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.