Sunday, December 30, 2012

No Executive Power

The Republican President Theodore Roosevelt (who also happened to be a major supporter of progressive causes) may be best known for a single motto:
Speak softly, and carry a big stick.
President Barack Obama is very good a speaking softly. He even understands the rhetorical trick of speaking softly with great intensity. However, for all of that intensity, there seems to be no stick in sight, large or otherwise. This is the time when authority needs to be reinforced with meaningful do-it-my-way-or-else threats; but, the way things stand, the "or else" will be the price of doing nothing, a state of fiscal uncertainty that, while very much a fiction of convenience, can still undermine the behavior of both national and global markets.

The bottom line is that those members of Congress who owe their seats to TEA Party support still feel obliged to "dance with the one that brung them." They will not be swayed by the authority of the White House, since most of those "that brung them" feel nothing but contempt for our President. Nor will they be swayed by the authority of the Speaker of the House, who is more worried about whether the new Congress will keep him as Speaker than about anything else. In other words, like Obama, he lacks any stick with which to threaten.

Our country is as divided as it was when Abraham Lincoln was President. Lincoln tried to solve the problem through an appropriate mix of beguiling rhetoric and bare-knuckles politics. Obama clearly appreciates the rhetoric side of this mix, but we have yet to see his knuckles.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Ravel, the Two-Way Arranger

When I recently wrote about the new Decca Ravel: The Complete Edition release on my national site, I made it a point to observe that the use of the adjective "complete" was a bit of a stretch, using Grove Music Online to track down a few original works that were missing. There was also a bit of variability over how Ravel was represented as an arranger. The orchestration of Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition was not included, which I felt was totally understandable. On the other hand I was glad to see that the collection included Ravel's two-piano arrangement of Claude Debussy's three orchestra nocturnes (which is now my second recording of this impressively successful effort).

However, while I do not mind the absence of the Mussorgsky arrangement (partly because I could not begin to enumerate the number of times this has been recorded), I regret that the Decca collection did not account for the fact that Ravel's relationship with Debussy cut both ways. Not only did he distill some of that composer's richest orchestral writing down to two pianos, but also he orchestrated a few that same composer's piano pieces. The Naxos Complete Orchestral Works Debussy includes Ravel's orchestrations of the sarabande movement from Pour le piano and the short "Danse" piano solo (along with other orchestrations by composers contemporary to both Debussy, such as André Caplet, and the present day, such as Robin Holloway).

Off the top of my head, I cannot think of another composer who took this "bidirectional" approach to arrangement with anyone, let alone a colleague as close as Debussy was for Ravel.

Friday, December 28, 2012

The Reality of Congressional Leadership

There are those who would argue that the history of military defeats is based on the strategies of leaders who refuse to recognize that the enemy is playing by a new set of rules. As Barack Obama once again brings Congressional leaders together to stave off that "fiscal cliff," one wishes he were more up on this perspective. Until he recognizes that House Speaker John Boehner is a leader in name only, demonstrated by his own party's rejection of his "Plan B" effort to establish a "working compromise" position, there is little our President can do other than repeat the usual litany of appeals to rationality. By honoring "chain of command" and excluding Eric Cantor, designated "hit man" for the TEA Party, from the discussion, he is taking a position as foolish as our refusal to recognize the reality of the People's Republic of China for so many of the decades of the twentieth century (an irony that I doubt someone like Cantor would be willing to acknowledge).

The Mother of All Unanticipated Consequences

For those who have not been following the results of the gun buyback program initiated by the City of Los Angeles, I must call attention to the post hoc think piece for The Atlantic Wire by Alexander Abad-Santos. Most important is the author's observation that the collection of weapons turned in to gift cards from Ralph's included two anti-tank rocket launchers. As Abad-Santos observed, this raises innumerable questions:
The first being, who in Los Angeles had military-grade rocket launchers in their house(s)?
Actually, considering the city, I do not find that one particularly difficult. The answer I would propose is:
Anyone who is a character in an action movie made within the last ten years.
The more interesting question, which action-movie scriptwriters tend to ignore as a messy detail, is:
How could someone living in Los Angeles come to possess that weapon in the first place, particularly someone clueless enough to let on that (s)he has the weapon by exchanging it for a Ralph's card?
Then there is the question for all of us who feel frustrated at the intransigence of the National Rifle Association, based on their current philosophy of arming teaching in classrooms:
Is the only solution to "a bad guy with an anti-tank rocket launcher" going to be "a good guy with an anti-tank rocket launcher?"
Shouldn't we be asking what anti-tank rocket launchers are doing in a supply chain directed at the general public and how they got there?

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Bing Gordon's Wish Meets Reality

I continue to be haunted by the only opportunity I ever had to hear Bing Gordon address an audience. The setting was a convention on the topic of media "convergence," that had apparently been organized (and probably financed) by Comcast at a time when opportunities for viewing video on any platform other than broadcast television were still pretty clunky. At the time Gordon was Chief Creative Officer for Electronic Arts (EA); and he advocated a convergence of technology through which EA customers would be able to play their games on their own mobile devices. In an attempt to be witty, he envisaged a future of playing an EA game on a mobile phone as one of being able to "reach out and kill someone." Yes, those were his words, taken down in my handwritten notes and transferred to one of the PowerPoint slides I used in delivering my trip report.

Gordon has moved on from EA since then, but his legacy remains. Indeed, in the wake of Newtown, we are beginning to appreciate the intimacy of the connection between first-person-shooter games and reality. This morning BBC News ran a story about EA and the removal of hyperlinks to "real-world" weapons manufacturers on the Web site for their Medal of Honor game. Note the specificity of the content. Violence is the bread-and-butter of the catalog of EA products; and the story made no mention of other links between EA and weapons businesses. Thus, there is every reason to believe that today's announcement is merely a symbolic gesture to calm an outraged public, which can easily be undone once the current surge of outrage has passed. For EA, as for any other enterprise, the conduct of business depends on sustaining business-as-usual.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

This News Story Brought to you by …

This morning on Yahoo! News, a Reuters report about the current patent dispute between Samsung and Ericsson was almost literally plastered over in every imaginable location with advertising for the HP Discover 2012 conference in Frankfurt, Germany. This included a reader poll on the question of whether there were too many gadgets on the market, the sort of thing many readers might have taken to be a more innocuous Yahoo! News poll. The logic seems to be that, while HP in not directly involved in the patent dispute, it may well be trying to make lemonade from the lemons of others. Disturbing as this is, it is probably a harbinger.

Do not be surprised if one morning, in the middle of the hourly news broadcast, the NPR reporter says, "The following report has been sponsored by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation;" and the story turns out to be about some innovation in health care. The implication would be that the story only "made the cut" because of its financial backing. "All the news that fits" must now worry about who pays for the real estate!

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Drunk on Power

Taking a few days off from deliberations over that mythical "fiscal cliff" is not going to improve matters. To paraphrase Bill Clinton:
It's the power, stupid!
Politics has always been about the legitimation of power, as Max Weber observed; but even Weber would probably have to admit that the current practices of our Federal lawmakers are putting that legitimacy into question. Time that could be spent in serious deliberation is instead squandered on ideological diatribe, replacing conference rooms with television studios. Those who urge us all to keep our eyes on the prize of economic recovery, such as Jeff Madrick, can only review their ideas on sites like NYRBlog, which carry no weight among those for whom amassing and exercising power is the only game. Is this when the aliens invade and tell us that, after a few thousand years of observation, it is time for someone else to take over as "designated grownups?"

Monday, December 24, 2012

All I Want for Christmas is NAKED LUNCH

Recently, The New York Review of Books has been sending out electronic mail promotions of their articles that include a hyperlink to a past review that might be considered for "classic" status. The latest of these is Mary McCarthy's review of The Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs, which appeared in the very first issue. I cannot think of a better way for a new literary publication to put its stake in the ground in February of 1963. By way of historical context, Grove Press had published Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer in 1961; and the book had to endure a series of obscenity trials that did not let up until the Supreme Court ruled in its favor in 1964. One of those early trials was taking place in Philadelphia at the time that The New York Review of Books was launched. I was finishing my senior year at a suburban high school (with established redneck roots before being taken over by whole neighborhoods of white-collar professionals). I remember taking the train to New York to purchase my copy of Tropic of Cancer there and then "smuggle" it back home.

I always found Burroughs to be rougher trade than Miller. Indeed, as I wrote here back in August of 2011, one of his books provided me with the only occasion when I felt it was really necessary to conceal what I was reading. Strictly speaking, however, the book was not really Burroughs'. Rather, it was James Grauerholz’ editing of early material that would eventually find its way into Naked Lunch, published under the title Interzone. I remember that I purchased this book while on a business trip, which on reflection seems particularly relevant, since Naked Lunch was first published in Paris by Olympia Press in a series called Traveller's Companion! The fact that I had bought my copy of Interzone in Singapore (at a Tower Records that I used to frequent when I lived in Singapore) was amusing enough; but, while reading the book in my hotel room in Kuala Lumpur, I realized that did not want it lying around for the maid to discover (nor would it be a good idea to having it in my pocket during a business meeting)!

Thus, if Christmas is a time when we reflect on past deeds and future ambitions, being reminded of my experiences with Burroughs' writing by McCarthy's review strikes me as perfectly appropriate for the season!

Sunday, December 23, 2012

One Small Step for Yiddishkeit

I have to say that I was pleased to see on Google Analytics that my article about the reissue of the complete recordings of Hasidic New Wave provided a nice little bump in the numbers for my national site on I have written about Hasidic New Wave here on this site once before. I had just seen Michael Tilson Thomas' The Thomashefskys: Music and Memories of a Life in the Yiddish Theater at Davies Symphony Hall, and set me to all sorts of speculations about Yiddish Theater in general. The fact is, however, that I have never actually seen first-hand a Yiddish Theater production; and my guess is that this is also true of anyone reading this.

On the other hand the concept of Yiddishkeit itself has been surfacing recently in my writing, due primarily to occasions for writing about the music of Paul Schoenfield. In particular, in writing about Schoenfield, I found I had to explain the concept of freylakh, just as I felt that I could not write about Hasidic New Wave without offering some explanatory remarks about Hasidism itself. The bottom line is that, in the spirit of the old Levy's rye bread advertising campaign (an example of which was included in my article), you don't have to be Jewish to catch the spirit of Yiddishkeit. MTT operated under this premise in tracing his personal family roots back to Yiddish Theater and presenting the result to a culturally diverse audience; and the value of Hasidic New Wave was that they offered up a new way to perform jazz, rather than a new approach to the practice of Hasidism.

Nevertheless, a cross-cultural appreciation of Yiddishkeit appears to be on a decline; and I have to confess to feeling a tinge of nostalgic regret over this "new world order."

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Liberty and Revolution

This morning I came across the following sentence in Gordon S. Wood’s review for The New York Review of Kevin Phillips’ new book 1775: A Good Year for Revolution:
Everywhere in the colonies countless numbers of ordinary people like the Jack Tars—artisans, mechanics, militiamen, and farmers—were radicalized by arrogant, out-of-touch officials and irritating government regulations and actions; and ready at a moment’s notice to rise in defense of what they called their liberties.
I suspect that Wood worked hard to choose his words carefully for this sentence, given its power to suggest the motivation behind the rise of the current TEA Party. Nevertheless, there are differences worth noting. Most important is that Wood’s “ordinary people” had one major priority, which was to make a living out of the meaningful work that occupied that largest portion of their waking life. Today “countless numbers of ordinary people” face that same problem of making a living in the face of a choice between mass unemployment and drone-like meaningless work subjected to bizarre swings in compensation. It is thus questionable whether or not an American citizen would take up arms in the name of the pursuit of wage slavery imposed by a corporation like Walmart.

This raises a higher-level discrepancy. The TEA Party is not so much a popular uprising as an act of organized provocation supported by those moneyed interests that impose the sort of wage slavery we associate with Walmart. Consequently, what current TEA Party members call their liberties never really signifies, since that “definition” of liberties resides in the money behind their activities.

In other words “ordinary people” are at the mercy of a clash between opposing forces of “arrogant, out-of-touch officials,” those in the corporate world for whom greed is the only motivating factor and those in the political world concerned only with amassing and maintaining power. In 1775 radicalization could rise up against a common foe. When that foe is attacking from two different sides, however, radicalization faces a greater challenge.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Another Order not Understood

From time to time I am still fond of quoting my favorite sentence from Henry Miller's Tropic of Capricorn:
Confusion is a word we have invented for an order which is not understood.
I was reminded of it today while venturing into a 2001 paper by Caroline Palmer, Melissa K. Jungers, and Peter W. Jusczyk. The introduction includes this rather eyebrow-raising sentence:
Expression in music performance can be systematically affected by both structural dimensions (harmony, melody, rhythm, meter, etc.) and nonstructural dimensions (affect, tempo, other interpretive decisions), and it is often difficult to separate the two.
Actually, it is not that difficult to figure out how the authors achieved their separation. The "structural" dimensions are basically attributed captured by music notation; and anything else is "nonstructural!"

It might be better to say that those "nonstructural" dimensions are not as objective as the "structural" ones; but that just means that their structure arises from subjective, or possibly social, factors that may not be understood, probably through lack of trying. The fact is that description that can only be distilled to what is represented objectively in notation will never get at the actual practices of performing music, where notation plays a role but not always the dominating role. Ultimately, the authors' judgment reduces to that of the drunk looking for his lost keys under a lamppost because the light is better there.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Business Attacks the Community (again)

Since I am no longer part of the corporate world, I feel I can read accounts of the debate over BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) practices with some degree of detachment. In that context I was particular interested in "The hidden danger to companies with BYOD," the latest post by James Kendrick to his Mobile News blog on ZDNet. Whether or not it was his intention to do so, Kendrick framed the debate over BYOD as a question of values. On the one hand the great asset of BYOD is that it tends to increase the productivity of the individual worker. However, the "hidden danger" he has in mind is that the price of that increased productivity is a decrease of any sense of the workplace as a "community of practice," a principle that emerged from studies of workplace anthropology that identified situations in which social interactions within the workplace could solve challenging problems beyond the grasp of any one individual.

Those studies provided a trove of anecdotal evidence that would be repeated with great frequency back in the days when everyone was drinking the "knowledge sharing" Kool-Aid. The problem was nor that the evidence was specious but that most businesses were looking for some kind of magic bullet that would provide them with both individual productivity and increased knowledge sharing, not realizing that, in their own bean-counting mentality, the time spent sharing knowledge was time not spent on individual productivity. The fact is that, in the prevailing social context of work, because job security has become a think of the past, every individual must constantly under the gun over whether or not (s)he will be able to keep her/his job; and, at the end of the day, all this is going to matter is whatever metric of productivity prevails every time that worker is evaluated.

I would further suggest that the deterioration of any strong sense of community in the workplace entails the side effect of similar deterioration in the world at large. This is what Robert Putnam called the "bowling alone" phenomenon. The fact is that the deterioration has only progressed further since Putman's article about this phenomenon first appeared in 1995; and these days it seems as if we are only aware of a sense of community when the members of that community gather in the wake of a major disaster, whether it is a hurricane like Katrina or Sandy or the latest instance of a mass shooting. Perhaps, if we recognized that the lone gunman responsible for such killing is the reductio ad absurdum of individual productivity, we might finally make a serious commitment to reversing that trend that, last night, President Barack Obama declared cannot be allowed to continue.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Returning to Hard Science

Reading "Perceiving Temporal Regularity in Music," a paper that Edward W. Large and Caroline Palmer published in Cognitive Science in 2002, turned out to be quite an exercise in reviving past skills that have not received much exercise lately. On the other hand it was also a satisfying reminder of how patience can sometimes be as beneficial side-effect of retirement. Not to long ago I was writing to a sometime colleague about the extent to which "professional" research has become contaminated by business practices concerned more with return-on-investment than with insights. In that climate I realized that the pressure of delivering results was a serious impediment to reading extended survey papers when my mind was preoccupied with teasing out highly specific answers to narrowly-framed questions.

These days I do not have to worry as much about either the questions or how good the answers are. As a result I take more pleasure in reading a challenging technical paper that satisfies my curiosity than in reading a lot of that poorly written junk that tries to pass itself off as literature. Thus, while much of recent fiction my try my patience to the point of aggravation, I seem to have no trouble taking the time to dig into either the breadth of a survey paper or the depth of a report of specific results, particularly if if involves catching up on how the state of the art in a particular area has matured since I was last pursuing it as a "professional" researcher.

In that "former life" one of the projects I pursued while I was in Singapore was the use of visualization as a tool for piano pedagogy. This came about as a result of a conversation with a piano teacher to whom I was explaining MIDI representation. I showed her the representation for my own performance of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's K. 2 minuet; and, as she eyeballed the numbers, she started making observations about my phrasing as if she had actually heard the performance itself. She then talked about how hard it was to explain phrasing to beginning students, since it involves a major step beyond just decoding the notation.

What came out of this was a relatively low-level approach to representing those MIDI data as images superimposed on the score of the music being performed. For example, we colored the notes on a continuum between blue and red to indicate dynamic level. However, we also made a crude stab at inferring the pulse of the pupil's "internal metronome," representing it as tick marks that might appear to the left or right of the notes themselves, rather than directly underneath.

Reading the Large-Palmer paper, I realized that my team had taken a first stab at capturing and visualizing the subtleties of timing in a performance. On the one hand, there was the regularity of the beat itself (or, if you buy into the theories of Fred Lerdahl and Ray Jackendoff, the hierarchy of such regularities); but then there was the principle that phrasing often involved a departure from those regularities. Large and Palmer managed to capture this in a rather elegant mathematical model, which has now opened the door to new ways in which to visualize the subtleties of performance.

I still champion the value of such visualization. There are too many times when mere words cannot guide the listening practices of even the best students; and, of course, that challenge of description remains with performers long after their student days have passed. Whether or not visualization technology will built on the recent insights from Large and Palmer remains to be seen, particularly since  it is unlikely to become a major revenue stream to seize the attention of would be entrepreneurs. Nevertheless, it is nice to know that the state of knowledge is still being advanced by those more interested in the heavy lifting of science than in cashing in on the "next big thing" in Silicon Valley!

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Stephen Colbert Strikes Again, This Time at Eric Schmidt

Eric Schmidt can be such a bully with his shoot-from-the-hip assertions that there seem to be very few willing to call him out to his face over the speciousness of many (if not most) of his claims. Thus far the leading counterexample seems to have been Peter Thiel, who, as an investor, has a power-of-purse that may actually trump Schmidt's power-of-position at Google. Even Ken Auletta, whose command of facts tends to be stronger than that of the people he interviews, has had to maintain the reporter's skill of treating Schimdt with kid gloves.

Stephen Colbert, on the other hand, never heard of kid gloves. Furthermore, he parades a fictitious persona that would have nothing to do with kid gloves, even if he knew what they were. It was thus amusing to read Chris Matyszczyk's Technically Incorrect blog post for CNET News about Colbert being invited as a guest at Google, where he was interviewed on stage by Schmidt. Colbert himself is a master interviewer. As his encounter with Geoff Nunberg demonstrated, he is even good at dealing with those who try to best him at his own game.

Therefore, it should not have surprised anyone that Colbert could be as deft an interviewee as he was an interviewer for his own audiences. Matyszczyk chose to dwell on Colbert professing total ignorance of Google Play while flogging his new book. What it amusing is that Matyszczyk never came down on decided whether or not Colbert was yanking Schimdt's chain, perhaps because even Matyszczyk feels he has to be careful about what he says about Schmidt. In my own mind, however, there is no question at all about Colbert's tactics. Colbert knows enough about audiences to recognize that, more often than not, speaking truth to power is merely tedious, while making power look like a fool has all the impact in the world. (Colbert must have loved The Tin Drum when he was in his formative youth.) More power to him.

Friday, December 14, 2012

On the Entertainment Value of Politics

Yesterday I wrote a piece in favor of The Newsroom having received a Golden Globe nomination in the Best Drama category. Given the intensity of its political subtext, I found myself musing that, over in the "Best Miniseries or Television Movie" category, there were three offerings whose political impact was no less than that of The Newsroom:
  1. Game Change
  2. The Hour
  3. Political Animals
This makes for an interesting "size matters" lesson (which should have the useful side-effect of suggesting that the proper metaphor for the entertainment industry is Godzilla). Apparently, The Newsroom counts as "drama" because its overall duration exceeded some threshold, while the other three programs were treated as "lesser" candidates. On the other hand all three of these projects deserve credit for recognizing that it would take time to work out their subject matter in an appropriate narrative setting; and, from the point of one who "reads text" (which means I am not a typical television viewer), I found this sort of segregation to be more than a little unfair.

On the other hand I found it interesting that politics should play such a prominent role in the overall scheme of these awards. The bad news may be that television viewers prefer to get their politics as entertainment, rather than as "non-fiction;" which seems to be the principle behind the success of programming on Comedy Central. This raises the corollary that real politicians only matter to us on the basis of their capacity for entertainment, which strikes me as yet another move within our culture to escape, if not deny altogether, the reality that exists beyond the frames of our television sets.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

One Cheer for THE NEWSROOM

I suspect that The Newsroom will have a hard time holding its own against Homeland in the Best Drama Golden Globes category, but it was good to see that it at least got as far as nomination. There was nothing particularly new about its premise: The idea of using a show about producing the news as a platform for expositions of various insights from investigative journalism goes back at least as far as Lou Grant, if not further. Nevertheless, The Newsroom managed to do an excellent job of rendering through "dramatic fiction" a keen analysis of just how far "big money" has gone in undermining current political practices in this country. Then, just to make it clear that they were not just picking on the United States, they offered a particularly barbed treatment of how the Japanese media handled the Fukushima reactor story. Stuff like this rarely gets further than penetrating analyses in the progressive press, so HBO deserves credit in letting The Newsroom boldly go where no television drama has gone before.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Charles Rosen Deserved Better

Like many, I was saddened to learn of the death of Charles Rosen, whom I would cite from time to time in my articles. However, I was even sadder to discover that he was given such an ill-informed obituary by The New York Times. My guess is that Margalit Fox was cobbling together stuff from a variety of sources without giving very much thought to what that stuff said. For those who take their music seriously, the real howler came in the following sentence:
A conversation with him [Rosen], associates have said, typically ranged over a series of enthusiasms that besides music could include philosophy; art history; architecture; travel (Mr. Rosen had homes on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and in Paris, where he had first lived as a Fulbright fellow in the early 1950s); European literature, usually read in the original (he had a Ph.D. in French from Princeton); poetry (he held the Charles Eliot Norton professorship of poetry, an annual lectureship at Harvard, from 1980 to 1981); food (he was an accomplished cook); wine and the glassware it was served in; cognac and the wooden casks it was aged in; and the television shows “Absolutely Fabulous,” “Taxi” and “Cheers.”
Those who know a thing or two about major intellectual honors probably know that the Norton position is a Chair in Poetics, and I suspect that Rosen would have been the first to bristle at the proposition that poetics is synonymous with poetry. The Norton Chair has been an honor for quite a few major twentieth century composers, including Igor Stravinsky, Aaron Copland, Roger Sessions, Paul Hindemith, Leonard Bernstein, and (yes!) John Cage. Once again, the Times has made a public spectacle of how far it has fallen from its days of quality reporting.

The Consequences of Avoiding Questions of Internet Governance

Within the culture of the Internet, there seems to be a general inclination to avoid even the mention of governance, let alone actually discuss the matter. As I observed when writing about WikiLeaks having become the new platform for whistle-blowing, such head-in-the-sand tactics only go so far:
Then something ugly happens (as was the case with the death threats directed at Kathy Sierra);  and we get a lot of throat-clearing and a paucity of clear thinking.
In many respects the very thought of the United Nations convening a conference on Internet governance is as disconcerting as all that throat-clearing that took place when the Internet revealed itself as a medium for death threats, rather than some idealistic “republic of letters.” It is hard to imagine that an organization, which cannot engage in anything more than similar throat-clearing over current conditions of Syria, can take on a matter with consequences as worldwide as the role of government in Internet activities.

I would suggest it is time to revisit those words of Henry David Thoreau that Internet evangelists embrace so readily:
"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 problem is that those who embrace that motto most enthusiastically are also those least “prepared for it.”

How, then, can those who feel most strongly about the Internet prepare themselves? I would like to set forth the modest proposal that the Internet be allowed to declare itself a sovereign state unto itself, provided that, over the course of some grace period of time (determined, perhaps, by the member countries of the United Nations, if they can come to an agreement on anything), they establish and document a set of principles under which that sovereign state will be constituted and governed. This would require some form of constitutional convention, which could be organized under United Nations agreement or perhaps simply through Internet participation. Given the extent to which many countries whose sovereignty is already recognized are now struggling with questions of governance, this Internet exercise might prove valuable for not only the Internet itself but also a clearer understanding of governance in the physical world.

Like most “modest proposals,” this one is sure to be ignored; but, as memes go, it should probably be given a chance to reproduce in the current population of ideas!

Saturday, December 8, 2012

One Small Step toward Recovery

So Apple is back in the news, reported by Edward Moyer for CNET News as follows:
Various industry watchers are weighing in on Apple CEO Tim Cook's remark this week that the company will invest $100 million into making Macs in the U.S., with some saying the move will create 200 new jobs.
Not withstanding any advice about looking a gift horse in the mouth, it would seem that, at the very lead, it would be worth assessing just what kind of a horse this is. Considering both the current unemployment figures and the number of people involved in Apple manufacturing in China, 200 does not carry a lot of statistical significance. Thus, we should all have some right to ask whether or not this is the first step of a thousand-mile journey, as Lao Tzu would put it. My guess is that such a question would make Cook squirm. CEO's who have to worry about quarterly earnings are not well served by thoughts of thousand-mile journeys. Still, we should wait to see where these jobs will be offered and who will be likely to fill the available slots. I, for one, am skeptical about those who deal in vaporware as a business strategy for figuring out how their business will commit to the real thing.

Friday, December 7, 2012

The "New Age" Triangle Fire

The parallels between the fire at Tazreen Fashions Limited in Bangladesh and the famous Triangle Shirtwaist fire in New York are so strong as to be heartbreakingly pathetic. On the other hand ours is a culture with so little concern for history that those parallels are likely to go unrecognized. According to today's BBC News report, Walmart has deftly distanced themselves from the disaster by pawning all responsibility off to a supplier and then cutting all connections (for now, at least) to that supplier. However, it would seem that the real lesson here is that we can no longer get away with just dismissing history as bunk. Rather, we need to recognize that, for the rich and mighty, history is a bothersome inconvenience that threatens to narrow profit margins.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Apple's Loss of Significant Values: An Affirmation

I have to give a shout-out to David Gewirtz this morning for using a post to his DIY-IT blog on ZDNet to affirm my long-held conviction that "computing for the rest of us" has now totally devolved from one of Apple's core values to a myth remembered only by older generations (such as my own). It was comforting, in a grim sort of way, to read that Gewirtz' experiences with updating his Apple TV were even worse that the current state of updating software on a MacBook. (At least you can avoid the clunkiness of the new App Store interface and get things done more smoothly with a command line interface to sudo on the Terminal.) I think it is only a matter of time before Apple proclaims its new motto to be "the world's coolest toymaker;" and it would be a delightful irony of history if the launch of that motto would coincide with a major consumer shift over to another company that figured out how to do something cooler (and, hopefully, more user-friendly).

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Rushdie the Unreliable Narrator

In the latest issue of The New York Review, Zoë Heller seems to have no end of ways to pounce of Salman Rushdie for his latest book, Joseph Anton: A Memoir. From what I have seen in several other reviews, she is not alone. For those unfamiliar with the book, the name is the title that Rushdie used as an alias when he was under threat of fatwa assassination for the heresy of having written (and had published) The Satanic Verses. Heller begins by observing that the book is written in the third person, a style she called "de Gaulle-like," although the best known practitioner was probably Julius Caesar.

However, the general annoyance with the book led me to wonder whether Heller and the other critics may have made the mistake of taking the title at face value. After all, Rushdie's primary defense for The Satanic Verses amounted to the assertion that the book was "only fiction." Indeed, back in the days of the Bush Administration, when I felt as if rationality were currently under siege from faith-based thinking, I liked to observe that faith-based thinking only allows literal interpretation of a text, never recognizing that there may be a more significant figurative reading. Given the ludic approach that Rushdie has taken to so many of his texts, why should we assume that the title of his latest book should be interpreted literally?

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Future Consumers of America?

Is it my imagination, or has the holiday season brought with it a new trend of television advertising? One always expects to see more kids pulled in from Central Casting to promote new toys or revive interest in the old ones. Now, however, they are plugging adult consumer goods as if they were spokespersons for the "greater good" of their parents. The script writers give them all sorts of consumer-savvy things to say, almost creating the impression that they have better judgement than their parents when it comes to buying stuff.

Whether or not adults respond to this sort of thing is beside the point. More interesting is the impact it will have on younger viewers. These commercials create the impression that adulthood has become a matter of making smart buying decisions, rather than one of earning the money to buy in the first place. (We are already way beyond the days of Growing up Absurd, then being an adult meant being able to provide food, clothing, and shelter.) In other words the subtext of these commercials is telling kids that they have to prepare to grow up to be consumers, just like their parents; and, for most of them, that will probably be a matter of having to contend with both debt and obesity … just like their parents.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Good-Cop-Bad-Cop Governance?

I have little tolerance for getting my politics through Sunday morning television. Calvin Trillin once called both the hosts and the participants "Sabbath-Day gasbags;" and things have not changed since I heard him make that declaration. As a result, rather like the fact the BBC News can provide me with a reasonably good summary of all the shouting without my having to sit through any of it.

Today's shouting, of course, was all about the "fiscal cliff" (which may yet turn out to be yet another example of how economic theory is based on a foundation of "fictions of convenience"). The take-away from the BBC "post-game recap" is basically that intransigence is currently trumping deliberation, leading me to wonder whether the entire month is going to be like this. It is the sort of shouting I associate with cop shows on television, particularly those good-cop-bad-cop gambits that take place when interviewing a suspect. Certainly, if you want to call up Central Casting for a "bad cop," you would be in good hands if they send you Timothy Geithner. There are some accounts that he spends much of his time in White House meetings playing the bad cop, so you may as well sic him on the Republicans if he plays the role so well. Then we have Republican House Speaker John Boehner, who likes to play at being a good cop but still has to worry about his Majority Whip Eric Cantor, who may well be the baddest cop in Washington (and that includes the members of the city's police force) these days, dogging his heels.

Thus, what we really learn from the BBC report is that, for now at least, bad cops rule. Of course this may all amount to getting all of the invective out of the system relatively early in the game, allowing the good cops to take over as the deadline gets closer. I'm just beginning to wonder whether there are any good cops left in the game, because the prevailing practice of politics has reduced them to irrelevance.