Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Spirit that was Lost in the Ceremony

There was an abundance of impressive oratory at yesterday's ceremony to honor the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington. As is often the case with oratory, much of it could not be easily accepted as sincere. I thus have to, once again, acknowledge the better judgment of BBC News in inviting Tavis Smiley to offer his impressions of the event. Smiley was interviewed by Katty Kay, who deserves considerable credity for letting him speak his piece with neither interruption nor effort to warp what he was saying.

The bottom line is that Smiley felt it was more important to address the principles that had guided the life of Martin Luther King, rather than to try to abstract everything down to the moment at which he delivered his "I have a dream" speech. Smiley asserted that those principles could be expressed in terms of three evils that needed to be overcome: racism, poverty, and militarism. In this respect it was important to consider how many of the speakers could both acknowledge how much progress had been made in getting beyond those evils of racism that dominated much of the United States in 1963 and recognize many of the ways in which racist attitudes were still a factor, particularly when it came to the practice of politics. To his credit, President Barack Obama was one of the speakers to take this realistic point of view.

However, that may be about the only credit he deserves for a lecture that took more time and had less to say than any of the speechifying that had preceded him. The question of poverty was, for all intents and purposes, ignored. Not to ignore it would have required recognizing that the overall economic divide was far wider now than it had been in 1963 and that the extent of poverty may be more devastating than it has ever been in the history of the United States.

The real dead moose on the table, however, was King's opposition to militarism. This got him into a lot of trouble with the United States government during his lifetime, because it meat that he was speaking out against the Vietnam War with the same eloquence that he was speaking out against racism. In this case, however, anyone who has been following the news with even half a mind knew full well why Obama would not touch this aspect of King's beliefs with a ten-foot pole. We all knew that, from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, he would be whisked back to the White House to resume deliberations on what actions the United States would take against Syria, with or without debating the matter before the United Nations.

Of all those who provided the first round of reactions to Obama's speech, Smiley was the first to talk about that dead moose; and those of us who continue to try to honor King's principles owe a great debt of gratitude to Kay and her production team for allowing Smiley to express his perspective with such convincing clarity and passion.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

On Avoiding Hasty Decisions

I do not always agree with Mark Mardell's British take on what happens here in the United States, but I have to recommend his latest editorial on BBC News with the provocative title, "How strong is US evidence of Syria chemical attack?" The source of the evidence he considers comes basically from yesterday's speech by Secretary of State John Kerry. Mardell's conclusion is that much of what Kerry presented as "evidence" is actually circumstantial, that sinister adjective that haunts everyone hooked on crime shows on television. Unfortunately, questions of casus belli are not settled by an impartial judicial authority, with or without input from objections raised by lawyers. Decisions about war rest with our Executive and Legislative branches, neither of which have a particularly good track record on making effective decisions (or, for that matter, making decisions at all).

Mardell's punch line offers his own take on decision-making and authority:
Mr Kerry is of course right that most people will think as he does, simply from watching the TV pictures.
Some, however, will demand much stronger proof, particularly in the wake of the faulty intelligence that was used as a reason to go to war against Iraq.
Mardell seems to have been the first voice of the media to explicitly talk about Syria in the context of what Yogi Berra famously called "déjà vu all over again." Let us hope that his is not the only voice that dares to take our willful ignorance of history to task.

Monday, August 26, 2013

The Representation Problem

Having finished Music, Language, and the Brain by Aniruddh D. Patel, I discovered that much of my discontent with the author's approach had be well articulated by John A. Sloboda in the Preface to his own book, The Musical Mind: The Cognitive Psychology of Music. Indeed, the account of Patel's book that I wrote for began by enumerating the way Sloboda felt that the "scientific" study of music had deliberately overlooked valuable input from practicing musicians. As a result, I realized that Sloboda's book (whose Preface was written in July of 1983) might deserve a closer read, even if it predated so many of the recent insights from neuroscience.

As I leafed through my copy of this book, I realized that I had already read it once. Furthermore, I could tell from the paucity of marginal annotations that I had not read it with much sympathy or depth. Having returned to the first chapter of the book, entitled "Music as a Cognitive Skill," I now remember why I was so unsympathetic.

This book was written at a time when the study of cognition was, for the most part, reduced to the premise that thought was based on mental representations. The "cognitive program" was thus one of figuring out the nature of those representations and then understanding how they were formed and subsequently used. My piece included the following observation:
In other words, every time science comes up with a new way of looking at the physical world, there is a rush to seek out the value of that point of view in our efforts to understand both mind and music.
In this particular case the relevant perspective of science was that of symbolic representation, which has pretty much been the bread and butter of mathematics once mathematics extended its capacity beyond mere calculation. The very concept of a mental representation has its roots in those techniques that have represented the processes of logical reading in terms of symbol structures. Drawing upon the terminology of this discipline of mathematical logic, Marvin Minsky claimed that the premise of cognitive psychology was that thought was "propositional."

As an alternative, Minsky suggested that the nature of mind was dispositional, rather than propositional. In other words evidence of such mental concepts as "understanding" or "remembering" are not grounded in the presence of symbolic representations but in an individual's disposition to action, which is as likely to be unconscious as based on conscious motives. My past reading of Minsky remain with me, even to the point where I am "disposed" to consider the "spectrum of emotional dispositions" that "drive" a particular act of performing a piece of music.

It is understandable that Minsky's should be a "minority option" among those seeking a scientific approach to the nature of mind. The nice thing about symbolic propositions is that one can develop a variety of calculi for describing them and analyzing their properties. As I have said in the past, those symbolic constructs are "noun-based." Dispositions, on the other hand, are "verb-based." Not only do we have an impoverished toolbox for studying them; but also they did to defy analysis for the simple reason that they cannot "hold still" while we are trying to analyze them.

I concluded my piece about Patel's book by suggesting that progress will only come with a paradigm shift. To be more specific, we need to be more scientific in dealing with that verb-based worldview. This will require a major departure from what is currently recognized as "normal science."

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Krugman on Microsoft and Apple

Paul Krugman's latest post to his blog for The New York Times (The Conscience of a Liberal) is entitled "On the Symmetry between Microsoft and Apple." This is clearly a reflection on the news of Steve Ballmer's resignation at Microsoft. However, it provides speculation about the future for Apple, as well as Microsoft, beginning with the disclaimer that Krugman is "not a tech industry maven." I actually take this as an asset, since it means that he probably does not have much toxic Kool-Aid flowing through his circulatory system.

Krugman's preference is stated early and is highly pragmatic. In his words, "the wonderful people in the Wilson School IT department, who have saved my life multiple times, aren't set up to deal with Apple products." From this he extrapolates to the generally conservative mindset of those responsible for managing IT for large organizations, and he anticipates a better future for Microsoft than for Apple. He then makes what I feel is the most significant statement about Apple's inadequacy:
And if you are an atypical user, you end up putting a lot of effort into fighting iOS in order to do simple things.
My guess is that Krugman and I are in a similar boat. We both do a lot of writing that depends on doing a lot of background reading, and we want to be supported by quality software. However, we also have recreational interests (such as my dependence on the music on my hard drive to get me through an unbearable flight on United Airlines). Laptops do a good job of satisfying both of these needs. Apple at a lot to do with things turning out that way; and I wish Krugman had been a bit more explicit about the extent to which Windows was, for quite some time, a cheap imitation of the Macintosh operating system. The price of that quality was user-friendliness, which is why, even at a higher price, Apple could still promote the Mac with its "computing for the rest of us" slogan.

At some point, however, Steve Jobs lost interest in that slogan. I have suggested that his new motto promoted Apple as "the world's coolest toymaker." That slogan really took off with the launch of the iPhone and the introduction of the iOS operating system. The result is that I am now in the same boat as many who desperately want to cling to technology that helps us get our work done and keeps seeing that technology withdrawn from us, regardless of who the software provider is. Furthermore, if I were to be so bold as to extrapolate, I see the buzz forming around the iWatch as a sign that "the world's coolest toymaker" may now metamorphose into something that will appeal to more mature consumers, such as "the world's coolest fashion accessory."

I think Krugman missed out in avoiding the role that this "cool factor" may play in the future. Microsoft is not, nor has it ever been, cool. That is what its effort to appear cool in its recent round of Surface ads on television were so embarrassingly painful. It basically imagined a world of work run by slackers whose only behavior pattern consists of salivation every time Apple hinted that a new product was coming. Microsoft would do better to appeal to those stodgy tortoises that at least know where they are headed and will persist even when progress is slow. Sometimes they are slow because they think about what they are doing before doing it. It would be nice to know that there are some technology providers out there who do not want that species to go extinct.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Did Yahoo! Really Surpass Google?

All the buzz over Internet news seems to be about the ComScore numbers for July traffic. For those who have not seen them (my own source was Amanda Kooser's background piece for the Friday Poll on CNET), those numbers are that, for the month of July, Yahoo! had 196,564,000 unique visitors, thus surpassing  Google's count of 192,251,000. Kooser observed that one reaction to these numbers has been to question the ComScore methodology. She said nothing about taking any "long view" of ComScore data to determine whether or not the difference is statistically significant. Of course, in a horse race, statistical significance does not matter for the horse that wins by a nose (only the size of the nose)!

As I said, all of this was prelude to the Friday poll, which, of course, invited readers to vote their own preferences. The options were as follows:
  • I strongly prefer Yahoo-run sites
  • I strongly prefer Google-run sites
  • I use both Yahoo and Google properties equally
  • I don't use either
  • Other (expand in comments.)
By casting my own vote, I got to see the current numbers. Since they amount to 599 votes, they hardly compare to the ComScore numbers; but the do show a strong trend. Google outstripped Yahoo! 63% to 11%. This means that Google has a strong lead, even when Yahoo! is enhanced by the 20% for "both properties equally." Those three categories cover all by 7% of the votes.

For my part I have bailed on just about every aspect of Yahoo! except its mail feed. However, that feed is only there to sync with my OS X Mail. I stopped using Yahoo!'s own mail service after it was "improved" last June. One interesting side effect is that OS X Mail tells me every time Yahoo!'s mail server goes into a coma, which means that I am more aware of its defects than I had previously been.

To be fair, however, I have used Gmail a bit and have yet to be convinced that it is any better than the Yahoo! service.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

The Glass is Neither Half-Empty nor Half-Full

According to a report on the BBC News Web site, Kevin Spacey told the attendees of the Edinburgh Television Festival that television audiences are demanding "smart, complex stories." He can speak from his own experience with the Netflix remake of House of Cards. However, he can also be speaking of how "smart, complex" series from both HBO and Showtime have been wolfing down audience share. On the other hand, we can continue to watch the "big" networks crank out reality shows that get more and more absurd and situation comedies that just keep getting dumber while they try to appear cleverer.

In a way we are experiencing the same radical difference in taste for television entertainment that we have been observing in politics. Of course, where the political scene is concerned, those radical divisions have led to such stagnation that many are beginning to question whether the United States is becoming undone by what has happened to governance. In the world of television, on the other hand, people with different tastes can just go separate ways, with neither side providing any real cause for aggravation from the other.

Is there a new model of governance to be found in television?

Tuesday, August 20, 2013


Every morning I tend to read my Al Jazeera English feeds before those from BBC News. There are fewer of the former, so my decision provides me with at least one sense of prioritization. This morning, however, it was not until I got to the BBC feed that I read of the launch of Al Jazeera America in the channel slot that used to be held by Current TV. I have yet to see any mention of this on Al Jazeera English. For that matter, I have no idea if I shall ever get to see Al Jazeera America programming. According to the BBC, they have yet to sign an agreement with Time Warner Cable (which, right now, puts them in a class with CBS and Showtime). My own service comes from Comcast, which was not mentioned. I plan to check out the channel previously allotted to Current TV. Through my Comcast connection, I was able to find out when the connection to the BBC World Service News channel would begin; so I am hoping that, in this case, Comcast will be more informative than my Web resources!

Monday, August 19, 2013

Another Myopic Technology Journalist

Late yesterday and BBC News Web site put up a story by Technology Reporter Jane Wakefield entitled "Tomorrow's cities: Do you want to live in a smart city?" The bold-faced introduction read as follows:
How do you fancy living in a city with which you can interact? A city that acts more like a living organism, a city that can respond to your needs.
This was preceded by a "clickable" map of the world with hyperlinks for ten cities discussed in the article. Each link brought up a pop-up window with a flattering photograph and a few descriptive paragraphs.

However, one problem occurred to me immediately in the midst of all this high-technology pipe-dreaming. In neither the hyperlink summary nor the full text of the article was any mention of how plans for Rio de Janeiro would respond to any of the needs of the largest segment of its population, those hopelessly poor who are still stuck with the squalid conditions of favela life. Once again the Kool-Aid of technological innovation is emerging as an instrument through which the rich and mighty will become richer and mightier, resulting in a new generation of dehumanized cities in which the poor will be even more disenfranchised than they already are, all in the interest of companies like IBM providing greater and greater rewards for their shareholders.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Has Buckminster Fuller been Forgotten?

I was glad to see that an obituary for Ruth Asawa made it into today's New York Times. On the other hand an early sentence by Douglas Martin gave me a bit of a jolt:
Ms. Asawa had been shunted from one detention camp to another as a child before blossoming under the tutelage of the artists Buckminster Fuller, John Cage, Franz Kline and Josef Albers.
I know that Fuller had a significant effect on the avant-garde movement of the Fifties. However, the way in which Martin lumped him in with three artists left me wondering if Martin had even a vague idea of the man's accomplishments!

Friday, August 16, 2013

Samuel (Shmuel?) Beckett's Yiddishkeit

Fecilia R. Lee just put up a post on the ArtsBeat blog of The New York Times announcing that a group called the New Yiddish Rep is preparing a production of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot in a Yiddish translation by Shane Baker. As far as I am concerned, this makes a lot of sense. Readers of this site know that I have long enjoyed Alexander Pushkin's decision to call his play about Boris Godunov a "comedy of distress." Waiting for Godot is far from the only such comedy of distress to be written in the twentieth century (and hardly the only one to be written by Beckett); but it continues to serve as an almost iconic definition of the concept. However, long before Beckett had set pen to paper, Jews understood the concept perfectly; and Yiddish was far more capable of bring the concept to reification than Hebrew was.

The staging will be by David Mandelbaum, founder and Artistic Director of New Yiddish Rep. The translation will be faithful to the text, which means that it should also be faithful to Beckett's intentions. However, to provide a suitable context for their speaking Yiddish, both Vladimir and Estragon will be dressed as Holocaust survivors. Supertitles will be provided in both English and Russian. This project strikes me as fascinating as it is bold, and it will be interesting to see what sort of audience it draws in the New York area.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Non-Local Interest

While I enjoy the writing I do for many of the articles on my national site, I am still willing to admit that it does not attract a lot of readers. This makes me curious as to what sort of a reader base I have, however small it may be, and what seems to attract attention. According to Google Analytics, the article that attracted the most number of hits over the last week was my piece about the recent release of the complete works of Pierre Boulez, given the somewhat provocative title "Are we ready for the complete works of Pierre Boulez?"

I was glad to see this attention, so I decided to pull up the graphic display of my current demographic distribution. This is a snapshot I just took:

This seems to indicate that interest in Boulez is relatively narrowly defined. In the United States it is very much bi-coastal, suggesting that he has still not caught on in "middle America." Europe, on the other hand, is far more sympathetic, as is Sydney. On the other hand the large blue circle in the tropics is Makati City in the Philippines. I never thought there were many Boulez enthusiasts there, so they may be reading other articles!

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Failing to Tell the Whole Story

I decided to share Thursday's post about the improved temporal resolution of magnetoencephalography (MEG) in brain imaging with a friend who happens to have far more hands-on experience with imaging studies that I have. It turns out that Elisabeth Armstrong Moore's CNET blog post left out two important observations:
  1. There is nothing new about MEG, which has been around for some time and is basically a variation on electroencephalography (EEG).
  2. As is the case with EEG, the price of improved temporal resolution is poor spatial resolution.
I see this as more than an object lesson in the risks of what, back in 2010, Stanford University was touting as "Innovative Journalism." It is a reminder that "old school" journalism believed in checking all sources; and, when something important was a stake, making sure that it was confirmed by a reliable second source.

Nevertheless, even this tradition is no longer what it used to be. The fact is that we must assume that every source has a motive. Finding a second confirming source may not be sufficient if both sources share that motive. For example Moore's source may have been a member of a project trying to land a large grant for an extensive study based on MEG data. It is often the case that such large projects are shared across multiple institutions, often both academic and industrial. Thus, a second source from a different institution that happens to have the same vested interest in a shared grant proposal is no more reliable than the primary source.

If I were not so passionate about spending most of my time writing about music, I would think that it is about time to write a book on how market-based thinking has corrupted basic research beyond all recognition in the fullest spirit of the FUBAR acronym.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Getting Closer to a Time-Based Understanding of the Brain

In my most recent article in which I continue to try to puzzle out the complex relationships among the brain, the mind that emerges from brain behavior, and the responses to music by both brain and mind, I cited Temple Grandin's "very jaundiced view of the rush to use scanning and imaging technology to observe what the brain is doing." One of the reasons I am so supportive of her position is that I believe strongly that we cannot talk about the "brain on music" (to use that somewhat trivializing phrase of Daniel J. Levitin) without taking time-consciousness into account. However, at the time that Grandin made her observation in her recent book, The Autistic Brain: Thinking Across the Spectrum, imaging technology had been confined to snapshots separated by significantly long intervals of time.

If I am to believe Elisabeth Armstrong Moore's post yesterday afternoon to her Cutting Edge blog on CNET, things may be changing. Here is the critical sentence (with hyperlinks) from her article:
So researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and the Institute of Technology and Advanced Biomedical Imaging at the University of Chieti in Italy are turning to faster technology called magnetoencephalography (MEG) to sample neural activity every 50 milliseconds.
The operative word in that sentence is "activity." By taking those "snapshots" with a finer degree of resolution, we should begin to develop better models of what the brain does, rather than confining our interpretations to currently crude efforts to model the brain in terms of noun-based regions.

This technology is in its infancy; but, for those of us trying to understand not only the nature of mind itself but also the (probably complex) relationship between mind and music, it has the potential to revolutionize the directions of future research.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Trying to Break the Iron Grip of Package Television Deals

According to a BBC News report this morning, Time Warner made a move to resolve the current CBS blackout that may turn out to be the first shot in a revolutionary war over cable pricing. It basically said that it was willing to restore CBS service to those customers willing to pay for it as if it were a paid channel like HBO. CBS wasted no time rejecting the proposal. Their ratings have been such that they know they get a better deal by charging a flat fee to Time Warner that gets them included in the "basic" package, regardless of how many people actually watch their programs. This means that they can maintain their priority of appealing to would-be advertisers over appealing to viewers.

Those of us on the other side of the set-top box, whether for cable, satellite, or even an Internet connection, know better. My Comcast box has now allocated all 999 of its channel slot. I know enough of my own viewing habits to observe that this means that there are hundreds of channels I do not watch and probably would never even think of watching. Even under the package I currently receive, that number is probably still more than 100. I can think of any number of alternative fee schedules structured around what I really watch that would give me a lower monthly bill; and, from a logical point of view, it makes sense that Comcast would translate that lack of demand to the content providers that do not get very many viewers. This might even lead to a better economic model for all those previously failed efforts of "serious arts" channels, which would be to find the right "sweet spot" between a smaller number of viewers willing to spend a larger amount of money.

Will there really be a revolution? Probably not. Businesses survive on the basis of inertia, no matter how many evangelists preach innovation at the top of their lungs. Furthermore, the very concepts of "public good" and "successful business" are further apart than ever. This will probably turn out to be yet another case in which we live with the status quo as it gets less and less effective until, finally, "the machine stops;" and nothing is left.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Benjamin Britten's Sense of Humor

I noticed that in "The Battle of Britten," Leo Carey's examination of the life and work and Benjamin Britten in conjunction with three recent books appearing in this centennial year of the composer's birth, Carey refers to Albert Herring as Britten's "only comic" opera. In the next paragraph, he compares the music with that of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Was this Carey's way of saying (perhaps covertly) that Britten had failed to capture William Shakespeare's comic spirit; or did he has some other category in mind for the Midsummer opera?

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Recovery will not Come from Reason

The Insight section of today's San Francisco Chronicle included an editorial by President Barack Obama entitled "Washington needs a better bargain for the middle class." I assume that this is being read across the country this morning in any number of other newspapers. It is yet another appeal to reason to resolve the current stagnation brought on by a Congress that would rather harp on ideological differences than on economic recovery.

I have to wonder just what Obama was thinking. He was writing clearly and cogently, but that is also how he has spoken to the American people on television any number of times. It is as if he is too reasonable a person to acknowledge the real dead moose on the table: The ideological opposition he faces is motivated not by a difference of ideas but by the ability of several powerful people skilled in the use of media to foment a climate of raw hatred. Furthermore, that hatred is being directed not towards any of the ideas promoted by the Democratic party but towards Obama himself.

Those in power should recognize this phenomenon, since there is nothing particularly new about it. Bill Clinton was also a target of hatred; but he was enough of a thick-skinned politician to fight it through political means rather than rational argument. George W. Bush was also a target of hatred, but he was shielded by his own consciousness industry, run by those smart and ruthless enough to fight back and to fight dirty. Obama believes that the Presidency deserves the dignity of a higher road; and, in a better world, he would be right. However, when he cannot even bring himself to convincing the American people that he is still trying to clean up a colossal mess made by the Bush Administration, he cannot expect to win any points for being reasonable.

Rational talk will always be trumped by tough action.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Another Nod to Mahler by Shostakovich

Does anyone else think that the embellishing turn that appears frequently at the end of the F major prelude from Dmitri Shostakovich's Opus 87 collection of 24 preludes and fugues is a rhetorical device that was a favorite for Gustav Mahler?

Thursday, August 1, 2013

A Fortuitous Coincidence

I hope I am not the only one enjoying how the current episodes of The Newsroom involving whistle-blowing and speaking the truth to and about the rich and mighty should be overlapping so conveniently with the current travails of Edward Snowden.