Tuesday, April 28, 2015

The Marvel Universe Rules the Collective Consciousness

The fact that a parody of the Marvel Avengers has now made its way to Sesame Street suggests that the collective consciousness of our country (if not our world) is more aware of the details of a plethora of fictitious Marvel characters than it is informed about anyone running for high office in just about any country. Mind you, I am not saying this is a bad thing. If I had to choose between sitting down for a drink with Tony Stark and having the same drink with Hillary Clinton, I would go for Stark in a New York minute. This is not because I am a Republican (God forbid). It's just that, when I want a conversation, I do not want to have to protect myself with a fine-meshed bullshit filter. Marvel has woven enough detail into Stark's character that I know his contribution will be ego-laden; but I also know that I shall probably listen out of a combined desire for information and entertainment. All Hilary wants is my vote and my willingness to extract votes from others. Is there really a choice here, even if Stark does not really exist?

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Spending Money Singapore Style

Leave it Singapore to find a cuteness factor in the act of spending money. Here in San Francisco I experience "contactless payment" through my Clipper card, which gets me on to most of the forms of public transportation that I use and can be "fueled" through machines and selected underground stations or remotely through a Web site. Singapore seems to have decided that a plastic card is just not cute enough, so they have replaced them with charms of the Hello Kitty character. Not only does this explore a new dimension to payment, but also it provides a new avenue for marketing. Here is how Aloysius Low described the business angle in his CNET article:
Each charm retails for S$24.90 ($18) and comes with no stored value. There are a total of four designs to choose from: pink, red, black and blue. The blue one is not sold individually -- you'll have to buy all four together, or be one of the first 1,000 customers, who can redeem one through the use of loyalty points.
O brave new world that has such cute toys in 't!

Monday, April 20, 2015

Is the NBA the Ultimate Toy?

It has been a while since I wrote about one of Chris Matyszczyk's Technically Incorrect columns for CNET. Today's, however, was an irresistible gem, devoted to Steve Ballmer's behavior as a Clipper's fan. The headline definitely captured the flavor of it all: "Steve Ballmer screams louder than at any developer conference." Reminiscent of the old I-love-this-game commercials, Balmer, at least according to Matyszczyk, has found his calling as the ultimate fan:
His eyes bulged. His mouth opened to the wingspan of a pterodactyl. His commitment spewed over the Staples Center, until it surely engulfed all who were there.
My guess is that Ballmer lives by the rule that life is all about having the most and the best toys, and in now having the Clippers he seems to relish having a toy for all the world to see.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

The Battle over the word "Genocide"

This morning Belen Fernandez submitted a fascinating opinion piece to Al Jazeera English entitled "The Kardashian factor and the G-word." The "G-word" is, of course, "genocide;" and it has been attracting a lot of attention in the weeks leading up to the 100th anniversary of the killing of some 1.5 million Armenians by Ottoman Turks. To call the word sensitive is the height of understatement. Switzerland convicted a Turkish politician for denying that the noun was appropriate, while Turkey itself will only allow the word if it is quarantined by scare quotes.

Fernandez, however, is not interested in the roots of this controversy. Rather, she felt obliged to write about how it had been overtaken by public relations interests, particularly pertaining to member of the Kardashian and Clooney families. (Amal Clooney represented the Armenians in a case argued before the European Court of Human Rights.) She feels that all this emphasis on public relations, much of which spins off into marketing, has reduced a major issue to inanity.

Is she correct? There is a Gedankenexperiment that might warrant or refute her hypothesis. Simply find an appropriate sample space of subjects, each of whom will be shown Fernandez' headline. Ask them all what the article is about; and, if we want to have some fun, ask the question twice, before and after they have read the article. If, indeed, the substance of Fernandez' message has been obscured by a "Kardashian halo," then she has made her point.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Osedax: The New Villain for Those who Dig

Back when PBS ran Michael Wood's In Search of the Trojan War series, I learned that gerbils were the bane of archeologists. Everything we thought we knew about the underground layers of different cities of Troy from different eras was called into question. As a result of gerbil tunneling, one could not assume a simple relationship between depth and distance in time.

Now there is a new villain on the scene, this time undermining (so to speak) the world of fossil hunters. It turns out that Osedax has a voracious appetite for bones; and, according to Michael Franco's CNET article, they have probably been around for about 100 million years. As a result, much of the fossil record through which we can track the rise and fall of different life forms is far less abundant than we had hoped because it has been eaten! I realize that there may not many readers willing to shed a tear for evolutionary biologists whose efforts have been frustrated by this little red worm that has neither mouth nor stomach, but the course of true knowledge never did run smooth!

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Does Anyone Bother to Read What They Write?

This comes from the "Top Stories" electronic mail sent out by the San Francisco Chronicle this morning:
One possible explanation is that, in our brave new world of communicating through cell phones with our thumbs, no one pays attention to spelling any more. Another is that, due to dire financial straits, the Chronicle decided that it would make sense to take proofreading out of the workflow.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Who's Afraid of Arnold Schoenberg?

I was stuck by the fact that the music review in today's San Francisco Chronicle managed to account for just about everything that happened at last Thursday's matinee concert and the SoundBox event that same evening except for the performance of Arnold Schoenberg's Opus 9b chamber symphony in its orchestral version. Given that John Adams' chamber symphony (on the same matinee program) was a product of the composer trying to learn the Schoenberg piece well enough to conduct it, this struck me as at least a little bit negligent. Nevertheless, I have to confess that any of the versions of the Schoenberg (including Eduard Steuermann's solo piano transcription) remain more opaque to me than any of the hypertrophied abstractions of Iannis Xenakis. In fact, yesterday was the first day I could detect one of Schoenberg's motif's lurking in Adams' score. So, if Virgil Thomson believed that we should write about music in order to explain, I have to confess that this particular Schoenberg piece is still beyond my capacity for explanation. Still, I once gave advice to a high school student that could be distilled into a single sentence: Write what you remember. At least memory served me with the ability to detect one instance of the presence of the Schoenberg in the Adams, even if I have no idea if any more exist. That meant that I could not allow myself to ignore either Schoenberg's music or its impact on Adams' music!

Friday, April 10, 2015

Cat Explores Old Optical Illusion

Now that everyone is bored with arguing over the color of a dress, along comes a photograph of a cat with the question of whether it is walking upstairs or downstairs. However, this is basically an appropriation of an optical illusion listed in Wikipedia as the Schroeder stairs. Here is the original version:

The basic idea is that you can view either A or B as the outer face of a stair structure. The the first case you see stairs descending to the floor; in the second case they are rising to the ceiling. As the Wikipedia author observed, this illusion inspired Escher's "Convex and Concave."

In this case a photographer figured out how to photograph a staircase to allow for the same kind of ambiguity in interpretation. The cat was then added just to make the image interesting. The point has less to do with the reality of the setting in which the photograph was taken and more with how it reproduces a classical optical illusion, older than the cat and everyone looking at the photograph.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Remembering Stan Freberg

I was glad to see The New York Times run such an extensive obituary by Douglas Martin for Stan Freberg, who died yesterday at the age of 88. Back when I worked at the MIT campus radio station, Freberg was our patron saint. We could only run advertising on our AM band, which was restricted to the campus; but we had a policy of running any commercial created by Freberg at no charge. (This was when he was led a major campaign for Salada Tea featuring the misfortunes of the Kringleman Koffee Company.) The bottom line was that Freberg only cared about those smart enough to get his jokes, which may explain why his fans included Albert Einstein and David Mamet. Even Mad Men cited one of his lines, but I fear that few of us remain who can inject Freberg quotes into conversational discourse.

Monday, April 6, 2015

HBO Becomes Part of its Own Story (again)

HBO seems to be running up an interesting track record when it comes from taking the news as a point of departure and then becoming the news. I suppose I was first aware of it when John Oliver ran a monologue about net neutrality that concluded by encouraging viewers to make their thoughts known to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), explaining how they could do so through the Internet. It was pretty simple, since the FCC had set of a site for collecting comments; and the viewer response to Oliver was massive enough to crash that site. More recently, The Jinx led to a revival of attempts to investigate the role of Robert Durst in several unsolved murder cases.

Last night, however, Oliver raised the stakes to an unexpected height. His show had been off the air for a couple of weeks, and he had told viewers that this would be the case. Last night we found out why: Oliver had traveled to Russia to interview Edward Snowden on the issue of government surveillance. This turned out to be a major undertaking, and the show ran about fifteen minutes longer than usual. As had been the case with net neutrality, Oliver began with an extended monologue with his personal stamp of low humor aimed at bringing awareness to admittedly complex issues. There was also a fair amount of low humor in the Snowden segment, but not enough to mask when things got serious. Oliver even persistently argued that at least some of Snowden's actions could justifiably be called irresponsible, and he even managed to milk a reluctant acknowledgement from Snowden. Nevertheless, he let Snowden say his piece about the irresponsibility of current surveillance activities; and, to his credit, Snowden gave some rather good explanations for the why and how the National Security Agency could get away with doing what they did (and are probably still doing).

I suspect that the most important result of the show was that Oliver went a long way towards undermining the efforts of our government to demonize Snowden. It is clear that Snowden will never set foot in the United States as long as he runs the risk of being tried for treason and then executed. Nevertheless, his is a major voice in any debate that takes place over the complex relationship between security and privacy; and last night he demonstrated that he is given more to calm and rational speech than to the strident rants that have become so popular in our excuse for national discourse.

The net neutrality broadcast had particular impact because it ended with an action item. Last night there was also a need for action regarding a legislative stand on the content of the Patriot Act that must be reviewed by June 1. However, Oliver did not push for a write-in campaign, because it would be more difficult in this case. Therefore, the major impact of his broadcast may have been to demonstrate to the so-called "news" networks that neither Snowden's voice nor the issues he has raised can be ignored if we are to maintain even the pretense of a free society. Unfortunately, this is a matter of considerable complexity. Perhaps Oliver's next program should discuss how our country has allowed its educational system to deteriorate to a point that we no longer have the skilled minds to take on such complexity.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

East is East

The latest issue of The New York Review has a fascinating article by Steve Coll entitled "Hitler & the Muslims." It basically involved efforts by the Nazis to transmogrify precepts of Islam for their own propaganda purposes. Adolf Hitler himself was active in this process; but even more active was Heinrich Himmler, who apparently admired the discipline of Muslim troops in battle. Most interesting, however, is the history-repeats-itself irony that surfaces towards the end of the article:
Still, as in Berlin between the wars, failure has proven no deterrent to persistence in Washington, where Pentagon planner continue to act as if they can win wars in the Middle East by deftly manipulating and arming tribes, sects, and Islamic leaders in scattered territories they barely know.
It takes guts to find a parallel between Nazi and American reasoning; but, considering the mess our country has made out of its relations with the Islamic world, a swift "boot to the head" may be what it required to bring a bit of sensibility into the decision-making process.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Rating the Freshness of Food Purchases

I have to say that I have been relatively pleased with the alliance formed between KGO-TV (the ABC affiliate for the Bay Area) and Consumer Reports, particularly since the latter seems to have dropped the "lifetime" subscription as a reward for a donation I made many decades ago (reminding me a bit of Monty Python and the Holy Grail). Nevertheless, I have always been skeptical about Consumer Reports articles about food and nutrition, since they would often base their findings on attributes that different from the criteria stressed by other concerned organizations, such as the Center for Science in the Public Interest. Therefore, I have to question the value of today's report on the quality of fresh produce at different outlets. Regardless of the criteria behind the evaluations, the entire path that brings an item of produce to a customer's shopping bag is long, involved, and totally local. Thus, I have to wonder if, when a particular store is listed in operating out of a large number of states, the resulting rating is an averaging over all of those states or the result of examining only a few (or even one) of them. Even more problematic is that the ratings may have depended in when the outlets were evaluated, since it is not hard to imagine conditions changing radically from one week (or day) to the next.

These days my biggest concerns with inventory, fresh or processed, is how decisions are made. It is not hard to imagine that the large chains now relegate all such decisions to software. They all have had problems making ends meet since the economic downturn, meaning that they have all had to downsize, meaning that they probably let go of a good deal of "expert knowledge," letting some fast-talking consultant convince them that the knowledge would be "preserved" in the software. Indeed, I think we all have cause for concern that the expertise of a human evaluator may be out of the loop for just about any purchase of food made anywhere, with the possible exception of farmers' markets. Furthermore, I suspect that Google-informed consumers have less intuitive knowledge about when the food they buy may be contaminated or just spoiled. The conspiracy theorist in me wonders whether this all amounts to a skillfully calculated plot to "reduce the surplus population!"

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

The Fall in Scotch Whisky Exports

This morning the BBC News Web site ran a story about 2014 being the first year in a decade in which the export of Scotch whisky fell. The decline was 7%, and sales to the United States fell by 9%. I appreciate the date on which this story was filed, but I do not think it is a joke. Most of the point made in the subsequent analysis make good sense. Indeed, the only problem I had was that I think those who prepared the report overlooked one interesting change in the American market.

I have developed a keen taste for Scotch whiskies for some time. It began back in the Eighties, when I was working for a French company where everyone was trying to be a wine snob. I decided that, rather than compete, I would develop an alternative speciality; and a business trip to Scotland helped me make that decision. Now that I have retired, I am spending less on my personal collection; but I still like to check out bars to see what sorts of alternatives they offer.

What I have discovered here in San Francisco is an increase in the number of choices but also an increase in the number of sources. There has been a rise in artisanal brewing and fermenting in the United States that now goes far beyond beer and wine. The greatest variety these days seem to be in rye, and for one option there is even a distillery here in San Francisco. The United States may not yet have come up with competition for a good peaty single malt, but there are still a generous number of alternatives. Perhaps the Scots should come over for a visit to learn a bit about their competition.