Wednesday, March 31, 2010

No Delay for Judge Walker's Second Chutzpah of the Week Award!

Once again San Francisco Chronicle Staff Writer Bob Egelko has been following the activities of Chief U. S. District Judge Vaughan Walker, and once again those activities carry a ring of chutzpah with the most positive connotations. So, while Walker may have had to wait longer than he deserved for his first Chutzpah of the Week award, I want to make sure that he receives this week's award "with all deliberate speed!" This week's award should be especially dear to the hearts of those who refuse to accept Barack Obama's precept that, where past abuses of the Bush Administration are concerned, our country would be better served by letting bygones be bygones.

Here is Egelko's account of the grounds for Walker's award:

The Bush administration wiretapped a U.S.-based Islamic charity under an illegal surveillance program that was not authorized by Congress or the courts, a federal judge in San Francisco ruled today.

The ruling by Chief U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker marked the first time that a court has found that the government illegally wiretapped an individual or organization since President George W. Bush authorized warrantless wiretapping of suspected foreign terrorists in 2001.

The government inadvertently sent a classified document in 2004 to the Al-Haramain Islamic Foundation, reportedly showing that two of its lawyers had been wiretapped. Several months after the surveillance began, the government classified Al-Haramain as a terrorist organization, a description its leaders called false.

The now-defunct charity, which was headquartered in Oregon, returned the document at the government's request and could not use it as evidence in a lawsuit it filed over the wiretapping. But Walker said today that Al-Haramain had established, through public statements by officials and nonclassified evidence, that the government had intercepted its calls without obtaining the court warrant required by a 1978 law.

Bush acknowledged in December 2005 that he had ordered the National Security Agency, after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, to intercept phone calls and e-mails between Americans and suspected foreign terrorists without a warrant. He claimed the power to override the 1978 law's requirement of advance court approval for all such surveillance.

Today, Walker said Bush had lacked that authority.

Under the argument advanced by the Bush administration, "executive branch officials may treat as optional ... a statute (the 1978 law) enacted specifically to rein in and create a judicial check for executive-branch abuses of surveillance authority," the judge said.

That "theory of unfettered executive-branch discretion" holds an "obvious potential for governmental abuse and overreaching," Walker said.

This is what many of us have desired for some time, a precedent-setting judicial ruling of the wiretapping abuses of the Bush Administration delivered at the Federal level. As to the reaction within the Obama Administration, Egelko reported the following:

The Justice Department declined to say whether it would appeal today's ruling and instead issued a statement focusing on Attorney General Eric Holder's recent restrictions on government claims of secrecy. The new rules require a high-level Justice Department committee to review all such claims, with the attorney general having the last word.

The new policy strikes "an appropriate balance between rebuilding the public's trust in the government's use of this (secrecy) privilege while recognizing the imperative need to protect national security," the department said.

It is unclear what this review will determine, but Walker has taken the matter far enough to definitely deserve the Chutzpah of the Week award for this week!

A New Vocabulary of Violence?

Associated Press Writer Nafeesa Syeed drew upon some interesting terminology in reporting a violent shooting incident in the District of Columbia last night:

A gunman sprayed bullets from a moving vehicle into a crowd in southeastern Washington, killing four and wounding at least five others, before leading police on a chase into neighboring Maryland.

Three people were arrested in the drive-by shooting Tuesday. The D.C. councilman who represents the area said a dispute between groups in the neighborhood apparently caused the shooting.

Groups? Was there something about this incident that distinguished it from what usually counts for gang-related violence? It took a page scroll to account for both who the councilman was and how that particular word came to be used:

D.C. Councilman Marion Barry, a former mayor who now represents the area of the city where the shootings occurred, called the attack a vicious crime. Barry, who had been briefed by police, said it appears "crews" — groups of friends who are not necessarily organized as gangs — had some sort of dispute with each other.

So, apparently, the new term of art, at least in reporting crime in the District of Columbia, is "crew;" and Syeed had deliberately used "groups" to avoid using "gangs."

Do we really need a new term of art where drive-by shootings are involved? Who was responsible for introducing it? Who really benefits from the distinction it draws?

All we can deduce from Syeed's text is that Barry used the term after having been "briefed by police." We have no idea whether or not the word was used by the police in their briefing. My knowledge of Barry's past and my innate sense of cynicism both lead me to hypothesize that the term originated with Barry himself, perhaps because he made a campaign promise to rid his district of gang violence, which would have been quite a promise for one of the tougher parts of town. However, I doubt that many of those represented by Barry would see much value in that kind of terminological legerdemain. Any distinction between "crew" and "gang" has little impact on how safe it is to walk the streets. Those who think they can hide behind vocabulary when confronted with an ugly state of affairs should hang their heads in shame (assuming, that is, that prevailing conditions have not purged any sense of shame from their spirits).

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Am I Old-Fashioned about "Office Productivity?"

In his latest post to The Open Road on the CNET Blog Network, Matt Assay asks (and I do not mean rhetorically), "Do you still care about an office productivity suite?" Since my office is now at home, I am not sure whether or not Assay had someone like me in mind when he posed that question, particularly when his text assumes that I have a CIO seeing to my information needs. However, the answer is that I do care; I just wonder whether or not the ways in which I care are relevant any more! Let me go through some of those items of relevance, beginning with the least conventional of them:

  • Ironically, I continue to use PowerPoint as heavily has I had when I was fully ensconced in the corporate world. Back in 2007 I wrote a post entitled "Reading what I don't Understand." I spend a lot of time on what may best be called "difficult" reading matter; and, as I explained in that post, PowerPoint continues to play a significant role in my reading behavior. The bottom line is that I treat PowerPoint slides as "virtual 3 x 5 cards," which serve me in a variety of ways. Most important is that writing them helps me get a better handle on what I have been reading. However, a close second is that these are files that can be easily searched, which means that PowerPoint also serves as a memory aid. Furthermore, I take pretty full advantage of PowerPoint's ability to handle rich media, since that often figures in the reading I tend to do.
  • Excel has basically become a household tool for me. There are any number of spreadsheets I maintain pertaining to tax records, expenses, and the performance of my portfolio. I may not spend a lot of time "mucking around with pivot tables," as Assay put it in his post; but the tool helps me with a lot of activities.
  • Finally, most of the time that I do not spend reading gets devoted to writing. Here I have my own idiosyncratic behaviors with tools to match them:
    • Word continues to be my tool of choice for "serious" writing. Indeed, since I now define my own projects, I find that I use its Outline option more heavily that I did in my corporate activities. My allegiance to Word may be heavily rooted in past habits; but it still serves my "productivity" (a word I do not particularly like) as a writer. I have yet to see an alternative that would woo me away, but I continue to keep my eyes open.
    • What I am writing right now, however, I am typing into FrontPage. I could be typing it into Blogger's Create Post window; but I prefer having "local control." I know that Blogger now has autosave, but its formatting tools are limited and not always predictable. I prefer to use a tool that gives me something I can tweak in Blogger in either Compose or Edit HTML mode. FrontPage gets me started much better than Blogger does.
    • Finally, because I have Outlook, I continue to use its Calendar. However, even when I am dealing with my Yahoo! Mail, I often prepare my message with Outlook. Again, it is a matter of having local control and getting away from playing guessing games with the Yahoo! formatting tools. This may sound a bit peculiar; but it is useful, particularly with some of the weirder formats I sometimes receive in my mail.

Thus, in a peculiar way I still care about Microsoft Office because I do not have a CIO seeing to my information needs. Since I never presume that I am, in any way, a "representative" user, I have no idea if Microsoft cares how I use their product. However, like it or not, the better part of my day involves using some component of Microsoft Office; and I do not feel as if I am suffering for this!

Let me now turn the argument around and consider the way Assay establishes his own position:

We're the e-mail generation, but not necessarily Outlook's progeny. We're the SharePoint crowd, but one that would probably prefer to spend time in Facebook. Give us Twitter and IM, and we can forgo drafting a letter for weeks.

In light of what I wrote yesterday, just what are the things that Assay's "we" are doing by way of gainful employment? I know what work I do that establishes my identity (and occasionally pays me from time to time). If you are talking about software in the workplace, Matt, just what do you think those workers are doing?

Monday, March 29, 2010

America's Tipping Point

I just finished reading Kai Wright's latest post to The Notion, the blog that The Nation maintains for (currently) twenty contributors. The post was yet another attempt to diagnose the almost pathological divisiveness that has consumed our country, motivated this time by en editorial by Frank Rich in Sunday's New York Times entitled, "The Rage Is Not About Health Care." Wright's reading of Rich definitely deserves reflection:

Rich points out the reality that America is undergoing one of the most deep, significant changes in its history. No, it's not health insurance reform. Nor is it our economic collapse, though that's surely part of it. Frankly, it's not even the fact of a black president. The change is far deeper and probably far more consequential: White people will shortly lose their status as normative Americans. Whatever else does or doesn't change, by the time Millennials are adults, no one will equate white skin with the phrase "all-American" – assuming the phrase carries meaning at all.

I think this is a productive analysis to bring to the conversation, particularly since it uncovers a problem deeper than the issue of normative status: It cuts far deeper to the very nature of identity that we all have, regardless of whether we see ourselves as normative.

From this point of view, both Rich and Wright missed the dead moose on the table. Without dismissing their conclusion I would argue that a more critical contribution to a prevailing sense of rage is the deterioration of what we may call "the American world of work." Unemployment is part of this problem, but it is the tip of an iceberg. Beneath that tip is that substantial chunk of our population that is in our educational system, ostensibly being prepared to enter that world of work. However, this is not simply a cri de cœur about how underfunded education is in our country; it is an attempt to raise the question of how we are to prepare our young for the future when we do not have the foggiest idea what that future will be and what roles they can possibly play in it. It is easy enough to prepare cogent arguments for kids about why they should not pin their hopes on being professional athletes or entertainers, but where should they set their hopes?

There is nothing new about this problem. It was only a few years ago that James O'Toole and Edward E. Lawler III came out with their book, The New American Workplace. The Foreword for this book included the following passage by Susan Meisinger:

Even though American workplaces have evolved in ways unforeseen at the time of the Work in America study, readers of The New American Workplace will draw at least one conclusion that remains unchanged from the earlier study: Satisfying work is a basic human need that establishes individual identity and self-respect and lends order to life.

This is where the real identity problem resides, in our natural ability to establish our "identity and self-respect" through satisfying work. We are afraid to confront the extent to which the world the Internet has made has robbed us of that ability; and, having had it taken violently from us, we respond in the only way we can, with the kind of rage that Rich examined. Unless we can figure out a way in which to restore that identity, it is hard to imagine any future other than one in which the rage gets more violent and ultimately more destructive.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Preparing for the Valkyries

The San Francisco Opera production of Francesca Zambello's staging of Die Walküre, the second opera in Richard Wagner's cycle, Der Ring des Nibelungen, will not take the stage of the War Memorial Opera House until June 10; but I have always believed that it is never too soon to begin preparing for a Wagner experience. Today's full-page advertisement in the Datebook of the San Francisco Chronicle declaims the headline "TAKE A WILD RIDE WITH A VALKYRIE!" with all of the energy that Birgit Nilsson used to throw into her performances of Brünnhilde, particularly in the third act of Walküre; and the accompanying photograph (available in full color at the San Francisco Opera Web site) suggests that one will ride in the company of savage aviatrices, any one of whom could bring down "Red Baron" Manfred von Richthofen without dropping an appoggiatura. This is certainly consistent with Zambello's decision to stage the entire cycle in an American setting, even if my first reaction to the photograph was to wonder whether Nordic myth might finally resolve the question of whatever happened to Amelia Earhart.

Those who want to pick nits over temporal continuity might raise questions about how we have moved from the California Gold Rush setting of Das Rheingold to the dawn of military aviation in World War I; but it is important to remember that considerable time elapses between moving day at Valhalla (the final scene of Rheingold) and Siegmund's arrival at Hunding's house at the beginning of Walküre (although, since both of these scenes involve a massive storm, they are linked musically by Donner's leitmotiv). Furthermore, a good deal happens over that time to lay the groundwork for the narrative of Walküre itself. Most importantly, over this period of time Wotan, with a procreative zeal that he shares with his Greek counterpart Zeus, has brought about the births of the majority of the characters in Walküre! So, while much time elapses between these two operas, it is time over which Wotan has been very busy!

When I saw Rheingold here in June of 2008, I came away with the impression that Zambello's "American move" had been a good one. Reviewing those impressions this morning, however, I realize that her success may have come from her not letting the American references get in the way. In the terminology of Kenneth Burke's pentad, matters of scene are always subordinate to matters of the agents. In other words the primary significance of Rheingold resided in the characters (even the minor ones) and their flaws that are revealed to us as the narrative unfolds. Thus, as I begin to prepare myself for Walküre, I find myself wondering whether or not these priorities will still hold. It is certainly the case that the entire cycle emerges from the consequences of acts committed by flawed agents; but will this foreground priority be jeopardized by rampant aviatrices?

In an effort to purse this question, I turned to the account that Tim Page prepared for The Washington Post on March 26, 2007, after this staging was first presented by the Washington National Opera. Getting beyond his high praise for the performers, I found the following paragraphs about what those performers were actually doing (rather than just singing) up on stage:

This is the second installment in what director Francesca Zambello has called an "American Ring" ("Die Walkure" is part of an interrelated quartet of Wagner operas known as "Der Ring des Nibelungen.") Some of the visuals were attractive -- the opening tableau, set in the midst of a storm, called to mind Auntie Em's house, ready to be blown away, and there was a succession of beautiful filmic cloud ballets throughout the evening. I liked the sinister underworld Zambello created beneath abandoned freeways in Act 2; moreover, she made the most of the excruciatingly awkward, achingly conflicted but profoundly loving exchange between Wotan and Brunnhilde that closes the opera.

But a lot of Zambello's work seemed either obvious or secondhand. The idea of Wotan as uber-capitalist has grown tired (it dates at least to the Patrice Chereau staging at Bayreuth in 1976), and the imagery in the "Ride of the Valkyries" -- airplanes, parachutes, modern warfare in all of its atrocity -- seemed to be lifted directly from "Apocalypse Now." I suspect that Zambello feels the imperatives of drama more acutely than she thinks about them, which is not a terrible flaw in itself (and certainly better than the reverse condition) but still somewhat problematic when one is called upon to re-imagine a distinctly German opera and transport the action to America.

That second paragraph is pretty harsh, enough so to set me wondering what he had written after the first Washington performance of Rheingold. Before Rheingold opened here, the only report from Washington I had read was by Anthony Tommasini from the archives of The New York Times; and I am willing to admit that my own perspective on the relationship between agents and scene may have been influenced by having read this piece. Now I needed to figure out if that "obvious or secondhand" accusation may have had its origins in Page's Rheingold impressions.

Here is what he wrote on March 27, 2006:

The best way to approach Washington National Opera's new production of Richard Wagner's "Das Rheingold," which opened Saturday night at the Kennedy Center, is as a solid, abstract and sometimes very attractive updating of a classic.

In short, forget most of what you might have read about this being the first installment of an "American 'Ring' " -- that is, a staging of Wagner's four-evening "Ring" cycle based on what WNO calls the "rich history of the United States." It isn't, unless you count as pointed political commentary, dressing up the earth goddess Erda like the lady on the Land O' Lakes box, casting African Americans in the roles of the captive Nibelungs, and having the giants Fafner and Fasolt bop and swagger like wild 'n' crazy guy construction workers.

Perhaps the next three operas in the series -- a new "Die Walkure" will enter the repertoire next season, with "Siegfried" and "Gotterdammerung" promised for later -- will deepen the American subtext. For now, just enjoy Francesca Zambello's "Roaring Twenties" staging for its general usefulness, its evocative projections (mist, sun, water and some creepy snakes), its occasional moments of majesty and whimsy.

I am grateful, I suppose, that none of the characters wear antlers on their heads, but I am less happy that the production, for the most part, lacks the luminous beauty of the best traditional stagings (Otto Schenk's hypnotic rendition at the Met foremost among them) and the sort of genuine directorial vision that would make for a radical new understanding of the piece.

This leads me to believe that, like many of us, Page had become too hooked on Schenk's staging to allow for an alternative interpretation and that he had already decided that Zambello was letting scene get in the way in Rheingold, meaning he anticipated more of the same in Walküre. Note that I used the first person plural in that reference to Schenk. I think it is absolutely wonderful that his staging for the Met was captured on DVD, because it is the perfect way for anyone totally new to the Ring to form a good set of first impressions.

Once one has those impressions, though, one should always be open to other interpretations. Until I see Walküre for myself, I plan to take Page's swipe about feeling and thinking as unfounded. Zambello's Rheingold had no trouble dealing with both sides of that coin in equal measure; and I would conjecture that her success had much to do with always keeping her focus on the agents. Furthermore, as the prevailing buzz over this summer's Seattle Ring made clear, the second act of Walküre needs to be anchored in intense personal feeling in order to get beyond Anna Russell's characterization of Wotan as a "crashing bore," who has an argument (actually, yet another one) with his wife. After all, Rheingold is just prologue. The real narrative only gets under way with the events leading up to Siegfried's birth (since the overall narrative arc basically carries us from birth to death); and Walküre provides us with the account of those events.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Life Outside New York

Today's print edition of The New York Times ran a review by Nate Chinen of a concert given at the Italian Academy, on the Columbia University campus, by the Sardinian trumpeter Paolo Fresu in the company of guitarist Ralph Towner, who may be best known for his participation in the band Oregon. The review also covered their new ECM album, Chiaroscuro, which had been released on March 16. Those of us in cyberspace had the opportunity to learn about and read Chinen's review yesterday evening through RSS notification, and I see from my Firefox History that I clocked in to read it around 6 PM. I was curious to see what Chinen had to say, because Towner and Fresu are performing (probably the same concert) tonight here in San Francisco. What surprised me, however, was that I should be reminded of this local event by the Times. Chinen's piece concluded with the following (italicized in the original):

Ralph Towner and Paolo Fresu perform on Saturday at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Forum in San Francisco and on Sunday at the Triple Door in Seattle;

I suppose I should not have been as surprised as I was. There are plenty of Bay Area residents for whom the Times is the daily paper; and for many of them it is their only daily newspaper, having decided that local papers like the Chronicle are just not offering enough to justify paying. I had assumed that such readers felt that the Times gave better coverage of world and national news and that one got more timely local coverage through radio and television. I had not given much thought to whether those readers were interested in performing arts coverage, let alone what they did to get it.

Is this a sign that the Times camel now has its nose under the tent of those who read primarily for arts news? Through my RSS reading I know that there are now two local writers covering local events for two non-local sources. One has been writing for the Financial Times for some time, and the other has only recently begun to appear in The New York Times. Meanwhile, even though the new presses allow all the pages of the Datebook to be printed in color, the section itself just keeps getting slimmer; and I suspect it will not be long before it is merged with another section, which is what has happened with Business.

This has definitely had an impact on my reading habits. These days I tend to be done with my Chronicle before I am half-way through the morning bowl of oatmeal. I am less resentful of this for several reasons. The most important is that I have more time for the far more substantive content of The New York Review, and anything I feel I may have missed I know I shall be finding on my computer screen after I have finished breakfast. Nevertheless, I find it hard to believe that the Times will ever really compensate for the arts coverage that most interests me, such as the subscription series of the San Francisco Symphony and San Francisco Performances. Unfortunately, it almost seems as if it has become "a truth universally acknowledged" that those of us who want such coverage will get it through RSS; and I am not sure how comfortable I am living with this truth. I suppose that, once I have no choice but to live with it, I shall find my comfort level "in the fullness of time."

Friday, March 26, 2010

Al Franken's First CHUTZPAH Award

The only time I have seen Al Franken in the Senate was in a shot of him filling in to hold the presiding Chair (presumably in the absence of anyone of higher rank to do the job). I have been patiently waiting for him to flex his legislative muscles in a manner worthy of a Chutzpah of the Week award. Now, on the basis of Laura Flanders' latest post to The Notion, I think he has done it:

Score one for Senator Al Franken.

Thanks to him, Jamie Leigh Jones, a former KBR employee who alleges she was gang raped by her coworkers will get her day in court.

I think we call that equal protection.

In Jones' case, it took an amendment to the 2010 defense appropriations bill. That's right, freshman Franken had to get up and suggest that government shouldn't be in the business of giving rewards -- or government contracts -- to companies that strip their workers of basic Constitutional rights, like the right to a jury trial.

Jones, lest we forget, has testified that she was raped and battered so badly by a group of her co-workers in Iraq that she required reconstructive surgery. Her assailants locked her in a shipping container for 24 hours without food, water, and she has testified before Congress that the company "warned her that if she left Iraq for medical treatment, she'd be out of a job."

Nice, huh? The Department of Justice brought no criminal charges and Jones had to battle her case in arbitration before taking it to court, because, well, for all these many years, KBR (formerly a division of Halliburton) has a clause in its contracts that calls on prospective hires to sign away their right to court trials on sexual assault, discrimination and harassment charges.

Also lest we forget, THIRTY Republican Senators voted against Franken's amendment. Thirty. Gotta love those family values.

Now, thanks to big Al, Jones will at last get to press her suit because KBR's dropped their appeal and a company spokesman said Franken's amendment made them do it.

One of the comments to this post suggested that the real chutzpah came from those Republican Senators; but Republicans do what Republicans do (just as Israelis do what Israelis do). Chutzpah is a matter of going beyond the norm; and, in this case, the norm was set not only by those Republican Senators but also by all the other Senators who would not raise their voice in this matter. Franken gets the Award for raising his voice when someone had to do it. Jones is the better for it, and I suspect there will be many more beneficiaries.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Irony is Alive and Well and Living in Las Vegas

It is more than a little ironic that a city sustained by the business of getting other people to lose their assets willingly should host a panel discussion on maintaining property rights. It is even more ironic that, since wanting to lose money requires a certain detachment of the intellect, the property rights being discussed were those of intellectual property. However, that is the sort of thing that happens when a large trade show comes to Las Vegas and a bunch of high-profile people discover that audiences would rather listen to their opinions than feed hungry slot machines.

To be less elliptical, consider a portion of Marguerite Reardon's coverage today from CTIA 2010 for CNET Reviews:

[James] Cameron [director of the film Avatar, for those who have been under a rock for the last few months] joined Twitter co-founder Biz Stone, CNBC Anchor Michelle Caruso-Cabrera, and U.S. Chief Technology Officer Aneesh Chopra for a discussion at the CTIA 2010 tradeshow Thursday morning. The group, assembled at the wireless industry's largest gathering in the U.S., discussed a range of topics from Internet piracy to using Twitter to promote free speech to Net Neutrality to Google's exit from the Chinese market.

But the most interesting part of the discussion centered around Cameron's thoughts on digital piracy and how new technologies, such as high-definition 3D video, can create new experiences for viewers and drive demand.

He said the music industry made a critical mistake by trying to stop piracy instead of innovating to give consumers new experiences that the industry could use to generate more money.

"The music industry saw it coming, they tried to stop it, and they got rolled over," he said. "Then they started suing everybody. And now it is what it is."

Instead, Cameron said he has tried to innovate to give movie goers a reason to go to theater. And in creating a rich, "reinvigorated cinema experience," Cameron said he discovered that people are willing to pay money to experience the same content in different ways. Not only are they willing to pay $10 or more to see Avatar on the big screen in 3D, but they also will pay to own the DVD and to take it with them on their phone or portable device.

"People are discriminating about the experience," he said. "They want to own it, have it on a iPhone when they want it, and they want the social experience of going to the cinema. These are really different experiences. And I think they can all co-exist in the same eco-system."

Cameron said the fact that people are still going to the theater to see Avatar now nearly four months after it was released supports his conclusion. He said he has had several discussions with the movie studio trying to figure out when to release the DVD of the movie. Typically DVD's are released after the film has left movie theaters. But he said since people are still going to see the movie in the theater, they decided to release the DVD next month with the movie still playing in some cinemas. The movie will also be available soon on iTunes.

Consider how many times the word "experience" appears in the above text. Consider then my rant on Tuesday about "transmedia storytelling." Recall that the rant was grounded on an underlying failure to recognize the distinction between an act and an experience and combine that failure with Walter Benjamin's despair that "the art of storytelling is coming to an end."

Let's not kid ourselves. Avatar is all about having an experience. Even in a publication as elevated as The New York Review, Daniel Mendelsohn could barely conceal his ecstasy over the experience before getting down to the nuts and bolts of the narrative, at which time he made it clear that there were precious few (if any) nuts or bolts. If the art of storytelling is coming to an end, it is because storytellers who once knew better words have discovered that it is more profitable to build theme park rides, particularly now that you can "experience" the ride without going to a theme park. So perhaps Benjamin really did call it right; he just made the call three-quarters of a century too soon.

Of course the sorts of storytellers that Benjamin had in mind never had to grapple with concepts like "intellectual property" that would be vulnerable to piracy. Storytelling was supposed to be an act that united a community, rather than dividing it through fights over who got how big a slice from which pie. What mattered to Benjamin was not a product to be safeguarded but an activity to be encouraged; and, as I suggested earlier this month, these two concepts are in dialectical opposition.

Let me try to consider this from the position of one who believes that stories still have value. From that position I would argue that Cameron believes that the best way to protect the storyteller's "well wrought urn" from piracy (which presumes that the storyteller wants it protected) is to smash it to bits and replace it with a dog-walking-on-its-hind-legs "experience" that is extremely difficult to replicate. I am willing to honor his logic, but that does not mean that I have to stomach it. Fortunately, I am out there at a significant distance down the long tail. People who live by balance sheets neither know nor care how I spend that money that is not set aside for food, clothing, or shelter. The good news is that, for all of my remoteness, I still live in a city where I never have to worry about a lack of satisfying "experiences," many of which involve novel encounters. So it is easy for me to let Cameron continue to make his rather prosperous living by innovating virtual theme park rides, as least as long as his activities do not jeopardize my own!

Maazel Makes his Life more Interesting

It would be unfair to say that it took the PBS telecast of the visit of the New York Philharmonic to North Korea to bring Loren Maazel to my attention. While I frequently tended to take a ho-hum attitude towards opportunities to hear him conduct, there would always be exceptions to my expectations that tweaked my attention. These often came in my car, when I found myself drawn into a new take on music that tended to be given routine readings (Pyotr Tchaikovsky being the most frequent victim of such negligent practices); and I would then discover, to my surprise, that the conductor who could "find the beauty" (as David Amram had put it) and rescue the music from its middle-brow doldrums was Maazel.
Thus, I was eager to read Dave Itzkoff's post to the ArtsBeat blog of The New York Times to learn about Maazel's appointment as Chief Conductor of the Munich Philharmonic. The Munich Philharmonic was the only visiting symphony orchestra that my wife and I heard while we were living in Singapore. Sergiu Celibidache was still alive, and he was their conductor. The event was unforgettable. He could not have chosen more popular selections: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's K. 550 G minor symphony before the intermission, followed by Ludwig van Beethoven's fifth symphony (Opus 67 in C minor), the sort of music that was probably internalized by just about everyone in the audience. My guess is that "just about everyone in the audience" also had their expectations shattered that night, as Celibidache teased out new rhetorical strategies through which we all felt we were (again) experiencing this music for the first time.
From this point of view, I very much appreciated the final sentence of Itzkoff's post:
Mr. Maazel, who was a highly visible figure in Munich when he served as the chief conductor of the Bavarian Radio Symphony, added in his own statement that “the quality of the orchestra is unsurpassed,” and that following in the footsteps of such previous conductors as Sergiu Celibidache, who conducted the Munich orchestra until his death in 1996, “represents a challenge” that he will take on “with joy.”
The "unsurpassed" quality of the Munich Philharmonic owes much to Celibidache's leadership; and I was glad to see that Maazel recognized the challenge that would face him. I am also willing to take at face value his statement that he will confront that challenge with joy, because I can think of no better way to honor Celibidache's legacy. After all, Celibidache committed his career to getting beyond middle-brow appeal and was always ready to dismiss those who lacked such commitment in the interest of cultivating popularity with nouns like "idiot." If Maazel sees his challenge as continuing that commitment, he should be joyous about confronting it!

Infrastructure Priorities

The other day I was listening to Frank Deford's comments on Morning Edition concerned primarily with the fall from grace of basketball in New York. This led to a reflection of Madison Square Garden having become a relic of history (my words, not Deford's) in an age when just about any city either had or was planning an even higher-tech arena. I forget his exact words, but they were something to the effect that such arenas had become a city's excuse for infrastructure. Regardless of the exact wording, the authorial intent really stuck with me.

I have had any number of experiences with infrastructure, both positive and negative. On the positive side I have been in any number of cities of different sizes that have been impressively accommodating to whatever my day-to-day activities happened to have been, whether they involved work or tourism. Unfortunately, very few of those cities are in the United States, which is why most of my infrastructure experiences have been negative! I had my first car when I became a graduate student in the Greater Boston Area, and there was no end of deterioration that I would encounter both within cities and along the arteries that connected them. Decades later I was living in Stamford, Connecticut, when the Mianus River Bridge on Interstate 95 collapsed. Now I live in a city with any number of socio-cultural advantages but where day-to-day life tends to bring frequent encounters with infrastructure failures, each of which, at best, is treated by trying to close the barn door after the horse has been stolen.

So, between Deford's curmudgeonly dismissal of the new sports arena as an excuse for infrastructure and a residence from which I can see infrastructure deterioration just by looking out my window, I came this morning to C. W. Nevius' column in the San Francisco Chronicle. Apparently negotiations are under way to bring the Golden State Warriors back to San Francisco; and the deal involves (you guessed it) building a new ("state-of the-art," as Nevius emphasized) sports arena in Mission Bay. Needless to say, this is one of those efforts that is going to involve considerable flows of money. Just to get into the right ballpark (which seems like the appropriate metaphor for both the location and the intention), consider that it will probably cost the Warriors around $60 million to get out of the current lease with the Oakland-Alameda County Sports Authority before it expires in 2027. Think of that as a baseline for which the financial planners will have to find the right multiplier (it had better not be an exponent!) to cover everything else. Meanwhile, we have a public transportation system that progressively gets worse and costs more. Whenever possible, I tend to go for the pedestrian option, which sometimes provides an entertainment benefit in observing traffic congestion. Some of that congestion is just a matter of too many cars; but there are also the incidents of utility-related breakdowns below the surface of the streets. Those are the occasions when things really come to a screaming (considering the way people react, that usage is literal rather than figurative) halt.

The point behind Deford's swipe has to do with how rapidly any city, regardless of its size, seems to embrace a state-of-the-art arena as an instrument of development. The embrace is so passionate that no one ever bothers to ask whether there might be better ways to spend the money that would also further development but in less noticeable ways. Besides, wasn't Mission Bay supposed to be the site of a major complex that would make San Francisco a world leader in biotechnology?

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Flawed Analysis

Since he is based in Jerusalem, it is hard to tell whether Associated Press Writer Matti Friedman is simply naive or just plain ignorant about the American political system and how it works. It is also unclear whether he was part of the press entourage that traveled with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Washington or whether he wrote this morning's analysis piece strictly on the basis of interviews and reading matter. As a summary of how Netanyahu spent his time in Washington, the piece is at least adequate. The bottom line is that Netanyahu stuck to his guns, demonstrating that he was as capable of strong rhetoric as the Obama administration had been prior to his arrival; and, as might imagined, that rhetoric was at its most successful in the setting of his address to AIPAC.

More interesting, however, was that, in the context of tense relations with the White House, Netanyahu "was received warmly:" (Friedman's words) on Capitol Hill. This deserved analytical interpretation, which Friedman provided as follows:

Netanyahu's effusive reception on Capitol Hill was evidence of the power of Israel's arguments about the choices it makes for self-defense and the sway of its politically active supporters in the United States. The threat that Iran might soon possess a nuclear weapon has made Israel's case stronger and limited the pressure tactics available to a peace-minded American president.

You would think that someone actually living in Jerusalem would have a better understanding of the nature of power and how it is exercised, which is why I am inclined to go with the hypothesis that Friedman really does not understand how the American system works. As we are now well aware, regardless of what legislation or proposal is being debated, in our Legislative branch decisions are not made on the basis of sound arguments. They are made on the basis of the power of influence, usually exercised through a combination of financial support and membership endorsement. While it may be an exaggeration to propose that AIPAC "owns" both houses of Congress, it is not an exaggeration (in the face of documented evidence) that any candidate for Congress who lacks AIPAC support faces the most extreme of uphill challenges. Few organizations lobby with more power than AIPAC; and there is some chance that there may be only one of them, which would be the Pentagon.

This also throws a different light on the second sentence of the above quoted paragraph. We are so obsessed with Iranian moves that would threaten Israel and/or the United States that we willfully ignore evidence of the moves that both Israel and the United States make that are perceived as threatening by the Iranian government. As I recently observed, those Iranians with any memory of past good relations with Israel associate those relations with the Shah, which is hardly the basis for a strong argument to resume such relations; and, since the Shah was, for all intents and purposes, an "American agent" (at least in the lower-case terminology of Kenneth Burke's pentad), the promise of improved relations with the United States is no better.

Where Friedman is probably correct is in his conjecture that both the United States and Israel are counting on the strong rhetoric to blow over in the course of a brief period of time. After that, things will go back to business as usual; and any progress towards peace will be stuck in the same mud. Obama's time on Capitol Hill may have been relatively short, but it should have been long enough for him to get a grip on how the American political system works. Even a solid argument from the Pentagon on how our overt biases towards Israel can jeopardize our security (both domestically and internationally) is unlikely to put a dent in the extent of AIPAC influence to maintain a status quo that, in the course of a longer period of time, can only play out into a lose-lose situation.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Telling Stories or Selling Stuff (or are they the same)?

The title of the latest post to Daniel Terdiman's Geek Gestalt blog for CNET News is, at the very least, fascinating (at least in the Spock-raises-eyebrow sense): "Hollywood Scripting Getting a Multimedia Rewrite." The topic turns out to be an "increasingly popular concept" (in Terdiman's words) called "transmedia storytelling." It is unclear what constitutes popularity, but the metric seems to take into account several start-ups and a one-day symposium jointly hosted by the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television and USC's Annenberg School of Communication and School of Cinematic Arts. If all this has happened relatively recently, then it is probably fair to say that the popularity of the concept is increasing; however, that may be one of the few concrete things one can say about transmedia storytelling before venturing into the usual Hollywood world of blue smoke and mirrors.

Begin with the question of whether those promoting the concept are doing anything more than coupling one of the oldest words in the practices of human nature with a made-up one with a root that reflects "the trade" and a prefix that makes it sound cooler than business. In trying to provide readers with an anchor to just what the phrase means, Terdiman turned to Jordan Weisman, the founder of one of the startups (Smith & Tinker), who said that transmedia is "when you are taking a single story and distributing components of that single story through a wide array of media. When you collect those pieces of the media, it tells the [whole] story...When [you have] a text message and a video clip on YouTube, and a toy, or even a movie, when those things add up to a larger single story, that's a transmedia experience."

I have a bunch of nits to pick with this. First of all, I do not think it is pedantic to try to sort out the distinction between an act and an experience. You know you are in trouble when a purported definition begins with the word "when" (as opposed to a more grammatically legitimate copula). Usually it signals that you are going to get wrapped up in a bunch of impressions of how some "thing" is experienced that never manages to home in on just what that "thing" is. It's sort of like trying to define "controlled substance" as anything that makes you feel high. This says nothing about the substance itself, nor does it suggest any ways you can examine something to determine whether it is such a substance. The best you can do is give it to a respectably-sized statistical sample and observe the effects.

Thus, to continue the "controlled substance" metaphor, my guess is that those who are "pushing" this new (purported?) concept may not have given very much thought to the nature of storytelling beyond deciding that it has become too old-fashioned. There is no doubt that it is old. It is clearly older than any society's written culture; and it is old enough that Aristotle put a lot of effort into figuring out just what it is (the result being his "Poetics"). Does that mean that it has now become frayed around the edges and needs to be replaced and/or upgraded?

If we are seriously considering this question, then we would do well to remember that Walter Benjamin raised it in 1936 when, in the opening paragraph of his essay "The Storyteller," he posed the hypothesis that "the art of storytelling is coming to an end." The remainder of this essay digs into that distinction between act and experience with far more discipline than Terdiman's account, considering the experiences of those to wish to hear a story, the acts of those who tell stories, and the experiences that inform the stories they tell. Where (if anywhere) does the "transmedia experience" either enhance or transform the legacy of storytelling?

Benjamin's framework fits nicely into Aristotle's foundations. In its attempt to analyze what stories are and how they are told, "Poetics" begins with the premise that the act of storytelling is one of imitation. In Benjamin's terms an individual has an experience and fabricates an imitation of that experience in the form of a story, thus enabling those listening to the story to experience the imitation. This is an example of what the philosopher Noam Cook calls "making knowledge sharable;" the knowledge of the experience is made accessible to others as imitation through the medium of the story being told. Is transmedia storytelling an new approach to making knowledge sharable?

On the basis of Weisman's characterization, the "transmedia experience" seems a lot closer to solving a jigsaw puzzle than to listening to a storyteller, reading a book, or watching the dramatization of a story on stage, in a movie house, or on television. The result is that this idea of experience though imitation must necessarily take a back seat to collecting all of those "pieces of the media." The story is little more than an excuse to send you off on the treasure hunt of digging up all the pieces and then inspire you to assemble them.

This is a crucial distinction, because what do you think you encounter while you are off on that treasure hunt? This is where we understand why Hollywood has decided to buy into the concept: Going on a treasure hunt takes you to a whole new set of domains, each with its own strategies for luring your attention with advertising. (You think Odysseus had a rough time just dealing with Skylla and Charybdis? Brace yourself for another think coming!) In other words the transmedia experience is not so much about anything so lofty as eroding a theater's "fourth wall;" it is about eroding the walls of shopping malls by giving you opportunities to shop and purchase wherever you happen to go as part of your "experience!" Once again, it is Mel Brooks who saw the future; and, once we are all engaging in our transmedia experiences, The Schwartz (or, in our own vernacular, "merchandising") will be with us (whether we want it or not).

This takes us back to Benjamin. While I do not agree that the art of storytelling is coming to an end, I am willing to admit that there may be an increase in those less inclined to experience stories, regardless of the medium through which they are presented. To reflect on the example I explored yesterday, these are the people who prefer to spend their time watching the Home Shopping Network instead of watching episodes of The Wire (or, for that matter, Lost). There is no way that the Hollywood suits can deny the extent to which they are losing audiences through the new opportunities for shopping created by both television and the Internet. From this point of view, transmedia storytelling is nothing more than a Hail Mary pass at trying to recover those lost audiences. I know better than to try to predict whether or not this metaphorical pass will complete successfully, but at least I know where the goalposts are!

Monday, March 22, 2010

Of Art, Life, and Ubiquity

I just finished reading Brian Stelter's piece in today's New York Times regarding the new role that Twitter will play in the second season of Nurse Jackie. Here is his account of the what and why of that role:

Beginning in the season’s second episode, the Dr. Cooper character, played by Peter Facinelli, will be shown posting on Twitter, and the character’s comments will show up in real time on a Twitter account, called @DoctorCoop.

The account, whose posts come from the “Nurse Jackie” writing staff, is already warming up; “a tweet a day keeps the doctor okay,” it said last week.

Non-Twitter users may wonder what the fuss is about. For Showtime, it is about turning the onscreen action into a marketing device.

“We want the story to extend beyond the half-hour or hour that it lives on air and become ubiquitous with your life,” said Robert Hayes, Showtime’s senior vice president and general manager for digital media.

I have two reactions. The more obvious one is that, if the Nurse Jackie team decided that one of their characters should be an obsessive tweeter, then Cooper is definitely the perfect choice. While it is true that just about everyone in Jackie's hospital is damaged goods (which makes it one of the best illustrations of the need for health care reform), Cooper embodies just the sort of "professional" that you want to avoid, whether your medical needs are routine or an emergency. This is a guy whose head is never in the right place; so it is entirely consistent that he should get hooked on yet another one of life's consumer-based distractions.

However, I am not so much concerned with what the creative team of writers and actors have lined up for the new season as I am with what "the suits" (embodied in this case by Hayes) make of it all. I am not sure just how Hayes sees this as a marketing device, but I know that he is oblivious to how at least some folks watch television. Whether or not my wife and I are outliers in any statistical space of viewers, his quotation is most likely one of those examples of blowing smoke by drawing upon little more than the speaker's personal fantasies.

The fact is that there are plenty of stories on television that work their way into our lives; and I am pretty confident that my use of "our" in that phrase extends beyond my wife and myself. (Consider, for example, how The New York Times' own ArtsBeat blog serves to keep certain series alive on an episode-by-episode basis.) I suspect that the best example of a series that lived beyond its on-air episodes is still The Wire. My wife and I could have conversations about David Simon's narrative throughout the week, keeping each episode alive until it was time for the next one to air. Simon, after all, wrote with the keen eye of an ethnographer and the direct style of a journalist; so, even if the subject matter was fiction, the narrative itself was so embedded in the real world that it offered more sources for serious reflection than most of the babble that now passes for news. Even the very language of The Wire became part of our own living language, whether it involved instances of street talk or that all-purpose escape clause, "it is what it is" (which actually shows up several times in different guises in Shakespeare, an observation that I am sure did not escape Simon). For those of us old enough to appreciate the extent to which, taken as a whole, The Wire is an extended requiem for the way in life in which we matured and thought we would grow old, that program is still very much part of our lives. If Nurse Jackie were half as good as The Wire, perhaps it would have been harder for the powers that be to sway pubic consciousness against health care reform.

What Hayes most fails to understand, however, is that content like the narrative of The Wire does not "live" through an on ongoing flow of tweets. It lives through its power to inspire conversation, whether over the breakfast table at home or over the water cooler at work. More specifically, a narrative lives when we appropriate it and draw upon our appropriation in our own communicative actions. That is the stage at which we become informed by the narrative. It ceases to be a mere document and becomes, instead, an instance of what James Wertsch calls "mind as action." In other words the narrative has become part of our knowledge, and once that has happened its life will endure as long as our own does. From Hayes point of view, of course, the problem is that such knowledge has no part in any calculation of "marketing value." He is not interested in how we become informed. He is only interested in how mechanisms of a "consciousness industry" can improve Showtime's subscription numbers, getting more consumers addicted to his commodity. This may be one reason why Nurse Jackie is not a subject of conversation in our household, particularly when there is so much more to tease out in the complexities of United States of Tara (whose narrative is also not particularly consumer oriented)!

Sunday, March 21, 2010


Tomorrow, as Paul Adams observed in his From Our Own Correspondent report for BBC News, is the day when both Hillary Clinton and Benjamin Netanyahu will make their speeches to the annual AIPAC conference in Washington. How either of these speeches will play to this particular audience is hard to predict. I doubt that there will be any surprises from Netanyahu, since about the only thing he seems to feel deserves apology over his recent activities, particularly regarding plans for Ramat Shlomo, is the bad timing of his announcement of those plans. The real question is what Clinton will say. Will she maintain the message of the strong rhetoric fired in response to Netanyahu's "bad timing," making it clear that, when it comes to foreign policy in the Middle East, the major priority of the United States is the effort to redeem its reputation as an "honest broker;" or will she defuse her rhetoric to the pandering style invoked when she was campaigning for the Democratic nomination in the 2008 Presidential election?

Perhaps equally important is how the AIPAC audience will react. The official reaction to the initial salvo of strong rhetoric was a rather guarded statement about taking "immediate steps to defuse the tension with the Jewish State;" but they have subsequently ramped up their criticism of the Administration position. This had the short-term effect of Clinton endorsing relations between the United States and Israel as an "unshakable bond." My guess is that, officially, this is the language that AIPAC wants to hear; and, among those who would like to bet on what happens in AIPAC (rather than, say, the NCAA Tournament), the smart money will probably go for the unshakable bond rhetoric.

This time around, however, there is a new joker in the deck (to shift the metaphor from basketball to poker). His name is David Petraeus, and his card is in Clinton's current hand. We know the card exists because he testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee last week, and Adams felt that his testimony was worth including in his BBC report. He is how Adams summarized how the chips are currently falling on the table:

There might be another reason for AIPAC delegates to feel uneasy this year.

That's because America's best known general, David Petraeus, has, in the words of one commentator, "discovered the Holy Land". And it's bothering him.

In a statement to the Senate's Armed Services Committee this week, he said that a perception of American favouritism for Israel was fomenting anti-American sentiment.

Hardly a novel observation but for the most influential general of recent times to say, publicly, that his job, in Iraq and Afghanistan, is not being helped, that American lives are being endangered, by the widespread bitterness engendered by an unresolved Arab-Israeli conflict... Now that is highly unusual.

And as Mark Perry of the website Foreign Policy put it, the Pentagon is the most powerful lobby in America.

Given his position, Petraeus is less concerned about being an honest broker in diplomacy and more worried about having a strategic advantage. Since he has been pretty good about straight talk, he had no problem calling attention to the dead moose on the table having to do with how Israel could pose a strategic liability. Also, in terms of taking a more general view of defusing hot spots, it is important to remember that the last Iranian leader to recognize Israel was the Shah; and it is hard to believe that, regardless of who is in power, the Iranian population would look favorably upon any of the overthrown Shah's policies or ideas.

Will this card in Clinton's hand have any effect on AIPAC audience response? My guess is that Netanyahu will take his usual defiant stand and draw the usual cheers from the crowd; and the best that Clinton can hope for, should she continue with the hang-tough rhetoric, will be polite silence. In this setting that is at least a great improvement over loud choruses of boos (and I would hope that this would be the worst that things would get). Hopefully, Clinton will appreciate that she is tough enough to stand up to a hostile crowd, even if she cannot sway that crowd over to her side. If she can do just that much, then the reestablishment of our honest-broker reputation may still be on track; and, given that hostilities appear to be surfacing in Gaza again, that reestablishment could not come too soon.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

The Software that Cried Wolf?

Here is one of those stories that one expects to get from the BBC but which they actually harvested from their Associated Press feed:

New York's police chief has delivered a cheesecake to an elderly couple in Brooklyn, to apologise for dozens of mistaken police visits to their home.

A computer glitch had led officers to Walter and Rose Martin's home 50 times in the past eight years, police said.

The latest intrusion came on Tuesday, with officers pounding on the front and back doors, shouting "Police, open up!"

Thursday's visit - cheesecake in hand - went well. The Martins, aged 82 and 83, shared pictures of their grandchildren.

New York Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly visited the couple's modest home on Friday to "apologise and explain" for the mix-up, NYPD Deputy Commissioner Paul Browne told the Associated Press.

The problem started in 2002, when the Martin's home address was used as "test data" for a new computer crime-tracking system.

The couple complained about the harrowing visits in 2007, but the data remained in the system despite efforts to "purge the records", Deputy Commissioner Browne said.

He added that the Martin's address had now been flagged with alerts "barring officers" from questioning the octogenarians.

This is a really nice little story about how the NYPD can put its best foot forward towards community relations.

As a story about software systems, however, the positive twist of the tale is, as they say, not so much. Indeed, it is yet another incident of a case where those with the power to do so could not update a database to repair inaccurate contents. There is also a question of how the matter was resolved. What if there is a criminal problem at the Martin's address? What procedures are in place regarding how that "flag" is handled to determine whether the report is valid or an artifact of this latent error? Furthermore, assuming those procedures exist (which, as far as I am concerned, may be a bit of a stretch), how will they impact the efficiency of police responsiveness in general, since, presumably, the database was initially set up to improve both the efficiency and the effectiveness of such responsiveness? Only when we have good answers to these questions shall we know whether or not this narrative can be applied as a lessons-learned case study; and only if the narrative can be applied will there be even the slightest possibility that the next time it occurs (and there will be a next time), the outcome will not deteriorate into farce.

Friday, March 19, 2010

CHUTZPAH from Lionsgate

The noun chutzpah may be Hebrew in origin, but its spirit is decidedly Yiddish. If its entry does not make for the most-thumbed pages in Leo Rosten's The Joys of Yiddish, it certainly ought to do so, since Rosten's usage examples are priceless. Thus, when an instance of chutzpah arises that actually resonates with its Yiddish roots, it deserves recognition, even if that instance is not chutzpah at its most outrageous. This was my reaction to a dispatch that Mike Fleming filed yesterday on the Deadline New York Web site:

Lionsgate has acquired North American rights to Dibbuk Box, a thriller in the vein of The Shining that will be written by Juliet Snowden & Stiles White. Ghost House Pictures partners Sam Raimi and Rob Tapert will produce. The jumping off point is a true story culled from the Leslie Gornstein-bylined Los Angeles Times article A Jinx In A Box. In the film, a family finds itself in possession of a haunted box, and struggles to get rid of its evil curse. Using even a tenuous tie to a true story has been a fright fare staple, and helped films that include The Exorcist, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Amityville Horror and Psycho.

The writers' credits include Knowing, remakes of Poltergeist at MGM, and The Birds at Universal, as well as Boogeyman for Ghost House. Dibbuk Box becomes the second project for Ghost House and Lionsgate, which are also developing Burst 3D. In case you didn't know, Lionsgate Motion Picture president Joe Drake was a Ghost House founder.

Now dybbuk has its own entry in Rosten's lexicon. However, it is not just one of the more important Hebrew words to migrate into Yiddish; it is also the title of a major work of Yiddish theater, the play The Dybbuk written by Sholom Ansky (the pen name for Shloyme Zanvi Rappoport). This was made into a film in 1937 in Poland (in the Yiddish language); and, while there have been two more recent film versions, they are both in Hebrew, which significantly undercuts the impact of the original Yiddish text. There is thus more than a fair share of chutzpah in appropriating the dybbuk concept for an Amityville clone that will ultimately be rendered in the sort of goyish English that is the stock-in-trade of the commercial film industry. Such an attack on Yiddish itself should be grounds enough for giving the Chutzpah of the Week award to Drake as the highest-level representative of this project; but more appropriate would be for a dybbuk to disrupt the production in the same spirit (pun intended) with which Ansky's dybbuk disrupted a wedding!

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Another Dark Side of the Internet

When it comes to using the Internet as an enabler through which resources can be managed remotely, I have to confess that I was directly involved with one of those "bleeding edge" research projects behind such thinking. It certainly seemed like a good idea to those of us exploring it in its earliest days. The project with which I was involved was specifically aimed at small businesses that needed more powerful computer technology to avoid being swamped by larger competitors but that could not afford to take on additional staff to look after the hardware and software. As I began to survey the field of who was out there providing what kind of remote management, it all felt as if we were pioneers on the threshold of a brave new world.

In the decade since I was one of those dreamers, any number of be-careful-what-you-wish-for scenarios have come into play. As I wrote in December of 2008, I was discovering the hard way that, wherever there is management, there is also mismanagement; and, when one has to deal with a heavily human-oriented service sector, that mismanagement can get pretty painful. These days, it seems as if the pain knows no limits. Put another way, we seem to be experiencing a new axiom: The more technology you deploy to provide services remotely, the more opportunities that technology has to do harm.

Last night Associated Press Writer Jeff Carlson reported an incident in Dallas that reinforces this axiom in a way that probably no system developer had anticipated. The good news is that the perpetrator was caught and is now in the process of facing the consequences of his malice. The bad news is that this is probably another example of a barn whose door has been closed after the horse was stolen (which seems like the right metaphor for a report from Texas). Here is Carlson's basic account of what happened:

A man fired from a Texas auto dealership used an Internet service to remotely disable ignitions and set off car horns of more than 100 vehicles sold at his old workplace, police said Wednesday.

Austin police arrested Omar Ramos-Lopez, 20, on Wednesday, charging him with felony breach of computer security.

Ramos-Lopez used a former colleague's password to deactivate starters and set off car horns, police said. Several car owners said they had to call tow trucks and were left stranded at work or home.

"He caused these customers, now victims, to miss work," Austin police spokeswoman Veneza Aguinaga said. "They didn't get paid. They had to get tow trucks. They didn't know what was going on with their vehicles."

The irony is that the technology that enabled this episode had been deployed to protect the dealership against abusive customer practices:

The Texas Auto Center dealership in Austin installs GPS devices that can prevent cars from starting. The system is used to repossess cars when buyers are overdue on payments, said Jeremy Norton, a controller at the dealership where Ramos-Lopez worked. Car horns can be activated when repo agents go to collect vehicles and believe the owners are hiding them.

Carlson also provided an account of just how technology deployed to be good had gone bad:

Starting in mid-February, dealership employees noticed unusual changes to their business records. Someone was going into the system and changing customers' names, such as having dead rapper Tupac Shakur buying a 2009 vehicle, Norton said.

Soon, customers began calling saying their cars wouldn't start, or that their horns were going off incessantly, forcing them to disengage the battery. Norton said the dealership originally thought the cars had mechanical problems.

Then employees noticed someone had ordered $130,000 in parts and equipment from the company that makes the GPS devices.

Police said they were able to trace the sabotage to Ramos-Lopez's computer, leading to his arrest.

Norton said Ramos-Lopez didn't seem unusually upset about being fired.

"I think he thought what he was doing was a harmless prank," Norton said. "He didn't see the ramifications of it."

Once again I am reminded of one of the oldest adages about information technology: "To err is human; to really screw things up, you need a computer." However, to be fair to the technology, the screw-up came from a human who happened to see a way to use the computer for "a harmless prank." You would think that systems designers have the sort of mentality to imagine the sorts of "harmless pranks" that could be committed; but, given the sort of pressure they are probably under in their workplaces, I suppose that such imagining gets put on a back burner in the face of the ongoing release-something-that-works management philosophy. Whether or not we wish to single out Microsoft as the originator of that philosophy is left as an exercise for the reader!

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Birth of a Misnomer?

When Jennifer Koh made her San Francisco Performances visit last week at Herbst Theatre, I prepared a preview piece for her, partly to get out the word that she was doing the program without an accompanist, and then filed my review shortly after the recital itself. The program featured a visual interpretation of a composition entitled "Lachen Verlernt" by Esa-Pekka Salonen by video artist Tal Rosner. The advance material from which I wrote my preview referred to Salonen's composition as a concerto for solo violin. I appropriated this language and saw that it also appeared in the program book. However, when it came to listening to the music, which was only about ten minutes long, the classification struck me as a bit peculiar. So, when I wrote the review I decided to dig for background material beyond what the program book provided. In the course of a first-order Web search, I discovered several sites on which Salonen, in his own words, called the composition a chaconne. This made a lot more sense to me, particularly since it anticipated that its performance would be followed, after the intermission, by Johann Sebastian Bach's D minor BWV 1004 partita, best known for the monumental chaconne that concludes it.

How, then, did "Lachen Verlernt" come to be called a "concerto?" Pushing a bit further with my Web searching, I discovered that the word "concerto" appeared only on Web pages describing Rosner's video. Rosner himself never seems to have used the word, so my guess is that it was a product of one of his public relations writers. Things being what they are, it is not difficult to imagine a publicist who does not know the difference between a chaconne and a concerto! (This reminds me of my favorite joke about why I am such a big fan of Linda Hunt on NCIS Los Angeles, which is that she portrays a character who assumes you know the difference between Rainer Maria Rilke and Theodore Roethke!) The problem is that the efforts of this somewhat confused (and unedited) publicist have now penetrated cyberspace and taken over the high-page-rank sites! This leaves me wondering whether Salonen is aware of what has happened to how people now talk about this composition and whether he has any thoughts on the matter!

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Carrots and Sticks

Given the way events are unfolding in Israel, Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva might want to give serious consideration to holding a "lessons learned" meeting with former President Jimmy Carter and our current envoy to the Middle East, George Mitchell. Both of these men clearly understand the value of the reputation of an "honest broker;" and both appreciate the difficulty of both establishing and maintaining that reputation. Lula is currently in Israel on a trip described in a BBC News report as follows:

Mr Lula described his visit to Israel as "a mission of peace" that he hoped would help his country emerge as a bigger player in foreign affairs.

Lula seems to subscribe to many of the precepts outlined by Dennis Ross (who took his own hard knocks in the Middle East) in his Statecraft book, particularly those that apply to the judicious management of both carrots and sticks. Thanks to the blinders imposed by our own media, most Americans would probably be surprised to learn that Brazil has any carrots to bring to the table. This is why we need to turn to a source like the BBC to enhance our "sense of reality," at least where global matters are concerned:

He [Lula] informed Israeli President Shimon Peres that Israel had been accepted as the first non-South American partner in the free trade group, Mercosur.

Brazil is Israel's largest trading partner in Latin America, and trade between Brazil and Iran has also grown by 40% during Mr Lula's presidency.

So how does the Foreign Minister of Israel react to a world leader who gives equal priority to both world peace and effective trade relations? Here is how the BBC reported the answer:

Israeli and Brazilian media said Avigdor Lieberman declined to attend meetings with the visiting head of state and his address to parliament.

Mr Lieberman was reportedly upset that Mr Lula refused to visit the grave of the founder of the Zionist movement.

Mr Lula also opposes sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program.

Had anyone else (even Israeli) done this, I would be thinking about giving an early Chutzpah of the Week award; but I have come to accept that such behavior is business as usual for Lieberman, apparently with the approval of his boss, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Apparently, now that the United States has grown out of the faith-based policy making of the Bush Administration, Israel is determined to fill in the gap, persisting in the metaphor of hauling the Ark of the Covenant into battle. Let us hope that Lula can keep a cool head in the face of such silliness and persist in his efforts.

Republican Opposition (again)

We can now take it for granted that, whatever action the current Administration takes on any issue, the Republicans will speak out against it. Thus, while it appeared that the Republican's had ceded Sunday morning television to the Democrats, particularly David Axelrod's representation of President Barack Obama's disapproval of recent Israeli actions in the strongest of language, all in the interest of restoring the reputation of the United States as an "honest broker" in support of George Mitchell's ongoing efforts to negotiate a Middle East peace, we knew it would not take long for the Republicans to find cause for complaint. It was only a question of what the complaint would be and who would be doing the complaining.

The "who" turned out to be an interesting choice, House Minority Whip Eric Cantor, who happens to be the only Jewish Republican in the House; and, according to an Agence France-Presse story that just appeared on Yahoo! News, he held a breakfast with reporters to say his piece (otherwise known as the Republican Party's latest salvo on the White House). As I see it, the critical sentence from his statement is the following:

Peace is what we are about in this country and we're about trying to facilitate that, but it should be peace on Israel's terms.

In other words his attack against the recent highly critical rhetoric from Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, and Axelrod-speaking-for-Obama is basically an attack on their combined efforts to recover that "honest broker" position, without which Mitchell will never be able to accomplish very much.

This reminds me a bit of that joke that reductively trivializes the difference between Democrats and Republicans:

Democrats think Republicans are stupid.
Republicans think Democrats are wrong.

Whether or not he realized it, Cantor reduced the whole question of Middle East negotiations to the premise that Israel's policies and actions are "right;" and, as a corollary, any opposition to those policies and actions, whether from Israel's neighbors, the United States, or the European Union (which has now decided to stand with Obama's position), is "wrong." This is the same Manichaeism under which former President George W. Bush saw foreign policy as a battlefield for the ultimate conflict between good and evil. It is the sure way to kill any possibility of communication between opposing points of view, either face-to-face or through a mediating agent like Mitchell. In the face of such reasoning, Cantor (or the Republicans who helped him prepare his remarks) failed to appreciate that "peace on Israel's terms" can only be the one-sided pax Romana that comes about when a conqueror totally subdues the conquered. The problem is that, like democracy (to reflect on an observation made by Mohammad Khatami about the political situation in Iraq), peace cannot be imposed; it must be cultivated in its own environment and allowed to grow of its own accord. (Also like democracy, as Gordon Wood observed in his latest book, Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789–1815, what actually grows is not necessarily what those who planted the seeds expected!) The failure of the Bush Administration to appreciate this precept had a devastating effect on our standing in the world community, and the Obama Administration has done much to restore that standing. It is, to say the least, regrettable that, in their obsessive drive to recover political control, the Republicans now seem so determined to dismantle that recovery.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Neither Sticks nor Stones

As could have been guessed, the rhetorical assault over Israel's latest settlement development move has had no effect. We could have seen it coming. We already knew that the full extent of regret on the part of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had to do with the bad timing of the announcement, rather than the substance of the Ramat Shlomo plan itself. This was confirmed by the latest report on Al Jazeera English:

Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, has rejected calls from the US to halt settlement plans in occupied East Jerusalem, saying plans for building new homes would go ahead.

In a speech to Israel's parliament on Monday, Netanyahu said construction "will continue in Jerusalem as this has been the case for the past 42 years" in reference to the 1967 occupation of the mainly Arab territory.

Yesterday I reported that we had heard little from Israel's defenders in this country to respond to the level of indignation expressed by Vice President Joseph Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Chief of Staff David Axelrod (presumably speaking on behalf of President Barack Obama). Yesterday AIPAC finally released a statement, which at best can be described as muted:

AIPAC calls on the administration to take immediate steps to defuse the tension with the Jewish State.

Nevertheless, it is clearly a reaction against American indignation, even it is it not a blatant endorsement of Israeli arrogance. If it assumes that defusing the tension is strictly an American responsibility, rather than a joint effort of both the United States and Israel, then the statement is unlikely to improve the reception it is likely to get "in the lobbies of the Congressional buildings," as I put it yesterday. There is no guarantee, of course, that the lobbying power of AIPAC will fall from its currently lofty height. However, if, as is likely, AIPAC is one of the major impediments to our being perceived as an "honest broker" (which would justify why a country like Brazil should now be considering entering as a mediator), then a radical diminishing (if not elimination) of AIPAC influence will be prerequisite to rebuilding our credibility in the Middle East.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Vindicating Carter

I have always felt that the one American who has seriously and persistently pursued the premise that peace can only come to the Middle East by honoring the principles that mean the most to both Israelis and Palestinians has been former President Jimmy Carter. He may keep changing his tactical recommendations. However, he keeps his eye on the prize; and his premise still provides the foundation for his strategic point of view. Thus, for him the greatest threats arise when that premise is violated.

This week we saw the Obama Administration take steps towards embracing the same premise. Israeli settlement development has become a blatant dishonoring of Palestinian principles, and it was beginning to seem as if the Obama Administration would apply the same benign neglect as preceding administrations, probably because Israel puts as much force behind its lobbying guns as it does behind its armaments. Unfortunately, Israel seems to have deteriorated to a condition in which they put as much faith in lobbying as they used to put in the Ark of the Covenant; and, as was the case with the latter, they suffered a major setback for their arrogance (which their own Scripture describes as Divine punishment). Fortunately, this time around the setback may lead to a serious rethinking of the settlement policy, as a result of a move that may have undermined the usual lobbying forces.

That move, of course, was the announcement of settlement plans for Ramat Shlomo, located in East Jerusalem, that coincided with the state visit by Vice President Joseph Biden. Biden refused to take this arrogance in stride in the interest of diplomacy. Instead, he used every opportunity to deliver the message that the United States would not tolerate such counterproductive measures; and that included delivering that message while on the same stage as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Ultimately, this squeezed a few apologetic remarks from Netanyahu but no sign that the policy was going to change. Meanwhile, after Biden had concluded his visit, his position was reinforced by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton; and this morning David Axelrod was dispatched to the NBC division of the "Sabbath Day Gasbags" circuit (otherwise known as Meet the Press). To make it clear that neither Biden nor Clinton were having second thoughts about pulling any punches, Axelrod took the same position in his own remarks about the Israeli actions:

This was an affront, it was an insult but most importantly it undermined this very fragile effort to bring peace to that region.

We have just started proximity talks, that is shuttle diplomacy, between the Palestinians and the Israelis, and for this announcement to come at that time was very destructive.

The strength of this unity of voices can be appreciated by the fact that we have heard little hue and cry from Israel's defenders to the effect that this Administration position is yet another act of latent anti-Semitism. That dog is just not going to hunt this time, just as the Ark of the Covenant could not be counted on the lead the Israelites to military victory.

One incident, of course, does not redeem the reputation of the United States as an "honest broker." However, it is still a step in the right direction. If it has created a situation in which organizations such as AIPAC will be less welcome in the lobbies of the Congressional buildings, that could well further serious moves towards peace in the Middle East. The window of opportunity may be narrow, but it can still be wide enough to reverse a status quo that has impeded that elusive goal thus far. We should watch this coming week to see whether or not this opportunity is taken seriously.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Interacting with Government

By virtue of the way in which my radio listening habits are organized, from time to time I find myself listening to The Interview on my BBC World Service Radio satellite feed. I am usually drawn into these conversations, even if I enter them in the middle of the broadcast. However, having just read the summary (on the BBC News Web site) of the latest Interview with Evan Williams, co-founder to Twitter, I doubt that I shall be as patient with the broadcast as I usually am. I suppose it speaks well for the BBC that I read this account through to the end, but that was where I found my greatest aggravation. It all came down to what may have been the final punch line delivered by Williams:

I think Twitter will be a fundamental part of how people interact with their government.

Whether or not he is correct (and, on the basis of the rest of the summary, I suspect that this was one of those off-the-cuff zingers that did not necessarily have any serious warrants behind it), it scares the daylights out of me.

More specifically, however, it left me wishing that, rather than wasting their time with yet another shoot-from-the-hip technology entrepreneur, the BBC had chosen instead to interview Erik Hersman, about whom I wrote at the beginning of this month. For those who forgot (or never read the account), Hersman is a volunteer who contributes to maintaining Ushahidi, a software tool that facilitates the use of information gathered from digital communications (such as Tweets) in crisis management situations. Ushahidi received their first significant global attention by contributing to the relief efforts following the Haitian earthquake; and, by the time of the Chilean quake, their operations were effective enough to get up and running in less than an hour. I repeat all this to make it clear that technologies such as Twitter definitely can be advantageous.

What Williams and other technology evangelists may not appreciate, however, is that the advantages of Twitter reside not in Twitter itself but in those volunteers like Hersman, who provide an element of governance within which this particular usage of Twitter is situated. Even in times of crisis, the premise of Number 51 of The Federalist still holds:

If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.

In other words we do not all become altruistic angels when others are suffering. Without the intervention of government, those who are victims face the risk of being further victimized by those more interested in exploiting than assisting.

I would propose that the lesson of this situation stands as a corollary to the principles behind our constitutional republic:

In addition to securing the "unalienable rights" of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, governments are created to facilitate communication among those who seek to exercise those rights.

In other words it is through government that citizens can interact at all; and to claim that a communication technology such as Twitter can be "a fundamental part of how people interact with their government" amounts to viewing the relationship between government and communication through the wrong end of the telescope. This point of view highlights another of Williams' more specious observations:

What we're working on is technology that has the power to change things, and that's very, very exciting and motivating.

Once again, a paraphrase from National Rifle Association motto is in order:

Technology does not have the power to change things; only people can change things.

With a system like Ushahidi, people are doing the changing, because the change has to do not with the technology but with the "heavily lifting" of not only putting the technology to use but also imposing a layer of governance to secure that usage is beneficial, rather than malevolent. Unfortunately, when we see the extent to which communication has broken down in the fundamental operations of government (and not just our own), we see that just having government is not, in itself, a safeguard against abusive practices; and, in such a setting it is just as likely that changes brought on by a technology like Twitter will further the diabolic side of our human nature, rather than the angelic one.