Monday, March 24, 2008

The Met's HD Transmission Fails Tristan und Isolde

Barbara Willis Sweete was the transmission director for the live HD production of the Metropolitan Opera's Tristan und Isolde, which aired Saturday afternoon. We know she has the chops because she directed the transmission of Hansel and Gretel in January, and it was lovely. But for the Wagner she decided to get fancy. In an interview during the intermission with Met General Manager Peter Gelb, Sweete said that she was making the opera interactive for theater viewers: we could choose to look at the action in a variety of ways - different camera angles, short shots and long shots all shown at once on the screen in separate boxes.

At its worst, the effect was reminiscent of Hollywood Squares, and brought on the giggles. (And believe me, no-one should giggle during Wagner.) At its best it was annoying and distracting. When the boxes starting appearing, moving around and changing zoom during the performance, there were widespread groans in the audience. The box effect distracted from the music and from the visuals. It was hard to watch. I actually had to shut my eyes during several sections (and miss the sub-titles). It was a disaster.

During the interview, Sweete said that at one point she used zooming to show the audience that the boat was traveling a mile across the ocean. I had absolutely no idea that that was why the camera was zooming in on the boat. To me, it just looked stupid. The effect was completely ineffective. It was also unnecessary as the entire first act takes place on the boat, and the boat is supposedly moving most of the time.

A woman I was talking to during the intermission said the worst part of it for her was that she wanted a theater-like experience, and the framing effects made the opera feel more like a movie. I think she has a good point. But for me, the biggest problem was the distraction. You can try frillly high-tech special effects on a car race or a music video, but for god's sake, not Wagner.

###

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Hail, Tristan

On the boat to England to marry the king, the Irish princess Isolde describes the English knight Tristan as "the hero who killed my beloved and sent me his head in a box."

I love that line.

This being Wagner's version of the tale, it gets weirder. We learn that when Tristan killed Isolde's fiance he was mortally wounded himself and was taken to her to be healed. She saved his life but then demanded revenge. She held his sword to his breast, but she couldn't go through with it.

Tristan is heir to the king of Cornwall, a childless old widower who does not want to remarry. After he killed her lover, Tristan convinced the king to marry Isolde. (This would almost surely lead to his disinheritance when Isolde bore a son, and would be hell for Isolde, so it was both an attempt at atonement - giving his power to her children - and an act of mutual destruction.)

As Tristan takes Isolde to England to marry the king, she is wearing around her neck the fragment of his sword that she found embedded in her lover's severed head. Her mother sent along a love potion to help ease the horror of marrying the old man. For the same purpose, Isolde brought poison.

The atmosphere on the boat is pretty hostile. Isolde demands that Tristan let her kill him. He gives her his sword and bares his breast but again she can't bring herself to do it. She takes her maid aside and tells her to fill a cup with poison, and she asks Tristan to drink a toast to peace. Tristan understands that the cup contains poison. They both drink.

But the maid switched the poison for love potion, so instead of mutual suicide they fall into a grand passion.

Almost immediately after the potion is drunk the maid wails, "You chose a swift painless death but I gave you a shameful and painful one." They're not listening. In the second act they sing love songs. In the third act they die.

I recount the plot of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde because it so perfectly captures why I love opera. It's the iconic nature of the stories that resonate in the universal unconscious, mixed with soul-melting music for an emotional double whammy. The effect is heightened when shared in the dark with a couple of thousand people.

How can a suicide pact between enemies lead to tragic love? Or turn that around: how can it not? There is a connection between hate and love that's difficult to pin down, which perhaps is why Wagner takes five hours to describe it to us.

###

Equality Roundup

The home page of the New York Times online edition today has three articles about the equality of women.

At top center, with a picture, is the teaser, "At endowments and foundations, the glass ceiling is edging lower. Susan E. Manske oversees a $6.5 billion endowment for the MacArthur Foundation." In the article we learn that women are in charge of 20% of the 50 largest endowments and foundations, compared to 8% ten years ago. It's an increase, for sure. Whether it's a blip or a trend is not clear, and in any case it's not very impressive to have women doing slightly better in one such narrow sector.

Lower down is the headline in Europe, women are finding more seats at the table. This claim is based on a law in Norway that forces companies to appoint women as 40% of their boards of directors. In 1993, women held 3 percent of Norwegian corporate board seats; in 2002, it was 6 percent. Elin Hurvenes, founder of the Norwegian Professional Board Forum, said, "If organic growth is 3 percent every 10 years, it would have taken 100 years to get to 40 percent." Compliance has been achieved through tough penalties. Krister Svensson, who runs a mentoring program in Brussels for prospective directors and chief executives, said, "If you have 12 gray-haired men average age 65 on a board, they tend to think about business prospects and strategy from the same perspective. But if you put a 45-year-old from a hot company and a woman and an international representative on the board, the quality of the debate will deepen." But the shutting out of women from the top spots has nothing to do with their contribution to the company, and everything to do with the old boy system and ingrained sexism.

Finally, there's a link to a strangely noncommittal article (Post-Feminism and other fairy tales) about the character assassination of Hillary Clinton, the New York governor's penchant for prostitutes, and the divide between younger women and older women on feminist issues. I have always found the latter issue disturbing. In recent decades many women seem to be anti-feminist until their 30s. (I have a male friend who uses the perspective of younger non-feminist women to discredit all feminist issues.) But when I was 15, in the early 70s, I was a feminist; I understood the importance of issues such as equality of opportunity in work and school; violence against women; the objectification of women; exploitation through prostitution and pornography; and the need for women to be able to control their personal reproduction. We have made big inroads on the first of those issues, but many of the rest are still appallingly bad - in many cases getting worse. Why are younger women turning feminism into a preoccupation of the old?

###

Friday, March 21, 2008

The Failure of the New Financial System and the Need for Wide-Ranging Reform

Our financial system is very different from what it was twenty years ago. Regulated banks no longer have as big a role in the financial system, and even banks have made end-runs on regulations. The whole system has accepted more risk and abandoned much of its safety net in pursuit of ever higher short-term profits.

So when the US Federal Reserve Board steps in, as it did last week, to prop up an investment institution (Bear Stearns), it has ventured into the Wild West. The Fed isn't equipped to accumulate risky assets of a failing investment company. The fact that it has done so has added another vulnerability to our shaky economic situation. And now the Fed has extended its bailout to the rest of the investment industry.

The reason that the Fed had to be the one to step in and rescue Bear Stearns is that the institutions designed to deal with crisis in the real estate sector, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, had leveraged themselves so highly that they didn't have the capacity. Why were they leveraged? I'm assuming it was to make a profit. That wasn't their mandate, but in the current political climate everyone has to make a buck.

Bear Stearns had to be bailed out because its failure could have triggered the investment industry equivalent of a run on the banks. Even with the bailout the market is in turmoil. There have been hundreds of thousands of failed contracts in the repo market, leading today to negative interest rates on T-bills.

Some economists are saying (here and here) that short term interest rates are now virtually zero, meaning that the Federal Reserve Board is unable to lower interest rates - and so rendering toothless its main tool, monetary policy.

Paul Krugman describes the new world of banking: "In the old system, savers had federally insured deposits in tightly regulated savings banks, and banks used that money to make home loans. Over time, however, this was partly replaced by a system in which savers put their money in funds that bought asset-backed commercial paper from special investment vehicles that bought collateralized debt obligations created from securitized mortgages... The shadow banking system took over more and more of the banking business, because the unregulated players in this system seemed to offer better deals than conventional banks. Meanwhile, those who worried about the fact that this brave new world of finance lacked a safety net were dismissed as hopelessly old-fashioned."

Former Federal Reserve Board chair Paul Volcker recently said that the current financial crisis is a test of the new financial system. I think it's safe to say that the system is failing. The crisis boils down to a crisis in confidence in the US financial system, and that lack of confidence seems to be rational and well-founded.

It is the current state of federal mismanagement and ineptitude that led to this day: to a largely unregulated economic giant, the investment industry, that is threatening to bring us down to what some have called a civilization-threatening depression. What we need is massive and effective reform. The investment industry must be much better regulated; the mandate of the Fed must be tightened; and we must ensure that institutions like Fannie Mae are ready to do their jobs.

Will it happen? I don't know. I was at a dinner the other night in New York with a bunch of people in the investment industry, and when I suggested the need for more regulation in their sector they thought I was joking. The current political climate is all about less regulation and lower taxes. We need a giant paradigm shift in politics, and it needs to be about realism and public responsibility over personal greed.

###

Monday, March 10, 2008

Stop Public Funding of CBC TV Already

Along with many other Canadians, I have long wondered why the Canadian public subsidizes a commercial TV station. The only justification I could come up with was that the CBC makes possible some good Canadian TV shows. Other stations also sponsor some good TV shows, so it's a slightly dodgy argument, but you might come to believe that there are good Canadian TV shows that would not be made without the existence of the CBC.

Now the CBC has cancelled Intelligence, a brilliant ground-breaking show that is very popular. It kept The Border, a trite silly stupid show that is more popular. It also cancelled MVP: The Secret Lives of Hockey Wives, which I can't really argue for except that I am totally engrossed and am personally sorry to lose it. It kept Sophie, which I'm glad about. And it continues to co-sponsor The Tudors (along with networks in Ireland and England, who presumably would have produced the show without the CBC), which is one of the greatest shows ever. And of course CBC produces some other good shows, like The Hour with George Stroumboulopoulos and, I suppose, The National, which I hear is good but I don't watch. (I prefer to read my news and when I want to catch something live, I find CTV Newsnet is generally better.)

But the breaking point for me is Intelligence. The cancellation of this brilliant show is so idiotic that it makes me believe that CBC has no mandate to promote excellence in Canadian programming. Therefore, I can think of no reason for tax dollars to pay for CBC TV. The ginormous cash cow Hockey Night In Canada can be bestowed on a private network. We can watch reruns of Frasier and The Simpsons on another channel. Enough already.

The cancellation of good shows by the CBC came ominously close to the decision to merge CBC radio and TV divisions. Does this spell more disaster for Radio One? In the desperate attempt to attract youthful listeners, the CBC has thrown money at initiatives like Radio 4 (publicly-funded commercial radio), thus draining resources from Radio One; and it has done its best to dumb down Radio One, leaving only a few decent shows (The Current, Writers & Company, As It Happens and a few others). With management making such disastrous decisions about TV, I shudder to think what's coming next for my favorite - hell, my only - radio station.

###

Sunday, March 09, 2008

The Stink Rises

The case against Brian Mulroney is getting smellier:

*Bruce Verchere was a Montreal tax lawyer who specialized in hiding money in offshore accounts.

*Bruce Verchere managed Brian Mulroney's blind trust while Mulroney was in parliament (1984-1993). He was also Mulroney's tax lawyer.

*Verchere had accounts at least two banks in Geneva (Darier Hentsch et Cie and Pictet Cie), which he used for his personal use and for his clients.

*Schreiber told the Ethics committee that in the early 1990s, Mr. Doucet asked him to send part of the Airbus grease money to Mr. Mulroney's lawyer in Geneva. Later, Doucet told the committee that that was a "fabrication. I did not know any lawyers in Geneva, Switzerland, or indeed anywhere else in that country." At his next testimony, Schreiber said that the lawyer in Geneva was Bruce Verchere.

*Mulroney said that he has never had any bank accounts outside of Canada. Verchere apparently managed Mulroney money in Switzerland, so Mulroney's statement may be splitting hairs, just as "no banks accounts" turned out not to include safety deposity boxes.

See also:

*Who was Bruce Verchere? And why did Karlheinz Schreiber raise his name? in Stevie Cameron's blog
*Ethics Committee testimony, February 14, 2008

###

The Case for a Clinton/Obama Ticket

1. Hillary is ready to be president, and to be a great president.

2. Obama will make a great president, but he's not ready yet. He's young (46) and he needs more experience.

3. Together they can beat McCain.
-Obama would have a very tough time beating McCain because all McCain needs to do is make the election about national security and many, many people will see that Obama is not ready to take on the tough challenges: he can go on and on about his record on Iraq, but what's important now is who is capable of implementing an exit strategy. Obama isn't.
-I used to think Hillary could beat McCain, but her fellow Democrats have savaged her so badly in the primary that she may be too damaged to do it without Obama (or it may turn out as it did with her husband, who took the hard hits in the primary and they didn't have the same impact in the real election).

4. Some people object that the Democratic ticket should not contain two liberal senators, but don't forget that Hillary has much more experience than your average senator and McCain is a lefty Republican (despite his current pretense of being otherwise to attract the Bush base).

5. Having them on the same ticket will unite the party.

6. Having such a popular and capable VP as Obama could help ensure 16 years of Democratic government.

7. Punching through two glass ceilings at once: way to go!

###

Dangling a Really Nasty Carrot

I'm a big fan of Geoffrey Stevens, but I disagree with much of the implication in his latest column, When does a political inducement become a bribe?.

Stevens draws too strong an analogy between Cadman and Stronach. Stronach had legitimate reasons for changing parties: she was to the left of the Conservatives; under the new leadership of Stephen Harper, the Conservatives moved a lot further to the right. She approached the Liberals about switching; it wasn't, as Stevens says, that Martin "wooed" Stronach. The cabinet post given to Stronach might have been slightly smelly, but nothing worse.

Offering a financial incentive to an MP is a whole nother kettle of fish. The Conservatives possibly did something illegal, and it's right that their actions are being investigated by the RCMP and the Ethics committee.

Morally, the Conservative actions are even more odious. To offer a million dollar insurance policy to a dying man is a particularly nasty form of bribery. Luckily for Mr. Cadman, it seems that he wasn't so desperate that he felt he had to take the deal. Had his financial and family circumstances been different, he might have been coerced into it.

Furthermore, the Conservatives were at that same time trying to muckrack over similar issues. The tape proves that Harper knew what was going on with Cadman - even as he acted all sanctimonious while he accused the Liberals of a much milder form of the same thing.

###

Friday, March 07, 2008

It's No Use! It's No Use! (review)

I went to a concert tonight. I won't say where it was or who played or what they played because I don't like criticizing people who know their stuff so much better than I do. The performance was of a very high caliber. At least I think it must have been.

The musical genre was what I would call old-timey avant garde. I could describe it like this: imagine a small orchestra tuning up. Layer on top of that some plink-plink sounds, some cloppity-clop sounds, and some bongo drums. Now add a soprano shout-singing the line "It's no use! It's no use!" over and over for several minutes.

There were three pieces by three composers, and one of them had some wisps of tune. A lot of it sounded a bit haphazard, but was apparently anything but. The conductor was as focused and determined as I've ever seen a conductor be: pursed-lipped, bent forward, seemingly trying to pull the music out of the orchestra by sheer brute force. You might be reminded of Yoda levitating a space ship out of a swamp.

There was a surprising amount of moving around during the performance. The pianist got up, with her sheet music, and moved to the harpsichord, where, as far as I could tell, she hit one note and then picked up her music and returned to the piano. The person who was making the plink and clop sounds likewise seemed to need to carry music to various locations at the back of the stage.

With the exception of the violinists, all the musicians seemed fearsomely serious, staring sternly at their music sheets, blowing and plucking with enormous concentration. By contrast, the violinists were all smiles, nearly laughing with glee while they waited their turn to saw a note or two. I've seen this jokey-smiley behavior in violinists during other weird concerts. Is this their way of reassuring the audience that they're not pissed off at applying their decades of practice to produce this bizarre noise? Or are violinists just weirdos awaiting the moment they can be in their element?

###

Caucuses vs Primaries and the State of Texas

In the Democratic race for a presidential candidate, some states use primaries, some use caucuses, and some use a combination. In the current race, the two types of vote have resulted in dramatically different results.

In Texas, Hillary won the primary by 4% but Obama won the caucus by something like 12%. Why such a big difference in voter preference on the same day in the same state? The answer seems to be that caucuses attract a much smaller group of people; they attract a particular kind of person (hard-core activists) and discourage other types of voter; and caucuses are more open to shennanigans. In addition, at least in Texas, caucuses carry a disproportionate weight.

Overall, at this point, Obama has won eleven caucuses and Hillary has won one. In caucuses, Obama has won 65% of delegates and Clinton has won 35%. But in primaries, the two candidates have divided the delegates 50-50. (These results reflect, in part, that caucuses are more common in small-population states, and Obama has had more success in those spots, partly because those caucuses occurred during his period of momentum.)

Primaries are an election: people show up and mark a ballot. (However, there are several ways they can work.) Caucuses are a group thing: voters meet in a room, have some discussion, and then vote. Caucuses can be unpleasant to attend: they are often long, involve a lot of standing and can be chaotic. Here's a first-hand account of the Texas caucus last week. Caucuses appeal to younger, more strident people, and they discourage older people, people with busier schedules and people who shy away from conflict. Caucuses attract far fewer voters than primaries; in Texas, about 40,000 people voted in caucuses while nearly 3 million voted in the primary.

A difference that is frequently cited between primaries and caucuses is that anyone can vote in a primary, while only party members can vote in a caucus. This is untrue. In most primaries, only party members (or party members and independents) can participate. And some caucuses are open to everyone, as in Texas.

Caucuses are open to more irregularities than primaries. As one commenter to a blog post on the topic put it, a caucus: "1) Is designed for hard core activists, 2) Is easy to manipulate by those running it, 3) Is going to produce undemocratic results, 4) Is going to ensure that conspiracy theories abound when things are close, and 5) Is set up to make people feel empowered when they are really just suckers, the way that day traders are generally just suckers for the real Wall Street pros."

But caucuses are also more participatory. One reason that the Iowa caucus is so important is that the caucus system demands that the candidates make their positions on the issues clear. If I were a party activist in a caucus state, I could imagine feeling disenfrachised if the caucus system was replaced with a primary. On the other hand, if I lived in a state without a primary, I might feel disenfrachised because the only way I could vote would be to attend a protracted, potentially unpleasant public meeting.

Still, the results in Texas indicate that something is very wrong with the system. Texans were able to vote in both the primary and caucus. One of the problems is that the caucus, with less than 2% of the voter turnout of the primary, chose over one third of the delegates. These are the final numbers for Texas:

Primary (126 delegates)
Hillary: 1,459,814 votes (51%) - 65 delegates
Obama: 1,358,785 votes (47%) - 61 delegates

Caucus (67 delegates)
Hillary: 18,620 votes (44%) - 29 delegates*
Obama: 23,918 votes (56%) - 38 delegates*

Delegate totals**
Hillary: 94 delegates
Obama: 99 delegates

What the picture looks like if you combine the popular vote of the primary and caucus
Hillary: 1,478,434 (52%) - would be 100 delegates
Barack: 1,382,703 (48%) - would be 93 delegates

* The caucus delegates will be finalized at the state convention in June, but I estimated the numbers based on percentage of popular vote.
** Texas sends 228 delegates to the convention. This breakdown refers to the 193 that are pledged. There are also 35 superdelegates.

###

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Farewell to Jeff

Jeff Healey was a presence in my life for such a long time that it's a shock that he's dead and a shock that he was only 41. The cancer that claimed his vision 40 years ago has now taken his life.

I first saw Jeff Healey at a Sunday night jam session at Grossman's Tavern in Toronto. He would have been a teenager then and that would have been the early '80s. Jeff's band was the house band that night. In those days Grossman's got great musicians but the venue was very basic - a tiny corner of the bar with monitors on beer cases - and the band was just about to go on when I heard someone say, "I didn't bring Jeff. I thought you brought Jeff!" and then there was a delay while one of his band-mates went to pick him up. They blew the lid off the place.

In later years I saw Jeff Healey many times, as a rock star and a jazz great. He showed up unexpectedly at a Bonnie Raitt concert at the Ex; I'll never forget listening to him while watching bungie jumpers bouncing upside down just outside the stadium. One summer evening I rode my bike to Ontario Place and leaned up outside the Forum fence to listen to him.

Jeff had a CBC radio show for a while called My Kind of Jazz on which he played from his collection of 78s. His gravelly melodious voice was a natural for radio. I heard him another time doing an interview on the CBC, describing a young woman who was singing lead vocals with his jazz band; he heard her talking and although she had never sung, he could tell from her speaking voice that she could be great and had encouraged her to learn.

The last time I saw Jeff was at the Elora Festival a year or so ago, playing jazz in the Gambrell Barn. It just doesn't seem possible that he's gone.

###