Monday, April 29, 2013

Owning Up to Responsibility

I just read a report on the BBC News Web site to the effect that Primark will be providing both compensation and emergency food air to the victims of the collapsed garment factory in Dhaka in Bangladesh. Primark is a leading British clothing store chain that had to deal with protestors picketing their stores because of their connection to this catastrophe. The fact that they have been willing to own up to their responsibilities in the name of a "cheap at any price" strategy is impressive. It made me think about Walmart, which is probably similarly involved, if not with this particular factory than with others like in, probably also in Bangladesh. There is no question that Walmart could have contributed to mustering the resources needed at the accident site in the immediate aftermath of the accident, but it is no surprise that they have maintained radio silence while the rest of the world has reported on the rescue efforts. My guess is that Walmart has far more money than Primark to act on this situation, but I have not heard any stories about their stores being picketed. I guess they figure there is no need to act if no one is aware of their involvement.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Whose Music is It, Anyway?

In the spring it seems that Alex Ross turns to thoughts of Friedrich Nietzsche, at least on the basis of his post to this The Rest is Noise blog this morning. He quotes from one of the aphorisms in Mixed Opinions and Maxims in which he speculates on Beethoven rising from the dead to listen to a contemporary performance of his music. According to Walter Kaufmann, who edited The Portable Nietzsche and was responsible for all the translations in that volume, this collection appeared in 1879, meaning that it predates the unveiling of Kaspar von Zumbusch's monstrous concrete monument, created for the Beethovenplatz in Vienna; but, thanks to the promotions from the likes of Richard Wagner, Beethoven-the-monument was already doing a pretty good job of obscuring any knowledge (or memory) of Beethoven-the-man. (Unfortunately, Kaufmann did not include this aphorism about Beethoven in the excerpts he selected from Mixed Opinions and Maxims for The Portable Nietzsche.)

Basically, Nietzsche speculates on how Beethoven would react to how his music was being performed. Nietzsche puts the following words into Beethoven's mouth:
Das ist weder Ich noch Nicht-Ich, sondern etwas Drittes …
Ross provides Gary Handwerk's translation for the new Stanford University Press complete edition, currently a work in progress:
That is neither I nor not-I, but some third thing …
I would not quibble with this, and I rather like both the original turn of phrase and the way in which Handwerk translated it. However, had I the ability to talk back to Nietzsche ("a consummation devoutly to be wished" by many, I am sure), I would probably have replied that, had Beethoven's hearing been restored by some miracle of medicine, he may well have said the same thing in 1824 after the first performance of his Opus 125 ("Choral") symphony in D minor.

The only time a performance of music is truly the "Ich" of the composer is when the composer is the performer. This is as true of Beethoven as it is of Johann Sebastian Bach or Elliott Carter.  Once the act of music has been abstracted by the composer into marks on paper, the composer no longer has absolute authority over how those marks are interpreted. By way of a reductio ad absurdum, I recently wrote an article on my site with a visual illustration of how composer Danny Clay developed a project for elementary school students around the marks on paper for the Opus 133 "Große Fuge" in G minor, which Beethoven would probably have declared to be "Nicht-Ich" without hesitation!

The bottom line is that this is simply another illustration of the proposition that the music is in the making, whether the composer is Beethoven or John Cage; and, when the composer is not actively involved in that making process, (s)he no longer has the final say in the matter.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

From "Big Data" to "Big Insights"

A story by Jason Palmer, Science and Technology Reporter for BBC News, offers an interesting account of the possible benefits of "big data" studies, which seems to be one of the prevailing trends when it comes to getting institutions to put big bucks into technology. Palmer's article is based on a report that appeared today on the Scientific Reports Web site maintained by Nature, basically a platform for a more rapid turnaround process for making scientific results available to the public than his been achieved through print publication. (This particular paper was received on February 25, accepted through a peer review process on April 3, and showed up on the Web site this morning.) The title of the paper is "Quantifying Trading Behavior in Financial Markets Using Google Trends;" and the authors are Tobias Preis. Helen Susannah Moat, and H. Eugene Stanley. Since this article is publicly available at no charge, it seems worth while to reproduce the abstract:
Crises in financial markets affect humans worldwide. Detailed market data on trading decisions reflect some of the complex human behavior that has led to these crises. We suggest that massive new data sources resulting from human interaction with the Internet may offer a new perspective on the behavior of market participants in periods of large market movements. By analyzing changes in Google query volumes for search terms related to finance, we find patterns that may be interpreted as “early warning signs” of stock market moves. Our results illustrate the potential that combining extensive behavioral data sets offers for a better understanding of collective human behavior.
This definitely makes for an interesting read; and I can imagine that it is going to get a lot of citations at future "big data" conferences, particularly when potential funders are sitting in the audience. Nevertheless, Palmer's article includes a quote that Moat gave that may be cause for a bit of reflection:
We were intrigued by the idea that stock market data serves as a really large record of all the actions people take in the stock market, but don't necessarily tell us much about how people decided to take those actions.
This seems to imply that market behavior is based on "the actions people take," which appeals to that classic democratic image of the little old lady with five shares of AT&T sitting attentively at the annual stockholders meeting.

That image is, of course, a myth. It is quite a stretch to suggest that market behavior reflects the actions of individual agents. Most transactions that move market indicators (such as the standard averages reported in the news every day) are the actions of large funds buying and selling shares in quantities beyond the wildest dreams of that little old lady. Furthermore, these days they tend to be the actions of software, rather than individuals who assume the responsibility of managing such funds.

Of course there have been stories about the unpleasant consequences of automated trading for at least the last two decades. Now we have the possibility that one automated system will be trawling Google for big data for the sake of telling another automated system how to make large transactions. If we accept the premise that all software systems have undetected bugs, are we really prepared for that possibility?

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Wagner's Shakespearean Oddity

Two days ago, May 22, was Richard Wagner's 200th birthday. [It took me a couple of hours realize that I managed to slip a month in writing that sentence. That is the sort of thing that happens from time to time when there is not an attentive editor in the loop. Fortunately, the following riff on Libesverbot is still basically valid, so I shall just let the error stand as a reminder for the future.] I find it interesting how little attention was given to this date and to the bicentennial in general. Perhaps this is because so much ritual goes into celebrating Wagner every summer at Bayreuth that the rest of the world seems to feel little obligation to celebrate any further. The closest I have come to trying to examine the man beyond the usual warhorses was the pending release of a two-CD collection of his complete music for piano, which I shall be writing about on in the not-too-distant future.

In this context is seems worth hauling out the one piece of Wagner trivia that never seems to get very much attention. This is his second opera, Das Liebesverbot. Wikipedia translates the title into English as "The Ban on Love;" but this conceals the fact that the opera is based on William Shakespeare's play Measure for Measure. It was composed in 1834; and, to provide some perspective, Wagner completed his next two operas, Rienzi and Der fliegende Holländer (the flying Dutchman), in 1842.

Liebesverbot is definitely in a class by itself. My initial reaction was that Wagner was under the influence of Daniel Auber's Fra Diavolo. That reaction was primarily a response to the overture, but the influential opening theme later shows up as a song with chorus. Ironically, Wagner only visited Paris in 1839, long after Liebesverbot received its first performance (which was a disaster). Did he go there to figure out how to get it right?

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Richard Stallman, Meet Your Worst Nightmare!

Richard Stallman is probably the best-known advocate of the concept of free software, which may be characterized as the freedom to use, study, distribute, and modify software, regardless of who provided it and whether or not obtaining it involved a financial transaction. His GNU Project has made a variety of software tools available that are consistent with this policy, one of the best known being the GNU Emacs text editor. It is interesting to study those who passionately embrace Stallman's philosophy. I worked in one laboratory in which one Emacs user had reprogramming the entire interface, making it impossible for anyone else to ever do anything at his workstation. Whether that is a vice or a virtue is in the eye of the beholder.

I would assume that Stallman believes that his philosophy is grounded in the principles of a free and open democratic society. Whether or not that concept is purely theoretical should not cloud the discussion. Nevertheless, it raises the question of what happens when free software finds its way into a repressive society.

This possibility was explored last week by John Hempton on his Bronte Capital blog. The title of his post was "Speculating about the future of Apple in China;" and it is important to note that, through the course of this blog, he emphasizes its speculative nature early and often (although there is a Postscript with a quote from the Wall Street Journal that can be taken to warrant at least some of his claims). The basis for speculation comes from the purchase of an Android phone in eBay that seems to have originated in a Middle Eastern country. It turned out that the functionality of the phone was almost non-existent, presumably because the operating system had been modified to prevent access to "undesirable" data and software.

Even if this is no more than speculation, it makes for an interesting case study in the extent to which the very concept of "freedom" is a double-edged sword, a concept that goes back at least as far as Plato and has been recognized by "enlightened" society as a major reason for a system of governance with the power to regulate. Free software may make for an admirable ideology. The real world, on the other hand, does not take kindly to just about any form of ideology.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Excel in Historical Perspective

Much has been made recently of the embarrassing discovery that a fundamental proposition regarding the relationship between national debt and economic growth was the result of an error in computation. The fact that this error involved the faulty manipulation of a spreadsheet in Microsoft Excel just added an additional spice to an already pungent story, and today that spice inspired Irish comedian Colm O'Regan to write a piece for the BBC News Magazine Web site entitled "The mysterious powers of Microsoft Excel." The article has several bits that would probably play very well in a standup routine. My favorite is probably the following:
As much as oil and water, our lives are governed by Excel. As you read these lines somewhere in the world, your name is being dragged from cell C25 to D14 on a roster. Such a simple action, yet now you'll be asked to work on your day off. It is useless to protest. The spreadsheet has been printed - the word made mesh.
Reading this I realized that we now live in an age of Excel specialists who neither know nor care about this powerful system's origins. Those origins go back to what used to be a required subject in applied mathematics known as either "Numerical Analysis" or "Numerical Methods." This discipline tended to be held in distain by "pure" mathematicians, who believed that skill in manipulating symbols was always superior to that of manipulating numbers. As an aspiring undergraduate in pure mathematics, I remember seeing a door in the Mathematics Department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology labeled "Numerical Analysis Laboratory." I used to wonder just what was in there. One day the door happened to be open, and I saw a room full of calculating machines whose most advanced feature was that they were powered by electricity, rather than a manual crank!

During the Second World War, there was an increased recognition of the need to get useful information out of highly complex mathematical formulas. Much of the Manhattan Project involved such efforts, as did the origins of the digital computer as we know it. I remember that the original ENIAC was promoted on its power to take radar data from the launch of a missile or torpedo and compute the entire trajectory before it hit the target. (Whether there was enough time to do anything with this information once you had it was beside the point.)

Thus, what made that Numerical Analysis Laboratory amusing was that, by my freshman year, which began in 1963, it was a room full of obsolete technology. As a result, Numerical Analysis was one of the first courses to migrate out of Mathematics Departments into Computer Science Departments. Knowing the methods was no longer sufficient. Knowing how to implement them in computer programs became more important.

Now, for many of my generation, the classic textbook in Numerical Analysis was Numerical Methods for Scientists and Engineers by Richard W. Hamming, a researcher at the Bell Telephone Laboratories. However, this book was most memorable for its epigraph following the title page, printed in large capital letters:
Since Hamming's book was first published in 1962, computing has gotten easier and easier; and insight seems to have suffered from smaller and smaller supply. The idea that economic policy may be at the mercy of as typographical error in an Excel formula is disheartening, but it is far from the worst abuse of insight we have encountered during the rise of mindless computing. I still think that a major nadir was hit during the Vietnam War at the time when military strategy was dependent on mathematical models of combat situations.

The way those models worked was that a research would define a military engagement in terms of some set of parameters. Those parameters would be the input to the model, and the output would provide quantitative information about the result of the engagement, things such as territory gained and lives lost. I believe it was Daniel Ellsberg who wrote about how every set of inputs to every imaginable model indicated that we were in a losing situation in Vietnam. However, when these results were presented to Pentagon "brass," all they did was ask for a set of parameters for a model that had us winning. So it was that Ellsberg changed from a detached researcher into a radicalized activist!

These days insight is in such short supply that most people no longer notice that it is missing. For them Excel is the perfect GIGO (garbage-in-garbage-out) engine. They deserve what they get, but do the rest of us deserve it?

Saturday, April 20, 2013

A Week of Malice and Negligence

Now that we have all taken in the extensive media coverage of yesterday's events in Watertown, Massachusetts, bringing at least one stage of the attack on the Finish Line of the Boston Marathon to closure, we may learn a thing or two from the narrative that encompassed the entire week. On the large scale the week began with a violent criminal act, which was then investigated as such with patience and persistence. Both paid off at the end of the day on Friday; and, theatrical terms, the "audience" of Watertown gave all the agents of law enforcement involved in the process the standing ovation they deserved. The lesson from it all was that, when properly managed, law enforcement can deal with criminal malice; and we should be glad we have a system that works that way.

Between perpetration and apprehension, however, we had a second headline-grabbing catastrophe in Texas. I have no trouble classifying this one as an industrial accident, but I certainly hope that the investigation of that accident will be as patiently and persistently investigated. Stories are already leaking out about the possibility of regulatory negligence, the unintended consequence of those who think they can reduce staff in the interest of "working smarter."

If this turns out to be the case, then one might view the entire week as an object lesson in the hazards of placing the market above all other priorities. The week began with an ideological act of malice that could easily have been provoked as a reaction against such thinking. This was then followed by an act of negligence whose repercussions were just as dire. Have we learned yet how to react to both of these horrible acts? Have we learned to tell the difference?

Friday, April 19, 2013

The Cult of the Amateur at its Worst

The last time I invoked Andrew Keen's concept of "the cult of the amateur" was when I was ranting against Stanford University's conference on "Innovative Journalism," which I saw as an attempt to undermine many of the most significant work practices of print journalism in the name of innovation. I thus take a certain grim satisfaction in the story written by David Lee, Technology Reporter for BBC News," about how the "crowdsourced investigation" that began after the Boston Marathon bombing when wrong in the worst possible way. As was the case in The Ox-Bow Incident by Walter Van Tilburg Clark, about a group of vigilantes turning into a lynch mob, the story was all about the crowd uniting to identify someone who had nothing to do with the crime. The good news is that, in this particular case, the action did not result in an actual lynching; but it is too soon to come to any conclusions as to the impact that this act of vigilantism will have on either Sunil Tripathi or the members of his family. I just wish that those who claim to be professionals would shut up while the tedious process of investigation proceeds at its own pace, only taking control of the airwaves when they actually have news to report.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Apple Watch

As I wait patiently for the downloading of Apple's latest attempt to stave off Safari's tendency to crash and burn at inconvenient times (Are there any convenient ones?), what am I to think of the news that the stock price "temporarily" dropped under $400 (on a day when market indices, global, rather than just domestic, seem to be having a bad day)?

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

You Can't Keep a Good Businessman Down (or a bad one)

Yesterday, I tried to suggest, as tactfully as possible, that the attack at the finish line of the Boston Marathon was an act of terrorism (domestic or international) in reaction to the unfeeling oppression of homo economicus. I knew that homo economicus would not get the message. What I did not realize was the degree of tunnel vision induced by regarding "selling it" as the only legitimate focal point. Thus, like many, I was shocked to discover that a company called Epicurious used Twitter to try to convert grief over the loss and injury of human life into an opportunity to sell whole-grain cranberry scones. I used to think that the claim that market-based globalization had created a culture without a soul was simply rhetorical hyperbole. Apparently, it is closer to reality than I had feared.

Monday, April 15, 2013

First Mother Nature, Then the Human Race

Rather like the protagonist in H. G. Wells' story "The Man Who Could Work Miracles," homo economicus thought he was master of the universe. From his proud tower looking down on Wall Street, he even said so. When the literal tower of his domain was attacked, he survived. When he was hit with economic collapse, he was humble enough to ask for a bailout but not too humble to let go of that master-of-the-universe idea. He held to it even when it meant defying Mother Nature, and Mother Nature hit back with some awe-inspiring displays of what he then dismissed as "extreme weather."

What homo economicus had overlooked, however, was human nature itself. He regarded the human race as a mass of weak and insignificant animals. He forgot that even the weakest of animals has an attack instinct when there is no alternative. So it is that we are seeing that instinct come into play. Because homo economics is more interested in the profit to be gained through the weapons business, he overlooked the fact that those weapons might be used against him, if not directly than against his belief that the world surrounding him was basically a safe place. Warping the old Sixties mantra, those who no longer see being part of the solution as viable are coming up with any number of ways to make the problems worse. Will it be long before, like the sinner man of the old song, homo economicus will discover that shelter and safety can no longer be found?

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Exposing the Ugly Truth about Innovation Propaganda

In "Asia: 'The Explosive Transformation,'" in the latest issue of The New York Review of Books, Pankaj Mishra uses a review of three satirical books about financial success in Asia to expose many of the myths being pushed by those who promote, as I previously put it, "the Kool-Aid of prioritizing technological innovation above all other matters." Mishra is almost painfully explicit in distilling his argument to a single paragraph:
Innovation and originality don’t take you very far—and indeed there are few rags-to-riches stories coming out of India, where old, established business families and active investors in property development, construction, and mining dominate the economy. What is most lucrative for disadvantaged outsiders in this context is calculated conformity with the model of success—once it has been identified. Achievement doesn’t lie so much in the goods or services a businessman offers as in his projection of an appropriate personality. Hence, the rapid proliferation of certain types—the manufacturer of knockoff goods, the huckster, the fixer, and the middleman—who now make up an entire social class in Asia’s still largely informal and unorganized economies.
It would appear that, in a consumerist society motivated only by greed, the very concept of value is yet another casualty in Max Weber's prediction of loss of meaning.

The Iron Lady is Stronger than Iron Man (even in death)

This morning BBC News announced that the premiere screening of Iron Man 3 would be pushed back by one day, since the scheduled premiere on Wednesday would overlap with the funeral ceremony for Margaret Thatcher.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

The BBC World Service Gets Less Worldly

I like to keep a weekly schedule for BBC World Service Radio by my bedside. I can receive this through my satellite radio, so I like to know what is being broadcast when I get up in the morning and when I turn in at night. For some time the BBC has been very good at providing this. I tell them the city in which they live; and they prepare a schedule that organizes everything with respect to my local time, giving the GMT in parentheses, since that is the time the broadcasters use. At the beginning of this week I discovered that I could not get my schedule. I figured this may have involved a software bug due to a time change somewhere, the result of a work action, or perhaps a state of shock in reaction to Thatcher's death.

When normality had not been restored by the weekend, I decided to poke around. It turned out that none of my explanations were valid. This was just another case of rampant redesign of the Web site without letting anyone know. The weekly schedule is a bit longer, because it now gives some more explicit summaries of content. That is the good news. The bad news is that it is now given only in GMT. Apparently, honoring the local needs of listeners around the world is no longer a priority for the World Service!

Friday, April 12, 2013

Not Every Venue Offers VIP Treatment!

I just finished reading Andrew Harding's commentary on the BBC News Web site about the "Madonna affair" in Malawi. I certainly agree with his storm--in-a-teacup metaphor; but I found it interesting that he had nothing to say about what triggered that storm. It all came down to whether or not Madonna would receive VIP treatment at the airport when she was leaving the country.

I used to do quite a bit of overseas travel. When I was doing so on business, I experienced a variety of different levels of service, most of which had to do with how much my ticket had cost. I remember once taking a (remarkably affordable) First Class flight on El Al from Bangkok to Tel Aviv, for which I was personally escorted through a special line for getting my passport stamped and "officially" entering the country. I had that experience exactly once.

On the other hand I discovered that, at Narita Airport, everyone without a Japanese passport had to stay on the same line. I moved about as fast as you could hope for; but it was almost always long. On one occasion, when I was traveling with my wife, he happened to see Steven Seagal a few snake-turn bends in front of us. He was chatting with his entourage, showing no sign of any fuss whatsoever. I have no idea whether he was there as a VIP or just because he liked to visit Japan, but he was willing to accept that the line was part of the process.

I sometimes think that those who travel, regardless of the duration or objective of their visit, should be willing to accept that different host countries do things different ways; if they cannot accept that, perhaps they should let someone else do the traveling.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Who Will Mourn the Death of Social Democracy?

I do not believe in dancing on anyone's grave. Thus, I have to agree (if not fully sympathize) with Tony Blair's criticism of those who held parties to celebrate the death of Margaret Thatcher. On the other hand, I also have to take issue with the extreme lengths that have been taken to eulogize her. While I would not question her skill as a politician, I cannot avoid taking issue with how the applied that skill (in conjunction with President Ronald Reagan on our side of the pond) to bring out the death of the concept of social democracy, a concept that emerged in the wake of the Second World War dedicated to the principle that the poor should be provided with opportunities to rise rather hand held in their place with an iron boot.

Others far more than articulate than I (such as Timothy Snyder and the late Tony Judt) have discussed the decline and fall of social democracy as a cultural mindset of Western society. However, the rise of market-based thinking, concerned only with how many beans each individual has to count and nothing else, has brought about an era of personal selfishness with no end of horrific (or, as Charles Simic put it, "sadistic") consequences for the social world. Needless to say, the "consciousness industry" made no effort to acknowledge the passing of social democracy, let along eulogize it. The absence of any such mourning over the death of social democracy removes a critical perspective from which, simply out of a sense of fairness and balance, the achievements of Thatcher should be examined.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Is McDonald's Influencing the BBC?

This morning the BBC News Web site ran a story by Health and Science Reporter James Gallagher on the risks of eating too much red meat. It was based on an article study in the journal Nature Medicine and included an interview with the lead research behind that article, Stanley Hazen. This was definitely worth reading, but it concluded with a chart showing the risks of six meals:

  1. Cooked breakfast (English style)
  2. Spaghetti bolognaise
  3. Five-ounce rump steak
  4. Doner kebab
  5. Big Mac
  6. Sunday roast (English style)
Only one of these meals was declared to be within the guidelines set by Hazen's study. Believe it or not, that was the Big Mac. However, it would appear that the evaluation was based only on the seven ounces of meat in that meal, not taking into account the risks of the other ingredients or the inevitable "up-selling" of that side of fries (which happened to be included in the photograph of the Big Mac).

Is this a sign of McDonald's exerting improper influence? If so, to whom. The chart claims to be based on a study by the British National Health Service in conjunction with the World Cancer Research Fund. On the other hand the decision to provide a list with five "bad" items and only one "good" one may have been a BBC editorial decision, as was the decision that the "good" item be a "branded" one. Sadly, there is no hyperlink to the data source from which the entries for the chart were extracted.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Forster's Machine Stops in the Real World

The "tipping point" (if I may use that expression) in E. M. Forster's "The Machine Stops" comes when people learn how to live with the mistakes the machine is making, because no one is left with the skills to diagnose or repair those problems. Over the last several weeks I have observed both customers and staff at my local Safeway cross this tipping point. This has involved several weeks of scarcity (if not lack) of inventory, which has now progressed to a pronounced reduction in the number of shopping carts. My guess is that Safeway is far from the only provider of goods and/or services to have gotten trapped in this state; and I would argue that the condition is the ultimate consequence of decisions made in the interest of shareholders, rather than those of either workers or customers. I toyed with the idea of placing my order online and arranging for delivery, but it did not take long to discover that the surcharges were prohibitive. However, one of the floor managers happened to mention that he, himself, did not shop at the branch I use; so, in the interest of gathering more data, I plan to check out another branch on my next trip. That alternative is closer but smaller, so I used to prefer to go to the larger branch where there were more choices. Since my grounds for preference have changed, I figure it is time to reconsider that alternative!

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Rossini and the Philosophers

This morning Alex Ross used his The Rest of Noise blog post to relate an interesting anecdote about Arthur Schopenhauser, which he apparently harvested from David Cartwright's biography of the philosopher:
Cartwright tells a fascinating tale: in 1856, Rossini came to Frankfurt, Schopenhauer's home town, and was seen dining at the Englischer Hof, the philosopher's favorite spot. Alerted in advance, Schopenhauer arranged with the management to be seated near the composer. But he did not rise to say hello; instead, too shy or too proud, he lingered in Rossini's vicinity for the duration of the meal.
On my own bookshelf Schopenhauer's The World as Will and Representation happens to sit right next to Sir Malcolm Knox's translation of Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. At the beginning of his chapter on music, Hegel makes the following disclaimer:
But I am little versed in this sphere, and must therefore excused myself in advance for restricting myself simply to the more general points and to single remarks.
To this sentence Knox adds the following in a footnote:
Hegel studied and loved painting, but in music he was less at home. His predilection for opera (especially Rossini and Mozart) and his lack of enthusiasm for instrumental music may explain or be explained by his views on the human voice. The fact that he never mentions Beethoven, his exact contemporary, is not surprising, because he is by no means the only person to have a distaste for contemporary music. If he ever heard Beethoven's music, he probably regarded it, as I regard e.g. Prokofiev's, as restless and incoherent.
For the record, Hegel did not, strictly speaking, write the source text for Aesthetics. It is a transcription of lectures given by the philosopher, edited by Heinrich Gustav Hotho and published in 1835. (Hegel died in 1831.) Knox wrote the preface for his translation in 1973, and it was first published by Oxford University Press in 1975. Knox had begun his post as Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of St. Andrews in 1936, a time when many critics were calling Prokofiev's music "restless and incoherent;" so there is at least a possibility that Knox himself never listened to Prokofiev very much, if at all! He simply needed to pull a name out of a hat for a contemporary composer and came up with a composer who had been dead for some time (Prokofiev died in 1953 at almost the same time as Joseph Stalin) when he wrote that footnote. Perhaps the study of moral philosophy has an interpretation of "contemporary" that I have never really grasped!

Thursday, April 4, 2013

The Sadism of the Market Economy

Recently, I used my national site on to comment on a recent article that Daniel Barenboim wrote for The New York Review entitled "Beethoven and the Quality of Courage." One of the instances of that courage involved embracing the concept of freedom while living in Vienna, still very much in the iron grip of a totalitarian empire. I was particularly struck by the following sentence:
Beethoven would have had no sympathy with the now widely held view of freedom as essentially economic, necessary for the workings of the market economy.
Last Tuesday Charles Simic raised the stakes on this observation in his latest post to NYRBlog, entitled "Health Care: The New American Sadism." His basic point was that embracing the position that providing health care should be entrusted to those "working of the market economy" was basically a sadistic act through which those who enabled it took pleasure in the suffering of those too weak or helpless to do anything about it.

I appreciate the hyperbole. Simic is, first and foremost, a poet. His words live by a principle articulated by Wilfred Owen from the trenches of the First World War:
All a poet can do today is warn.
Simic has sounded a warning as stridently as possible; and, of course, that warning extends far beyond health care, since it also includes education and, for that matter, the very question of gainful employment. However, while the idea of the rich and mighty taking pleasure in the suffering they have caused certainly captures the readers attention, I think that Simic has made the classic logic error of mistaking negligence for malice.

Simic's would-be sadists do not enjoy the suffering of others. They just do not care about it. They are so focused on "wealth creation" that their thoughts have no room for any other factors. It is not that they delight in the horrors of reality but that they no longer perceive them. Thus, Simic's warnings will go unheeded, just as Owen's did as more and more lives were lost (including his own) in the collective idiocy of World War One.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Is Rust Really a "Holy Grail?"

I decided to catch up on one of the lapses in my current knowledge of technology by reading Seth Rosenblatt's article about Rust for CNET Reviews this morning. For those unfamiliar with the name, it has been applied to the latest attempt to design, implement, and deploy the ideal programming language. I have lived through several generations of such attempts, including ALGOL, PL/I, and, of course, the notorious close-enough-for-government-work Ada. Since I subscribe to Isaiah Berlin's proposition that an ideal state is one from which you can no longer advance (since any change must be for the worse), I feel I have a right to be skeptical.

Here is Rosenblatt's summary description of Rust:
Rust is an attempt to create a programming language to replace C++ with one that can handle today's heterogeneous, multicore hardware better while also being more secure. According to Mozilla Research's FAQ on Rust and Servo, on which it plans to build a new Web browsing engine like the heavily-used WebKit, Mozilla's own Gecko, or Internet Explorer's Trident, the new language will stop "entire classes of memory management errors" from causing crashes and security vulnerabilities. 
The other major hallmark of Rust is that it has relatively easy-to-use programming language primitives, the simplest level of programming language expressions available to programmers, that are expected to make it much easier for software developers to use modern hardware's multicore central processing units.
Needless to say, it is easy to be critical of these foundations. Hopefully, computer science students are still taught that there are only a handful of primitives necessary for "universal" computation; and they have always been easy to grasp. So the second paragraph is a red herring.

I am willing to grant the first paragraph. However, the literary side of me tends to cringe at the thought of a programming language named for a process of oxidation that usually results in the deterioration of what were intended to be solid metallic structures. Nevertheless, I am less worried about metaphors than I am about Mozilla's priorities. Ever since the days of ALGOL, it has been recognized that even the most daunting challenges of algorithm design pale against the problem of how those algorithms engage with the operating system over such ugly necessities as file management, input streams, and, that area that has been chronically neglected by every generation of Firefox, printer control. Yes, we need quality algorithms to manage the inner guts of computation; but, without an effective superstructure to manage interfaces, those guts may as well be the proverbial tree falling in the forest with no-one around to hear.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

What Would the Buddha Say?

Those who think that the phrase "church militant" applies only to Christianity would do well to examine a report from Sri Lanka that showed up this morning on Al Jazeera English, based on their wire sources. Everything is summarized in the opening paragraphs:
Sri Lanka's police have arrested three Buddhist monks over the destruction of a Muslim-owned clothing store that has heightened religious tensions in the country, according to an official. 
Police superintendent Buddhika Siriwardena said the monks were detained on Monday, four days after a mob of Sinhalese-Buddhist men vandalised and torched a section of the three-storey building in the Pepiliyana suburb of Colombo. 
"Three monks were arrested after they surrendered," police spokesman Buddhika Siriwardena told AFP news agency. "They will be taken before a magistrate tomorrow (Tuesday). We are looking for more suspects." 
Officials said the monks were among 17 held in connection with Thursday's attack which the main Muslim party in the ruling coalition said was a "sequel" to an on-going hate campaign against Muslims and other religious minorities.
This should remind everyone that there is far more to Buddhism than the meditative quietude of Zen!

Monday, April 1, 2013

Blacking Out News about Oil?

There was an oil spill in Arkansas on Friday; but most of the usual American media sources did not have much to say about it (presumably unless you were living in the area of the spill). Fortunately, Al Jazeera English decided that this was worth reporting, even if it was just a matter of gathering material from their wire sources. They were then kind enough to fill in some background regarding a few other recent pipeline mishaps.

I suppose that, with talk of a new pipeline in the works, there are any number of "powers that be" that would prefer to quash any evidence of how this particular technology can fail.