Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Why I have Decided to Avoid Crowds in all Circumstances

Shanghai has already rung in the New Year. According to a report on the Al Jazeera English Web site, things got so festive that at least 35 people have been killed and another 42 injured in a stampede. This comes from a country that has at least the image of knowing how to deal with unruly crowds. What could I expect in my home town, which cannot even keep the lights on at night on major streets?

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Discontent Rewarded

At the beginning of this month I tried to explain why I had been so grumpy in my article about the recently announced GRAMMY nominations. At the time I thought I was just coping with my own discontentedness; but, after checking in with Google Analytics, I discovered that this was one of the most popular articles I had written in some time on my national site! Apparently, I was not alone in feeing so grumpy.

Trying to put a positive spin on a negative situation, I then wrote my own end-of-year article giving my own opinions on the new recordings of 2014 that were worthy of attention (only one of which made the GRAMMY cut). According to this morning's Google Analytics, readership for this one is climbing up to that of my grousing about the GRAMMY nominations. Apparently, there is a base of listeners out there who are more interested in whether a recording has satisfying content than in whether it is (or has the potential to be) a "best seller."

Perhaps we can start a movement and rally behind the slogan, "Give music back to the music-lovers!"

On the Death of Luise Rainer

Reading this morning the BBC News account of the death of Luise Rainer at the age of 104, it occurred to me that I do not think I have ever seen mention of The Good Earth in any movie-related articles in the San Francisco Chronicle; and I suspect that, with the exception of those who watch little more than Turner Classic Movies, those presented today with that title or Rainer's name would have absolutely no idea of the referents for those proper nouns.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Discovering My Own Point of View

As I continue to work my way through the new Library of America collection of Herald Tribune articles by Virgil Thomson, I encountered a paragraph that really resonated with me:
The intellectual audience wants culture with its music, wants information, historical perspectives, enlarged horizons. It demands of program makers constant experiment and a huge variety. It is far more interested in repertory, as a matter of fact, than in execution. It tends to envisage the whole of music as a vast library in which everything is available, or should be. The strictly musical audience and the mass public are more easily satisfied. They think of the concert life as a sort of boarding house where you take what is offered and don’t reach. Their good nature is easily abused by managements and other organizing agencies. The intellectuals are more demanding and refuse to be spoon fed. That is why, as a musician, I value the intellectual element in audiences.
Every now and then I encounter some push-back over the fact that I do not spend enough time writing about execution because I tend to dwell heavily on the music itself, usually in terms of its relation to the overall repertoire. I suppose that makes me an intellectual in Thomson's book; but that means that I value his punch line. I also think that the distinction that Thomson draws is the one I have previously tried to make between examining and criticism.

If I am to read him correctly, Thomson seems to work from the point of view that critical judgement is, and should be, grounded in evidence of execution, which may explain why, as I have previously observed, his own judgment tends to take its departure from what is printed on the score pages and, whenever possible, nothing else. However, he also seems to suggest that, even without recourse to score pages, the mass public has a basic toolbox to facilitate exercising their own judgement. I might suggest that those who are skillful at using their own tools might constitute that particular class that I have previously called the "enthusiasts." The problem is that those managements about which Thomson writes tend to know both the assets and the limitations of those tools, which is why Thomson raises the problem of abuse.

Thomson wrote the above paragraph for publication on January 22, 1950. I state that date because the article itself deserves a bit of historical perspective. The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) was created in 1938; but it was originally created to root out uncover Nazis, rather than undercover Communists. After the Second World War, however, the target shifted.

One result was that many keen intellects, particularly those studying the history of the United States, were writing about the many ways in which our country did not live up to the ideals it had set for itself. These articles were not necessarily accusatory, since many of the writers made no secret that the real world never lives up to the ideal world. Unfortunately, the nature of this critical thinking tended to be associated with advocating Communism; and, to be fair, there certainly was a contingent of writers who had been Party members. However HUAC went after the whole body of those intellectuals with the four-legs-good-two-legs-bad logic of George Orwell's Animal Farm, leading to a rise in anti-intellectualism that would ultimately be studied by Richard Hofstadter.

That rise was already in progress when Thomson wrote the above paragraph. However, those thoughts were simply a continuation of precepts he had been writing about half a decade earlier. My guess is that in 1950 he could not foresee just how much damage HUAC would do; and, since we have never really recovered from that damage, I have to wonder how many of today's readers would prefer to bite Thomson's finger of such regards, rather than looking where he is pointing.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

The Long Tail of Life-Prolongation

Marcia Angell's review of Atul Gawande's latest book, Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, in the latest (January 8) issue of The New York Review of Books makes for fascinating reading, even if it is more than a little macabre for what is supposed to be an optimistic holiday season. What may be most interesting is Gawande's approach to the traditional view that the role of medicine is to prolong life at all costs, even (often?) when the condition is at its most dire. From an objective point of view, this amounts to denying that life expectancy, like so many other phenomena that cannot be explained precisely, follows the normal (bell curve) statistical distribution. Gawande's language about trying to "beat" the statistics is at its most vivid:
We've built our medical system and culture around the long tail. We've created a multi trillion-dollar edifice for dispensing the medical equivalent of lottery tickets.
The reality of the social world, however, is that doctors are just as susceptible to playing the lottery as patients are. This has two disastrous side effects. One is a refusal to embrace a realistic view of death. The other is yet another revenue stream for the medical industry, once again promoting its industrial qualities over any attempt to view medical care as a service. This may sound more than a little ghoulish, but the very idea of quality care for the terminally ill has been all but eliminated because industrial thinking has discovered that there are big bucks to be found at death's door.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Wagner instead of Christmas

When even the Real Jazz and Symphony Hall channels of Sirius/XM could not seem to get away from playing Christmas music, Metropolitan Opera Radio offered perfect relief this morning with a broadcast of Siegfried!

Monday, December 22, 2014

Lights Out!

Over in the United Kingdom, the Labour Party has been protesting that Britain is being "plunged into darkness" by city councils turning off street lights because they cannot afford the electric bills. Is this why San Francisco concert-goers have to negotiate a widening band of unlit streets surrounding the corner of Van Ness and Grove (the corner shared by Davies Symphony Hall and the War Memorial Opera House). Are we really living in a city that cannot pay its electric bills; or is it just another example of politicians taking money away from "bare necessities" to serve the more limited interests of those who engineered getting them into office. Now that Twitter is there, Market Street has never been brighter; but it looks like the price of adequate lighting on Market Street is dangerous darkness of Van Ness Avenue.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Taking my own Medicine

At the beginning of this month, I wrote a piece on my national side for entitled "Should a concert ticket come with a social contract?" I had been struck by the amount of attention the London press had given to Kyung-Wha Chung publicly taking the parents of a coughing child to task during her recital at London’s Royal Festival Hall, an incident that, like Chung's return to the concert stage, received almost no attention on this side of the pond. If I am to believe Google Analytics, then this was one of those articles that received almost no attention. However, because just about everyone who takes listening to music seriously has had to share a concert hall with others who are not so serious and choose to be audible about it, this was one of those pieces I had to write just to get my own bad vibes out of my system.

My point was that, while I had grown up learning, mostly from my parents, that there was such a things as proper behavior at a concert, that world I had grown up in had long gone. The idea that there should be proper behavior at a concert was as alien as the ideal that there should be some standard of etiquette behind writing anything that would find its way into the Internet or, for that matter, walking down the street with some awareness of the presence of others. I could only conclude that those of us going to concerts to listen had to accept the fact that learning how to focus was part of the package and that any inconsiderate behavior we encountered should be regarded as motivation to hone the sharpness of our focal attention.

As fate would have it, my precept was put to the test last night. Without going into detail, I was in a setting where I had a seat that would have been excellent had it not been in front of a very restless child who really did not want to be there. A quick glance made it clear that the parent was aware of the problem, which is why my focal energies had to be concentrated only on blocking out undesirable sounds, rather than contending with having the back of my seat kicked. For what it was worth, the performance itself did much to help me with my focus; and, in the grand scheme of things, I have to admit that I have been in far more unpleasant situations. On the other hand, this was also an occasion at which I was haunted by my own words; and I guess I am happy that they had the proper effect on me.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Hacking the Hacking Poll

Today CNET decided to conduct its Friday Poll on the question of whether or not Sony was right to cancel distribution of The Interview. Since I tend to be curious about the opinions of techies who tend to be oblivious to the realities of the social world, I decided the examine the results of the poll. I discovered that the VIEW RESULTS hyperlink did not work on either Safari or Firefox, leading me to wonder whether or not the VOTE NOW link worked. Was CNET's hacking poll hacked?

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Not Alone in the Past

Last week I observed that I had spent the year listening to more reissues of old recording than to new ones. Apparently I am not alone in my retrospective preferences. Over the last weeks (months?) I have noticed that the London Telegraph has been running regularly reviews of old movies. This does not appear to have anything to do with new Blu-ray releases. Possibly, there is some link to a pay-channel that has been airing these movies. However, I suspect it has to do with the fact that the Telegraph now has a readership that has not heard of many (most?) of the movies that have been reviewed.

I remember a turning point in my life when I began joining others in saying "Back in the days when Mad Magazine was funny." When I looked at the current GRAMMY nominations, particularly in jazz, I realized that I was missing the days when jazz made for really interesting listening. In fairness, I have encountered some very promising jazz musicians who are much younger than I am, both at concerts and on recordings. However, these players are as far from the mainstream as their most admirable predecessors were, meaning that there is not a snowball's chance in hell that any of them will ever rise to the height (sic) of a GRAMMY nomination.

I suppose I feel the same way about what the Telegraph is doing; many of the old films they are revisiting are more award-worthy than the present-day contenders.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The Dude Now Abides at the Library of Congress

Dave Itzkoff used his post to the ArtsBeat blog of The New York Times to note that today the Library of Congress has chosen to add The Big Lebowski to the National Film Registry, selecting it for preservation to "protect a crucial element of American creativity, culture and history" (in the words of Librarian of Congress James H. Billington.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Knowledge through Connections

As I continue to work my way through the Upanishads (an ongoing project, which happens to have lain dormant for quite some time), the one things that sticks with me is the introduction that Patrick Olivelle wrote for my Oxford University Press edition. This is the passage that has been the most memorable:
The assumption then is that the universe constitutes a web of relations, that things that appear to stand alone and apart are, in fact, connected to other things. A further assumption is that these real cosmic connections are usually hidden from the view of ordinary people; discovering them constitutes knowledge, knowledge that is secret and is contained in the Upanishads. And it is this knowledge of the hidden connections that gives the person with that knowledge power, wealth, and prestige in this world, and heavenly bliss and immortality after death. While in the earlier vedic texts the focus is on the connections between the ritual and cosmic spheres, the concern of the Upanishadic thinkers shifts to the human person; the connections sought after are between parts of the human organism and cosmic realities.
I have been bold enough to assume that the social world, like the Hindu conception of the universe, is also a web of connections and that individual knowledge is as much a matter of appropriating the connections of others as it is one of appropriating the connections of the universe.

I was reminded of this perspective while reading Charles Baxter's essay about H. P. Lovecraft in the latest issue of The New York Review. He discusses how Lovecraft put a particularly horrifying spin on the concept of resurrection, which he then illustrated with a quotation. However, the quotation was taken not from Lovecraft but rather from that section of The Last Temptation of Christ in which Kazantzakis describes what life was like of Lazarus (and those around him) after Jesus raised him from the dead. Most people would not think of Kazantzakis when discussing Lovecraft's work, but Baxter found a connection and used it to his advantage. It is that particular take on knowledge that always seems to lurk in the back of my mind when I am trying to write about either a piece of music or how a performer approached it.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

The Fall of Intellectual Prestige

Reading some of Virgil Thomson's columns for the Herald Tribune can sometimes be downright painfully anachronistic. Consider what he wrote on October 3, 1944 about the future of symphony orchestras in the United States:
This [financial] support will be forthcoming exactly as long as the orchestras maintain their nationwide intellectual prestige. And they will maintain that only so long as they are clearly instruments of public instruction.
To put this in historical perspective, Richard Hofstadter's Anti-intellectualism in American Life appeared in 1963, writing primarily about the state of the American mentality in the decade following the one in which Thomson wrote the above passage. This was a time when "intellectual prestige" was, for all intents and purposes, an oxymoron, since anyone with intellect might question a society driven by little more than the pursuit of consumer goods or the uneven distribution of wealth; and anyone raising such questions clearly posed a Communist threat.

Things have changed a lot since then. The Iron Curtain fell and some of the most vigorous capitalism in the world is practices in the former Soviet Union. It is probably practiced even more vigorously in the People's Republic of China, which has not given up its Communist name but has shown itself to be highly adept at the gaming tables of capitalism. However, when intellectual prestige was beaten down to a pulp in the Fifties, it never really recovered, even when we managed to elect Presidents who valued intellect as much as Franklin Roosevelt did in trying to get the country out of the Great Depression. Now we live in an age in which it does not take very much intellect to recognize that people are more likely to believe in Santa Claus or winning the lottery than they are to benefit from what our government is trying to pass of as "economic recovery." Indeed, it is because intellectuals know a naked emperor when they see one that they are still viewed as dangerous; and, in such a cultural setting, "intellectual prestige" is a liability, rather than an asset.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Nostalgia for Balanchine

Listening to a recording today of Georges Bizet's C major symphony reminded me of just how refreshing that music is; but it also reminded me that I really only discovered that refreshment through the choreography of George Balanchine, which I am unlikely to see executed with the precision that Balanchine demanded again in my lifetime.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Living in the Past?

It occurred to me that one reason for my discontent with the GRAMMY nominees for both jazz and classical music is that I spent more time in the past year listening to reissues of some really good past performances than I spent with new recordings.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Anna Netrebko Stands with Vladimir Putin

This morning a report appeared on the BBC News Web site stating that Russian soprano Anna Netrebko has donated one million doubles as a gift to the Donetsk opera and ballet theater. This appears to endorse those rebels who believe that Donetsk should be Russian rather than Ukrainian. It is unclear how much she knows about conditions in any part of the Ukraine; but she is far from the only high-profile figure to provide such tacit endorsement of Vladimir Putin's current policy regard that part of the world. In the domain of serious music, she is joined by both conductor Valery Gergiev and violist Yuri Bashmet.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Negligence, Malice, and the Serious Listener

Back when I tended to post more regularly to this site, I had an almost morbid fascination about how, in our brave new world of "working smarter," it was getting harder to distinguish malice from negligence. However, that distinction was rearing its head long before people started hating their jobs because they felt as if they were being made to work dumber, rather than smarter, and, accordingly, getting paid less for what they were doing. Barbara Garson saw that distinction coming through the rise of technology longer before anyone else did when she wrote The Electronic Sweatshop. This afternoon I found myself musing on how Columbia managed to take such an antagonistic stance towards serious listeners when, in fact, everything was probably just due to dimwitted negligence.

My favorite example is Igor Stravinsky 1882-1971, what was supposed to be a "luxury item" collection of Igor Stravinsky's long history of making recordings for Columbia. This was a monster collection of twelve volumes, most consisting of a single CD with some having more. These were accompanied by a booklet whose contents had absolutely no relationship to the contents of all of those CDs, consisting, instead, of a glorified photo album.

Stravinsky was, of course, a prolific composer. However, it would appear that no one at Columbia every thought that someone who liked Stravinsky's music might actually want to search for a particular composition as being just the right thing to listen to at the time. It turns out that the genre that suffered the most in this regard was the concerto. The fifth volume of the set is a single CD called Concertos, but it has only two of them: the concerto for piano and winds and the violin concerto. It also has the capriccio for piano and orchestra and the set of five pieces that Stravinsky called "movements." To this day I am not sure I have tracked down the other concertos. However, I know that the "Dumbarton Oaks" concerto and the D major concerto for string orchestra (the "Basel Concerto") are in the six volume (Miniature Masterpieces) and the "Ebony Concerto" (Stravinsky's jazz concerto) and the concerto for two solo pianos are part of the seventh volume (Chamber Music & Historical Recordings). I suppose that one of these days I shall have to create my own index, just to check to see if I missed anything!

Long-time readers know that this is far from my only beef with Columbia. I have, in the past, picked on the mess they made of many of their jazz releases. Since that time, I have read and reflected on Robin D. G. Kelley's Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original, where I discovered that Columbia could make just as much of a mess in their relationship with jazz performers as they managed to do with jazz listeners.

Of course debating about negligence or malice may be the wrong approach to thinking about the situation. After all, back in the days of the studio system, Hollywood seemed to have a reliable reputation for attracting some of America's best writers, chewing them into a pulp, and then spitting them out like a worthless piece of gum. Perhaps Columbia was just conducting "business as usual" based on what the big boys in Hollywood were doing.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

OMG! Hodor's a DJ!

Kristian Nairn, the actor who plays the script-heavy role of Hodor on Game of Thrones is currently touring as a DJ with a show called Rave of Thrones. He was here in San Francisco on Thursday night to play the club 1015 Folsom. I was busy at the Conservatory that night, which is probably just as well for my eardrums. This "day job" seems appropriate enough, since DJs do not talk very much; and I am sure he was a lot more convincing than Jon Snow as a gladiator in Pompeii!

Cute Blooper in Summary

I have noticed that the summary texts for RSS feeds tend to be given little attention when the feeds are created. While there have been a variety of research projects concerned with summarizing text, they have been better at revealing what we do not know about text understanding, rather than achieving their goal. Still, I do not think we can blame some of the more egregious spelling errors on those summaries on software; and, every now and then, the human-in-the-loop makes the sort of mistake that used to find its way to the bottom of a column in The New Yorker.

Today's feed from BBC News had just such a mistake. It unintentionally created misunderstanding. However, the situation was cute enough to be relatively harmless. The summary text, in its entirety, read:
The Dalai Lama carries Werther's Originals, and more nuggets
This summarized an article entitled "10 things we didn't know last week;" so it was pretty clear that the "nuggets" were the other "nine things." However, as it was written, the text suggested that the Dalai Lama carries a variety of candies with him, only one of which was named by brand, leaving the reader curious about what the others were!

Friday, December 5, 2014

Keeping Busy

Recently, two of my contacts for my work have referred to me as the busiest man writing about music. I did not give this much thought until yesterday, when I was watching Mr. Dynamite, the documentary about James Brown. I learned that he was called the busiest man in show business. How do I feel about sharing an epithet with James Brown? I feel good! (Still, I'll never be able to scream the way Brown could.)

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Music is not Just about the Ears

One of my former colleagues reminded me today of the debate that still rages over what is the "best" bandwidth for recordings of music. I use the scare quotes because I persist in believe that, while recordings may help orient the mind when preparing to listen to an actual performance, no recording is a substitute for the experience of physical presence. To "review the bidding" on this argument, my current position comes down to two points. One is that any performance has a strong spatial factor. Even when it involves only one performer, there is still the relationship among performer, instrument, and physical setting in which the performances is taking place, all three elements of which play a role in how listening is experienced. The second is the issue of engagement. For multiple performers this involves the extent to which performance cannot take place without communicative actions among those performers. However, there are also factors of communicative actions between performer(s) and audience. Both of these points are abstracted out of the picture when a recording (even a "live" recording) is substituted for an actual performance. Arguing over whether or not a recording would benefit from wider bandwidth is a bit like arguing that the Taj Mahal could do with another window.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Are Things THAT Different Out West?

According to a report on the ABC7 News Web Site, the San Jose City Council will vote today on banning the riding of bicycles on downtown sidewalks? Is this really legal at the present time? Back East, even my quiet suburb of Phildelphia did not allow bicycle-riding on the sidewalks. I just took it for granted that the sidewalks were for pedestrians in any American city. Are bikes also allowed on the sidewalks of San Francisco? More to the point, if riding a bicycle on the sidewalk is, indeed, a moving violation, when and how will the police begin to enforce it?

Monday, December 1, 2014

Disorder Rules

Anne Applebaum's review of Putin's Kleptocracy: Who Owns Russia?, a recent book by Karen Dawisha, in the latest issue of The New York Review is a must read for anyone who takes a look at BBC Diplomatic Correspondent Jonathan Marcus' analysis posted on the BBC News Web site today under the title "Putin problem gives Nato headache." On the surface it would seem as if Marcus and Dawisha are examining different aspects of Putin's career advancements; but this would be dangerous silo-based thinking. Consider what may be Marcus' key "punch line" observation:
Nonetheless, the Ukraine crisis has shown Mr Putin to be a master of making policy on the hoof, exploiting weaknesses; setting many hares running and following up those that seem to make the most headway.
As Applebaum's article makes clear, Dawisha is not interested in how Putin makes policy. On the contrary, Putin's actions can only be considered in terms of the acquisition of power and the use of power to manage and acquire resources. If Putin is a master of anything, it is his ability to sow disorder, thereby throwing just about every institution of governance (established or otherwise) into dithering helplessness. Applebaum provides several vivid examples of how Putin has put this talent into practice, including channeling resources to both left-wing and right-wing extremists in our own country, creating, for his own purposes, a legislative body incapable of making any decision.

Applebaum also notes that Dawisha is not the first to write about this dark side of Putin's behavior. Indeed, Dawisha is credited for recognizing all the sources that provided support for the points she makes in her book. Unfortunately, those who believe that the end of the Cold War provided circumstances for a "new world order" must now recognize just how deluded they were and come up with a better belief system before it is too late.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Rigging the Survey

I noticed that, once again, Consumer Reports gave the highest possible rating to Kaiser of Northern California for medical care. The last time they did this, I actually thought seriously about making the move from my current provider. I was given a contact, left voice mail, and never heard anything after that.

I was reminded of that incident while filling out a customer satisfaction form with regard to my annual physical from the current provider that I ended up not leaving. I realized that the level of questioning was extremely narrow and provided almost no opportunity to include any major issues of discontent. In other words the survey was basically rigged to stick to those topics for which the best answers could be expected. This led me to question whether or not Consumer Reports had evaluated Kaiser through a similar procedure, a question which, I am sure, will never be satisfactorily answered, not, at least, as long as we treat health care as an industry and treat health maintenance as a matter of efficiency, rather than patient well-being.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Exporting Black Friday

I was not surprised to see a report on Black Friday on today's BBC World Service Television news. What surprised me was that the video of bargain-crazed shoppers assaulting each other over getting the best possible deals was shot in the United Kingdom. Here is the print version of what accompanied the video:
Police have been called to supermarkets across the UK amid crowd surges as people hunt for "Black Friday" offers.
Greater Manchester Police appealed for calm after attending seven Tesco shops, at which three men were arrested and a woman was hit by a falling television.
The force said the issues were "totally predictable" and it was "disappointed" by shop security.
Tesco said only a "small number" of stores were affected. Police were called in places including Dundee, Glasgow, Cardiff and London.
Apparently, Black Friday is no longer strictly associated with Thanksgiving, although it is a bit amusing that the Brits should hold it on a day determined by an American holiday (celebrating people who left Britain to avoid persecution).

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Who is Thankful for What?

Only a poet like Charles Simic could come up with a celebration of our annual holiday of gluttony with a piece entitled "A Thieves' Thanksgiving," his latest post to NYRBlog. His punch line definitely deserves reflection:
It ought to be obvious by now that if we ever become a genuine police state, it will not arise from an authoritarian ideology necessarily, but as the end result of that insatiable greed for profit that has already affected every aspect of American life from health care to the way college students are forced into debt. Huge fortunes are also made from spying on us and coming to regard every American as a potential enemy. They are right to think that way. If we ever as a nation grasped that criminality on such an immense scale is bound to lead the country into ruin, there might be serious consequences for the perpetrators. At the present time, the only ones likely to get in trouble are the leakers who want to let the rest of us know what goes on behind our backs. No doubt about it, in the coming holiday season our crooks will have a lot to be thankful for and a lot to celebrate.
The irony is that the "insatiable greed for profit" has wrought such havoc on our economy (and probably the world economy as well), that it is hard to imagine our having a police state with an effective police force. Whether the matter is investigating "white crime" or dealing with homicide, police resources at just about every level are so reduced that it is hard to imagine anyone doing anything right, particularly when the price for incompetence is so much greater than the price for negligence. Rather than facing the possibility of a police state, we are more likely to encounter anarchy at its most brutal, where those with the best survival value will be those criminals with just the right mix of street smarts and ruthlessness. Think about that after having overindulged in the day's feast.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Bruised Egos

Yesterday I came across a particularly interesting passage by Virgil Thomson:
Well, criticism is often injurious; there is no question about that. Many a recitalist, receiving unfavorable reviews, finds it more difficult to secure further engagements than if the reports had been less critical. Minor careers have been ruined overnight that way. Major careers are rarely harmed by criticism, because major artists can take it. They don’t like to; but they have to; so they do. All the same, it is the big boys, the great big boys that nothing could harm, that squawk the loudest. I know, because I have been in the business for several years now.
The context behind this passage had to do with a biography of Serge Koussevitzky by Moses Smith. Kossevitzky had tried to stop the publication of the book because he found he injurious. (He did not claim that the book was libelous.) Basically, Thomson used his bully pulpit of the Herald Tribune to come to Smith's defense, primarily by arguing that injury was part of the trade, so to speak.

I have no idea how many of my colleagues (including the ones I do not know) give much thought to using injurious language in what they write. One friend once suggested that, whenever I am writing about someone (positively or negatively), I should try to assume the point of view of how that person will actually read what I write. Since I tend to write pieces longer than the ones that show up in print, this includes the question of how much attention that person will pay, just like any other reader.

One consequences is that, whenever possible, I try to begin by finding something positive to say. Sometimes I feel that, if I put enough attention on the positive, the negative will take care of itself. This may amount to a passive-aggressive approach to an observation made by the anthropologist Pierre Bourdieu in trying to identify a cross-cultural universal:
There is nothing worse than to pass unnoticed: thus, not to salute someone is to treat him like a thing, an animal, or a woman.
Another strategy I use is to draw upon the positive as context for discussing the negative. This amounts to giving the performer(s) credit for getting things right part of the time and then speculating on why the technique could not carry over into the rest of the time. There are also occasions when, due to the novelty of the experience, I have not felt equipped to make the transition from perception to judgment. I actually tend to enjoy such situations, because they compel me to put all of my energy into description. I figure that, if I do my job well enough, then there is nothing wrong with my implying that the reader should then make up his/her own mind. After all, that is what any of my readers who take listening seriously are going to do in any case!

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Not the Best Day for Sony

Is it only coincidence that the day on which CNET News reported that the move of the Steve Jobs movie from Sony Pictures to Universal Studio (and the change of the lead casting from Christian Bale to Michael Fassbender) was only the day on which BBC News reported that Sony Pictures' computer system had been hacked?

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Skidelsky's Futile Gesture

It is hard for anyone who still attaches value to reason not to feel sympathetic with the punchline of Robert Skidelsky's latest column to appear on the Facts & Arts Web site:
But democratic countries need symbols of the extraordinary if they are not to sink into permanent mediocrity.
The title of Skidelsky's article is "Philosopher Kings Versus Philosopher Presidents;" and it basically praises the virtues of Ireland having a President, Michael Higgins, who is a poet who also happens to be well-versed in philosophy. Unfortunately, Skidelsky seems to overlook that, even in democratic countries, power lies within the practices of politicians. (Skidelsky cited Higgins quoting Max Weber, but even Weber recognized that particular inconvenient truth.) Politicians, in turn, thrive most successfully is a social world dominated by that "permanent mediocrity." I believe it was The Capitol Steps that came up with a song about supporters of Ronald Reagan that included the line:
The unexamined life is quite all right with us.
To be hyperbolically blunt, politicians gain office through large chunks of the population who cannot even spell Weber's name, let alone tell you anything about him; and they see no reason why this should be a problem. This is probably why Hegel preferred the philosopher king to a democratically elected president, philosopher or not. Unfortunately, he never really addressed the question of how a philosopher king would rise to a position of leadership.

Insurance Companies Expose the Oxymoron of the "Sharing Economy"

According to a story in the Business Report section of the San Francisco Chronicle, State Farm, Geico, and Allstate all agree on one thing: If you offer to drive a friend home from work because his car is in the shop, you are covered by your insurance policy. If you drive for Lyft or Uber, you are no longer covered, because you are now a livery service. The difference points out the underlying oxymoron that evangelists for the "sharing economy" are either too stupid to realize or too devious to share. When you offer resources with a friend without expecting compensation, you are sharing. As soon as money enters the picture, sharing stops and economic considerations begin. The fact that this inconvenient truth seems to have escaped the notice of so many members of the Municipal and County governments of San Francisco is either amusing or shocking, depending on your point of view. The fact that technology evangelists continue to wreak so much havoc on what is left of the everyday reality of our social world is nothing short of downright depressing.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Taking Refuge in Music

After having written my most recent post on how listening to music exercises our capacity to establish "sensory order," it occurred to me that the act of listening has become sort of a refuge for me. Whether I am reading about military brutality in corners of the world that I had long disregarded or agonizing over the general failure of governance, not just here in the United States but on a global scale, it occurred to me that listening to music may be one of the few domains in which I can put constructive thought to use without agonizing over prevailing conditions or their consequences. This may be self-indulgence; but at least it does not harm, which is more than can be said of the self-indulgent practices of those in authority, whether that authority is military or political.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Republicans Save Face by Sticking it in the Mud

Apparently, Republican members of Congress did not get the message last night, even if President Barack Obama delivered it in no uncertain terms: If the Congress is not going to do anything about immigration reform, then he will do it himself through executive action. Obama even told the Congress explicitly that, if they did not like what he did, they could override it with their own legislation. Obama thus finally decided to reflect what has become a prevailing opinion in this country, which is that the Congress cannot be counted on to do anything.

According to a report for ABC News this morning by John Parkinson, the Republican's seem to have selected House Speaker John Boehner as spokesman. Boehner's interpretation of last night's speech either did not, or refused to get, the message:
The president repeatedly suggested that he was going to unilaterally change immigration law and he created an environment where the Members would not trust him.
Boehner reinforced his position as follows:
As I warned the president, you can't ask the elected representatives of the people to trust you to enforce the law if you're constantly demonstrating that you can't be trusted to enforce the law.
Let's not kid ourselves. The behavior of the Congress has now devolved to a state in which most voters realize that Republicans have only one mission, which is to make Obama look bad. Trust is no longer part of the equation. Obama has spent the better part of the last six years trying to develop trust-building strategies. The Republicans have thrown them all back in his face, often soiling them in the obvious way in the process.

When the country was stuck in the Great Depression, Franklin Roosevelt used to say that doing anything, even if it later turned out to be a mistake, was better than doing nothing at all. Obama even admitted that his executive action might not be entirely on the mark. That is why he invited Congress to come up with a better alternative. However, if Boehner's behavior is representative, it would appear that, at least on the Republican side of the aisle, slinging mud is preferable to taking substantive action.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Virgil Thomson Discovers the Sensory Order

It is hard to imagine that Virgil Thomson would have spend much, if any, of his time reading anything by Friedrich Hayek. It is hard to imagine that he would have been unaware of the buzz that surrounded the publication of The Road to Serfdom. However, he does not strike me as the sort of person to read a book just because everyone else was talking about it. That would make it even less likely that he would have encountered Hayek's The Sensory Order. I was not surprised when one of my colleagues at Xerox PARC informed me that my own doctoral thesis advisor had been influenced by this book, and it has had enough of an impact on how I listen to music to surface in my writings, not only on this site but also on

The phrase "sensory order" should be easy enough to grasp. I like to pose it in distinction to William James' idea that the signals detected by our sensory organs constitute a "blooming, buzzing confusion" before they are processed by the brain. (Gertrude Stein studied with William James when she was a student at Radcliffe College. Thomson was a proud Harvard man; but James only shows up in his autobiography for having said, "I am against greatness and bigness in all their forms.") The business of mind, so to speak, is to bring order to all of that confusion; and the primary idea that Hayek contributed to hypothesizing about this problem was that mind has a capacity for what Gerald Edelman would, decades later (but also aware of Hayek's book), call "perceptual categorization." Simply put, order is established when elements of the nervous system (including the brain) detect similarities among sensory signals and express those similarities through the creation of categories. Those categories then provide the first level of processing as new sensory impressions are encountered.

The significance of this insight is that we process new sensory experiences by trying to relate them to past ones. (There is, of course, the question of how the pump gets primed in the first place. Most of Edelman's Neural Darwinism is about answering that question.) This brings up to what Thomson one wrote about how to listen to a new composition for the first time:
Consequently the listener must ask himself what such music most resembles among familiar music of the past and among what he knows of contemporary work, if he is to follow it at all. Such a resemblance may be one of contradiction.
Basically, he is arguing that listening to something new in the immediate present should be guided by last listening experiences. Furthermore, that guidance is not necessary driven by a "same-as" relationship but may just as readily result from a "different-than" one. I would thus suggest that, in his own way, Thomson, too, addressed the question of "sensory order," even if he did so within his own particularly specialized domain of sensory experiences.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

A Telling Choice of Words

It was hard to avoid reacting to this lead sentence from an article on the BBC News Web site about the free trade agreement that Australia has signed with China:
Australia's international education industry will benefit hugely from a major trade deal sealed on Monday with China, experts say.
Regular readers probably know that I continue to voice upset over how our country has come to call health care an industry in which market share is more important than the physical well-being of our citizens. I suspect that the shift to the computer-based delivery of course material has already established a similar industrialziation of education. However, it seems as if we deal with the sorry state of education in this country by ignoring it, while health care has become the favored battlefield for conflicts between extreme ideologies.

To be fair, the story about Australia seems to involved the fact that it will be easier for Chinese students to go to Australia to study at the universities there. In other words it does not appear as if the fundamental work practices of education are going to suffer as a result of this agreement. Nevertheless, the article is about market share, addressing the numbers of Chinese students coming into Australia in comparison with the number of Australian students choosing to get their education in another country. Like it or not, the bean-counters are in charge of the future of Australian universities, just as they are here; but here nobody seems particularly interested in paying attention to the state of affairs.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

A Bizarre Coincidence?

At the beginning of this week, the Business Report section of the San Francisco Chronicle ran a story about a more concerted effort to train women to write code for software systems. I assume we were all supposed to take this as a positive step towards building up a new workforce of skilled labor. Today's paper, however, ran what is practically a parallel story. The only difference is that this time the trainees are inmates at San Quentin State Prison. Then there was a story last month about teaching coding to kindergarteners. Is there some subtext here about the nature of the job itself or about how the job is viewed when one bumps up from labor to management?

Friday, November 14, 2014

The Tiger that Wasn't

My favorite Ernie Kovack's joke it the one about the Great Wall of China: It is not that great, it is not a wall, and it is not even in China; it is in New York, where it is called the Triborough Bridge. This seems to be the fate of the "tiger" that escaped from the Disneyland Park outside Paris, prompting an alert for everyone in nearby towns to stay indoors. The scare quotes have to do with the fact that the animal is no longer claimed to be a tiger, and even the fact that it is from Disneyland now seems open to question. While a wild animal on the loose is still cause for concern, it is hard to avoid reading the latest BBC News account of the situation without letting at least a few chuckles loose.

My favorite probably involves the paw prints. Trackers have been following these and now claim that they are too small to come from a tiger. The BBC Web site therefore obliged by showing a range of feline paw prints. Unfortunately, these were not imaged to scale, making it difficult to determine just how critical the size difference actually it. Second prize then goes to the observation that one of the sightings could only have taken place had the animal crossed the A4 motorway. Admittedly, the animal could have done this late at night when traffic is minimal; but it is hard to avoid asking "Why did the [fill in your favorite feline] cross the road?" Third prize then goes to the footprints found near a gas station. Was this nostalgia for the old put-a-tiger-in-your-tank ads? Finally, the article includes a photograph "purporting to show the animal," as the caption puts it, whose blurred imagery rivals some of the classic photographs of the Loch Ness Monster.

Let me repeat: a wild animal on the loose is serious business. I am sure that cooler heads are trying to resolve this problem; but, regardless of size, cats do what cats do. It is hard to avoid reading this as yet another cute cat story in a more ominous disguise.

Note that, in light of the current hypothesis about what the animal is, I did my best to avoid any "missing lynx" jokes!

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Thinking about the Consequences of the Internet of Things

Sue Halpern's well-reasoned but dystopian analysis of the consequences (are they really unanticipated) of deploying the Internet of Things in the November 20 issue of The New York Review is well worth reading. Sadly, it is unlikely to be read by anyone in a position to reverse the train wreck that is now closer than we think. Even more ironic is that much of Halpern's analysis has been going into people's living rooms thanks to CBS. Person of Interest uses some of the basic ideas behind the Internet of Things and has extrapolated them to a fascinating cautionary tale of absolute power and its abuse. My guess is that those who have the power have decided to let this show have its say because not very many viewers are paying attention. However, if it ever draws audience involvement the way Mad Men does, we can expect that the series will be swiftly cancelled to make sure than no one is moved to think about what it is trying to say.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Addicted to Speed?

Leo Kelion, Technology Desk Editor for BBC News, released a story this morning about Francois Gissy, who achieved a record-setting 207 miles per hour on a bicycle enhanced with rocket propulsion. His goal is to reach 250 miles per hour. However, anyone who read this story beyond the introduction quickly discovered that just about everything Gissy did involved putting his own safety at considerable risk (and "considerable" may be an understatement). Gissy himself even called the experience "scary." Apparently, it was not scary enough for him to persist in trying to reach his goal.

This may bring a whole new semantic interpretation to the phrase "speed freak." Back in the dark ages of my student days, that phrase referred to that particularly kind of drug addict who was hooked on "uppers." It is clear that each stage of Gissy's experimental runs has left him with a "high." It is also clear that each such "high" compels him to go after another one that is "higher." While I have no objection to Kelion reporting this as a technology story, I have to say that this may be the ultimate story about the consequences of the dogged pursuit of a technological goal that probably will have little impact on society (unless you wish to take into account Gissy's next of kin).

Monday, November 10, 2014

The Elections Lost!

The title of Elizabeth Drew's latest NYRBlog post is "Why the Republicans Won." A more appropriate title may have been "Why the Electoral System Lost." The basic argument has to do with how little electoral practices resemble what the Founding Fathers envisioned while they were drafting the Constitution. We have now reached a stage in which money controls everything, not only through influencing how people vote but also in preventing those identified as supporting the opposition from getting their votes into the system. It verges on the pathetic to think that groups protesting for democracy around the world still look to the United States as some sort of standard to be met.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Same-Sex Marriage is Still a Hot Button

Those who saw the documentary The Case Against 8, finally made available to a wide viewing audience through HBO, may have come away thinking that there would be smooth sailing towards the acceptance of same-sex marriage by every state in the country. Unfortunately, yesterday's news brought word that bans on same-sex marriages in four states were upheld at the national Appeals Court level, albeit by a 2-1 decision. If nothing else, this setback is a sobering reminder of just how contentious this is. Indeed, in writing the dissenting option, Judge Martha Craig Daugherty wrote that "the author of the majority opinion has drafted what would make an engrossing TED Talk or, possibly, an introductory lecture in political philosophy." Unfortunately, like our President, Judge Daugherty has yet to come to terms with a culture in which ideology trumps getting things done according the the job description and the prevailing standards of what that description entails.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

That Pesky Issue of Context

I just finished reading two of Virgil Thomson's reviews of two of Dmitri Shostakovich's symphonies (the seventh and the eighth), which originally appeared on October 18, 1942 and April 3, 1944, respectively. I have every reason to believe that all that mattered to Thomson was what was printed on the score pages. That seems like the best explanation for his dissatisfaction with both of these symphonies. The idea that both these pieces of music were tightly coupled to Shostakovich's experiences of the Second World War do not seem to figure into Thomson's calculus. I appreciate that such abstract detachment was popular in the United States at this time. Nevertheless, I get the impression that the fact that the Americans were also fighting the Nazis at the same time just never occurred to Thomson as a context that might have some impact on the listening experience. By the same count, however, I suspect that Thomson would have nothing but scorn for anyone who would dare to suggest that social theory might have an impact on how we listen to music!

Monday, November 3, 2014

Recognizing Tom Magliozzi

I found it comforting to see that BBC News chose to run an item about the death of Tom Magliozzi, one of the two "Tappet Brothers," who gave advise on National Public Radio's Car Talk program. I never listened to the program regularly. I cannot even say that I was a great admirer. However, I really liked the idea that Magliozzi used his education at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to open his own automobile repair shop. He reminded me of one of the engineers at the campus radio station, who really wanted to go all the way for his doctorate, just so he could open his shop with a sign bearing his name followed by "PhD."

I also liked the fact that Car Talk could get away with any number of "in" jokes without every be pretentious about it. This distinguished them significantly from many of the faculty at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, where I taught Computer Science in the Engineering School for about five years. It seemed as if I could not find anyone at Wharton who would not make it a point to drop any number of MIT course numbers, meaningful only to other MIT graduates and students. Car Talk patter was all about having fun without dishing out insult or injury. You do not find much of that mentality on the radio these days.

Friday, October 31, 2014

The Dirty Little Secret about Analytics

John Cage used to talk frequently about how he would consult the I Ching to make choices for him when composing music. What I remember most is when he said that the I Ching never made a bad decision. If a decision turned out to be problematic (leading, for example, to music that was impossible for a single performer to play), then Cage took this as an indication that he had formulated his question poorly.

This is not just an anecdote about avant-garde practices. It may also tell us something about what happens when Microsoft, Google, and Apple all decide that they need "market share" in the health care industry. This is just the latest data point in the litany of evidence as to why health care is in such a sorry state because industry and business groups feel it is necessary to see to the "health" of their revenue streams by telling expertly-trained doctors and nurses how to treat patients. These days it is all about getting everyone to invest in wearables that will automatically transmit all necessary "health care data" to some cloud site where the resulting data base can enjoy all the benefits of being massaged by the best analytic software that can be dreamed up by analysts (most of whom, of course, are business analysts, rather than health care practitioners).

The thing is that such a data base is ultimately no different from the I Ching. The quality of the answer you get depends on the quality of the question you ask. This is particularly true in non-routine situations. Good doctors know when they are stumped, but they also know that they are stumped because they have not yet figured out the right question to ask. The best ones persist until they finally land on that right question.

The problem is that we live (for over half a century now) in a world in which the judgment of an algorithm is always taken as superior to human judgment. Indeed, we are so addicted to that believe that we cannot conceive of an alternative. This latest phase in the industrialization of health care is yet another step in pushing the most valuable expertise of practitioners out of the system. In other words the price of a higher revenue stream will be a lot more sick people, many of whom will probably turn out to be incurable.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Marvel Thinks on the Scale of Marcel Proust

As a kid my interest in comic books pretty much evaporated when I discovered Mad Magazine (particularly after I read some of the Mad parodies of what used to be my favorite comics). However, as an undergraduate I had my first encounter with Marvel Comics. It seemed as if they were getting more hip as Mad began its decline; and, while my grasp of narrative theory was still many decades to come, I realized that the series was doing things with storytelling that I had not previously encountered. When Marvel first decided to venture into film, I was curious but skeptical; but many of the early efforts succeeded in hooking me.

Marvel is now a presence that cannot be ignored. So I was not surprised to read in a story filed yesterday on the BBC Newsbeat Web site that Marvel had announces its release schedule for films extending into 2019. This led me to think about past writing projects that were planned out and then realized over a significant duration of time. The most ambitious literary narrative would have to be Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time, which first began to take shape in 1909 and only concluded with the publication of the seventh volume, Finding Time Again, in 1927. Bearing in mind a recent effort to present James Joyce's Ulysses as a graphic novel, I suspect that Proust is probably not yet ready for the Marvel Universe, at least in a printed edition. On the other hand who know's what they could do with all that outpouring of idle chatter, most of which has more to do with connotation than denotation, if they decided to plan a series of films?

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Mozart the Islamic Terrorist?

According to an article on the Web site of the London Telegraph:
Speculation is rife that Isis, Lord Grantham’s yellow Labrador in the ITV period soap-opera [Downton Abbey, for those who need to be told], may be on the verge of being killed off, as programme bosses scramble to avoid any association with the terrorist group.
Julian Fellowes, who created the series, claims that any comment on the plot would be a "slope," by which I assume he means "slippery slope." However, things are already slipping pretty badly if we are to judge by another sentence in the Telegraph article:
Isis Martinez, a woman from Florida, started a global petition urging the media to “stop calling the terrorists by our name”, while an Australian construction firm urged staff not to wear uniforms, and Isis Equity Partners recently announced plans for a re-brand.
I guess we shall known when we have slipped into the gutter when a call goes out to change Sarastro's aria at the beginning of the second act of The Magic Flute.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

A New BFF?

My thoughts about Serge Koussevitsky have tended to be on the minimal side, and I have not had any particular qualms about keeping them there. I appreciate the many things he did to advance modernism during the twentieth century, particularly in the United States through his leadership of the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO). On the other hand I have never really been able to get beyond his inability to "get" Sergei Prokofiev's second symphony (Opus 40 in D minor), much to the composer's justified annoyance.

Recently, however, I have been reading the new Library of America collection of the writings of Virgil Thomson, the bulk of which are concert reviews. Thomson seems to have had great admiration for both Koussevitsky and how the BSO performed under his direction. Mind you, he may have been using both conductor and orchestra as sticks for bashing both John Barbirolli and the New York Philharmonic; and much of that beating seems to have arisen from the fact that modernism fared far more poorly in Thomson's home town of New York than it did in Boston.

Modernism aside, though, Thomson's perspective seems to have had an effect on how I listen to the few recordings of Koussevitsky in my collection. The most interesting of these is probably the one in the RCA anthology The Heifetz Collection. One of the CDs has Heifetz performing both the Opus 63 (second) concerto of Sergei Prokofiev and the Johannes Brahms Opus 77 violin concerto with Koussevitsky and the BSO. In the past I have tended to prefer the later recording of the Brahms that Heifetz made with Fritz Reiner conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. While I continue to be impressed with the meticulous detail that Reiner brought to that recording, I am now more willing to grant Koussevitsky's throbbing expressiveness as another valid reading of this concerto.

This probably will not send me out on an enthusiastic pursuit of more Koussevitsky recordings; but I think I am glad to have come to a mental state that is more willing to accept what he does on his own terms, as long as it does not lead to egregious misinterpretation!

Thursday, October 23, 2014

The Jazzy Side of Bach: An Impressive Predecessor

Regular readers know that I find it hard to resist writing about Johann Sebastian Bach as a master improviser whose talent would not be equalled until John Coltrane came into his own maturity. Much of this has to do with a capacity for improvisation imaginative enough to defer coming to closure for such a long period of time that it can drive some listeners crazy. Bach's skill at such jamming then finds its way into his work on composition in the form of what I still like to call his "and another thing" style, always coming up with one more thing to say before giving in to a perfect cadence. Imagine my surprise, then, to discover that Virgil Thomson was also aware of Bach having this jazzy side.

Consider this passage from one of his reviews:
The closer the performing conditions for Sebastian Bach’s concerted music are approximated to those of early eighteenth-century provincial Germany the more the music sounds like twentieth-century American swing.
To be fair, he wrote this on December 31, 1940, when he was reviewing the first time in the United States that the BWV 248 Weihnachtsoratorium was being performed as a single coherent concert piece. Coltrane would have been fourteen years old at that time. Also, Thomson was more interested in the style with which swing was executed, rather than the improvisatory practices of jamming. Nevertheless, it is humbling to know that my approach to Bach had been "scooped;" but I was delighted to discover that I had been scooped by such an impressive writer!

Monday, October 20, 2014

Remembering my Netbook

This morning Luke Westaway has an article on CNET that is basically a companion piece for his latest Adventures in Tech video. He tries to analyze the failure of netbooks to make it as a marketable item, ultimately "squashed by the iPad, and the dawn of tablets." He sees this displacement as a consequent of the antecedent proposition that netbooks "were never much fun to use."

I have known for some time that I am far from what marketers seek out as a representative sample. With that disclaimer, however, I have to make it clear that, when I bought my own netbook, it was not for "fun." At the time I had only one computer, and I was reluctant to take it on a trip I was planning. However, I am a writer; so I wanted to have something that would allow me to continue my writing practices while on the road. Thus, while I agree with Westaway that the netbook keyboard left much to be desired, at least it was a keyboard that was at least moderately conducive to my typing habits, which is more than I can say about the emergence of a tablet technology that continues to strike me as little more than a fancy toy. I also agree with Westaway that I could not argue about the price of a netbook. Ultimately, it served me better than I expected. I even got to view a YouTube video of ballets about which I wanted to write.

These days I travel as little as possible. I now have a MacBook Pro, which is an excellent traveling companion. A set of headphones to plug into my iTunes library usually escalates an airplane flight to the lower level of tolerable. Indeed, on one occasion when United bought the farm so badly that we had to change our plans to a train from Newark to Pittsburgh, the increased legroom over a longer period of time served me well while I was getting to know the keyboard music of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach. I suspect that, as long as the toymakers see no need to provide me with the sort of keyboard necessary for the writing I do, I shall continue to live in the world of laptops in the hope that the product line is never abandoned.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

International Readers for my "National" Site

I have come to expect that the readership levels on my national site fall far short of those on my San Francisco site. Still, I track both of these site with Google Analytics. It gives me a certain sense of humility with regard to "national" readership; but, every now and then, it surprises me with bumps of interest on the national level. Of course the main thing that Google Analytics tells me about those who read the national site is that most of them are from the San Francisco Bay Area. For a while there is been a level of interest in New York that tends to follow, but never rises to the level of, Bay Area interest. This morning, however, I discovered that, while New York interest has fallen off, it is at the same level as interest coming from Berlin.

I know that I have had overseas readers sprinkled around my Google Analytics data for some time. These often involve occasional surges in unlikely places, such as the Philippines. However, having lived in Singapore, I know how those living in area in which classical music does not received a lot of attention tend to read just about anything they can find on the topic. Berlin, on the other hand, is quite a different matter. I suspect that Berliners have plenty of sources to consult without having to worry about renegade views from San Francisco.

One possibility is that this bump is due to a recent piece I wrote about the harmonia mundi album of Ludwig van Beethoven's chamber music for cello and piano featuring Jean-Guihen Queyras on cello and Alexander Menikov on piano. I know that Melnikov has performed several times in the United States, even making it out to San Francisco; but I suspect that Queyras is still known here only through his recordings. On the other hand both of them are probably much better known among the music lovers in Berlin; so perhaps there is a "critical mass" of them curious about American impressions of how they perform as a duo!

Friday, October 17, 2014

Anthony Tommasini Misses the Point

The Web site for The New York Times has the review by Anthony Tommasini of the performance given by the London Philharmonic Orchestra at Carnegie Hall, which will appear in tomorrow print edition. This was the same program that was given here in San Francisco this past Monday night. I was particularly struck that Tommasini used the adjective "enigmatic" to describe Dmitri Shostakovich's Opus 65 symphony in C minor (his eighth). I have heard this symphony described in many ways, but never as enigmatic.

Perhaps this was because Tommasini tried to take a context-free approach to it. This would overlook two critical elements of context that are at least somewhat connected. The more important is one that Scott Foglesong raised in a pre-concert talk the last time this symphony was performed by the San Francisco Symphony. Foglesong provided the context of the agonizingly prolonged battles between the Soviet armed forces and the invading Nazis. By the time Shostakovich completed Opus 65 in September of 1943, Russia had lived through both Leningrad and Stalingrad; and I tend to agree with Foglesong that Shostakovich had a strong case of war-weariness when it worked on this symphony. This then takes us to the second point of context, which is Shostakovich's interest in Gustav Mahler, a perfect source of inspiration when contemplating the sorrows of the world and man's helplessness in the face of all of them.

Here in San Francisco, Music Director Vladimir Jurowski's interpretation of Opus 65 seemed to register with much of the audience in Davies with little difficulty. Indeed, during the intermission of the piano recital I attended on Tuesday night, it seemed as if almost everyone wanted to share their impressions of Opus 65, rather than talk about the recitalist. Tommasini is probably right in claiming that the premiere performance of Opus 65 "baffled audiences and the autocratic Soviet officials who oversaw culture." My personal opinion is that the latter group of listeners were too dense to get the message, while the former group dared not do so. We, on the other hand, have the advantages of a broader view of history and the freedom to think what we wish. If nothing about Opus 65 left San Francisco audiences perplexed, why was Tommasini sympathizing with the Russians?

Myopic Elitism

According to a post on the ArtsBeat blog of The New York Times, the next TED conference will be a one-day gathering to ponder the question: "What is the best Broadway can be?" This seems like a vivid example of our inability to look into the past beyond a distance of 24 hours. Here we have one institution that used to be a ritual celebration allowing corporate elites to rub shoulders with "the best and the brightest" hand-picked by Richard Wurman deciding to ponder another institution, which, over the course of about a century, has deteriorated from a major form of popular entertainment to an evening (or matinee) spectacle that only the elite can afford. The good news is that dramatic creativity has plenty of outlets in far more modest settings across this country; but, in that world of market-based thinking that I bemoaned yesterday, creativity is no longer of interest to those in power unless it can be converted into economic value.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

One Cheer for the Liverpool Everyman Theatre

While I continue to take a dim view of competitions and prizes based on matters of aesthetic judgment, I have to say that I was pleased with the awarding of the 2014 Ribe Stirling Prize for architecture. Watching World Service News on television over lunch, I appreciated being given a brief tour of each of the shortlisted candidates; and I have to say that the Liverpool Everyman Theatre caught and sustained my attention most of all. By the same count I have to say that, however striking its appearance may be, the more I see of the Shard. If ever there were a monument to the many dimensions of capitalism, the Shard would have to be it, even more so than the old World Trade Center buildings. It is one thing to acknowledge the massive amount of power that has now accrued to commitment to market-based thinking. However, like Max Weber, I believe we should devote more attention to the corrupting influence of that thinking, rather than celebrating it with architectural monuments.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

What Price Massive Revenue?

According to an item on the ABC7 News Web site, the Salesforce Dreamforce conference is expected to bring in $100 million. Last night at the SFJAZZ Center, a lot of irate people in the audience probably want to know who will benefit from all of that money and how it will be put to good use. They are the ones who missed the beginning of last night's first recital in San Francisco Performances Piano Series because they were stuck in traffic. As if to add insult to injury, after the concert they (along with the rest of us) were bombarded by the mega-decibels coming from the mother of all parties in the Civic Center. Now I am willing to admit that the Giants probably also had a hand in last night's traffic problem, but congestion has been a long standing problem in the city of San Francisco. So how much of that $100 million will be applied to preventing such problems to arise the next time the city is hosting one of these massive conferences? Enquiring minds want to know!

Monday, October 13, 2014

The Messenger Could Have Done a Better Job

I was glad to see the Al Jazeera English report about a possible change in the position of the Catholic Church on homosexuality; but I worry that a headline like "Bishops push Vatican to embrace homosexuals" might turn out to be counterproductive!

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Is Comcast Being Hacked?

For about half a week I have noticed that specific channels have been unavailable through my Comcast box. Over that period I have watched BBC World Service News go away, come back on Saturday morning, and be gone again later that day. This morning I noticed that Al Jazeera English had been lost, having been my primary alternative to BBC during these "troubles." There have also been some interesting examples of channels, such as BBC America and Showtime, which are unavailable but are accessible through their HD alternatives.

According to the Comcast Customer Service Web site, everything is in great shape. All they know is whether or not there is a signal for my set-top box to detect. They do not care about any of the specifics of that signal. At least through the automated phone service I have been able to confirm that this is a real problem; but, of course, no specifics are to be had. Given the current tenor of the times, it would not surprise me if this is all the result of some external hacking. (Is someone over at AT&T trying to bring down Comcast channel by channel?) What particularly interests me, however, is that this has all the earmarks of a problem with software confronting service technicians who are primarily trained in fixing hardware. Is it only a matter of time before the whole machine stops?

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Do We Need a Conspiracy Theory about Education?

"How Bad Are the Colleges?," Christopher Benfey's article in the latest issue of The New York Review, provides a reasonable account of how badly higher education has deteriorated at even the most elite universities (while, at the same time, skewering the book he is reviewing trying to make the same case). He does this without even adding the student debt problem to the mix. However, these days I tend to apply follow-the-money logic to any major problem; and this leads to a question that neither Benfey nor the author he is reviewing dares to ask.

Unfortunately, the question has all the earmarks of a conspiracy theory: Could it be that those moneied powers behind every policy decision our government makes want to undermine the entire framework for education, at all levels, in our country? After all, those powers live by the sword of consumerism: They prosper when people buy their stuff, whether it is breakfast cereal or health insurance; and, as a corollary, their revenue stream benefits most from those who buy on impulse. The very idea that people should be capable of reasoning skills behind the decisions they make in matters such as how they see to their medical care, what they eat, what they drive, and, yes, what kind of education their kids get, is anathema to impulse buying.

Back in 1951 Cyril M. Kornbluth wrote a science fiction story entitled "The Marching Moron." He envisaged a dystopian future in which the intelligent do not produce as rapidly as those referred to in the title and, for all intents and purposes, go extinct. As I see it, this would be an ideal world for those who make their money off of impulse buying. So could it be that there is a strategy in play aimed at achieving the extinction of intelligence through the planned deterioration of our educational system?

Friday, October 10, 2014

Fight Back Against the Politicians!

Election Day is near. So we have any number of volunteers manning telephones to tell you how you are supposed to vote. Unlike the better endowed commercial institutions, they cannot afford robocalls to invade your privacy. These are, believe it or not, flesh-and-blood individuals who think they are aiding the democratic system.

I have decided that the best way to deal with them it to teach them some manners. As soon as one of those hesitating voices says anything about what is on my ballot, I remind them that they should begin by asking:
Am I interrupting anything?
Obviously, this is not part of the script they have been given. Some are immediately flummoxed and hang up the phone (which may take away the personal gratification of you hanging up on them). Others, try to bull on ahead, in which case you can remind them of their lack of proper telephone etiquette. If they give them an argument, you can then tell them they just screwed up getting your vote. Basically, there are any number of ways to turn their invasion into your entertainment, which may be the only way to get those idiots on the right learning curve.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Easy Come, Easy Go

I cannot say I was surprised to read that yesterday's biggest gain of the year on the Dow index was followed by today's biggest loss of the year. Now was I surprised that the size of the biggest loss was greater than the size of the biggest gain. Nevertheless, it is hard to avoid thinking that this is just another gambling game where the tables are rigged in favor of a too-big-to-fail elite and against the rest of us. If the very idea of money is a fiction of convenience, then I suspect that the Dow, if not the New York Stock Exchange, is one big fiction of inconvenience!

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

The Virtue (of Vice) of Keeping Busy

When retirement was first thrust upon me, I felt as if my greatest enemy was idleness. I felt that, if I did not keep my mind totally engaged for all of my waking hours, that it would suffer for lack of exercise. However, I have built up steam in my writing for, I find that I have now built myself a task queue, partly as a result of the impact that my writing has had. From this I have discovered that not only can that queue not be taken care of on any given day but also that I need to give myself breaks if particular tasks of that queue are to be given the attention they deserve. Those breaks often involve afternoon naps, facilitated by my habit of getting up around 4 AM to swim laps for about half an hour. Somehow I have come to recognizing that keeping busy all of the time can be counterproductive and that the breaks I take (and how I take them) have become a fundamental part of my game plan to work through my task queue in productive manner. I suspect that there are work cultures out there that appreciate this approach. However, it took my getting out of the Silicon Valley rat race to find that appreciation for myself.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Believe None of What you Read?

Something fishy may be going on in Robert F. Worth's article, "The Pillars of Arab Despotism," in the latest issue of The New York Review. This piece is, in part, a review of Juan Cole's latest book, The New Arabs: How the Millennial Generation Is Changing the Middle East. Worth clearly does not buy Cole's arguments, but I have to wonder whether he is more interested in grinding axes, rather than defeating propositions. For one thing he describes Cole as "a prominent liberal blogger and scholar of the Middle East." Worth himself is currently a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, writing his own book about the Arab Spring and its aftermath. This is a sufficiently reputable establishment that one wonders whether or not Cole's description was intended as a swipe at Cole for not having more legitimate credentials. Worth's biographical statement also describes him as "a frequent contributor to The New York Times Magazine." At the very least there is a distinctive odor of one writer whose work holds up through the editing process disparaging another who lives in the world of unedited blog posts.

This is the new world the Internet has made. Back when I was part of the evangelical promotion of "knowledge management," I remember that one of the slogans was, "We are drowning in information and thirsty for knowledge." Actually, we are drowning in opinions; and we lack any kind of "life preserver" for determining which of those opinions have any warranted substance.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Inspiration or Rip-Off?

Michael Cooper is all excited about the documentary that Ethan Hawke made about the 87-year old piano teacher Seymour Bernstein. On the basis of his article for The New York Times, his enthusiasm may be justified. Nevertheless, he says nothing about the fact that the title of the film, Seymour: An Introduction has a precedent. Those of my generation will probably recognize it as the title of the penultimate published novella by J. D. Salinger. My guess is that Hawke selected the title as an in-joke calculated to filter out the unwashed masses from the company of the non-phony (to appropriate from Salinger) hipsters. However, knowing what we know about both the author and those now managing his estate, I have to wonder whether anyone was consulted about this selection of title. Whoever is now responsible for Salinger's legacy may view this as an unauthorized rip-off rather than a well-intentioned homage.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

A Wakeup Call for Apple?

I suppose there are still globalization evangelists out there who like to preach that, in a highly-connected world, a good day for Apple is a good day for everyone. The fact that they never seem to consider that this proposition has an equally invalid inverse would suggest that these guys are incredibly stupid by even the most generous standards or that they know full well that they are pulling off a con of "global" proportions. In either case today is a day when the chickens of that inverse proposition have come home to roost. As reported on today's BBC Business news (and probably just about everywhere else) Apple stock took a 3.5% dive in the wake to the catastrophic mismanagement of the latest release of the iOS operating system. That dive has now reverberated across Wall Street; and, according to my latest global spot-check, it is being felt by just about all other major markets, with the possible exception of Japan.

The irony is that it was hard not to see this as a train-wreck about to happen. Those of us who rely of OS X when it comes to doing "real work" know that Apple software development expertise has been on the skids for several years. For the most part we were willing to accept the hypothesis that Apple had decided to put all of its best talent into the software side of its mobile business, a process that some of us like to call "iOS-ification." In the current situation, the bad news may be that this hypothesis is true, meaning that, even where their most-used software is at stake, Apple simply cannot muster the talent for reliable software development. This may be because "the best and the brightest" no longer want to work for Apple (which may be for any number of reasons, including the absence the the charismatic Steve Jobs); but another explanation is that our whole approach to education has been reduced to such a shambles that, in any area of expertise, "the best and the brightest" are no longer that good and are no capable of much more than pale energy-saving brilliance.

In other words the whole reaction to both Apple stock and global markets in general may simply be a matter of shooting the messenger. It may also involve the significant amount of trading that is now enabled by software, rather than human judgement. In other words not only has the messenger been shot; but also it may well be the case that no one is around to read the message!

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Stealing from the Best of Them

Given the number of times I am subjected to Max Bruch's first violin concerto (Opus 26 in G minor), I probably write enough about it already. However, my writing usually deals with why a particular soloist (or sometimes conductor) deserves attention for an approach to a warhorse that is already being played to death. On this site, however, I can write about less conventional matters, like why I was drawn to, and still enjoy, this concerto in the first place.

It has nothing to do with usual criteria for either performance of composition. Rather, it has to do with what caught my attention in the first place. It also refers to how hack musicians in the entertainment industry often survive by their skills in appropriation, stealing from the best but never from the obvious. In the first movement of this concerto, anyone of my generation should be quick to recognize how a relatively insignificant bit of bridge material became the basis for the theme of the PERRY MASON television series.

According to Wikipedia, the composer was Fred Steiner. He graduated in composition from Oberlin in 1943, and his page is definitely worth visiting simply for the sake of appreciating the breadth of his achievements. Ironically, in the wake of all that success, he went back to school, getting a doctoral degree in musicology from USC in 1981 with a thesis on the work of Alfred Newman. His many achievements may be consigned to the insignificance of hack work produced on spec, but this was a man who knew his stuff. That knowledge seems to have included a knowledge of how to appropriate without losing your personal stamp in the process!

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Handicapping New Drama on Television

I just read Bill Carter's account of the ratings numbers for television last night on the Web site for The New York Times. I was glad to see that The Blacklist is still going strong. I just watched my DVR recording of last night's episode. There is something delightfully fascinating about its capacity to flirt with absurdity at just about every turn in the plot. It almost makes we wish that there would be an EMMY award for Willing Suspension of Disbelief. I do think it is too much of a spoiler to say that the bit about the band getting back together was a bit too predictable, but that brief moment was too minor to cramp the overall style.

My wife and I seem to play this game involving who makes the decision to bail when. In the case of Madame Secretary, we were both ready to give up when the opening credits began to roll. I do not care if they eventually cook up a good plot, I just do not want to be in the same room with those people. Where Scorpion was concerned, it looked like we crossed wires: Each of us thought the other wanted to stick with it. Fortunately, it did not take long for us to resolve that confusion. As far as I am concerned, I am getting enough message about genius being an excuse for infantile behavior from Manhattan (although I got a real kick out of the peyote trip); I do not need Scorpion to give me any more of it.

Next Monday things will start to get tricky, though. We have not yet upgraded our DVR to record more than two programs at the same time. Next Monday the 10 PM slot settles in with Blacklist, Castle, and the new home for NCSI: Los Angeles, each of which is generous with characters who tend to know more about reading and writing than most of the authors of book reviews I encounter these days. Fortunately, our On Demand service will rescue us from our predicament!

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Second-Class Metadata

One advantage to viewing the world through the lens of an RSS reader is that you learn how negligent many information sources can be about their metadata. Where journalism is concerned, we readers already have to contend with a pathetic decline in editing quality. In the RSS world there is a good chance that editors have no idea that metadata sources exist, let alone that they might carry some significance for readers, as well as search engines.

For the rest of us, however, metadata errors may be treated like those little bits of editorial incompetence that The New Yorker collects for available space at the bottom of their columns. The RSS feed for ABC7 news in San Francisco turned up a doozy of a summary this morning:
At San Francisco International Airport federal agents found opium inside 66 bars of hallowed out soap.
I suppose it is possible that there was an editor who did not think this was erroneous. Perhaps (s)he just believed that opium was the religion of the people.

Monday, September 15, 2014

"World Order" and its Discontents

I have only just begun to read "The New World Disorder," Michael Ignatieff's latest contribution to The New York Review; and already my head is swirling with thoughts about the topic. For some time I have been trying to figure out how to set down in writing an argument to the effect that the very concept of governance now seems to have failed. Now I figure I shall hold off on that until I read Ignatieff in his entirety. On the other hand there are a few points about that very concept of "order" that I feel I can get off my chest right now.

The most important seems to have originated with Henri Bergson (even if I first discovered it by way of Henry Miller). This has to do with the premise that the very concept of "disorder" simply indicates that mind has not yet come up with a way to impose order on the associated stimuli. For example, at the end of the First World War, both intellectuals and diplomats looked around the world and saw vast tracts of geography that seemed to be subjected to the disorder of tribal thinking that tended to be ill-defined and/or fluid. As a result the Western world, in its self-appointed superiority, went around drawing boundaries around regions whose inhabitants neither needed nor wanted them. In other words they saw order where "enlightened" intellectuals saw disorder. Should it surprise anyone that, eventually, those inhabitants would find ways to push back and reclaim the land as they had chosen to inhabit it, restoring the concept of a caliphate?

Friday, September 12, 2014

The Second Time is the Charm

Those of us interested in new music have begun to take for granted that fact that just about any opera company worth its salt is going to make some kind of commitment to bringing brand-new works into its repertoire. I have now reached an age at which I can say I have been fortunate enough to experience a generous number of such premiere productions, some of which have left me with some very fond memories. The problem is that, unless someone has taken the trouble to make a first-rate video document, those memories are all I have. I have been straining my opera-going recollections; and, for the life of me, I cannot come up with an opera company that brought one of those premieres back in a later season. There have been plenty of operas that have migrated to other companies, sometimes with a change in the production team, as was the case when John Adams' Doctor Atomic was picked up by the Metropolitan Opera a few years after its premiere with the San Francisco Opera. However, Doctor Atomic has not subsequently returned to the War Memorial Opera House in any staging whatsoever.

I am therefore happy to report that I have finally found an exception. I read today on the Web site of the London Telegraph a review about the return of Mark-Anthony Turnage's Anna Nicole to Covent Garden. Furthermore, it was a very positive review, suggesting that there was more to the opera than the shock value of "first exposure" (pun sort of intended). I take that as a very positive sign, and I am not writing this with tongue in cheek. New music needs for than "first impressions" experiences far more than the classics do, simply because mind needs time to adjust to the fact that it is new. This is not just a matter of in-the-moment adjusting. It also involves after-the-fact reflection. So, when a piece gets revived a couple of years after its premiere, anyone who experienced it the first time around is bringing a whole new set of baggage to the return performance. If such processes are not allowed to kick in, we may as well accept that all new works are to be used once and then simply disposed; and, if that is the case, why bother commissioning them in the first place?