Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Learning from al-Qaeda

Once again it may be time to smash the rose-colored glasses of social software evangelists, or at least subject them to a new refraction is see if the prescription needs changing. The "war on terror" movement still seems to have considerable trouble viewing an organization like al-Qaeda as a loosely distributed organization, which, as Lawrence Wright had observed in his Pulitzer Prize winning book, The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, can be highly sloppy and therefore error-prone. Those who still strive for "zero-level probability of a terrorist attack" also fail to see the extent to which social software platforms are highly conducive to such loose organizational structures. They will not get this insight from the technology evangelists, because those who evangelize tend to spend so much time promoting the "software" that they have little time to think about the "social."

Nevertheless, according to an investigation by Tom Marchbanks for BBC Panorama, that technology that is so conducive to "the way of al-Qaeda" may have now been enlisted in the support of sectarianism in Northern Ireland. Here are some of his findings:

Internet ratings company Nielsen claims that Bebo, with its one million Irish users, was the most popular site in Ireland after Google in 2007.

Sectarianism on the site hit the headlines after threatening posts surfaced following the 2006 murder of Catholic school boy Michael McIlveen in Ballymena.

Three years on, and some pages on Bebo brazenly continue to promote violence.

Guns and bombs

One page dedicated to the Real IRA, removed recently, contained a post which claimed a new "cell" had been formed.

While another, promoting the 32 Sovereign Continuity Movement (32CSM), the political wing of the Real IRA, contains pictures of people holding what appears to be a pipe bomb.

One user, calling himself a member of the Irish Republican Socialist Movement, even discusses buying a gun and the bargain price of ammunition.

But the pages are not just used to brag about violence or weaponry. Fundraising events are also promoted.

A page on Bebo recruiting for the Republican Sinn Fein - widely thought to be the political wing of the Continuity IRA (CIRA) - advertises a £5 entry for a fundraiser event alongside a press release from CIRA prisoners.

'Revenge is a dish best served cold'

The sites are not just from the republican side, loyalist pages on Bebo are also widespread, including what appears to be the official internet sites for outlawed terrorist groups, such as the Orange Volunteers.

Although these particular sites have few registered friends and show little sign of activity, other loyalist pages on Bebo which have sprung up in the last six months, use similar names, and are much more active.

As I see it, this is yet another consequence of those who are so wrapped up in technology that they see no need to set aside time for less objective matters, such as the subtleties of governance. As Anthony Lewis pointed out in the title of his book, our own Constitution addresses the question of "freedom for the thought that we hate" in its First Amendment; but the history (or, as Lewis called it, "biography") of the First Amendment makes it clear that our judicial system has always recognized the distinction between hatred in thought and hatred in action. As those actions cross the line into the pathological, we are likely to see an increasing number of court cases and rulings that explicitly address the role of social software in the pathology under question. Such cases are likely to depend heavily on "expert witness" testimony; but I hope that the presiding judges will be astute enough to recognize that any such expert witness in the support technology may be far from an expert on the impact of that technology in the social world!

Monday, March 30, 2009

The BBC Gives THE WIRE Some Respect

Following the British press has often left me with the feeling that The Wire had a stronger support base in England than it had in the United States. This was just affirmed by a "feature piece" on the Telegraph Web site reporting that "BBC Two is now showing all 60 episodes nightly, Monday to Friday, starting tonight." I like to think of this as "literary television;" and it reminds me of when the Philadelphia PBS station ran the episodes of The Forsyte Saga nightly and totally hooked me into the unfolding drama with an intensity that is sorely lacking in the stuff now being obtained for Masterpiece Theatre (which seems to have become Masterpiece Classic, under a more general Masterpiece rubric, without my noticing). I do not hesitate to call The Wire "literary," because this is precisely the stance that co-creator David Simon wanted to take:

Our models are the big Russian novels. We’re trying to do with modern-day Baltimore what Balzac did with Paris, or Dickens with London.

Back in the day the BBC did precisely this kind of number of War and Peace; and that particular instance of "literary television" sustained me through several months of the time I spent working in Israel.

Simon has never been shy about why the general public never followed most of the critics in getting hooked on The Wire:

The average Emmy voter has the attention span of a gnat.

Vladimir Nabokov had chosen somewhat more elegant language when he lectured about reading Dostoevsky as "a mischievous but very healthy pleasure, as you stamp and groan through a second-rate book which has been awarded a prize" (a pleasure which I had experienced at its greatest when I had to write a review of Douglas Hofstadter's Gödel, Escher, Bach); but Simon basically hit the nail on the head. Babylon 5 fought the same battle against viewer attention span, and not too long ago my wife and I indulged in the complete DVD collection to give the entire narrative the close reading it deserved. We plan to do the same for The Wire, now that we have all the episodes on DVD.

Meanwhile, the attention span problem remains with us. Brian Lowry's initial review of Dollhouse for Variety was politely dismissive at best, concluding that it was difficult to rate the show on the basis of its first two episodes. Well, Brian, would you have rated War and Peace at all, if you had never gotten any further than Anna Pavlovna's party? Would you have bailed on Proust before he dipped that madeleine in his tea? Lowry seemed willing to grant that the Dollhouse narrative was complex, but he felt a need to pass judgment on the "authenticity" of that complexity by summoning connotations of pretension while that script was still unfolding its characters and their motives at a pace that would not have troubled either Tolstoy or Proust.

Reading a narrative is not just a matter of recognizing the plot line and following it. It is also a matter of reflecting on where the plot is going and how other factors, such as the settings and the characters, contribute to the course of that plot. "Literary television" played out in episodes supports such reflection simply by virtue of the temporal gaps between the episodes, just as we reflect on where Tolstoy or Proust is taking us each time we put down the book we are reading. I grant Simon his sarcasm and recognize that "literary television" will never acquire the "competitive numbers" that determine success in what Edward Jay Epstein calls "the new logic of money and power in Hollywood;" but I am glad that there are production organizations like HBO that are still willing to satisfy the needs of those of us who never seem to be satisfied with anything less than "literary."

The Sense of Fugue

Last night András Schiff performed the first of his final two recitals in his cycle of the complete piano sonatas of Ludwig van Beethoven at Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco. It was time for the second of the two "monuments" in the canon of piano sonatas, the "monumental" Opus 106 in B-flat major ("Hammerklavier"). This sonata is technically challenging from its opening gesture (which would later be honored by Johannes Brahms in the opening gesture of his own first piano sonata); but the work also poses major challenges to the listener. Most of those challenges have to do with what I have called the "journey through an extended duration of time." Except for the (extremely?) brief scherzo, each of the movements of this sonata takes on an unconventional (for its time) time-scale; and, while the first movement does this through relatively familiar sonata-allegro territory, the relationship between structure and process of the final two movements is harder to penetrate.

Yesterday I wrote about this journey as it was pursued in the andante cantabile third movement of Beethoven's Opus 97 ("Archduke") trio in B-flat major in my Examiner.com review of a recital by the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio. In this case the journey is based on a theme-and-variations structure; and the extended duration arises when Beethoven departs from choosing a simple theme in favor of what I have previously called "a more elaborate structure unto itself, which could then be mined for variations from many diverse perspectives." In the adagio sostenuto movement of Opus 106, the structural framework follows the conventional sonata form; but Schiff offered the following comments in his conversation with Martin Meyer included in the program book:

While it's true that this structure is easy to make out in the score, in playing or listening to the piece it's much less obvious, because it's the poetic side that dominates as an expressive force, with its slow iambuses and intricate whispered figuration. Beethoven produces absolutely astonishing effects of sonority, which makes the "deconstruction" of the main theme in the final part of the coda all the more haunting. Following a wide-ranging journey of the passions, the movement ends at once laconically and full of expectation on a pianissimo held chord of F-sharp major.

This is clearly not for casual listening. Indeed, it requires an alertness of perception that may put performance at a disadvantage when this sonata is performed at the end of a program (as it was last night).

Even more challenging, however, is that the alertness allotted to this movement may sap the "cognitive energy" required for the fugue of the final movement. This, again, is a major journey, not to mention a major departure from the traditional conventions of fugue. However, even in the absence of those conventions, there remains the sense of fugue as a conversation among its "voices," rather than just a massive contrapuntal fabric. I continue to admire how Richard Goode establishes this sense in his performances of Bach counterpoint, and here in San Francisco pianist Frank French demonstrated that same sense in his concert performance of the 48 preludes and fugues in Johann Sebastian Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier. In the framework of that sense of fugue, a journey of extended duration amounts to a particularly involved (and extended) conversation. Unfortunately, that sense was absent in Schiff's performance. Indeed, it was absent not only from Beethoven's fugue but also from the encore performance of Bach's BWV 903 "Chromatic" fantasia and fugue in D minor. It was almost as if towards the end of last night's journey Schiff had shifted to autopilot to finish out the evening. Nevertheless, he followed his Bach encore with a graceful and witty account of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's K. 574 "Eine kleine Gigue" in G major; but I suspect that this work is familiar enough to him that even it could have been "flown on autopilot," so to speak. This may just have been the sort of "occupational hazard" that is hard to avoid when one undertakes a truly massive project.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

In Pinochet's Company

Judge Baltasar Garzon is at it again. For those who are not big on following or remembering details, he was the Spanish judge who had ordered the arrest of Augusto Pinochet, thus escalating the Chilean dictator's atrocities to the level of crimes against humanity in violation of international law. This led to a massive investigation and prosecution, which was never brought to closure because of Pinochet's death; but what was important was that Garzon started the ball rolling at a time when everyone else seemed content to let the memory of the Pinochet years fade away while Pinochet himself enjoyed the benefits of being a senator-for-life.

As we know, Pinochet would never have come to power without the assistance of our Central Intelligence Agency, presumably with the support of President Richard Nixon and (then) National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger; but Garzon never pursued the case far enough to investigate the causal chain in greater detail. This time, however, he has key members of the Bush Administration squarely in his sights, according to a story released by Reuters yesterday afternoon:

A top Spanish court has moved toward starting a probe of six former Bush administration officials including ex-Attorney General Alberto Gonzales in connection with alleged torture of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, The New York Times said on Saturday.

The complaint, prepared by Spanish lawyers with the help of U.S. and European legal experts, also names John Yoo, the former Justice Department lawyer who wrote secret legal opinions saying the president had the authority to circumvent the Geneva Conventions, and Douglas Feith, the former undersecretary of defense for policy.

Spain can claim jurisdiction in the case because five Spanish citizens or residents who were prisoners at Guantanamo Bay say they were tortured there.

The other Americans named are William Haynes II, former general counsel for the Department of Defense; Jay Bybee, Yoo's former boss at the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel; and David Addington, chief of staff and legal adviser to ex-Vice President Dick Cheney.

Thus far, we have had no comment from any of those named in the complaint. Now I am sure that there are many who would like to see someone (if not Garzon) go after the biggest fish in the pond; but, like Hugo Chávez, Garzon seems to have learned from the Tao Teh Ching (of Mao Zedong's Little Red Book) that the thousand-mile journey begins with the single step. This seems like as good a choice of a first step as any.

Saturday, March 28, 2009


A friend asked me on Thursday how things were progressing with my radiation treatment; and I realized that I had not really informed anyone that they were not progressing at all, at least not yet. It has now been over a month since I wrote a post outlining the treatment I would be receiving, which would begin by injecting CAT-scan-visible markers to delimit the area to be the target of the radiation. Those markers will be inserted this coming Friday (April 3). I was reminded of this because, as of today, I have to stop taking the "baby aspirin" tablet I take every evening along with my cholesterol medication. Aspirin thins the blood, and you do not want to have thin blood running through any vessels that may be penetrated when the markers are applied. (I did not have to worry about this when I had my prostate biopsy, because I was not taking the low-dose aspirin at the time.) Then, I take an antibiotic (Cipro) the night before Friday's procedure takes place; and I have at least one dose to cover me after the procedure as well. Finally, there is the Fleet enema I take a couple of hours before the procedure (which deserves no more vivid detail than the procedure itself). Once the markers are in place, the CAT scan can be performed and the results interpreted for planning the direction of the radiation beam. Only then can the actual treatment be planned and begun. The coming week will therefore be primarily a matter of waiting. Fortunately, I have supplied it with concerts that will keep me occupied with writing and (hopefully) distracted from the waiting itself.

Friday, March 27, 2009

High-Wire Chutzpah

I told this joke over two years ago on this blog (and more times that I can recall in social conversation). It's the one about a mule that can do any kind of work on the farm, provided that first you whack him on the head several times with a two-by-four "in order to get his attention." I find it a good way to approach our chronic cultural problem of evading (if not outright denying) our sense of reality. I suspect that this is the sort of thing that Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva had in mind when he spoke at a press conference held in conjunction with a visit to Brazil by British Prime Minister Gordon Brown. As reported for BBC NEWS from Sao Paolo by Gary Duffy, Lula offered his own interpretation of how the world can come to be in economic crisis:

It is a crisis caused and encouraged by the irrational behaviour of white people with blue eyes, who before the crisis appeared to know everything, but are now showing that they know nothing.

It takes high-octane chutzpah to invoke such language in a diplomatic setting, leaving it to Brown to keep up diplomatic appearances, which, according to Duffy, he seems to have done:

If Mr Brown appeared uncomfortable with this claim, he did his best not to show it.

The press, on the other hand, was more interested in the smell of blood in the water and tried to get Lula to elaborate. Surprisingly enough, he obliged:

As I do not know any black or indigenous bankers. I can only say it is not possible for this part of mankind, which is victimised more than any other, to pay for the crisis.

Without trying to be an apologist, I think it is important to recognize that these are the words of a man whose ox has been seriously gored. Back in September it seemed as if Brazil had been blessed with a new source of wealth in the form of potentially vast deepwater resources of hydrocarbons. At that time Lula had the chutzpah to start laying down plans that indicated that, as I wrote at the time, he was "more interested in resolving existing problems of education and poverty than … in turning his country into the next 'engine of economic growth.'" Indeed, he went so far as to take this discovery as an opportunity "to rethink the very nature of governance," by virtue of being liberated from those who, regardless of the color of skin or eyes, "appeared to know everything." All those plans must now be on hold when both the price of oil and the very "wealth of nations" have been thrown into question by circumstances that can be traced back to those aforementioned (if undiplomatically so) "Masters of the Universe" (now trying to be "masters of rehab").

So was today's chutzpah nothing more than a man whose ox was gored trying to gore another man's ox? Would answering that question determine whether the chutzpah carried a positive or negative connotation? I doubt that there is a clear answer to that second question. My guess is that if these words had come from the mouth of Hugo Chávez (who already holds a Chutzpah of the Week award), then the Western press would spare no effort to condemn him as a "red menace;" but, since both the United States and the United Kingdom see Brazil as an important economic partner, the media will go to great lengths to make sure that Public Opinion (perhaps as personified by Jacques Offenbach) will cut him some slack. (For the record I have no idea of the color of Brown's eyes.) For all we know Lula was well aware of the extent to which Public Opinion really wants to direct her anger at "sticking it to the rich;" but, if he was playing to that anger, then his chutzpah is taking him to the brink of demagoguery. My personal feeling is that there is no clear call on the nature of this particular act of chutzpah, but the act is strong enough to justify Lula receiving his first Chutzpah of the Week award. Whatever else we may say about him, he invoked an interesting strategy to get the mule's attention.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

A Democratic Press Conference?

The buzz over today's "alternative" press conference at the White House has been going for about a week, and it has taken me about that long to try to get my thoughts about it in order. For those who have missed that buzz, Associated Press Writer Philip Elliott has just provided a handy summary:

Call it Round Two of the news conference, with a big Internet twist. President Barack Obama took questions from the White House press corps on Tuesday in a prime-time, East Room session that represented the most formal and time-honored of president-and-reporter interactions. On Thursday, he is taking to that same room for another public grilling — this time by regular folks armed with questions submitted via the Internet and in person, as part of a political strategy to engage Americans directly.

I suspect that this is the sort of thing that Dan Froomkin had in mind when he ran a Commentary piece advocating "a Wiki White House" on the Nieman Watchdog Web site. Participation has certainly been impressive. According to Elliott, as of 9 AM (Eastern time) this morning, over 100,000 questions have been submitted; and this revives one (of many) issues that I had in criticizing Froomkin's proposal. The fundamental premise behind Wiki technologies is that admirable goals such as understanding and knowledge may be achieved through conversation (or, as Jürgen Habermas put it, "communicative action"). One consequence of this premise is that the "quality level" of such understanding and knowledge depends heavily on the quality level of the conversations. When the conversation deteriorates (as it does in what I have called "Wikipedia Fight Club" practices), the "signals" of knowledge and understanding similarly deteriorate into "noise." What Froomkin could not see through his Web 2.0-colored glasses was that the quality level of conversations tends to be directly dependent on the number of conversants. It is thus hard to imagine that Habermas' concept of an "ideal speech situation" would accommodate over 100,000 participants, just as he did not recognize that some conversants might be more interested in undermining understanding than in achieving it (which is likely to be the case when you have that large a number of conversants).

In this respect it is important to note that tonight's press conference will not be based on Wiki-style conversation. Here is Elliott's summary of the actual process:

Obama's campaign allowed supporters to organize themselves to go door-to-door and raise money. Because of that, many felt an ownership of the campaign and devoted countless hours to giving Obama the Democratic Party's nomination and then the presidency.

Obama's aides are taking that step forward, incorporating tools that let visitors to the White House Web site pick the questions Obama will answer, turning the president's Thursday event into a democratic press conference.

Political strategist Simon Rosenberg described this as "part campaign-style politics and part 'American Idol.'"

So is this really a "democratic press conference?" To address this question we need to turn back to Christopher Blackwell's article, "Athenian Democracy: a brief overview" (listed on the Dēmos home page as "An Introduction to the Athenian Democracy"). As I did the last time I reviewed this source, I want to begin with the semantics of the word "democracy:"

For the Athenians, “democracy” (demokratia, δημοκρατία ) gave Rule (kratos, κράτος ) to the Demos ( Δήμος ).

Blackwell's approach was then to dig into the semantics of Δήμος:

Demos is the Greek word for “village” or, as it is often translated, “deme.” The deme was the smallest administrative unit of the Athenian state, like a voting precinct or school district.

Note that adjective "smallest." The Athenians recognized, at least implicitly, that there were problems in having too many conversants, which meant that it was necessary to keep administrative units at a manageable level. For matters on a scale larger than the confines of such units, it was necessary to appoint representatives, who could then have their own conversations on a more accommodating scale. This insight was important enough that it became a fundamental building-block of our own democratic process. In terms of the language of Elliott's summary, our "ownership" extends only as far as those we directly delegate to represent us. Through such delegation we strengthen the odds (but do not guarantee certainty) that the signal-to-noise ratio of the conversation will be an effective one; but at the same time we must monitor those conversations to make sure that those we delegate are representing us the way we want to be represented. (In other words representatives need to be continually reminded that they are accountable to those who delegate them.)

This covers a good portion of how our Constitution has shaped our Government. On the other hand the Constitution says nothing about press conferences. Indeed, it says nothing about the President having any conversations beyond those concerned with the Executive, Legislative, and Judicial branches of our Government. As the press conference became more institutionalized, it provided a new de facto set of representatives to converse with the President. They were not delegated by any "deme." They were appointed by the institutions of journalism that they represented. If the deme did not like the representation provided by one of those institutions, they could collectively decide not to patronize it. Representation was determined by the market economy, rather than conversations within the deme.

Today's press conference is going to try to change those rules. The risk, however, is that the model Rosenberg described is more plebiscitary than representative. This is mass selection on an American Idol scale, rather than delegating representatives to put hard questions to the President better than we can (and then calling those representatives to account for their performance). Morely Winograd, who runs the Institute for Communication Technology Management at the University of Southern California found a good way to summarize the process:

In the new world of online media, formal press conferences are just one element or program to get the message out — to those, usually older, who watch such things on TV. The online version he is doing is an alternative way to get out the same message, in this case on the budget, targeted toward a different audience, usually younger.

In both cases the questioners are just props — or, in some cases, foils — for the star, Obama, to deliver his message. But in the latter case, they get to self-nominate instead of be selected by elites.

In other words the very principles of conversation itself have been undermined. It is all about "props … for the star;" and props are never concerned with such elevated matters as communication and understanding. This is just another way to play the same dog-and-pony show on a new stage, or, to invoke that metaphor that become so popular during the campaign, a new way to put lipstick on a pig.

For those who think that a verb like "undermined" might be unnecessarily hyperbolic, let me recall the last experiment with reader-rated content, the Citizen's Briefing Book. For those who have forgotten, this was when the Obama transition team used Change.gov to, as Tim Dickinson put it on his National Affairs blog, empower "average citizens to suggest and vet policy proposals that will ultimately be presented to the president." What were the resulting top three citizen proposals on the basis of "citizen rating?" Here they are (again):

Ending Marijuana Prohibition

Bullet Trains & Light Rail

An end to the government sponsored abstinence education to be replaced by an introduction of age appropriate sex education.

Is this where this evening's conversation will go? According to Elliott, Obama aides will probably be imposing a bias in favor of energy, health care, and education. In other words there will be "(wo)men behind the curtain" using user-submitted (and rated?) questions as a prop (what else would you call it?) to reinforce the priorities of the Administration. I happen to share these priorities; but that does not warrant my giving any approval to a plebiscitary pig, no matter how good its makeup artist was!

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

A Darker Growth Industry

Yesterday I suggested that "rehab could become one of the major growth industries behind economic recovery." While it is nice to contemplate that the spirit of people helping others could provide a motivating force to get us out of the current crisis, a story filed from Houston last night by Sheila McNulty for the Financial Times made it clear that such altruism is far from the only path to economic growth:

Guns and ammunition are one growth industry in this recession, fuelled by anecdotal evidence that the economic downturn has sparked an increase in crime from which Americans want to protect themselves.

The Texas Senate criminal justice committee is debating whether to permit state residents to come to work with guns in their vehicles. Proponents say as crime rises, Texans must have guns to drive safely to and from work. Critics object that, given the increasing number of Texans losing their jobs, guns in their cars is a recipe for disaster.

In November last year there were a record 1,529,635 background checks for gun licences in the US, up 42 per cent from the same period a year earlier, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. In January 2009 the number of background checks re­quested was 1.21m, up from 942,556 in the same month last year, and rose in February to 1.3m, up from 1m in February 2008.

My guess is that Franklin Roosevelt did not have such circumstances in mind when he said of the Great Depression, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself;" but it is clear from McNulty's account that the "engine" behind this particular growth industry is nothing more than raw get-them-before-they-get-us fear. Whether or not Roosevelt anticipated such a reaction, his cautionary admonition is as relevant now as it was almost half a century ago.

Nevertheless, to be fair, the growth of the firearms industry has at least one major driver other than preemptive fear of crime. McNulty's report concludes by exploring another aspect of this growth:

Jonathan Lowy, director of legal action at the Brady Center [to Prevent Gun Violence], says 95 per cent or more of the guns used in the Mexican drug battles are from the US. “That has certainly become a part of the US market, supplying guns to the Mexican gun cartels.”

Mexico has restrictive laws on gun sales and a ban on many types of firearms.

Thomas G. Mangan, a spokesman for the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in Phoenix, says most of the guns recovered in Mexico are traced back to the US. “The biggest target is the south-western border states.’’

More than 7,000 guns were recovered in Mexico last year and traced back to the US, Mr Mangan says. At a Senate hearing last week, William Hoover, assistant director for field operations at the ATF, said the US had traced almost 10,000 weapons in Mexico so far this year. He said 90 per cent of such weapons came from the US.

Last year a Brookings Institution report estimated that 2,000 weapons illegally cross the border from the US into Mexico every day.

Apparently, we have an manufactured product for which there is still a high demand for export! Is this the sort of thing that Tom Friedman had in mind when he preached that globalization would lead to expanded market volume? As Paul Saffo used to say, "The future always arrives late and in unexpected ways." Were these current circumstances part of the future of globalization that you expected, Tom?

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Rehab as an Employment Opportunity

Whether we are talking about goods or services, layoffs come from companies that are providing supply in areas where demand is decreasing (if not vanishing). If we want to think about creating jobs, we should think about where demands need to be met. The recent emphasis of the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) on areas such as education and infrastructure not only see to the needs of the general American population but also should provide a significant number of opportunities for employment; and, if Barack Obama is still shy about being perceived as "too progressive," he seems to be willing to embrace this part of the CPC agenda. However, opportunities beyond that agenda are beginning to take shape, some of which may well amount to making lemonade from the lemons of the current economic crisis. Consider the following story the Claudia Parsons filed for Reuters this morning:

Experts say more and more people in finance are seeking treatment for addiction as the global economic crisis sinks its teeth into a high-stakes industry where confidence is the name of the game and nobody wants to admit to a weakness.

"We absolutely do see more people coming in naming either a job loss or huge financial reversals or big investments with Bernie Madoff," said Sigurd Ackerman, medical director at Silver Hill Hospital rehabilitation facility in New Canaan, Connecticut.

"They're being admitted with depression or increases in substance abuse, or both."

Ackerman said there was a high concentration of financial professionals in the town, 40 miles from New York, whose main streets are lined with high-end boutiques catering to the well-heeled wives of hedge fund managers and bankers.

"You're supposed to be a master of the universe, you're supposed to be on top of everything," said one financial services executive who began alcohol rehab in August.

At a time when most businesses are imploding, rehab could become one of the major growth industries behind economic recovery:

Robert Curry, founder of Turning Point for Leaders, a coaching and consulting firm in New Canaan that creates treatment programs for senior executives, said the financial crisis was a factor in more drink and drug use.

"We've got more than 50 homes in foreclosure in this town and that's unheard of," Curry said. "Domestic violence incidents have spiked, and that is very closely tied to substance abuse."

Struggling with a divorce, the Connecticut executive sought help at Turning Point. A residential rehab program will be just the first step in a program that would last at least a year and include follow-up counseling, therapy and support groups.

Curry is a former financial executive who started working with substance abusers two decades ago, around the time his alcoholic father died and he realized he had a drinking problem of his own. Despite the recession, demand is growing.

"Companies are downsizing," he said. "Budgets are being trimmed, and yet we're seeing an increase in our business."

For those who might doubt that there is serious money in this opportunity, Parsons concluded her report with a few figures:

A month in rehab costs from $25,000 at Caron [Treatment Centers in Manhattan] up to around $60,000 at high-end private facilities. Curry said most of his clients pay out of pocket for privacy reasons.

The Connecticut-based executive was paying his own way.

"It's more than I'd like," he said. But "it's less expensive than losing your job ... less expensive than losing a client or losing your family, or losing your home or getting in trouble with the law."

Irony is clearly at work here, but there is also a message for those wondering what sort of knapsack of skills will be most suitable when entering the job market. The best answer may be found in the grammar of our language. Ten years ago it seemed as if the providing of both goods and services depended on having the right skill set for manipulating objects, frequently through some form of technological mediation. Rehab is not about manipulating objects (concrete or abstract). It is about engaging with subjects, dealing with people as if they were people rather than entries in a database. We have sustained at least of quarter century of work practices that have tried to abstract away such a need to engage with subjects; and those work practices persisted even when they provoked such catastrophes as the mismanagement of the aftermath of Katrina. Perhaps Jean Baudrillard's "chicken" about the infantile preoccupation with objects is finally coming home to roost. If you want to be a gainfully employed provider again, your skill set had better include the ability to engage effectively with other people!

Monday, March 23, 2009

Preludes and Fugues as Autobiography

In preparing my Examiner.com review of Frank French's performance of the second volume of Johann Sebastian Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier yesterday afternoon at the Unitarian Universalist Church here in San Francisco, I found myself lapsing into Wittgensteinian ways that I normally try to quarantine to this blog. In particular I raised the question of whether either "prelude" or "fugue" constituted a legitimate ontological category, in the positivist sense of being defined in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions for membership. That invocation of Ludwig Wittgenstein takes me back, once again, to his "Blue Book," which remains one of my major sources of inspiration. As I did recently in taking on the more fundamental question of the meaning of a word, I would like to quote a relevant paragraph concerned with category membership:
We are inclined to think that there must be something in common to all games, say, and that this common property is the justification for applying the general term "game" to the various games; whereas games form a family the members of which have family likenesses. Some of them have the same nose, others of which have family likenesses. Some of them have the same nose, others the same eyebrows and others again the same way of walking; and these likenesses overlap. The idea of a general concept being a common property of its particular instances connects up with other primitive, too simple, ideas of the structure of language. It is comparable to the idea that properties are ingredients of the things which have the properties; e.g. that beauty is an ingredient of all beautiful things as alcohol is of beer and wine, and that we therefore could have pure beauty, unadulterated by anything that is beauty.
That last phrase is particularly relevant to the point I wish to make: It is as silly to describe a prelude or fugue in terms of ingredients as it is to think that way about "pure beauty." Presumably Wittgenstein already knew that Immanuel Kant had come to a similar conclusion about beauty, but he might not have been aware of John Dewey's more recent attempts to analyze aesthetic reactions.

Bach affords us an interesting opportunity to play on Wittgenstein's use of the noun "family." Consulting the catalog included in the book that Wolfgang Sandberger compiled for the Teldec Bach 2000 collection, I realized that the second volume of The Well-Tempered Clavier was completed in 1742, when Bach was in his late fifties with less than ten years before his death. Put another way, by this time just about all of the keyboard works that we associate with him had been completed, most of them for quite some time. He had not yet visited the court of Frederick the Great, who would offer a theme that inspired his Musical Offering; but the "Goldberg Variations" were also completed in 1742. Even his organ preludes and fugues had become a thing of the past, not to mention the two-part and three-part inventions and the English and French suites. Most recent were the first three sections of his Clavierübung project (the final being the "Goldberg Variations"); and I would argue that this project shares with The Well-Tempered Clavier a retrospective reflection on a life of making music in a wide variety of settings. From this point of view, I would invoke a metaphor I recently applied to Sergei Prokofiev's final symphony serving as a "family album of photographs" of past accomplishments, the "family" being not Bach's many sons who had also begun to distinguish themselves as musicians but his past compositions. The "family likenesses" of the preludes (or the fugues) have more to do with their being products of Bach's practices than with their having distinguishing "properties."

There is thus a way in which particularly the second volume of The Well-Tempered Clavier may be heard as the only autobiographical account Bach would be capable of telling. We know from anecdotes that he probably had no good memory for the birthdays of his many children; and, for all we know, he may not even have kept track of just how many children he had. However, his "musical progeny" were always with him; and in The Well-Tempered Clavier he could look back on them all not just "without blushing" but with a deep sense of pride in accomplishment. This is not the sort of narrative autobiography that Richard Strauss would later attempt in Ein Heldenleben; but it is a reflective examination of one's past, which, after all, is the fundamental nature of autobiography. To appreciate it, we just have to be aware of those past achievements on which Bach was reflecting, which is why we are at an advantage in having so many different ways to listen to performances of so much of Bach's music.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

The New Flamboyance

Nicola Luisotti composed an interesting program for his conducting debut with the San Francisco Symphony at Davies Symphony Hall this week, shortly before becoming Music Director of the San Francisco Opera. The first half was all from the twentieth century: Zoltán Kodály's 1933 suite of dances based on material he had collected in the Hungarian town of Galánta and Ernest Bloch's "Schelomo" with Michael Grebanier as cello soloist. The second half represented the nineteenth century with Johannes Brahms fourth symphony in E minor (Opus 98).

As an opera conductor, Luisotti has a clear sense of music as drama; and, as I have written elsewhere, this was particularly evident in the perceptive interpretation of "Schelomo" that he developed with Grebanier. However, he also cuts a very flamboyant figure, never afraid of highly communicative facial expressions and the broadest of gestures. His style thus contrasts radically with, for example, the "Russian subtleties" of conductors like Valery Gergiev and Yuri Temirkanov. Both of these Russians understand the power of body language. Indeed, neither of them uses a baton, as opposed to that rather long stick that Luisotti wielded; but I am not sure that I would call either Gergiev or Temirkanov "flamboyant," while in Luisotti's case the "show" seems to be coming as much from the podium as from the ensemble of the players themselves.

It may be that my impression of Luisotti on Saturday night was influenced by my having spent the afternoon watching Gustavo Dudamel conducting the Berliner Philharmoniker in a concert at the beginning of this month now in the archives of the orchestra's new Digital Concert Hall. Dudamel's debut with the San Francisco Symphony about a year ago was also a closely-watched occasion; and Dudamel brought more than the usual share of flamboyance to that occasion. His Berlin program consisted of Sergei Rachmaninoff's "Isle of the Dead," Igor Stravinsky's violin concerto (with soloist Viktoria Mullova), and Sergei Prokofiev's fifth symphony. This kind of "experience base" made it difficult for me to approach Luisotti's performance without drawing parallels.

On the positive side both conductors worked well with their respective soloists (as Dudamel had done in San Francisco), resulting in a performance of perceptive understanding (regardless of the radical differences between Bloch and Stravinsky). At the same time both brought considerable exhibitionism to the symphony performances. This worked well enough for Dudamel, since Prokofiev's symphony is already a pretty exhibitionistic piece of work. Brahms is another matter. He is certainly capable of summoning intense emotion, but he usually restrains himself from excesses. To be fair to Luisotti, the sound of his Brahms was quite effective; but the performance left me wondering just what role his body language had played in achieving that result. Of course the other parallel involving these two conductors is that they are both young and are both probably still finding their respective voices for the many different regions of the repertoire they must command. Both quests will take some time, and it should be interesting to follow them.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Obama and the Ghost of CHUTZPAH Past

Like so many others, I was very impressed with Barack Obama's performance on The Tonight Show, even including his post hoc recovery from his one major gaffe. Nevertheless, I could not avoid watching that interview in the context of the final paragraph of Elizabeth Drew's analysis of Obama's first thirty days for The New York Review (March 26 issue):

But the still-new President has a staggering number of challenges before him —an unusually, if not unprecedentedly high number of very difficult decisions to make on domestic and foreign policy. Yet the President was traveling for most of his third and fourth full weeks in office. A little more management may be in order. The recent increased amount of presidential travel—to Indiana, Florida, Arizona, and Colorado—may have been another indication that Obama was not particularly happy in the White House, and that 2012 election politics were already on his and his aides' minds. John Dickerson, of Slate, said on Washington Week in Review on February 13 that the President's aides had concluded that it hadn't been helpful for Obama to be seen participating in the give-and-take of Washington, that "that's not what he was elected to do." Yes it is.

This may be a good time to remember that Obama received his first two Chutzpah of the Week awards because did not spend very much time at his "day job" while campaigning to get where he now is. He put on a good show for Leno, but it looks like he is again neglecting his new day job for the sake of more campaigning!

Friday, March 20, 2009

Madoff's Chutzpah Ploy Fails

Bernard Madoff's appeal to be released from jail while awaiting sentencing has been denied. The "due course" of the Appeals Court did not take very long. The basis for denial was that he posed a flight risk. Whether or not the Court recognized "flight into cyberspace" as part of that risk, as I had suggested, is irrelevant. I had also suggested that the Court would make their decision in a way that would "make sure that he does not do further damage;" and they have done so. Madoff can keep his Chutzpah of the Week award. I think it will be the first to decorate a prison cell!

A Virtual Bank for a "Fiction of Convenience"

Over two years ago I wrote a post entitled "Virtual Money in the Real World," in which I examined the effort of the German city of Magdeburg to introduce its own regional currency (the Urstromtaler) as a way to encourage local spending. My conclusion was that "spending virtual money in the real world of Magdeburg builds a much stronger sense of community than spending real money in the virtual world of Second Life (not to mention spending real money to improve the skill level of your World of Warcraft character)." I do not follow (or participate in) World of Warcraft; but I would guess that it still maintains an economic infrastructure to support the atavistic passions of its players. Second Life feels like a thing of the past, not even "making the cut" in Caroline McCarthy's "How to get social on Inauguration Day" piece for CNET, which cited Facebook and MySpace activities (not to mention live blogging and Twittering). What strikes me as interesting is that none of the platforms McCarthy cited require an economic infrastructure, leading me to wonder if the world of social software had gotten over all that (except where a "defense budget" is concerned, which comes off as a disquieting parallel with the "real world").

Well, if I am to believe a story on BBC NEWS, virtual currency is alive and well in Entropia Universe. Indeed, its economic infrastructure is viable enough that a plan for a bank is in the works; and that bank will be licensed by the Swedish Financial Supervisory Authority. I found the details behind this story fascinating:

At current exchange rates, 10 PED (Project Entropia Dollars) are worth one US dollar.

Unlike many other online games, which charge a monthly subscription fee, the software for Project Entropia is free to download and install.

However, players pay real money to get at in-game items, such as guns, armour and other gear [that "defense budget" still drives the economy!], and the micro-payment system pays for Entropia's running costs.

The licence will make it easier for players to convert real world cash into PEDs and sustain their characters in the game, said Mindark in a statement.

"We will be in a position to offer real bank services to the inhabitants of our virtual universe," said Jan Welter Timkrans, boss of Mindark. It plans to offer players interest-bearing accounts, let them deposit their salaries and pay bills or lend cash via the in-game bank.

The licence also means that each account is backed by deposit insurance to the value of $60,000 (£42,000).

Regulators will get oversight of financial transactions carried out in the game world, so they can spot if criminals are using it to launder money.

Mindark claims that more than 800,000 people have registered to play the game and 80-100,000 are regular players. About $420m of player-to-player transactions were carried out during 2008, according to Mindark figures.

Presumably the penultimate paragraph about regulators refers to external auditors accountable to the Swedish Financial Supervisory Authority, but they will probably need the cooperation of Mindark management. Given the track record of malicious activities taking place on social software sites, the Swedish authorities are probably going to need technical help when those activities cross the line into their domain of monetary fraud; and it remains to be seen if suitable protocols of cooperation can be established to safeguard the integrity of user finances. Note the implication here: That "integrity of user finances" in Entropia is not, in any fundamental way, different from the integrity of any "real" currency assets possessed by those users. As I have argued in the past, any currency that is exchanged for PEDs is as much a "fiction of convenience" as the PEDs are. The only significant difference is that PEDs were not created to facilitate the purchase of food, clothing, and shelter (not to mention software) in that "real world" that all the users inhabit; but there does not appear to be anything to prevent a user exchanging PEDs back into dollars, meaning that, from a functional point of view, a PED is as "real" a currency asset as a dollar or a Euro.

Entropia may thus become a socioeconomic experiment worth following. As we become more aware that our current economic crisis emerged from a crisis of regulation, here is a virtual world in which the need for such regulation has been accepted as a "design axiom." I doubt that the "Bank of Entropia" (or whatever Mindark chooses to call it) will turn out to be a better place for me to put my dollars than the Bank of America; but, given the current fortunes of the Bank of America, I would not place any bets on that doubt!

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Every Narrative Deserves an Opera

Narratologists are not particularly given to such things as party stunts, but there does seem to be an ongoing game concerned with conjuring up a narrative analysis of Karl Marx' Capital. Nevertheless, if we are to believe a report by Colin Freeman of the London Telegraph there seem to be some Chinese willing to take such a narrative approach seriously:

Normally disdained by revolutionaries as a bourgeois art form, the show's producers insist that in the confident, modern-day People's Republic, opera is a novel way to explain the proletariat's triumph in the class struggle.

"The particular performance style we choose is not important, but Marx's theories cannot be distorted," said director He Nian, in an interview with China's Wen Hui Bao newspaper.

Mr He, who is best known for a stage adaptation of a martial-arts spoof, plans to open the production in Shanghai next year, and will borrow elements from Broadway musicals and Las Vegas shows. There will, however, be no trivialisation of the book's core messages: an economist from a local university has been asked to ensure that it remains intellectually respecful of Marxist doctrine.

To that end, audiences can expect a storyline that appears to be only marginally racier than the original Das Kapital, a dense, 1,000 page tract which has traditionally tested the commitment of even the most ardent Communist reader.

The opera's plot will involve a business where workers begin to realise their boss is exploiting them. They then embrace the Marxist theory of surplus value. Far from uniting to overthrow the established order, though, some of the chorus line mutiny, others continue as they are, while some engage in collective bargaining. Mr He insists it will be "fun to watch".

I personally take the Telegraph seriously enough to have set up my own blog there (as I recently reported). On the other hand it was through the Telegraph that I learned that the Royal Opera House was planning a new opera about Anna Nicole Smith (with a composer whose work I already knew); so I have to wonder whether the Telegraph has some long-range plans building up to April Fools' Day. Given He's assessment, we should ponder whether an opera about Anna Nicole will be more "fun to watch" than one based on Capital. Since the first volume already runs to 1000 pages, does this mean that the opera will only cover that volume? Is there a long-range plan for a trilogy, perhaps with a "prologue" opera based on "A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy," thus providing opera lovers with a Ring cycle for our times? What kind of hilarity may we expect to ensue over the coming opera seasons around the world?

What Part of "Guilty" Don't You Understand?

Bernard Madoff has not made the cut for any of my Chutzpah of the Week awards basically because, regardless of the magnitude of his fraud, there was a certain banality (or, perhaps, to avoid connotations of Hannah Arendt, I should turn to Daniel Mendelsohn's latest New York Review piece and call it banalisé, as in "rendered quotidian, everyday, normal") about his actions. It has only been with the rendering of a verdict that his true capacity for chutzpah has surfaced. Here is how the story broke on the BBC NEWS Web site:

Last week, Madoff, 70, pleaded guilty to all 11 charges against him when he appeared in a New York court last week

He was remanded to jail until his sentencing in June.

But Madoff's lawyers have argued to a US appeals court he should be released as he had not fled while under house arrest at his Manhattan penthouse.

This bears some family resemblance to one of the classic paradigms of chutzpah: the man who kills both his parents and then throws himself at the mercy of the Court on the grounds that he is an orphan. It goes without saying that, having been found guilty, Madoff should not take the comfort of his penthouse for granted. However, that penthouse offers more than comfort; it also offers virtually uncontrolled connectivity. As prosecutors try to investigate who else (including immediate family) may have been involved in Madoff's scheme, we have been treated with accounts of his efforts to move around large assets through his computer without ever having to leave the penthouse. Having established Madoff's guilt, the Court has a certain responsibility to his victims to make sure that he does not do further damage; and confining him in a way that deprives him of his connectivity resources seems like a step in the right direction. The Appeals Court probably appreciates this factor by replying that they will make a decision "in due course." Meanwhile, Madoff finally gets his Chutzpah of the Week Award for his last-minute ploy to maintain business as usual in the face of his guilty verdict!

Accountability Redux

The last time the Government Accountability Office (GAO) assumed a high profile in the news media was last December, when it reported on a list of potential abuses by financial institutions of the terms attached to then Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson's $700 billion bailout plan. Since then the GAO has been broadening its sights from terms of agreement to the broader responsibility of regulation. Their report to the Senate yesterday was not a pleasant one. Here is the lead from Kim Dixon's report for Reuters:

The U.S. government's hodgepodge of financial regulatory agencies failed to take a big-picture view of risk and ignored red flags in the current economic crisis, a government report said on Wednesday.

"Regulators did not effectively address the weaknesses or in some cases fully appreciate their magnitude, until the institutions were stressed," Orice Williams, director of financial markets and community development at the Government Accountability Office, told a Senate panel.

Several of these regulators also appeared before the panel and received a scathing welcome from the ranking Republican Senator, Jim Bunning of Kentucky:

Welcome back from the vacations you've been taking for the past five years. The regulators should have stopped the risk takers taking undue risk with taxpayers' money or with equity that has been invested.

I am glad to see that Bunning has now awakened to smell the coffee. Will he now inquire into how that coffee got brewed in the first place? Will he look into the extent to which those regulators were constrained by the Bush Administration? Will he examine one of my favorite hypotheses from last year, that the Bush Administration "turned laissez-faire policy into 'a failure to govern at all?'" Will he acknowledge the consensual role that Republican legislators took in this fundamental undermining of our Government's tasks and operations? Welcome to the real world that the Bush Administration tried to hide behind their veils of faith-based words of comfort, Senator Bunning! In the immortal words of Boss Tweed, "What’re ya’ gonna do about it?"

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Chief Apology Officer

Would you buy a used insurance policy from this man? For those who do not recognize the face, he is Edward Liddy, Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the American International Group (AIG); and today he will be in Washington facing members of Congress who will most likely provide faithful representation of the "tidal wave of rage" of American voters over his company's business practices. Needless to say, he will begin by delivering a prepared statement, which can be previewed on the BBC NEWS Web site:

The chief executive of AIG has admitted that fundamental mistakes were made at the US insurance giant.

"Mistakes were made at AIG on a scale that few could have imagined possible," Edward Liddy will tell a Congressional hearing later on Wednesday.

He will also admit that AIG is "too complex, too unwieldy and too opaque".

Mr Liddy also calls the $165m (£119m) bonuses paid by AIG "distasteful" after the insurer took about $170bn of aid from the US government.

In a prepared testimony, Mr Liddy says the company "strayed from its core competencies in the insurance business".

Nowhere was this more evident than in "the creation of what grew to become an internal hedge fund, which then became substantially overexposed to market risk," he adds.

He also addresses the contentious issue of excessive bonuses.

"I am mindful of the outrage of the American public and of the president's call for a more restrained compensation system," he says.

Mr Liddy said that he would never have approved the $165m bonuses if he had been chief executive at the time the contracts were signed.

"It was distasteful to have to make these payments," he says.

Since Liddy only became CEO last September, I am not surprised to see that he plans to fall back on a not-on-my-watch defense. More to the point, however, is whether it had occurred to him that, in a time of crisis for so many businesses in the financial sector, it would make some sense to do some "due diligence investigation" of what he might face in his new job. Had that been the case, such "due diligence" would have benefited from a conversation with Robert J. Arvanitis as serious as the one Joe Nocera had conducted in preparing his recent Talking Business column for The New York Times. I am thinking particularly of the internal view of AIG business practices, of which, as I documented in my own recent analysis, Arvanitis said, "they never thought of it as abuse."

I got a sampling of some of the wrath that Liddy is likely to face by watching a bit of C-SPAN yesterday. As a matter of fact, the specific wrath I encountered was a Republican suggestion that it might be a good idea to let AIG fail after all. So much for "the party of big business" (although it is a nice reminder that laissez-faire has a dark side, too)! My guess is that Congressional decorum will prevail over preparing any tar and feathers and then riding Liddy out of town on a rail; but I would hope that Liddy is smart enough to realize that heartfelt apologies are not going to get him very far (particularly among any who doubt that he has a heart at all).

The real benefit of having the text of his prepared statement is that those who will question him will have a point of departure for more productive conversation. I, for one, want to hear someone ask, "The buck now stops at your desk; what are you doing to clean up the mess, even if that mess happens to be inherited?" As we used to say in the Sixties, if Liddy cannot make a clear case that he is part of the solution, then he is just another part of the problem. Perhaps a faint whiff of boiling tar in the Committee Chambers might help inspire him to shift from apologies to productive proposals!

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

What's in a Word?

Google's latest European legal battle, as reported this morning on the BBC NEWS Web site, deserves some consideration:

Lawyers for Google are to appear in the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in a row over its use of trademarks.

LVMH, the company behind Louis Vuitton luggage and other brands, has accused Google of selling search words such as "vuitton" to the highest bidder.

Web users searching for its products will see adverts for rivals or firms selling counterfeit goods, LVMH argues.

Without getting into the question of whether Internet search can/should/must draw upon "semantic" support, it strikes me that there is a fair amount of naïveté out there over just what keywords are and what they do (or fail to do). While I would not presume to instruct anyone at Google on the virtues of reading Ludwig Wittgenstein, I figure I can be so presumptuous on my own blog; and I would say that Wittgenstein's "Blue Book" is about as good a source as any to get a sense of what is really going on beneath the surface of keyword search.

For those new to this source, the very first sentence of "The Blue Book" is:

What is the meaning of a word?

This question immediately spawns a host of other questions; but the ones Wittgenstein pursues have to do with the "meaning" part of the question. When the lectures that provided the source material for this "book" were first given, The Meaning of Meaning, by C. K. Ogden and I. A. Richards had been in print for about a decade; but neither they nor their book surface in the lectures, since, as Ray Monk noted in his Wittgenstein biography, Wittgenstein dismissed the book "as an irrelevance." On the basis of those lectures, there is an initial danger that he would also dismiss any questions about the nature of "word" as irrelevant; but he has no trouble regarding words as a special case of the symbolic constructs of Gottlob Frege's Begriffsschrift (the "concept notation" that is one of the pioneering works of mathematical logic). Here is how Wittgenstein invoked Frege:

Frege ridiculed the formalist conception of mathematics by saying that the formalists confused the unimportant thing, the sign, with the important, the meaning. Surely, one wishes to say, mathematics does not treat of dashes on a bit of paper. Frege's idea could be expressed thus: the propositions of mathematics, if they were just complexes of dashes, would be dead and utterly uninteresting, whereas they obviously have a kind of life. And the same, of course, could be said of any proposition: Without a sense, or without the thought, a proposition would be an utterly dead and trivial thing. And further it seems clear that no adding of inorganic signs can make the proposition live. And the conclusion which one draws from this is that what must be added to the dead signs in order to make a live proposition is something immaterial, with properties different from all mere signs.

This builds up to the punch line of the one sentence for which I shall remember Wittgenstein above all other sentences documented in his name:

But if we had to name anything which is the life of the sign, we should have to say that it was its use.

There we have the crux of Google's legal woes in Europe. In the vast complex of the software machinery that has made Google what it is, the sign (to use Wittgenstein's terminology, rather than the BBC's "search words" phrase) "vuitton" (uncapitalized to emphasize how it is processed by that software machinery) is "an utterly dead and trivial thing." In other words it is an object with no inherent meaning (whether you follow the work of Ogden and Richards or the rejection of that work by Wittgenstein). However, if "vuitton" has no meaning; Google has endowed it with value, because anyone can bid in an auction for the right to have it associated with a Web-based advertisement.

LVMH, on the other hand, has taken this sign and brought it to life by endowing it with a very specific (and, it goes without saying, very commercial) use (applying the same emphasis that Rush Rhees invoked in his transcription of Wittgenstein's lecture). From this point of view, the legal case is not over whether Google has violated a trademark, no matter how strong a case Google makes that it respects such trademarks. The case is over whether or not Google can run their business by processing "dead signs" when those signs are "alive" to just about anyone who types anything into a Google search window.

I should go on record in declaring that I knowingly use at least one "dead sign" in my Google searches. There are many Web pages out there with my own content where I am identified at "StephenWS." As a matter of fact, this is now my "Display Name" for my new "presence" on the Telegraph Web site. If I am looking for my own stuff, I often include this "dead sign" to filter my search results.

From this point of view, it will be very interesting to see how the ECJ rules. A ruling that basically denies Google the right to traffic in "dead signs" (almost in Nikolai Gogol's sense of that phrase) could disrupt their entire business plan (at least in Europe but probably anywhere else as well). Furthermore, it is unlikely that any advances in Semantic Web technology are likely to rescue that business plan; since, as my recent review of the work of Arthur F. Bentley demonstrated, Semantic Web technology involves nothing more than "adding of inorganic signs." Now I am not suggesting that it is time to don sackcloth and wander the parking lot of the Googleplex with a sign reading:

The End of Google is Near

However, I seem to have taken an interest in countering the "Ten things Google has found to be true" with my own list of things Google seems to have overlooked, particularly the ones that may have significant consequences. Perhaps someone should be instructing them on the virtues of reading Ludwig Wittgenstein!

Monday, March 16, 2009

Two Leaders and Three Followers?

I have used my Examiner.com site to provide a more "bread-and-butter" review of yesterday's recital by the Prazak String Quartet and Menahem Pressler at Herbst Theatre; but, beyond that bread and butter were some interesting aspects of the nature of the performance. In my studies of chamber music performance practices, I have found considerable discussion of the question of who is in charge. Is chamber music truly "communal;" or is some form of Giddens-like domination necessary for the integrity of the performance? In the Beaux Arts Trio it always seemed to me that Pressler was the dominant player, reinforced by not only the physical strength of his piano sound but also by the responsibility of his part for multiple voices in the composition. (Some of this came out to me in my reading of Nicholas Delbanco's book about the Trio.) On the other hand, while the compositions for string quartet that the Prazak performed did an excellent job of treating all four parts as equals, it seemed to me as if first violinist Vaclav Remes was asserting his "authority" through a variety of physical cues. These tended to detach him from his three colleagues, particularly when he would lose eye contact with them in favor of facing the audience.

What would happen when two individuals who had become accustomed to such domination would encounter each other? In this case the result was fascinating. The attention that Remes had given to the audience earlier in the program was now directed at Pressler. It was as if he was accepting Pressler's authority on the condition that he would then serve as the "medium" through which that authority was exercised over the entire quartet. As should be clear from the way in which I wrote my review, I did not feel as if the performance suffered from this "authoritarian" strategy; but it provided an interesting data point to support the argument that the performance of chamber music does not, of necessity, have to be a "democratic" process!

In Comedy Begins Responsibilities

One wonders how Jon Stewart must feel now that his encounter with Jim Cramer has prompted positive reaction from the White House and, as a corollary, BBC reporting on the White House reacting to Cramer's appearance on The Daily Show. Sadly, however, the BBC seems to have fallen into one of the favorite traps of American media, viewing the program as a "debate" and then trying to assess "who won." This misses the point. Satire is not about truth "winning" over falsehood or deception. It is about using humor to expose flaws, thus making others more aware, lest they be victimized by those flaws.

In this case, as the BBC report made clear, Stewart's real target was the abundance of flaws in how business news is reported on television, particularly on cable and, more specifically, in all-business-news-all-the-time channels like CNBC. Cramer was little more than a symptom of a far more dangerous disease, which is the risk that CNBC offers little more than entertainment disguised as business reporting. The irony, of course, is that The Daily Show has never concealed that it is only offering satire; but, through their satire, one often gets more "hard news" information than one gets from a channel like Headline News, whose original concept of summarizing world news in twenty minutes has now been stomped into oblivion by its own stable of opinion-mongers.

Even if this was not a real debate, there is much to be learned from Cramer's inability to hold up his side of the conversation. However, his poor performance on The Daily Show does not necessarily constitute poor performance in explaining business news to his viewers. He may have fallen into the same trap that closes on other guests, not only Stewart's but also Stephen Colbert's. This is the temptation to try to compete with the host in the arena of comedy. (I have a personal friend, whose wit I almost always appreciate, who tried to engage that wit while being interviewed by Colbert; and he was reduced to mincemeat in short order.) It is also possible that Cramer went in front of the Comedy Central cameras without thinking about whether or not he should have his own message for the viewers, something like, "You've had your fun, but Mad Money is still one of the better sources of investment advice." Of course, we should also recognize that Cramer's messages on CNBC are products of a team of writers, rather than Cramer's personal wisdom, just as Stewart's rapid-fire wit also relies on a team of writers (even if Stewart deserves full credit for his excellent delivery). In other words both of these guys are performers dependent on their script writers. However, Stewart does not pretend to be anything other than a performer. Is Cramer anything other than a performer? Personally, I do not think so, which is why I do not need someone like Stewart to warn me about the hazards of watching CNBC!

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Keeping the Conversation Going

My What I Read list now reflects the fact that I have started reading Stephen Hough's blog. Since I am interested in conversation through comments, I wanted to comment in his most recent post. It turned out that, in order to do this, I had to set up a blog of my own on the Telegraph Web site. I found this odd in terms of most commenting practices, but I also found it cool that I could be maintaining a blog in London when I cannot even remember the last time I was there physically! In any event the blog has now been created with a subtitle of Beyond Rehearsal. I figure it might provide a good staging area for ideas that are ready to leave this "rehearsal studio." After all, we all know that anything uttered with a British accent carries more authority than when it bears an American accent!

Bringing the Hamas Question into the Spotlight

Once again, we must turn to Al Jazeera English to satisfy our need for a context-based account of our alleged "vigorous engagement" towards peace in the Middle East, particularly as regards whether or not Hamas will be allowed to participate in that engagement. The basis for their latest report began with the morning papers:

Several ex-senior officials in the US government have written to Barack Obama, the president, urging him to seek dialogue with the Palestinian Hamas movement, a newspaper report says.

The Boston Globe on Sunday reported that the group has called on the White House to hold talks with Hamas leaders to persuade the Palestinian group to lay down arms and join the rival Fatah in a unity government.

Specific names cited in the Al Jazeera account include Brent Scowcroft, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and Paul Volcker, hardly the sort of names one would associated with the accusations of Chamberlain-like appeasement that the Bush Administration was so quick to flourish. Just as surprising as the signatories, however, was the amount of time it took for this story to surface:

The letter was handed to Obama just days before he took office in January, the newspaper reported.

Where Al Jazeera could go beyond the Boston Globe was in seeking out a source who could address both sides of this Hamas question and its potential for impeding any serious engagement. They found such a source in Marl Lynch, Associate Professor of Political Science at George Washington University:

I think that there is a group of people who think that it is necessary. Hamas controls Gaza, you can't get aid into Gaza without working with Hamas and they represent a large portion of the Palestinian people.

On the other side you have a lot of people who say that the international community has a series of conditions. They haven't met those conditions, they have blood on their hands and there are a lot of people who have deep qualms about talking to Hamas.

Al Jazeera also provided a European perspective in the form of Clare Short, a former British Labour Minister, who just led a delegation of six European politicians to Damascus to meet with Hamas officials:

The Europeans seem, at least to my eye, more open to the possibility of working with Hamas towards meeting those conditions rather than having them as preconditions.

I found this a discreet way to address the current American position. Neither the Al Jazeera staff nor their sources would come out and say that there was one factor in the United States with which European politicians would not have to contend, that factor being the significant lobbying power of AIPAC. We need to remember that both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were courting AIPAC energetically at the organization's last convention; and we know that all-too-many decisions in Washington are biased by "deals that dare not speak their name." Recall that Obama's AIPAC speech was, to put it politely, conciliatory, while my reaction to the review of Clinton's Secretary of State nomination by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee described AIPAC as "the greatest threat to Clinton's effectiveness" as an "honest broker." It may be that, if Europe is making progress towards being such an "honest broker," then the wisest thing the United States might do is to withdraw from the negotiations, recognizing the suspicion with which our country continues to be viewed by all Middle East countries except for Israel. The Bush Administration would never have considered such a possibility. Would Obama be audacious to entertain it as a means to an end that is as important to us as it is to the European Community?

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Signal and Noise from Corporate America

Last night Daniel Bases wrote a lead for his Reuters story that was hard for someone with my analytic bent to resist:

It pays to communicate but Corporate America is doing less and less of it with investors as the U.S. economy falls deeper into recession, undermining market confidence in the process, a new study showed.

As I write this I see that I have accumulated 114 posts with "communication" as a label and 269 posts with "economy." The above sentence seemed to suggest that these two topics might be on a collision course; so I felt compelled to continue reading in the interest of trying to figure out what, if any, damage might ensue. Here is what I found:

The number of companies in the Standard & Poor's 500 index with a consistent track record over the past 10 years of issuing quarterly earnings per share guidance is down 36 percent in the last 10 months, according to Thomson Reuters Proprietary Research.

Well-known companies such as General Electric, Microsoft, Costco Wholesale, and Nucor have stopped giving consistent earnings guidance.

"They are just pulling back because they don't want to continue to have to put out numbers that they cannot meet on the street," said Martin Sass, chairman and chief executive officer of MD Sass, an investment management firm with $6 billion in assets under management.

"It has devastating implications for their credibility, their stock prices, and the like," he said.

For those, like myself, who try to invest wisely without deep-ending on tracking those investments, I feel it is worth observing that "earnings guidance" is a technical term. In a 2005 Commentary piece on researchstock.com, Richard J. Wayman called it "a relatively new term;" so I suppose it is now more familiar to those to try to follow the financial news as thoroughly as possible. Here is Wayman's definition:

Earnings guidance is defined as the comments management makes about what they expect their company to do in the future, also known as “forward looking statements.” These comments often focus on sales or earnings expectations in light of industry and macroeconomic trends. These comments are made to investors so that they can evaluate the company’s earnings potential.

It goes without saying that it is not easy to make credible "forward looking statements" under volatile conditions; but what does that mean for the more general issue of communication between a company and its investors? By not making any statement about the future, it seems as if a company may end up sending one of two messages:

  1. Things are going to be so bad that we do not want to frighten you into selling off your investments in our company.
  2. Things are so unpredictable right now that we really do not know what is going to happen over the next quarter, so we are not going to say anything about what might happen and ask you to trust our skills in running the company.

Neither of these messages is particularly beneficial to the company. In current conditions the first interpretation is likely to induce the very fear it is trying to prevent. The second interpretation is more honest; but will such an act of "coming clean" raise the level of trust that investors have in the company? Richard Bernstein, chief U.S. investment strategist for Bank of America/Merrill Lynch offered the following comment to Bases:

We pay very little attention to guidance at all. It's basically public relations to manipulate investor thinking, and has little to do with true fundamentals.

From his point of view, even that "act of 'coming clean'" is "basically public relations to manipulate investor thinking;" and, given how much deception and opacity we have been facing, it is hard to disagree with him. Nevertheless, we find ourselves in a situation where not communicating at all ends up sending messages that are just as noisy (in the technical sense of information theory) as any guidance messages.

The problem is that a statement of earnings per share over the coming quarter is nothing more than a single number. About two years ago I wrote a blog under the title, "If You Reduce it All to a Single Number, that Number is Almost Certainly Wrong!" Nevertheless, ours is a culture that desperately hungers for such numbers; and, as I observed almost a year ago, that is the culture that Nicholas Carr was trying to confront in his Atlantic Monthly article, "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" Whether we read it in an earnings guidance statement or in the first page of Google search results, we blindly accept answers while ignoring any message that provides the reasoning behind those answers. I would thus argue that the issue is not, as Bases seems to suggest, that we should be concerned that Corporate America is not throwing numbers at us; rather, the issue is whether or not it is in Corporate America's interests for investors to understand the nature of the situation behind those numbers. As an investor, I would think that it is in their interests; but I am sure there are plenty of companies whose managers would disagree. Nevertheless, since it is my money that is at stake, I feel that I should at least have the right to decide to invest it in companies who appreciate the value of understanding and avoid those who messages are little more than what Wayman calls SWAGs (Systematic, Wild Ass Guesses)!