Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Sir Tim's Problems with Reality Continue

This is not the first time I have cast a jaundiced eye upon Sir Tim Berners-Lee's rather perverse form of "Enlightenment rationalism," which seems to be grounded more in the imperial Britain that ruled the nineteenth-century waves than in the social turmoil of our current century. However, when he flogs his stuff on a public medium like the BBC, I feel a reality check is in order. As reported by Joe McKendrick in a ZDNet article originally written for Service Oriented, Sir Tim used the BBC to sing the praises of HTML5, which will enable a future in which "every single web page out there, if you like, is like a computer." He then goes on to resume his attack on governments trying to take over the Internet, with an added swipe against corporate interests concerned only with (gasp!) making money.

Perhaps it is just my MIT upbringing, but I feel that Sir Tim has never really grasped a fundamental axiom of human nature as it applies to man in the world of technology. The axiom is a simple one:
Any entity, hardware or software, capable of computation is capable of being hacked.
The world "malware" never appears in McKendrick's article; and, while I did not watch the BBC video, I am fairly confident that the word is not in Sir Tim's working vocabulary. If Sir Tim does not yet realize that the primary beneficiaries of HTML5 will probably be the next generation of malware designers and advertisers coming up with even more annoying ways to distract you from your reason for visiting a Web page in the first place, then he will be in for a rude awakening!

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Attacking Apple with More Authority

While I have tried to persist in taking Apple to task for turning the Mac from a valuable tool for those of us still engaged in writing based on research, disregarding us for the sake of becoming "the world's coolest toymaker," my own position as an observer is relatively naive. On the other hand we have Lloyd Chambers (diglloyd), who maintains the Mac Performance Guide site. He has now come out with an extended analysis of what he calls "Apple Core Rot." I found this thanks to a pointer from Robin Harris on ZDNet, but all the real substance is in Chambers' analysis. My guess is that it will only be a matter of time until "What's wrong with the Mac?" turns into "What's left that right with the Mac?"

Monday, January 28, 2013

Why Bach Matters

Having begun today by writing for about yesterday's performance by the American Bach Soloists (ABS) of Johann Sebastian Bach's BWV 245, setting of the Passion based on the Gospel According to Saint John, I feel a need to riff a bit on why I pursue ABS concerts eagerly, particularly when their namesake is involved. It has nothing to do with whether or not the music has an "immortal" qualities or, for that matter, whether they count as "masterpieces." Rather, it has to do with the fact that such thoughts never occurred to Bach; and, because his only real focus was on those immediate tasks presented to him, he deserves to be remembered as the quintessential working musician.

Whether he was in the service of a nobleman whose Calvinist beliefs thought little of music being used at all in a religious service or whether he was worrying about having music ready for the next service at the St. Thomas Church in Leipzig, his number one priority was simply getting the job done to the satisfaction of him employer. If Bach gave any thought to posterity at all, it was to make sure that those who followed him received and mastered all the necessary pedagogical training for getting future jobs done with equal satisfaction. Any more "elevated" thoughts about Bach that would later emerge amount to trying to turn the man into a monument, a practice that is as inappropriate for the appreciation of Bach as it is for Ludwig van Beethoven (about whom I have advanced similar arguments).

If those who are exposed to Bach in the course of a religious service feel that their sense of faith has been enhanced by his music, then so much the better. That means that Bach is as good at doing his job today as he was when he was alive. What is important is that thinking of him as a "man at work" does not diminish the impact of his legacy. It only provides us with a more realistic view that we would do well to direct towards those making music today.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Old Friends

Readers of the national site I maintain for have probably noticed that I have ramped up considerably on the time I use to put into writing about recordings. As a result, last December was the first time I felt justified in writing a retrospective "memorable recordings" article as a "year in review" piece. That piece, in turn, had been inspired in no small part by the discovery that several of the GRAMMY nominations in both classical and jazz had been recordings that I had "examined." (Mind you, I shall be very surprised if any of my "picks" actually get an award; but at least it will be a pleasant surprise.)

In going after new recordings, my first priority is the expansion of my listening repertoire. I feel it is necessary to say something about composers, compositions, and sometimes performers that have been undeservedly neglected by "the industry." Also, because of my ongoing obsession over lack of attention to history, I like to discuss "historical" recordings, both those going through reissue or those that have simply been lying there with little regard.

One result of this shift in focus is that the collection I put so many years into accumulating has been getting less attention than usual. I may consult it for reference when I am writing about a composition or performance which which I have a recorded document, but I spend less time browsing the drawers of my CD cabinet just for the sake to listening to something I have not spent time with for a while. In that respect this is currently a good time for me, a narrow window during which it is too early to write about any of the recordings about to be released.

Interestingly enough, I seem to be turning back to my Philips recordings of the Schönberg Ensemble performing the music of their namesake. This is not because Arnold Schoenberg has not been getting attention in recent releases, particularly since last year was the centennial for the first performance of Pierrot Lunaire (one year before "The Rite of Spring," mind you). Rather, it is a matter of keeping Schoenberg's rhetoric fresh in my head, since it is so unique that it is seldom (if ever) reinforced by any of the composers that followed him. Furthermore, there just are not that many opportunities to hear Schoenberg in concert here in San Francisco; and, now that the Pierrot centennial has passed, there will probably be even fewer.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Choosing the Present over the Future

According to my records, the last time Joe Stiglitz tried to teach that gathering of the rich and mighty in Davos known as the World Economic Forum a thing or two was in 2011, when he tried to call attention to the fallacy of using an explanatory model for predictive purposes. Unfortunately, at that time his audience was too drunk on the Kool-Aid of prioritizing technological innovation above all other matters to appreciate the fact that, before one analyzes data, one has to distinguish signal from noise. Fortunately, this time Stiglitz in Davos to sit on a panel on "the perils of economic prediction;" and he seems to have done his level best to keep his audience focused on the perils of the present.

If we are to go by the latest dispatch from BBC News, the greatest of those perils is economic inequality; and, in terms of uneven distribution of wealth, the United States is one of the worst offenders. The numbers behind that offense are striking. 25% of the country's wealth is now controlled by the richest 1% of Americans. Furthermore, that 1% sector has seen their wealth double since 1980. This was the beginning of the era of Ronald Reagan, which promoted blatantly false myths about wealth creation and saw the first wave of economic abuses whose consequences we continue to suffer. (Those consequences include the rise of globalization administered by elite and detached organizations such as the World Economic Forum, in theory if not in practice.)

Since Reagan tended to think in terms of what could fit on a 3 x 5 card, the BBC was kind enough to provide a useful "sound byte" from Stiglitz capturing current conditions.
America likes to think of itself as a land of equality and opportunity, the so-called American dream is very deep to our sense of identity. 
The stats show otherwise, the US has one of the worst opportunity rates of any of the advanced economies. A child's life chances are more dependent on the income of his or her parents than most other industrial economies.
Since, culturally, we have a bad habit of reacting to numbers like these by trying to change the numbers themselves, rather than the conditions they represent, Stiglitz' insights are unlikely to have much impact on our government. There is little evidence that anyone in the White House is paying attention to him. As far as the Congress is concerned, too many (if not all) of those seats have been bought and paid for by that 1%; so we cannot expect our Legislative branch to take action of economic inequality any more than we could expect them to take a substantive approach to health care reform.

To make a case for his goal, Stigliz cited both the Scandinavian countries and Brazil as having governments taking a proactive approach to leveling the playing field; but it is hard to imagine anyone in our own government paying attention to anything happening at such great a geographical distance.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Materialism and Teleology

The latest issue of The New York Review of Books has a fascinating article by biologist H. Allen Orr entitled “Awaiting a New Darwin.” The piece is a review of Thomas Nagel’s latest book, Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False, which came out last September. Nagel is as disciplined in philosophy as Orr is in biology. Both have a longstanding reputation for the clear exposition of propositions based strictly on logical reasoning, rather than rhetorical showboating. Orr makes it clear that Nagel’s book should not be casually dismissed, but he makes it equally clear that he does not feel that Nagel’s claims have been adequately warranted.

Nagel’s point of departure is a familiar one, based on the nature of human consciousness. Nagel’s position is that consciousness is too subjective to be reduced to a materialist explanation based on the physical nature of brains and neurons (and, perhaps, matter itself). With this as a premise, he then claims that the current Neo-Darwinist model of natural selection cannot explain how consciousness came to be and offers, as an alternative, an approach he called “natural teleology.” Orr tries to clarify this approach with the following sentence:
Natural teleology doesn’t depend on any agent’s intentions; it’s just the way the world is.
Without going into details, I feel it necessary to recognize that, for many (Jürgen Habermas being a particularly good example), teleology is a highly objective process. From a mathematical point of view, one may think of it as the achievement of some goal, which may be represented as a point in some multidimensional landscape. The “world as it is,” so to speak, is another point in that landscape and teleology is concerned with how those two points are connected by a path and how that path may be found. This boils down to the mathematical problem of optimization, which means that Nagel seems to be advocating an objective technique to explain how we arrive at a subjective phenomenon, a materialist stance if ever there were one.

On the other hand the philosopher Isaiah Berlin has written very critically about the inadequacy of optimization (or, in his terminology, Utopian thinking). Berlin’s basic argument, nicely formulated in his essay “The Decline of Utopian Ideas in the West,” is that any Utopia, like that point of optimization on a multidimensional landscape, is static, meaning that, one a society or an individual “gets there,” so to speak, there is nowhere to go! Thus, in the subjective world, the only “static state” is death; and in the broader ecological scope of the natural world, even death is not a static point.

At least some of the materialist Neo-Darwinists are aware of this puzzle. Thus, the traditional Darwinian model of evolution through natural selection has given way to what has come to be called coevolution. The basic idea is that there is still a landscape; but the shape of that landscape changes to reflect what its “inhabitants” are doing. As the landscape changes, the “optimum point” on that landscape also changes. This means that, wherever you happen to be on the landscape, you have to keep rethinking the direction you want to go in order to get closer to your goal. This strikes me as what makes “natural” teleology natural, rather than merely mathematical. Back in October of 2011, I suggested that, because of coevolution, there may never be that “ideal” cure for the common cold. Every time new medication comes along, the landscape changes, and the cold virus follows natural selection according to a change in the criteria for fitness. (In that same post I suggest that the common cold is not that different from malware.)

Nagel never mentions coevolution in his book. However, Orr does not cite it either as a materialist school of thought. Many of its advocates came out of early research in artificial life, although Darwin himself described it in On the Origin of Species. To be fair, however, Nagel’s book is a short one, only 130 pages, which he uses simply to establish his position. Here is hoping that he develops that position in greater depth and that his digging will lead him to coevolution!

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Undermining Representative Government

Michael Tomasky's latest article for The New York Review of Books, "Obama's Big and Quiet Transformation," is ostensibly about how much Barack Obama managed to accomplish during his first term in office in spite of the many efforts to undermine his every move. The most important part of the article, however, is his discussion of why his opposition had so much power in the face of the definitive majority that put Obama in office. That analysis all boils down to one word: gerrymandering. Through the redrawing of the boundaries of Congressional Districts, Republicans with the power to do so managed to create a House of Representatives whose demographics in no way represents those of the United States. In other words opposition to Obama was empowered by those who could use their authority to undermine the very principles of representation found in our Constitution.

To be fair, this practice is pretty much as old as the Constitution itself. Indeed, the word itself comes from the name of a signer of the Declaration of Independence, Elbridge Gerry. Gerry managed to change the boundary of a state senate district in Massachusetts into a bizarre shape. When someone joked that the shape resembled a salamander, some wit replied that it was a "Gerry-mander;" and so the word was born.

I have written in the past about the extent to which the phrase "elected representative" has become a prime example of Max Weber's forecast of "loss of meaning" in a society that places the priorities of the market about all others. It is, so say the least, ironic that the model for such loss of meaning is the House of Representatives itself. In the face of that irony, Tomasky's punch line about Obama have to shift from comprise to combat during his second term takes on particularly relevant meaning.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

The Missing Signal in THE REST IS NOISE

So the Southbank Centre in launching into a year-long festival called The Rest is Noise, taking the title from Andrew Ross' book. Apparently the idea will be to offer up a year's worth of concerts to follow the contents of the book, beginning with Richard Strauss' Salome and concluding with John Adams' El Niño. While I have made it clear that this book has never particularly excited me, rather than cooking up a new rant of my own, I shall just defer to Rachel Halliburton, who, in writing a preview article about the festival for the Financial Times, described it as an "anecdote-stuffed, intellectually exhilarating romp through 20th-century classical music history." This strikes me as the perfect way to describe Ross, using a turn of phrase shamelessly appropriated by Michel Foucault, as an author without authority.

I suppose the thing that annoys me the most about this particular romp (if not romps in general) is the matter of sins of omission. Last June I wrote a post in which I tried to fill in some important gaps concerned with the impact of "The Rite of Spring" that had eluded Ross' anecdote-laden romp. Today, however, I encounter an issue that would be more serious to anyone trying to use the book as if it were a historical account.

As part of my effort to find CD versions of vinyls I used to value, I recently found the Vox CD release of an old Vox Box featuring the Concord String Quartet. The title was American String Quartets of 1950 – 1970. One thing that impressed me was the accuracy of that title. The earliest work really was composed in 1950, John Cage's "String Quartet in Four Parts;" and the latest was completed in 1970, George Crumb's "Black Angels." The entire span covers nine composers, so I was moved by a prankish urge to see what Ross had to say about each of them.

The bottom line was that he was pretty generous to the New York School: Cage, Earle Brown, Christian Wolff, and Morton Feldman. There was a passing reference to Stefan Wolpe, which was not enough to include his efforts as Feldman's teacher. On the other hand, two of the composers were not mentioned at all: Lejaren Hiller and Jacob Druckman. While I never liked Hiller's work very much, I feel it would be unfair to ignore him for his obsessive efforts to squeeze music out of computers and mathematics. The remaining two composers received passing remarks that hardly represented what they did. Leon Kirchner is mentioned in passing as a twelve-tone composer, which is to ignore a major chunk of his canon. Crumb, on the other hand, is only cited for his appropriating music from the past, as if he were just another version of Lukas Foss.

So I guess those planning a trip to the Southbank Centre now know a bit about what not to expect, should they choose to drop in on the festival there!

Friday, January 18, 2013

Does TREME Need a Script for Another Season?

This morning BBC News broke the following story about Ray Nagin, Mayor of New Orleans during the Katrina crisis:
Mr Nagin, 56, is accused of using his office for personal gain and of accepting bribes and other illicit gratuities while the city of New Orleans reeled in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.  
According to the federal indictment, Mr Nagin accepted more than $160,000 (£100,000) in bribes for his family business.
In exchange, Mr Nagin allegedly helped local businessman Frank Fradella secure millions of dollars in contracts from the city in the wake of Katrina.
Mr Nagin is also charged with accepting payoffs worth at least $60,000 from another businessman, Rodney Williams, who was given contracts for engineering, management and architectural work in the city.
Fradella and Williams have already pleaded guilty in connection with the case.
Since David Simon is a former journalist, we can expect that he knows a good story when he sees one. This one should fit nicely into the plot line for Treme that he has already developed!

Thursday, January 17, 2013

All That Jazz

Last night's duo recital by Renée Fleming and Susan Graham at Davies Symphony Hall featured two different settings of "Mandoline," the fifteenth poem in Paul Verlaine's collection Fêtes galantes. The first was by Claude Debussy and the second by Reynaldo Hahn. Sitting there on the threshold of modernism, I was struck by the last two lines of the poem, from which the title is taken:
Et la mandoline jase
Parmi les frissons de brise.
Over at The Lied, Art Song, and Choral Texts Archive Web site, these lines are translated as follows:
And the mandolin prattles
Among the shivers from the breeze.
Note that verb "jase." It rhymes with "extase," which makes it a homonym of "jazz." Bearing in mind how much debate continues over the origins of the noun "jazz" (which the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary simple dismisses as "unknown"), could it be that, among some of the refined French-speakers in New Orleans, some of them hear that "new music" with its "African origins" and dismissed it as mere instrumental prattling?

Monday, January 14, 2013

The Arms Race Continues

Whether we are talking about malware or invasive advertising, Udi Manber's metaphor of the arms race still prevails. I suspect that many of my readers have noticed that ads that pop up behind the primary browser window have become the "new thing" and are beginning to reach epidemic numbers. Furthermore, because these are "background," rather than "foreground," it appears that the blocking option in Safari does not do a damned bit of good. To add insult to injury, these pages also launch a video on the article page (with a very loud soundtrack), sometimes accompanied by a second video that pops up in the foreground, usually with both running simultaneously. The point of the arms race metaphor is that the people who are determined to push these messages to you "by any means necessary" always seem to be one step ahead of those system development groups that are supposedly more interested in your productivity than your susceptibility to impulse buying. However, when you consider the extent to which work productivity may no longer be on Apple's priority list, those guys in system development (assuming they still exist) haven't got a chance. My guess is that it will not take long for the tablet-using crowd to discover that they are just as vulnerable as thus of us who persist with our "old school" technology!

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Don't Blame the Fiction, Blame the Reader!

There is much to be said for Bill Carter’s think piece in The New York Times today entitled, “Real-World Killings Pressure TV Fiction.” His laundry list of television series that involved murder on a regular basis is extensive and dispassionate. Still, I’m not sure that the comments of Nina Tassler, President of CBS Entertainment, had very much to add to the violence-on-television debate. She justifies Criminal Minds, with its focus on serial killers, with the claim that “the bad guys are brought to justice,” adding that she would (note that Carter did not use “does” in his article) allow her fourteen-year-old child to watch it because “it’s an adult show.” It is certainly true that the good guys prevail on Criminal Minds; but I think that what makes it an “adult show” is the obsessive detail surrounding each serial killer, not just through often grisly description but also through depiction. If we were talking about sex acts, we would call this pornography; and I certainly do not have any trouble invoking that same noun, even if through a thin layer of metaphor.

The guy who may have said something worth reading, however, may likely be John Landgraf, President of FX. Here are the paragraphs Carter devotes to him:
John Landgraf, the president of FX, which programs hit dramas based on some level of violence like “America Horror Story” and “Justified,” stressed a distinction between what he called “third-person entertainment” and “first-person entertainment.” The former describes the passive viewing of scripted dramas; the latter describes participatory entertainment, like video games, where shooting and mayhem are personally inflicted on characters.

He explicitly tied the prevalence of violence in the United States to the availability of guns, noting that television viewers in Britain watch the same shows as Americans and play the same video games, but that the country has drastically lower murder rates.

“We should be looking at ourselves, but I think we have to look at what is most substantially responsible for this kind of violence,” Mr. Landgraf said. “One way to look at that is by looking at the rate at which it takes place in our country and other countries that don’t have access to those kinds of 100-round, 30-round assault-weapon guns.”
Personally, I think that a debate over the availability of large-scale deadly weapons is more serious than the availability of violence on television. Nevertheless, there is still a path that I do not seem to share with any of Carter’s interview subjects. This is the one concerned with the extent to which viewers do not grasp that there programs are fiction. The thing about pornography is that readers tend to get their kicks from the fact that it is fiction, titillating the imagination but not inspiring into action. Could it be that those British television audiences spend more time getting their fiction from books and just react to it on television the same way, experiencing the thrill of scratching an itch without thinking very much of doing it in reality? When you think of how many television viewers out there probably treat the stories of their sacred texts as if they were “God’s truth,” granting the possibility of fiction as nothing less than heresy, is it any wonder that ours is a culture unwilling to recognize fiction for what it is, without letting it cross over boundaries into reality?

Friday, January 11, 2013

Ray Kurzweil Takes Another Shot from the Hip

In his capacity as night news editor for CNET News, last night Steven Musil filed a story about an online interview with Ray Kurzweil in which the "father of all singularities" discussed what he would be doing at Google. The bottom line is simple enough:
We want to give computers the ability to understand the language that they're reading.
I remember when something called Cyc made the same claim and ended up giving Hubert Dreyfus yet another excuse for bashing artificial intelligence. What really raised my eyebrows, however, was the following summary statement from Musil:
Kurzweil explains that one of the chief challenges he and his team at Google face is that language is hierarchical and only mammals have the ability to understand hierarchical ideas.
I have to say that the very noun "ideas" is so vague that it is unclear whether or not this proposition is even debatable. It just happens to be something that fills column space. These days what interests me most about language are the results of brain studies that seem to indicate that the motor cortex is active in language understanding, whether we are listening to someone talking to us or reading printed text. This has at least the potential to endorse the "mind as action" proposition of James V. Wertsch. Mind you, whenever talk of the motor cortex pops up, the artificial intelligence crowd always seem to invoke Helen Keller; but, Keller had a body, even if it was more limited than ours.

My guess is that Kurzweil will take the usual what-I-know-how-to-do path in his future work at Google, ignoring, along with his colleagues, the less-traveled road of what-I-need-to-know!

Thursday, January 10, 2013

The Executive Branch Sets an Example for the Legislative

According to a report that appeared on the BBC News Web site less than half an hour ago, Vice President Joe Biden has announced that his task force on gun control will be ready to make its recommendations to President Barack Obama this coming Tuesday. Today is the second day of that task force's activities, during which Biden will be meeting with members of the National Rifle Association. That means that the task force will be delivering results to the President after less than a week of activity. Has our Congress ever manage to achieve anything with less than a week of effort? While I anticipate that any recommendations that Biden brings to Obama will then initiate further deliberation, there is still a lesson here for our Legislative Branch. Biden got his ball rolling in less time than it takes our Congress to agree on the direction in which they want it to roll!

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Alain de Botton's Myth of Understanding

These days it is probably futile to sound off against those who, through fear that dealing with complexity may be too depressing, prefer to take refuge in superficiality. Nevertheless, Victoria Beale has done just that in her article for The New Republic about the books published in the School of Life series of Alain de Botton. To make her point, Beale singles out de Botton's latest product (what else can you call it), How to Think More About Sex, as well as How to Stay Sane by one of his other authors, Philippa Perry.

The virtue of Beale's article is that she quickly catches on to the rules of the game that de Botton and his disciples follow. The basic technique is to cast a broad net over as many "elevated" sources as you can muster (de Botton first book focused primarily on Marcel Proust), cherry-pick a bunch of quotes that you think are likely to register with the reader (regardless of whether or not they make sense when taken out of context), and meander through them while expounding on such meaningful issues as life, the universe, and everything else (such as sex and sanity). Since this School of Life stuff seems to sell, the technique must at least have the virtue of providing a return on the investment of time required to mine those quotations. From my own point of view, however, it opens up a whole new dimension of what Max Weber meant by "loss of meaning!"

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

How the Media Neglected Egypt

There was no lack of media attention given to the rallies in Egypt prior to (and following) the constitutional referendum. However, that attention tended to focus on strident voices sometimes punctuated by acts of violence. What was curiously lacking was an coverage of the grounds for protest. How much did the protestors on both sides of the issue really know about what the referendum would decide, and how did they know about it? Now that the vote has been cast, an NYRBlog post by Yasmine El Rashidi answers these questions in ways that even BBC News never bothered to tell its viewers. According to Rashidi, quite a few of those who gathered to protest in either side knew very well why they were there. The article-by-article debate over the wording of the constitution had been televised; and that broadcast apparently attracted a very large audience. None of this ever came to light when both the BBC and the American networks had their reporters on-site at Tahrir Square. All that mattered seemed to be the sizes of the respective crowds on both sides and the threat of confrontation. Anything concerned with the issues themselves was deemed irrelevant. In other words our media covered the Egyptian election the same way they covered our own!

Saturday, January 5, 2013

The Bleak Present

The latest issue of The New York Review has a piece by James Salter on the new Selected Letters of William Styron. The piece quotes a passage from one of those letters, written to Norman Mailer on the subject of The Deer Park, which stuck with me immediately upon reading it:
It's amazing how solid a book it is, in the sense that its effect hangs on, even if you don't particularly want it to. I think this is because there is in the book an unremitting determination to be truthful, and that beautifully distinguishes it from most of the novels which are coming out these days, the writers of which have become so bewilderingly entangled in the dishonesty and million-dollar hokum of contemporary American life that they've lost their point of view entirely, so that their slickly cynical distortions are accepted as realism and truth. Most every form of expression in America is now keenly attuned to the second-rate, if not third-rate….
I found it difficult to read this passage without recalling last year's posts directed at the mindless babble of Jonathan Franzen, not to mention acknowledging poignantly that Ray Bradbury is no longer among us. This is not to suggest that our country no longer has writers driven by that "unremitting determination to be truthful" (Toni Morrison comes to mind). Nevertheless, whenever I pick up a volume of recent American fiction, I find myself ready to bail within the first 25 pages as I realize that the only "unremitting determination" in the text seems to be that of masturbatory self-gratification. Furthermore, I suspect that the focus of Styron's criticism gone global, considering the sort of writing one encounters in Umberto Eco, Yasmina Rezsa, or J. K. Rowling. Perhaps this is just another example of how the Internet changes everything.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

For All the Saints

It is too easy for Internet evangelists to forget that there are parts of the world where connectivity is a major problem. When Britain wished to imprison Napoleon at the most remote location in the world, they had just the place, the island of Saint Helena, whose closest continental coastline lies near the border between Namibia and Angola. Today Saint Helena is Britain's second oldest colony, the oldest being Bermuda. While the latter has the makings of a tropical paradise, the former, thanks to the world the Internet has made, may be more remote than it was in Napoleon's day.

The residents, known as Saints, are now trying to change matters. They have formed a campaign group called A Human Right, which is trying to get the island included in plans to lay broadband cable under the South Atlantic. They have received the blessing of the United Nations, but they have yet to get a response from the United Kingdom. What Internet evangelists never seem to realize (but which the British government knows full well) is that connectivity comes at a stiff price. The current investment seems to be in the neighborhood of £10 million. Those evangelists can talk about that kind of money casually when they can tie it to an appropriate return-on-investment; but when it involves giving about 4000 people (roughly the population of the island) the opportunity to connect to the global vision they promote and exploit without any viable ROI estimates, those evangelists would prefer to stick to their pulpits and readymade sermons, rather than confront the harsh realities of isolation.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

What Next?

Apparently John Boehner decided that passing the Senate Bill as it had been written was more important than stalling deliberations with amendments. Unfortunately, the majority of House Republicans did not agree with him; but fortunately he was able to pull together enough of them to join the Democrats in approving the compromise solution passed by the Senate just hours into the New Year. Since those voting in opposition were led by Eric Cantor, it will now be interesting to see whether or not Cantor decides to challenge Boehner for the position of Speaker when the new Republican caucus convenes.

Were Cantor to take over leadership, the result may not be as bad as it first sounds. It would require Obama to deal with a more adversarial representative of the House, which might encourage him to give more attention to sticks, rather than carrots. It might also split the Republican bloc, driving away those who have tried to distance themselves from the blinkered TEA Party ideology. Those moderate Republicans might find themselves with a new "independent" status that would allow them to caucus with the Democrats when the interests of those they represent would be served. Such a realignment might even lead to a more productive Congress, but we all know better than to set our hopes too high!