Thursday 29 January 2015

From expert to user - progress through technology?

Growing up I remember to be fascinated by the question of how something works. You may call this the nerd instinct. Taking something apart and putting it back together has long been considered the ultimate domain of the male mind. We now know that there is nothing particularly masculine about it, nor that this curiosity is a specific feature of all human beings. In fact, I may have just grown up at the fag end of this 'attitude' of discovery. Here is why...

Technology has long exercised a special fascination on human beings and there are whole libraries filled with books that explain how something works. Whilst once these books straddled the space where the curious and the professional meet, now they fall into either of these categories, yet not both. Part of the reason is that technology is now infinitely more complex. I remember disassembling the engine of my motorbike in 1990 and re-assembling it again in two days, including the gear chamber and changing the pistons along the way. Now, you'd be pushed to find anybody lifting the bonnet of their car before calling a break down service.

The cause of the growing distance between man and machine however is not mechanical engineering, I think, but computers. An engine is still an engine, yet nowadays it is encumbered by a multitude of electronic gadgets measuring and protecting it like an impenetrable cocoon.

So, what is it that computers have what conventional engines do not? Mechanically, computers pose less of a threat, being animated by a low voltage power. Compared to the pain an out of control piston can do, computers surely fall into the class of harmless things. However, they did magnify an attitude towards machinery that has steadily grown over time. I would call it the 'black box phenomenon'.

The apple machine - simplicity lost? 

At the core of the 'black box phenomenon stands a role expectation that is characteristic of the new relationship between man and machine. Man has always had respect for engineering feats, but part of the respect was the expectation to be in control as well. This attitude grew out of the industrial revolution which strengthened the sense of ownership of man over the machine. Computers changed this radically. We are expecting computers to deliver a product, to provide us with something, no matter how. We have become users, instead of techies. The utility of computers trumps our sense of fascination with them. What falls by the wayside is  not just curiosity but also our understanding of how something works.

When the engine of my motorbike stuttered I usually took it apart. If my computer does not start up I take it to the Apple shop. I cannot help but feel I lost something along the way.

Tuesday 27 January 2015

The Radical Left and Right - two sides of the same (Greek) coin

The Hungarian scientist and philosopher Michael Polanyi once wrote that 'there is no indication whatever in facts ... [that] governments can establish a perfect economic optimum by exercising their legally unlimited executive powers.'

This insight has particular resonance today as the newly elected Greek government is about to embark on large scale social engineering, a project that has long united the radical left and political right. At the heart of this project is not just Syriza's promise of milk and honey for everyone, but the fundamental belief that government can and should eradicate economic inequality by dislodging market principles in the economy. Their calculation is as simple as it is false. As laudable as the intention to pay everyone a living wage is, the logic feeds on a misunderstood sense of fairness, presuming that there is dignity only in equal poverty for all.

The irony of worshipping at the altar of economic equality whilst refusing to take the oath of office in the presence of the Orthodox Patriarch has so far escaped Greek new Prime Minister. Nor has the fact that Syriza's socialist government is propped up by the right wing, xenophobic Independent Greeks brought on any misgivings about the scope of the socialist creed of equality. For Syriza, equality extends to everybody who is Greek, yet no further.

But then again, perhaps we shouldn't be surprised. Socialism has always been an easy bed-fellow of right wing extremist movements throughout history, notwithstanding any wreath laying in Athens. Their shared dislike for individual freedoms and its economic consequences will always overcome any alleged ideological distance.

Beethoven and Lutoslawski at the Alfredo Kraus Auditorio

There are two types of listeners to classical music. Those who understand the music and those who enjoy it. Unashamedly, I admit I belong to the second category. Whether tonal or atonal, chromatic or not, I understand little of the internal structure of a piano concerto and so I am, gladly, left with the pure joy of listening without the need to make sense of it. I always believed that this ignorance is a blessing since it opened up contemporary modern music to me which I find more evocative than the simple harmonies of classical music.

This means that I am also always searching for new sounds. Key to good orchestral sounds are the acoustics of a concert hall. There are halls that have a stunning clarity (Chamber Music Hall in Berlin) and those sounding like an ornamented barn hall (Schauspielhaus in Berlin). Then there are those that echo the sound, bouncing it back from the walls like ping pong balls (Philharmonic Hall in Liverpool) and those that act like a flu, sucking the life out of any orchestre (St David's Hall in Cardiff).

Once in a while, I visit a new concert hall and discover a little gem. That was the case when I recently attended a concert at the Alfredo Kraus Auditorio at Las Palmas in Gran Canaria. Built at the outer edge of Las Canteras, the long beautifully curved beach of Las Palmas, the Auditorio looks precariously placed at the edge of the water, resisting the (at times) windy and stormy sea lapping at its feet. Whilst it was all force of nature outside, inside it was a breathtaking calm. The auditorium is sloping gently down to the stage, which is backed up by a clear glass wall opening up a view at the sea.

View towards the stage - the Alfredo Kraus Auditorio

Whilst the architecture is stunning, with clear modern lines, the acoustics blew me away. First piece on the evening's programme was Beethoven's piano concerto No. 3. The sound was neither bombastic nor faint or fragmented. It was round, full and accomplished, an organic whole that can only emerge from a carefully balanced hall. In addition, I had the distinct feeling that nothing was lost nor anything stressed at the expense of anything else. In short, acoustic perfection. So much so, that for the first time, I noticed the sharp and somewhat disconcerting harsh sound of the Steinway Grand Piano which was curiously mis-matched to the warm orchestral sound. The sound of the Steinway has often been criticised but I never, until now, noticed how ill-suited its overly sharp sound can be when accompanied by orchestras that achieve a warm glowing sound.

This was certainly not the fault of the pianist, who delivered a flawless performance of Beethoven's concerto. David Fray delivered a technically brilliant, sensitive playing.

If the Auditorio was impressive at a Beethoven concerto, would it stand up to a modern contemporary piece? Most definitely. The interval was followed by a piece by Lutoslawski which revealed the stunning qualities of the hall, a perfect balance of clarity and warmth. Lutoslawski's Little Suite (rev. 1951) was then rounded off by a sensual and beautiful rendering of Elgar's Enigma Variations.

Being impressed by the Auditorio's acoustics is one thing, it's more difficult to pinpoint exactly how this sound is achieved. There are some great concert halls but their qualities are rarely that perfectly balanced. In the Auditorio, part of the perfect acoustics must have been the fact that it has no back stage which many concert halls have (due to the fact that they are converted theatre halls) where the sound travels, disappears or bounces back, magnified but often in a mushy kind of way. The Auditorio has in fact a stage that is almost placed within the auditorium, with little in the way of space for the sound to go but forward.

Whatever its architectural secret, the acoustics were overwhelming and it goes to show that modern concert halls can achieve stylistic beauty and acoustic perfection. A great night to remember!

Sunday 11 January 2015

Roman Polanski is a rapist, so why can he work and Ched Evans can't?

Just recently, the US government has requested the Polish Government to execute an arrest warrant on Roman Polanski, the film director who drugged and raped a 13 year old girl in 1978, admitted it, then, being convicted and facing a prison sentence, fled to Europe. Ever since, Polanski could count on the lax extradition laws of Switzerland and a good dose of Anti-Americanism in France, his chosen second home. Hence he was free to continue with his career and make millions in the process. Note that Polanski does not dispute the fact that he drugged and raped the victim and that he was lawfully convicted.

Not a conscience in sight - the convicted rapist Roman Polanski
celebrating in Cannes in 2013

Now, for a slightly different case, or perhaps not quite so different. Ched Evans, a football player who was convicted of rape and who subsequently served a 5 year sentence (half of this suspended now). As he was trying to rehabilitate himself through work (yes, exactly what Polanski did all along) all hell broke lose. Apparently, so the argument goes, Evans should never be allowed to work as a footballer because he would make a lot of money, or because he would be a role model, or because he would be in the public eye. Strangely, all things that Polanski is allowed to do, unless you call receiving the Palme D'Or at Cannes Film Festival a private affair. 

Catherine Bennett of The Guardian identified the shocking hypocrisy in this line of argument pointing out that the only difference between Evans and Polanski is that the latter is supposed to be an artist (apparently, rape is ok for artists... part of finding their muse?) and the former just a footballer. 

So, unless I see those who scream loudest about Ched Evans boycott and picket the next Polanski movie in London, I'd say: Ched Evans deserves to play football, rape or no rape.