Saturday, June 30, 2012

The Latest Apple Blunder

Those who follow my writing for known that I have long been a champion of the Berliner Philharmoniker Digital Concert Hall, particularly through the video streaming of concerts that have been archived. Recently, however, I have discovered that visits to this Web site have fallen victim to the current run of software development blunders by Apple. Thus, I recently discovered that, since the upgrade to Lion, one could get the video stream on Safari; but none of the controls for the video player would work.

By now I am used to the fact that the folks on the Apple Help Desk automatically respond to any problem with Safari by asking if I have tried another browser. Therefore, I did not need anyone to tell me to try using Firefox as an alternative; and this did the trick. On my last visit to the Digital Concert Hall (still in Firefox), however, I found that the stream was being interrupted with inordinate frequency. (I could not get an uninterrupted signal for even one minute.) I reported this to the Digital Concert Hall technical staff, and they made some useful recommendations regarding Flash and making sure that my network connection was working up to speed.

By accident, however, I considered a possibility that had to do with neither of these problems. When Software Update appeared to be running sluggishly, I decided to check out CPU usage with Activity Monitor. This is not the most reliable tool, since the CPU usage numbers often add up to more than 100%; but, as indicators go, it is better than nothing. In this case it reported that the CPU was being thoroughly hogged by the Safari plug-in for displaying PDF files. (No PDF files were being displayed at the time.) It thus occurred me to just kill Safari and run only Firefox. It was immediately apparent that the streaming service from the Digital Concert Hall had returned to its usually reliable state.

My guess is that this is all due to a “perfect storm” of software development ineptitude coming from both the OS X group and the Safari group. Whether this is a consequence of what Ted Landau has called the “iOS-ification” of Mac OS remains to be seen. Even if Apple has shifted its design priorities, this seems to be a blatant case of releasing software before rigorously testing it. As I observed in a previous flame about Lion, Apple may now be counting on its users to live with problems, rather than on insisting that they be solved, following the logic of E. M. Forster’s “The Machine Stops.” (The point of that story, of course, is the nature of the consequences of that logic, which is what justifies the story’s title.) Alternatively, this may be a calculated move on Apple’s part to get those of us who do “real work” to start using iPads, however unrealistic that aspiration may be. What will the consequences of that move be? Enquiring minds want to know!

Friday, June 29, 2012

Fox Doesn’t Know What a Fact Is!

As Brian Stelter reported in this morning’s New York Times, both CNN and Fox initially misreported yesterday’s Supreme Court decision on the mandate for individual health care. Here is how he described the situation over at Fox:
“The mandate is gone,” Shannon Bream, a Fox News correspondent, announced at 10:08 a.m. as a graphic flashed on the screen that called it unconstitutional. A moment later, one of the Fox anchors, Megyn Kelly, cautioned that Ms. Bream might be wrong.
 “We’re getting conflicting information,” Ms. Kelly said, while reading from Scotusblog, an authoritative Web site about the court. Citing the blog, she accurately told viewers that “the individual mandate is surviving as a tax.”
Far more interesting, however, was the statement issues by Fox executive Michael Clemente:
Fox reported the facts as they came in.
Clemente apparently does not know the difference between a proposition (whose authenticity may not yet have been established) and a fact. If this is, indeed, the “view from the top,” then it may be time for this channel to change its name to “Fox Fiction!”

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Happy Birthday, Mel Brooks!

Today is Mel Brooks' 86th birthday. I find it interesting that the London Telegraph should give more attention to this event than, say, The New York Times. Nevertheless, Emily Bootle's survey did not really catch many of the high point for me. (She also seems to have missed out on the fact that the "French Mistake" scene from Blazing Saddles was originally intended to be a big song-and-dance routine based on "The Varsity Drag," with the obvious visual pun being heavily emphasized. Apparently, this was too much for the suits, which is really saying something given that they did not seem to object to the farting-around-the-campfire scene!)

Still, if the Telegraph wants to play the most-memorable-moments game, I have to put in my own entry. It comes from Spaceballs and is based on the scene in which Colonel Sandurz and Lord Dark Helmet are watching themselves on a monitor showing the video release of the movie in which they are performing. Things start to go off the rails when the Colonel suggests that they fast-forward the video. What ensues is as a discussion of tense worthy of Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger. This culminates in the following exchange:
When will now be then?
 The delivery of those lines always leaves me rolling on the floor.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Jimmy Carter Voices “Dangerous Ideas” Again (and thank God for that)!

Jimmy Carter has never been shy about using his 2002 Nobel Peace Prize to speak his mind, even when his ideas go against whatever anyone else might take to be conventional wisdom; and the good news is that his very act of voicing those ideas often prompts others to concur that he may have a point. We saw this in April of 2010, when Reuven Rivlin, the Speaker of the Israeli Knesset, was bold enough to suggest that Carter’s proposal for a one-state solution for Israelis and Palestinians should not be dismissed out of hand. Now, however, Carter is voicing equally dangerous ideas that happen to fall right on our doorstep.

Those ideas appeared in yesterday’s New York Times in the form of an op-ed piece entitled “A Cruel and Unusual Record.” The record Carter has in mind involves the prevailing policy, in both words and deeds, on human rights. Carter is discreet enough to avoid comparing us with other countries, but his column amounts to a laundry list of practices that run the gamut from questionable to downright offensive. Also, he does not name any specific Americans. This is equally wise, since he is writing about policy, rather than individual opinion. Policy reflects the assent, both explicit and implicit, of all those who serve under it. There is no point in “naming names,” because we are all in the same boat.

This was a bold move on Carter’s part, but he has never been shy about such bold moves. He understands that the first step in solving any problem is admitting that the problem exists. He has tried to use the Times as a bully pulpit to get those in power to make that admission, either voluntarily or by being forced to do so by their constituents and/or the media. I am not optimistic that this goal will be achieved. I certainly do not see the media applying pressure, nor do I see American citizens raising their voice about this matter, just because they are far more worried about too many other important affairs, such as eating and having a roof over your head. At best Carter has tried to start a snowball rolling down a high hill; and we need to see whether that snowball will grow in size by the “natural causes” of spoken public opinion.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Richard Strauss among the Vampires

Normally I do not pay too much attention to the music on True Blood. It always seems to be appropriate to the setting, and nothing more strikes me as particularly relevant. Last night, however, we got to know the character Salome Agrippa; and, sure enough, she was the Salome. Her version of the story made for a fascinating departure from Oscar Wilde, not to mention the rather more mundane account that emerges in Robert Graves’ Claudius the God. Nevertheless, this was the first time I found myself consciously aware of what Nathan Barr had composed for the soundtrack. This was because Salome’s lines were backed with the same kind of sinuous chromaticism that Richard Strauss conceived for the “Dance of the Seven Veils” scene in his opera based on Wilde’s play. Barr reworked Strauss just enough to define his own originality, but there was also just enough suggestion to recognize Strauss as the influential source. It was a clever bit of composing, making for the first time in which the soundtrack really contributed a useful perspective to the narrative!

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Comparing Points of View to See How Things have Broken

Those wondering how it is that the American political system has become as ineffective as it appears to be might do will to compare two opinions on the matter. The first comes from a post to NYRBlog by Gary Wills entitled “The Curse of Political Purity.” This is a response to a video uploaded by Harvard Law School Professor Robert Mangabeira Unger, who taught two of the courses Barack Obama took at Harvard. As Wills describes the video:
His message is that “Obama must be defeated” for failing to advance the progressive agenda.
Wills admires Unger for his principles but he argues that our political system is such that there is little significance in voting for any individual. Rather, one should vote for the party and the constituency supported by that party. This leads him to draw the following distinction:
To vote for a Democrat means, now, to vote for the party’s influential members—for unions (including public unions of teachers, firemen, and policemen), for black and Latino minorities, for independent women. These will none of them get their way, exactly; but they will get more of a hearing and attention—“pandering,” if you want to call it that—than they would get in a Republican administration.
 To vote for a Republican means, now, to vote for a plutocracy that depends for its support on anti-government forces like the tea party, Southern racists, religious fanatics, and war investors in the military-industrial complex. It does no good to say that “Romney is a good man, not a racist.” That may be true, but he needs a racist South as part of his essential support. And the price they will demand of him comes down to things like Supreme Court appointments. (The Republicans have been more realistic than the Democrats in seeing that presidential elections are really for control of the courts.)
If we then turn to “Getting Away with It,” the latest contribution to The New York of Books by Paul Krugman, we discover that this distinction is, at best, out of date and, as a result, tragically misconstrued:
But while the economy now may bear a strong resemblance to that of the 1930s, the political scene does not, because neither the Democrats nor the Republicans are what once they were. Coming into the Obama presidency, much of the Democratic Party was close to, one might almost say captured by, the very financial interests that brought on the crisis; and … some of the party still is. Meanwhile, Republicans have become extremists in a way they weren’t three generations ago; contrast the total opposition Obama has faced on economic issues with the fact that most Republicans in Congress voted for, not against, FDR’s crowning achievement, the Social Security Act of 1935. 
This is basically a latter-day version of Gore Vidal’s assertion that the United States has only one political party, which is the Party of Wealth. A more recent source of this insight was The American Ruling Class, both the book by Lewis Lapham and the documentary by John Kirby, both of which have the same punch line:
Why change City Hall when you can buy it?
So, while Max Weber theorized that politics is basically the legitimation of the exercise of power, our own political system has now devolved to a state where the only power that matters is wealth. This may be better than the brute military force that keeps a dictatorship in power, but it is a far cry from any conception of democracy. It is also the world in which 99% of the population are those at the mercy of the 1% who control the wealth, no matter what system of laws may be managed by government. In other words the Occupy movement was an attempt to refute Wills’ distinction and make clear that 99% of the American people cannot count themselves as constituents of either political party; but, because wealth is all that matters, neither party particularly cares that the practice of politics come to this state of affairs.

What’s a Poor Musician to Do?

Steve Guttenberg’s latest post on his The Audiophiliac blog is still annoying, but it is a bit less than annoying than usual. He managed to raise an interesting point, even if he does not appear to be quite sure what that point is. It is a report from the 2012 New Music Seminar held this week in New York. The interesting part is the following paragraph:
I polled 2012 New Music Seminar attendees at random to find out how they listen to music, and out of 25 people, a few listened to CDs, four play LPs, two or three mentioned YouTube, one liked FM radio, and few more were into Internet radio, but the overwhelming majority listen to streaming music services. That's cool, but it also means they don't buy physical or downloaded music. Remember, these folks were attending the 2012 New Music Seminar Festival, so they're either musicians or in the music business, and they don't buy recorded music. That's weird.
The fact is that, even if we overlook the totally unscientific approach taken to both the sampling and the reporting, there are any number of reasons why that purported concluding sentence is unwarranted. The simplest has to do with the prevailing theme of Guttenberg’s article: Very few people who would like to view themselves as professional musicians or as “working in the music business” seem to be making very much money these days. This is problematic when just about anything that counts as working at your job, including exposing your work for free in the hope that “the money will follow,” costs money. That means that none of those folks have very much disposable income at hand; and if they do have available capital, they have to worry about little things like paying for food and rent. On such a tight budget, where is there money to pay for recordings when so many alternatives are free?

Friday, June 22, 2012

The Meaning of “Less Than Nothing”

The new (July 12) issue of The New York Review of Books has the highly reputable philosopher John Gray taking on Slavoj Žižek, with particular attention to Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism, which runs over 1000 pages. The title of the review is “The Violent Visions of Slavoj Žižek;” and, as might be imagined, Gray has a tendency to play up the irrationality of those visions. Thus, he concludes his article with the following “punch line” paragraph:

In a stupendous feat of intellectual overproduction Žižek has created a fantasmatic critique of the present order, a critique that claims to repudiate practically everything that currently exists and in some sense actually does, but that at the same time reproduces the compulsive, purposeless dynamism that he perceives in the operations of capitalism. Achieving a deceptive substance by endlessly reiterating an essentially empty vision, Žižek’s work—nicely illustrating the principles of paraconsistent logic—amounts in the end to less than nothing.
For my part I have never been particularly sure about how seriously to take Žižek. In general I tend to see in his texts the sort of prankishness that Friedrich Nietzsche seemed to admire (and recognized explicitly in Twilight of the Idols); but I agree that some of the extremes to which he carries his pranks can be more than a little scary. Nevertheless, Gray may have missed the point of Žižek’s book by associating it with the spoof article by Alan Sokal intended to put one over on the discipline of postmodern critical studies.

Basically, Žižek is trying to pull a metaphor out of one of the paradoxes of modern particle physics, which is the idea of surplus mass due to acceleration. Under this theory the electron has zero mass at rest, meaning that it only has mass when it is in motion. Žižek takes this as a metaphor for capitalism, because value is determined only through the “motion” of exchange. Thus, nothing “at rest” has any value (and may even have, as the book title suggests, negative value). It is hard to imagine that Žižek intended this as anything other than a metaphor to emphasize just how tenuous any “value metric” of capital itself must be.

There is nothing new about this. Niall Ferguson has said pretty much the same thing. He just said it in better mannered (and less rambling) language. On the other hand it is harder to chuckle when reading Ferguson as he moves towards taking himself more and more seriously. Žižek is definitely the right antidote for reading any author who takes himself/herself too seriously!

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Did Either of Them Know?

Today turns out to be another one of those days on which statistical inevitability has again hit on an amusing coincidence of birthdays. This time it turns out to be one of two French novelists; Jean-Paul Sartre and Françoise Sagan. (Yes, I know that Sartre was far more than a novelist; and I have no intention of opening a comparison of his fiction writing with his other talents, let alone any backhanding remarks about classifying his philosophy as fiction!) Because they are near contemporaries, I have to consider the possibility that at least one of them knew about this coincidence. That being the case, we have to wonder at what each may have thought about it! Perhaps we should all sing a chorus of the "Aquarius" song from Hair in Sartre's memory today!

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

So THAT'S how Creativity Works!

It is no secret that I am no great fan of Jonah Lehrer. The fact is that I continue to be depressed that what he does counts for science writing these days. Therefore, I found it hard to suppress tinges of Schadenfreeude when I came across the following introductory paragraphs to a post to the ArtsBeat blog of The New York Times:
The science writer Jonah Lehrer, author of the runaway bestseller Jim Romenesko noted that a June 12 post on The Frontal Cortex, Mr. Lehrer’s blog for The New Yorker, titled “Why Smart People Are Stupid,” included material recycled from a post he had written last October for The Wall Street Journal. 
Within a few hours, New York magazine’s Daily Intel and other blogs had tracked down a number of other instances of self-duplication from Mr. Lehrer’s writing for Wired, the New York Times Magazine, and other publications. 
By late afternoon, The New Yorker had appended an editor’s note to all five posts Mr. Lehrer has written since he began blogging for the magazine on June 5, noting the borrowings and saying “We regret duplication of material.”
It's no secret that appropriation (including self-appropriation) is fundamental to artistic creativity. Journalism, on the other hand, is not art! At least when I self-appropriate, I try to identify my sources with hyperlinks!

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Asking the Wrong Questions about Conversation

Last night BBC News Technology Reporter Dave Lee put up an article on the Web site entitled “The quest for the online water-cooler experience.” It began with a critical assessment of the purported “solutions” of enterprise software technology regarding their failure to deal with the proper fundamental issues of effective work practices:
All these well-intentioned schemes hope to do is recreate the water-cooler effect: the incidental discussions, those informal links between departments that are the very foundation of sustaining success and encouraging great ideas.
The water-cooler has long been a Holy Grail for enterprise software, going back long before it was even called “enterprise software.” However, rather than pursuing the question of why this Grail has been so elusive, Lee then launches in to what is basically a promotion piece for two new technologies, Yammer and Spiceworks.

What Lee seems to have missed is the extent to which those encounters over the water-cooler are more than “links” or even “informal discussions.” Rather, they are instances of a general category, which Jürgen Habermas chose to call “communicative actions,” in his effort to explore a concept broader than the “speech acts” of John L. Austin. Habermas’ “theory of communicative action” (the title of his two-volume magnum opus) tried to get beyond technological thinking predicated upon reducing communication to the exchange of sentential forms that could be represented in some objective logical calculus (often called “transactions” by many of the software systems that have evolved). Rather, he was motivated by the anthropological efforts of Erving Goffman to view the fundamental unit of any conversational exchange as a “move,” a unit that is not strictly “answer-oriented” (Goffman’s language) but entails both psychological and sociological “baggage” beyond the need to have a question answered.

Those who place technology before solutions look at a water-cooler and see nothing more than a corpus of texts. They can then analyze those texts both grammatically and ontologically, even going so far as to build a “world model” to embrace what is being exchanged in those conversations. What is missing, however, is a phenomenological point of view, such as that proposed by Ernst Cassirer and Alfred Schutz. Rather than trying to home in objectively on what those words and sentential forms are, one must accept the broader view of how they appear to the participants in that encounter at the water-cooler.

This is not, as Georg Ell of Yammer seems to believe, simply a matter of being more “passionate about user-interface design,” however much I sympathize with Ell about the significance of such design and the consequences of its neglect. Rather, it is a recognition that conversations take place in the social world, rather than the objective world. Every now and then a system emerges that actually accepts the social world of its users and may even facilitate the moves that take place in that world. The Xerox Eureka system, which supported a global network of repair technicians, was such as system. However, the success of Eureka had less to do with the functionality of its software and more with how its design grew out of observations from anthropological field work concerning how these technicians exchanged “war stories” at the end of the working day.

Until purveyors of enterprise software learn how to address phenomenological questions about the social world in which their “solutions” are to be embedded, those “solutions” are likely to be no more effective than snake oil!

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Statistical Amusement

I know it is nothing more than the sort of coincidence that is statistically inevitable; but it hard not to be amused at the fact that today Donald Trump must share his birthday with Che Guevara (not to mention Boy George)!

Monday, June 11, 2012

The Clash of the Eras

My "Schwann's Way" approach to organizing my physical recordings as they appear (or would appear) in a Schwann catalog allows me to work for a fixed standard (the one copy of the catalog that I keep). Nevertheless, I have to admit that ordering composers alphabetically can make for some strange bedfellows. Today I just finished an piece about a new Naxos recording of keyboard compositions by Antonio de Cabezón. This turned out to be based on the first CDs I had of this composer's music. (Back in the day I had a vinyl from the Musical Heritage Society, which is one of the reasons I was attracted to the prospect of writing about this particular new release.) As I went to add these CD to my cabinet, I realized that John Cage would be on one side and David Byrne (yes, he has recordings that count as "classical," such has his contribution to Robert Wilson's the CIVIL warS) on the other! Take away the capital letter and "renaissance" can mean all sorts of things!

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Nothing New under the (Spring) Sun

Last Wednesday on I wrote a preview piece for the coming Jazz series of San Francisco Performances. I made it a point to observe that, when the Bad Plus opens the series in October, their performance will feature their take on Igor Stravinsky’s score for the ballet “The Rite of Spring.” I even included a video tape to provide some expectations for the curious.

I thought that this would be a pretty unique act. I seem to remember a track by Gerry Mulligan where he tacked on the opening theme from “The Rite” at the end; but this was in the same league as Charlie Parker closing out with a few bars of “Country Gardens.” (Mulligan also ended “Sweet and Slow” with Richard Strauss’ horn motif for Till Eulenspiegel.) I figured that taking on the whole ballet would be the jazz equivalent of climbing Mount Fuji.

However, this morning I discovered that, around the same time I was writing my piece, Ben Ratliff was releasing his obituary piece for guitarist Pete Cosey, who had died on May 30. While Cosey was involved with many of the recordings released by Chess Records, he is probably best known for the weird sounds he brought to Miles Davis’ electric band of 1973–75. However, it turns out that, in his post-Miles period, he played with the band Burnt Sugar, which was led by Butch Morris for an album entitled The Rites, which was (you guessed it) an improvised version of “The Rite of Spring.”

For the record, while Alex Ross explicitly acknowledged Bad Plus member Ethan Iverson in his The Rest of Noise book, there is no mention (at least through an Amazon LOOK INSIDE! text search) of either Mulligan or Burnt Sugar.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Revisiting a Bad Decision

While reading Stephen Hinton’s new book, Weill’s Musical Theater, I came across a line by Bertolt Brecht the seemed to resonate strongly:
What’s breaking into a bank compared with founding a bank?
The line was from the original script for Happy End; and, when that production did not succeed, it migrated into a revised text for Threepenny Opera. The reason it resonated was that it reminded me of a book that attracted a lot of attention when our Congress was debating whether or not to bail out all of those banks in September of 2009. The book was by William K. Black, former Director of Litigation for the Federal Home Loan Bank Board. The title of the book was The Best Way to Rob a Bank is to Own One.

In tracking the impact of this book during the bailout debate, I discovered that one of Black’s champions was Representative Chip Shields, who used Black’s title as the title for one of his posts to the Daily Kos. It turned out that Brecht’s line showed up in a comment to this post submitted by “LNK” on behalf of Media Reform Action. As we now know (and as we knew almost as soon as the bailout was approved), Shields’ appeal to reason both before and after the vote on the bailout had no effect.

The problem was that Shields and his fellow Progressives could not appreciate the magnitude of the opposition that faced them. This was the opposition of those who own “the material conditions of labour” (in the words of Karl Marx) but are concerned with profit through the exchange of what they own, rather than in the efforts and results of the laborers. Brecht basically took the lessons that Marx was trying to teach through his study of political economy and dramatized those lessons by recognizing that, in terms of the very principles through which one succeeds at banking, the successful banker is neither better nor worse than the successful bank robber.

The problem, however, is that those who controlled those “material conditions of labour” also controlled the consciousness industry, otherwise known as the mass media. Through that control, one did not have to silence the Progressives, because it was sufficient to ignore them and make sure that mass media did the same. More drastic action was only necessary when one of those voices began to attract enough attention from the public that the media could no longer ignore him/her. At that point the strategy turned from benign neglect to character assassination, as we saw in the case of Eliot Spitzer. Meanwhile, the 1% go about their business turning exchange into profit as we become a country no longer capable of producing value and, as a result of consciousness industry propaganda, not particularly caring that we have let those skills slip away from us.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Ignoring the Lipstick and Looking at the Pig

David Lauter’s “Lessons from the Wisconsin recall vote” analysis for the Los Angeles Times made some interesting observations. I liked the way in which he systematically organized those observations according to whom would be affected: Governor (still) Scott Walker, labor unions, President Barack Obama, and Mitt Romney. Nevertheless, there was an interesting omission in each of these categories that has all of the impact of a dead moose on the table (or, as my title suggests, lipstick on a pig). At no point does the analysis try to account for the role of campaign spending or the way in which the Supreme Court has changed such spending practices.

Alexander Hamilton did not believe in democracy. He believed that giving the vote to the poor was all but inviting them to sell their votes to the rich. The main thing that has changed since Hamilton’s day is that politicians are less overt about buying votes. Thanks to the power of the consciousness industry, you do not have to persuade the poor to sell their votes. Instead, you pay the media industry to shape the minds of the poor. The good thing about this is that you then get what you want from those who are not so poor as part of the bargain.

I would be so bold as to suggest that in no way did the Wisconsin recall reflect “the voice of the people” (whatever that may mean). Rather, the consciousness industry was engaged to create a reasonable facsimile of “the people” and could then count on that “reasonable facsimile” to do the voting. The result was the best electoral decision money could buy.

This is far from a closely guarded secret. The New York Times now has a Web page called “The 2012 Money Race: Compare the Candidates.” It provides not only numbers but useful geographical visualizations. The only problem is that it is not up to date. The data cover only up to March 31, 2012. We know from a report today by Jim Kuhnhenn and Ken Thomas for the Associated Press that the balance shifted significantly in May.

This is not to argue over who has the latest numbers. Rather, it is to observe that arguing over numbers is attracting more media attention than arguing over issues. When you consider that many voters want to think of the coming election as a horse race, this makes sense. Numbers provide an estimate of the speed of the horse, and any other significant characteristics are evaporated off into thin air. As we know from talent shows, people like to vote for a winner and then be part of the crowd cheering the victory.

Even the wildest nightmares of Hamilton could not have come up with such a scenario.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Just What We Need: the Wisdom (sic) of Larry Summers

Apparently, Larry Summers just gave an interview to Mark Mardell of BBC News. In that interview he declared that European leaders have a “deep and profound and continuing failure of realism.” Who is he kidding? He may have managed well enough as Treasury Secretary in the good times of Bill Clinton’s administration; but, as the head of the National Economic Council, did he ever give Barack Obama advice that would benefit the general public, rather than the elite 1% of the financial sector? It might be extreme to presume that, had Obama listened to more economic advisors with a broader sense of vision, we would not have the proliferation of Occupy movements that we have today, even if recovery was still “work in progress.” Summers has done little to benefit either Harvard or the Obama administration, and it is hard to tell just what possessed the BBC to give him their precious attention.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Rejecting God’s Choice (again)

Perhaps the most valuable experience I had while I was teaching in Israel came when someone (I can no longer remember whom) recommended that I read the essays of Ahad Ha’am. Fortunately, the first such piece I read turned out to be his interpretation of the concept of a “chosen people.” His thesis was that the Jews had not been chosen to receive the bounties of the land of Canaan. Rather, as I have previously put it, “they were chosen to be role models for all those other cultures that had rejected their One God.” If there is any validity to American support of Israel as a country, it would be through the past examples that country has set through its embrace of democratic principles moderated through the rule of law.

On the basis of a story filed on BBC News about an hour ago, that past validity has now been thoroughly undermined by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Is that too extreme a statement? Draw your own conclusions after reading the opening text:
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has ordered the construction of 300 new homes at the Jewish settlement of Beit El in the West Bank. 
The announcement came hours after Israel's parliament rejected a bill to legalise settlement outposts. 
Mr Netanyahu, who opposed the bill, said he would honour a Supreme Court order to demolish homes on private Palestinian land at the Ulpana outpost. 
The issue has been a source of tension between settlers and the government. 
All settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem are considered illegal under international law, though Israel disputes this.
The settler outposts are also illegal under Israeli law and the government agreed to remove them under the 2003 Road Map peace plan.
In other words, while Arab Spring protestors try to keep up the good fight against authoritarian rulers that reject their parliaments as duly elected representatives of their citizens, Netanyahu has embraced precisely the sort of authoritarianism that the protestors insist on rejecting. Needless to say, the United States has not been much better at setting a proper example lately. Perhaps that is why our country continues to persist in its right-or-wrong allegiance to Israel (or, perhaps more accurately, to the lobbying power of AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which seems to have no room for reflection over their endorsement of Netanyahu).

Ahad Ha’am must be turning in his grave; it is time for Jews around the world to recognize that the philosophical foundations of Judaism count for far more than the political machinations of the state of Israel.

Thoughts on the Passing of Ray Bradbury

I found it interesting that the first of my RSS feeds to provide me with news of the death of Ray Bradbury came from CNET. After all CNET is one of only two feeds I classify as “Science and Technology,” while my current count of “Arts and Letters” feeds is sixteen. Still, I have to give credit to Executive Editor Roger Cheng for a lead sentence that describes Bradbury as a “Science-fiction literature pioneer.”

You don’t encounter the word “literature” often in CNET articles; but Bradbury definitely deserved to be associated with that noun. For all I know, he was the one who inspired (provoked?) a fanzine article I read back in my student days entitled, “But I don’t Want Literature!” Yes, Bradbury wrote about imagined worlds bearing little resemblance to our own, displaced in time, space, and often both. Ultimately, however, he wrote about human nature, regardless of the scene in which questions of being human were being posed, making him one of the literary giants of the twentieth century. This is probably what made him the ideal choice when John Huston needed a writer to prepare the script for the film he wished to make of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. Today’s aspiring writers can learn as much from studying that script as they can from deep reading of Melville’s text.

Bradbury’s real métier, however, was the short story. To paraphrase that great virtue espoused by Buckminster Fuller, Bradbury had a real gift for saying more and more with less and less. I suppose that is one reason why so much of his work translated so well into the half-hour time slot of The Ray Bradbury Theater, whose six seasons provided a far more extensive account (65 stories worth) of his imaginative diversity than either The Twilight Zone or the tales adapted for the film The Illustrated Man.

With such a large body of work, it is hard to select a single favorite. I suspect that my wife would nominate “All Summer in a Day” fairly quickly. For my part I think back to when I taught a “book camp” as a summer activity for middle school kids. The focus was on full books, but I decided to fill out the final days with short stories. I began with Bradbury; and my selection was “The Veldt.” As the hyperlink suggests, the latter can be read from the screen. It should not take very long, and it is a perfect example of Bradbury’s artistry of both plot and discourse techniques for unfolding that plot. The best way to remember Bradbury today is to read his words, and following that hyperlink is one of the best ways to do that.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Technology Discovers a Job it Tried to Eliminate

It is very rare to find advocacy for the human factor on a technocentric Web site. Nevertheless, last night Fox Van Allen filed a story for Tecca that actually used the phrase “professional editing” with absolutely no disparagement. It also began with the sentence:
Editors are pretty important people.
What was it that awakened Van Allen from his technocentric slumbers? The answer is Barnes & Noble (of course, of course). It turns out that B&N management has blocked any use of the work “kindle” in any text that is included in the Nook Book Store, since, in capitalized form, it is the name of a competing product. What happened was that a blogger named Philip Howard decided to try reading Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace on his Nook and encountered:
It was as if a light had been Nookd in a carved and painted lantern …
As Howard reported in his post, he eventually realized that “Nookd” had replaced the word “kindled.” Apparently what counts for editing over at B&N amounted to a Replace All operation on the full text with a case-independent “kindle” being replaced by “Nook.” Mind you, real editing would have involved a full review of the final text before it was released; and in this particular case we happen to be talking about War and Peace. What would that do to the overall efficiency of daily operations? After all, Barnes & Noble is a business, and a business has to have priorities!

Monday, June 4, 2012

That Pesky Regulation Problem

Larry Downes is a member of the CNET Blog Network. The name of his blog is Politics and Law. However, his biographical statement at the bottom of his posts describes him as “a consultant and author.” It says nothing about his understanding of either political or legal systems in either theory or practice. All we know is that he writes books, the most recent having the title The Laws of Disruption.

His latest post, filed this morning, has the title “Government control of Net is always a bad idea.” Notwithstanding the primary injunction in writing, which is to avoid words like “always,” the post has some good points. However, it is easy to criticize the workings of government these days, whether it involves a local school board trying to make drastic cuts in the face of an unmanageably low budget or the United Nations not being able to progress beyond harsh (but effectively meaningless) words in response to the atrocities in Syria.

The world has changed. The Internet has had a lot to do with how the world has changed; but the underlying axioms of governance have not been keeping up with those changes, primarily because just about every government is heavy with stakeholders whose personal interests would be threatened by any such change. As a result cyberspace is, for all intents and purposes, anarchic.

Now I am sure that there are any number of Internet evangelists ready to cite Henry David Thoreau at the drop of a hat when in Civil Disobedience he quotes a familiar motto:
"That government is best which governs not at all"; and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have.
The kicker in that quote, however, is the condition “when men are prepared for it.” One only has to examine a quote by Vint Cerf in Downes’ post to appreciate how unprepared those of us who inhabit cyberspace (as well as those still exterior to it) are at the present time:
The greatest strength of the current system of Internet governance is its meritocratic democracy. Anyone who cares can voice ideas and opinions, but the ultimate decisions are governed by broad consensus. It might not always be the most convenient of systems, but it's the fairest, safest, and historically most effective way to ensure that good ideas win out and bad ideas die.
This is, at best, idealistic claptrap with little appreciation for the role of regulation in any social system. Here is how I tried to advocate for regulation in a post of my own a little over a year ago:
Perhaps the best analogy [for the currently inadequate Internet governance] would be Typhoid Mary, back in an age in which health standards for restaurants barely existed.  Hardly any were stipulated;  and, for all practical purposes, none were enforced.  One of the great advances in reform was the recognition of government responsibility for the physical health of its citizens, a responsibility that has been placed in serious jeopardy by current conservative ideologues.  When it comes to “digital health,” the Internet has emerged as a Deadwood-like culture, which not only avoids efforts to discuss issues of government but overtly scorns them.  In such a culture only the brutes survive, and their survival is predicated by their success in preying on those weaker.  Since this is a culture in which neither the brutes nor the weaklings have ever heard of Thomas Hobbes, it is unlikely that conditions will change in the foreseeable future.
I do not disagree with Cerf about the generally democratic nature of the Internet. However, I think he confuses merit with skillful power manipulation. The difference between a republic and a democracy is that the former believes that any form of power should be regulated through a system of checks and balances, and that is why our own Constitution is studied as a model of governance in countries around the world.

This leaves us in a stalemate. Those in the current institutions of government reject change, because it threatens their individual powers. Those, like Cerf, who evangelize the Internet, reject the need to move from democracy to republic for exactly the same reason. The rest of us are stuck in the middle, about as helpless as the entire world was when the United States and the Soviet Union were competing over who could build the most destructive thermonuclear device.