Monday, March 30, 2015

Remembering More Than John Henken

Thanks to a post by Alex Ross to his The Rest is Noise blog, I found a link to the review John Henken wrote for the Los Angeles Times about an event at UCLA called An Evening With Pierre Boulez and Frank Zappa. Henken's opening words, deliberately cribbing from Abraham Lincoln, were, "The world will little note nor long remember what was said." For those who had not attended the event, it took a while to figure out why this was the case. It had nothing to do with either Boulez or Zappa or, for that matter, the relationship between them. (Zappa had been a guest at IRCAM; and the Boulez Conducts Zappa CD is still available from

Rather, the key factor in the evening being as unproductive as it was can be attributed entirely to the moderator for the event, David Raksin. For the benefit of those who do not recognize this name, Raksin composed the theme song for the movie Laura, a tune of awesome sophistication that has yet to be surpassed on any film soundtrack. He was also a pupil of Arnold Schoenberg, who supposedly once said to him something like, "Your music for Laura was excellent. Why do you want to compose twelve-tone music?"

Sadly, Raksin always seemed to feel that he needed more "reputable" credentials; and that conviction probably haunted him throughout his life. Thus, he tried to approach Boulez as an equal and Zappa as some insignificant upstart. He also annoyed the audience by dismissing questions submitted for both Boulez and Zappa as not worth asking, thus provoking annoyed catcalls from said audience. To some extent Henken was right: What was said was not particularly memorable, because Raksin all but prevented anything of significance from being said.

On the other hand, in the spirit of one of Alan Kaprow's happenings, the evening was unforgettable. Fortunately, it was memorable for at least one reason other than Raksin's reprehensible behavior. That was the only occasion on which I ever saw Boulez smile; and, as might be guessed, the smile was in response to one of Zappa's off-the-wall comments.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

The Best and the Brightest May Not Be

Yesterday afternoon Tracy Seipel put up an article on the Web site for the San Jose Mercury News reporting that Stanford University is investigating allegations of cheating. This was apparently announced by University Provost John Etchemendy last Tuesday, but I assume that Seipel article was delayed to allow time to research conditions at other schools. Sure enough, the article also provides data points for Dartmouth College, the University of North Carolina, and Harvard University. It also includes an account of a study by a Stanford Professor of Statistics showing that between 40% and 86% of students reported having cheated while at college. Personally, I find that a rather wide window for a statistical inference; but there may still be cause to believe that something is rotten in the groves of academe.

Two Etchemendy quotes are worth considering:
In violating academic integrity, they are cheating themselves of the very core of our mission -- the process of learning and discovery -- as well as risking severe consequences.

But with the ease of technology and widespread sharing that is now part of a collaborative culture, students need to recognize and be reminded that it is dishonest to appropriate the work of others.
Regarding the first, I can only repeat what I have previously observed, that ours has become a culture that no longer includes the word "consequences" in its working vocabulary. As to the second, I would argue that technology has not fostered a "collaborative culture." Rather, it has fostered a culture of appropriation. This is a culture that involves little more than instant gratification for the individual. It used to be that begging, borrowing, and stealing were the alternatives to hard work in achieving such gratification. Now we can add searching with Google to the list, since the prevailing mantra seems to be that it is not stealing if you can find it on the Internet.

As a sidebar I have to say that reading Etchemendy's name tweaked some memories, but I could not bring them into focus. Fortunately, Wikipedia came to my rescue. His entry there reminded me that, with Jon Barwise (who died in 2000), he wrote the book, The Liar: An Essay in Truth and Circularity. That seems to color the current situation with just the right shade of irony.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Taking Militarization to the Next Level

There is now an article on the CNET Web site with the title "Here's how you put an asteroid boulder in orbit around the moon." The article consists entirely of images except for the subheadline:
NASA has a bold new plan to steal a boulder from an asteroid and bring it back for orbit around the moon, to help test an Earth-defense system.
I suspect I am far from the only one whose most salient memory of Generation Kill was the guy who said he became a Marine so he could "blow shit up." Well, this sure takes blowing shit up to a new level! I suppose the project grew out of someone who remembered Armageddon better than Generation Kill and thought that the best way to protect the planet from any large object falling out of the sky would be to destroy the object. Needless to say, anything we learn in the interest in defense may subsequently serve us for offense. After all, what would we do if we were menaced by a large space ship full of hostile aliens? When do we start designing rules of engagement to determine when we use those boulders as weapons?

Encountering Heidegger

I suspect that my decision to focus my reading on Being and Time, the translation by John Macquarie and Edward Robinson of Martin Heidegger's Sein und Zeit, may raise some eyebrows. It may very well be one of the ways in which I am coming to terms with my age, figuring that I may be approaching a time when I may start to have difficulty processing that kind of writing. At the same time, somewhere in the back of my head, I heard the voice of my former advisor declaring that he could not trust anyone who could only read Heidegger in English translation. At least I appreciate his reasoning. Sein und Zeit was rich with made-up words; and I suspect that one could write a fascinating thesis on the hypothesis that many, if not most, of the key ideas in the book may have emerged out of Heidegger's enjoyment in playing with words at the lexical level and then seeing what the semantic implications were. Still my advisor was taking a dig at a former colleague, who may have deserved the attack but probably should still have his name withheld.

Nevertheless, I feel I owe it to myself to see just what Heidegger was getting at (or trying to get at) in the massive (and incomplete) project. My reasons go back over a decade to when I was still part of the Silicon Valley research community and everyone was in thrall with the idea of "knowledge" (as opposed to "artificial intelligence") as an object of research, all in the interest of a domain that called itself "knowledge management." At the time I was working for a guy who felt that the future would lie in solving the problem he called "corporate memory" (also sometimes known as "institutional memory"). Put in the simplest terms, the problem was one of how the knowledge of an individual could outlive that individual (or at least that individual's tenure with the firm).

Unfortunately, I found myself following up on perspectives that made it clear that this "memory problem" was not one that could be solved by building bigger databases or better interfaces to those databases. The bottom line was that "knowledge" was not noun-based. Having knowledge did not mean having artifacts, even digital artifacts, that your rivals did not have. Rather, it was verb-based. Having knowledge was a shallow proposition. Knowledge only revealed itself through what we did.

I suppose that is why this research continued to interest me even after I broke my ties with Silicon Valley. It did not take long to surface in my thoughts about music, particularly my decision to prioritize the verb-based perspective of making music over the noun-based perspective that tries to reduce the study of music to the study of artifacts, such as score pages. Once, when I was trying to explain myself to a recent graduate from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, I said that everyone in Silicon Valley lived in a world of nouns and adjectives, while musicians can only live in a world of verbs. To my surprise, his eyes did not glaze over; and they even lit up a bit.

So I suppose it was only a matter of time before I would have to confront what Heidegger had to say about such things. After all, it does not take long for him to put up the precept that talking about "being" means talking about the word itself as a progressive verb rather than part of a noun form (as in "human being"). All this emerges in relative (at least for Heidegger) clarity long before he brings time into his approach to inquiry.

Fortunately, I can be patient about it, sometimes advancing only a few paragraphs at a time but without ever feeling as if I were in a hurry. This was the way I used to deal with things when I was still trying to bring the ideas behind my doctoral thesis into focus, and I was fortunate in having advisors who did not pressure me to rush things. Corporate research is not like that, nor, for that matter, is academic research, which is more beholden to funding sources than to intellectual inquiry. All I need to do is keep my own cerebral matter in shape and hope that I can maintain these practices for a few more good years, even if it is just for the pleasure of clarifying matters to myself.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Personalized Recommendation?

I was amused enough that The New York Times took the trouble to run a preview article about "The Demo," an "experimental" music/theater homage to Douglas Engelbart, that I took the trouble to read what John Markoff has to say, knowing full will his personal bias for all things Silicon Valley. Amused but skeptical, I then scrolled down to see what the Times had selected as "personalized recommendations." All three articles turned out to be about Robert Durst. Now, it happens to be true that both my wife and I followed The Jinx on HBO avidly. I suppose that it would not take much data mining to learn that I was an HBO subscriber, but had the Times taken the trouble to identify what I have been watching? Still, I have to admit that these were probably better recommendations than anything having to do with the Game of Thrones preview event at the War Memorial Opera House (which I had to endure only by being across the street at Davies Symphony Hall)!

Sunday, March 22, 2015


One of the more depressing consequences of delivering music through downloads is that no one seems to care very much about physical packaging any more. Still, in my own writing for, I still encounter a fair share of physical media; so I think I now have enough experience to offer what I hope is a judicious mixture of rant and praise. That major target of rant is not a new one. What Sony has done, particularly when it involves both classical and jazz recordings in the Columbia library, is orders of magnitude beyond reprehensible. About the only explanation I can come up with is that there is some kind of corporate policy that music exists only for background purposes, which puts the whole corporate mindset at odds with my mission, which is to encourage attentive listening among my readers.

I cannot say that any particular label has managed to stay on the positive side consistently. Where large collections are concerned, I like products that facilitate search. Labels like BMG reissues of RCA tend to be good about such things, although it did not take me long to find an item missing from the Toscanini index. Then there are the oversize collections with a booklet that is roughly the size of an old album for a twelve-inch LP. RCA had one of these for Ellington, and Deutsche Gramophon (DG) had one for their Karajan collection. Both of these were so poorly bound that they fell apart the first time they were opened. The index pages were great, but you had to get to the track listing page with considerable delicacy! On the other hand I have been really happy with the DG complete Brahms collection and the DG collection of Bach's organ music originally released on Archiv.

Still, the bottom line is that no one cares about these things any more, perhaps working from the premise that an uninformed listener is a better instinct buyer.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Service Providers that Don't

As a followup to yesterday's post about reality-checking innovation, I feel it worth noting that the problem goes beyond the invention of artifacts. Yes, we are drowning in innovative artifacts, all of which are developed to realizes scenarios about how much better things will be when they work, as if the failure of any mere artifact was not an option. However, things are no better in the service sector, possibly because prevailing thinking (such as IBM's effort to declare and then study "service science") seems to have gotten hooked on trying to reduce service to a product. However, Google does not help you find which shelf has the eye drops at your local pharmacy; and, even automatic checkout systems (like the one at Safeway) need a human to see to what happens when human behavior does not meet the expectation of the machine. Similarly, one of the channels on your cable system does not black out all by itself: A machine may implement breaking the connection, but it is responding to some policy decision (or, perhaps, the refusal of the service provider to accept the terms proposed by a particular channel).

These are not consequences of what happens when the technology breaks. They are "corollary events" that arise because, no matter how many machines there are, we are still part of a sector of people inhabiting the world. As people we are consumers of both products and services. The providers may wish that they would not have to deal with our all-too-human frailties, but they seem to have decided that denial is a better strategy than coping.

Still, there is a lesson to be learned here. Don't waste your time raging against the machine. Find out (perhaps with the help of one or more machines) who are the people behind the machine. They are the ones who should feel your rage!

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

A Mantra for an Innovation Reality-Check

Whether it involves blue-sky policy statements from President Barack Obama or the Kool-Aid of choice when the rich and mighty gather ever year for the World Economic Forum in Davos, there continues to be an obsession with innovation providing the key to solving all of the world's problems. We can be talking about new toys that create the need for new manufacturing jobs, automatic check-out that allows merchants to cut back on their staff, or driverless cars, that will allow anyone who can afford the car to feel as if (s)he acquired a chauffeur as part of the bargain. Whatever the promise, the mantra that needs to be learned is a simple one:
It works when it works.
(Come to think of it, the founder's of the European Union should have been taught that mantra.) The problem arises when the innovation does not perform as expected, usually because of one or more unanticipated consequences; and, as I have previously observed, "consequences" no longer seems to be part of the working vocabulary of those with the power to make major decisions. The reason I enjoy that Kool-Aid metaphor so much is that we now seem to be in a world in which decision-makers think only about assets, almost as if liabilities no longer enter the mindset. In previous centuries people who thought that way were quickly recognized as delusional. Now they are regarded as prophetic. Go figure it.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Beyond "Krafty"

Henry Miller never liked the Kraft company. He felt that they had not right to call what they were selling cheese, since their product was not even remotely related to any of the cheese he was eating when living in France. I think it was in The Air-Conditioned Nightmare that he referred to them as the "Krafty cheese company." Therefore, I am close to positive that he would never, in his wildest dreams, think of making a cheese sauce out of that powered stuff in a box of Kraft Macaroni & Cheese. Still I doubt that even his darkest thoughts harbored the notion that one of those boxes would contain metallic fragments. However, some of them apparently did; and, according to a BBC News report, Kraft is now in the process of recalling some 6.5 million of them. My wife decided to start making cheese sauces from scratch some time ago. On the other hand, she is not above starting with a packet of pre-shredded cheese; and who knows what those shredding machines might do?

New Results in the Study of Memory

It is unclear what to make of this morning's report on memory research filed by BBC News Science Reporter Jonathan Webb. It was definitely helpful that Maria Wimber, the University of Birmingham research whose results were being discussed, went to some length to emphasize that human memory did not follow the store-and-retrieve paradigm of computer memory. When she talked about memory "traces," she seemed to suggested that these were "trails" left by a dynamic process, possibly the way that indentations in the snow indicate not just a path that had been trod but even further details, such as the pace at which that path was traversed. Nevertheless, we must also recognize that the experiment that was discussed in Webb's article, involving recall of photographs of Marilyn Monroe and Albert Einstein, was more than a little artificial. Understanding the making of music is probably a more useful domain in which we may come to understand the dynamics of memory, but it is likely to take some time before we can collect data for such a complex setting.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Not to be a Stickler, but …

Apparently, everyone wants to make a big deal out of this year's Pi Day because it is 3/14/15, which matches the first four digits in the decimal expansion of pi: 3.1415. The thing is that, pi expanded to five decimal places is 3.14159. Thus, taking the usual conventions for rounding into account, the correct four-digit approximation of pi is 3.1416. In other words we shall have just as much excuse to celebrate a year from today!

Thursday, March 12, 2015

An Afterthought on Using and Building

Almost as if it had been intended as a follow-up to yesterday's post about the distinction between using and building technology, Jane Wakefield, BBC Technology Reporter, ran a story last night on what appears to be a nationwide commitment in the United Kingdom to encourage children towards becoming "digital makers" in a framework that has more to do with education and less to do with mere consumption.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

The Stupid "Tech-Savvy" Generation

The ABC7 Web site has a report on a recent study by Educational Testing Service on the skill levels "of adults born after 1980, aged 16 to 65, in 23 different countries." The bottom line is that, in the areas assessed, literacy, numeracy, and "problem solving in technology-rich environments," the United States has a secure position in the cellar. This does not seem consistent with the claim in the opening of the article that "the youngest Americans seem to be the most tech-savvy generation in history."

Consider, however, that this might not be an inconsistency. For better or worse, that "tech-savvy generation" is a generation that uses technology, rather than building it. Even if we factor in the purported success of Codeacademy in providing many of those kids with coding skills, that simply validates the (deliberately unattributed" observation I made in reporting on Codeacademy: "Any idiot can program a computer … and many of them do." It is one thing to write code and quite another to write code for the sake of building new technology or solving serious problems. For that, we need education, rather than Codeacademy; but before we have education we need of society and a government willing to recognize the necessity of quality education. Absent that, we had better start getting used to ourselves as the village idiots of cyberspace.

We're From the Government, and Would You Like Some Candy Little Girl?

Just when you thought you had run out of reasons that our government can no longer do anything right, the Inspector General for the Department of Justice comes along with a devastating report about the witness protection program. ABC reporter Jack Cloherty now has a story for the Web sites of ABC affiliates about known sex offenders whose identities have been changed for witness protection. Apparently, this means that the communities in which they have been placed are unaware of their past histories as sexual predators. Thomas Hobbes believe that government was suppose to protect us from the brutalities of life. Unfortunately, he never met anyone from an agency of the United States Government!

BBC Joins Those Seeking an "Apple Reality Check"

As I discovered from all the time I spent on discussion groups trying to resolve the many problems that arose with the upgrade to Yosemite, I am far from alone in complaining that Apple's house is far from in order, particularly where OS X is concerned. Still it was gratifying to find the BBC adding its voice (albeit an anonymous one) to the protests. Yesterday, the Technology division of Newsbeat responded to the latest new-product show here in San Francisco with an article trying to address why Apple was not fixing existing problems rather than coming up with new cool stuff to shove down our throats. Is this a policy decision that can be traced all the way to the top of the managerial food chain, or does it come from a slightly lower level while Tim Cook goes around "being a personality" with little clue about what is going on in the development and maintenance of his own products? Inquiring minds (not to mention shareholders) would like to know!

Addendum: After I wrote the story, BBC News broke the story about a general software failure in Apple operations that affected iTunes, App Store, and iCloud. It could not have come at a better time. This is not so much a matter of Schadenfreude as it is one of painful nostalgia for days when you could count on Apple when all of the alternatives left far to much to be desired. For my own work activities, I am constrained by the fact that requires the use of either Firefox or Chrome when I submit my articles. I cannot say that I have very much confidence in Chrome yet for either software or hardware. I suppose I might be able to work on Firefox on a Linux machine, but I am not sure how well it supports iTunes. I could care less about the download service they provide, but I have dug myself a hole by using them to index music I have downloaded from other sources. I have never felt that my personal work practices were sufficiently modest that they would not be hard to satisfy, but now it feels like Brünnhilde has finished building her funeral pyre and is about to put a match to it!

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Do My Readers Share My Tastes?

While I try very hard (even if I do not always succeed) to be equally fair to all styles of making music, I am inevitably pressed in conversation to name my preferences. These days I fall back on a simple formula: Anything before 1750 or after 1950. This morning's consultation of Google Analytics seems to suggest that the readership of my articles reflects that formula. The top item on my national site is a report of the latest uploads of videos from the San Francisco early music group Voices of Music. This is followed quite closely (at least in terms of statistical significance) by a report on two new albums of the piano music of Philip Glass that will be released later in the coming week. Needless to say, I did not hide my enthusiasm for writing either of these pieces; but I was pleased to see that such enthusiasm may have been infectious!

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Rationality Does Not Trump Hatred

There is something disconcerting about self-righteous reactions to hatred at its most brutal. Whether it involves desecrating ancient monuments, kidnapping and killing students, or protesting vigorously against the Affordable Care Act for no other reason than not being able to stand the idea of a black President, those who act out of hatred have no interest in listening to reason. Indeed, they are lashing out against conditions that they believe are products of rationality that have done them no good whatsoever, either because they really believe this or they are conditioned to believe it by those skilled in the consciousness industry. Cool heads do not prevail. Even Jesus discovered that. In our efforts to make the world a better place, we have dug ourselves into a very deep hole. Unfortunately, digging is all we seem to know how to do, meaning that the hole will only get deeper.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

It's All How You Look At It

According to Page Six of the New York Post, the major news of the day is that Kim Kardashian showed up for Paris Fashion Week with platinum blonde hair. However, depending on viewing conditions, some of us may see her hair as a very dark shade of blue. Since the New York Post believes that there is only one way of looking at things (and we know whose way that is), we cannot take anything they say at face (sic) value!

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Ignorance of History Strikes Again

Given our country's track record of dealing with apocalyptic Christian extremist cults, particularly on our own soil, our failure to understand what Malise Ruthven called the "Lure of the Caliphate" on her recent NYRBlog post and the power it exerts in both pursuing its vision and recruiting others for assistance is nothing short of catastrophic myopia.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Being a Jew Today

I was glad to see that the DC Dispatches blog for Al Jazeera English ran a post about the fact that the protesters in the anti-Netanyahu rally outside AIPAC, where he was giving his speech, included Jews. I also appreciated that the unnamed author post took the time to interview Jews that were inside listening to Benjamin Netanyahu's speech. One of them was Rabbi Eric Solomon of the Beth Meyer Synagogue in North Carolina. One particular quote from Solomon, however, stuck in my craw: "to be a Jew today - an active, proud Jew - means to be a Zionist."

I have never been a serious practitioner of Judaism. Indeed, I have been calling myself an atheist for several decades. However, since I was born Jewish, I think I have learned a thing or two about what it means "to be a Jew;" and my disagreement with Solomon may be representative of why I no longer with to have anything to do with any organized religion. The bottom line is that "to be a Jew" comes down to living by the precepts of the Old Testament; and, if one is very serious about this, one will take into account the considerable lore of how the text should be interpreted, involving the observations of rabbis going all the way back to the Babylonian Captivity.

Now I suppose that being a Zionist may involve accepting the text from Genesis citing the extent of the land that God granted to Abraham. However, much of the Old Testament involves that old adage, "The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away." Over the historical period covered by the Old Testament, land was gained, and land was lost. Furthermore, there are Old Testament stories that illustrate that battles lost often had to do with God punishing the Israelites for their pride. Apparently, these are portions that Solomon does not spend much time (if any) reading.

As a result, I side with the protestors on the outside, who collectively probably know more about Judaism than all of the AIPAC members on the inside.