Dogs, ducks, and sales tax

January 20, 2013

Herewith some meanderings about transparency, evil, and search engines. Only connect, as Goethe said. Or was it E.M.Forster? Better Google it.

My latest Mastercard statement (patience, dear reader) got me fuming. It had a whole bunch of “foreign transaction” fees – 2.75% each. Never seen that before. My first reaction was to start thinking about getting my card from a different bank. However, it seems that actually this charge was always there but bundled up inside the exchange rate quoted. A change of legislation now requires card suppliers to explicitly specify the fee, separately from the rate applied. So that’s good isn’t it? A better informed consumer has more power.

Part 2. On my latest US trip the sales tax thing bugged me, as it usually does. An item is labelled as $7 in the store. You are just getting the exact notes out when the store chappie says “seven dollars forty four please” and suddenly you have another three ounces of coinage. When you tell them that in the UK the tax is already in the price, they are generally mystified. When they do understand, they will say that the UK method sounds like a bad idea. You see, they want you to know that they are charging you only seven dollars;  its the government that is charging you that forty four cents, buddy. Just remember that next time you vote. So that’s bad isn’t it? I just want to know the real price please. Whoop, whoop, personal inconsistency alarm

Part 3. Read article in Observer today about Google and the future of search. Bit of a puff piece really, but never mind. Towards the end the article there were links to a couple of alternative search engines which I hadn’t seen before. One is Dogpile. Lovely name, nice look, but seems to be just an aggregation of other engines. The other is DuckDuckGo . This is a v.interesting beast. They make a big thing of (a) not tracking you, or passing on your search terms to the websites you click on, and (b) not filtering and ordering the results you get based on your location and search history. You can read about the filtering issue here. With Google, you live inside in a search bubble fitted around yourself; different people will get different results. So… this is good, isn’t it, because Google are efficiently giving you what you want ? Or…. maybe this is bad, because prejudices are re-inforced, and we don’t know how we are being manipulated?

Part 3a. The comment stream after that Observer article has a bi-polar argument about whether Google is a visionary force transforming our world, or just a bunch of good old fashioned cynical capitalist bastards, manipulating what we do to make money. Hmm. Both and neither I think. There are much easier ways to make vast amounts of money, so cynicism doesn’t look like the right explanation. I think folks at Google really do want to do groovy and visionary and positive things, and they also really do want to make money out of us. Both at once.

The Internet joined up all the pipes. The Web set up taps that could run water from anywhere. Yahoo and Google ran water through all the pipes. The world seemed transparent. We could live in the whole world at once. Google said “don’t be evil !” and lo, there was a brave new world.

Too good to last of course.


The New Year, Handel, and Technological Disruption

January 4, 2013

I suppose I should think about a New Year’s resolution or three. One obvious resolution might be to post a tad more on the jolly old blog. On the other hand, maybe I should give up. According to a new poll over at Telescoper, the only thing worse than Peter’s blog is mine.

Another resolution could be to decide once and for all whether I am elitist or populist and act accordingly. I’ve noticed I tend to be snooty about books and populist about music.

A couple of days back I went to the annual New Year performance of The Messiah at the Usher Hall, with classically minded friends. The interval picnic was rather fun. I also enjoyed the classical concert version of the seventh inning stretch. When the Hallelujah Chorus bit arrives, everybody stands up. Apparently this may or may not be something to do with George II standing up at this point in seventeen umpty ump. Chum Robin calls it “Heaven’s National Anthem”. The music is rather good. Lots of fine tunes, and enough complexity to entertain. Occasionally very profound and moving. But the singing … hmmm. Still can’t get this. Opera singers and classical singers don’t seem to actually sing the note, but kinda surround it in a sort of weird oscillation. Compared to normal modern popular music singing, operatic style singing just doesn’t seem musical.

Of course, historically, this weird ugly style of singing came about because it was the only way to sing loud enough in big halls and approximate being in tune. It didn’t take long after the invention of the microphone for Bing Crosby et al to re-invent the art of singing. Together with recording technology and the radio, this completely transformed the performance, distribution, economics, and demographics of music.

But ”classical” singing remained unchanged.   Opera and classical fans seem to have an instinct that the wobble thing is a truer and better way to sing, and that amplification is always distorting, but I ain’t convinced. It looks to me like hanging onto the weird singing style is a sociological thing, going along with the picnics and the standing up bit, as well as the performer dress code and the unspoken rules about when you applaud and when you don’t, and never speaking to the audience, and so on and so on. Its particularly strange when performing Handel, or Monteverdi say – its not that it preserves the original atmosphere, but a strange upper middle class Victorian atmosphere from a time somewhere in between the creation of the music and our own time.

There are some analogies to academia here … but thats another post…