing what a great runner you are." He would probably leave it at that; and, if Bolt was too giddy to pay attention when he said it, chances are his memory would refresh him in the due course of time!

On the Dialectical Synthesis of Bach and Zappa

Regular readers know that SPIEGEL ONLINE is one of my favorite sources for news on a global scale, primarily where topics such as the economy, foreign affairs, and politics are concerned. However, when it comes to music, my major sources seems to be London (the Telegraph and the Financial Times) and New York (mostly Anthony Tommasini in The New York Times and Daniel Mendelsohn in The New York Review). Nevertheless, I had to turn to Sebastian Knauer for a thorough account of a legal battle between the Zappa Family Trust (run by Frank Zappa's widow Gail) and the Arf-Society, which organizes the Zappanale in the north-eastern German town of Bad Doberan. There is no reason to question the Zappanale's seriousness when it comes to maintaining performances of Zappa's music. As Knauer reported, "18 bands took to the stage in the 19th annual Zappanale last weekend."

However, I am less interested in how the legal dispute will ultimately be resolved and more interested in the innovative approaches that the Arf-Society is taking to musical performance. As Knauer reported, their activities are now extending beyond an annual gig in Bad Doberan:

Last week, Zappanale organizers put on a show at St. Katharinen church in Hamburg called "Zappa Plays for Bach." Some 600 guests showed up for a performance of variations on the famous Goldberg Variations. Indeed, improvisation is one quality Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) shares with his colleague Frank Zappa (1940-1993).

All proceeds from the concert went to the Hamburg foundation Stiftung Johann Sebastian, which is trying to raise money to recondition a Barock organ on which Bach played in 1720. And it was a fantastic show -- with nine musicians from the Florida group Bogus Pomp playing together with the former Zappa saxophone player Napoleon Murphy Brock putting on pieces ranging from "Absolutely Free Medley" to "Chunga's Revenge" to "Idiot Bastard Son."

Personally, I can think of few things more stimulating than an opportunity to listen to Bach in the context of Zappa and Zappa in the context of Bach, all in a single concert. When Zappa receives any attention in a concert setting, it always seems to be in conjunction with his work with the Ensemble InterContemporain with support from Pierre Boulez. Having seen these two men together on a stage at UCLA, I have to say that Zappa is the only person I have ever encountered who managed to get a smile out of Boulez; but, as far as the rest of the world has been concerned, there seemed to be a need to intellectualize Zappa's extremism as a prerequisite to enjoying it. Only Václav Havel seemed happy to enjoy Zappa's work for its own sake, although, as I wrote at the end of last season, there are some signs that the composer Magnus Lindberg is comfortable enough with Zappa's logic, grammar, and rhetoric to pick up where he left off and proceed beyond the "specialist confines" of the Ensemble InterContemporain to more conventional settings, such as the Berlin Philharmonic and the San Francisco Symphony.

Thus, I shall close with a question: If our listening of Lindberg is well informed by past experience of listening to Zappa, when will the San Francisco Symphony program one of Zappa's works on its subscription series?

The Chutzpah of Speaking Truth to Power

Once again I was pleased to find an act of chutzpah with a positive connotation worthy of a Chutzpah of the Week award. I found it in, of all places, Swaziland, described by the BBC report as "Africa's last absolute monarchy;" and, as this post's title implies, the act of chutzpah involves the recognition of truth no matter how absolute the power may be. Here is the substance of that BBC report, which elaborates on the grounds for the award:

Hundreds of Swazi women have marched through the streets of the capital to protest about a shopping trip taken by nine of the king's 13 wives.

They chartered a plane last week to go to Europe and the Middle East.

The BBC's Thulani Mthethwa says the protesters handed in a petition to the finance ministry saying the money could have been better spent.

"We can't afford a shopping trip when a quarter of the nation lives on food aid," they chanted.

Swaziland, Africa's last absolute monarchy, is one of the poorest countries in the world and more than 40% of the population is believed to be infected with HIV.

In the words of our own Declaration of Independence, even government by an absolute monarch requires consent of the governed; but it must have taken considerable courage for these women to withhold their consent in such a public way. The march was apparently organized by the non-governmental organization Positive Living, which addresses the needs of women with AIDS; so it is probably proper to present the award to this organization on behalf of the women who rose to the call to protest.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

A Peek into Beethoven's "Engine Room"

Some reader's may recall Peter Grunberg talking almost a year ago about poking around in Johannes Brahms' "engine room" in preparing for a performance of the Opus 25 piano quartet in G minor. Where Ludwig van Beethoven is concerned, the primary path into his "engine room" is through his sketchbooks; but, thanks to the Brilliant Classics Gesamtwerk collection, I am discovering that there are also paths provided by earlier works, some of which were not published until after the composer's death. I recently encountered an interesting example in Beethoven's only three piano quartets (listed as WoO 36), whose manuscript is dated 1785. As Thayer observed, there is an interesting discrepancy in that Beethoven refers to himself as "Luis van Beethoven, agé 13 ans" (the number apparently having been changed from "14"), since Beethoven was born (as we know from Peanuts) on December 16, 1770; so we may just want to say that this was a product of his teen years. More interesting (the "engine room" part) is that these piano quartets use motives that would later surface in his Opus 2 piano sonatas, composed in 1794 and 1795 after he had gone to Vienna and began picking up the wisdom and influence of Joseph Haydn. One wonders if Beethoven may have showed the piano quartets to Haydn, who basically made it known that Beethoven could do much better things with those motives if he set his mind to it. This could explain both why Beethoven never published the piano quartets and why the Opus 2 piano sonatas (in which he did "much better things") were dedicated to Haydn! This is, of course, unabashed speculation; but such speculation often provides a useful anchor for listening practices, even if the conjecture is not as true as we would like it to be!

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

An Answer to the NATO Question from Germany

Gabor Steingart's introduction to this week's West Wing column on SPIEGEL ONLINE is, to say the least, provocative:

These days Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is often compared -- unfairly -- with Stalin and Hitler. In truth, Putin is a Russian Kennedy. And Putin's Cuba is called Georgia.

The crux of Steingart's argument seems to be that Putin's move on Georgia bears a strong family resemblance to the Bay of Pigs invasion, except that Putin was far more successful, perhaps because he is as good at learning from history as he is from reading texts on statecraft. There are a number of ways in which one can poke logical holes in this argument. However, I was more interested in how Steingart used the situation in Georgia to address my "Why NATO?" question:

Europe's task is to prevent the current situation from escalating. At the present time, NATO expansion into Russia's front yard does not increase security -- it merely serves to heighten tensions in Europe.

In light of my analysis yesterday, I would suggest that the phrase "NATO expansion into Russia's front yard" is a euphemism for "American expansion into Russia's front yard," which is why I used Lord Ismay's "goal statement" as a point of departure for my own argument. Steingart is right: Keeping the Georgia crisis from escalating is Europe's task; but is that task furthered by keeping "the Americans in?" Europe has had plenty of evidence with which to assess the impact of American saber-rattling in the Middle East; do they really want the same loose cannons (with apologies for mixing metaphors) installed along the eastern borders pointed at Russia?