Thursday, August 28, 2014

Only in England

Apparently, Selwyn College at Cambridge does not allow dogs in the residential quarters, while cats are allowed. However, Roger Mosey, who became Master of Selwyn this past October, has YoYo, who is a basett hound. Therefore, according to a BBC report, when Selwyn filled out the official paperwork to keep YoYo in his rooms, he described his pet as "a very large cat." Given the British mentality and what it has handed down to us on the other side of the pond, I take this to be a double-barreled gift, not only a thoroughly silly play on semantics but also a reminder that wink-wink-nudge-nudge is still with us.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Fatal Absurdity

The BBC News Web site picked up a story that is almost too absurd to be true. A nine-year-old girl at a shooting range in Arizona accidentally killed her instructor with an Uzi. The very idea that the clauses in that last sentence should fit together the way they did should sound a warning at just how rare and precious a commodity common sense has become. If that were not enough, the entire episode was captured on video by the girl's parents, who had brought her there for lessons. Apparently, the girl was using the Uzi to practice single shots and then it "appears to be switched to automatic" (quote from the BBC article). In attempting to fire the Uzi, the girl lost control; and her instructor was shot in the head. How do gun-rights activists plan to hide this episode behind the Second Amendment?

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

When Reality Hands You a Metaphor

Dwight Bentel Hall, on the campus of San Jose State University, has been closed due to excessive water damage. The cleanup process will involve not only water removal but also checking for, and dealing with, mold. There is something metaphorical about mold showing up in the building that houses the School of Journalism.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Learning how to Say "No!" to Badly-Written Books

I suspect that there was never a time in my life that I thought I would be able to read all of the books in my collection. To some extent I could fall back on the excuse that some of them were there primarily for reference; and, the more time I spend writing, the more I find that I am using more of those books for that purpose. Nevertheless, there are some that do little more than gather dust; and I think about them more as I get older.

One result is that I have begun to provide myself with some guidelines for deciding when to say, "Enough is enough" during an unsatisfactory reading experience. Where fiction is concerned, I can generally fall back on criteria for flat-out poor writing technique. In the domain of non-fiction, however, I have to worry about whether, in the midst of bad (if not excruciatingly painful) writing, there is still the chance that I might learn something of value.

In this case I have decided to use that "value" criterion as a guideline. The issue is that any sentence or paragraph may be potentially valuable, but it is immediately devalued if it turns out that the author lacks the necessary authority (invoking a linguistic game that I unashamedly picked up from Michel Foucault). For example I recently faced a 1000-page book with considerable skepticism. However, after having read the author's Introduction, I felt that I appreciated the approach he was taking. This seemed reason enough to get over my skepticism.

Unfortunately (for the author, not for me), I found that, within 150 pages, he was basically going against the guidelines he had set for himself in that Introduction. I am trying to describe this situation carefully, because it comes close to saying that the author promised one think and delivered another. Euphemistically, this could be described as "false pretenses;" but the harsher noun "dishonesty" might be just as appropriate. Either way, I felt I had grounds for rejecting the author as a credible authority, which allowed me to free up time for reading other things with a clear conscience!

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Who Cares about the User?

I know better than to suggest that a conspiracy may be afoot, but I am struck by how user interfaces for many of the "utility" sites I frequent keep getting worse. I suppose than, when it comes to about of time spent with these systems, Yahoo! Mail has to be the worst offender. Most recently, it has evolved that one can no longer scroll through a long mail message if that message is embedded in a large image. Apparently, all that matter these days is whether you can flick your way through the content on your portable device with a touch screen. Any other form of interface is too old-fashioned to signify, even if it has a legitimate place in many work practices.

Most recently, PayPal seems to have eliminated all of their drop-down menus. This made figuring out how to transfer money to by checking account a bit of a treasure hunt. Apparently, training for software engineering has now relegated the user into the ecological category of a species on the brink of extinction, almost as if the software exists entirely for its own sake, rather than for what it is supposed to be doing for whom.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

On Scoring Points Rather than Solving Problems

I just saw an article on Al Jazeera English with the headline:
Egypt calls for US restraint over Ferguson
At the very least, this makes for a fascinating case study in foreign relations. Egypt clearly saw an opportunity to tell the United States to put their own domestic house in order before interfering with Egypt's. This has nothing to do with how well or poorly Egypt has dealt with its own rounds of mass protests (or of journalists covering those protests). It is simply a way to score points by telling the United States to mind its own business. By now most of the world is aware of what happened in Missouri and of the almost studied ineptitude of those in charge to deal with the situation appropriately. The fact that Egypt is using this to promote their own questionable interests and policies is just one of the many unanticipated consequences that have arisen from the mishandling of the Ferguson crisis on all levels from municipal to federal.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Stupid Readers

BBC News has posted an article about Facebook deciding to attach the label "[Satire]" to satirical news articles to avoid readers mistaking them for actual news stories. I realize that I may be mistaken, but I have decided to accept this as a genuine article, rather than a satirical one. My first reaction was to recall Orson Welles' radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds, in which "news broadcasts" that were part of his dramatic conception were mistakenly taken for the real thing (even though the drama was preceded with a brief announcement about the technique). In other words, if people cannot accept something as fake after being told explicitly, "This is a fake," will a "[Satire]" label actually do any good? The bottom line is that people read selectively (when they read at all); and they believe what they want to believe, even when it involves misinterpreting (if not downright distorting) what they have read. While this may be taken as grist for Nicholas Carr's mill with his argument that Google is making us stupid, the fact is that people were reading the printed medium just as uncritically as they now do when they are reading from a computer screen. Let's not blame the Internet for a change and think more about why we now have an educational system that is so ineffective!

Sunday, August 17, 2014

All you Need is Yiddishkeit

As usual, the Google Analytics numbers for my national site tend to be modest, with most of the activity coming from San Francisco. Nevertheless, I was glad to see that my recent article about Hamidbar Medaber (the desert speaks), the latest release in John Zorn's Radical Jewish Culture series provided those numbers with a bit of a bump. My guess is that there are many who would view "radical Jewish culture" and an oxymoron (and many of them would probably be of the Orthodox persuasion). On the other hand I was fascinated the first time I encountered a recording by Hasidic New Wave and could not resist the opportunity to write about their "complete works" when Zorn released the collection as a boxed set. (I also could not resist using a Levy's ad ("You don't have to be Jewish") to illustrate that article. I suspect that my interest has a lot to do with my conviction that Yiddishkeit is more an American phenomenon, rather than a Jewish one (and certainly not an Israeli one). I see it as a unique approach to identity that has seen me through a lot of difficult circumstances, and I could not be more pleased when that approach finds its way into my experiences of listening to music.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

How Important is the Poetry?

There seems to be a recurring issue that arises when I find myself listening to vocal recitals. The more of these recitals I attend, the more aware I seem to be of the texts and the question of whether or not the singer really understands those texts. I may have Lotfi Mansouri to thank for this attitude. I once saw him teach a master class and discovered that he had no tolerance for any opera singer who could not give a word-by-word account of what (s)he was singing. Nevertheless, a recital setting does not have to worry about advancing the narrative; and the truth is that there are a lot of composers out there who seem to think that the words are only there to provide props on which the notes can be hung.

The more I encounter these situations, the more it bothers me. So much often goes into making a poem that it seems reprehensible that the text can be honored for little more than general meaning and perhaps rhythm. I have become particularly sensitive to rhyme schemes and the extent to which they impose their own framework of sonority on a poem. When a composer takes the trouble to recognize it and shape his/her music around it, should not the singer do the same? Sadly, there are to many singers these days who care so much about quality of vocal tone and stage presence that little is left to attend to what they are actually singing.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Steve Ballmer Takes Over Ownership of the Clippers

If I am to believe a recent dispatch from ESPN, Steve Ballmer's ownership of the Clippers has now been finalized. I suspect that a lot of Los Angeles fans are going to be nervous about whether or not the team will now be uprooted and transplanted in Seattle. For now, however, I am willing to take Ballmer's claim about spending time in Los Angeles as his word. My greater concern is that, at least during the season, he will be implementing major "updates" to the team every Tuesday with little guarantee that any of those updates will be bug-free.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Dare to be Clueless

I still tend to spend most of my time here in San Francisco on foot. Today it struck me that, while there has been no shortage of stories about "distracted walking" (pedestrians absorbed in the screens on the phones), my impression after today's walk to the library and back is that their numbers are increasing, rather than decreasing. This reminds me of a time when a rise in news reports about the connection between smoking and cancer was accompanied by a rise in smoking, almost as if the latter involved a defiant libertarian stance. It also reminds me of one of the line's from the "Daily News" song that Judy Collins used to say:
Don't try to change my mind with facts.
To hell with the graduated income tax.
All this resonated with an essay about George Santayana that I happened to be reading this morning. It involved his emphasis on distinguishing "freedom from" from "freedom to." The former involves matters such as Franklin Roosevelt's "freedom from fear" (of being attacked by a foreign power). The latter is more in the libertarian spirit, which is why many feel it needs to be exercised within constraints imposed by governance. Thus, freedom to speak your mind does not include the exercise of hate speech.

This would all be relevant if we lived in a culture in which governance still mattered; but, between the Kool-Aid of Internet evangelism and the consumerist position that having more stuff than anyone else is all that matters, this no longer seems to be the case.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Do we Really Want a "More Sophisticated" Taco Bell?

The Web site for the local ABC affiliate here in San Francisco ran a story about Taco Bell seeking to expand in a new direction this morning. Apparently the company will launch a new "upscale chain" with the first site opening in Huntington Beach tomorrow. According to the text of the article, this is what we can expect from this "upscale" approach:
The menu for Taco Bell's new upscale chain includes smoked brisket tacos and a crispy chicken and gravy taco. Also on the menu -- a vanilla shake featuring Guinness, tequila caramel sauce, and chocolate flakes.
Recognizing this this is not particularly Mexican, the new chain will be called U.S. Taco Co. Personally, I am more than a little skeptical. Particularly since the logo on the chain's Web site is probably going to send the wrong message:

We know that the Day of the Dead is an important facet of Mexican culture, but do we need to be reminded of this when thinking about eating?

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Nixon Lives on Twitter!

Congratulations to Justin Sherin for creating a Twitter account in the name of Richard Nixon. Sherin has apparently become an astute student of Nixon's speech and other behavioral patterns. Thanks to Sherin we now have Nixon to kick around once more!