Wednesday, December 29, 2010

In The Balance

Time to dig up another time capsule ...

Recently NPR gave some air time to considering a quaint tech gadget that was all the rage ten years ago at the start of the new decade, century, and millennium. What was it? The PDA, of course. The Personal Digital Assistant that was going to replace all our Daytimers with their annual paper refills. (Remember those?) Now we've just upgraded our mobile phones instead, and we're starting to wonder just how many more things they may be able to do for us until they're implanted at birth.

But there was a more pressing issue back at the turn of the millenium -- namely, who was the President going to be? We weren't sure, we were still counting and recounting the votes. Meanwhile the ball dropped in Times Square and the national juggernaut rolled headlong into the future. This is what I was thinking about it at the time:

“Don’t follow leaders ...”
- Bob Dylan

“Where are the people going? I am their leader, and I must follow them.”

“Freedom of choice is what you’ve got ... freedom from choice is what you want.”
- Devo

November 8, 2000. I don’t have a President today.

This is an unusual situation. I have always had a President, my whole life. It’s a fact I have always taken for granted, like having air to breathe. Now, suddenly, the situation is uncertain. However temporary it may be (and it surely it will have been resolved by the time you read this), the absence of a leader has made me see things in a different light. I feel as if  the nation is running on autopilot. There’s still someone at the helm, but he’s packing his bags to leave and seems less interested than he did when he was first charging into the job with a sense of energy and excitement. This is the time when his successor should be getting ready to take over. He only has about two months to form a whole Executive Branch of bureaucrats from an assortment of friends and hangers-on and people-to-be-appointed-later. It’s barely enough time. But he can’t even get started (whoever he is) because he doesn’t know if he’s really going to be President yet. The election is still hanging in the balance.

This is an uncomfortable situation for us. As a people, we hate ties. We invented extra innings, playoffs and “sudden-death overtime” to eliminate stalemate from our sports. Probably the Founding Fathers thought they were doing the same thing when they invented the Electoral College, placing the decision in the hands of a smaller group of people who were expected to be intelligent and practical enough to come to a clear decision.  And of course they thought of everything, as they always did, spelling out a series of steps to follow in case of a split decision, ending up (if I remember correctly) with the Speaker of the House stepping into the job in a worst-case scenario that would leave all other contenders out in the cold. But of course, they didn’t anticipate that our politics would come to be dominated by two massive and equally matched parties who would grow accustomed to thinking of 52% of the vote as a “clear mandate” from the electorate. They didn’t anticipate how often the vote might be this close.

As far as we can tell with our evidently inaccurate counting methods (more on that anon), one candidate is ahead nationally by fewer than 200,000 votes out of nearly 100 million, or about two-tenths of a percent.  The other candidate is ahead in the last remaining state he needs to win the electoral ballot by fewer than 2,000 votes out of about 6 million, or only three one-hundredths of a percent. If the entire electorate were reduced to only ten thousand voters, this would represent a single one of them -- a wishy-washy individual who was unable to come to a firm decision -- having a change of mood, or perhaps sneezing at the moment of punching the ballot and inadvertantly making the wrong choice.

Think that could never happen? I heard something worse reported on National Public Radio, an example of someone who was deprived of her vote by a combination of confusion and a poorly trained polling-place worker. A young woman voting for the first time was confronted by the confusing ballot. Suspecting that she had made a mistake, she asked the (poorly trained) polling-place worker to tell her who she had voted for. When the worker confirmed she had voted for the wrong candidate, the young woman asked for a new ballot, as she was told she could do by instructions printed right on the ballot itself. But the (poorly trained) election official told her she could not change it once it was punched, took it from her, and put it in the ballot box! Not fair! Everyone knows that they’re supposed to hand it back to you and let you put it in the box with your own hand, or tear it up if you want to -- at least, everyone except this particular (poorly trained) polling-place worker.

Does an isolated incident like this make a difference? Maybe not, by itself. Maybe not, assuming that a number of such errors might tend to be made in different directions, cancelling each other out. But other things are coming to light as the recount proceeds. Twenty-nine thousand votes were nearly lost from a computer disk. Someone was accused of attempting to take a ballot box home with them. A courier showed up a day late with a package of ballots that he forgot to deliver on election day. No doubt as the process continues other such incidents will come to light, variously amusing and appalling. We will begin to ask ourselves how accurate it is possible to be in any undertaking of this size, with so many opportunites for human error, and with the result wavering at four decimal places. If the recount comes up different, will we do it again? If we do it again, will it give us the same result or a still different one?

I suspect we could get a different answer every time, which is why we won’t do it more than once. Such a level of uncertainty would threaten our confidence too much. We depend on ourselves to have opinions and express them. We rely on the idea that the best candidate will win out in a contest. We trust ourselves to support the best, and to make our decisions clearly.  All this fuzziness, this gray area in between, is too disconcerting. It’s as if our mechanistic concept of a quantifiable vote has been replaced by a new quantum theory in which results, like those of the pre-election polls, are qualified by “plus or minus two percent.” Like the location of an electron, which can be predicted only statistically, our votes have become a trend or tendency rather than a firm quantity. Like the photon, sometimes wave and other times particle, some people managed to vote for an indeterminate candidate, or to vote for two candidates at the same time.

It’s easy to imagine how things will turn out. Even though the recount comes up with a new answer, it will still lean in the same direction. However obvious it is by then that the result is within the margin of error of our ability to count the votes, the losing candidate will say, What the heck, and bow to the decision of the people.  Never mind that nationally he received more votes. Never mind that the winning candidate only has a 48% plurality, due to the effect of pesky upstart rival political parties. It may be wrong, but it’s the way the system works. And above all, we want to believe that the system works.

Meanwhile we proceed, full steam ahead, running on inertia and our innate lack of need for leadership.  Blind, rudderless, a juggernaut, the ship of state sails on. While this situation persists, I for one am enjoying the ambiguity. It’s a sense of freedom I haven’t felt for a long time, and may never feel again. An anarchistic moment of hiatus in the political continuum. A time to  explore new possibilities -- bigger chunks of the vote going to other parties, run-off elections, coalitions between minor parties to dominate major ones ... the possibilities are unlimited. Enjoy it while you can.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

The "Other" Christmas Music

Celebrating Bach's Magnificat ...

Looking back at previous entries I find that I've written twice about Handel's Messiah, appropriately enough at Christmas time. But how is it possible that I've found nothing to say about my favorite choral music for this or any other season? That distinction goes to J.S. Bach's Magnificat, a brief masterpiece that sails past the listener all too quickly, in contrast to Handel's monumental oratorio.

Maybe the soft spot I have for this work dates back to the way I first discovered it. I was about 15 years old and browsing through the dusty used record bins at a pawn shop with my music buddy. Suddenly there it was -- a rare, 10-inch LP just big enough to fit the approximately 30 minutes that it takes to perform the 12 short movements. I'd never heard of it, but it was by Bach and that was good enough for me. I didn't even particularly care for choral music, but hey, did I say this was by Bach? Not only that, but it cost no more than 50 cents. At that price I woudn't care if it had scratches on it. And it was by Bach!

Suffice to say, the piece has never failed to satisfy. From the first listening I felt I was hearing something like Bach's greatest hits. Each short aria and chorus was perfect and complete, each with its own "hook," as the pop song industry calls it -- that thing that gets it to lodge in your memory and beg to be repeated. I started out with particular favorites, but soon found that they had all grown on me until I had adopted each one and accepted the whole work as an old friend.

It begins with a bang, a big timpani-assisted BUM-bum! not unlike the opening notes of the second movement to Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, the one that used to open the NBC Nightly News. In the instrumental prelude that ensues, and the chorus after it, Bach manages to weave together an amazing number of contrapuntal melody lines. The feat is even more amazing because many of the voices -- flutes, oboes, violins, and trumpets -- are all playing in the same register, so their lines overlap.

One piece that caught my attention right away was the aria in which an alto voice is supported by a duo of flutes or recorders, which is kind of like adding sugar to the syrup. But since I was learning to play the recorder at the time it was wonderful to discover my instrument being put to such sublime uses.

Another highlight is the soprano aria "Quia respexit," which features a particularly delectable obbligato by the oboe that winds around the voice like a sinewy vine. And then there's the aria for three voices -- both sopranos and an alto -- in which all three twine around one another while the oboe sails long notes overhead like a halo of light.

Something happens in the mind when it is asked to follow three different melodic lines at once. Most of us have a hard time with just two -- apart from Bach, who could apparently handle four, five, and even six with his own two hands. But for ordinary mortals it seems there is just one tune, or two, or many. It's like watching a magician play the shell game. The result is that we get the delightful feeling that no matter how closely we listen there is always something new and unexpected emerging.

As I said, all the other movements are favorites as well. There's not a recitative in the whole thing, nothing but elegant melody from beginning to end. And speaking of the end, that's wonderful too. First comes the "Gloria," with voices rising and building before declaring "Patri" (father) and "Filio" (son), but then descending from on high like the symbolic dove to deliver "Spiritui Sancto" (the holy spirit). Then comes the finale in which the whole ensemble bursts into a reprise of the opening, while singing, "sicut erat in principio ..." As it was in the beginning, is now and always will be. Chills every time!

In my 30's I acquired a new and better recording, then later bought another version that included the "Christmas interpolations" -- four additional movements that were in the original version performed at Christmas Vespers in 1723, but which Bach later removed to make it appropriate for performance at any time of the year. Then I had to buy another copy when CD's came along, and just recently I downloaded yet another version from eMusic.

This latest acquisition is a unique performance by the Ricercar Consort from the Netherlands. They perform the work with a small instrumental ensemble like the one Bach would have employed, and with just one single voice for each part in the choruses as well as the arias. This minimalist approach delivers wonderful clarity, especially in the thickest of the choral passages. I can honestly say that after all the years of listening I heard new things in it that I had never heard before.

Many years passed between my original discovery of the recording and my first opportunity to hear a live performance of the Magnificat. And even then the circumstances were unusual. It was in 1992, just a few weeks after Hurricane Andrew had pasted South Florida like a wrecking ball. The Miami Bach Society had to decide whether to go ahead with their scheduled performance under such difficult conditions. They did it, and even imported a guest virtuoso on the trumpet clarino -- an instrument with a mouthpiece especially suited for the highest register -- to add a finishing touch.

I'm a big fan of our Bach Society, and I have to say they particularly shone on that evening. It was a wonderful and healing experience coming on the heels of natural disaster, and seemed to be greatly appreciated by all. The Magnificat shared the bill that night with abridged highlights from Handel's Messiah. That was all very well, but to my ear the scintillating perfection of Bach's inspired tapestry made Handel sound dull and heavy by comparison.

Maybe it's just me, but let's hear it for the magnificent Magnificat.

[See Wikipedia for the text and its history. It all started with two pregnant moms bumping into one another. Mary supposedly gave this eloquent recitation that was eventually set to music. Years later, all grown up, one of the kids encountered the other one while he was baptizing people in a river. No wonder they recognized each other -- they were cradle mates!]

Saturday, December 04, 2010

Cloudier and Cloudier

There's more than weather on the horizon ...

Here are some more examples of what I wrote about recently in Life in the Cloud -- and in a way, the fact that I forgot about them is the best evidence that we're already taking them for granted.

You've Got Mail

Yes, as AOL likes to tell us, we have mail, and most of it is spam. Over 80% of it, in fact, ranging from the annoying and disgusting to the viscious and destructive. In this environment it is unconscionable for any provider to give you an email address without some industrial strength spam filtering. Unfortunately some of the most commonly used services (that means YOU, Hotmail and Yahoo!) are less than stellar in this department.

What makes matters worse is that many of us are still stuck on using a local email client on our desktops. In this traditional model our computers suck down everything that comes through the pipe, then flag some of it as suspected spam. How well that works usually depends on how good a job we do of "training" the software, and even then we get lots of false positives along with things that make it to the inbox anyhow. Since some viruses and worms can spread this way even if you never act on them, the damage is not prevented.

When I started using Gmail my first concern was convenience plus a more pleasing user interface than what Bellsouth/AT&T provides for webmail (which is AWFUL). It was only after I used it for awhile that I began to notice something amazing: an almost total absence of spam! Though it's not highly publicized, Google is doing a better job at this valuable service than all but the best enterprise-class filtering systems. And they're mostly giving it away in the public interest. (Contrast this to the service used by the company I work for which costs about $33.00 per user each year.)

I still have a spam folder in Gmail, and I can look there to see if anything good has got caught in it. But that happened so seldom that I stopped checking long ago. I don't even have to empty the spam folder, because everything in it gets deleted automatically after 30 days. Spam? What spam?

You can use a local mail client with Gmail if you want to, but that's a step backward from the security of just looking at your mail while it lives on Google's servers. Of course, it still can't help you if you look in the spam folder and click on that Britney Spears link; but at least she has not automatically downloaded herself onto your hard drive first!

It's a classic example of a formerly desktop-based service being supplanted by a cloud-based one. It's safer, and offers the convenience of access to the same mail from any web browser on any Internet-capable device. This only makes sense, when you think about it. Email only exists online, and anything we have stored on our local machines is just a copy. Sometimes people express reservations about using a completely online service because it won't be available if they lose their internet connection. True, road warriors who are too far from a wifi connection may not be able to look for something in their mailbox. But now that you can check your mail anywhere from your phone, is that really a problem? And what good is email if you're not online?

In addition, Gmail gives me big file attachments -- up to 10 megabytes -- and storage space that keeps growing faster than I can use it up. For example, a few years ago it said on the bottom of my screen that I was using 200MB or 7% of my 3 gigabytes available. Now it says I'm using 600MB or 8% of my 7.5 gigabytes. At this rate I'll never have to delete an email for the rest of my life. (Though of course I usually delete those with huge attachments.) And when my computer crashes or gets stolen I won't lose anything.


In that previous installment I mentioned Dropbox, which is a great way to back up your critical files while also making them available wherever you are. (There's also Box.net and others that focus more on sharing files, including really big ones.) Google Docs is a different approach that encourages you not only to store your files online but also to create and edit them there, using software accessed exclusively through the web.

What's good about that? Well, suppose you're at the public library someday and you'd like to look at your budget spreadsheet. With Dropbox you could find the file or even download it, but without Excel or OpenOffice installed on the library computer you can't see what's in it, much less edit it. But upload it into Google Docs and all you need is the web browser -- even the one on your phone will do. Since your docs can be shared, you can also use it as a collaboration tool. Plus, with everyone using the same software on the website there are no version control problems. The light begins to dawn ...

Backups and Operating Systems

Dropbox is one way to back up your critical files, but it's not really designed for automated industrial scale backups. For that you can consider something like Crashplan, which offers moderately priced "unlimited" storage for personal use. But as our need for storage grows and our personal ability to manage and protect it remains limited, the whole model may be about to turn inside out.

A couple of years ago it was rumored that Google was about to launch a service called Gdrive which you would be able to use for all your storage needs. They seem to have backed off from the idea, perhaps because they didn't think the market was ready for it (or that they couldn't make money from it). But during the discussions online it leaked out that one promotional angle was that the online version of your data would be the "real" one while anything on your own computer would be just a local copy.

That may sound nuts at first glance, but when you consider that over time your computers will come and go but your data lives on (hopefully!) then it starts to make sense. Whatever is on your local drive now might only be needed for temporary computational performance reasons -- like editing a big spreadsheet or working with image files.

Gdrive may only have been postponed until it can be linked with Google's forthcoming Chrome operating system. Chrome is intended to move the OS online as well. Your computer will be able to install, load, and run completely from an online source, with the benefit of automated updates. Computer geeks may prefer to keep "rolling their own," but for the vast majority of cases where the computer primarily surfs the web and plays games, this will be all people need. And if that sounds limiting, consider that those online apps will keep growing in usefulness, and even online gaming will soon achieve locally-installed video performance levels.

The cloud is coming, and in the immortal words of the Borg, "resistance is futile."