Monthly Archives: September 2011


I dial a number on my phone.

“Thank you for calling Corporation X. All our representatives are unavailable. Your call is valuable to us. Please stay on the line until the next representative is available.” While waiting, I hear a series of recorded promotional messages, often delivered in a seductive tone appropriate for deep sexual intimacy. Messages also boast of the many services Corporation X offers. Unfortunately, these do not include timely live responses to my current call.

Having invested so much time to speak to a representative, I’m torn between hanging-up or hanging-on. Often, an abrupt disconnection makes that decision for me. I call again. Once more, I’m assaulted by sounds that pass for music and the sexually arousing voice repeatedly promising me that a representative will be with me shortly. While waiting for fulfillment of that promise, I wistfully remember the days when live human beings would answer business calls. Finally, a representative breaks in, “My name is (mumble), how may I help you?” I’m usually challenged by a representative whose foreign accent is so thick that his speech barely resembles English.

I’ve developed a technique to deal with globalization. I catch two or three words that are intelligible, and then repeat what I thought he said in my own words. At the end of my recap, I ask him to let me know if I had understood him. He has only to answer ‘yes’ or ‘no.’

I have also developed two other techniques. I listen to the initial menu options. If none of them relates to my need, I press for the menu again and employ one of two tactics:

  1. Press an option that has to do with sales. A response to that option is immediate and is always spoken by English I understand. I then ask the sales representative to connect me to a representative I sought in the first place. On a really lucky day, I get someone with whom I don’t have to employ my ‘yes’ or ‘no’ tactic. But there is always a strong possibility that a native-born American’s English is at least as unintelligible as that of someone with a heavy foreign accent.
  2. If I hear an automated voice that begins with, “All right, let’s get started: Do you want to ask about your account? Say ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ I say anything except ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ She will then (ever so gently) apologize, “I’m sorry, I didn’t understand that. Will you please repeat that?” And this is where the fun comes in. I just say, “I’m sorry, too,“ or “Merry Christmas,” or “Good Shabbat.” The surrogate human then says, “I’ll connect you to a representative.” I must admit I’m elated by the success of my subterfuge.

I miss those days before our extremely rapid communication technology slowed down communications.

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Forensic Politics

It is often said, “If you are young and a conservative, you have no heart; if you are old and a liberal, you have no brain.” Implicit in the statement is its underlying reference to wealth. ‘No heart’ translates to an unwillingness to share wealth with other people. “No brains” translates to an inability or unwillingness to recognize that a good portion of taxation is theft, thereby supporting Robinhood Barons as opposed to Robber Barons.

On the surface, the adage appeals to individuals who attempt to infuse moderation to political controversy. That’s understandable. But beneath the surface, there are factors that weaken the statement’s validity.

To begin with, politics is inextricably bound to group thought and action. Individual thought and action don’t mix well with political movements, party platforms, and generalized ideologies.

The adage also neglects to acknowledge that there are many young and old individuals whose hearts and brains function at the same time. They are a distinct minority of course, so they get lost in the mix of large aggregates. Their objection to income tax is often based on the principle that one should be able to keep the wealth he earns or inherits, a conservative tenet. Others, support income tax because they believe that individuals are obliged to contribute to the general welfare of society, a liberal tenet. Whatever the thoughts and feelings may be at the individual level, government determines economic systems. However varied the definitions and specific details of economic systems may be, they are generally classified as Laissez Faire, Mixed, or Collective depending on the degree of governmental control over economy. (Of course totalitarian states obviate economic classification.)

Beneath the ponderous economic theories and complex layers of groups within whatever economic system prevails, there is the fundamental unit of politics: the individual. An individual’s impact on government is negligible apart from his vote. But voting is a classic example of ‘the whole being greater than its parts.’ The closer the results of an election, the greater the impact of the ‘whole.’ What goes unnoticed is that the winners and losers only appear to be motivated by the same political goals. After the election, voting results include precise details of voting constituencies in terms of age, gender, location, and so on. Wednesday Morning Quarterbacking includes detailed analyses of how and why groups voted as they did at the group level.

However, there is a microscopic level that goes deeper than that: the individual voter. Beneath the labeling of voting blocs and coalitions, there lies the character of the individual voter. Two voters within the same demographic bloc may vote the same ticket for totally opposite reasons. For example, one of them may be motivated to vote for higher taxes to help fund programs designed for the poor even though that help will be at his expense; the other may choose the same ticket because it is to his advantage, especially since the wealthy will pay the much greater percentage of taxes.

Johnny, the Plumber

When Johnny was young he was all heart. He voted for candidates who promised him that the wealthy would be required to pay a much higher income tax than he would have to pay. People who were at or below Johnny’s income bracket would not bear the burden of funding government programs designed to help people with incomes at or below Johnny’s income.

Now that Johnny is older, his income is in a higher bracket. Johnny is now all brain, but not as the adage meant him to be. “Why should I pay higher taxes for wasteful welfare programs.” As in his youth, Johnny also rants about being exploited by his employer- – -that habit never dies. Johnny also cheats at everything he does from playing at cards for money to overcharging clients for whom he works as a self-employed plumber. “Hell, she’s got the money, why not squeeze a few extra bucks out of her.” Of course Johnny also cheats on his income returns. The IRS will never know about the woman he cheated. When discussing politics, Johnny is still an outstanding champion for the poor, as he was in his youth.

Mary, the Senator

Unlike Johnny, Mary doesn’t cheat at anything. But, like Johnny, she was all heart in her youth. She volunteered or accepted pittance for social work while majoring in college courses that specialized in socio-economic classes. Despite her brilliance as a senator in her mature years, she doesn’t acknowledge- – -even to herself- – -that voting for every welfare program that comes her way amounts to a sort of extortion. As a senior senator, she is not concerned about the fact that many welfare recipients cheat, often in remarkably lucrative and ingenious ways. (I once knew a woman who traded food stamps for cigarettes and then sold them for a price lower than cigarettes on the market.) The senator rationalizes theft as marginal. She feels that the greater the welfare funds, the less important are incidences of cheating.


As we all know, corporations hire tax experts whose principal service is to get through every possible loophole in the tax codes. This skill enormously enriches the experts and the corporations they serve. One might irreverently quip that this is what Jesus meant when he said, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God.”

The Super Minority

Unlike characters from The Wizard of Oz, there actually are people who have hearts and brains at the same time, all the time. They are not perfect, but their psyche is such that they maintain a balance that belies the adage that separates heart and brain.

The cacophonous politics of our society is not the result of heart vs. brain. Rather, it is the result of a deep-rooted acceptance of the prevailing philosophy that individuals are politically interchangeable. That concept attains perfect realization in a totalitarian society. In effect, politics is dormant in those societies, sometimes through centuries.

In our mixed economy, politics is very much alive. It is also subject to storm and strife amongst competing groups. More often than not, groups have a way of wanting the same thing and consciously or unconsciously are at odds only in the matter of how to get what they want. This is blatantly obvious as the root of congressional deadlocks.

As I see it, the only way to ease class warfare without diminishing our inviolate form of democracy is to re-examine what issues should or should not be relegated to the custody of government. It makes me very uncomfortable to know that a significant part of my life is in Johnny’s control, whatever political flag he flies.

I’m sure that a re-examination of the function of government would be a daunting undertaking and that objections to specific changes would leap out of every corner of our society. After all, we already have a constitution. But the proliferation of issues- – -domestic and foreign- – -coming under the purview of government is alarming, especially so because even our foreign policies, for better or worse, are being influenced by globalization.

I am a minority of one. (Many would say, “Thank God.” And that’s okay.) But my heart and brain are not strangers to each other. They never have been. They agree that our current political discourse has descended to an irrational level. The principal cause for that is that emotions take their cue from thought, consciously or unconsciously. If our thoughts are nonlinear, our politics will reflect that. Hence the political gibberish in just about every form of communication, including comedy shows whose major agenda is political, e.g., Real Time with Bill Maher.

Politics is at best unreliable as a mechanism by which we can help decide the best course for our nation. Presumably, the laws of the United States are based on justice for all, even for Johnny, the senator, and corrupt corporations. But the fountain of justice is only as deep and springs only as high as the individual members of a nation allow. In that crucial respect, ethics overwhelmingly trumps politics.


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The Human Factor

When I was in my early twenties, androids and iPods were phantoms of the remote future depicted in Science Fiction movies or books. Swathed in fantasy, instruments of virtual omniscience were manipulated by advanced humans or aliens, for better or worse.

But computers were real. They were also relatively new. One of the popular rumors at the time was that computers would free us from the five-day workweek. Four days would suffice to do the work that previously required at least five, sometimes five-and-a-half or even six full workdays. As we now know, that utopian goal has never been accomplished. Instead of a reduction of the workweek, workloads have been increased. So, with the help of computers, firms that once handled 100 clients per week are now able to handle 100,000 in the same amount of time that they had taken to handle 100. I may be mistaken, but it seems to me that weekends are shorter than they were in the 50s.

Another popular rumor claimed that computers would be able to create art. Attempts to do so have done more to refute that claim than any other fact about art or computers. For example, today it may amuse us to explore an application designed to show us a famous painting as it would look in a variety of different styles. Androids can do that at the flick of a click. But that trick should not be confused with the creative process we call art. An individual can certainly appreciate art without being an artist himself but only an artist is capable of the creative process itself even if he does not fully understand it.

The creation and appreciation of art is often regarded as primarily subjective. That is true in part because art significantly deals with beauty. However, a beautiful sunset is not art unless it is depicted in one form of art or another. Form includes principles. Principles assist an artist in the realization of his vision. He reviews them as he creates art, using those that apply and omitting those that do not. When the realization of his vision has no existing ‘rule’ he adapts or creates a new one. An artist should be familiar with all the rules before breaking any of them or creating new ones.

Judging art also has its criteria. Taste is unreliable as a primary factor in judging whether or not a painting or a ballet performance qualifies as a work of art. A judge should consider the universality of a piece and not automatically equate new with good or fame with authenticity. For example, when someone randomly splatters paint on a canvas, he is engaged in an intense need to feel like an artist, even though he doesn’t have the talent to qualify as one. With or without the aid of a computer, the results of his random splash may be beautiful, but like a beautiful sunset, splatter doesn’t qualify as a work of art.

There are art critics who are skillful in pointing out details of a work of art. There are others who for various reasons claim that a can of tomato soup is a work of art. A good rule of thumb is that if a painting, or sculpture, or dance needs to be explained it is not a work of art. It is important to examine a critic’s personal qualifications for judging art apart from their fame as critics. Remember that when someone critiques art she is revealing much about herself as well. If she has the psyche and experience to honestly judge art, then it is wise for the artist to heed her critique. If she lacks those attributes, then an artist should ignore her.

Back in the 50s, I was mistaken about the reduction of the workweek- – -I have thousands of grunt-work hours to my credit that remind me of that error; but I never doubted that computers cannot compose music. It was easy for me to be prescient about that. When forecasting the future of computers, the prophets failed to factor-in the reality of minimum requirements for composing music: a human brain, and the genius to transmit human experience through sound. The potential for computers to shorten the workweek was there when it was predicted that they could do that, but it is impossible for computers to ever create music. The minimum requirements are absolute. Humans, like wheels, cannot (and need not) be reinvented: it’s so much easier to make a baby.

Music is an international language. The same is true of all the arts except literature. Ironically, that is true because literary art is founded on language itself. Unlike music, dance, sculpture, architecture, and painting, literature has linguistic barriers, especially in its poetic form. Despite this, there are occasions when literary art, like dramatic art, can impact readers and audiences that do not share the same language with the authors of novels, plays, or operatic lyrics. The catalyst through which literary art may be transmitted to foreigners is an artist with talent equal to that of the original artist. I’ve noted several extraordinary examples of that.

One of them relates to two artists: Giuseppe Verdi and Arrigo Boito. Boito wrote one magnificent opera, Verdi wrote many of them. Boito was also Verdi’s librettist for three of his operas based on Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Falstaff, and Othello (Italian: Otello).

As in Shakespeare’s Othello, Otello murders his wife moments before he learns that she was not unfaithful to him as he had been led to believe. In remorse, he mortally wounds himself. Boito’s libretto then provides Otello with final words borrowed from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet:

Poor creature born under a malignant star

(note: Boito replaced ‘poor’ with ‘pious,’ thereby highlighting Desdemona’s innocence)

So, we have a world-class operatic masterpiece enriched by a world-class libretto that includes several passages from Shakespeare’s Othello and one from his Romeo and Juliet, two world-class plays. Above the restrictions of cultural differences, Otello combines the genius of three poets, one of them posthumously.

None of this could have happened without the ineffable element of creative genius. Add to that the vocal art of performers, each of them unique, and you get emotional responses that cut above the limitations of ethnicities and foreign languages. I happen to know Italian and Shakespeare’s Othello, but I deeply appreciated Otello long before I paid attention to the libretto. Opera lovers need not know the language of an opera’s lyrics to be spellbound by it.

I’m told that the English lyrics for the review, Jacques Brel is Alive and Well in Paris, are as fine as the original French. That is a remarkable feat. Bilingual readers of world-class novels and audiences attending plays spoken in a language foreign to them report the same phenomenon.

There is an interesting legend about Helena Modjeska, a polish actress, who (despite her accent) was renowned for her Shakespearean roles. After a closing performance, she attended a celebratory party held in her honor. Having seen her perform Shakespeare in English, the guests requested that she recite something for them in Polish.

She delivered a brief speech without identifying its source. During her improvised performance, the guests were moved to laughter and tears. When she finished the piece, she was asked the source of her script. She responded, “That was the Polish alphabet.”

Legends are often suspect, but I believe this one because I had the same experience as those guests had when—before I learned Spanish—I reacted to a Spanish actress’s interpretation of a passage from Federico Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba.

Computers are of inestimable value to humanity. Their programmers continue to excel our greatest expectations. I am in awe of their kind of creative talent. But I can’t imagine why anyone ever thought that computers could be programmed to create art. 

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