Thursday, March 31, 2011

A Premature Report of Death?

Robert Darnton’s latest post to NYRBlog, “Six Reasons Google Books Failed,” is more another attempt to make a case for his Digital Public Library of America than an analysis of the decision of Judge Denny Chin to reject the settlement between Google and the authors and publishers who sued it.  However, if he were as aware of recent history as he is of that of past centuries in France, he might have realized that his analysis rests on at least one weak premise, which is the accuracy of his title.  He does not seem to recognize that, where large teams of well-paid corporate lawyers are involved, failure is not an option (as they say).  Google Books may have suffered a setback.  Most likely Google is well-equipped to apply a strategy that Darnton knows full well in its French formulation:  reculer pour avancer (draw back in order to advance).  In English we might say that every setback still provides information, and I am sure that Google is studying that information well to prepare its next move.

There is also the question of why Darnton is as interested in his own solution as he is.  On past occasions he has observed that the knowledge maintained in libraries is too important to be entrusted to a single entity in the private sector.  I would not dispute that point, but does he really wish to pursue the alternative as a public service entrusted to our Federal government?  Currently our government cannot even be trusted with a principle of social democracy as fundamental as the public service of health care.  Why should we expect that our representatives will take any better care of a large collection of books, most of which they have never heard of, let alone read?

To the contrary, the one thing politicians seem to know is that old saw that knowledge is power.  If they truly believe that precept, why would they ever want to share knowledge?  (To frame this in another context, are the communications networks established as a result of the formation of the Department of Homeland Security any better at “connecting the dots” than the previous “disconnected” intelligence and law-enforcement agencies were?)  Yes, knowledge, indeed, is power, which is why those with power derived from knowledge want to keep everyone else in ignorance.  Indeed, to follow up on yesterday’s post on health care, ignorance is simply another one of those agencies through which those without wealth and power are being turned into a new class of slaves.

Peabody Recognition for HBO

The 70th annual George Foster Peabody Awards were just announced, and Dave Itzkoff has reported the results on the ArtsBeat blog for The New York Times.  These awards specifically recognize excellence in electronic media.  The HBO presence in these awards is not only admirable but also significant because all awards went to program material taking on topics that those more hooked into “consumer culture” (which, as I have often suggested, is predisposed against information) would prefer not to touch.

One cannot really rank-order the three HBO awardees by significance.  I suppose the one that hits the most sore nerves is Spike Lee’s documentary If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise, the “second chapter” of chronicling the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, which painfully demonstrated how the disgraceful conditions documented in When the Levees Broke have not improved and may even have worsened.  The dramatization of the life (thus far) of Temple Grandin was far more upbeat;  but it had no shortage in its own share of sore nerves.  Grandin is admirable in her success in prevailing over some of the more brutal elements of our culture, but those brutes still rule.  Finally, The Pacific was recognized.  This, too, had an upbeat side in its acknowledgement of heroism in the field;  but it did not try to skirt around the far darker side of this front in the Second World War, making its own valiant (but not necessarily successful) effort to turn us into a society that will think twice before rushing into a military engagement.

There is one non-HBO award that I feel also deserves recognition.  That is the FX series Justified.  Every now and then one of the Fox tentacles actually manages to get beyond the prevailing standards of crass commercialism, and this one is definitely a winner.  Taking a story by Elmore Leonard as a point of departure, the series introduced itself as a lawman-versus-criminal yarn;  but it quickly became much more than that, exploring with almost anthropological detail (definitely on a part with the work of David Simon) the complexity of a society built around mining coal in Harlan County, Kentucky (one of the most historic sites in the history of labor rights).  I am reminded of Lester Boyle’s most memorable line from Cookie’s Fortune, when he insists that the man just arrested is innocent.  His reasoning is straightforward:

I’ve fished with him.

Men who work the mines together know as much about each other as those who fish together, and Justified is an uncanny exploration of that particular breed of “cultural knowledge.”

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Plato on Health Care

The greatest surprises in reading Plato arise when he takes on topics I had not expected he would address, often in discussions where those topics do not initially seem relevant.  Health care is a good case in point.  This shows up in “Laws,” of all places.  Perhaps this was because this was the last of the dialogues he wrote, so his own health and mortality were likely on his mind.  As usual, what I discovered turned out to be fascinating.

First of all there was the nature of how health care was practiced.  Clearly, there were those among the free men who received training in the necessary arts.  However, they usually had slaves.  Physicians would then share their training with their slaves, so the slaves could act as assistants.  Where things get interesting, however, is that the slaves did more than just assist their masters with their masters’ patients:

Now have you observed that, as there are slaves as well as free men among the patients of our communities, the slaves, to speak generally, are treated by slaves, who pay them a hurried visit, or receive them in dispensaries?  A physician of this kind never gives a servant any account of his complaint, nor asks him for any;  he gives him some empirical injunction with an air of finished knowledge, in the brusque fashion of a dictator, and then is off in hot haste to the next ailing servant—that is how he lightens his master’s medical labors for him.  The free practitioner, who, for the most part, attends free men, treats their diseases by going into things thoroughly from the beginning in a scientific way, and takes the patient and his family into his confidence.  Thus he learns something from the sufferers, and at the same time instructs the invalid to the best of his powers.  He does not give his prescriptions until he has won the patient’s support, and when he has done so, he steadily aims at producing complete restoration to health by persuading the sufferer into compliance.

It should not be surprising that slaves received health care, since an unhealthy slave was clearly not of much use to his/her owner.  What is fascinating, however, is that training slaves in the medical arts enabled a two-tiered system of health care.  Slaves would be administered to by other slaves through a system that bears an uncanny resemblance to the way in which we have “industrialized” health care.  Through these operations, the slaves would free up the time of their owners to deal with health care as the service it deserves to be, grounded in a rich foundation of communication between the health care provider and his patient.

The possible corollary is that the intervention of insurance as an industry is responsible for bringing this two-tiered system into our own culture.  Those who need insurance the most, assuming they get it at all (even if they get it under a legal obligation to provide it), find themselves receiving the same industrialized health care given to Greek slaves.  Only those with the wealth and power to afford otherwise receive “service-based” health care, because their wealth entitles them to it.  In other words the economic division that has now divided our society so sharply has turned us into a society of a new class of slaves (a state of affairs that Spike Lee had observed during the interviews he conducted for his film about Katrina, When the Levees Broke).

If this is truly the way things are, then any debate about whether or not “under God” belongs in the Pledge of Allegiance is misplaced;  the real debate should be about that final phrase, “with liberty and justice for all!”

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Faith Rises (again)

What is the biggest threat to our country?  My guess is that many would still cite the risk that recovery from our current economic crisis is not in the foreseeable future.  Those willing to look beyond national borders and the immediacy of the present might name the catastrophic climate conditions, which by now may be irreversible.  There are probably even some who would cite the failure of our government to function in any effective manner, which would include inability to deal with any other threats.

Newt Gingrich has other ideas.  He believes that the greatest threat is twofold:  “the growth of secular thought and an indifference to standing against militant Islam.”  Those are not Gingrich’s words.  They come from a report by Abe Levy, who covered a speech that Gingrich gave on Sunday at Cornerstone Church for the San Antonio Express-News.  Levy also reported that the Cornerstone congregation gave Gingrich a standing ovation for this assessment of the state of our nation.

As Holly Bailey, who blogs on The Ticket for Yahoo! News, reminded us yesterday, Cornerstone is run by Pastor John Hagee, whose worldview (if you can call it that) was extreme enough to compel Presidential candidate John McCain to reject his endorsement.  She also reviewed McCain’s grounds for distancing himself from Hagee:

Among other things, Hagee told National Public Radio in the aftermath of Katrina that New Orleans had suffered the "judgment of God" because of its "level of sin." He referred to the Catholic Church as "the great whore" and "a false cult system." The tipping point for McCain was Hagee's comment that Adolf Hitler had been fulfilling God's will by targeting Jews.

Now we have Gingrich courting support for a possible run for the Presidency basically by pandering to the very reasoning (if you can call it that), which McCain had the courage to reject with good old-fashioned courageous American values.

Current poll numbers seem to indicate that the threat of Sarah Palin becoming the first Demagogue in Chief are abating, but we have Gingrich to remind us that the threat of demagoguery itself is still very much with us.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Making Sense of Corporate-Speak

Perhaps the most consistently running theme that emerges in the interviews that the media have been conducting with Japanese citizens is that of distrust, particularly regarding conditions at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.  This understandable, even if at least some of that distrust may have been induced by the ways in which the interviews were conducted.  Japan is the first country to have experienced the impact of a nuclear catastrophe, and that is not the sort of thing to fade from collective memory.

The problem is that both the Japanese government and Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO) have been trying to inform the public with simple statements.  These tend to mask any underlying complexity and/or uncertainty.  Consider the following lead sentences in an Al Jazeera English article based on wire sources:

Plutonium has been found in soil samples taken from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, operator Tokyo Electric Power said as efforts to bring the situation at the earthquake-stricken facility continue.

The samples were taken a week ago but the levels didn't pose a risk to human health, said Sakae Muto, TEPCO's vice-president.

Is Muto’s claim credible?  This is one of those cases where there are not sufficient data to answer this question.  Therefore, as a public service it seems worthwhile to reproduce the paragraphs provided by Wikipedia on plutonium toxicity:

Isotopes and compounds of plutonium are radioactive poisons that accumulate in bone marrow. Contamination by plutonium oxide (spontaneously oxidized plutonium) has resulted from a number of nuclear disasters and radioactive incidents including military nuclear accidents where nuclear weapons have burned.[85] Studies of the effects of these smaller releases, as well as of the widespread radiation poisoning sickness and death following the Atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, have provided considerable information regarding the dangers, symptoms and prognosis of radioactive poisoning. PMID 19454804

During the decay of plutonium, three types of radiation are released-alpha, beta, and gamma. Alpha particles can travel only a short distance and cannot travel through human skin. Beta particles can penetrate human skin, but they cannot go all the way through the body. Gamma radiation can go all the way through the body.[86] Alpha particles, beta particles, and gamma radiation all expose the body to ionizing radiation. Either acute or longer-term exposure carries a danger of unfavorable health outcomes including radiation sickness, cancer and death. The danger increases with the amount of exposure.

Though alpha radiation plutonium emits does not penetrate the skin it does irradiate internal organs when plutonium is inhaled or ingested.[32] The skeleton, where plutonium is absorbed by the bone surface, and the liver, where it collects and becomes concentrated, are at risk.[31] Plutonium is not absorbed into the body efficiently when ingested; only 0.04% of plutonium oxide is absorbed after ingestion.[32] What plutonium is absorbed into the body is excreted very slowly, with a biological half-life of 200 years.[87] Plutonium passes only slowly through cell membranes and intestinal boundaries, so absorption by ingestion and incorporation into bone structure proceeds very slowly.[88][89]

Plutonium is more dangerous when inhaled than when ingested. The risk of lung cancer increases once the total dose equivalent of inhaled radiation exceeds 400 mSv.[90] The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that the lifetime cancer risk for inhaling 5,000 plutonium particles, each about 3 microns wide, to be 1% over the background U.S. average.[91] Ingestion or inhalation of large amounts may cause acute radiation poisoning and death; no human is known to have died because of inhaling or ingesting plutonium, and many people have measurable amounts of plutonium in their bodies.[76]

The "hot particle" theory in which a particle of plutonium dust radiates a localized spot of lung tissue has been tested and found false – such particles are more mobile than originally thought and toxicity is not measurably increased due to particulate form.[88]

However, when inhaled, plutonium can pass into the bloodstream. Once in the bloodstream, plutonium moves throughout the body and into the bones, liver, or other body organs. Plutonium that reaches body organs generally stays in the body for decades and continues to expose the surrounding tissue to radiation and thus may cause cancer.[92]
Several populations of people who have been exposed to plutonium dust (e.g. people living down-wind of Nevada test sites, Hiroshima survivors, nuclear facility workers, and "terminally ill" patients injected with Pu in 1945–46 to study Pu metabolism) have been carefully followed and analyzed.

These studies generally do not show especially high plutonium toxicity or plutonium-induced cancer results.[88] "There were about 25 workers from Los Alamos National Laboratory who inhaled a considerable amount of plutonium dust during the 1940's; according to the hot-particle theory, each of them has a 99.5% chance of being dead from lung cancer by now, but there has not been a single lung cancer among them."[93][94]

In other words there is no good way to determine whether or not Muto’s claim is credible.  At the very least that decision rests on the form of the plutonium that was detected.  By all rights this information should have been included as part of the official response from TEPCO.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

"First-Rate" Stories

Robert Gottlieb decided to use NYRBlog as a platform for having a go at the new film version of Jane Eyre.  He declares his position with his very first sentence:

The new film version of Jane Eyre isn’t all bad, but it’s all wrong.

For the most part I appreciate the argumentation techniques he musters to warrant this claim.  However, his punch line got me to thinking:

No, it’s likely to be second-rate novels that make good movies, ones with exciting stories and clearly etched characters but no particular vision of life, no unique authorial voice. These latter qualities are what books are for.

I shall not argue over whether or not Charlotte Brontë wrote “first-rate” novels;  but I was struck by the attributes he felt described such writing, wondering about when I had encountered those attributes.

Yes, I certainly agree that these are qualities found in the books he cites building up to that punch line, Moby Dick and Madame Bovary;  but do those qualities only reside in books?  I certainly do not intend to defend the current state of movie-making.  I almost never go into a movie theater any more because of the amount of time I put into attending performances.  I do not mind waiting for things on cable, but it seems as if there are fewer offerings that attract my attention once they become available.  Nevertheless, it seems as if many of the series that have become the bread-and-butter of the premium cable channels are not stinting on the qualities Gottlieb so admires.  Regular readers will probably guess that my prime example will be The Wire;  and perhaps one reason is that, to use Gottlieb’s language, David Simon was so good at taking the “authorial voice” he had developed as a reporter and channeling it into script-writing.

However, it is through another one of those qualities that one can appreciate why such series rise above the sorry state of movies.  It has to do with the need for that “particular vision of life.”  It is not that feature films entirely lack that vision;  but, in the hands of most production companies, ninety minutes makes for a rather impoverished account of such a vision.  Simon’s vision, on the other hand, could not be distilled down to such a modest duration;  and he was fortunate in having the liberty to unfold it over the course of several years, thus encouraging viewers to reflect on it, rather than simply “consuming” it.  I agree with Gottlieb that books lend themselves to such reflective behavior, but I think we need to appreciate the work of those creative enough to get beyond nineteenth-century conventions without short-changing the reflective nature of what they produce.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Can We Recognize when Reform is Necessary?

The exchange between Cheryl Mendelson and David Cole over the constitutionality of health care reform, included in the April 7 issue of the New York Review, may bear more consideration that Cole gave it.  Mendelson made her pitch using language that, in diplomatic circles, would be called “frank and open:”

Being legally required to debate one’s spouse’s bone marrow transplant or one’s child’s tonsillectomy with the people at Aetna or UnitedHealthcare is not at all like being taxed or regulated in the way that we are used to and accept. Given the sort of insurance that middle-income people can afford and will be forced to accept, given the despicable behavior of the insurance companies over the past few decades, the maddening interposition of bureaucrats between patients and their doctors, the time-wasting snarls of red tape and delays and refusals, the injustice, anxiety, and rage-inducing frustration that is the average person’s experience with these companies, many people—including those with and without insurance—believe that to be forced to place matters of life, suffering, and death in the hands of corporate insurers is an intolerable breach of liberty. Liberal lawyers, lost in abstractions, ignore how the mandate forces the entire American public into the arms of a near-universally detested industry—not just any industry but this particularly despised one—while leaving it in crucial respects unregulated.

Now consider Cole’s response:

In arguing that her objections support a conclusion that the individual mandate is unconstitutional, Mendelson makes the same mistake that the law’s challengers in court have made. They both erroneously allow concerns about “liberty” to color their assessment of the actual legal question presented: Should the power to require citizens to purchase health insurance be enjoyed only by states, or should Congress also have that power? Mendelson’s objections to having to deal with insurance companies, like those of the libertarians, do not merely imply that Congress should not have this power, but that no government should have this power.

The problem is that Cole wants to discuss questions of constitutionality (which was, after all the domain of his original article), while Mendelson wants to focus on the question of reform.  This disconnect illustrates why health care can continue to be the mess that it is, because it suggests that there is a more general disconnect between matters of governance and matters of reform.  The implication is that governments are more concerned with maintaining the inertia of the social practices they govern, rather than changing their directed velocity and/or mass.

Consider change from a historical point of view.  Neither women’s suffrage nor civil rights emerged from agents of government.  Even Social Security, which some might regard as one of our government’s greatest social achievements, originated through Franklin Roosevelt’s awareness of conditions his neighbor had to face, rather than any matters of White House operations.  Until those who seek health care reform recognize that legislation can only affirm, rather than initiate, action, we shall be stuck in a stalemate.  We do not need a President to free us from the oppression of the octopus of the health care industry.  We need a leader with the qualities of Martin Luther King, capable of identifying goals and mobilizing resourced to achieve them.  That leader can set the wheels of reform in motion long before our government will realize that those wheels are turning!

Friday, March 25, 2011

Misreading Montaigne for Personal Gain

Michel de Montaigne appears to be the man of the hour these days.  Give Google the search keys “Montaigne” and “blogger” and stand back for the flood of articles presenting him as the first blogger.  While it is probably the case that his prodigious collection of three books of essays was written without editorial intervention, there seems to be something slightly degrading about reducing each of those essays to the status of a blog post.
I thus took some comfort in reading Mark Lilla’s review of Sarah Bakewell’s book, How to Live, or, A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer, which appeared in the March 24, 2011 issue of The New York Review.  Ironically, while I was still digesting the subtleties of Lilla’s analysis, the following issue appeared with a one-column advertisement for Montaigne and Being in Touch With Life by Saul Frampton.  Apparently Montaigne is quite the fashion right now;  and it appears that he has attained this status through his gift for self-examination.  I suppose it was his conviction that the hard evidence of self will always trump philosophizing about the higher principles of life, the universe, and everything that led the blogosphere to embrace him as their first pioneer;  but the point of Lilla’s examination of Montaigne’s self-examination is that it is too easy to miss the boat.
Lilla does not short-change Bakewell when it comes to giving credit where credit is due.  Furthermore, while he is not shy in pointing out the shortcomings of her analysis, he is far from vindictive.  Nevertheless, there is at least one shortcoming that cannot be ignored, which is that, while Bakewell examines Montaigne’s life, she tends to focus on the wisdom of the individual essays without accounting for the broader context in which they are embedded.  Lilla points that that Montaigne wrote in a context of dark times (such as the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre);  and there as a dark undercurrent to those avuncular anecdotes and recommendations that is too easily overlooked, leading me to wonder whether Frampton was as easily distracted from that darkness as Bakewell had been.
This leads me to wonder further whether, because of the darkness of our own times, too much of what is being written has to do with cultivating good feeling.  There is no difference between musing over whether you are playing with your cat or your cat is playing with you than in finding happiness through eating, praying, and loving.  However, good feeling seems to thrive on superficialities;  and this may be why we would rather view Montaigne as the first blogger, rather than the deep thinker who emerges from a more integrated view of all of those essays, such as the one Lilla provided.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Persistence of Melody

What I probably value most about living so close to the San Francisco Conservatory of Music is the number of times I have been able to get to know music that I would otherwise know only through the inadequacies of recording technology.  Even when a composer becomes a major focus of attention, as was the case during the bicentennial of the birth of Robert Schumann, the Conservatory students were teasing out compositions that were being either ignored or avoided in the major venues.  This was particularly the case with his chamber music to a point where I often feel the urge to draw upon my recordings before hearing the music in concert.

That is why I set aside some time today to listen to his second piano trio, the Opus 80, which will be performed in an all-Schumann recital at the Conservatory this coming Monday evening.  I have come to know this trio, because it shows up with some frequency at student recitals and master classes;  but I still need to refresh my memory with my Beaux Arts Trio recording to set my expectations.  What always triggers a memory is Schumann’s recollection of one of his song themes in the first movement.  The song is “Intermezzo,” the second in the Opus 39 Liederkreis collection based on text by Joseph Freiherr von Eichendorff.  I remember student-written program notes suggesting that Schumann drew upon this theme to trigger Clara’s memory of the words of the poem (“Your wonderful, blessed portrait I carry in the depths of my heart”).

Recently I realized that Brahms may have also drawn upon this theme.  I say “may have,” because it appears in the first movement of his A major “Opus 0” trio, whose attribution has been questioned by some.  If Brahms did indeed compose this trio, then the dating would appear to be around the time that he first met Robert and Clara Schumann, which would raise some intriguing hypotheses.  One is that he invoked the theme to honor the mentor relationship he hoped that Schumann would establish;  but another is that, like Robert, he was trying to get Clara’s attention!  These are matter that are unlikely to be resolved well enough to withstand rigorous reasoning, but they are still amusing conjectures.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Consumerism Trumps News

It is no secret that newspapers are having a rough time, whether in their dwindling print editions or their efforts to establish a financially viable presence on the Internet.  It is thus no surprise that USA Today, designed to dominate the print world through eye candy, rather than news, has been on the skids.  According to a story by Associated Press Business Writer, Michael Liedtke, they are now positioning to reinvent themselves (with all the connotations attached to that cliché) for the Internet:

USA Today, a newspaper created nearly 30 years ago to appeal to people who grew up watching television, is revising its formula to try to counter the Internet's threat to its survival.

The nation's second-largest newspaper is expanding its coverage of advertising-friendly topics, designing content for smartphones and tablet computers and refreshing the look of its print edition, whose circulation has fallen by 20 percent over the past three years.

For readers, it means lots of travel tips, gadget reviews, sports features, financial advice and lifestyle recommendations. Top editors say investigative journalism will also be emphasized.

A new design of USA Today's front page was unveiled in late January. The rest of the newspaper will be filled with more of the colorful graphics that made USA Today stand out when Gannett Co. started it in September 1982. The print edition also now includes a few barcodes that can be scanned by a mobile device to view videos and other digital content related to certain stories.

There is no sense in wringing our hands over this.  USA Today has recognized what every successful Internet venture (with Google at the top of the pile) has drawn upon for sustenance:  The Internet is not a medium for communicating information;  it is now the primary agency for growing our national addiction to consumerism.

Those with a sense of history know that the Internet did not establish this addiction.  If we are to believe the analysis of Chris Hedges, there has been a systematic concerted effort to get us all hooked since the beginning of the twentieth century, when the Administration of Woodrow Wilson mounted a propaganda campaign to sell the participation of the United States in the First World War, not because it was good for our democratic values (which was the crux of the pitch) but because it was good for our financial sector with heavy investments in European countries like Great Britain.  Indeed, Hedges claims that this was when the word “propaganda” first entered out working vocabulary;  and it was the social science literature that informed the Wilson Administration that was later enthusiastically adopted by the likes of Adolf Hitler and Joseph Goebbels.

Now, at last, we have an online design for a newspaper that makes it clear that news really does not figure in the equation.  All that matters is selling stuff “by any means necessary.”  (Malcolm, forgive me for appropriating that phrase in this context!)  All technology does is expand the means at our disposal, and at least USA Today is being up front about how they plan to exploit those means to further their goal of exploiting all of us!

Sunday, March 20, 2011

I Want My Al Jazeera!

I began last month by supporting the case Alessandra Stanley made for providing Al Jazeera English as a channel option on American television on the ArtsBeat blog of The New York Times.  I concluded with a Post Script providing a hyperlink to the Al Jazeera English channel on YouTube.  Since then I have had my first brush with television access to the Internet as a “side effect” of my decision to purchase a Blu-ray Disc Player.  The Samsung box that I purchased included an Internet@TV option;  and I was able to establish the connection to our in-house Wi-Fi signal with almost no difficulty.  Yesterday I finally got around to browsing the Samsung AppS library and had no trouble finding their YouTube application.  The bad news was that it could only retrieve and play short clips, meaning that I could not get to the live streaming feed available on the YouTube site;  but this was still a small step forward for a media industry whose sclerosis may yet be its undoing.

The good news is that the YouTube feed into my computer is just fine, as is the quality of the signal when I watch it on my full-screen monitor.  So, in the tradition of Hosni Mubarak’s “testimony” that he turned to CNN when Desert Storm began, I used this feed as my “go to” site for yesterday’s news of the first round of attacks on Libya.  Yes, things were a bit clunkier than one would find on BBC World Service Television;  but at least the coverage was not all about media personalities like Diane Sawyer (former assistant to Richard Nixon) and combat-ready Christiane Amanpour.  Furthermore, the Al Jazeera Arabic team must clearly be in the thick of things, because four of them have been arrested by Muammar Gaddafi’s security forces.  Therefore, out of respect for my “new best friend” for reliable television news (even if it comes off of a computer monitor), I wanted to give the names of these four journalists in recognition of what they are doing to advance the cause of “hard news:”
  •  Ahmed Vall Ould Addin, correspondent
  •  Kamel Atalua, cameraman
  •  Ammar al-Hamdan, cameraman
  •  Lotfi al-Messaoudi, correspondent

None of this is likely to advance the cause of making Al Jazeera English available to more television viewers, but I feel it is important to give credit where credit is due.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

RIP Knut

These days I find myself doing more obituary writing;  but it is almost always about musicians on my national site for, such as a recent piece about Eugene Fodor that attracted more attention than I anticipated.  However, on this site I feel it appropriate to acknowledge today’s BBC report on the death of the polar bear Knut at the Berlin Zoo.  Cause of death has yet to be determined;  and I suppose there will be many who take the position that Knut was nothing but the object of a media circus.  I prefer to assume the more positive view that I try to maintain about zoos in general.  Knut was one small agent in trying to remind us that we are custodians of this planet, rather than its rulers.  This is reason enough to mourn his passing.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Satire is the Best Revenge

I suppose I should begin by confessing that I was never particularly interested in Upstairs, Downstairs.  I am sure it was a great asset for Public Television back when they were still committed to running programs of substance, instead of the current lowest-common-denominator nostalgic fluff.  However, my tastes tended more towards John Galsworthy and Anthony Trollope;  and the video documents of staged performances were already taking a fair chunk of my time.

My wife, on the other hand, was hooked on that series;  and that meant that she really wanted see Downton Abbey.  Since she was traveling when it aired here, I saved all the episodes on our VTR;  and we covered the entirety in relatively short order after she returned.  I thought it had a few interesting sharp edges;  but, on the whole, I found it a bit too slick and occasionally self-indulgent.  I almost felt that it had been driven by a marketing plan rather than a narrative one.

I am therefore happy to report that, at least on the other side of the pond, the British are going to give this contrivance a bit of come-uppance.  Here is how the plan was reported in today’s Telegraph:

The American actress Kim Cattrall, best known for playing Samantha in Sex and the City, will join forces with Comic Relief veterans Joanna Lumley, Jennifer Saunders, Victoria Wood for the spoof.

Harry Enfield, Tim Vine, Dale Winton, Simon Callow will also take part in the irreverent take on the popular drama about life above and below stairs in the Edwardian era.

Victoria Wood plays “Mrs Crawler” and Joanna Lumley the housekeeper figure. The sketch will apparently reveal how much of a flirt Lady Mary really is, and whether Thomas the dastardly second footman is as catty off camera as he is on it.

The photograph accompanying this story is definitely worth viewing, particularly to see Kim Cattrall in “full character.”  My only regret is that we shall probably not get to see this production over here.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

On not Being Two Places at Once

I find it slightly amusing that, after yesterday’s “diachronic speculations,” I should now be reflecting on the most important impediment to synchronic thinking, which is that none of us can ever be two places at once.  These reflections were triggered as I read my print edition of the San Francisco Chronicle this morning and realized that Music Critic Joshua Kosman spent Sunday evening at tenor Jonas Kaufmann’s recital in Zellerbach Hall on the campus of the University of California at Berkeley, while I was taking in pianist Yefim Bronfman’s recital at Davies Symphony Hall here in San Francisco.  Now, as a student, I used to read Winthrop Sargeant’s music columns for The New Yorker and tended to get annoyed when he would write about leaving one performance at intermission to hop over to another.  I have no idea whether or not his editors condoned or approved of his practices, but they struck me as consistent with the sort of lifestyle that the magazine was trying to encourage.  On the other hand those were days when less attention was given to trying to establish some logical coherence when one prepared a program for performance, so there was less risk of jeopardizing the event by considering parts without accounting for the whole.  Still, I felt there was an arrogant subtext to the practice, saying:  “We can do things like this in New York;  and, if you are reading this in any other American city, chances are pretty good that you can’t!”

Nevertheless, there are bound to be occasions when one has to make difficult choices about how one commits one’s time;  and I can even confess that I have been known to change my mind about such a commitment on the relatively short notice of a few hours.  On the other hand the writing I do for is pretty much a matter of “flying solo;”  so there is nothing I can do once the commitment has been made.  Thus, I have no problem with Kosman being one place and my being at another.  Furthermore, given my personal preference for attention to listening, rather than enthusiasm, reading the opening sentences of Kosman's account assured me that I had made the right decision:

If the world of classical music has a Justin Bieber, it can only be tenor Jonas Kaufmann, who drove the Sunday night crowd in Berkeley's Zellerbach Hall into paroxysms of frenzied applause - all before he'd even opened his mouth.

This is to take nothing - or at least not much - away from Kaufmann's singing, which is forthright and often arresting, albeit in a rough-hewn, muscular sort of way. But presumably an audience that doesn't even wait for the music to begin before roaring its approval has more than just Schumann on its mind.

In the context of this opener, I have to say that I derived considerable satisfaction from Kosman’s focus on how Kaufmann approached the vocal repertoire of Robert Schumann and Richard Strauss, perhaps with even greater interest because of the prominent role that Schumann had played in Bronfman’s recital.  In the terms of a quotation from Plato that I invoked on one of my more speculative pieces, Kosman acted as a judge who was not learning his verdict from the audience.

Still, the question remains as to why the Chronicle must also limit its attention to only one event on any given night.  We all know the answer, and it has nothing to do with the performing arts or the skill of writing about performances.  As they say, “It’s all about the money.”  Regardless of what happens on their Web site, the number of pages on my breakfast table continue their steady monotonic decline, if not from day to day then certainly in a long-range trend.  While the Web-based version does not have to worry about the total number of available column inches, management has to worry about paying for the content it provides, even when it involves freelance contributions.  The result is that, here in San Francisco, one has to turn to other Web sites for a more thorough account of what takes place across the many venues this municipal area has to offer.

On the other hand I have to be careful about disrespecting the Chronicle too much.  After all, look what I found at the bottom of the Web page after reading Kosman’s piece:
There was a link to the review I wrote last week about a boxed-set collection of the complete piano works of Schumann, given higher ranks than other reviews of Kaufmann no less!  My guess is that it was Schumann’s name that triggered the selection of that link, if not its rank on the list.  I suppose I had better check my latest Google Analytics report to see if the Chronicle is actually blessing me with an increase in page views!

Monday, March 14, 2011

Diachronic Speculations

As a result of having read Randall Collins’ The Sociology of Philosophies, I have had a long-standing interest in trying to map out “influence networks” of composers throughout the history of Western music, drawing upon the same categories of links that Collins had used in his network graphs:  master-pupil, acquaintance, and “conflictual.”  In the graphs he drew in this book, Collins tried to situate each name along a vertical time axis before drawing the necessary links.  However, after my efforts to write about Yefim Bronfman’s recital last night on, I suspect that this may be too coarse an approach to the time line.  Where composers are concerned (and probably philosophers as well), we rarely want to think of the entire life of an individual as a single node in a graph structure.  Thus, I have found myself thinking about influence relations at the granularity of individual compositions, which means that I probably need to introduce an additional link to account for self-influence from one composition to another.

Much of the effort in my piece involved trying to establish a useful listening context for Robert Schumann’s Opus 20 in B-flat major, which he titled “Humoreske” (with the result, suggested by Michael Steinberg, of his having coined the word).  The chronology given in Grove Music Online has this music being composed in 1838 and 1839.  Schumann was very productive in 1938, to the point that his Wikipedia entry devotes three paragraphs to piano works composed in this year:

Kinderszenen, Op. 15, completed in 1838 and a favourite of Schumann's piano works, depicts the innocence and playfulness of childhood. The "Träumerei", No. 7 of the set, is one of the most famous piano pieces ever written, which has been performed in myriad forms and transcriptions. It has been the favourite encore of several great pianists, including Vladimir Horowitz. Melodic and deceptively simple, the piece has been described as "complex" in its harmonic structure.[8]

Kreisleriana (1838), considered one of Schumann's greatest works, carried his fantasy and emotional range deeper. Johannes Kreisler was the fictional poet created by poet E. T. A. Hoffmann, and characterized as a "romantic brought into contact with reality". Schumann used the figure to express emotional states in music that is "fantastic and mad." According to Hutcheson ("The Literature of the Piano"), this work is "among the finest efforts of Schumann's genius. He never surpassed the searching beauty of the slow movements (Nos. 2, 4, 6) or the urgent passion of others (Nos. 1, 3, 5, 7)...To appreciate it a high level of aesthetic intelligence is required...This is no facile music, there is severity alike in its beauty and its passion."

The Fantasie in C, Op. 17, composed in the summer of 1836, is a work of passion and deep pathos, imbued with the spirit of the late Beethoven. Schumann intended to use proceeds from sales of the work toward the construction of a monument to Beethoven (who had died in 1827). The closing of the first movement of the Fantasie contains a musical quote from Beethoven's song cycle, An die ferne Geliebte, Op. 98 (at the Adagio coda, taken from the last song of the cycle). The original titles of the movements were to be "Ruins", "Triumphal Arch" and "The Starry Crown". According to Liszt,[9] who played the work for Schumann, and to whom it was dedicated, the Fantasie was apt to be played too heavily, and should have a dreamier (träumerisch) character than vigorous German pianists tended to impart. Liszt also said, "It is a noble work, worthy of Beethoven, whose career, by the way, it is supposed to represent."[10] Again according to Hutcheson: "No words can describe the Phantasie, no quotations set forth the majesty of its genius. It must suffice to say that it is Schumann's greatest work in large form for piano solo."

Note that I included the third paragraph because, in spite of the year given, Grove states that Schumann did not complete Opus 17 to his satisfaction until 1938.  As I worked on my piece, I realized that there were a variety of influence links in Opus 20 going back to Opus 15, including what I described as a “warped image of the poet whose oration concludes the earlier work.”  However, there is also the connection of that “Humoreske” title to Galen’s bodily humors and the volatile combination of those humors in Schumann’s own personality.  Schumann had already confronted that volatility in “Kreisleriana” (Opus 16).  As I wrote about this composition on, its inspiration was “the Kapellmeister Johannes Kreisler, the fictitious creation of E. T. A. Hoffmann, who had originally considered writing about this character under the title Lucid Intervals of an Insane Musician.  So there is probably an equally strong influence link from Opus 16 to Opus 20.  To this we may add influences attributed to other composers, since one may make a case that Schumann put time into learning Franz Schubert’s D. 960 B-flat major piano sonata, whose final movement has a volatility of its own that may have insinuated itself into Opus 20.  Even if this last gesture had not been a deliberate act, one might consider that the early nineteenth century saw the emergence of a “rhetoric of volatility” in conjunction with the Romantic movement developing at the time.

Such thinking may turn out to be little more than idle recreation;  but, if we are to take a diachronic approach to how compositions emerge over the broader flow of time, then we should approach that flow in terms of the works themselves rather than the overall life of the composer.