Tuesday, December 11, 2018

The Demo at 50

I spent Sunday at a symposium on the 50th anniversary of a demo of the Online System (NLS) by Doug Engelbart and his group in 1968. The demo is famous in computer history.  

I joined the group in 1970, about two years after the demo and stayed till 1980.  The first two talks in the morning were about the demo and how it had been achieved.  Computer processing necessary for the demo took place at SRI in Menlo Park and was connected to Engelbart controlling the computer and dwarfed by a giant display screen in what is now Bill Graham Civic Auditorium by a two-step microwave link.  The whole process was intricate, fragile and something of a miracle in terms of both software and hardware.  Of course, I'd heard about it, but never in such detail with excellent slides created by some of the people who did the work.  I found the morning very interesting.

By my guesstimate there were about 250 people gathered at the Computer Museum in Mountain View, roughly one tenth of the people who saw the demo.  The audience was dominated by old, white men, as were the presenters.  About half of it was younger, down to teenagers, but again predominantly white men.

Engelbart's work is conceptually separate from the Internet, but historically it has been much entwined with it.  His lab at SRI was the second node on what became the ARPANET and eventually the Internet.  The notion of linking documents came from Doug and/or a philosopher named Ted Nelson (see below), but the implementation, as we know it in the Internet today, came later from other sources.

All of the speakers credited Doug's person and his thinking as important influences in their lives.

Later morning sessions discussed the immediate impact of the demo on computer research and development.

The sixteen presenters, including several computer luminaries, expressed many interests and viewpoints, but the afternoon sessions tended to focus on whether Engelbart "vision" was being fulfilled by the contemporary computer world.  Engelbart set out his vision in a paper in 1962.   Basically it is not a vision about hardware or software, but about building tools to aid the process of solving problems: "By "augmenting human intellect" we mean increasing the capability of a man to approach a complex problem situation, to gain comprehension to suit his particular needs, and to derive solutions to problems." Speakers were in general highly aware of the distinction.

Speakers tended to say that the computer world has sadly failed to implement the vision, mostly because it has been diverted into getting rich.  There was some criticism, for instance of Google, even though Google was one of several sponsors of the meeting.  One speaker recalled the first time an advertisement appeared on the Internet and his moral disgust at seeing it there, which was shared by his colleagues.  Facebook took several hits from speakers, although I notice more than one person sitting in the audience sneaking a look as they listened.  Wikipedia was several times praised.  This was a group of smart, collegial,  bland, and well-off guys, and a few gals, beating themselves up for not having done more for the world in the manner Doug envisioned and suggesting ways, none of them very likely in my perspective, of doing better.

In the foyer of the auditorium, there were demos of software influenced by Doug’s thought or practice.  Dean Meyers showed a version of NLS running on Windows.  I was most impressed by a small teaching tool based on links running on an Apple II.  It's been a while since I saw a running Apple II.

The problem from my perspective is that forces like capitalism and the human propensity to divide into groups and squabble tend to subsume whether people communicate with the aid of computers.  For instance, climate change was mentioned several times.  Undoubtedly, computer-based exchange and examination of knowledge can help with scientific and technical problems having to do with climate change.  But the coal companies have computers too.  At a high level, everybody knows what to do about climate change: eliminate fossil fuels and cultivate forests and other absorbers of greenhouse gases.  This is not a technical problem -;  it is a political problem.  Again, Internet computer communication has had diverse and profound effects on politics; whether they have reduced conflict or mismanagement remains to be seen.  The methodical use of the Internet by the Russians and others to confuse people was not motioned in my hearing and efforts by China to mold social identity was mentioned only once.

The overall moderator was Paul Saffo  who describes his occupation as "futurist." That and chatting with old friends and acquaintances, some of whom I would not have recognized without nametags, recalled to me how strange it was when I first began working in what is now called Silicon Valley that people's identity seem to center on what they hoped or planned to do rather than what they had done or where they had come from.  I have not yet become comfortable with it.  After all, the past has happened and shaped us as it has.  The future is at best a plan and for sure uncertain.

The last speaker was Ted Nelson.  He is extraordinarily eloquent.  He described his personal and intellectual relationship with Doug over a lifetime.  I cannot describe what he said, only admire it.  

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Fake News from the Rhine

Last week I attended the San Francisco Opera's production of Wagner's four operas The Ring of the Nibelungen.  Let me first of all say that this was a satisfactory experience.  The orchestra, central to these operas, was in great shape and wonderfully conducted.  The singers were all good, some terrific.  I could make some carping criticisms of some singers – there always such criticisms to make – but I don't want to bother.  The acting was good.  Above all, the special imaginative and emotional hit The Ring offers was present in abundance.

What is the special Ring hit?  It is the musical re-evocation of themes, events, and objects, that have occurred through musical cross-references by means of repeated, sometimes altered but recognizable, Leitmotifs.  Let me take a small example.  When the most important female protagonist, Brunhilda, is a demigoddess riding high, the celebrated Ho-jo-to-homusic is associated with her entrance.  At the end of the next Opera she has been demoted to mortal and obliged to marry the tenor.  Basically she is happy with her fate —; she loves the guy and loves feeling love.  But, realistically, her response is complicated and ambivalent.  As she is exploring her ambivalence she recalls, (in translation) "Once heroes bowed to me.”  When she sings those words we get a brief poignant touch of Ho-jo-to-homusic in the midst of her love music.  Repeat that process 200 times and one hundredfold and you get a musical experience that enters your mind and emotions as no other. It is the result of intense and creative coordination of text, music, and setting.

But mostly I want to bitch about the stage setting.  It's really awful, more awful than merely ugly or crude would be.  Generally, it is not coordinated.  Let me acknowledge first that in general I am uncomfortable with resetting plays or operas in times other than the author's intent, although it certainly can work.  Let me acknowledge also that anyone presenting The Ring has a problem about setting.  When and where does The Ring take place?  It takes place in mythic never never land.  And what pray does mythic never never land look like?  Though Wagner provided ample descriptions of scenes in his libretti, the history of productions of The Ring is strewn with failures of staging.  But we can be sure of a couple of things.  It is set in the forest. The vast forest that covered Germany in the middle Ages as Wagner imagined it.  Second it is set by, on, and in the river Rhine

Wagner's idea of nature is not problematic.  It is the solid and meaningful background in which the decline of the gods and triumph of human love takes place in The Ring.  The notion that  nature is something humankind is destroying by exploitation is a late 20th century idea at least in its popular form, well after Wagner.

The first scene of the first opera, Das Rheingold, challenges stage designers.  Wagner’s detailed directions describe it:
(Greenish twilight, lighter above, darker below. 
At the bottom of the Rhine
The upper part of the scene is filled with moving
water, which restlessly streams from right to left.
Toward the bottom, the waters resolve themselves
into a fine mist, so that the space, to a man’s height
from the stage, seems free from the water, which
floats like a train of clouds over the gloomy depths.
Everywhere are steep points of rock jutting up from
the depths and enclosing the whole stage; all the
ground is broken up into a wild confusion of jagged
pieces, so that there is no level place, while on all
sides darkness indicates other deeper fissures.)
 (The curtain rises. Waters in motion. Woglinde
circles with graceful swimming motions around the
central rock.)

For reasons unknowable to Wagner, the stage director, Francesca Zambellohas decided to begin The Ring in California in the time of the gold rush, extend its duration to approximately the present, and through sets and projections depict the loss of the natural world to industrialization.  In Wagner's libretto the action takes around 25 years and involves no reference to what may be going on outside the world of the story.

Of course the Rhine does not flow in California so, although the name of the opera is Das Rheingold and the Rhine maidens ("Rheintöchterin German) sing the German text, "Rheingold" etc., the subtitles read "River maid" and "River gold.”  The river is a stream running through the middle of the stage and the Rhine maidens are not water sprits, but healthy looking California girls dressed in 19th-century party ware.  

The powerful Sacramento River flows through California, was the location of the gold rush, and was involved in environmentally destructive placer mining, which appears on some screen projections, but Zambello ignores that. Perhaps the notion of subtitles translating Rheingold as “Sacramento Gold” was too ridiculous even for her.

At this point the staging is merely silly and distracting.  It gets worse in the beginning of the third opera because it tampers with protagonist’s conception of self.

Wagner’s stage directions for Siegfried act I scene 1 are: 
(A rocky cavern in a forest containing a naturally
formed smith’s forge with large bellows.

In this forest a villain named Mime has raised the ultimate hero Siegfried without exposure to other human beings.  But he has been exposed to the forest.  He constantly refers in dialogue to how he had learned about life and himself from the birds, animals, and trees of the forest and at one point leads in a bear, this arrogant adolescent’s idea of a joke on Mime.

But trees and rocks not what we see when the curtain rises in this production.  Mime's cave has become a dilapidated mobile home located in an industrial wasteland (see above).  No home for bears here.  The real problem with this is that the hero could not have grown up with the self-image or the image of how to relate to others he had in an industrial wasteland. The scene leaves the audience possibly annoyed but certainly confused.

By the end of the opera via staging and projections the setting has progressed to a 20th-century industrial wasteland, which serves to suggest, nay assert, the destruction of nature by humans. Whatever the name of the river, it has dried up and we last saw the whatever maidens collecting garbage on its dry floor in a scene Wagner describes as set "in a  remote wooded valley where the Rhine flows".

Between scenes toward the beginning of the last opera a substantial orchestral passage embodies musically the hero’s trip down the Rhine.  The swelling music movingly reflects the flow of the river. It is frequently excerpted and has become a warhorse of symphony concerts. The curtain raiser for the first opera is a beautiful and hypnotic projection depicting a powerful river and related stuff. It would have been appropriate and satisfying to repeat it here. But no, we get more projections of industrial waste. It is weird to hear Siegfried’s Rhine Journey while looking at in concrete and power lines.

Wagner provides detailed stage directions for the end of the opera:

(As the whole space of the stage seems filled withfire, the glow suddenly subsides, so that only a cloud
of smoke remains, which is drawn to the background
and there lies on the horizon as a dark bank of cloud.
At the same time the Rhine overflows its banks in a
mighty flood which rolls over the fire. On the waves
the three Rhine daughters swim forward and now
appear on the place of the fire.)
 (Hagen, who since the incident of the ring observed
Brünnhilde’s behavior with growing
anxiety, is seized with great alarm at the appearance
of the Rhine daughters. He hastily throws spear,
shield and helmet from him and rushes, as if mad,
into the flood.)

 (Woglinde and Wellgunde [Rhine maidens] embrace his neck with
their arms and draw him with them into the depths
as they swim away. Flosshilde, swimming in front of
the others toward the back, holds up the regained
ring joyously.)
 (Through the bank of clouds which lie on the
horizon a red glow breaks forth with increasing
brightness. Illumined by this light, the three Rhine
daughters are seen, swimming in circles, merrily play-
ing with the ring on the calmer waters of the Rhine,
which has gradually returned to its natural bed.)
 (From the ruins of the fallen hall, the men and
women, in the greatest agitation, look on the
growing firelight in the heavens. As this at length
glows with the greatest brightness, the interior of
Walhall is seen, in which the gods and heroes sit
assembled, as in Waltraute’s description in the first
 (Bright flames appear to seize on the hall of the
gods. As the gods become entirely hidden by the
flames, the curtain falls.

None of this happens as described in this production. Instead see a barren, post-industrial landscape.  The Rhine Maidens, once flirtatious hotties, embodiments of positive libido, are now bedraggled and bent. Siegfried is not on a pyre of wood for Zambellohas moved his immolation off stage, but Gibichung vassalsn are carrying old tire casings in that general direction.   Valhalla is not seen.  Etc. Most important the Rhine does not flood the stage. There is no Rhine, and whatever river flowed in the first opera has dried up.

Because the Rhine does not reflood the stage to allow the Rhine Maidens to swim up and remove the ring from Siegfried’s finger, the setting fails the resolution the text and music embodies.  Zambello has imposed a moral of painful disharmony rather than resolution.  She ties to solve the problem she has created by adding a child who comes on stage after theverything Wagner wrote is over carrying a sapling, which she plants.  This is Bullshit.  This is Fake News.  And like political fake news, the confusion it causes is as bad as it's dishonesty.

The libretti Translations are by Frederick Jameson .You can read them all at:  http://home.earthlink.net/~markdlew/shw/Ring.htm