And now for something we hope you’ll really like

Apparently, it’s music review month here at Lost In Transliteration. In that spirit, let’s talk about another album, released this past June, also made by someone named Sarah. Yes, sportsmusic fans, Sarah Harmer has a new album out!

Let me start by saying that I don’t understand why Sarah Harmer hasn’t taken over the musical world. She’s been around for quite a while; her first solo album was released almost a decade ago (and we’re going to talk about why you don’t own that album later), yet I am forever running into people who have no idea who she is. Even people who should know better don’t. “You Were Here” got monster critical praise, but almost no airplay anywhere — beyond “Basement Apartment” and “Don’t Get Your Back Up” on a few LiteFM stations — which is incredibly unfair because the whole record was so good it should have come free in the mail as a public service. It was eventually certified platinum in Canada, which is a relief, because it proves at least 100,000 people in this country don’t have horrible taste in music. If I had to sum it up to someone who’d never heard it, I’d say that the album is “solid,” in that the lyrics, the music, and the production is professional but not excessive; the writing is thoughtful without being overwrought, and it reflects a maturity we don’t often see in debut albums. (Though in fairness, it wasn’t really a debut album in the true sense of the word — a variety of projects, including Weeping Tile, preceded “You Were Here,” which might be why it’s so polished.) You can’t really characterize it cleanly — some songs (“Basement Apartment”) talk about the numbing banality of mid-adulthood poverty and unfulfilling relationships, while others (“Capsized”) manage to capture melancholy and emotional vulnerability with a clarity that can be downright bracing if you’re not ready for it. (“What’s the sense in being so sensitive?/Can I trade this thin skin for a shell?”) It was astonishingly good. It is astonishingly good.

“All of Our Names” came in 2004 and seemed a lot like the sort of record Joni Mitchell would make if she were making records in 2004 with contemporary sensibilities. And were a lot more talented. (Sorry, kids.) It got moderately more airplay:

“All of Our Names” didn’t really stick with me as well as it should have — or so I keep thinking. Working on this entry, I scrolled back through my library thinking I had to play the album over again so I could at least have something intelligent to say about it. Then it turned out I knew them already and could play them in my head, which probably means that it did stick with me better than I expected. And it also turns out I don’t actually have very much to say about it anyway — at least, not quite at this juncture.

The difficult third album: “I’m A Mountain.” I didn’t like this when I first heard it. “Escarpment Blues,” an unabashedly activist song, had been around for a couple of months before the release of the record, and I knew it was supposed to be on the new album, so I was entirely unprepared for what I got — a bluegrass/country compilation that was ridiculously well put together. You won’t confuse it for something by, say, Alison Krauss — there isn’t enough fiddle on it, for one thing — but that doesn’t matter. It’s a lot of fun to listen to, and it’s evident that Harmer and her collaborators got a lot of enjoyment out of putting it together. “I’m A Mountain” got even less airplay than the previous two, which is really unfortunate. Listen to the whole thing a couple of times through, and you suddenly realize what it is that makes Sarah Harmer’s music so appealing: it’s that voice. It’s not that the music isn’t good, or that the writing isn’t fascinating — it’s that her voice is staggeringly good. “Salamandre,” which is really a kids song (in French, no less), shows this off perfectly. She’s an alto, something we don’t often see in women singers, and she has complete control over it.

(As an aside, check out the total views on the videos linked above. What’s wrong with people?!)

Now comes the fourth act: “Oh Little Fire,” Sarah Harmer’s attempt at a rock album. By her own description, it’s music people can crank while driving down the highway. Much in the same way as her attempt at a bluegrass album worked and showed off something new, “Oh Little Fire” is clearly of Harmer, new and interesting. “Captive” is the first single:

The beat is new for her — it does, in fact, sound good loud (something that wasn’t true about “You Were Here”) — and it’s genuinely catchy. The rest of the album is similar, with the same kind of peculiarly observant songwriting we’ve seen before. But what makes “Oh Little Fire” interesting is what it reveals about Sarah Harmer, the musician: she’s a real musician. I don’t mean this in contrast to the various autotuned nightmares we’re exposed to on a daily basis (though of course that comparison is valid), I mean that this is very clearly someone who is committed to her art and her craft, who isn’t afraid to try new or different things, who has a very clear passion for what (for lack of a better term) might be called “competent music,” and material that continually reveals something new. In stark contrast to what I wrote earlier about “Laws of Illusion,” this very clearly is the work of someone trying to innovate: I hesitate to call it growth for her, but it is a change, and god, is it ever brilliant.

You won’t get shivers from it. You will, however, thoroughly enjoy it.

Note for Victoria residents: Sarah Harmer will be performing on Saturday, 25 September 2010, as part of the Rifflandia music festival at the Alix Goolden Hall. Wristbands for the three-day festival are $65++; other performers include Great Lake Swimmers, You Say Party!, Hot Hot Heat (who suck) and Men Without Hats (who, unaccountably, are not in fact dead). Details here. I won’t be there, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be.

When hell froze over

They call it IRROPS — irregular operations. For the flying public, it’s an inconvenience: you’re stuck somewhere you don’t want to be, trapped in a terminal with thousands of strangers, frustrated and irritated by the lack of reliable information (unless you have Internet access, and even then maybe not), arguing with unhelpful customer representatives over accommodation and meal vouchers… oh, it’s a grand old time. For the flight operations folks, it’s much worse. (No, seriously: you just have to sit there; they have to actually fix the goddamn problems. What would you rather be doing — complaining about the airline, or trying to run the thing? OK then.) We don’t often see the other side of IRROPS — during the Late Aviation Crisis, there was very little public discussion of what the airlines were doing behind the scenes — but Sean Mendis, who helped start and run the now-defunct Ghana International Airlines, has seen it all, and lived to tell about it.

If you read the URL for that link, you’ll no doubt notice it looks an awful lot like a TAF. This will probably tell you something about the story you’re about to read. Budget at least an hour — the only way I can describe it is to say: EPIC.

The phone rings from “PRIVATE NUMBER”. Strange. It’s Sussex Police. Some of our disgruntled passengers have decided to take a diversion from the prescribed path to arrivals and are now holding a sit-down protest to barricade a canceled Ryanair flight from disembarking its passengers. Quite what they are protesting nobody is really sure. They need me to meet them there immediately to sort things out. Just perfect. I head there and find a veritable riot brewing. Gatwick Security have placed themselves between the two groups of passengers (ours and Ryanair) but there is a lot of shouting and abuse being hurled from each side. To my misfortune, I seem to be perceived as the common enemy and they redirect their mutual loathing of airlines at me. The Gatwick Security folks form a cordon around me but I am beginning to get a little anxious. I am very glad when Sussex Police show up a few minutes later.

If you’re so inclined, you may also enjoy “How I learned to stop worrying and love ETOPS: 3 emergency landings in 1 week.” It’s good stuff, worthy of anyone with even a passing interest in commercial aviation’s time.

A clean, well-lighted past

You must read this fabulous essay by Gabriel Winant at Salon:

The true, central catalyst of the war, which lent it its moral meaning — that is, slavery — was pushed out of mind. Even Northerners came to believe in the myth of the South’s noble, doomed “Lost Cause.” Human bondage, wrote former Confederate President Jefferson Davis, was “in no wise the cause of the conflict, but only an incident.” Northerners proved willing enough to go along, and to transmute their past into an ennobling myth; there’s a reason that people in both regions, even now, try to deny what the war was about, or to say that slavery was going out on its own anyway, or that the Confederacy had black soldiers. “Gone With the Wind” and “Birth of a Nation,” which in one way or another dramatize this argument, were enormous national hits for just this reason as well. Reconciling white people meant writing out black people. White Americans looked at their black countrymen and said, in effect, “This is our story now, not yours.”

This is what’s just happened at the Mall. Nobody was in the wrong during the civil rights years; King was a happy saint in the American tradition, not a dangerous radical.

Winant goes on to connect this kind of historical revisionism to 9/11 and the manufactured controversy over the Park51 project. It’s a really interesting perspective — not something that would have immediately occurred to me independently. And I’m not entirely sure that he’s right (I am not informed enough about the history of the reconstruction and the social dynamics involved to be able to speak authoritatively on the subject). But in its broad strokes, his argument feels right, if only observationally: We don’t like to talk about the very real history of everyday discrimination and oppression that was a fact of life in that era — and we certainly don’t like to talk about the complicity of ordinary individuals in this whole sorry tale. What we will talk about are the most visible: those who had acts, and names, and deeds — like Bull Connor and James Earl Ray — that inexorably mark them as villains in the civil rights struggle, but we ignore the people who never got their names in the newspapers. They’re the approved bad guys. Everyone else just sort of fades away, and we can pretend — as Winant says — that the past was a time when everyone got along, and what we think of as the civil rights movement was simply an inevitability.

There’s a very interesting discussion about the way that 9/11 is being stripped of its significance, too: “The real meaning of the disaster on September 11 — the way violence begets violence and fanaticism begets fanaticism, the way geopolitical maneuvering makes victims of ordinary people — is all gone. In its place is the vacuous sanctimony that it the place is “hallowed,” but all that seems to mean is that it is not open to Muslims.” You would think that to properly venerate the victims of 9/11 (disclaimer: I am not one of them, nor do I have any real connection to the event beyond being shit-scared for a couple of weeks that year, which I don’t consider victimization at all, though apparently I’m coming to understand this may be a minority view), you might want to talk about these things — understand how geopolitics is played, how decisions made 20, 30, 40 years ago come back to haunt you, how the cycle of violence continues, unbroken to this day, and how this is a really shitty problem that isn’t going to get better anytime soon, unless we start making different choices for ourselves. The moral you’d think you’d want is that the people who were killed that day died so that we’d all have a better understanding of what this world is like, and so that we’d think hard about what we were doing, and thus choose to do something different.

But the morals we are actually taking away from 9/11 seem to be: that it’s important to blow up as many places in the Middle East as possible, that nothing bad ever happens from doing this sort of thing, that considering potential consequences when pondering an action is a sign of weakness, and that under no circumstances should anyone ever think that possibly there might have been a point to the whole thing. In short, we’re using 9/11 to reinforce ideas and beliefs that we held before the damned thing happened in the first place. It’s the whole epistemic closure thing all over again, just writ large. Based on this sort of logic, maybe what we need at Ground Zero is not a mosque, or a church, or anything else of the sort. We need a military base, preferably one with serious offensive power projection capabilities. Is Montana looking to get out of the missile silo business?

To be fair, everybody does this. It’s rare to encounter anyone who is willing to change their minds based on events or data, and thank goodness for those who are. If you thought that US foreign policy was too aggressive before 9/11, you probably saw the attacks as vindication for your views. If you thought the problem was that the Middle East hadn’t been turned into radioactive slag, well, the conclusions there are obvious too. But we aren’t even having this debate anymore — 9/11 Just Happened, and about the only thing that’s worth talking about anymore were the goddamned Muslims that carried it off. (Note, too, that we’re not even talking about the specific Muslims that did it! Everyone’s complicit!) And even that point got the volume turned down until a few months ago. So maybe it’s not surprising that we’re suddenly having this huge argument about the “mosque” “at” “Ground Zero”: we never finished having the argument we should have been having in the first place, and it feels kind of silly to pick it up now that there’s no point anymore. (The “blow shit up” side won the argument, we blew shit up, and uh, well, how’s that working out this week?)

We’ve just decided to not talk about it anymore. There’s an accepted narrative about what happened, and we’ve airbrushed out the gory details. Unfortunately, in doing so, we stripped the event of its power. This is understandable — nobody really wants to have to relive the emotions of that day — but it does mean we’ve lost something important about what went on back in September of 2001.

Hiroshima represents a great example of this in action. The museum there will work very hard to convince you that the nuclear bombing of the city was something that Just Happened, and I suppose to the victims it did. Although you’ll find some interesting discussion about how Hiroshima and Nagasaki were basically excuses to scare the Russians, you will not find any discussion at all about the savagery the Empire inflicted on its neighbors, the brutality of the War in the Pacific, and the very cold, very calculating decisions Truman and his advisers made in dropping the bomb. But any examination of the use of nuclear weapons needs to include that component; you simply can’t view their use in isolation. The point, however, is not to judge, to place blame, or to justify or defend the decision. Fred Clark, writing earlier this month, noted: “The least evil is still evil. The least monstrous is still monstrous. When, as will happen, you are yourself forced to choose between two bad things, then choose the lesser of the evils and choose it boldly. That will be the right choice and, if circumstances are truly as circumscribed as you believe them to be, that will be the right thing to do in that situation. But it still won’t be a good thing. It isn’t a good thing and cannot be made good.” You can’t score points off it, and shouldn’t try to. You just need to understand — so that maybe, just maybe, you can work towards a future where people don’t have to make the choice in the first place.

(I want to note two things, one relevant and one not: First, I’ve been reading a lot of Slacktivist and think everyone else should, too, because Mr. Clark has a brilliant writing style and a shockingly sharp mind. Second, Hiroshima might be an instructive example for 9/11, but for an entirely different reason — the idea of normality in the face of unspeakable horror and tragedy. Put another way, if — 50-some years later — teenagers can make out across from the Industrial Promotion Hall, in the face of something so symbolic, shouldn’t we be able to get past this other thing, too?)

Of course, the applicability of Hiroshima’s example to 9/11 isn’t perfect: there is actually an evil here, perpetrated by very specific people who had other options. The existence of that evil, however, should not blind us to the need to have the discussion about its origins in the first place. This wasn’t an ancient evil that some unsuspecting scientist let loose by accident — this was a man-made evil, and if we’re going to deal with it we need to understand it. I get this is not a popular sentiment, and I realize that The Talk is not going to happen anytime soon, if at all, and by mutual consent.

Here, too, Winant is perceptive. He ends his essay with a point that I suspect will be controversial, but isn’t really: “In the temples of Americana being built, the parts of our national past that don’t belong to the white, conservative population are being sacrificed.” He’s almost right; I’d say the correct construction is more along the lines of “in the temples of Americana being built today, the parts of the national past that don’t belong to the comfortable majority are being sacrificed.” It’s not exactly about race (except when it is); it’s more generalizable to the need of the comfortable to stay comfortable, and to never be challenged in their beliefs or confronted with unpleasant truths. You believe what you believe, and you’re never invited to consider the alternatives.

But then, as he says, this is nothing new.

Greetings, Professor Falken

I am suspending my “do not link to The Atlantic” policy to bring you this fascinating article — Market Data Firm Spots the Tracks of Bizarre Robot Traders, Alexis Madrigal’s discussion of something that starts out strange, and then gets even weirder:

The trading bots visualized in the stock charts in this story aren’t doing anything that could be construed to help the market. Unknown entities for unknown reasons are sending thousands of orders a second through the electronic stock exchanges with no intent to actually trade. Often, the buy or sell prices that they are offering are so far from the market price that there’s no way they’d ever be part of a trade. The bots sketch out odd patterns with their orders, leaving patterns in the data that are largely invisible to market participants.

In fact, it’s hard to figure out exactly what they’re up to or gauge their impact. Are they doing something illicit? If so, what? Or do the patterns emerge spontaneously, a kind of mechanical accident? If so, why? No matter what the answers to these questions turn out to be, we’re witnessing a market phenomenon that is not easily explained. And it’s really bizarre.

It’s thanks to Nanex, the data services firm, that we know what their handiwork looks like at all. In the aftermath of the May 6 “flash crash,” which saw the Dow plunge nearly 1,000 points in just a few minutes, the company spent weeks digging into their market recordings, replaying the day’s trades and trying to understand what happened. Most stock charts show, at best, detail down to the one-minute scale, but Nanex’s data shows much finer slices of time. The company’s software engineer Jeffrey Donovan stared and stared at the data. He began to think that he could see odd patterns emerge from the numbers. He had a hunch that if he plotted the action around a stock sequentially at the millisecond range, he’d find something. When he tried it, he was blown away by the pattern. He called it “The Knife.”

As they say, read the whole thing. And by “the whole thing,” I mean the comments too — uncharacteristically, the comments are a joy to read. There’s lots of reasonably intelligent speculation about what this might mean, informed discussion about whether this really does constitute emergent behavior (probably not, but it’s fun to think about anyway), and Conway’s Game of Life makes a cameo appearance. You can also find a fabulous comment that you’ll likely read twice before you realize the poster is full of baloney (you’ll know when you get there), but might represent a future that is incrementally closer to The Singularity. For fairly obvious reasons, it feels like there’s enough raw material here to build a really interesting SF story (and Robert Charles Wilson’s “Blind Lake” came immediately to mind.)

For me, the science-fictiony aspects of the algorithms’ behavior isn’t the really interesting part. Pulling the curtain back on high-frequency trading and low latency trading, and the ridiculous levels of automation in the stock market was the fascinating bit. We could almost call it “extreme trading” — a world where microseconds (!) matter, and where network latency and the speed of light can be all the difference. (Students of organizational theory will quickly realize that this kind of tight coupling and the intolerance to failure can have serious consequences. Nobody’s going to die, exactly, but do we really want tightly coupled, fault-intolerant, automated systems driving our financial markets? Do we get a choice in the matter?)

Reading far enough into the comments on Madrigal’s post eventually leads to this post at The Market Ticker about high-frequency trading, which will probably not make you feel very good about the people behind HFT. I don’t know whether Karl Denninger is right on this subject or not (he was sufficiently nutty in his former life that I might be inclined to take what he has to say with a big bag of road salt), but his arguments are persuasive, and if he’s right we’ve got another big structural problem on our hands. Poke around a bit in his archives, and this is a recurring theme for him:

But when the secondary markets become the plaything of computers trying to game each other with “Wargames-style” bid and offer manipulation (an unlawful activity), when the public good of price discovery becomes subsumed by millisecond-level computer activity designed and intended to skim off portions of the order flow by distorting that price-discovery mechanism, and when rampant insider-trading and other fraudulent activity gets to the point of being “in your face” and yet is ignored by the authorities that have allegedly made these acts unlawful, then the individual investor, who both has no access to these “technologies of theft” and in addition believes in the rule of law (and lacks the protection of having the employees of the government charged with enforcement all coming from their companies!) have no reason to continue “invest” in what they have (correctly) deduced is a rigged casino.

“Would you like to play a game of Global Stock Market Manipulation?” It’s worrying stuff.