Saturday, October 31, 2009

Establishing Power by Choosing your World

Having now launched myself into Arthur Loesser's "social history," Men, Women and Pianos, I found myself fascinated with the way in which he works the rise of the Pietist movement into his account of the origins of the piano as we know it (basically, by way of the clavichord, which he views as the first keyboard instrument to allow note-by-note control of amplitude). Here is how Loesser sets the context for the origin of Pietism:

Seventeenth-century Protestant Germany offered spiritual contentment for the landed, the learned, and the logical; but many others were at a disadvantage.

Basically, Pietism emerged as a recourse for those "at a disadvantage" through the precept that "intense personal feeling" was more important than property, education, and logic. The title of his chapter captures both the sincerity and the awkwardness of this position:

"Feeling" Seems Better than Logic

What is the verb "seem" if not the expression of feeling-based evaluation, casting a tautological cloud over any attempt to read that title as a logical proposition (which may, indeed, have been the rhetorical intent behind formulating the text that way)?

Another way of examining this transition might be through current perspectives of social theory. The premise behind that context-setting sentence is that logic provided a path for being learned and, if not landed, at least in an advantageous position to do business with the landed. Those who embraced this premise believed, probably as an article of faith, that the objective world was the only world that mattered, if not the only world that existed. From this point of view, Pietism can be seen as grounded on the hypothesis that there is also a subjective world that, at least as far as any religious communion is concerned, was more important than the objective world. This is not to suggest that subjectivity was "discovered" somewhere around the turn from the seventeenth to the eighteenth century; but it did achieve a level of legitimacy that justified talking about it in the course of normal conversation.

Does this view of social history inform how we think of music history? My guess is that, while it may offer insights into religious life, it may be somewhat myopic where the practice of music is concerned. Loesser has a tendency to see a wide gulf between sacred and secular music that, for example, ignores the extent to which Luther himself saw the value of appropriating popular tunes for the singing of hymns. Albert Schweitzer's biography of Johann Sebastian Bach stresses this by quoting Luther as saying, "The Devil cannot have all the good tunes to himself!" Thus, while there may have been significant divisions of social strata over the practice of religion, those divisions probably narrowed (if not disappeared) where the practice of music was concerned. It is hard to imagine musical practice that totally disregarded the subjective world (although that may just be a result of contemporary thinking that accords equal status to the objective and subjective worlds).

Consequently, the idea that the performance of music should become more "expressive" as a result of the legitimation of the subjective is probably a red herring. More important may be a criterion that Loesser almost dismisses as an aside, which is the extent to which musical instruments have the same expressiveness as the voice. It is in the imitation of vocalization, so to speak, that the flexibility of dynamic control in the clavichord surpassed the keyboard instruments that preceded it. The success at achieving that flexibility could then drive further technical development that would lead to the piano as we now know it.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Circling the Wagons

Probably the most perplexing part of my experience with Norman Lebrecht's The Maestro Myth: Great Conductors in Pursuit of Power involved his account of the late conductor Giuseppe Sinopoli. When I last dared to suggest that this book has more than its share of faults, I attracted a rather fascinating comment that I found almost as curious as Lebrecht's own texts:

Norman Lebrecht is a good writer. He may not report facts correctly, and he may not be able to predict the future, but he can certainly put compelling sentences and paragraphs together.

Where Sinopoli is concerned, there is no question that Lebrecht led his discussion with a compelling sentence:

Just to mention the name of Giuseppe Sinopoli is enough to make other conductors foam at the mouth and players throw up their hands in anguish.

However, neither the paragraph introduced by this sentence nor the paragraphs that follow it ever get down to the nuts and bolts of why this conductor (now deceased) provoked such extreme reactions. Instead, the reader is treated to what, at best, may be self-serving cultural bias:

London's critics, a fair-minded clique of individualists as a whole, tend to give a new conductor a sporting chance. When Sinopoli arrived [to conduct the Philharmonia], their horror was instant, unanimous and uniformly sustained.

This bias was subsequently reinforced in a conversation that Lebrecht had with Marc Brindle in September of 2000, which was documented on the MW Web site. Here is what Lebrecht had to say about Sinopoli in that conversation:

There was great irony in the phrase "Great conductor" as applied to Sinopoli. I said that he was being developed as a great conductor, and I was less antagonistic towards him than many were, although he has never moved me. He has not developed into a great conductor in the slightest. He is what he always was - quirky, controversial. He does things that are so outrageous they are interesting. He will do Mahler 2 without there being any sense of resurrection - it is a neutral, laboratory performance but I'm not going to hold it my memory as a performance to cherish. It's instructive in certain ways - he is quite good at illuminating texture. The basis of his career, however, was a ludicrous contract, an act of madness, with Deutsche Grammophon who signed him for 85 recordings but who have now bought him out of his contract with three dozen or so actually made.

I have to confess that both of these sources left be utterly confused, wondering just what it was that seemed to have upended opinions throughout Europe, reinforced with the implication that only the British in that bunch were "fair-minded!" My first encounter with Sinopoli was through Deutsche Grammophon, specifically his involvement with their project to release the complete works of Johannes Brahms in 1983 to celebrate the sesquicentennial of his birth. My first purchase was of the works for chorus and orchestra, and both my wife and I fell in love with Sinopoli's approach to the German Requiem. At the time neither of us felt this was in any way "a neutral, laboratory performance;" and, to be fair, I have just ordered the CD release of this entire collection to determine whether or not my opinion of that performance still holds. On the other hand I now have the Deutsche Grammophon CD box of the complete recordings of Gustav Mahler that Sinopoli made with the Philharmonia Orchestra; so I feel it is fair to ask just what that "sense of resurrection" is that Lebrecht felt was lacking and why, in his book, he took Sinopoli's comments about the first symphony to be a "direct conflict with biographical and musical fact." At the very least Lebrecht's sense of "musical fact" seems to have excluded the connection between this symphony and the Songs of a Wayfarer.

So what was the problem? Why should so much venom be showered upon this one conductor? I suspect that it may have been a combination of a nonstandard background (qualifying as a doctor from a medical school in Padua in 1971 but never practicing medicine) and highly unorthodox verbal expression of opinions about both music and its performance. Social theorists like to talk about "community" being the escalation of the sense of self from the subjective to the social scale. However, those who like to "celebrate" the "spirit of community" often forget that one cannot have a sense of self without a sense of other. It may be that Sinopoli was just too much "other" for the prevailing "spirit of community" of musicians in Europe, at least during his lifetime. From this point of view, he is far from alone among those who pushed that sense of "other" beyond respectable limits. Among conductors my favorite example has always been Sergiu Celibidache, while in the United States the names that come immediately to mind are John Cage (who is only just beginning to be recognized as respectable) and Nicholas Slonimsky (whose recognition was more significant outside the musical community than within it). My point, however, is that the nature of the community is to affirm its sense of self by circling the wagons to exclude the other; and Sinopoli just happened to get stuck outside the circle. On the other hand an Amazon search for "Sinopoli" yields 289 hits in the Music Department. That may be modest when compared with the 1710 hits for "Marriner;" but, given what the classical music market is like, it is at least an acceptable showing. Perhaps it indicates that there are enough listeners out there who do not rely on the prevailing wisdom of critics when making decisions about music, and that should be taken as a good sign for listening!

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Kucinich Confronts his Speaker (again?)

When it comes to the chutzpah of standing up to the rich and mighty (and those who act on their behalf), Dennis Kucinich has a good track record of Chutzpah of the Week awards. By my records he has accumulated three of his own and one shared with 56 fellow House Democrats, who continue to do their utmost to make sure that health care reform amounts to serious reform, rather than the devaluation of yet another noun that gets used too often by the wrong people. This week he gets to claim another award as sole recipient for doing one of the things he does best, serving as the little boy in the crowd smart enough to know a naked emperor when he sees one. The emperor in his case is none other than his Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, who seems to have bought into a "public option," which, according to the recent analysis by John Nichols is likely to benefit the insurance industries far more than the general public.

One thing I like about Kucinich is that, when someone tries to sell him a bill of goods, he not only recognizes what is really on the table but usually invokes some of his best rhetoric to make sure everyone is aware that he knows the score. Fortunately, John Nichols has provided us with the rhetoric Kucinich cooked up for Pelosi in this particularly miscarriage of reform. Here are the excerpts quoted in his The Beat blog post:

Is this the best we can do? Forcing people to buy private health insurance, guaranteeing at least $50 billion in new business for the insurance companies?

Is this the best we can do? Government negotiates rates which will drive up insurance costs, but the government won't negotiate with the pharmaceutical companies which will drive up pharmaceutical costs.

Is this the best we can do? Only 3 percent of Americans will go to a new public plan, while currently 33 percent of Americans are either uninsured or underinsured?

Is this the best we can do? Eliminating the state single payer option, while forcing most people to buy private insurance.

If this is the best we can do, then our best isn't good enough and we have to ask some hard questions about our political system: such as Health Care or Insurance Care? Government of the people or a government of the corporations.

Hang in there Dennis! Keep asking the hard questions, even if yours is the only voice asking them. Even if only one voice persists in promoting the proposition that a single-payer system is the only reform that deserves to be called reform, that voice has to keep going like that notorious pink bunny. After all, the polls continue to tell us that such a voice speaks for the public at large, liberated from the manipulations of the "consciousness industry." That public surely deserves more than a single voice in Congress; but, if they are stuck with only one, best that it be a forceful and courageous one!

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Disaster Mentality

I have been reading Bill McKibben's latest piece for The New York Review with great fascination. It is a review of the book A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster by Rebecca Solnit. As McKibben makes clear, this book is not an academic analysis. He prefers to think of it as the work of a first-rate reporter who happens to be "covering" past, rather than current, events. Those events are extreme natural disasters in the wake of which highly altruistic communities self-organize when one might expect the population to plummet into chaos and anarchy. Here is McKibben's key summary:

Her point is that people acting on their own were often able to deal with the immediate chaos—that there was a kind of anarchy because government couldn't react fast enough. The anarchy, however, was not necessarily the desperate and selfish thing we imagine, but often its mirror image.

This is the sort of community perspective that is the dream of Internet evangelists, but most of Solnit's case studies took place long before the Internet. Indeed, the earliest of her examples, the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, took place at a time when direct communication was still very much a problematic affair. So this is hardly a promotion for how new technologies have advanced our capacity for community-building in the service of the common good.

However, whenever I am presented with a portfolio of case studies offered as success stories, the skeptical scientist in me starts looking for counterexamples. I wonder to what extent were these stories about natural disasters so severe that established institutions "couldn't react fast enough?" As McKibben observes, not all of Solnit's case studies are strictly "natural." She includes "the explosion of an ammunition ship in the harbor at Halifax during World War I, and the September 11 terrors in New York," apparently because they "had almost the character of natural disasters, coming from the blue." This seems to imply that the critical factor may be the inability of those established institutions to "react fast enough," whether the problem is one of a lack of preparedness or inadequacy of resources. At the risk of sounding too reductive, the thesis may well be that communities form to take care of themselves when no one else will do so.

This then raises the question of where the current economic crisis fits among these case studies and their resulting inferences. Rather than concentrating on the mathematics of the performance of stock exchanges around the world, focus instead on the unemployment problem, which continues to get reported through statistics but with little interpretive analysis. Katty Kay's BBC NEWS report last month about people going back to work in Perry County in Tennessee had a strong sense of community to it, but it was still basically a story about jobs created through stimulus money. Furthermore, it was an account of an experiment, which had little to say about what would happen when the period of observation and data collection associated with that experiment had concluded. (Remember the jaundiced view of such "experimentation" in the interests of educational reform that David Simon brought to the fourth season of The Wire.) Would it be fair to ask why a crisis such as this one did not prompt the initiative of self-organizing communities as recently as a year ago, when the Bush Administration was engaged in its usual dithering over how to respond to needs that no one really understood?

One answer may be that economic crises are qualitatively different from the disasters that Solnit examined, whether or not those disasters are natural ones. The sort of communities that Solnit studied form in the interest of providing food, clothing, and shelter to those most in need, often when provision is a matter of personal self-sacrifice. We saw at least a bit of this in some of the tent cities that began to be formed by victims of foreclosure. Economic failure, on the other hand, is not just about those who find themselves without food, clothing, and shelter; it is more about those who (usually unexpectedly) find that they no longer have the capacity to provide food, clothing, and shelter. Put another way, it is not that they have lost these "subsistence basics" but that they have lost the earning power through which they used to have those basics. (Half a century ago Paul Goodman had even warned that the foundation for such earning power was too flimsy to be sustainable, but the reasoning presented in Growing Up Absurd did not attract much attention at either the institutional or individual level.) It is clear that established institutions are not reacting fast enough to this underlying problem, and we would be right to question if they are reacting at all. However, can we expect self-organizing communities to compensate for this particular failure to react? My guess is that we cannot do so, meaning that, while Solnit may tell us a lot about human nature at its most virtuous, her case studies may not go very far in resolving the economic problems that now confront us.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

A Historical Sin of Omission?

In the context of my efforts to bring social theory to bear on how I write about music, I decided that it was time for me to give a serious reading to Arthurs Loesser's Men, Women and Pianos: A Social History. I had examined a copy from the San Francisco Public Library; and the initial chapter, on the earliest forms of keyboard instruments, convinced me that I needed the time to give the book a serious reading (and probably to collect my own notes about that reading). This morning, however, I put the book to what I thought would be a simple test and was more than disconcerted at its failure.

The test concerned an piece I wrote at the beginning of the day, covering a recital of the music of Johannes Brahms last night at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. I decided it would be appropriate to call the piece "A Schubertiad for Brahms," since the occasion was very much true to the Schubertiad concept (at least in the spirit of the Oxford Companion to Music source that I cited). Nevertheless, I figured that it would be worth the time for a quick check to see if the term "Schubertiad" had been used for recitals of music other than that of Franz Schubert. The index of Loesser's book was the first source I checked; and I was quite surprised to discover that "Schubertiad" was entirely absent from that index. I found it hard to believe that a book claiming to be a social history first published in 1954 would fail to mention the Schubertiad. My guess is that I shall eventually find the term lurking somewhere in the text, but it still strikes me as important enough to merit its own index entry!

Monday, October 26, 2009

Confronting the Consequences of "Industrial" Health Care

Last August, when it seemed as if the very concept of a public debate over health care reform was being reduced to one aggressive shout-fest after another, I raised the following question:

Is there any country other than the United States that classifies health care as an industry?

I reflected that this was a classic example of how, through a simple linguistic twist, the United States had perverted a concept that could be traced all the way back to Ancient Greece. I therefore took great comfort this weekend, when I read Jerome Groopman's piece for The New York Review entitled "Diagnosis: What Doctors Are Missing." I wrote about Groopman's insights a couple of times back in 2007 after the appearance of his book, How Doctors Think. This time around I found myself influenced by not only his past insights but also one of the better one-liners from the Nurse Jackie series:

Doctors do not cure; they diagnose.

As the article title suggests, the quality of health care often comes down to the quality of diagnosis; and Groopman's book tried to take on the problem of why recent diagnostic quality has become so poor. In this respect it is worth repeating a passage I cited in 2007 from Richard Horton's review of Groopman's book (which also appeared in The New York Review):

On average, about 15 percent of a doctor's diagnoses are inaccurate. Groopman directs a well-aimed arrow at a system of medical training that more often than not fails to investigate why these diagnoses are misses. Doctors are rarely taught to ask how an error could have taken place, let alone how it could be avoided in the future. Most are unaware of their mistakes. Even if patients remain unwell, no systematic effort is made to find out where doctors may have gone wrong. Doctors are uncertain about their own uncertainties. (Although for some doctors, such as radiologists, Groopman cites alarming research that shows the worse their performance, the more certain they seem to be that they are right!)

Groopman's own New York Review piece involves an analysis of three cognitive errors that "cloud logic" during diagnosis: anchoring (attaching too much value to the first data you encounter), availability (paying too much attention to recent or dramatic cases), and attribution (making conclusions based on stereotypes, rather than observation). When Ellen Goodman read Groopman's book, she wrote her own essay entitled "The Benefits of Slow Journalism," which basically argued that, in the age of "Internet speed," hasty writing was subject to the same kind of distorting biases that Groopman had been investigating in faulty medical diagnoses. As I put it in my own blog post, both doctors and journalists were now practicing in "a world without reflection."

Groopman takes the argument a step further, however. True to the Thinking in Time strategy of Richard Neustadt and Ernest May, his New York Review piece tries to take on what I call the how-did-we-get-into-this-mess question, which is where his conclusions link up with my opening remarks:

But only recently has medical care been recast in our society as if it took place in a factory, with doctors and nurses as shift workers, laboring on an assembly line of the ill. The new people in charge, many with degrees in management economics, believe that care should be configured as a commodity, its contents reduced to equations, all of its dimensions measured and priced, all patient choices formulated as retail purchases. The experience of illness is being stripped of its symbolism and meaning, emptied of feeling and conflict. The new era rightly embraces science but wrongly relinquishes the soul.

One would think that the concluding sentence of this excerpt would be enough to sway any Fundamentalist Conservative to the cause of health care reform; but, apparently, the boogie man of "godless socialism" is far more frightening that "soulless" medical practice. Thus, the future of health care will rest not on either the underlying principles of "how doctors think" or even religious convictions of the faithful over the difference between right and wrong but on the power of the "consciousness industry" to bias prevailing opinions based on both reason and faith. If these biases continue to hold sway, then both doctors and their patients will be the losers in any effort towards health care reform.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Music as Language

For all of my ongoing efforts to invoke the concepts of syntax, logic, and rhetoric, trying to view music as if it were some form of language is a risky business. I continue to feel that the best example of a perfectly reputable music scholar creating an absolute shambles by venturing into linguistics is Deryck Cooke's The Language of Music, which Oxford University Press first published in 1959 and continues to release in reprint. To be fair, however, Cooke's problem may run deeper than its inability to grasp the linguistic theory of his day or any of that theory's precedents. Having just completed The Aesthetic as the Science of Expressions and of the Linguistic in General (for the second time), I realize that, as early as 1901 (when this book was first published), Benedetto Croce proposed that linguistic theory itself was flawed at the lowest level of basic foundations for studying language.

The nature of the flaw can be captured in a single sentence from the final chapter of Croce's book:

Language is perpetual creation; what is expressed at one time in words is not repeated save in the reproduction of what has already been produced; ever new impressions give rise to a continually changing set of sounds and meanings, that is, to ever new expressions.

This resonates nicely with my own predilection for seeking out the appropriate balance of "noun-based" (or object-based) and "verb-based" thinking. True to the positivist mind-set that can be traced back to Enlightenment thinking, linguistic theorists were disposed to view any language as an object, which could then be analyzed in terms of attributes, components parts, and a vast web of relationships. This is not to say that a language lacks objective properties; but, from Croce's point of view, it was a great mistake to place those properties at the center of attention. The real center of attention was the more "verb-based" examination of language-in-use, particularly to the extent that "what is expressed" was rarely, if ever, reduced to properties of objective elements. (Croce was so forceful about this position that he even attacked the very concepts of "noun" and "verb" for their capacity to distract attention from "what is expressed.") This alternative point of view would gradually emerge, first through Ludwig Wittgenstein's decision to focus on how signs are used and eventually through Jürgen Habermas' efforts to extrapolate his theories of pragmatics to a general "theory of communicative action."

Croce's own concern had to do with the poor fit between what linguistics could tell us about language-in-use and what literature could tell us. This led to one of his better punch lines:

To write according to a theory is not really to write, but at most to put on literary airs, – and not very good ones.

With a minor shift in words, this could well be an observation about what I have called "a preoccupation with theory in preference to practice" in music composition, which was particularly popular in academic circles in the roughly half-century following the end of the Second World War. From this point of view, we might do well to view Cooke's book as a minor symptom of a far more pernicious state of confusion.

I suspect we have much of the avant-garde movement to thank for freeing us from that confusion. Admittedly, those in the movement were more interested in shaking trees than in taking stock of what might then fall from those trees; but harvesting has always involved its own set of activities. This is not to say that our ability to understand or describe "what is expressed" is any better than it was in Croce's time; but at least we are now willing to grant that his particular priorities may have had some merit (and it only took a century to come by that insight)!

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Our Weird American Cousin

When it comes to news of the weird, the BBC tends to draw upon its own "sceptered isle" and its abundance of British eccentrics from obscure little villages. Every now and then, however, they have to admit that our country can outdo all of their local talent. This was certainly the case for a story released on the BBC NEWS Web site this morning:

Police in the US state of Minnesota are planning to auction off a specially modified and motorised lounge chair whose owner crashed it while drunk.

Dennis LeRoy Anderson, 62, pleaded guilty last Monday to driving the La-Z-Boy while drunk in August last year.

The chair was impounded after he smashed into a parked car as he returned from a bar in Proctor.

The chair comes with a stereo, nitrous oxide booster, parachute and a "hell yeah it's fast" sticker.

Local police chief Walter Wobig told Agence France-Presse news agency the chair would be posted on eBay next week with no reserve price.

Minnesota police can auction off vehicles seized in drink-drive cases or keep them for official use.

The blue and black chair's other attractions include headlights and a steering wheel in the style of a drag-racer. It can reach up to 20mph (32km/h) with its lawnmower-powered engine.

Mr Anderson, who was not badly injured in the accident, was found to have three times the legal limit when arrested. He said he had drunk eight or nine beers.

Mr Anderson was sentenced to 180 days in jail, suspended pending two years of probation.

The only problem I can see is that the author of this report failed to appreciate the geography of the situation. According to the map provided on the Web page, Proctor is significantly north of Minneapolis, right on the westernmost tip of Lake Superior. Thus, while trying to be thorough about all of this chair's features, the reporter neglected to mention whether or not it comes with a set of custom-made tire chains!

I was also amused that the police chief was interviewed by Agence France-Presse. For all I know, this was the only interview he gave. When other reporters approached the press liaison officer for the Proctor Police Department, they were all greeted with the same terse message, "Wobig gone!"

Friday, October 23, 2009

Let Dudamel be Dudamel!

Whose idea was it to start referring to Gustavo Dudamel as "The Dude?" Is this an inevitable piece of baggage that he is going to have to carry around Los Angeles in the same vein as the "Dudamel Dog" now available at Pink's in Hollywood? An initial Google probe indicated that the epithet was already being used by Los Angeles Times Staff Writer Diane Haithman as early as April 6, 2008. This would have been a few weeks after he made his debut here conducting the San Francisco Symphony, where we were mercifully spared the label. However, here is Haithman's account:

For a two-week run that ends today, Gustavo Dudamel, the 27-year-old Venezuelan wunderkind who will take over as music director of the Philharmonic in 2009, has been in residence in Los Angeles, leading the orchestra for the first time since his appointment was announced a year ago.

Friday's concert featured him conducting Debussy and Bartok -- the latter in a concerto played by live-wire violinist and Los Angeles native Leila Josefowicz, 30, whose youthful zest rivaled Dudamel's.

And if his streak of critically acclaimed, sold-out concerts is any indication, Dudamania will still be at full throttle when the conductor returns on a permanent basis in October 2009.

Just ask the man himself, whom the music blogosphere has already nicknamed "The Dude" or "El Dude." At a post-concert "talk-back" with the audience, Deborah Borda, president of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Assn., ended her remarks with a rallying cry: "How many of you have Dudamania?" The conductor with the wild curls and the infectious grin listened to the applause for only a few seconds before shooting his own hand, school-kid style, into the air.

So I decided to test Haithman's claim that this was a phenomenon of the blogosphere by doing a Google blogs search on "dude" and "Dudamel" for the period between April 7, 2007 (a rough approximation to the announcement of his Los Angeles appointment) and April 6, 2008. This yielded 47 hits, the earliest of which, seem to have evaporated (one by Charles Barwell on August 20 and the other by Ed Vaizey on August 29). The earliest "real" hit was posted on September 11 (!), 2007 to the ArtsWatch blog maintained by Peter Dobrin, whose credentials in both journalism (The Philadelphia Inquirer) and music (Peabody Institute) are pretty respectable. The post provided a link to a video clip of Dudamel's recent Proms appearance under the headline "The Dude." Is this what started the rot? Dare I say it? Inquiring minds want to know!

Now the epithet has progressed from the Los Angeles Times to PBS, having figured conspicuously in the promotions for their broadcast this past Wednesday of Dudamel's opening night at Disney. I can imagine John Adams, who composed "City Noir" for the occasion, getting a good chuckle out of this ballyhoo. However, the Adams premiere was coupled with Gustav Mahler's first symphony. While this may have been a clever move to build up an audience for Mahler in Los Angeles, one has to wonder what he would have thought of the whole affair. I have this wonderful vision of him easing the shock of disbelief by downing a beer while chewing on a Dudamel Dog!

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Fighting the Good Fight for Health Care Reform

I sometimes wonder if John Nichols is the only one out there consistently reporting (primarily through The Beat, his blog for The Nation) on health care reform in terms of whether or not any real reform is likely to happen. He may have missed this week's Associated Press story about Senator Roland Burris, which provided enough evidence for me to grant Burris the Chutzpah of the Week award on a Monday; but, while the Burris story was one about putting one's constituents above politics, Nichols has also turned his attention to those trying to strike back against the fear-inducing lies being spread about proposals for reform, particularly surrounding concepts such as single-payer and public option. While these tactics may be deployed with chutzpah, they are basically grounded in the recognition that politics is a hardball game. For all of his elevated rationality, even Barack Obama is beginning to recognized that lies can only be called out as such with as much passion as the lies themselves were first stated.

Through Nichols' latest post, we see that, in the House of Representatives, that level of passion may best be embodied in the tactics deployed by Alan Grayson. Grayson seems to have decided that, if the Republicans want to play the fear card by talking about "death panels," he can trump them with claims of his own. Here is how Nichols represents his case:

The Florida Democrat who drew national attention last month when he declared on the House floor that the Republican plan for uninsured Americans was "don't get sick, and if you do get sick, die quickly," was back on the House floor this week to announce the creation of a website to honor the victims of the current system.

Grayson, who has taken the lead in highlighting a Harvard study that shows 44,000 Americans die annually because they have no health insurance, told the House and the nation: "I think it dishonors all those Americans who have lost their lives because they had no health coverage, by ignoring them, by not paying attention to them, and by doing nothing to change the situation that led them to lose their live."

With that in mind, he announced the launch of a Names of the Dead website.

Grayson's welcoming message at the site declares:

Every year, more than 44,000 Americans die simply because have no health insurance.

I have created this project in their memory. I hope that honoring them will help us end this senseless loss of American lives. If you have lost a loved one, please share the story of that loved one with us. Help us ensure that their legacy is a more just America, where every life that can be saved will be saved.

Visitors to the site are invited to add the names and stories of people who have died. They're also asked where they stand with regard to the health-care reform debate. There are links to the Harvard study, Grayson's speeches and his congressional and campaign websites.

This may be a rather macabre approach to bringing participatory democracy to the health care debate; but it seems at least to have achieved the effect of whacking the Republican elephant on the back of its head with a two-by-four to get its attention. Here is a reaction from Andy Sere speaking for the National Republican Congressional Committee:

What is wrong with this man? Alan Grayson's morbid exploitation of "the dead" for personal political gain may be the most shameless stunt he's pulled yet.

Did anyone call out Sara Palin's first "death panel" speech as a "shameless stunt?" While a simple refutation may defeat a lie on the field of logic, a truly egregious lie embedded in the embellishments of rhetoric needs to be defeated rhetorically as well as logically. Grayson's "morbid exploitation" is nothing more than the judo trick of turning the opponent's rhetoric to his own advantage. Ironically, as Nichols reported, the Republicans have now tried a judo maneuver of their own:

Opponents of health care reform are so desperately frightened by Grayson's tactics that they immediately attacked the "Names of the Dead" site and posted false names -- "Wile E. Coyote" and "Hugh G. Reckshinn" -- to mock the reality that Americans die because our insurance industry.

When your critics are reduced to making light of the innocent dead, you have won the debate.

I am not sure I want to jump to Nichols' conclusion quite so quickly, but I hope that Democrats in both houses of Congress take the trouble to monitor activity on this Web site. It should not take long to get a sense of how many folks out there want to take it seriously, in which case that Web site may ultimately tell us more expressively what all those polls that have already told us about how seriously the American public feels about the need for reform.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Samuel Johnson Meets the Internet

If it really is all about entertainment in the world of television, then at least Britain's More4 News is taking an interesting approach to entertainment. Consider the following report by Urmee Khan, which just appeared on the Telegraph Web site:

The three giants of 19th century British literature will consider the changes in Britain since they were alive, and comment on the state of the country today.

The ‘news’ reports will be broadcast on More4 News as part of the programmes main news line up.

Dr Samuel Johnson will be interpreted by the broadcaster David Stafford, John Ruskin, the critic, will be played by Professor Bernard Richards, a Ruskin expert at Brasenose College Oxford, and Jane Austen will be performed by Rebecca Vaughan, who wrote and performed in 'Austen's Women' at this year's Edinburgh festival.

Reading on, I was particularly impressed in the role that "Dr. Johnson" will be playing in this project:

Dr Johnson will examine the knowledge economy and learn how to use the internet – which he considers a "truly a remarkable piece of apparatus and a boon to scholarship.

Given what we know about the man's irascibility, I can imagine that the experience of his learning to use the Internet might turn out to be more entertaining than any of the antics of Homer Simpson. On the other hand an amusing approach to the frustrations he encounters and to his perseverance in eventually becoming a "knowledge worker" may be an inspiration for viewers. Of course, I suspect that he would be more than a little bilious where phrases like "knowledge worker" and "knowledge economy" are concerned; but, when it comes to letting everyone know that the emperor is naked, could there be a more trusted voice than Johnson's?

Entertainment Wins More Ground on Television

The first time I had a cable feed delivered to my home (a condominium in Stamford, Connecticut), the thing I enjoyed most was the Headline News channel run by CNN. This was before HBO offerings were particularly interesting; and, while "A&E" still stood for "arts and entertainment," the arts programming was pretty seriously damaged by commercial interruptions. Even with commercials, however, CNN had hit on a winning formula (at least for me): "You give us twenty minutes, and we give you the world." Yes, that meant that ten minutes out of each half hour went for commercials; but the remaining twenty were pretty good stuff. Most important was that the content was available pretty much when you wanted it, although it usually helped to start at the top of the hour or half-hour.

It did not take long for weather to get a similar treatment. The Weather Channel had this "on the 8's" schedule that provided local weather information every ten minutes at :08, :18, :28, etc. The rest of the time there was an early version of a "crawl," which usually required more patience than one was willing to spare but was better than nothing in a pinch.

The Headline News formula went the way of the dodo years ago. Now, according to Dave Itzkoff's latest post to the ArtsBeat blog of The New York Times, The Weather Channel is about to make its first venture into flat-out entertainment (as opposed to documentary-like offerings, such as Storm Stories):

In a news release, the Weather Channel said that, for the first time in its 27-year history, it would begin showing movies on a Friday-night series called “The Weather Channel Presents…” Each film will be shown on Friday night at 8 p.m. (when weather-related news is apparently at low tide), and the series is to begin on Oct. 30 with — what else? — “The Perfect Storm.” (The broadcast date coincides with the 18th anniversary of the Nor’easter documented in that Sebastian Junger book and the Wolfgang Petersen film adaptation.)

It will be interesting to see if these movies get ten-minute interruptions for local weather (as well as commercial breaks); but I realized that, as far as my own weather information is concerned, I no longer care very much, since I no longer need to watch The Weather Channel. I get ZIP-code-specific information through their Web site; and Comcast provides me with its own page of local weather information (probably taken from The Weather Channel) when my computer is not connected.

I suppose this is why Headline News no longer feels much obligation to provide headlines. Most of us can get them most of the time through an RSS reader, and some of those feeds provide video as well as text. The idea that television should deliver those headlines through a half-hour package is pretty much obsolete. The BBC does it on their World Service Television programming; but only at the top of the hour, alternating straight news with half-hour features. PBS now gets that feed but provides it through very sparse offerings (on those channels that provide it at all). Al Jazeera English follows the same formula as the BBC; but (surprise!) the American media has yet to distribute their signal through the air, cable, or satellite.

The change at The Weather Channel may be a reflection of a recent change in the chain of command. Bill Carter reported this change for The New York Times last July:

The owners of the Weather Channel, one of the most widely available channels on cable, reached outside the television industry on Monday to select a new chief executive, Michael J. Kelly.

Mr. Kelly was also named president of the Weather Channel Companies, which encompasses the cable channel, seen in 99 million homes, and a variety of Web sites, like, whose 41 million unique monthly visitors make it one of the leading information sites.

Mr. Kelly had most recently worked in private equity as an adviser to the media-focused firm Veronis Suhler Stevenson, but before that he was the president of AOL Media Networks. He has also worked in newspapers and for the magazine Entertainment Weekly, where he was the publisher for four years.

At the time of his appointment, Kelly said little about where things might be going with one exception:

More important to the future of the Weather Channel, Mr. Kelly said, is the integration of weather information across multiple platforms, from television to the Web to mobile devices.

I am not sure how showing feature films (and competing with other channels doing the same thing during Friday prime time) has anything to do with that "integration of weather information." If anything, it will probably encourage others to follow my path to alternative platforms. Considering Kelly's background, this is probably just the latest instance of an entertainment camel sticking its nose under an information tent. Why should we be any better informed about the weather than we are about what our government is doing about health care reform and the continuing economic crisis?

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Herod and his Discontents (and ours)

Yesterday I submitted a comment to San Francisco Classical Voice in response to Jason Victor Serinus' review of the current San Francisco Opera production of Richard Strauss' Salome. I wanted to pick up on his observation that Kim Begley had played Herod as "a pathetic wimp of a lush hardly capable of wearing the crown" (without saying very much about whether this was Begley's decision, that of director Seán Curran, or that of Curran's consulting director and dramaturgy, James Robinson). I suggested that, from a strictly musical point of view, Strauss' portrayal of Herod might have provided Alban Berg with models that he would later apply to the Captain in his Wozzeck opera. We do not know if the Captain has a drinking problem; but, if we take that "crown" as metaphor for his officer's insignia, the rest of the description fits rather nicely. This has led me to revisit the question of who Herod really his and what role he plays in this opera.

I would like to begin in the somewhat unlikely place of a lesson from Molière, with particular attention to his structuring of Tartuffe. The lesson is that he, as playwright, keeps you waiting for a considerable time before you actually see Tartuffe on the stage. The last time I saw a staged production, it was performed with a single intermission; and Tartuffe's first appearance took place shortly before that intermission. The point is that his appearance has so much impact because, by the time we actually see him, we have been subjected to a wide variety of different points of view about him. We do not know what to make of him on the basis of the testimony of others; so we are "primed" to observe him in action and figure things out for ourselves.

Think now of how Strauss reveals his characters to us in his highly faithful adaptation of Oscar Wilde's text. While Wilde's script presents the play as a single act taking place in a single scene, Strauss partitions the continuous flow of the music into four scenes. Without trying to sound too reductive, the first scene is basically "talk about Salome," coming primarily from Narraboth with highly metaphorical commentary from the Page, our first exposure to the voice of Jokanaan, and some "business talk" from the two soldiers and the Cappadocian. The second scene is marked by Salome's appearance. Bearing in mind that page count is not always the best measure of time, in the IMSLP reprint this takes place 15 pages into the 348-page score. Here the focus is on her suspicions about Herod and her fascination with Jokanaan's voice, culminating in her order to see him. The third scene follows an extended orchestral interlude, during which Jokanaan is fetched from the cistern in which he is imprisoned; and it begins with his entrance 44 pages into the score. From a dramatic point of view, this is a scene in which the exchange between Salome and Jokanaan follows a very strict "call and response" structure. Unlike the palace guard, however, Jokanaan is immune to Salome's commands and is ultimately sent back to his imprisonment. Only one scene remains. It follows another orchestral interlude, begins with Herod's entrance, and carries us through the rest of the narrative. In the score 122 pages have elapsed before this scene begins, and the scene requires 226 pages.

We thus have a somewhat telescoping process through which the characters are disclosed:

  1. We begin with secondary characters and the disembodied voice of Jokanaan.
  2. 14 pages elapse before the "talk about Salome" is resolved by her appearance.
  3. 29 pages then elapse before the disembodied voice of Jokanaan is resolved by his appearance.
  4. We then have 78 pages of interaction between Salome and Jokanaan, which basically sets us up for her subsequent interaction with Herod.
  5. That interaction then plays out over the remaining 122 pages.

This leads me to wonder whether or not Wilde may have calculated these appearances in terms of his particular take on their significance in the overall narrative. Yes, Salome "wins" the title of the opera; but Herod is ultimately the "engine" that "drives the narrative," so to speak. (This is rather like the way in which Scarpia occupies a more focal position than Tosca in Giacomo Puccini's opera based on Victorien Sardou's drama named after the latter heroine. Tosca the opera preceded Salome the opera by about five years; and my guess is that Strauss was as aware of it as he was of Wilde's source text.)

From this I would propose that any understanding of a performance of Salome must ultimately come down to how Herod is conceived and how that conception is realized. This is quite a challenge, given the sort of press the guy received. The Gospels present him as a Jewish stooge of Roman authority who slaughters all children born at the time of the Nativity in order to thwart the coming of the Messiah. In Claudius the God Robert Graves is a bit more objective but still has him succumb to madness. What does Wilde make of him? About a year ago I suggested that Wilde set him up as the ultimate decadent take on the aesthetic movement. I wrote that, as Wilde conceived him, he "formed his own identity around conspicuous consumption," with a focus on consumption of the beautiful. That conspicuous consumption leads to the death first of Jokanaan and then of Salome herself, but ultimately it is Herod himself that has been consumed by the end of the narrative. It is almost as if Wilde chose to reflect that there could be a "dark side" to the aesthetic movement he so championed.

From this point of view, his character differs significantly from Berg's musical conception of Wozzeck's Captain; but it differs just as significantly from how Serinus saw him. It is not so much that he is a "pathetic wimp" but that he is a "diseased" character representing an entire culture (Judea) that has become just as diseased under Roman rule. The question of whether or not the coming of the Messiah should be taken as a "cure for the disease" is left as an exercise for the reader. A more interesting question is whether or not Wilde recognized the "disease" in his own society, which was already laying the groundwork for the path to a World War that he did not live to witness.

Is all this reading too much into a one-act play that may have been conceived for no other reason than to scandalize? I do not think so. Every culture has the right to interpret the narratives it inherits within its current context. The fact that both the play and the opera continue to provoke means that our own culture continues to turn over questions of how they should be interpreted. The San Francisco Opera just happens to have provided us with another opportunity to examine those questions.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Motivating Good Governance

The Mo Ibrahim Prize was announced three years ago. At that time I wrote on my previous blog (under the somewhat sarcastic title, "The Best Government Money can Buy?") that "Mohammed (Mo) Ibrahim will use his self-made millions to back an annual $5 million prize to be awarded to former African leaders 'who had demonstrated excellence in government.'" This morning Al Jazeera reported that the prize would not be awarded this year:

The prize committee had "considered some credible candidates" but could not select a winner, Ketumile Masire, the president of Botswana, said on Monday.

He said the foundation "noted the progress made with governance in some African countries, while noticing with concern recent setbacks in other countries".

One can understand the predicament of the prize committee, but it revives my own sense of sarcasm. Is the motive behind the prize still a valid one that has been jeopardized by the current economic crisis? Is the principle a good one that has found itself reduced to haggling over the price? However, rather than take refuge in sarcasm, I would prefer to take this as a sign that governments (and particularly relatively new governments) are, and have always been, inherently fragile. One cannot necessarily reinforce the sources of fragility by throwing money at them. Strength needs to grow along with the government itself; and there is probably no general rule regarding the best "nutrients" for that growth. Ibrahim should be lauded for his out-of-the-box thinking; but solving the problem of good governance may lie elsewhere.

You Can't Make Up CHUTZPAH Like This!

According to my records, Rod Blagojevich never received a Chutzpah of the Week award; but there is no doubt that, in a context that includes his trying to resolve the standoff between labor and management at Republic Windows and Doors by going after Bank of America as the root of the problem, his subsequent arrest, and what appears to have been a calculated decision to play the fool in the face of impeachment proceedings, Blagojevich "coulda been a contender." Perhaps it would be appropriate to consider him for some kind of "legacy award;" but there may be a viable alternative, which is that the Blagojevich legacy may now have passed to Senator Roland Burris.

Recall that Burris was appointed by Blagojevich to fill Barack Obama's Senate seat under a cloud of scandal that he had been the "highest bidder" for the position. Talk of that scandal quickly subsided after he took his Senate seat, and he receded into relative obscurity. Now, however, he is back in the spotlight; and his chutzpah is on a roll. Fortunately, Associated Press Writer Laurie Kellman has taken the trouble to provide us with the necessary background to highlight her report of his new role:

It was early January and Blagojevich had appointed Burris, a former Illinois attorney general, to Obama's former Senate seat — defying Democrats in Washington who had wanted someone without a tainted patron and with a better chance of winning election in 2010.

What happened next was a procession of ugly images, from Burris' rain-swept news conference after Democrats turned him away from a swearing-in to Illinois Rep. Bobby Rush daring Democrats to block an accomplished lawyer who would be the chamber's only black.

Bitterly, the Democrats seated Burris. But when it came out that Burris had admitted what he had denied under oath — that he'd unsuccessfully tried to raise money for Blagojevich — Majority Whip Richard Durbin, D-Ill., suggested that Burris resign. He refused.

A Senate ethics committee probe is pending into Burris' statements. Democratic leaders, meanwhile, refused to support any effort by Burris to run for a full term, and he will leave the Senate in 2011.

Meanwhile, his relationship with the rest of his caucus has settled into one of mutual, if chilly, benefit.

It works this way: Burris stays mum about any bitterness he may feel about his reception, and he gets Obama's Senate seat for two years. Democrats seat him, don't speak of him, and get his loyal vote at a time when all 58 Democrats and two independents must vote together to prevent Republican filibusters.

This brings us to the current state of play in Kellman's report:

For Democrats determined to get a health care bill, Sen. Roland Burris is like the house guest who couldn't be refused, won't soon be leaving and poses a plausible threat of ruining holiday dinner.

Suddenly, he can no longer be ignored.

The Illinois Democrat, appointed by disgraced former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, says he'll only vote for a bill to provide health care to millions more Americans as long as it allows the government to sell insurance in competition with private insurers.

And he says he won't compromise.

"I would not support a bill that does not have a public option," Burris, 72, said in a recent interview with The Associated Press. "That position will not change."

Those words caught the attention of the very Democratic leaders who tried to keep Burris out of the Senate, suggested he resign and have shunned him in unprecedented fashion. Burris is not the only Democrat to insist on creation of a government-run health plan. But he is the one who has the least to lose by defying President Barack Obama and the Democrats who once turned him out in the cold rain.

Like Blagojevich Burris feels strongly about representing his constituents, and both of them bring a strong sense of both populism and progressivism to their representation. However, while Blagojevich dealt with adversity by turning it into media entertainment, Burris has been playing by the rules and keeping in the shadows … until now when the sincerity of how he represents his constituents is at stake. Unlike any of his would-be colleagues, he can hang tough on the public option because he has nothing to lose. Better to be true to those you represent than to worry about winning back the favor of those who barely recognize that you exist.

For the record Burris is one of the signatories to stand behind Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown effort to bring "real reform" to health care in the Senate; but that effort has received little attention from any news source other than The Nation. Burris differs from the others, however, in that he can play this game for keeps, while the others must always play in the larger context of party politics. Furthermore, Kellman quoted him as saying that he is enjoying what he is doing. Thus, while he already shares a Chutzpah of the Week award for signing on with Brown, he deserves his own for not only hanging tough on the principle of the public option but also making such a public show of it. Will any of the other signatories now make an equally public show of standing with him? Enquiring minds want to know!

Sunday, October 18, 2009

From Mahler to Elgar

Last night at Davies Symphony Hall was truly exciting for me, primarily because it was my first (and long overdue) opportunity to hear Edward Elgar's Opus 47, an introduction and allegro movement for a full string ensemble and a string quartet of soloists, in a "live" performance. In my studies of music, I had only one professor who ever felt that Elgar was worth mentioning. That was my orchestration professor, who was never shy about his British roots and insisted that Opus 47 be studied thoroughly to appreciate the art of composing for a string ensemble. I remember getting on his bad side when I showed up in class one day with the score of Krzysztof Penderecki's threnody for 52 individual string instruments, dedicated "To the Victims of Hiroshima," and suggested that this deserved as much attention as the Elgar score! At the time I was too occupied with a historical path that seemed to lead from Richard Wagner to Gustav Mahler to Arnold Schoenberg to Anton Webern and then to Penderecki, which seemed to have no place for the likes of Elgar.

Then one day I happened to hear Elgar's first symphony on the radio. I suddenly discovered that, while Elgar may not have had a place on that path, listening to Mahler could inform the serious listener when it came to listening to Elgar. I suspect the connection formed because my first serious Mahler experience had been the old Hermann Scherchen Westminster recording of his fifth symphony, which begins with a funeral march; and it took only a minor leap of the imagination to hear the opening Andante of the Elgar symphony as yet another funeral march. Now, to set the historical record straight, the Mahler fifth was completed in 1902. Elgar's first was completed in 1908, and I have yet to find any hard evidence of Elgar having been aware of Mahler's music. However, the Mahler fifth received its first performance in England at Queen's Hall in London under Henry Wood on October 21, 1903; and, while Elgar may not have been there for the occasion, he is likely to have seen reviews of it. There is thus some possibility that Mahler planted the idea of a funeral march in a symphony in Elgar's consciousness, even if the act was an indirect one.

The funereal intentions of Elgar's opening have been addressed on the Wikipedia page for his first symphony. By way of disclaimer, I should observe that this page has been marked as lacking reliable references. Nevertheless, the proposition is advanced as a speculative one:

While Elgar never explicitly stated a programme for the symphony, it has been suggested that the work was inspired by the death of General Charles George Gordon: its "Eroica" character parallels the similar Beethoven symphony which was, according to the story, originally dedicated to Napoleon.

Hugh Hudson selected this music for the opening scene of his 1984 film, Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes; and my wife-to-be and I both reacted the same way. This was music for the setting of the sun on the British Empire, which would be entirely consistent with the death of Gordon Pasha.

All this is a roundabout way of explaining that, on my first exposure to the Elgar symphony, I was hooked by the very first measure, almost exactly the same way I had been hooked by the Mahler fifth. From there it became a matter of following him on the journey through all four movements of the symphony, leaving me stunned with a reaction that Michael Tilson Thomas would later capture in this thoughts about Alban Berg:

I must hear that again.

After that my experiences with Elgar became one revelation after another, leading eventually to my eager acquisition of all three volumes of the EMI Elgar Edition of all the electrical recordings that Elgar made. (I am not sure how many of the acoustic recordings have been released; but the notes for the first EMI volume include a wonderful photograph on an acoustic recording session on January 21, 1914.)

Even if Elgar's connection to Mahler is little more than speculative, I find it slightly disconcerting that I have not yet had an opportunity to hear his first symphony in Davies and that the Opus 47 that I heard last night had only been performed once before in December of 1930. Elgar deserves a more prominent place in the "working vocabulary" of any serious listener. Ironically, I see that this is the second time I have explored these thoughts about him on this blog (this time with a bit more historical detail). The first time was almost a year ago, but the opportunities to hear that music in concert have not improved very much since then. So it goes.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

One Small Step for Technology; One Deep Dive for Literature

Chris Matyszczyk has made my day again with the latest post to his Technically Incorrect blog on the CNET Blog Network. Here is his latest news of the weird:

Call me astonished.

But Fred Berenson, a clearly fascinating research associate at New York University, has managed to gain sufficient funding to attempt a project that I feel sure none of you has contemplated.

For Berenson has decided to rewrite a veritable whale of a book, "Moby-Dick," entirely in emoticons.

This enterprising cove used Kickstarter to impress those who might have money to drown in such an eccentric quest.

He describes, with quite fetching enthusiasm, how he intends to turn all 6,438 sentences of the great Herman Melville opus into Japanese Emoji, rather picturesque emoticons that are on most handsets in Japan.

Fortunately, one can follow the hyperlink that Matyszczyk provided to get a feel for the results thus far; and, as is almost always the case, the Devil is in the details.

The example that Berenson provides covers roughly the first two-thirds of the first chapter:

This immediately reminded me that I was old enough to experience the days when Mad Magazine was funny, since I detected a family resemblance to at least two of their better pieces. The more impressive was the parody of Readers' Digest that included a book condensation of Gone with the Wind that fit on two pages. The other was a bit they did on how Gary Cooper could have served as a translator for President Dwight Eisenhower (boy, does that date the article!), since Eisenhower's statement tended to be loquacious unto an extreme. Cooper translated everything he said into one of two sentences:

  1. Ike says "Yep!"
  2. Ike says "Nope!"

Going back to the examples themselves, I assumed that the gun icon was the "translation" of "pistol and ball;" but was the umbrella for "substitute?" More interesting to me, however, was where the demonstration ended. Consulting the source text, I discovered that the sentence following the last one being demonstrated was the following:

With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship.

My guess is that this sentence will be sufficient to blow the project out of the water with or without the arrival of further funding!

Friday, October 16, 2009

Franken-Style CHUTZPAH

As a comedian Al Franken was no stranger to the rhetoric of chutzpah, and he took that rhetoric with him when he moved into the talk show circuit. So it was not so much a question of whether he would bring chutzpah to the Senate floor as of when he would do so. On the basis of Emily Douglas' latest blog post to The Notion, Franken has found the right opportunity. Here are Douglas' opening paragraphs:

In April of 2008, KBR employee Dawn Leamon went public. A few months earlier, she had been raped and sexually assaulted by co-workers while deployed at Camp Harper, in Iraq, and after weeks of being pressured not to report the incident, forced to work alongside her attackers, and medically neglected, Leamon brought the story to a Houston attorney and to The Nation. Leamon joined a slowly building chorus of female defense contractor employees who'd been raped or sexually assaulted by co-workers while in Iraq, to utter impunity on the part of their assailants. In response, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee called a hearing to investigate why the Justice Department had not prosecuted any sexual assault allegations in Iraq since the going to war in the country.

When it turned out that defense contractors often required employees, as a condition of employment, to submit to binding private arbitration in disputes with the contractors (including allegations of sexual assault), instead of bringing complaints to public courts, and that the Department of Defense claimed they couldn't prosecute for this very reason (even though these clauses only prevented civil suits), Senator Ben Nelson, who called the hearing, offered a simple solution: "This might be something you want to require and include in your contracts--before you award them," Karen Houppert reported in The Nation.

Freshman Sen. Al Franken took Nelson's suggestion seriously, and has pushed through an amendment to a Defense Appropriations bill that would prevent the Pentagon from doing business with contractors who force employees into binding arbitration over rape and sexual assault charges.

I like to think of this as the chutzpah of shining a light where no one particularly want to look. As Douglas observes later in her post, opposition is already lining up against Franken from the usual suspects; so this may be his first sobering lesson in how things get done (or fail to get done) in the Senate. However, politics is all about picking the right battles; and this is one whose campaign may be served with chutzpah. So Franken gets the Chutzpah of the Week aware, and I anticipate that he will have to make shelf space for more of them!

Google Defends Wittgenstein?

I continue to be amused by the fact that one of my best sources for criticizing the positivist dreams of a "semantic knowledge layer" on the World Wide Web has been Google, particularly as personified by Director of Search Peter Norvig. Thus far I have concentrated on the question of whether such a "semantic knowledge layer" can "offer a substantive improvement over the kind of brute-force search that Google does so well." However, yesterday I had an opportunity to watch a video of a lecture that Norvig had given at Berkeley; and, when I saw some of the demonstrations he had cooked up as examples of "language understanding" (even if in the loosest sense of the phrase), it occurred to me that he may have hit on the fundamental principle behind Ludwig Wittgenstein's opposition of Bertrand Russell's positivism.

That principle is the one that states that "the life of the sign" lies in how that sign is used. Now there are basically two ways to take on the question of how a sign (such as a word) is used. The first is to get out all the guns that linguistic theory has provided since the beginning of the twentieth century. We can get a good sense of those guns from The Handbook of Discourse Analysis, edited by Deborah Schiffrin, Deborah Tannen, and Heidi E. Hamilton and published by Blackwell in 2001. There we can find over 800 pages of content guaranteed to leave even the most intrepid reader (here comes Anna Russell again!) "as befogged as before." The second approach is to build up an enormous database of use cases, which may then be applied as examples with the analytic support of little more than statistical inference. From Google's point of view, that database is the World Wide Web; and they have the search tool to seek out everything that is there. This is the approach Norvig has taken in his research; and I suspect that, if he even has his own copy of the discourse analysis Handbook, it has gathered as much dust as my own. His philosophy is one of the common variants of Murphy's Law: When brute force it unsuccessfully applied, it means you are not applying enough of it. (The alternative statement is, "When in doubt, use a larger hammer.")

Does this really work? Norvig certainly gave some impressive examples of how this approach can be applied to language translation. He did not say very much about examples that did not turn out very well, but he had some interesting plots of quality of translation against size of database. When you think about it, this may be exactly what Wittgenstein had in mind. The only way we know how a word-sign is used is by actually looking at the cases in which it is used. Wittgenstein could not have fathomed that we could do this for the number of cases that Norvig could use, so he could never get beyond philosophizing about what the results would be. At the very least, there is a delicious irony to the consequence that Google may eventually beat down the Semantic Web crowd with a big stick that was originally handled by Wittgenstein!

Sidekick Meets the Service Economy?

The title of John Webster's post to his Data-driven blog, maintained by the CNET Blog Network, promised a valuable follow-up to the unfolding story of the Sidekick data-loss incident: "What the T-Mobile outage means for consumers." However, by the time I got to the end of the article, I was wondering if this was more a document of what the outage meant to Webster himself, in his capacity as an enterprise IT storage professional (using the wording of his own biographical synopsis). It may also have been a document about what the outage meant to all businesses in the supply chain leading to the consumer (where both goods and services may be supplied); but to what extent was the consumer supposed to be the primary beneficiary of any lessons learned?

The answer to that question resides in the follow paragraphs that Webster wrote, presumably directed at consumers:

Take an inventory. You have data on your desktop, laptop, Palm device, smartphone, entertainment center, home network...Then ask yourself: how much of this data could you lose without caring whether you ever used it again? Certainly some, perhaps a lot of it, will fall into the data dumpster category. But the T-Mobile scare is yet another reminder that each of us owns data that has become critical to our daily activities. Could you function if someone grabbed your smartphone and ran away? For an increasing number of us, the answer is yes, but with ever greater difficulty. Some other data about us, our medical records for example, are life-critical.

Next, try to figure out how much of that critical data you actually have control over and then back it up. Immediately. Don't trust others to do it for you. Take control and make copies locally and/or using one of the many online backup services.

As one of my Twitter compatriots SEPATONjay observed over breakfast this week, if the service level agreement between T-Mobile and Microsoft couldn't prevent this failure, how good are the SLAs between any of the rest of us consumers and our services providers. Take an inventory of the services providers that hold your data, then read their contracts, (assuming you can find them). I'll bet all of them indemnify the vendor against the loss of your data. If you can't protect that data, don't assume they will. Use a service that offers you a way to protect the data you deem critical.

My initial reaction was that this was a guy who did not "get" the underlying principles and motivations behind a service economy. However, when I got to that last paragraph about SLAs, I realized that he was far from the only one who did not "get it." I thus offer that modest proposal that the very concept of a service economy has been distorted by those who practice it to such a great extent that it no longer resembles in the slightest the concept as it was first proposed by "post-industrial society theorists," such as Daniel Bell. This should not be any big surprise. Many of the ideals of theory have to give way to intransigent realities of practice. The problem, however, is that, while those who now have a business stake in the service economy know exactly how those ideals have been compromised, most customers probably do not.

Even this is no surprise. Most of us understand the ideals of our system of government through a few sentences from the Declaration of Independence that we had to memorize when we were in elementary school, along with the Pledge of Allegiance. Many of us may even go far enough to appreciate the extent to which Constitutional Law required that those ideals be compromised. Few of us enjoy (if that is the right verb) much comprehension of the width of the gulf that separates the Constitution from day-to-day practices of the Federal Government. It is thus understandable that we can easily be sold a bill of goods by a "service provider" that delivers precious little of what we would take to be service (which is not that different from being sold a "health care reform" package that "reforms" little more than prevailing attitudes towards a status quo that got us into trouble in the first place).

Much of the problem may come down to the fact that the very concept of "service" is contingent on a supporting concept that has pretty much lost all of its currency. That is the concept of "trust," which was already on life-support when Francis Fukuyama tried to revive it in 1995 and is now (for all practical purposes, at least) six feet under a rather skimpy headstone with room for only a one-word epitaph: "whatever." Fukuyama's book discussed at great length the bond of trust without which a service provider could not do his/her job. Today such a bond is inconceivable, which is why SLAs have to be written scrupulously enough to cover for its absence.

What, then, are we to do in the face of the linguistic distortions of concepts such as service, government, and health care? One answer may come from Slavoj Žižek, who I happened to hear on Democracy Now! yesterday morning. Here is an excerpt from the transcript of his interview in the form of a narrative and the lesson it teaches:

You know Niels Bohr, Copenhagen, quantum physics guy. You know, once he was visited in his country house by a friend who saw above the entrance a horseshoe, you know, in Europe, the superstitious item allegedly preventing evil spirits to enter the house. And the friend, also a scientist, asked him, “But listen, do you really believe in this?” Niels Bohr said, “Of course not. I’m not an idiot. I’m a scientist.” Then the friend asked him, “But why do you have it there?” You know what Niels Borh [sic] answered? He said, “I don’t believe in it, but I have it there, horseshoe, because I was told that it works even if you don’t believe in it.”

That’s ideology today. We don’t believe in democracy—nobody. You make fun of it and so on, but somehow we act as if it works. It’s a very strange situation, because there are—some of us old enough still remember them, old days when the public face of power was dignity, belief. And privately you mocked it, you made fun, and so on, no? Now we are, I think, approaching a very strange state, where the public face of power is becoming more and more openly indecent, obscene. Look at Sarkozy in France. Look at Berlusconi in Italy, who is systematically undermining, for over five years now, the minimum of dignity of the state power. I mean, you are again and again surprised how is this possible. You know, after those sex scandals, two weeks ago, his lawyer, Berlusconi’s lawyer, made a public official statement, where he said that the claims that Berlusconi is impotent are lies and that Mr. Berlusconi is ready to prove this in court. Now, how? How—what did he mean? You know, there is a level of obscenity, but this shouldn’t deceive us. We really live in cynical times, not just in this cheap sense they don’t take themselves seriously, but in the sense that—how should I put it?—the ironic self-undermining, making fun of yourself, is in a strange way part of the game. It’s as if the system can function even if it makes fun of itself.

As with government, we make fun of service providers but continue to act as if they were actually providing services. That aspect of ridicule probably lies at the heart of the title of Žižek's latest book, First as Tragedy, Then as Farce, which, as regular readers know, was Karl Marx' conception of how history repeats itself. Having lived through the tragedy of loss through trust in "defective" services, we now fall back on making fun of the whole situation as if it were nothing more than farce. While this may be a sign that we have lost our sense of reality, it may also be the only tactic with survival value, which raises one final question: Is the condition in which we depend on farce for survival one of tragedy or farce?

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Sidekick Recovery News

The latest word on the aftermath of the Sidekick data-loss incident seems to have come out early this morning on the Hardware 2.0 blog, maintained by Adrian Kingsley-Hughes for ZDNet. Given that the last report I cited, provided by Ina Fried for CNET News, concerned a response from T-Mobile that left more than a little to be desired, the important thing about the Kingsley-Hughes post is that the broken pottery now appears to be in Microsoft hands:

Roz Ho, corporate vice president for Microsoft’s Premium Mobile Experiences division apologizes for the recent upheaval experienced by Sidekick users and also offers the good news that “most, if not all” of the lost Sidekick data has been recovered.

We are pleased to report that we have recovered most, if not all, customer data for those Sidekick customers whose data was affected by the recent outage. We plan to begin restoring users’ personal data as soon as possible, starting with personal contacts, after we have validated the data and our restoration plan. We will then continue to work around the clock to restore data to all affected users, including calendar, notes, tasks, photographs and high scores, as quickly as possible.

In other words Microsoft acknowledges that they broke it and that they are now fixing it. Note that the language is pretty vague when it come to how long the repair will take, but at least they have a plan for the process. Personally, I would have thought that the data for the calendar and tasks would take priority over personal contacts; so, at the very least, this raises the question as to whether or not those responsible for maintaining this technology actually use it. As I observed on Tuesday, the T-Mobile approach to customer relationship in this matter bordered on the insulting, if it did not actually cross the line. The idea that the Microsoft people responsible for this technology do not eat their own dog food should be as much of a red flag to Sidekick customers as the outage itself.

More interesting, however, is Kingsley-Hughes' effort to give an account of how this problem arose in the first place:

We also get the first indication as to what went wrong, and it points to something being terribly wrong with the way Danger/Microsoft was handling Sidekick data:

We have determined that the outage was caused by a system failure that created data loss in the core database and the back-up. We rebuilt the system component by component, recovering data along the way. This careful process has taken a significant amount of time, but was necessary to preserve the integrity of the data. [emphasis added]

So a single system failure took out the main database and the backup. Seriously, what bone-headed backup system had to be in place to allow that to happen? Was the data just copies to another folder on the same drive? Likely not that simple, but something equally grossly incompetent had to have happened.

On the basis of his photograph, I would guess that Kingsley-Hughes is too young to have experienced the Northeast Blackout of 1965 and is probably part of the prevailing culture that no longer sees the value of history in a strategy for crisis management. In this case, as the Wikipedia entry explains, the cause was human error:

The cause of the failure was human error that happened days before the blackout, when maintenance personnel incorrectly set a protective relay on one of the transmission lines between the Niagara generating station Sir Adam Beck Station No. 2 in Queenston, Ontario. The safety relay, which is set to trip if the current exceeds the capacity of the transmission line, was set too low.

On the other hand the ability of this one action to trigger the blackout can be attributed to a single fault in the design of the power system:

As was common on a cold November evening, power for heating, lighting and cooking was pushing the electrical system to near its peak capacity, and the transmission lines heading into Southern Ontario were heavily loaded. At 5:16 p.m. Eastern Time a small surge of power coming from Lewiston, New York's Robert Moses generating plant caused the misset relay to trip at far below the line's rated capacity, disabling a main power line heading into Southern Ontario. Instantly, the power that was flowing on the tripped line transferred to the other lines, causing them to become overloaded. Their protective relays, which are designed to protect the line if it became overloaded, tripped, isolating Adam Beck from all of Southern Ontario.

With no place else to go, the excess power from Beck then switched direction and headed east over the interconnected lines into New York State, overloading them as well and isolating the power generated in the Niagara region from the rest of the interconnected grid. The Beck and Moses generators, with no outlet for their power, were automatically shut down to prevent damage. Within five minutes the power distribution system in the northeast was in chaos as the effects of overloads and loss of generating capacity cascaded through the network, breaking it up into "islands". Plant after plant experienced load imbalances and automatically shut down. The affected power areas were the Ontario Hydro System, St Lawrence-Oswego, Western New York, Upstate New York, New England, and Maine. With only limited electrical connection southwards, power was not affected to the Southern States. The only part of the Ontario Hydro System not affected was the Fort Erie area next to Buffalo which was still powered by the old 25 Hz generators. Residents in Fort Erie were able to pick up a TV broadcast from New York where a local backup generator was being used for transmission purposes.

Note that use of the word "trigger." The underlying problem is a tendency to examine individual actions in isolation, rather than in terms of the consequences that may ensue. This is the broader question of engineering system design and implementation that I raised when the Sidekick story first broke. At the time I attributed this problem to an unhealthy relationship between engineering and marketing, but this may have its own underlying cause. A culture in which entrepreneurism has become firmly established as part of the engineering curriculum can easily become a culture in which marketing does too much talking without listening. In such a culture we may expect to read many more stories about highly promoted gadgets that first cultivate our dependence and then leave us stranded with the first (and inevitable) system failure.