Friday, May 31, 2013


As reported on the BBC News Web site, the winning word at this year's Scripps National Spelling Bee was "knaidel." Apparently, English is no longer sufficient to sort out the quality spellers. The winner, by the way, was Arvind Mahankali, whose relatives live in Hyderabad, India.

Those Who Can't Do Tell Teachers What to Do

While I do not always agree with Simon Schama's pronouncements, I feel strongly that everyone, regardless of nationality, should read Hannah Furness' account for the London Telegraph of his rant at the Hay Festival against the curriculum proposed for the British school system by Education Secretary Michael Gove. While many of Schama's barbs dig into a warped view of British nationalism, his strongest attack applies to any government body drinking the fashionable Kool-Aid flavored with the proposition that market-driven thinking reinforced with innovative technology will definite the future of education. Schama addressed an audience of teachers, describing Gove's plan to them as follows:
This is a document written by people who have never sat and taught 12-year-olds in a classroom. None of you should sign up to it until we trap Michael Gove in a classroom and tell him to get on with it.
Furthermore, this is far from an age-dependent issue. Schama is trying to maintain fundamental existential matters concerning the nature of education, matters that are taking a beating on every possible front, including universities, whose own brand of Kool-Aid has become the "massive online open courses" (MOOCs), recently surveyed for Reuters by Stephanie Simon. The only real market-driven thinking behind such projects is the recognition that there are big bucks to be made in dumbing down the population. The earlier the age at which this dumbing down can begin, the more bucks there are to make.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

HBO's Latest Success

This morning BBC News ran a story giving the Nielsen numbers for the first two screenings of Behind the Candelabra on HBO:
The television premiere of Behind the Candelabra, starring Michael Douglas as flamboyant pianist Liberace, was seen by 2.4 million people in the US. 
The Nielsen Company said it was the HBO network's biggest audience for one of its original movies since medical drama Something the Lord Made in 2004. 
A further 1.1 million people tuned in for a repeat of the film that aired immediately after Sunday's premiere.
I suspect that these numbers were due, at least in part, to the successful reception of this film at Cannes. However, I was still impressed, particularly having watching a BBC interview with Michael Douglas during the Cannes festival. Douglas made it a point to praise HBO for taking on projects that the Hollywood studio system would not touch (affirming the fact that, whatever impact "new media" may be having, that system is still firmly in place).

Ironically, I was aware of HBO Films long before I became an HBO subscriber. The first of their films that I saw was And the Band Played On, the 1993 docudrama based on the best-selling 1987 non-fiction book And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic by Randy Shilts. Even more ironically, I saw the film at the Singapore Film Festival at a time when Singapore public health policy (such as it was at the time) was still in denial over the significance of AIDS.

I have since become a staunch supporter of HBO's boldness when it comes to content production. I have not missed any one of David Simon's projects and to not plan to miss whatever he chooses to do next. Meanwhile, I cannot wait for July 14, which is when The Newsroom returns (particularly after I felt that the first season a touched so many sore nerves that I could not imagine the show being renewed)!

Monday, May 27, 2013

Researching "Cherry Red"

Today BBC New Business Reporter ran a profile on Cherry Red Records, which seems to have made a name for itself through its rock reissues. For me, however, the major connotation comes from my listening to Joe Williams singing with Count Basie and his Orchestra, specifically in a live recording from The Americana Hotel in Miami made on May 31, 1959. I discovered through a Google search that the phrase "cherry red" shows up often in rock songs. However, the real source seems to be a blues song by Big Joe Turner, whose lyrics (which have their own Web page) seem to be the following:
I ain't never loved and I hope I never will
Because a lovin' proposition, will get somebody killed
Lead me pretty baby, 'cause you know I can be led
Squeeze me pretty baby until my face turns cherry red
Basie's version seems to have been based on an arrangement by Pete Johnson and His Boogie Woogie Boys. The lyrics for this version were expanded and made a bit more explicit. Williams then spiced things up a bit further:
Take me, pretty mama
Put me in your Hollywood bed
Then you can love me baby
Rock me, mama
Till my face turns cherry red
There is a tendency to thing of how outrageous things got with the emergence of punk and similar trends, many of which seem to be the subject of the current Cherry Red Records reissues. I wonder if anyone over at the label's production headquarters appreciates how far back the raunchiness of their name reaches. In all probability Williams was wailing his version before any of them were born!

Saturday, May 25, 2013

A Mobile Reductio ad Absurdum

According to a report by Anna Lacey, producer of Health Check for the BBC, there is now an app in prototype called CrashAlert. It provides a red-light warning on your mobile device to let you know when a possible collision in your path. In other words it monitors the world around you while you are busy escaping reality by texting or reading your mail. Those interviewed all seem to agree that being distracted by your mobile device while walking is a bad idea. Rather than try to confront the major challenge of changing public habits in the social world, it would appear that the prevailing trend is to provide new technology that will make those habits even worse.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Lydia Davis Wins the 2013 Man Booker International Prize

I tend not to track awards. However, the Man Booker International Prize is for the full scope of a body of work, rather than a single book. I have written about Lydia Davis from time to time on this site, most recently in awe of her command of the use of the future perfect tense. As far as I am concerned, it is almost impossible to encounter a writer these days with an appreciation for the subtleties of verb grammar. Indeed, it is through the precision of her grammatical construction that Davis can often say so much with so few words in an age in which most writers seem to view logorrhoea as a selling point. I am glad that at least one award-giving committee recognizes the virtues of her work.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Tom Paxton is Still With Us

One of the more memorable songs to come out of the Sixties protest movement was Tom Paxton's "Daily News," a hilarious tribute to yellow journalism with the memorable phrase, "don't try to change my mind with facts." That could easily have been an alternative title for Paul Krugman's latest contribution to The New York Review of Books, whose actual title is "How the Case for Austerity Has Crumbled." The reason I propose my alternative title is that, while the logic behind that case for austerity has, indeed, been pretty thoroughly decimated, those who espouse it have not yet been swayed from their position.

Krugman not only recognizes this sad truth but also offers an explanation for it:
Everyone loves a morality play. “For the wages of sin is death” is a much more satisfying message than “Shit happens.” We all want events to have meaning. 
When applied to macroeconomics, this urge to find moral meaning creates in all of us a predisposition toward believing stories that attribute the pain of a slump to the excesses of the boom that precedes it—and, perhaps, also makes it natural to see the pain as necessary, part of an inevitable cleansing process. When Andrew Mellon told Herbert Hoover to let the Depression run its course, so as to “purge the rottenness” from the system, he was offering advice that, however bad it was as economics, resonated psychologically with many people (and still does). 
By contrast, Keynesian economics rests fundamentally on the proposition that macroeconomics isn’t a morality play—that depressions are essentially a technical malfunction. As the Great Depression deepened, Keynes famously declared that “we have magneto trouble”—i.e., the economy’s troubles were like those of a car with a small but critical problem in its electrical system, and the job of the economist is to figure out how to repair that technical problem. Keynes’s masterwork, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, is noteworthy—and revolutionary—for saying almost nothing about what happens in economic booms. Pre-Keynesian business cycle theorists loved to dwell on the lurid excesses that take place in good times, while having relatively little to say about exactly why these give rise to bad times or what you should do when they do. Keynes reversed this priority; almost all his focus was on how economies stay depressed, and what can be done to make them less depressed.
In other words people prefer to embrace a narrative with strong moral implications over a dispassionate analysis based on nothing more than mathematics. This should not be too surprising. Most people can follow a morality play far more easily than mathematical reasoning, and even those who know the math may still prefer the idea of judgment based on some form of divine judge over the outcome of a totally objective process. Look at how quick so many people are to dismiss the hard evidence of fossil records in order to reject the theories of Charles Darwin.

Krugman then observes that the only people who benefit from this irrational rejection of Keynes are (you guessed it) the rich. The austerity debate has provided the 1% with yet another way to stick it to the 99%. Furthermore, the assumption by the 1% that the Occupy movement would run out of steam seems to have come to fruition. So the rich will continue to live in a world of comfortable assets and benefits while the now-globalized world economy hurtles off a cliff, taking the rest of us down with it.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Fallen Condor

Al Jazeera English certainly came up with a good sentence to conclude their report of the death of military leader Jorge Rafael Videla, who ruled Argentina during some of its darkest repressive days:
Videla died while standing trial in a case focused on kidnappings and killings related to Operation Condor.
Nevertheless, Operation Condor deserves more than a passing citation in a concluding sentence, since it represents so many heinous acts which probably laid the groundwork for the blowback of the first two decades of this century. It thus seems advisable to reproduce the opening summary of the Wikipedia entry for this atrocity:
Operation Condor (Spanish: Operación Cóndor, also known as Plan Cóndor, Portuguese: Operação Condor) was a campaign of political repression and terror involving assassination and intelligence operations officially implemented in 1975 by the right-wing dictatorships of the Southern Cone of South America. The program aimed to eradicate communist or Soviet influence and ideas and to control active or potential opposition movements against the participating governments.
Due to its clandestine nature, the precise number of deaths directly attributable to Operation Condor is highly disputed. Some estimates are that at least 60,000 deaths can be attributed to Condor,[unreliable source?] and possibly more. Condor's key members were the governments in Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Paraguay, Bolivia and Brazil. The United States provided technical support and supplied military aid to the participants until at least 1978, and again after Republican Ronald Reagan became President in 1981 (see Dirty War#US involvement with the Junta, Dirty War#Anti-Communism, Operation Charly), with Ecuador and Peru joining later in more peripheral roles. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Israel earned more than $1 billion a year selling weapons, many of them American in origin, to the military dictatorships in Argentina, Chile and Brazil. "Thus while Argentine Jewish newspaper publisher and human rights advocate Jacobo Timerman was being tortured by the Argentine military in cells painted with swastikas, three Israeli generals, including the former armed chief of staff, were visiting Buenos Aires on a 'friendly mission' to sell arms."
This is definitely a case where a little context can go a long way!

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Will Pope Francis' Call for Fiscal Reform Begin at Home?

Pope Francis has made a bold move in calling for reform of the global financial system. Words like "Money has to serve, not to rule" make for powerful rhetoric; but it is hard to believe that this rhetoric will convince in our secular age. More interesting, however, is that the Institute for Works of Religion, which manages the Vatican's bank, will be releasing its annual report for review by the general public. According to today's BBC News report, this is the first time the Vatican has opened its books for public examination. This will allow for public debate over just how much Vatican wealth can realistically be divested in the service of one of the Pope's first public assertions:
I would like a Church that is poor and is for the poor.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The Complexity of Leaving Afghanistan

In trying to follow the election in Pakistan this past weekend, I found it very hard to get to any signal in a setting of media noise; and I am afraid that this was one of those cases in which the BBC was having as much trouble finding the signal as any of the American media were (even if the BBC was probably trying harder). Thus, I decided to hold off on my own opinions until Monday, when Ahmed Rashid posted "Pakistan: A New Beginning?" on NYRBlog. Rashid would rather try to provide a readable account of the full complexity of the situation than allow his readers the advantage of a predigested judgment from an "authorized" source.

What I did not expect was that Rashid's analysis would include implications for next year's withdrawal of United States troops from Afghanistan. I was glad to see this, since it is about time that the American public realize that this withdrawal is far from a simple matter of "sending the boys home" (with apologies for evoking a sexist slogan). As a result, the following may have been the most important paragraph in Rashid's post:
The Taliban now control wide swathes of northwestern Pakistan, which is largely inhabited by Pashtuns—the same ethnic group that lives in Afghanistan and from whom the Taliban on both sides of the border have emerged. Peshawar, the capital of the province Khyber Pakthunkhwa (KP), is virtually under siege; the army is fighting the Taliban in a valley just a few miles from the city. Imran Khan has won a majority of seats in the KP provincial assembly, which means his party will now govern the province. That will put to the test his election promises of ending the Taliban insurgency in the province and forcing the US to end its drone campaign in KP. However, many Pakistanis fear that Khan’s policies will mean surrendering to the Taliban’s extreme demands for Islamic law rather than standing up to them. Khan’s capture of KP is also certain to worry the US government, which views Khan as a Taliban sympathizer. When US troops withdraw from Afghanistan next year, they will need to use a road that traverses KP province to reach the port of Karachi, so the cooperation of the KP provincial government will be critical.
Withdrawal involves far more than just troops; and, when we start to assess just how much hardware has been provided to support those troops, we may have a better idea of just how deep a hole we dug for ourselves when we decided to go there in the first place.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The Appeal of Youth

I was glad to see that my piece for my national site about the new recording of Gustav Mahler's first symphony performed by the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra (SFSYO) seems to have created a surge in readership in that site. Even if that was basically a "vanity" reaction, I have been, on the whole, impressed with SFSYO performances; and those under the current Music Director, Donato Cabrera, have been particularly memorable. The fact is that the next generation is always far more interesting than the present one, for whom performance is more business than music. Then, of course, there is the "legacy generation;" but most of them have been so swept away by the business side of things that the music side of their knowledge only seems to emerge when they give master classes. Better to stick with talent struggling to be discovered and working harder than anyone else at the process!

Monday, May 13, 2013

From the Figurative to the Literal

As recently as this past January, I was using the phrase "arms race" with respect to malware in the metaphorical sense that Udi Manber had originally intended. However, a special report for Reuters by Joseph Menn, which was released last Friday, throws a new light on the current state of play in cyberwarfare. The development of malware has now become a literal arms race. Unfortunately, while the original arms race of the Cold War involved a "coevolutionary" link between two parties, the United States and the Soviet Union, the "ecology" of malware development has become far more complex, perhaps to the point that no one has any reliable estimate of just how many "runners" are participating in a race that, for all intents and purposes, is no longer purely metaphorical.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

A Question of Identify

I received a curious piece of physical mail the other day. It was clearly generated from a mailing list and was addressed to:
Stephen Smoliar, HR Manager
Guarantee Mortgage Corp
It was apparently notification of those Federal and California regulations that "my employees" needed to know. I was then provided with an order form for a poster stating all of these regulations. By posting it, I would comply with this need to notify. The envelope was made to look official, but this was yet another way of trying to sell something. My guess is that, in trying to create a customer list, some computer connected me to Guarantee Mortgage because they have been sending me junk mail about refinancing. I can only guess how many people panic on receipt of mail like this and send money just to avoid getting into trouble!

Thursday, May 9, 2013

100,000 Downloads of Rage

According to Forbes staff writer Andy Greenberg, who covers data security, privacy and hacker culture for both the print and online versions of the magazine, as of the end of the day yesterday, the file for creating the parts for the plastic (but functional) "Liberator" gun with a 3D printer has been downloaded 100,000 times. Back in 1974 David Hare wrote a rather tedious play entitled Knuckle, whose high point was the assertions that there were more guns in the world than there were people. In that context another 100,000 seems almost insignificant. One is reminded of Senator Everett Dirksen's famous remark about Federal spending:
A billion here, a billion there, pretty soon it begins to add up to real money.
The issue, however, is less about how we add up real guns. It's more that classic "Who are these guys?" question from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. My guess is that many of them are those frustrated individuals who have not yet felt any signs of economic recovery and to not see those signs in the foreseeable future. They are the weak animals who, when backed into a position where there is no escape from a predator, are willing to risk everything on a last burst of rage. (The fact that such animals do that means that it must have at least some survival value.) In that context, such a last burst of rage has just gotten easier to express.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Words from a Major Jazz Record Producer

My current reading project is a book entitled Mingus Speaks, which is basically a document of some twenty hours of interviews with Charles Mingus conducted by John F. Goodman. To put those interviews in perspective, however, Goodman adds third-party commentary, often the result of follow-up interviews. Thus, we have the following from Teo Macero:
And little mistakes, little balance problems, they never bother me. It's the excitement that's created by the audience, the enthusiasm and the charisma of the whole thing that is actually taking place at the moment.
For those unfamiliar with the name, Macero is often still singled out as the leading producer of jazz recordings, primarily on the basis of his work at Columbia Records with such major artists as Miles Davis. So here we have a man whose most memorable professional achievements involved making recordings, and he is saying that the communion between performer and audience is all that really matters! At least one guy has his priorities straight!

Monday, May 6, 2013

The Future in the Clouds

If, as Ken Hess has vigorously proclaimed on ZDNet, "the cloud will (entirely) replace in-house applications," does that mean that personal devices will go back to being no more than (possibly dumb) terminals connected to one or more time-sharing systems?

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Even THE NEW YORK TIMES Commits Editorial Fumbles

It was a real pleasure reading Steve Smith's review on the Web site for The New York Times of the revival performance of John Cage's "HPSCHD" given in New York this past Friday (which was probably also the East Coast premiere of the composition). (The article is supposed to appear in print tomorrow.) It was an even greater pleasure to discover that Neely Bruce, who had played harpsichord at the world premiere at the University of Illinois, was one of the performers. Less of a pleasure was the caption of the photograph of his participation, which identified him as "Bruce Neely!" Apparently, editing is no longer take seriously, even at The New York Times.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Current Practices of Governance on the Rocks

The United Kingdom seems to have become the most recent country in which an extremist party has made a dent in elections that are usually won by more "traditional" parties. This has prompted BBC News reporter to run a survey of those countries that have experienced similar tilts towards such extremism. His list runs as follows:

  1. United Kingdom
  2. Italy
  3. Greece
  4. France
  5. Netherlands
  6. Belgium
  7. Hungary
  8. Finland
  9. Denmark
  10. Sweden
  11. Austria
If this is a trend, then it reminds me of an experience during my student days. Those days were spent in Cambridge, Massachusetts; and they include the time when the municipal government of Boston tried to deal with racial discrimination in the public school system by introducing busing. The reaction of many working-class white neighborhoods (like those that can be found in the fiction of Dennis Lahane) tended to be violently ugly.

In the midst of these dark times, Louise Day Hicks mounted a campaign for mayor on a platform that appealed to those who wanted to get rid of busing. What surprised many was that Hicks also received support from several of the more activist black political groups. I think that included the Black Panthers, but I am not absolutely sure. What I do remember is an interview with a member of one of those groups in which he was asked why he would vote for someone who favored such a discriminatory policy. His answer has stuck with me ever since he gave it:
At least we know where she stands.
When Max Weber forecast that a society that placed the market as its highest priority would bring about "loss of meaning," I wonder if he realized that one of the ways in which meaning would be lost would be through the general acceptance that deception is fundamental to the practice of politics. In other words just about every political candidate can never be more effective than a bottle of patent medicine, perhaps just because the normative practices of politics have turned out that way.

This may be one reason why some many people flocked to Barack Obama's promise of change the first time he ran for President. However, changing political practices is like changing the course of a battleship. It takes a lot of time and a lot of advance calculation. Unfortunately, I suspect that the sorts of changes Obama had in mind all resided on the surface structure of our social world, dealing with matters such as health care, education, and poverty. He may not have grasped that change on the surface structure can only come about after the deep structure has been changed. By not taking that proposition into account, he continues to be undermined by that deep structure and now runs the risk of being undermined by those who will promise nothing other than taking a sledge hammer to that deep structure.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Making Lemonade from Beethoven's Lemons

If my piece was a bit sour about most of the selections in the first program prepared for the San Francisco Symphony's Beethoven Project, the good news may perhaps be that many people in the audience were cured of the impression that Beethoven was a "great man" who could do no wrong, meaning that they can spend less time agonizing over Thomas Carlyle and more time just bothering the listen to the music being presented to them!

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

On Education and Entertainment

This morning's Business section on the BBC News Web site has an article by Education Correspondent Sean Coughlan based on an interview with Jimmy Wales. This is likely to set up any number of red flags for many readers, beginning with the idea of an article about education classified as "business" and following through with the controversial subject of the interview. While I remain skeptical about the value of Wikipedia, I seem to have developed a reasonably reliable set of work practices for putting it to use, particularly when doing my writing for (I like to provide readers with hyperlinks to details for particularly obscure matters. Because Grove Music Online is behind a paywall, I like that hyperlink to point somewhere accessible to all readers.) However, I feel it is important to distinguish between how Wikipedia works and how Wales thinks, or at least how he talks about what he thinks (which is not always the same thing).

I would thus like to call attention to one of the sentences captured in Coughlan's interview:
I thought at that time, in the future, why wouldn't you have the most entertaining professor, the one with the proven track record of getting knowledge into people's heads?
This provoked me about as much as I had been when I heard Wales talk about the virtue of search results on Genghis Khan giving priority to his role in a battle that included Alexander the Great and Napoleon, even though that battle was a fabrication of Marvel Comics. It is not that I am opposed to entertainment. I like being entertained as much as anyone else. However, entertainment takes place in what I have called the "private reality" of the individual being entertained, which does not necessary have any relevant consistence with the reality of the social world in which that individual lives.

I would therefore like to argue that education is something that must, out of necessity, take place in both "private reality" and "social reality." Thus, just about all of the education that supported any of my most extensive research projects, as both a student and a professional, was grounded in a massive amount of reading and note-taking. This all took place in my private reality. Indeed, much of that reading involved Mortimer Adler's idea of the reader engaged in a conversation with the author; but any such conversation clearly existed only in my private reality. However, it then equipped me to emerge from that private reality to have real conversations about the ideas taking shape in my head.

Looking back on my undergraduate life, I sympathize with Wales dismissing large lectures as being tedious and boring. However, I worry more about the fact that undergraduate education is grounded on a considerable amount of reading, perhaps beyond the level of cognitive overload. Can one really relish the many poetic virtues of Homer's Odyssey when one also has to be fathoming the mysteries of angular momentum to prepare for two different classes the next day? To this day I am thankful that I did not have to read Marcel Proust as an undergraduate. I could only really appreciate him by reading him without external pressures, letting his text unfold at the pace I set for myself.

Entertainment does not solve this problem of cognitive overload. At best is masks it with an appealing surface, but that surface is distracting. The best teachers are the ones that allow you to make the transition from those conversations in your private reality into conversations in the social world. This cannot happen in a large lecture hall, nor can it necessarily happen in a video recording.

Wales' vision is one of education without effort. However, experience has taught me that one is only informed through the effort one exerts, whether the mental effort of wrestling with a text or the physical effort on trying to get your fingers around a late piano sonata by Ludwig van Beethoven. Yes, education needs to be reformed. However, that reform will require providing more social engagement of a higher quality; and entertainment is unlikely to contribute very much to creating and facilitating such engagement.