Sunday, September 30, 2012

If You Can Make it There …

I was rather pleased to see that, on my national site, my New York numbers had surpassed my San Francisco numbers over this past week, at least according to Google Analytics. This probably had lot to do with my writing about the recent three-CD release of George Frideric Handel's Israel in Egypt (HWV 54) performed by the Trinity Choir and period-instrument Trinity Baroque Orchestra, all conducted by Julian Wachner, and recorded on their own label. Apparently, there can be an "oratorio bump" as well as an "opera bump." It may not be as great, but it was certainly noticeable!

Saturday, September 29, 2012

One Line Does Not a Series Make

My wife and I only got around to watching the first episode of Elementary yesterday. We were not particularly impressed, basically because all the intricacies of Arthur Conan Doyle's gift for capturing logic within narrative are missing; so we shall probably bail on the basis of only a single viewing. (That's the way "Hollywood logic" works.) Still, I have to credit Johnny Lee Miller with one line clearly directed from one source of obscure knowledge to another:
You go to one production of Le Grand Macabre and everyone thinks you're an opera buff.
I just how that György Ligeti's ghost got as much amusement out of that line as I got out of seeing his opera!

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Disclosing a Citation of Busoni

I had a lot of fun yesterday writing a piece for my national site about the new Nonesuch recording The Art of Instrumentation: Homage to Glenn Gould, featuring violinist Gidon Kremer and his Kremerata Baltica chamber orchestra. True, I missed Gould’s birthday by a day; but it is never too late to take on the complexities of Gould’s character while, at the same time, trying to pin down his thoughts about the music he performed. Those efforts led, among other things, to the following sentence:
In the sprit of Ferruccio Busoni’s “Sketch of a New Esthetic of Music,” Gould approached every performance (including his work in recording studios) as an act of rethinking what the composer had done and committed to marks on paper.
I felt a sincere, rather than pedagogical, need to bring Busoni into the picture. After all, Busoni was responsible for some of the more notorious approaches to performing the compositions of Johann Sebastian Bach, at least in his own day; and, while, as far as I have been able to determine, Gould never performed any of Busoni’s transcriptions, he may have embodied Busoni’s spirit more than any other pianist since Busoni himself died.

Now I should be honest and admit that I am currently reading that “Sketch of a New Esthetic of Music.” So it was impossible for me to write about either Gould or Kremer’s project without that text lurking somewhere in my mind. Still, it was a consciousness decision on my part to yank it from the background into the foreground. Therefore, on this site, I feel it would be a good idea to reproduce the specific passage I had in mind when I wrote that above sentence:
Notation, the writing out of compositions, is primarily an ingenious expedient for catching an inspiration, with the purpose of exploiting it later. But notation is to improvisation as the portrait to the living model. It is for the interpreter to resolve the rigidity of the signs into the primitive emotion.
This tells us all we need to know about how and why Busoni was as inventive as he was (even if many would feel destructively so) in approaching Bach; and, as a corollary, it also tells us something about Gould’s inventiveness and about the extent to which Kremer’s project was, in its own way, yet another exercise in inventiveness.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The Subtle Exercise of a Much-Needed Judgment Call

I have to say that, as far as my personal tastes are concerned, the most interesting part of Anthony Tommasini’s review for The New York Times of Bartlett Sher’s new staging of Gaetano Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore for opening night at the Metropolitan Opera had nothing to do with the production. Rather, it concerned how he turned his assessment of the performances of Anna Netrebko and Mariusz Kwiecien into a punch line for the entire text:
Ms. Netrebko and Mr. Kwiecien will be back on opening night next season. No, not another Donizetti, but a new production of Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin.” Thank goodness.
I am not sure what Tommasini’s intentions behind those last two words were, but I know exactly what they meant to me. I took it as a backhanded citation of the last staging of this opera, which was broadcast on PBS, featuring Renée Fleming and Dmitri Hvorostovsky in a production staged by Robert Carsen.

Now I shall be the first to admit that contemporary opera productions have been laboring under some really stupid conceptions, some of which disregard the music, others distract the audience, and some even seem oblivious to the narrative in the libretto itself. Carsen’s Onegin seemed to explore every possible opportunity to provoke, ranging from squeezing the waltz scene into a claustrophobic rectangular area on the vast Met stage to having Fleming romp through a pile of dead autumn leaves at the end of her letter aria (which is supposed to take place in her bedroom). It is hard to imagine a staging of Onegin being any worse; but, where new productions are concerned, “Be careful what you wish for” has become the new rule of thumb!

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Fighting the “Knowledge Battle” at Safeway

I am old enough to remember when unit pricing was introduced in major supermarket chains. I was never quite sure what the real logic was behind the move. I suppose there was a general consensus that consumers were caring more and more about what things actually cost. Thus, the first adopter may have gambled that more customers would come if they were given more useful information. Another conjecture is that people tend to buy more when they are given more information: When they figure out where the savings are, they often leverage the saving by purchasing more of the item with the best price.

Whatever the case, the first adopter did not remain alone very long. Now everyone seems to be in the same boat, at least in most supermarkets and drug stores. Meanwhile, over at Safeway a new challenge seems to be arising over whether or not one knows the price at all, regardless of whether or not it is also normalized by unit price, leading me to wonder whether or not there is a new swing towards making the customer more ignorant.

There was actually a threatening predecessor. I discovered that, for some items that had a wide variety of sizes, there would be different items whose unit prices were based on different units. For example a package of frozen fruit would have a unit price in ounces. However, a “large economy size” package of exactly the same fruit would have a unit price in pounds. Thus, the price-curious shopper would have to do some form of ounce-to-pound conversion to level the playing field. These days there’s an app for that (as they like to say); but it is unclear how many shoppers know that the problem can be resolved by calculation, whether or not an app simplifies that calculation.

Still, muddled information is better than no information at all. The trend at my Safeway these days seems to be for entire price tags to vanish. The first time I asked about this, one of the clerks said it was because people’s kids tore off the tags. I really wondered whether this “don’t blame me, blame those idiots that don’t watch after their kids” defense was feasible. The next time I tried to pose the question, I put it to one of the management guys on the floor; and his tactic was to avoid answering the question by any means necessary.

I can imagine that a local manager is in an awful position. (S)he has to follow dictates from “the suits at headquarters,” even when they go against local knowledge of the customer (cancelling items that are purchased regularly in that particular store, rearranging things on the shelves to suit particular distributors, etc.). Then, when these things happen, the customers push back; and in tough economic times that push-back can sometimes get pretty harsh, if not aggressive. However, as in the model of Elizabeth Kübler-Ross, anger eventually gives way to resigned acceptance, just because we no longer live in a world that offers viable alternatives (to anything, not just where we buy things, not to mention how we cast our votes).

Of course Kübler-Ross was writing about how we deal with death and dying. This is not to suggest that the entire consumer population is about to curl up and die. However, the idea of an approach to marketing that assumes, or even encourages, a population of informed consumers may well be at death’s door. Where once reformers envisaged a dictatorship of the proletariat, we now face a future dictatorship based on an oligarchy of manufacturers and merchants.  See? Change does happen!

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Putting Corruption in Historical Perspective

Voting Wrongs,” Elizabeth Drew’s latest post to NYRBlog, offers a valuably objective account to substantiate its wallop of an opening sentence:
The Republicans’ plan is that if they can’t buy the 2012 election they will steal it.
There may be nothing new in how she unfolds her logic, but her systematic approach makes for a useful read. It is important to bring full clarity to the corruption that is underlying that electoral process in which we used to take pride, at least until 2000.

However, from my point of view, her final sentence is even more important:
This is the worst thing that has happened to our democratic election system since the late nineteenth century, when legislatures in southern states systematically negated the voting rights blacks had won in the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution.
First of all it is a reminder that things are worse than the “nightmare” (to borrow the noun from Gerald Ford) of Watergate. It is also a reminder of why a Voting Rights Act had to be passed under the administration of Lyndon Johnson to undo that systematic negation. In that respect it is important to remember that the late nineteenth century was The Gilded Age, when wealth exercised tyrannical control over just about every aspect of American life and the poor were expected to “know their place” and stay out of the way.

Abraham Lincoln had to struggle with the question of whether or not a nation founded on the ideals of its Declaration of Independence could endure. We now live in a world dominated by the rich and mighty more interested in the corrupt indulgences of The Gilded Age than those ideals on which our country was founded. Unfortunately, The Gilded Age was not undone by a resurgence of democratic principles. Ultimately, it consumed itself; and any remaining table scraps fed the dogs of the First World War. When one considers the raw hatred that is now driving aggression is so many parts of the word, one has to wonder whether or not a Third World War has begun, let alone whether or not any historian will survive to assign that nomenclature.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Confused by a Homonym

I heard the news about the award for Pussy Riot before reading it. As a result my reflexes kicked in with a homonymic reading before mind had time to clarify. When I heard that the award was given through the LennonOno Grant for Peace, my initial assumption was that it came from a sympathetic Russian group who still appreciated Vladimir Lenin.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Working Around One of Mountain Lion's Uglier "Improvements"

Whether or not it is yet another product of what Ted Landau has called the “iOS-ification” of Mac OS or just another blunder in the ongoing saga of the descending transition from Snow Leopard to Lion to Mountain Lion, Apple decision to manage updates through the Mac App Store has been an astoundingly stupid decision that is clearly more interested in cross-selling than in users keeping their software up to date. It was therefore a great relief to discover that I could update my software with far fewer needless frills through my Terminal command line. This was the essence of the article “How to apply OS X software updates from the command line,” which Topher Kessler ran today on his MacFixit site in the CNET Reviews department. Kessler always seems to find a no-nonsense approach to dealing with Apple's new proclivity for user-hostile designs on any platform that is not mobile; and I value the extent to which his advice allows me to shift my attention from wasting my time to getting my work done. I highly recommend this particular article as a valuable survival tactic.

Literally, Loss of Meaning

Kudos are due to Zoë Heller for her treatment of Naomi Wolf's Vagina: A New Biography in the latest issue of The New York Review. It is not just that the book is fraught with logical errors of misconceptions and specious reasoning. Too much of it is just plain bad writing.

Heller could not have picked a better sentence to make her point:
Serotonin literally subdues the female voice, and dopamine literally raises it.
Heller goes after Wolf in the best possible way:
Wolf literally does not understand the meaning of "literally" and her grasp of the scientific research she has read is pretty shaky too.
Having drawn blood on the rhetorical front, she can then move in for the kill on the logical one:
By repeatedly confusing correlates with causes, she grossly exaggerates what neuroscience can reliably tell us about the functions of individual brain chemicals.
My only criticism is that Heller did not go far enough. If Wolf's book is representative of how Ecco edits its authors, then Heller's targets should be taken as evidence to discredit the entire publishing line, or at least the state of that publishing house in the recent past! If ever there were literal evidence of Max Weber's cautionary remarks about the danger of "loss of meaning" as a result of market-based thinking, Wolf's book definitely provides it, perhaps even to the point of reinforcing the market-based focus of Ecco's management.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Putting the Claque in its Proper Perspective

I have been meaning to read William L. Crosten’s book, French Grand Opera: An Art and a Business, for some time. Since this month marks the beginning of my subscription to the San Francisco Opera, it seemed like a good time to start the book. Reading it has been highly informative, as well as pleasant; and it is nice to come across someone who is willing to take a business approach to a major artistic endeavor.

The “hero” of the book is Louis Véron, a medical doctor whose sense of publicity and advertising seems to have exceeded his medical knowledge. As a result he became a great financial success through the sale of patent medicine, thus becoming the model of bourgeois prosperity under the reign of Louis-Philippe. Between his connections, his gift for self-promotion, and investment of his capital, he managed to get the appointment of Director of the Opéra in Paris, thus becoming the first manager to provide that institution with a series of financially successful seasons. If many (most?) of his productions no longer have a firm place in the repertoire (or, for that matter, are remembered), he still deserves recognition for his business sense in his own times (the 1830s).

Crosten devotes an entire section of his book to an institution of opera life about which I knew a bit but far too little, the claque. We think of the claque today as a not particularly honorable technique for eliciting approval from the general public. If “the right people” applaud approvingly, then the general public will follow them as sheep follow a sheepdog.

Hiring an effective claque was clearly part of his business plan. In Auguste Levasseur he found the ideal claque manager. Levasseur would study each production and present Véron with an “applause strategy” that would satisfy the manager’s desired general reception. However, Véron saw Levasseur as more than a conductor cuing audience response. In his memoir Véron recalled the instructions he gave to Levasseur:
You must put an end to all quarrels, come to the succor of the weaker and defend them against the stronger, give an example of politeness and good conduct, and stop by all means the unjust coalitions against the artists on the stage or against the works presented.
In other words Véron saw the claque as guiding not only approval but also proper decorum while attending an opera performance.

Crosten applies a valuable reality check to Véron’s words, however:
Véron's statement is enlightening provided we discount on his part any philanthropic zeal or intention. He used the claque because he thought it profitable. He undoubtedly wanted his audiences to be well-mannered, but not merely for their own good. His interest in the public's deportment was motivated by a realization that cabals in the theater can very easily wreck the best-laid plans of a director. Theatrical feuds and public disturbances over the relative merits of artists or compositions perhaps indicate a lively concern with art, but they are not always an aid to the box office. Véron, whose expressed object was to make the Opéra the delight of the bourgeoisie, saw clearly that to do this he could not afford the dubious luxury of allowing his theater to become a battleground. For that reason, use was made of the claque and every precaution was taken to reduce to a minimum the hazard of a militantly divided audience.
In other words good manners made for good business.

The claque is now a thing of the past. Considering the way some audiences behave, this is not necessarily a good thing. It is hard to imagine Diaghilev taking advice from a latter-day Levasseur. Still, while we remember “The Rite of Spring” for the riot it provoked, one wonders if someone like Levasseur might have helped promote the virtues of both music and dance with a bit more tact; and, given how many places civility seems to have evaporated to less than a faint memory, even a trace of it inside the concert hall might make for a welcome change in the status quo.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Deflating Another Myth from the Rich and Mighty

This morning Robert Frank of CNBC reported a study that blows wide open of the major myths promulgated by the rich and mighty and preached as gospel by Presidential candidate Mitt Romney:
Cutting taxes for the wealthy does not generate faster economic growth, according to a new report. But those cuts may widen the income gap between the rich and the rest, according to a new report.

A study from the Congressional Research Service -- the non-partisan research office for Congress -- shows that "there is little evidence over the past 65 years that tax cuts for the highest earners are associated with savings, investment or productivity growth."

In fact, the study found that higher tax rates for the wealthy are statistically associated with higher levels of growth.
Of course the current generation of Republicans have never been swayed by little things such as the objective collection and analysis of hard data (particularly when the analysts are non-partisan). They know that facts do not win elections. Elections are won by those who tell the best stories, and my guess is that the consciousness industry of the rich and mighty is already hard at work to put out a set of stories to distract from (if not discredit) this latest insight into the workings of the American economy.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Security and Offense

It goes without saying that Innocence of Muslims is more than just an “anti-Islam film,” the rather neutral description used this morning by Associated Press writer Hrvoje Hranjski in a report with the headline “US embassies step up security after Libya attack.” It is a cleverly conceived and executed project that, thus far at least, has been successful at keeping all of its production team anonymous (at least according to the current version of its Wikipedia page). While it was given a private screening last June in Los Angeles, primary distribution has been through YouTube. As a result, Muslims around the world have come to recognize it as an “American product;” and, to make matters worse, the film has been promoted by Terry Jones, the Florida pastor who established his own fifteen minutes of fame by making a public show out of burning copies of the Quran.

As a result, the film has an American imprimatur, regardless of whether or not any Americans were explicitly involved in its production or distribution. (Anyone can upload to YouTube from any country.) In this context the State Department should have been prepared for hostile reactions in countries that have a substantial number of Muslims in the population. Unfortunately, the essence of the reaction turned out to be the promotion of freedom of speech as an American value.

The obvious question is whether or not Innocence of Muslims constitutes an act of hate speech. If we are willing to draw the line between hate speech and other acts protected by freedom of speech, could we not at least have issued a statement in traditionally neutral State Department language saying that we would investigate whether either the film or its explicit promoters (such as Pastor Jones) could be prosecuted for hate speech under American law? Even if the investigation went no further than determining whether or not Jones was indictable, it would have sent a signal to the international Muslim community that we recognized the offense and would try to “make it right.”

Mind you, this not a matter of disowning freedom of speech. It is just an explicit recognition of hate speech as a separate category. At least our government has the good sense to avoid the extremist rhetoric of Mitt Romney (as reported by Holly Bailey):
"It's a terrible course for America to stand in apology for our values," Romney told reporters. "It's never too early for the U.S. government to condemn attacks on Americans and defend our values.… When our grounds are being attacked, being breached, the first response of the United States must be outrage."
Unlike Romney, our own position at least recognized that there were values other than our own. Nevertheless, we were at least perceived as prioritizing freedom of speech without first deliberating over whether or not, under American law, this was really a “freedom of speech case.” This narrow sense of values ended up costing the lives of four Americans in Libya, one of whom was an ambassador with a comprehensive understanding of conditions there.

Meanwhile, as owner of YouTube, Google has now blocked access to Innocence of Muslims. It is not often that I have an opportunity to assert that Google is showing better sense than the United States Government. (Usually I argue to the contrary.) However, this case definitely serves as a significant exception.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

AT&T “Ignorance Technology” Strikes Again

Last month I reported on how dealing with a DSL disruption problem led me to declare AT&T to be “the model example of how ‘knowledge technology’ can turn a mediocre service provider into a thoroughly stupid one.” Since that time I have had a series of further engagements with AT&T service providers, almost all of which provided me with little more than further warrants for my original declaration. Finally, I had to deal with a service provider in a chat room who tried to convince me to buy a new modem, which only convinced me that, for ATT, upselling was synonymous with customer service.

At that point I did what I should have done much sooner. I consulted a friend who knew more about these matters. It turns out that he had experienced exactly the same problems I was enduring, and he had been given the same advice. However, another service provider suggested that this was actually a power supply problem. If the modem was not getting the right level of power, it would act up with exactly the symptoms I had been observing. As a result, while my friend had already purchased a new modem, he decided to swap only the power supply; so he would not have to worry about reconfiguring all of the devices on the wireless side of his network.

Sure enough, this took care of his symptoms. He even brought his new power supply over to my place; and I experienced the same improvement in the modem’s “cold start” behavior. It thus seemed as if all I had to do was order a replacement power supply. Using the URL given to me by the service provider who insisted that I buy that new modem, I found the power supply and ordered it. Today it arrived, I hooked it up, and all of the lights on the modem remained dark, a condition far worse than any I had previously observed. I did not need a voltmeter to tell me that the power supply was not putting out any power.

To be fair, after making me wait the usual aeon, AT&T wasted no time in initiating a replacement. Supposedly it will come with paperwork for returning the defective one. Still, this raises some interesting questions about quality control. The fact that they reacted as quickly as they did indicates that I was far from the first customer to experience this problem. Did they think that, having tried the cheap way out, my first instinct would be to accept their advice to replace the modem?

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

On Knowing When to Pass By

I once had a publicist ask me whether I always felt obliged to write about a performance, even if I knew I would have to be sharply critical. I did not tell her that another publicist once told me that negative publicity is better than no publicity at all. In many respects he reflected the position taken by the French anthropologist Pierre Bourdieu, which have been fond of citing in the past:
There is nothing worse than to pass unnoticed: thus, not to salute someone is to treat him like a thing, an animal, or a woman.
(Just to clarify, that sexist tag at the end has to do with the culture Bourdieu happened to be describing. Whether it reflects his own opinion is left as an exercise for the reader.)

Today, however, I found myself more sympathetic to the first of those two publicists. I was sitting through a recital realizing that, were I to start hammering away at my keyboard, there was nothing positive I would be able to say about it. Since this was a free concert that had involved a last-minute substitution, it seemed like an occasion on which passing by was the better form of valor. It was not as if there had been a publicist building up buzz prior to the concert, nor were there any unbridled roars of approval coming from those who sat with me in the audience.

I have no idea how many readers I have among those who attended this event. My guess is that they were among the unenthusiastic and disappointed. On the other hand, if they have been reading me in the past, my guess is that they do not really need me to explain their disappointment. Every unhappy member of the audience should be allowed to be unhappy in his or her own way. Whether or not the performer sensed any of that unhappiness is entirely her own affair, and I can move on to other topics where I feel I have opinions to contribute that might actually turn out to be of some use.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Republican Ideologies and Narratives

As the Republican National Convention was getting under way, Timothy Synder posted an analysis to NYRBlog, the blog site for The New York Review of Books, addressing the nature of the “specter of ideology” that would be “haunting” the week’s activities. The piece was entitled “Grand Old Marxists” and developed the thesis that the prevailing ideological standard bearers, Ayn Rand and Friedrich Hayek both worked from assumptions that could also be found in the philosophy of Karl Marx. It is unlikely that Synder would be read by much of the electorate that subscribes to Republican ideology, since those subscribers tend to equate his advocacy of social democracy with socialism, which is then equated with communism and thus needs to be shunned, if not pilloried.

For the rest of us, however, Synder offered up a fascinating summary position:
Rich Republicans such as Romney are of course a small minority of the party. Not much of the Republican electorate has any economic interest in voting for a ticket whose platform is to show that government does not work. As Ryan understands, they must be instructed that their troubles are not simply a pointless contrast to the gilded pleasures of the man at the top of the Republican ticket, but rather part of the same story, a historical drama in which good will triumph and evil will be vanquished. Hayek provides the rules of the game: anything the government does to interfere in the economy will just make matters worse; therefore the market, left to its own devices, must give us the best of all possible worlds. Rand supplies the discrete but titillating elitism: this distribution of pleasure and pain is good in and of itself, because (and this will not be said aloud) people like Romney are bright and people who will vote for him are not. Rand understood that her ideology can only work as sadomasochism. In her novels, the suffering of ordinary Americans (“parasites,” as they are called in Atlas Shrugged) provides the counterpoint to the extraordinary pleasures of the heroic captains of industry (which she describes in weird sexual terms). A bridge between the pain of the people and the pleasure of the elite which mollifies the former and empowers the latter is the achievement of an effective ideology.
That use of the noun “instructed” makes it clear that the foundation of the Republican campaign will have to be propaganda, which has become the manipulation of public consciousness (particularly among those more concerned with getting by from day to day than with analyzing the position statements of candidates) on an industrial scale. Snyder’s parenthetical remark stresses both the urgency and the delicacy of such manipulation, which is why the investments from both parties toward such manipulation are likely to be the real determiners of the November election.

That “historical drama” noun phrase is also important. People still turn to narrative when other diversions from their problems (such as access to affordable food and health care) are beyond reach. In this respect it has always amused me that Rand’s command of narrative has tended to be, to put it politely, unwieldy. Those who would question this claim can consider the great saga of frustration behind the effort to turn Atlas Shrugged into a feature film. Part of the problem concerns matters such as her description of the general public as “parasites;” but there is also the problem of the extent to which the plot line tends to get overwhelmed by the ideology.

In 2008 during the Nevada primary, I got the impression that Barack Obama managed to score a lot of points with one particular punch line:
Folks, they don't tell you what they mean!
This was a way to let the electorate know that they were being manipulated by the consciousness industry, delivering the message with a folksy rhetoric that was both direct and humorous. My guess is that any number of Republican strategists remember that moment and have chosen to confront it with a popular variant on Murphy’s Law:
When in doubt, use a larger hammer.
In other words, when the opposition tries to let the electorate know that they are being played for suckers, the simplest reply is to shout down the opposition. My guess is that this is what we are likely to see in this year’s excuse for campaign strategies.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Spam for Spam

Yahoo! Mail has not (yet) crashed and burned as devastatingly as it did in July. However, it has cooked up a new annoyance that would be amusing if it were not so irritating. They have now introduced a full-screen ad that blocks out all of the hyperlinks for navigating the Mail folders. Worse yet, the upper left-hand corner has the blue rectangle containing the text "Mail," making it look like it is a link to the home page for mail. If you click on it, however, you discover that it takes you to the advertiser's Web site! The amusing part is that this ad appears consistently after you empty out the Spam folder. Is this one of Marissa Meyer's bright ideas?