Sunday, June 29, 2014

The "Search Company" Abandons Search

I've been away from this site for a couple of days. As a result I was unprepared for the shock of discovering that the search bar was now missing from the top of the page. My initial reaction was that it was a bit bizarre that a company as committed to search as Google should remove the search option from Blogspot blog pages. Then I remembers: Google is not committed to search; it is committed to advertising. Searches that take place within Blogspot are not susceptible to the insertion of advertising that takes place during Google searches. Ironically, when I did a phrase search for "The Rehearsal Studio" along with my last name and the keyword that interested me, there were no ads in my results, probably because none of the results triggered AdSense! So all Google did was take away a convenience through which I could provide new blog posts with relevant hyperlinks, just because it cut off a path to adding ads that might not be there in the first place.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Reproducibility beyond the Laboratory

This past Sunday I was writing about the problem of seeking reproducible results when studying the making of music, which, of necessity, is "entangled" in history. These thoughts have been nagging me again while I have been reading and old (1982) review paper, "Perception of Singing" by Johann Sundberg, which was included in Diana Deutsch's The Psychology of Music Collection. I have been reading about Sundberg's efforts in the more recent context of a much more recent practice called "auditory scene analysis," which was in its infancy (if it existed at all) back in 1982.

Auditory scene analysis amounts to the ability to identify and extract the different sound sources when given a "real-world" recording. I remember seeing a demonstration based on a studio recording that had been disrupted because someone dropped a bottle while the musicians were performing. Through auditory scene analysis, it was (at least in theory) possible to isolate that source of "noise" and remove it, leaving only the sounds of the performing musicians.

It has been over a decade since I followed research in this field, so I have no idea how far it has progressed. However, it occurs to me that such a discipline would provide tools by which we could spend more time studying recordings made "in the field" (which could be in commercial recording studios or audio capture of "live" performances) and less time worrying about creating artificial situations in laboratory settings. I was reminded of a talk I once heard by a Google researcher who claimed that one could make more progress in natural language understanding by the statistical study of the vast number of documents that now exist in digital form on the Internet (and have been indexed by Google) than through traditional practices of linguistic research.

While I was not entirely convinced, it seems to me that, where music is concerned, we now have a prodigious amount of recorded "field data," whether or not we put all those data to use. If our intelligence agencies are now using large quantities of recorded telephone calls to create and test hypotheses, why can't we develop methods for doing the same sort of thing with recordings of musical performances? If nothing else the consequences of a failed hypothesis are likely to be less crucial (and enough of those recordings have been made generally available that we would not have to worry about invading anyone's privacy).

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Diane Sawyer before ABC

The Web site the San Francisco ABC channel has just put up an image gallery entitled "Diane Sawyer through the Years." Through the "ABC years." would have been more accurate. Do not expect to see any photographs of Richard Nixon or of Sawyer preparing him for his encounter with David Frost!

Monday, June 23, 2014

Who Knows What about Me?

I still maintain my print subscription to The New York Review. It is one of only two such subscriptions. (The other is to Consumer Reports due to a lifetime membership as a result of a donation I have many years ago.) I also track the RSS feed for The New York Review, this alerts me to both blog posts and article in the next issue that I have not yet received. I usually gloss over the latter; but I could not resist a "sneak preview" peek at Sue Halpern's "Partial Disclosure" about Edward Snowden and the consequences (including recently published books) of his actions.

Like just about everything I have read by Halpern, this was a well-written and deeply-thought piece. In other words it was representative of why I continue to read The New York Review. However, the end of it left me with an uneasy feeling about the whole issue of intrusiveness she was discussing. There are any number of ways that my government knows about my subscription. Nevertheless, because I receive it in physical form, I am relatively confident that what I read in it is my own business. On the other hand the government probably knows by now that I clicked on the URL for her article (which I reproduced in the above hyperlink for those willing to feel adventurous)!

I am reminded of what happened when the Internet came to Singapore, since I was living there at the time. A few months after Singapore had set up its own Internet Service Provider, everyone with a .sg electronic mail address received a message about pornography on the Internet. The message basically said that the technical crew was still working on the best way to block such content but, at the present time, it was not being blocked. It advised all readers to maintain the honor system in such matters but then closed with the sinister statement directed that those not willing to voluntarily filter their Internet activities: We know who you are!

I have not tried to hide from my government who I am or what my opinions are. For now, at least, I do not feel at risk. I just wonder when certain instincts for self-censorship may kick in and whether I will be aware of them when they do so.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Perception and Listening

Having now finished John Sloboda's The Musical Mind: The Cognitive Psychology of Music for the second time, I still find myself at odds with those who try to take too "scientific" an approach to any musical act, whether it involves composition, performance, or listening (in Stravinsky's sense of the word that distinguishes it from mere hearing). Earlier I tried to express my discontent through the rather reductive proposition that "psychologists do what psychologists do." However, I think it would be fairer to say that psychologists do what can be done in a laboratory setting. More specifically, that setting is one that, for most purposes of the concept, is divorced from any sense of time-consciousness. At the very least the scientific community requires that results be reproducible, which means that are products of a situation that can be duplicated. Such duplication, in turn, demands isolation from any dependence on past history.

Such isolation, however, in unrealistic where any of those aforementioned musical acts are concerned. As I previously put it, making music is always, of necessity, "entangled" in history. As soon as we try to abstract out that entanglement, the actions we examine are no longer musical in any fundamental sense of the concept. Thus, while psychology may tell us a lot about perception, it is unclear how much enlightenment in can offer with regard to what Stravinsky meant by listening.

Friday, June 20, 2014

It Takes a Historian to Find the Right Language

Yesterday Julian Zelizer, Professor of History and Public Affairs at Princeton University, filed a Commentaries piece on the CNN Opinion Web site. He used a phrase that has dared not speak its name since the dark days of Vietnam. His article was about the danger of "mission creep" in Iraq. He cited its past history in Vietnam but also argued that the concept stretched back to the Korean War (for which a peace treaty has never been signed). Unfortunately, even in the White House, it appears that understanding the past has little to do with how actions are taken in the present.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Not the First Entertainer to be "Distinguished"

Those who may raise eyebrows over the decision to place a portrait of Katy Perry in our National Portrait Gallery should bear in mind that the National Portrait Gallery in London includes a portrait of Nell Gywn (mistress to King Charles II and mother of two of his sons).

Patent Offices Rules Washington's Football Team's Name "Disparaging"

The United States Patent Office has issued a rule on the trademark for Washington's football team, which also happens to include the nickname of the team, a name that has provoked considerable debate recently (as well as one damned good piece of advertising during the NBA finals). The ruling is that the team's nickname is "disparaging of Native Americans." The matter has thus been resolved through the legal channels.

The bad news is that this has been a textbook example of just how slowly things flow through those channels. Here is a summary of that flow from the ESPN report of the ruling:
The ruling announced Wednesday comes after a campaign to change the name has gained momentum over the past year.
The decision by the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board is similar to one it issued in 1999. That ruling was overturned in 2003 in large part on a technicality because the courts decided that the plaintiffs were too old.
The new case was launched in 2006 by a younger group of Native Americans. A hearing was held in March 2013.
Just like last time, the Redskins can retain their trademark protection during an appeal.
In other words the flow has not yet come to a halt. Still, progress is progress, even when it dribbles out at the pace of "government work." Still, I hope that readers will note that, unlike ESPN, I managed to refrain from using the offensive word in my own text, figuring that, by now, everyone knows the nickname of the football team.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Not Done Paying for Broken Pottery

Hopefully, there are some out there whose memory of history is not so myopic as to have blocked out General Colin Powell's "Pottery Barn" reasoning about Iraq ("You broke it; you pay for it.") Many seem to be of the opinion that the new rise of insurgency in Iraq is simply a sign that the United States never finished paying for the broken pottery. What is interesting, however, is that there appears to be a sizable number of Iraq veterans who share that opinion. Thus, today ABC7News, the local ABC affiliate here in San Francisco, ran a story in which they interviewed some of those veterans. One, Emily Yates from Oakland, did two tours as a Public Affairs Specialist. Now, distanced from her past public relations obligations, she can speak for herself:
This is a mess that the United States has created, but it's not a mess that the United States is going to be able to un-make.
Yates may be right in concluding that it is going to take someone else to clean up the broken pottery, but she was discrete enough not to make any suggestions as to who that could be. The question will be whether or not there is any other party willing to respect the priority of the Iraqi population, particularly when that priority should override more selfish interests. In this brave new "globalized" world, I am not sure such a party can be found.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

An App for Bloomsday

Those who are not fanatical about the writings of James Joyce should probably be warned that tomorrow is a major day for those who are. Joyce's challenging (and, for some, offensive) novel Ulysses takes place, in its entirety, over the course of a single day, June 16, 1904. According to its Wikipedia entry, Joyce aficionados have been celebrating June 16, which came to be called "Bloomsday," named after the protagonist of the novel who parallels Odysseus in the Homeric epic Odyssey, since 1924. Some celebrations have used the occasion to real aloud the entirety of the novel. The one time I attended a celebration, at Symphony Space in New York, only selected excerpts were read; but the program also included readings from Finnegans Wake.

Nevertheless, there are many who find Ulysses little more than an inscrutable puzzle, wondering whether or not working on the puzzle is worth the effort. It is thus no surprise that, in this age of "digital reading," such folks can now be greeted with the familiar motto, "There's an app for that!" Naxos has now released an iPad app called James Joyce's Ulysses: A Guide. It includes not only the unabridged version of the novel with 800 annotations but also the complete text of the Odyssey. There is also a wealth of background material, including extracts of the music that Joyce cites in the novel.

Personally, I would prefer to stick to the print version (both editions, if necessary), but reading it with a laptop at my side; so, if I need to track down a particular line of thought, I have the Internet close at hand to assist!

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

On the Tourism of Suffering

One of the things I liked most about April Bernard's latest post to NYRBlog ("Caged Laughter") is that the "entertainment factor" that has made Orange Is the New Black such a success "turns the viewer into a tourist of suffering." I view this as a justifiably sharp choice of words, and I say this because I found myself using even sharper language for comparable situations in the past. Specifically, I have referred to the appeal of the photographs of Dorothea Lange as "Disadvantage Pornography" and the documentaries of Dan Brown providing in-depth analysis of terrorist acts as "Terror Pornography." Mind you, there is nothing new about any of these genres or their pornographic power. In many respects that power can be traced back to the literature (if we may use that term) of the Marquis de Sade, whose primary (if not only) intention was to induce arousal in the reader (not to mention to author). I am not saying that either Lange or Brown did what they did out of some perverted sense of self-indulgence. I am saying that, as consumers, we are more likely to derive a certain prurient pleasure from the work, perhaps because it diverts us from thinking about the issues that those creators really wanted us to consider.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

A Lost Reflex

On the way out of Old St. Mary's Cathedral after Noontime Concerts™, I was asked why the right side of the house gave a standing ovation while the left side remained seated. All I could sputter was:
That's a good question!
I had lost my reflexes as an MIT undergraduate to answer:
The Coriolis effect!

Monday, June 9, 2014

Marketing in the Face of Adversity

Amanda Kooser is responsible for the Crave blog on CNET. That means that she writes about the many different manifestations of stuff that feed our national passion for consumerism. This morning, however, she filed an article in the Tech Culture department. I am not sure that it is really about our culture of technology, but it is definitely a sign of the time.

The article is about a product being marketed by ProTecht, a safety products company based in Oklahoma that seems to have cleverly worked technology into their name, whether or not it actually belongs there. The product is question is called the Bodyguard Blanket. Basically, it is made of the same bulletproof material found in body armor for both law enforcement and the military. However, it is a large rectangle (like a blanket) that can be unfolded to cover a child. The motivation is that these will protect children in the event of a school shooting.

As you might guess, these are not cheap. A single blanket costs $1000. Given what school budgets are like, it would not surprise me if ProTecht has decided to target (double meaning definitely intended) iys marketing strategy at parents, rather than at the schools. This will then create a whole new layer of discrimination between kids that have the protection and kids that don't.

It goes without saying that I believe that kids should go to school without fear of being shot. Nevertheless, it is hard to resist feeling that this particular effort to deal with the problem through product development and (more significantly) marketing is more than a little sociopathic. The more important issue is that ours is a culture that does not want to admit that school shootings have become an endemic problem that needs to be solved through hard thinking and committed actions, rather than technological bandages.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Age-Dependent Genre

In preparation for their live streaming video of a performance of Richard Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier, the London Telegraph posted a plot summary on their Web site. The anonymous author of this summary calls the plot a "comic intrigue." Ever since my introduction to Max und Moritz, I have had a long-standing interest in what the Germans think is funny. I was in my first year of graduate school at the time, studying German for my language qualifier; and we had quite a sidebar discussion about all the nasty things those kids do in the tales about them, At that time Rosenkavalier provided one of the few stories I could accept as comic. I was young then.

As I grew older, I found more inclined to believe that the opera was really "about" the Marschallin, rather than about how clever scheming Octavian "rescues" Sophie from the oafish Baron Ochs and takes her as his own bride. The first act has not yet concluded before were are alerted to how Octavian's gain will be the Marschallin's loss. I know I am not the only one for whom age has brought deeper thought about her point of view.

Perhaps what interests me most about Hugo von Hofmannsthal, at least in his capacity as Strauss' librettist, is the way in which he avoids allowing his texts to fall into neat genre categories. Not only are his narratives multi-faceted; but also how the plot unfolds can depend on whose point of view you wish to follow. I sometimes wonder whether Strauss grasped some of Hofmannsthal's more sophisticated constructions; but, every now and then, we are fortunate enough to have a staging director who figures out how to pick up on some of those details that Strauss either disregarded or never understood.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

The Turing Test Meets Real Life

One of my pet peeves when I was writing my Reflections Beyond Technology blog was the proliferation of people who should know better asserting that the Turing Test was a definition of intelligence. This came to a head when someone named Jeff Hawkins (who hopefully has been forgotten after having his fifteen minutes of fame) wrote a book entitled On Intelligence. Hawkins was indicative of those who cited Turing without ever taking the trouble to read him, thus getting things wrong from the very beginning of his argument.

What I liked most about Turing was that he was honest enough to recognize that any useful definition of intelligence was probably beyond our current grasp and could well remain so for some time. Like any good scientist, he believed that we should focus on questions that we had a fighting chance of answering. In the interest of eating that particular form of dog food, he introduced a concept he called The Imitation Game. This was a two-player game where all "moves" involved exchanges of typed sentences, meaning that each play could be kept from seeing and hearing the other. The goal of the game was for one person to guess the sex of the other strictly on the basis of these exchanges of printed text. He then asked whether it would be possible for a computer to play the game of the person whose sex had to be determined without the other player realizing that (s)he was exchanging sentences with a machine.

I thought about this "real" Turing test the other day when I was reading "The Programmed Prospect Before Us" by Robert Skidelsky in the April 3 edition of The New York Review of Books. (Yes, I know how I get behind on my reading.) Near the end of the article, Skidelsky offering the following anecdote:
Recently, Michael Scherer, a Time magazine bureau chief, received a phone call from a young lady, Samantha West, asking him if he wanted a deal on health insurance. After she responded to a number of his queries in what sounded like prerecorded fashion, he asked her point-blank whether she was a robot, to which he got the reply "I am human." When he repeated the question, the connection was cut off. Samantha West turned out to be a system of recorded messages that were part of a computer program created by the brokers for health insurance.
This may be the best real-world account I have seen of an instance of The Imitation Game in which, for all intents and purposes, the computer "won." I should also point out that this exercise did not take place at an artificial intelligence laboratory or even one for experimental psychology. It was a piece of software deployed by a health insurance company, presumably as a result of an effort to improve "efficiency" by following those principles outlined by Frederick Taylor in his study and promotion of practices of "scientific management." Given that I have already written about how these principles have been applied to heart surgery, it seems ironically inevitable that they are now also being applied to health insurance.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

A Disappointing Recital that May Not Have Been a Fluke

In writing for, I have come to learn that one of the best ways to get across your message is to lead with something positive. Readers are more likely to approach you positively if you approach your subject matter the same way. Having established your intentions as honorable, rather than simply being in it for character defamation, you can then segue through some adverb like "unfortunately" or "sadly."

Unfortunately (see what I mean?) such was not the case when the young Georgian pianist Khatia Buniatishvili made her San Francisco recital debut this past April. About the only positive thing I could say was that both of her visits to Davies Symphony Hall as a concerto soloist with the San Francisco Symphony had been memorable in every positive sense of that adjective. In recital, on the other hand, the only thing that seemed to occupy her was a desire to play as fast as possible, leading to the inevitable onslaught of wrong notes. By the time I got to my keyboard, I was so aggravated that all I could do was compare her technique to the "spray and pray" firing of an AK-47.

It was therefore somewhat satisfying to discover that my experience was not due to some adverse conditions in San Francisco, such as jet lag or a really bad meal consumed recently as part of the tour. The Web site for today's London Telegraph has a review by Ivan Hewitt of Buniatisvili at Queen Elizabeth Hall. Much (but not all) of the program was the same as what she had performed in San Francisco. Hewitt was kind enough to use phrases like "sorely disappointing" (suggesting that he believed that she could do better); and he refrained from invoking the spirit of Mikhail Kalashnikov to inspire metaphor. However, he did describe her as being "intoxicated by her own virtuosity," which I am willing to grant is more polite than likening her to automatic weaponry.

Perhaps the proper metaphor, however, may be that she is a bit like a ferocious lioness. When playing with a conductor with the mindset of an animal tamer, she can be kept in check to the benefit of all. To draw away from animal metaphors, one might also suggest that she is still young enough to require "adult supervision."

Chasing the (sort of) Money-Lenders out of the (sort of) Temple

What may be the most interesting news of the day seems to have only appeared on Al Jazeera English (by way of Associated Press) thus far. Pope Francis has dismissed all Italian members of the Financial Information Authority, the oversight body for the Vatican's financial activities. All of them had been appointed by Pope Benedict XVI. One Italian will be among the replacements, The others will be from Singapore, Switzerland (a new kind of Swiss Guard?), and the United States. The analogy with Jesus' encounters with the money-lenders in the Temple is irresistible, but then Jesus would not have known about Swiss banks!

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

The Power of the Comic

Apparently, John Oliver has succeeded where cooler heads have failed to prevail. In a thirteen-minute monologue, he managed to reduce the debate over Net Neutrality to plain language that did not require extensive legal background for understanding; and he made it funny. To add insult to injury, he concluded his sketch by providing the URL through which all American citizens could make their opinions about Net Neutrality known to the FCC. According to a CNET report by Joan E. Solsman, this seemed to be sufficient to bring that comment-collection site to a crashing halt due to overload. This seems to make sense considering that, according to TV by the Numbers, the initial broadcast had about a million viewers; and, as of the release of Solsman's article, the number of YouTube views of the routine was "approaching the 700,000 mark."

There is a bit of life imitating art here. Oliver's basic argument was that Comcast was going to use the power of its abundant purse to increase the purse's capacity while undermining the welfare of the general public (which gets more and more dependent on Internet connectivity by the day). His campaign to flood the FCC comments site was reminiscent of the I'm-mad-as-hell-and-I'm-not-gonna-take-it-any-more scene from Network, probably with even larger numbers. Will it make a difference? We all remember Network's jaundiced answer to that question. We also know that the FCC is being run by a guy who used to work for Comcast. We may reasonably assume that both Houses of Congress are more beholden to Comcast than to the electors who put those representatives in their seats. So it may come down to whether or not the White House is in a position to stand up for all of us on the mad-as-hell side of the fence. Enquiring minds want to know!