Tuesday, February 28, 2006

World: Is art a fraud?

How would you feel if you found out your favourite art form was a fraud?

Okay, attention-grabber over. The story's more complex than that, of course.

Jackson Pollock's Blue Poles: "I've never liked it, although I've certainly tried". Is that how you feel about modern abstract impressionism in general? Of course, Blue Poles is the totem in Australia for this art movement, since it was bought by the government in 1973, causing predictable controversy.

The quote was from Michael Duffy in Saturday's SMH, about a 1999 book by Frances Stonor Saunders: Who Paid The Piper? The kernel of the story is that the CIA funded abstract impressionism, effectively making it fashionable, as a Cold War counter to Socialist Realism - a rather stodgy, retrogressive style. There's irony here in the right promoting a left-of-field movement, while the left was promoting the right.

This is not to deride the whole movement, but it makes you wonder about honesty in art, and art history. The article said the positive response to the book suggested the thesis was generally accepted by "those in a position to know". Tom Braden, who variously worked for the CIA and Museum of Modern Art said "it had to be done covertly... it would have been turned down if it had been put to a vote in a democracy".

What's you're reaction to this?
  • "A major work of investigative history" - Edward Said
  • "the contemptuous, leftist perspective" - Peter Coleman [editor of the rightwing Quadrant]
  • "There had to be a reason why something so infantile could become so celebrated" - Michael Fitzjames, painter.
Are you getting schadenfreude-like feelings of triumphalism over the cutdown of abstract impressionism? Are you indignant at any questioning of the integrity of any art? Why would CIA funding make it fraudulent per se? What is valid art, and what is not valid art? Is either of critical or mass acceptance crucial? What is art?

Monday, February 27, 2006

Tech: It's a Wiki World

In 1994, if I expected the internet to answer all my questions, I’d be in for a long wait. And I was. I expected Encyclopaedia Britannica to be online, and it wasn’t. I was idealising what I expected the internet could and should be. I still do, but I accept that these things take time.
In 1994, I found search engines didn’t do all that much for me. Then a new one, Alta Vista, changed my mind. Then of course Google, and it stops there. Google is still not ideal, but nothing comes close for general search engines.
Content is king. And nothing beats Wikipedia. The Encyclopaedia Britannica has some cachet, but it’s impossible for it to be either comprehensive or timely. On those fronts, Wikipedia is way ahead of any other site.
Anyone adds content to Wikipedia, anytime. It gets checked, chucked, disputed, discussed as necessary, and something gets worked out. It’s a weird paradigm, and one that took me a while to trust. But it works, and it was more thorough and up to date than anything else I could find. I believe this is because it has reached a critical mass: there’s enough people that care about the correctness of facts. And below the surface, there’s a set of procedures that ensures that scurrilous content gets fixed quickly by other people who notice the changes. I saw this in action early this year, where there was an outlandish entry on top of the Financial Times rich list. I checked the FT for the correct info, then checked Wiki a couple of hours later - already fixed.
Another example: A biography of one-time New Zealand Prime Minister Wallace Rowling claimed that he was related to author JK Rowling. Untrue, because NZ Rowling’s forebears changed their spelling from Rawlings upon migrating to NZ. This I knew simply because I had some genealogical information. I changed the entry, and nobody has disputed it.
Evidently, Wiki can be prone to incorrections at the lower level. But I would contend that so are all encyclopaedias, yet others don’t have the benefit of such a mass of contributors who care about getting facts right.
So, on a very detailed level, there can still be some issue about the accuracy of a wiki, but the broader you go, the broader the audience and the more accurate it will be. The FT episode suggests to me that it's quite hard to do major vandalism that lasts for any length of time. This has been borne out by statistical analyses of Wikipedia. Conversely, at any given time you can expect a certain number of malicious changes to be in place. But as a proportion of the size of Wikipedia, I doubt it's significant. Repeat vandals get barred from contributing.

I don’t expect this paradigm to be effective unless there is a critical mass. But there are uses for a Wiki in a corporate setting. I had an online discussion with Luis Suarez, and we converged on agreement that a Wiki can be quite useful in a project setting, where there's a group of people who are focused on the task, and care about the documentation (and/or data). Would it be reliable as a complete replacement for an organisation’s corporate documentation? I didn’t think so at first, but I have less doubts right at the moment. It can work if entries are fitted into a coherent corporate structure, and if each entry is the responsibility of somebody in an ongoing sense. Simplest if someone is notified whenever something changes that they’re responsible for. But outside that, let people add content. To avoid vandalism, enforce signatures. Sounds good, what do you think?

Friday, February 24, 2006

Pers: Music that surprised me

I’ve been alternating between trying to keep up with new music and mining some historical veins.

Metacritic polls a number of other sources to come up with the top rated albums of the year. Top of the list was Sufjan Stevens’ Illinois, described variously as beautiful, quirky pop. Stevens intends an album for every US state; so far he’s only done Michigan and this (diverting for Seven Swans). Let’s run a sweep on how many states he will actually manage. I’ll go for... Four.
Why am I talking about the man rather than the music? Try as I might, I couldn’t get much from the music. Certainly competent, sometimes interesting. But there’s just nothing beautiful like a Brian Wilson melody; nothing enjoyably quirky like a Pere Ubu album. Lots of critics must like it, but when you consider Metacritic’s role, it can’t possibly pick the standouts, just the consensus albums that enough "critics" can agree on. Democracy can be rather a leveller.

They also listed in a previous collation a US band called Explosions In The Sky - The Earth Is Not A Cold Dead Place. I'd already read a review that gave impressions of... downbeat guitar symphonies. Purple prose aside, it should be my sort of music (viz My Bloody Valentine, Sonic Youth, Durutti Column). But having finally tracked it down (thanks, Redeye), I find it competent yet somewhat... pedestrian.

On the other hand, I’ve found some good surprises. Amongst the new, try The Arcade Fire. Old music is particularly fraught: memories and enduring taste often clash. Also, knowing just a handful of tracks is no guide to whether it will turn out like Uriah Heep (smelly) or Melanie (some real gems). Price is no guide either: picking up T Rex and Melanie for $5 each, I got more from just a few tracks than the whole of Stevens, fullpriced.

So, here’s some more the surprises, compilations unless otherwise noted:

  • Belle & Sebastian - Dear Catastrophe Waitress (the album before latest)
  • David Crosby - If Only I Could Remember My Name: First album, c1971. Completely revised my opinion of him
  • Temptations - Cloud Nine: quite pleasant genre music c1970; for me it avoids the tired-old-hits syndrome
  • Various - John Peel's Festive 15 (Uncut magazine): Lots of marvels, including Felt, Sugarcubes, Bhundu Boys, Wah (oh, for the glorious Better Scream), House of Love. Just as I was ready to trash the 80s as just another silly haircut.


  • Badfinger: bar the wonderful trilogy No Matter What, Day After Day, and Baby Blue, everything was weak
  • Todd Rundgren - Excepting Hello It's Me, rather weak; he'll be better remembered as producer.

  • T Rex - excellent when Bolan was in the swing
  • New Seekers - surprisingly good for what it was

Lately I've been drawn to Physical Graffiti; I'm looking forward to giving it a decent play. Right now, I’m listening to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan: lengthy, repetitious, meditative, groovy.

The message: forget the baggage, listen to it for what it is. Trying something different will give you surprises.

    Thursday, February 23, 2006

    Tech: the trend is more explosive than you think

    I read today about a US university - Georgia Tech - that had all but dropped its programming courses.
    What is happening to this world when you can’t get a basic computer course?

    I was taken aback at first, but on reflection, this is just a leading (edge) indicator of what I should have foreseen. That university had just scored a professor straight from Silicone Valley - HP's Chief Technical Officer, Rich DeMillo. He’d done his PhD there and had returned to teach again. In response to mutterings from the Valley about the lack of relevance of courses (when could a university ever keep up with I.T. trends anyway?), he’d gutted the old course structure. Replacement courses were geared more towards higher level work, such as "digital multimedia distribution, robotics, computer security and supercomputing".

    No big deal to you? I come from a background where programming was the mainstay of university computer courses, the bread and butter, and there was little else - you learnt the rest of it on the job.
    Out of university, you never worried about a job, and it always paid well. There were ebbs and flows, but the job market always recovered, always strong again.
    [a very rough guide to terms: it used to be all called programming. Now it’s “coding” – simply writing computer programs to given specifications; “development” – roughly, developing software from business-level specifications; business analysis – gathering and defining business requirements.]

    Two trends caused a major shakeup: Y2K “The millenium bug” was over. Major projects were completed, many systems were thoroughly redeveloped, and nobody needed cobol programmers anymore. (Many ended up driving taxis and trucks, from all the anecdotes I heard.) Who cares about cobol programmers, you might say?
    Who indeed?
    Then of course the internet bubble came along, new technologies, new computer languages and tools, new paradigms, new blood was needed. That crashed, and more people were piled on the heap.

    Nowadays, its a constant struggle to reinvent yourself and your skills, otherwise it gets harder and harder until you just give up.

    Meanwhile, India. Coding is a relatively low-level aspect of I.T. – how it has fallen! – and something that India managed to ramp up in. Whole swathes of development were outsourced overseas - and it’s still happening. You can’t resent India, they have a place in this world. But the change is revolutionary. Where once you could sit on your verandah and watch the Textile and Clothing industries gently float off to China, India, Fiji, now it’s happening further up the food chain - high technology. I have absolutely no doubt China will overtake India as a technology outsource hotspot - and much quicker than we think. Moreover, I think we’ll see wholesale industrial shift in that direction - quicker, at a higher level than predicted.
    Of course, this has already been happening at the hardware level, but this is a more fundamental shift - intellectual technology is migrating. Some in the west will anticipate this, and shift higher, where they can - maybe ideas, maybe marketing...
    That, I believe, is what underlies that university’s upheaval. It’s more profound a shift than one institution shifting sideways from IT into business studies.
    What does this mean for us? Same as before, only more so: cheaper goods; rapid development in developing countries; gross environmental strain; job losses overseas; people need more education to get a job, or end up in service industries.

    What makes me think this is all going to go so explosive? You haven't been keeping your eye on India and China.

    Wednesday, February 22, 2006

    World: Why capital punishment is a crime

    As I understand it, the main arguments in favour of capital punishment are:
    1) Preventing recidivism (re-offending);
    2) Deterrence;
    3) Vengeance.

    Five arguments against capital punishment:
    1) It further brutalises society - and those directly involved;
    2) The occasional possibility of killing someone innocent;
    3) It offers no opportunity for repentance;
    4) It offers no opportunity for forgiveness;
    5) Studies tend to show there is no deterrent effect (see adjunct discussion* at bottom).

    If you consider the option of life imprisonment, the only pro-death point left is vengeance. I would argue here that this solution is not the hallmark of a mature civilisation.

    This has been in the news in recent times in particular due to the sentencing of several Australian citizens in Asian countries for smuggling drugs (specifically, in Singapore and Indonesia). Those people were young, stupid and desparate rather than hardened criminals. Don't get me wrong: I'm not favouring Australians above anyone else, nor denying the ravaging effect of hard drugs. In fact, a heroin drought in Sydney in the last ten years was credited for a drop in crimes such as burglaries and robberies. [per the NSW Bureau of Crime Stats. Its inestimable director Don Weatherburn frequently adds a rational perspective to the tabloid debates to which Sydney is prone.] So the less trafficking the better.

    At this point I find it hard to disentangle broader aspects of ethics from the Christian ethos that imbues modern western civilisation. Specifically, are notions of forgiveness and repentance very particularly Christian, or can it be argued that they form part of a higher ethical philosophy? I believe that the practice of repentance and forgiveness more demonstrate an abstract philosophical maturity than simply reflecting christian morality, but I can offer no immediate arguments in favour. Comments are welcome.

    *Blumstein, and Block (below) are examples that show no deterrent effect. All studies that I have seen with opposing conclusions (such as Dezhbakhsh) simply use statistics on changes in murder rates. This doesn't take sufficient account of other factors (eg increased lockups due to the "zero tolerance" regimes). In effect, "all other things not being equal..."

    • Block, Eugene B.. When Men Play God: The Fallacy of Capital Punishment. San Francisco: Cragmont Publications, 1983
    • Blumstein, Alfred and Jacqueline Cohen. Deterrence and Incapacitation: Estimating the Effects of Criminal Sanctions on Crime Rates. National Academy of Sciences: Washington, D.C., 1978
    • H Dezhbakhsh, PH Rubin, JM Shepherd: Does Capital Punishment Have a Deterrent Effect? - American Law and Economics Association, 2003

    Tuesday, February 21, 2006

    Pers: Happiness and balance

    I learnt yesterday that my five-year-old looks forward to the end of the weekend. She loves school that much.

    She's been going three weeks now. This photo was taken on her first day. You can see how keen she was, before she had even been.

    (she directed the shot herself. Must have the frangipanis in it.)

    Against my expectations, I haven't tried to give the kids intensive training. I think there's plenty of time for them to shine, and it would help their balance to learn with their peers; learn from them. I remember plenty of times I vagued out at school because I wasn't learning anything (new), only to miss out later when there was something new to me. At the other pole, some of my daughter's classmates are still crying after three weeks, and are clearly unready.

    The kids both show signs of brightness, and that's enough for the moment. Possibly not as bright as their cousin Matthew, but my gut feeling is that his (somewhat obsessive?) nature is due to his mind being too advanced for his developmental age.
    My kids are also very happy, and I wouldn't want a regime of intensive training to spoil their time of joy. The mix is right if my daughter begins her working life joyfully.

    Happiness and balance. All she needs.

    Monday, February 20, 2006

    Pers: On putting the dead to rest

    Kerry Packer had told someone that "the day his father, Frank Packer, died was the happiest of his life".
    Kerry Packer was the richest man in Australia. He died on 26th December 2005, apparently deciding his time had come, and not to fight it anymore. He received a "taxpayer-funded" memorial service at Sydney Opera House. Why? Any government would do it for the most money-powered man in the country. I have my doubts it would survive a taxpayer vote, though (at last count, 72% said no in an informal poll)*. In his absence, it's likely others would have filled his niche, quite possibly with less venality.
    Why rejoice over his father's death? I came up with two reasons:
    1) Getting free hands on the money/power; or
    2) Resenting his father's control over him.
    - however, the posting below suggests a history of emotional and physical violence played a part. That certainly makes reconciliation more difficult.
    Yet there remains a certain poverty of spirit. If you have a problem with your father, simple: get out from under him. As soon as you're old enough. If you lust after his money or power, think more deeply: that’s not what life is about. Getting out of his shadow can be healing. For yourself, and for the relationship.
    I have to give some credit here to Lachlan Murdoch, son of Rupert. Recently he did an about face, returning to Sydney and leaving his father’s large, dark shadow behind.

    My father died on 1st February, 2006. All my family has had problems with him, no question about that. But for me, that was long ago and far away; time and distance have helped in the healing. Now is the time to acknowledge the small positives.

    Until recently, I thought that death was for the living, and what mattered was those left behind. If this is true, I shouldn’t care who goes to a funeral - we all travel through our own set of feelings, be it a long journey, a circuit or outright convolution.
    However, I now find I care more than expected, and I don’t easily know why. I do know that whatever ill I do between now and death, I would like some appreciation, acknowledgement for what was good in me, in what I had done in the past. I think there's always room for that.
    Sometimes lack of healing gets in the way.

    I spoke some words at a meeting of his Quaker friends, in memorial. In preparing my thoughts, I was trying to be positive – honest and positive. Others mentioned good little things about him. But afterwards, I realised my words were not all I’d expected. They sound like I was enumerating only indirect benefits of his life, and little inherently positive.

    I did what I had to do, once around the world and I was about to do it a second time. But yes, it's a very personal experience. You can't travel for someone else, and you can't tell someone else to make the journey.

    *Here's another perspective on the Packer funeral, from Richard Walsh. Certainly not what I'd have expected from a long-time Packer executive.

    Friday, February 17, 2006

    Tech: Life is too short to suffer unfriendly design

    When I logged on today, some software asked if I wanted to continue installation. Yesterday, I'd knocked back its request to reboot-and-finish-installation. Time was, you wouldn't have a choice, and you'd be told you were rebooting no matter what you did. One point here for design improvement.

    The score is tied though, because that software had been bugging me for ages to upgrade. I refused, because it intended to install an extraneous third-party product I didn't want. Down the track, it was pleading the subsequent upgrade - without the third party. Oh, all right.
    But it’s like someone phoning me every day: do you want to upgrade? No. I'll call you.

    Further examples of bad design:
    • your mobile phone
    • web sites lacking any of: site map, phone number, email address, physical address
    • manuals: second-language English; unclear prose; poor indexing; incompleteness
    • software that requires startup manuals (software needs to be as intuitive as possible, needs to piggyback on familiar paradigms)
    • software installs (too many steps and the user misses crucial actions: "do you want me to take over all these file types? Heh heh heh!")

    All these reek of shoddy (or non-existent) user testing.

    Software is just an easy target. The buffer between English-dropout computer geek and end-user is simply too thin. Sometimes the geeks even write the manuals and online help. Eek!

    And I'm speaking as an I.T. professional. For the non-professional, computer life is surely pain from beginning to end. Online help that doesn't tell you anything you need to know. Gibberish, disorganised manuals (manuals should be relegated to reference material: quick start diagrams at the front; comprehensive detail at the back. Some do.)

    An example of the converse: I have a panasonic dvd player. It has an on button and an eject button. I can press the eject button when it’s off: it turns on and ejects. I can press the off button when the tray’s out: it quietly shuts shop and goes to sleep. Now that’s good design: task-oriented rather than process-oriented.
    (Remember to praise good design.)

    Don’t blame the software per se. It’s just a blind for the people who wrote it. But it's not just the geeks who are culpable. They should have a whole company structure wrapped around them to protect the real world from them.
    Hold accountable the manufacturers/publishers for the poor design, the poor documentation, for inadequate user testing.

    It can be much better.

    Thursday, February 16, 2006

    World: How to promote technological advance

    The US Congress wants to keep Google out of China. To "promote human rights" - or to encourage technological innovation in enemy territory?

    IT Toolbox notes that the US Congress is considering legislation to "keep vital computer servers out of China and other nations the State Department deems repressive to human rights". From what I've seen of Congress in action, this is a fairly typical small-picture approach. Next, watch them tack it on as a small item on a much larger, unrelated "must pass" bill. That's a one of many less-than-ethical tactics Congress has learnt over the years, which I have yet to see in other parts of the world.

    Question 1: will this legislation foster human rights in China?
    Question 2: will this legislation foster even Congress' version of human rights?
    Question 3: is China at a pivotal point in innovation where this action would encourage R&D, resulting in a homegrown version of Google? (If so, the US would be fighting four-to-one odds, in terms of population.)
    Question 4: just what does Congress really believe in, and do they express it with any consistency?
    Question 5: Was a BBC commentator right when he called it simply a response to an economic threat, i.e. disguised protectionism?

    I could keep coming up with questions on this. But I'll stick to one final thought:
    If you think this is major cultural/ideological hegemony on the part of the US, I have one word for you: Hollywood.

    You don't have to legislate hegemony.