Wednesday, July 31, 2013

An Admirable Effort to Filter the Kool-Aid out of Social Business

When I first read Dion Hinchcliffe's promotional (I should probably say "self-promotional") article about "social business" on ZDNet, I was really worried that the Kool-Aid had finally made it into the general water supply. I was reminded of Enrico Fermi's put-down of a talk that had purported to be a presentation of research results in physics:
It isn't even wrong!
The source of the Kool-Aid can apparently be traced back to Jeremiah Owyang, who has become the (possibly self-appointed) chief evangelist for "Collaborative Economy." Here is how Hinchcliffe explains the concept:
The basic idea of the Collaborative Economy, like so many major shifts, is actually pretty simple: The world has started moving beyond the simple mass sharing of ideas and media over the Internet. Instead, we have now begun sharing products and services directly with each other en masse using the same social media principles. Owyang believes, and early evidence is starting to support, that this will be much more disruptive than the first wave of social media was.
As might be guessed, one of Owyang's chief acolytes is Thomas Friedman, who may be living proof that you can fool some of the people all of the time.  More to the point, this may be an even more devastating consequence of what Andrew Keen dubbed "the cult of the amateur" than the con job of "Innovative Journalism" peddled in April of 2013 at a conference at Stanford University.

Every con needs to start with a success story. In this case the stories have formed around person-to-person sharing applied to both accommodations (Airbnb) and transportation (Uber). In the latter case there has been some pretty serious push-back, coming primarily from professional taxi and limousine services. Here in California that push-back worked its way to argue its case before the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), the case being that there are any number of factors of professionalism (such as dealing with liabilities concerning both customers and service providers) that risk being casually overlooked under the spell of the imbibed Kool-Aid.

CPUC recognized the merits of this case. Yesterday, they issued the following statement:
The Commission is aware that TNCs [Transportation Network Company] are a nascent industry," the proposal reads. "Innovation does not, however, alter the Commission's obligation to protect public safety, especially where, as here, the core service being provided -- passenger transportation on public roadways -- has potential safety impacts for third parties and property.
That statement was then reinforced with a ruling, summarized by Dara Kerr in an article for CNET News as follows:
The California Public Utilities Commission published a proposal on Tuesday that said it would allow companies like Uber, Sidecar, and Lyft to operate in the state if they adhered to certain guidelines. These guidelines require drivers to be licensed by the CPUC, go through criminal background checks, attend driver-training programs, carry $1 million per-incident insurance coverage, and have a zero-tolerance policy on drugs and alcohol.
The good news is that the TNCs here in San Francisco seem to support this proposal, supposedly meaning that they will be willing to follow those guidelines. Whether or not other businesses based on that Collaborative Economy will embrace such reality checks as willingly is anyone's guess.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Total Freedom and Total Control

I was a bit surprised to discover that an article I wrote last week about a free improvisation gig received an impressive number of page views (at least according to Google Analytics). This was a bit ironic since the article itself was very narrow in scope: I chose to "examine" a single set by a single group over the course of a three-set evening. Indeed, I even let the organizers know that I was leaving after that first set, simply because there was too much in my head to risk any of it being crowded out by two more rounds of stimuli.

I now find myself facing another irony. Deutsche Grammophon just released a Complete Works box of the music of Pierre Boulez. (Are they assuming that he has given up composing?) Many of Boulez' earliest pieces involved a highly discipline use of systems to control the specific details of every mark on the score page. I once gave a seminar talk about one of those systems, at the end of which I tried to reconcile the listening experience with all of the detail that had gone into the composing experience.

I have previously cited Virgil Thomson's observation that music composed through a system of absolute control (Boulez) cannot be differentiated from music composed through a system of absolute chance (Cage). (Since writing that post, I discovered that there was a rather extensive exchange of letters between Boulez and Cage at the time that each of them was exploring the possibilities of his systematic approach. There was a good deal of amicable exchange in those letters, but the relationship did not last.) However, I think it is important to remember that "free jazz" is not a matter of turning things over to chance in any systematic manner. Rather, it involves spontaneity in the activity of making music.

The problem is that spontaneity is not easy to achieve. We are always informed by our past activities, and it is virtually impossible to ignore them when we set out to invent something new. I would thus argue that one of the great pioneers of "free improvisation" was Johann Sebastian Bach, whose pedagogical approach was based on the premise that the capacity for invention is tightly coupled to the technical command of execution. On the basis of this premise, I found that I could write about a free improvisation performance in terms of hypotheses as to where the performers had acquired their respective skills of proficiency of execution; and the article turned out to follow and interesting thread running backwards through a few key "stations" in music history. I would not argue that the validity of my hypotheses was not necessarily important. Rather, I found myself advocating the act of hypothesizing as a strategy for listening to free improvisation.

The question now is whether or not such hypothesizing is equally valid as a strategy when total control (by either system or chance) is involved!

Monday, July 29, 2013

Is There a Place for Reality in the Draper U Curriculum?

Reading Kathleen Pender's story in yesterday's San Francisco Chronicle about Draper U, Tim Draper's non-accredited short-term boarding school for aspiring entrepreneurs, left me feeling very queasy. The whole thing reeked of yet another con job cooked up by a "motivational speaker," differing only to the extent that it might provide a bit more hard data. I think there is something wrong with a culture that has made so much of a mess of the world of "real work" that the next generation will think that entrepreneurial pursuits may be the only option. The more I read, the more I worried that Draper's setting might be more than a little too coddling for a training process that should be designed for filtering. It is one thing to teach students to be unafraid of failing. It is another to throw them into a situation were success is about as unlikely as in athletics or opera and then sermonize on learning from failure. My fear is that these will be kids who end of failing too many times and may then react to the prospect that failure is the only option in some sociopathic manner.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Myopic Reimagining

I just finished reading Mary Branscombe's review of Business Reimagined: Why work isn't working and what you can do about it, by Dave Coplin, which showed up on ZDNet early this morning. I have nothing to complain about as far as the "message" of the book is concerned. The only thing that bothers me is that nothing in the book, at least as accounted for by Branscombe, is new. We were going down the same road fifteen years ago, when we were calling it "knowledge sharing," particularly the part about paying as much attention to the social infrastructure of the workplace as to the supporting technology. These days the very mention of knowledge sharing is like to do nothing more than raise eyebrows. Any strong reaction will probably entail some impolite reference to Kool-Aid.

According to her biographical statement for ZDNet, Branscombe "has been a technology writer for nearly two decades." This would imply that she was around when they started serving that Kool-Aid. Was she not around as the movement grew and then fizzled? One can ask the same about Coplin, but these days we are not surprised when authors churn out new books before doing any background homework. The bottom line is that Branscombe and Coplin both represent the current condition of willful myopia whenever "historical knowledge" is involved, which just means that they are both model representative of the community of technology specialists!

Thursday, July 25, 2013

The Future of Writing

Those interested in fiction tend to also follow both reviews and news of prestigious awards. However, neither of these gives any indication of how a writing of fiction manages to make ends meet. I was therefore amused today to find a post to craigslist with the headline:
Experienced Fiction Writer Wanted
Naturally, I wondered about the details. Was this a new opportunity to find work with the CIA or NSA? Had Rupert Murdoch come up with yet another boiler-room operation? Here (in its entirety) is what I found:
Highly accomplished team of business and publishing executives is looking for a skilled writer with special acumen in character development and the collaborative process to help complete a complex novel that has strong commercial appeal. The story is fully plotted, but we are open to creative ideas on structure, characters or color.
The story is a timely, dark comedy that takes place in the rarefied world of San Francisco society. No personal knowledge of S.F. is required. More details will be forthcoming for interested and qualified applicants.
The creative team consists of a Wall Street executive (and former journalist), a Los Angeles-based television executive, a top NY-based magazine and book editor and a senior editor at a major metropolitan newspaper who has written and directed three films.
This may not be a Murdoch scheme; but it strikes me as an interesting sign of how assembly-line thinking has now found a place in the production of what once may have been called "literature!"

Monday, July 22, 2013

Does it Really Make Sense to Talk about the "Syntax" of Music?

Last week I started questioning the "standard terminology" we tend to use when talking about music, not only in the domain of music theory but also in the talk that arises in the course of trying to prepare a performance. I suggested that the concept of syntax might be relevant when we want to talk about any structure that involves more than a linear ordering. such as order based on elapsed time. I offered, by way of an example, Heinrich Schenker tried to view embellishment from a hierarchical point of view (meaning, basically, that one can think in terms of embellishing the embellishments). Since then, I have been having second thoughts about whether or not it really makes sense to talk about a hierarchy of embellishments as a syntactic structure.

When we talk about language, it is easy to get seduced into thinking about syntax in terms of tree structures. This is particularly true of those of us who grew up having to diagram sentences in secondary school. The idea of having such a diagrammatic representation at all is predicated on the premise that every word can be classified according to some syntactic category, such as noun or verb. These categories admit of relationships that can be defined among them. Thus, a noun may have the relationship of being the subject of a verb, while an adverb may relate to that same very by modifying it. The tree structure that one builds in the course of a syntactic analysis therefore does a "double duty" of representing both the categories of the words and the relationships across those categories.

Do Schenkerian hierarchies of embellishment make sense in this framework? I have my doubts. The elements of elaboration are defined in terms of patterns based on convention. Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach tried to catalog these patters in the second chapter of his Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments. He did a rather impressive job for his time; but it is important to remembers that his focus was on playing an instrument, rather than composing for one (a position he shared with this father, Johann Sebastian). Schenker's system amounted to a revival of Emanuel Bach's perspective but applying it to analysis by execution; and, in terms of how we have come to think about music theory, he may have opened a Pandora's Box in the process.

I would like to suggested that embellishment does not readily fit into either the syntactic categories used to classify words or, for that matter, the semantic categories postulated by different approaches to discourse structure. To use Schenker's own terminology, embellishment is not about the modification of one construct by another; rather, it is about prolonging the time-span of a "musical event." Prolongation has less to do with entities that might be construed as the primitives of some syntactic structure and far more do to with the underlying phenomenon of time-consciousness, without which we can neither make nor listen to music. As I previously suggested, time-consciousness must be with us, even at the lowest level of filling silence with sound. Thus, it may well be that, if we wish to talk about structure at all, we need to talk in terms of constructs applicable to time-consciousness, rather than any of those marks on paper that may abstract those constructs but, through abstraction, have become too remotely removed from the domain of the music itself.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

The Sluggish Path to Pardon

Chris Matyszczyk used his Technically Incorrect column for CNET News this morning to observe that the House of Lords is likely to debate and then approve granting a pardon to Alan Turing for his previous conviction on the crime of "gross indecency" (the epithet of the time for homosexuality). Turing's sentence included chemical castration, and his criminal status probably led to his suicide at the age of 41 in 1954. The headline for Matyszczyk's piece (which I assume he composed himself) is:
Code-breaker Alan Turing to be pardoned (finally)
While I sympathize with the parenthesis, I have to observe that the House of Lords has reacted with far prompter "deliberate speed" than the Vatican did in coming up with a pardon for Galileo. It seems appropriate to recognize this on a weekend that featured the opening of a new animated film about a racing snail.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

The Harmony Question

I realized that neither harmony nor counterpoint showed up explicitly in that list of "fundamental concepts" I was considering yesterday. The closest I got was that counterpoint arises from the superposition of melodies, from which one may then conclude that harmony arises from the simultaneity of intervals that arises when the melodies are superposed. This may be a useful departure from how most of us were taught to think about harmony. While I do not want to throw the baby of the tonic-dominant relationship out, the bathwater of assigning "chord labels" to any set of notes that happens to be sounding at the same time may deserved to be sent down the drain. After all, a lot of the "dissonances" of twentieth-century modernism may simply be products of sounding a bunch of triads at the same time (regardless of whether or not there is any "harmonic relationship" between pairs of triads or whether some kind of "polytonality" is in play).

It is all very well and good to attach label to all the steps of the scale, to represent those labels by Roman numerals, and then to elaborate on that representation with Arabic numerals through some technique such as figured bass. The question is whether or not we are simply replacing the simultaneity of notes that we see on the score page with an alternative set of abstract symbols and then assuming that "harmony" involves reasoning about the symbols rather than about what those symbols designate. Suppose that, as Heinrich Schenker did, we go back to the basics of the harmonic series, not for the sake of trying to define an Ursatz but as an axiomatic assertion that the ear does best when trying to detect perfect fifths (the interval between the third and second harmonic) and major thirds (the interval between the fifth and fourth harmonic).

If we were to begin with that axiom, than, rather than trying to label chords, we would try to "parse" any simultaneity as a composition of interval relationships using nothing more than the first five harmonics as a point of departure. Clearly, this will not take us very far. We do not want to derive all of our intervals through long migrations down the circle of fifths. However, Schenker may have been on to something in his harmony textbook when he suggested the idea of combining major and minor scales. Thus, for example one would "parse" the minor third from C to E-flat as the result of taking the major third from C to E and then shifting the underlying scale from C major to C minor. (Note, as an aside, that I am trying very hard not to make this sound like a "generative" system. I have nothing against generative grammars; but they often "generate" complex objects that can be analyzed with pencil and paper but would elude the demands of "real-time thinking" when listening to spoken language.) I would suggest that this approach to parsing a large number of simultaneities would tell us more about what the ear responds do than any amount of traditional labeling.

I would now like to go a bit further out on a limb and suggest that such parsing already takes place among those who actual perform music, rather than just analyze the symbols on score pages. One you depart from keyboard instruments, just about every instrument has some capacity for subtle adjustments to pitch through intonation. Thus, we have had studies about whether or not, for example, string players orient themselves with respect to the fifth in the natural harmonic series rather than the seven-semitone span of an equal-tempered chromatic scale. Intonation amounts to adjusting the pitch you are sounding to the pitch that another instrument is sounding, which means you have to decide what interval your are trying to create and with respect to what other pitch.

This would be a more "action-based" approach to harmony, concerned more with what you do during the immediacy of performance than with how the marks on the score page can be reduced to some abstract structure. It would also be consistent with a story about Thelonious Monk that shows up in Robin D. G. Kelley's biography. In that book we read that Monk really disliked beginners who would improvise over the chord changes, doing little more than run up and down arpeggio patterns. He insisted that the melody should always be the basis for improvisation. If the player respected that principle, then the harmony would take care of itself. To be more crude about it, if the listener can follow what the improviser is doing to the melody, then (s)he will not give a rat's ass whether or not it gets stuck on the ambiguity of a tritone!

All of this is still far from being even half-baked. However, I figure it is about time that I take the name of this blog seriously again. Research is always a matter of rehearsing ideas before subjecting their claims to the rigors of argumentation. The "rehearsal studio" is where those ideas first emerge; and this document is a "laboratory notebook" of "unkempt thoughts." More serious thinking can kick in once is seems as if those thoughts have some "legs."

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Getting Beyond Standard Terminology

I finally seem to have built up some momentum in my efforts to read Music, Language, and the Brain by Aniruddh D. Patel. I was drawn to it because the author wrote it while on a fellowship at The Neurosciences Institute in San Diego, and I have been interested in that facility as a result of my following Gerald Edelman's efforts to develop a viable model of consciousness. Patel has been very thorough in writing this book, and his thoroughness makes reading it a difficult slog. However, for all of its academic technique, I fear it may be missing the forest for all the the trees it tries to take into account.

One of the things the appealed to me about Edelman was that he was willing to abandon familiar terminology in trying to grasp the nature of mind. The words we use tend to influence our thinking; and, when we adopt words from the legacy of others, we run the risk of adopting the worldview of that legacy as well. Edelman had the courage to rethink worldview; and, even if his current round of conjectures do not survive validation, there is a lot to be said for his method.

As one might guess, the thesis Patel is trying to pursue is one of identifying one or more relationships between how mind thinks about music and how mind thinks about language. He approaches this task by examining a different aspect of music in each chapter. My reading thus far has taken me through the following topics:
  • Sound elements
  • Rhythm
  • Melody
  • Syntax
Several things trouble me about this strategy. Most important is that the book does not seem to acknowledge that listening to music should be considered in terms of its relations to making music, rather than just from the "audience point of view." This may be because science has traditionally shown a bias in favor of matters of perception in preference to matters of action, and this raises another point. Anything having to do with sound, such as music or spoken language, only exists in the time domain. It is a product of action, rather than some static image that we can analyze without knowing a lot about its source. As Edmund Husserl observed, music does not exist in the mind unless the mind has time-consciousness. Edelman recognized that time-consciousness is not axiomatic; and he put a lot of effort into relating it to the other components of his model of "primary consciousness."

With all of those disclaimers, it seems necessary to dispense with "standard terminology" until we can try to fix what it is we really mean when using those terms, impeded by as little technical baggage as possible. This is the sort of thing I mean with respect to the above four topics:
  1. When we talk about "sound elements," we are actually talking about those basic signals that form sensory impressions, signals that only exist in the time domain.
  2. Thus, we are actually talking about the sensation of events; and, at a further level of time-consciousness, it is through rhythm that we recognize how sequences of events are structured.
  3. When we then subject those signals we associated to sound elements to sequencing structured by rhythm, we have melody.
  4. However, in the broader scheme of both listening to and making music, structure involves more than linear ordering. Embellishment, for example, involves some level of hierarchy (and, if we believe Heinrich Schenker, many levels). Counterpoint involves the sophisticated interplay of sequencing within voices and the harmonies that emerge when those voices are superposed. We tend to associate the noun "syntax" with such higher-level structuring; but, where music is concerned, this is a far cry from diagramming sentences.
Of course the proposition that these alternatives may facilitate our arriving at a better understanding of what mind does with music is still conjectural. However, I am a firm believer in documenting conjectures. You never known when you may be able to validate one of them!

Monday, July 15, 2013

How Development Breeds Violence

In celebration of their 50th anniversary, The New York Review of Books has been reprinting excerpts from notable pieces (usually by equally notable authors) from past issues. The excerpt in the current issue is from "Reflections on Violence" by Hannah Arendt, a political theorist and philosopher who saw enough violence in her time to claim the right to make her observations. (The hyperlink on the title leads to the original full article.)

Arendt's article turns out to be a penetrating attack on the prioritizing of "progress" (and associated concepts, such as "growth" and "development") above all other concepts. By viewing "violence" as a specific instance of the more general concept of "action," Arendt suggests that an unanticipated consequence of development is the creation of conditions in which violence is more likely to erupt:
Finally, the greater the bureaucratization of public life, the greater will be the attraction of violence. In a fully developed bureaucracy there is nobody left with whom one could argue, to whom one could present grievances, on whom the pressures of power could be exerted. Bureaucracy is the form of government in which everybody is deprived of political freedom, of the power to act; for the rule by Nobody is not no-rule, and where all are equally powerless we have a tyranny without a tyrant. The crucial feature in the students’ rebellions around the world is that they are directed everywhere against the ruling bureaucracy. This explains what at first glance seems so disturbing, that the rebellions in the East demand precisely those freedoms of speech and thought that the young rebels in the West say they despise as irrelevant. Huge party machines have succeeded everywhere to overrule the voice of the citizens, even in countries where freedom of speech and association is still intact.
Arendt's article appeared in the February 27, 1969 issue. Thus, it involved a reflection on most of the turbulent Sixties and the particularly violent year of 1968. Unfortunately, it resonates just as effectively with the present day, whether we are talking about confrontations arising from the Occupy movements or this weekend's reaction to the Zimmerman verdict in Florida. When action is prevented by "official channels," human nature will seek out other ways in which to act. Violence emerges as the inevitable corollary of those who sought to make the world a better place and ended up with one in which it is better for only 1% of its inhabitants.

Friday, July 12, 2013

On the Varieties of Experiencing Brutality

This morning, when I was writing about Benjamin Britten's opera The Rape of Lucretia on, I chose to consider the narrative as a cautionary tale about life under brutal authority. Within that frame of reference, the decision of the Merola Opera Program to present this work in modern dress (with contemporary military uniforms) suggested, that in times when our own country has provided armies of occupation and that our own military system has had to confront its own violent acts, including sexual harassment, that brutality is, as it was in the past, simply a matter of the abuse of physical force. While this is most likely the sort of brutality Britten had in mind, I would suggest that, in terms of a broader message, we must now consider that ours has become a world subjected to (and suffering under) economic brutality.

Consider, as an example, current conditions in Greece: The week began with word that Greece's creditors were praising the country for is cost-cutting activities as a precondition for releasing the next tranche of bailout funds. Yesterday, however, the BBC reported that the suicide rate had gone up in Greece, simply because people no long have ways to earn a living and afford health care. The economic brutality of Greece's creditors may well have created a situation in which the cure has been worse than the disease. While it is probably true that Greece got in trouble through gross economic mismanagement, its creditors are now more interested in return-on-investment than in solving that systemic problem that got Greece in trouble in the first place. This is the drunk looking for his lost car keys under a lamppost because the light is better there (or the boy with a hammer who sees everything as a nail). Bean counters only know how to count beans without worrying about consequences that take place in the social world, rather than the objective world of numbers on balance sheets. They may not mean to be brutes; but the become that way through the actions they take and the reasoning behind those actions.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Keeping the Listener in Ignorance

Regardless of any questions about the quality of interpretation in the performances being collected for Mercury Living Presence: The Collector's Edition, I have to voice one complaint on behalf of any listener who would like to know a thing or two about the music being performed. One of the things I liked about the old Mercury vinyls was that they always had useful liner notes. Those were, for the most part, preserved when those recordings migrated to CD. Unfortunately, they are entirely absent from these recent box sets. Apparently, the assumption was that listeners would only be interested in the "living presence" effect, rather than in the music itself. This makes for a real loss, particularly when the text of vocal music is at stake. Mercury really ought to set up a Web site from which this valuable information may be retrieved.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

"The Uprising has been Made Possible by Funds from the United States Government"

Al Jazeera English reporter Emad Mekay seems to have been spending a lot of time at the Investigative Reporting Program based at the University of California at Berkeley. The result has been a rather extensive article, which appeared this morning, trying assiduously to follow State Department funding channeled through an initiative informally known as "democracy assistance." Those who have observed the massive public gatherings demanding the removal of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi and though it was all too good to be true may well have been right. Mekay's article involves detailed pursuit of the follow-the-money strategy, including elaborate diversionary paths when the use of that money was legally questionable, if not by United State law than by Egyptian law (and, perhaps, sometimes both). If all of these money trails are accurate, then "democracy assistance" is already a running candidate for the most deceptive (and perhaps disgusting) euphemism of the century. If this story "has legs," then we had best brace ourselves for one ugly blowback.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

"Living Presence" No Longer

Readers of my San Francisco site know that I have been working my way through the second volume of Mercury Living Presence: The Collector's Edition. I took on this rather massive task because it was a real walk down Memory Lane for me. Those Mercury releases figured significantly in my vinyl collection; and, unless I am mistaken, I had more of those "Living Presence" recordings than I had from the RCA "Living Stereo" series. There were any number of recordings that dazzled me simply for the amount of sound they could produce. As a result, when I finally had the opportunity to listen to a recording of Samuel Barber conducting his Opus 23 Medea orchestral suite, my initial reaction was to ask why the sound was so feeble compared to the recording Howard Hanson had made with the Eastman-Rochester Orchestra for Mercury.

That was then, as they say. While the relationship that Hanson had with Mercury was certainly groundbreaking for vinyl releases, it now seems relatively modest (to say the least) in comparison with what can now come off of a compact disc. To be fair to Hanson, however, I think it is still the case that one gets a better sense of how well Barber could work with orchestral resources from the 1959 Mercury recording than one can get from the 1950 recording of Barber himself. Furthermore, I would not be surprised to learn that Hanson's performance had been shaped by familiarity with Barber's at least in matters of tempo and phrasing. Whether or not this music deserves a new recording with more grandiose sonorities is, of course, a matter of listener tastes!

Monday, July 8, 2013

Extremism and Insurgency at the Opera

Was I the only one viewing The Gospel of Mary Magdalene yesterday afternoon at the San Francisco Opera who felt that the language used by the Romans to describe the followers of Yeshua (Jesus) sounded very much like the language our government has used to describe al-Qaeda?

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Failing the First Time is an Option

Continuing on the theme of unintended consequences that I was pursuing this past Wednesday, I have to say that I am beginning to feel that one of the main contributions to the general failure of government may be the extent to which, between the technologies of the Internet and those of broadcasting, the world can now observe (and comment upon) the activities of every corner of the world, no matter how remote. I would like to suggest that this may create a particularly hazardous situation in Egypt, where the future of having any government at all may be on the line. The most serious of those unintended consequences is the capacity of observers, who are not particularly well-informed, to end up saying very silly things.

Thus, in the latest Al Jazeera English dispatch, we read of demonstrators describing the events of the last few days as "revolution," rather than "coup." I suspect that this is a reaction to the extent to which the United States has been very careful to avoid the word "coup," since, just as a technicality, it would interfere with any efforts to provide aid. (Whether or not that consequence would be a good thing is left as an exercise for the reader.) More disturbing, however, is the final sentence of the Al Jazeera English article:
EU commission president Jose Manuel Barroso called on Egypt's new leaders to "restore constitutional order".
Without even getting into the question of the extent to which the financial management of the European Union has damaged the economic viability of its member states, there is the deeper problem of whether or not Barroso really knows what is going on in Egypt. Does he mean by "restore constitutional order" the re-imposition of the authority of a constitution that was never ratified by any process even remotely democratic?

I wonder if Barroso knows the ugly truth about how long it took the United States to come up with a Constitution that could stand up to such ratification. Does he know that the "first try" (the Articles of Confederation) was a dismal failure? Does he know how many details needed to be ironed out simply in establishing a Constitutional Convention to pick up after the mess? Even more important, does he know the role of the so-called "Federalist" papers in mounting a public relations campaign without which ratification might not have been successful? Most importantly, does he realize that government is not about some rational theory but about the management of the irrational capacities of the governed?

We must remember that, while our country won its Revolutionary War, its first attempt to form a government failed; and getting things wrong the first time (without immediate consequences of external interference) may have been instrumental in our getting it right the second time.

Friday, July 5, 2013

On Distancing Myself from Yahoo!

Last month I wrote about the fact that my decision to start using OS X Mail had led to my having fewer problems with Safari, which would often freeze up as a result of bad behavior from Yahoo! on one of the tabs. This morning, after my latest Software Update, I discovered that Yahoo! is not behaving much better with Firefox than it is with Safari. As I have been finding my way into new working habits, I realized that I had not changed my default-loaded home page on Firefox, which had been my personal home page on Yahoo! It did not take me long to discover that, as a result of going to that page whether I wanted or not, I was confronted with the dreaded spinning rainbow and the "not responding" message on the Activity Monitor! By now I have become convinced that my only connection to Yahoo! for anything should be OS X Mail knowing how to synchronize with the state of my electronic mail over there.

As a result I discovered another unanticipated consequence of the change. It used to be that, every morning, I would use my Yahoo! tab on Safari to visit The Hunger Site to make a daily click. As a result of spending less time on Web pages, that habit went into attrition. As a result, The Hunger Site is now my starting page on Firefox. Thus, if I lapse on my visits to that site, I can always rely on my Firefox "home" to remind me!

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Does Google Know More than Bing?

I have noticed that Bing has mounted an advertising blitz to get people to move away from Google. Since my Firefox makes it easy for me to choose either search engine, I figured it was time to see if Bing could do anything for me (again). Having recently written a season preview for the Ives Quartet, I decided to use their name (in quotes) as a test case. The results were a bit amusing on two fronts.

I decided to restrict my attention to image search. is (rightly) picky about our using images only with proper permission, and recently they sent out a memo on how to set up Google Advanced search to that end. Bing lets you do the same but through a slightly different (and easier) interface. Thus, it was interesting that, while Bing did not give me any hits for this restricted search, Google came up with a Flickr image with permission granted by the source.

What was more amusing, however, was what happened before I filtered the search. The sixth top hit on the Bing result turned out to be a publicity photograph of the Eroica Trio! The explanation was logical enough: An announcement for an Ives Quartet performance for the Mill Valley Chamber Music Society mistakenly included a photograph of the Eroica Trio. Nevertheless, I was impressed the Google seemed to recognize this photograph as erroneous, while Bing just assumed that a keyword match on the Web page text was sufficient to validate it. Should Bing change its name to GIGO?

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

On the Death of Douglas Englebart

Last night Douglas Englebart died peacefully in his sleep at the age of 88. It is hard to think of any major aspect of how we now do our work with computing resources than cannot be traced back, one way or another, to the pioneering insights of Englebart's Augmentation Research Center at what was then called the Stanford Research Institute. If, at the beginning of his fundamental textbook, Numerical Methods for Scientists and Engineers, R. W. Hamming had declared (in capital letters, no less):
Englebart followed through by asking how computer hardware and software could be designed in such a way as to augment our capacity of insight (what Englebart called, in his own words, "augmenting human intellect"). It was that motivation that led to the naming of the research he both pioneered and supervised.

We do not hear the word "intellect" used very much these days. It tends to get drowned out by those who persist in shouting "innovation." However, intellect involves far more than the ability to reinforce innovation by establishing its independence from prior art. It involves going beyond asking:
What can we do that is new?
to asking:
What will be served by doing it?
It also involves the ability to think dispassionately about consequences, rather than concentrating only on promotion. As a result, the world the Internet made has become a world in which unintended consequences blow back (with a nod to Chalmers Johnson) in our faces when we least expect them to do so.

The last time I heard Englebart speak was about fifteen years ago. He was as enthusiastic about augmentation as he was in 1968, when he was first beginning to show concrete results from his Augmentation Research Center. I am glad he died peacefully. Perhaps age had taught him to be philosophical when informed of all the ways in which his visions had been compromised.

Monday, July 1, 2013

The Long Arm of the BBC

This morning BBC News reported the transit strike by BART, whose impact on the streets of San Francisco can be seen by looking out my window; it is nice to know that the BBC is more up on this local event than many of my local sources!