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Spam is not always this amusing… August 4, 2013

Posted by Alan Yu in Culture, Language.
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For those of you old enough to be around before personal computers became a permanent fixture in everyday life, spam had a different meaning.

In 1937, the Hormel Foods Corporation introduced a meat product called “Spam”, which is still available today.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the origin of spam is apparently an abbreviation of “spiced ham”.

As the Internet started to take hold of our lives, the word became a pariah in polite company, taking on the meaning of unwanted electronic messages sent to a large number of recipients at the same time.

This modern usage of the word “spam” is said to derive from a sketch from the British comedy Monty Pyton set in a café in which every item on the menu is spam.

In 1975, the Monty Python comedy team produced a movie called Monty Python and the Holy Grail.  If you’re interested, you can watch it here.  The movie further spawned a Broadway musical in 2005 called Spamalot, which claims to be “lovingly ripped off” from the movie.

Most of us are not amused when we receive spam, which often jams our mailbox and prevents us from getting to the genuine messages of importance, but I’ve recently received a message from one Pandit Vikram, who claims to be “in charge of Sovereign Wealth Funds” in Citibank.  You may recall that no so long ago, a gentleman by the name of Vikram Pandit was CEO of CitiGroup.

The fun doesn’t stop here.  Mr Vikram promises that he can arrange an interest-free grant to me of US$10.5 million, which “will stay on CitiBank Books for 36 months” and then written off.

Mr Vikram goes on to say that Sovereign Wealth Funds in his charge usually remain dormant for years “because some leaders of the United Kingdom who made the initial deposits intended to steal the funds after leaving office”.

Unfortunately, Mr Vikram says, these depositors “are either kicked out or killed in office”.  That’s why, he continues, the funds “go into dormant mode”.

And what does this privilege of an interest free grant (someone needs to prompt Mr Vikram to look up the word “grant” in the dictionary) cost me?  40% of the US$10.5 million, apparently.  This is how much of the “grant” I need to “set aside” for Mr Vikram.

What am I to do?  I need to send Mr Vikram all my personal details and a scanned copy of my “identity”.

If you’re interested in having your identity stolen for US$6.3 million (60% of $10.5 million, after setting aside 40% for Mr Vikram), please let me know and I will give you his personal email and telephone number.

Spam on…

James Rhodes holds court in a soiree at the China Club in Hong Kong March 11, 2013

Posted by Alan Yu in Classical, Culture, Music.
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When James Rhodes holds court in a soiree billed as “An Unconventional Recital” at the China Club in the Old Bank of China Building in Hong Kong, we are entitled to expect some fun.  And we were not disappointed last night.

As we seated ourselves in the dining hall cleared for the evening, Club founder Sir David Tang expounded his views on how concerts should last no more than an hour, and promised the evening would start promptly at 7 pm and finish at 8 pm.

On the dot at 7 pm, James strode into the hall and, instead of chatting about what he was going to perform – a practice which has become his trademark – he went straight to the piano and started playing a piece by Rachmaninov (the Prelude in C sharp minor, I think) – an  item not on the programme – with electric intensity.  He explained that he had “Rachmaninov” tattooed on his arm in Cyrillic, which could well say “Elton John” for all he knows.  Down-to-earth, charming and your regular guy next door: that’s what James Rhodes is all about.

Most of us think of Beethoven as the angry deaf composer.  Yet barely out of his teens he had been nearly beaten to death by his alcoholic father.  He single-handedly took classical music into the romantic period with a “big R” – for the first time, here was someone writing not for the church or the state, but for himself.

Beethoven’s Sonata No. 15 in D major, Op. 28, “Pastoral”, is an odd work.  Almost halfway through his 32 sonatas, it marks the crucial point at which he became convinced he was going deaf.  Yet the work shows no obvious depression, nor is it given over to much brooding.  The four movements are hardly distinguishable, running more or less into each other, linked often by material that keeps re-appearing in different guises.

James Rhodes’ interpretation was polished, subdued and exploratory; the left hand gently tapping a persistently repetitive rhythm, while the right scaling the sounds of nature.

For someone whose works remain stubbornly in play throughout the world, Chopin was apparently not a very nice person, ruined by a disastrous relationship with George Sand.  His Scherzo No. 2 in B-flat minor is the more popular among the four he wrote.  The signature opening of the work consists of quiet arpeggios followed by emphatic chords.  The rest then flows mellifluously in roller-coaster fashion.  In James’ hands, the Scherzo sounded warm and friendly, but a little staid, as if he was trying too hard to de-romanticise it.  I heard a few extraneous notes too.

Responding to our clamour for encores, James surprised us with what sounded like Beethoven’s Colonel Bogey Dudley Moore used to mischievously play, except I think he added snippets of the “Moonlight” Sonata towards the end.  Next up was an excerpt from Gluck’s Orpheus and Eurydice, a lilting work that hangs in the air like little water vapours, which he dedicated to Sir David.  To finish off, he served up a piece he claimed not to have played for a long time, a transcription by Liszt of Schumann’s Spring Night, one of 160 songs he composed during the year he courted Clara Wieck.

As we savoured the rapid outcry at the end of Schumann’s love song, we couldn’t help feeling grateful for Sir David’s generosity in bringing James to Hong Kong and opening the China Club specially for him on a Sunday night.  Most of all, we were proud to count James as a friend who happens to be an excellent pianist, rather than a virtuoso we put on a pedestal.

Rozhdestvensky &the Hong Kong Philharmonic – comfortable but a little wobbly March 21, 2012

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The programme billed him as “The Legend”. Russian conductor Gennadi Rozhdesvensky – tongue-twister of a name that gave me lots of trouble as an upstart radio announcer years ago – led the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra in an all-Tchaikovsky programme on Saturday March 17, 2012.  Joining him in the Piano Concerto No. 2 in G, Op. 44 was his wife, pianist Viktoria Postnikova.  The Manfred Symphony, Op. 58, took up the entire second half of the programme.  The experience was like walking on a thick carpet – very comfortable, but a little wobbly.  Read my full review at Bachtrack.

The Importance of Being Earnest – a fitting tribute to the 40th anniversary of the Hong Kong Arts Festival February 6, 2012

Posted by Alan Yu in Culture, Literature.
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It seems that in 2011 alone, there were several revivals of the Oscar Wilde evergreen The Importance of Being Earnest. A casual search online uncovered productions by Roundabout Theatre Company at the American Airlines Theater in Manhattan, the Wingspan Theater Company in Dallas, and Rose Kingston Theatre in the UK.

The enduring popularity of the play is due in no small measure to the steady barrage of clever wordplay, one-liners, acidic barbs and throwaway witticisms it maintains throughout; but the universality and contemporary relevance of Wilde’s commentary on social hypocrisy and human duplicity would probably have a lot to do with it as well.

It is only fitting that the Hong Kong Arts Festival should choose Rose Theatre Kingston’s production directed by Stephen Unwin as the lead drama for its 40th anniversary.  With such a superb script crafted by Wilde, any half decent theatre company would be a good box-office draw and make a success of it.  That is not to belittle Rose Kingston.  Its performance is taut, fast-paced and well thought out.

I can’t help thinking that Lady Bracknell is Wilde’s favourite character – she gets most of the best lines and the most distinctive profile.  Carol Royle is just offhandish enough to be amusing, but not too disdainful to be repulsive.

Daniel Brocklebank as John Worthing and Mark Edel-Hunt as Algernon Moncrieff are credible well-heeled layabouts.  Their fight over muffins for tea at the end of the second act is hilarious and symmetrical with an earlier spat between Gwendolen and Cecily.

Faye Castelow oozes refreshing and brainy youth as Cecily, fantasising about engagement with John Worthing’s imaginary brother.  Kirsty Besterman, by comparison, presents Gwendolen less elegantly.  Their vituperative contest in thinking that they are engaged to the same man by the name of Earnest is a vivid reminder of Algernon Moncrieff’s prescient remark in the first act that women call each other sister “when they have called each other a lot of other things first”.

The set is almost minimalist but faithful to the Victorian historical context.  The large amounts of space provides plenty of room for walking about, but with a small cast the stage does look a little empty and under-designed.  The costumes also follow a similarly simple principle, light-coloured and graceful for the ladies.  The men’s are more colourful, with the contrast between Algernon’s beige suit and John Worthing’s total blackness in mourning for his invented brother particularly striking.

The Importance of Being Earnest suggests parallels with Shakespeare for me.  Gwendolen Fairfax and Cecily Cardew’s obsession with the name Earnest as qualification for amorous attention harks back to Juliet’s famous line “What’s in a name? that which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”.  Surely the disguised identities and lovelorn couples could have been inspired by A Midsummer Night’s Dream?  Yet any suggestion that Wilde was as good a dramatist as Shakespeare would no doubt draw scorn from the Lady Bracknells of literary criticism.

The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde

Rose Theatre Kingston, directed by Stephen Unwin

Sunday 5th February, 2012

Lyric Theatre, Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts

Presented by Hong Kong Arts Festival

Freud’s Last Session – no high drama, but enjoyable for its light humour August 9, 2011

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There is no escaping the couch even, or perhaps especially, for Oxford don C. S. Lewis in the presence of the father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, although he does put up a vigorous fight in defence of Christianity.

Freud’s Last Session, a snapshot of an imaginary meeting between the two intellectual giants, takes place in Freud’s study on September 3rd, 1939, two weeks before his doctor pulls the plug on him at his request.

Such subject matter is prone to dramatic banality.  What saves it from such degeneration is Mark St. Germain’s witty script, which accords more humour to Freud than I can imagine him having in real life, despite his treatise on humour, Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious.  In response to his apology for being late, Freud quips: “If I wasn’t eighty-three I would say it doesn’t matter.”

The work is faithful to historical details.  Freud correctly points out that Lewis converted to Christianity on a ride in the sidecar of a motorbike driven by his brother, and doesn’t miss an opportunity to psychoanalyse: “…you’d wonder why someone would huddle in a sidecar rather than mount the motorbike,” he says. “The disappointing answer is that I can’t drive,” Lewis answers.

Freud is not one to give up.  Observing how Lewis rushes about when the air-raid siren sounds, he extracts intimate details about the impact of his experience in the First World War.  “When I heard the siren,” Lewis admits, “I was back there. The smell of explosives. Bodies all around me…”

Yet he nearly turns the table on Freud when he persistently questions him about his daughter Anna.  Freud is adept, however.  “What do you call a man whose desk is guarded by gods and goddesses?” Lewis asks. “A collector,” Freud shrewdly answers.

In a conversation between an avowed atheist and an intensely devout Christian, we can expect some heated arguments about religion.  Neither, it seems, has the upper hand.  “If you are right,” Freud says to Lewis, “you’ll be able to tell me so. But if I am right, neither of us will ever know.”  Despite the tension, the respect between the two never wanes.

Martin Rayner does a respectable job as Freud, an ascetic academic with vulnerabilities deserving of pity for persecution under the Nazis, now near the end of his life.  As cancer consumes his body, his mind rebels with cynicism and anger.  Rayner even bears some physical resemblance to Freud.

Mark H. Dold captures well the sensibility of Lewis as a compassionate, upright, and caring Christian, quite helpless though in the face of Freud’s suffering.  The story about him caring for the mother of a fellow soldier who died in battle, and his love for Joy Gresham is well known.  Douglas Gresham, his stepson, calls him “a great man”.  Next to Freud, a renowned scholar twice his age, he remains diffident.

Worthy of mention is Brian Prather’s set, which is elaborate in detail.  A floor to ceiling shelf on the back wall upstage filled with books, a couch draped in rugs, giant windows behind Freud’s desk letting in plenty of light, and the period radio all add to the coziness of the study.

Freud’s Last Session is no high drama, but intellectual jousting between two sensitive academics made all the more enjoyable for its light humour.  Director Tyler Marchant has done a sterling job.

Freud’s Last Session

The Marjorie S. Deane Little Theater

New York

Mid Summer Modern: Hong Kong New Music Ensemble and Paul Zukofsky July 30, 2011

Posted by Alan Yu in Classical, Culture, Music.
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July 26th, 2011

Loke Yew Hall, The University of Hong Kong

Igor Stravinsky Septet (1952-53)

Allegro

Passacaglia

Gigue

Milton Babbitt Composition For Four Instruments (1948)

Arnold Schoenberg Suite, Op. 29 (1924-26)

Ouverture [Overture]

Tanzchritte [Dance Steps]

Thema mit Variationen [Theme with variations]

Gigue [Gigue]

Hong Kong New Music Ensemble

Conductor: Paul Zukofsky

As a student of philosophy, I dread formal logic; as a student of literature, I dread structuralism; as a lover of music, I dread serialism. It was therefore with some trepidation that I went to the Hong Kong New Music Ensemble’s concert of 20th century works by Igor Stravinsky, Milton Babbitt and Arnold Schoenberg, the first in the Hell Hot New Music Festival 2011.

As it turned out, the thoughtful programming helped the audience find its way more easily into what might sound “chaotic” to the untrained ear, as one listener put it during the post-concert discussion. Conductor Paul Zukofsky’s advice on learning to appreciate this type of music is to keep an open mind and listen repeatedly.

The New Music Ensemble struck a beautiful and balanced tone in the opening work, Stravinsky’s Septet, completed in 1953, which is chronologically the most recent composition among the three on the programme. Said to be a transition from the composer’s hitherto neo-classical style into serialism in later works, the Septet is charming, short and sweet.

The Allegro is almost in sonata form, with a seven-note theme that appears again and again in different guises. The Passacaglia is dainty and elegant, and the Ensemble’s treatment of the dialogue between clarinet and cello launching the movement highlighted these qualities. The viola opens the Gigue with a confident statement that gradually builds up into an exposition for all the instruments. Mr Zukofsky’s direction kept the instruments in fine balance, with none dominating the work.

The obituary in the New York Times on Milton Babbitt when he passed away early in 2011 described him as “an influential composer, theorist and teacher who wrote music that was intensely rational and for many listeners impenetrably abstruse”. I found his Composition For Four Instruments quaint and interesting. A rather jerky opening on clarinet paved the way for the flute played with a tremolo similar to the purring of a cat, and a succession of near monologues or cadenzas by the individual instruments seldom playing together.

Musicologists have a field day analysing the structure of the work and its exposition of twelve-tone serialism, but it makes quite heavy demands on the listener to “connect the dots”. In the end, stretching the feline analogy, I decided that it could best be likened to four nimble cats jumping up and down vying for the attention of their owner. There is good reason why Babbitt didn’t name the work a “quartet” but simply a “composition for four instruments”. The composer is said to have described it as “applying the pitch operations of the twelve-tone system to non-pitch elements”. Herein, perhaps, lies the problem for the general listener.

The final work in the programme, Arnold Schoenberg’s Suite, Op. 29, chronologically the most ancient of the three, returned to a style, which although quite distinct even from that of contemporaries such as Richard Strauss, remains approachable for the general audience. Without intimate knowledge of the fine structural intricacies of the twelve-tone system, I was fascinated by its vibrancy and almost playfulness. The colour the bass bassoon added to the piece particularly intrigued me.

The Overture: Allegretto, opening with a rapid-fire, urgent theme and an emphatic rhythm, traverses an undulating landscape without a dull moment. Lively dance rhythms continued in the second movement Tanzchritte (Dance Steps). In the third movement, Theme and Variations, the pace slowed somewhat, with the wind instruments and piano being slightly more assertive. Like the Stravinsky Septet, the closing movement is a Gigue, opening with a lively and almost chirpy tune on clarinet, and after a happy saunter, stops rather abruptly in suspense.

Mr Zukofsky’s sensitive touch and the tender harmony of the New Music Ensemble made the evening of modern works a most enjoyable musical experience. They deserve kudos for helping bring such important works to the general public, particularly in the year of the Hong Kong University’s centenary.

News of The World – A moral crisis in the making? July 11, 2011

Posted by Alan Yu in Culture, Leadership and management, Management, Philosophy.
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The printed media industry, like the music industry, has been under pressure in recent years.  Convenient and timely electronic access to a wide variety of content has all but rendered traditional methods of delivery irrelevant.  When you can get breaking news as it happens, as long as you are on line, why would deadlines for inclusion in printed newspapers matter?

Reeling under conditions of hyper-competition to survive, let alone thrive, many big-name magazines and newspapers have had to find ways to differentiate themselves.  These include news “scoops” which are possible only through clandestine tactics involving invasion of privacy and rampant disregard for human decency.  Hacking into voicemail accounts of murder victims and celebrities is par for the course if it provides an edge on stories that pique the interest of readers.

On the surface, moral outrage against such practices has brought down UK’s Sunday tabloid News of The World (NOTW).  The abrupt decision by Rupert Murdoch’s media empire News Corporation to close the newspaper raises a number of questions in its wake.

The decision announced by News International’s Chairman James Murdoch that the edition of NOTW on July 10th, 2011 is its last appears at first sight to be admission of, if not atonement for, culpability in the phone hacking accusations.  In his statement on the closure, Murdoch says: “The good things the News of the World does, however, have been sullied by behaviour that was wrong. Indeed, if recent allegations are true, it was inhuman and has no place in our Company.”

Murdoch sugar-coats the decision by claiming to take the moral high ground, but even  commentators who are not die-hard cynics have reason to believe that other motives are behind it.  Terminating a 168-year-old institution is a momentous decision that cannot be taken lightly, especially when many jobs are involved, and even in the context of the allegations of outrageous practices by its staff, surely can be but the last resort.

First, there are commercial considerations.  Like many other brands in recent times publicly dragged through the dirt of scandalous behaviour, for example, Tiger Woods, NOTW is likely to face mass desertion by commercial benefactors
such as advertisers, at least in the short term, damaging its commercial viability.  Yet as the dominant Sunday tabloid with a circulation of 2.6 million readers, NOTW is probably profitable, and can withstand a little pressure before sinking into red ink.  Besides, shrewd businessmen such as the Murdochs don’t just give up a profitable venture that easily.

Many point to Murdoch’s intention to launch a title that mirrors the highly successful The Sun, which doesn’t publish on Sunday.  On July 5th, two days before the NOTW closure was announced, two URLs, TheSunOnSunday.com and TheSunOnSunday.co.uk, were registered.  Could closure of NOTW be a convenient way to re-brand it as The Sun?

Second, closing NOTW is a masterstroke of guilt denial.  By cutting off what might be a rotten branch, James Murdoch is clearly trying to distance himself and the rest of News International from the culprits as the tree that remains unspoiled.  Yet Rebekah Brooks, the editor in charge when NOTW committed the alleged offences, remains a trusted executive of News Corporation.  Rupert Murdoch is said to have expressed “total support” for her as CEO of News International.  Could she be the one bad apple?

Third, even if the Murdochs are genuinely ignorant about about the outrageous practices in NOTW, as leaders of the organisation, they must take responsibility for the root cause of such behaviour – sacrificing moral standards in a relentless drive for commercial results.  Even if they don’t overtly condone the behaviour of a handful of NOTW staff, they cannot deny endemic failure to maintain moral standards in the organisation.

Debates about the closure of NOTW will continue for months.  Some will concern the commercial brutality facing newspapers in general; others will focus on the symbiotic relationship between politicians and the media.  In my mind, the most important questions we need to answer are:

Are we facing a moral crisis in general, and if so do we even know?

The media survive only if they provide what readers want.  NOTW obviously did this well.  Many readers interviewed by stv claim that despite the phone hacking practices, they continue to buy NOTW.  Are we so inured to injustices in the world that all we look for is the next cheap thrill, and in response are the media right in serving us everything that we want?  If not, are they going to survive?  What wider responsibilities do the media have in defending moral standards and human decency, in the same way as they shape public opinion?

What is the responsibility, if any, of commercial executives to balance the drive for results and maintenance of moral standards?

Commercial enterprises exist to generate profit for shareholders and economic benefits for the wider population.  Many regulations prevent behaviour detrimental to some segments of society, for example unfair competition, price
fixing and misleading product descriptions.  Yet many commercial practices are legal but morally questionable.  How do leaders in these organisations choose between the ignominy of missing commercial targets and defending moral
standards?

What lessons are we going to teach the next generation about NOTW debacle?

The financial crisis of 2008 has taught the world nothing about the fiduciary duty of bankers to protect customers’ life savings.  In fact, banking leaders have shown no remorse for taking, and then passing on, incalculable risks.  Worse still, they feel entitled to millions in bonus payments in return.  As economies in developed countries suffer severe budget cuts resulting from decades of profligacy, it is inevitable that comercialisation of education will intensify.  We have
already shown an avid appetite for vocationally friendly courses at universities (cf. my comments on Middlesex University’s abolition of philosophy courses).  Are we likely to reflect on the NOWT case and pause to think about the need for moral education as a fundamental requirement?

Until we have fully considered and answered the above questions, those who have lost their jobs in NOTW will have done so in vain.  They deserve our sympathy.

The Royal Wedding and the Endeavour Space Shuttle Mission April 28, 2011

Posted by Alan Yu in Culture.
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April 29th, 2011 is shaping up to be a momentous day on both sides of the Atlantic.

In London, it’s the Royal Wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton.

In Cape Canaveral, Florida, the last but one of the space shuttle missions, Endeavour, will take off at 3:47pm EDT.

There is no doubt, however, that the Royal Wedding is hogging all the media attention.

It’s easy to understand why.  William and Catherine are a couple made in heaven.  They have similar interests; they have spent time among a similar social circle, and they have been steady for some time.  Their marriage stands a good chance of surviving, unlike that of William’s parents.

Catherine is good-looking, intelligent, well-educated and has flair as opposed to mere glamour.  The Royal Wedding gives the UK welcome respite from depression in the worse economic belt-tightening since Charles and Diana tied the knot thirty years ago.

Besides, much as the monarchy can be an anachronism in an age of liberal values, members of the royal family have celebrity appeal by virtue of their elevated status, and it’s impossible for any other event on the day to compete with the pageantry of the wedding.

In short, William and Catherine’s wedding will fulfil the commoner’s yearning for fairytale dénouements.

By contrast, the Endeavour space shuttle mission is blasé.  There have been many such flights, although as the last but one mission before the programme shuts down, it has some peripheral historical significance.  Nor is it the first time the commander, Captain Mark Kelly, has been in space.

The story behind the Endeavour mission, on the other hand, is more touching.  Whereas the Royal Wedding is about coming together, the Endeavour mission is about separation.  Captain Kelly’s wife, congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, is recovering from severe brain injury after taking a bullet in an assassination attempt in January.  She is almost re-living her life all over again.  It was a wrenching decision for Kelly to carry on with his role in the Endeavour mission.

USA Today says of the couple: “This is a love story, which at its heart, is very grounded. A story of two driven but devoted people who love, respect and support each other — and in the process, are inspiring family, friends and strangers alike.”

All expectations are that the Endeavour mission will return safely to earth, but NASA has lost two shuttles and their crews in the past, Challenger and Columbia, so it’s not a foregone conclusion.  Giffords will be on hand at Cape Canaveral to witness the blast-off, probably praying.

Rabbi Stephanie Aaron, who married Kelly and Giffords, is reported to have described the couple this way: “They both have a strength of person, a strength of character — the courage to be a leader, he in terms of space, and she, to step onto the floor of Congress.  People want to listen to them and go on the path with them.”

The Royal Wedding harks back to traditions and institutions dating back centuries; the Endeavour mission is forward looking in that it pushes the limit of human exploration into the outer world.  William and Catherine exude glamour; Kelly and Giffords draw from inner strength.  Two facets of human existence.  Both try to vindicate mistakes of the past.  Which of these two events will you be watching on April 29th?  Have you noticed that the space shuttle is spelled “Endeavour” rather than “Endeavor”?

The Brave New World of Books – a layman’s view April 9, 2011

Posted by Alan Yu in Books, Communication, Language, Literature, Marketing, Reading.
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I have always had an interest in books, but should have read more than I have.  My excuse?  That the books that matter are too bulky.  The arrival of e-books has totally destroyed this excuse.  My iPad now carries Oscar Wilde Complete Works Ultimate Collection (140+ works), Works of George Bernard Shaw (30+ works), James Joyce’s Ulysses, War and Peace, and The Works of Mark Twain (24 books in a single file).  It weighs exactly the same as it did without them.  Some of the books were even free to download.

The world of books has gone through wrenching change in the last few years.  Prognosis, diagnosis and predictions aside, we don’t quite know what it will look like when the dust settles.  Yet the new world already looks exciting to some, and frightening to others.

Despite the idiosyncrasies of some of the players in it, the world of books is not that different from other industries.  Some generate the product ideas (the authors), some manufacture the products (publishers and printers), some distribute them (booksellers) and others consume them (readers).  There are the usual intermediaries, such as literary agents and editors who work for publishers.

So what does the new world of books mean to all these players in the industry?

Authors

Many published and aspiring authors feel that they are the most oppressed people in the world.  They toil for years to develop their product (the book), only to get serial rejection letters from publishers and biting comments from editors.  With the increasing popularity of e-publishing, authors feel truly liberated.  They don’t have to ask publishers for permission, or beg editors not to change their work.  They can now choose to self-publish anything they want, provided they are prepared to put up with a lot of extra administrative work.

Yet like karaoke, which gives people who can’t sing the illusion that they can, e-publishing gives authors who can’t write or tell a story a similar illusion.  This blog post you are reading could be a case in point.  As the quantity of published material in the market goes up, the general quality comes down.

In other words, authors can now bypass publishers as gatekeepers of “quality”, but there are no more or less “good” authors.  It only means that the work of more bad authors gets out into the market.  Let’s face it, some authors who publish their own works electronically now may not be worthy of publication at all.

The Wall Street Journal reported that some authors also complain they earn less per e-book than they do the physical equivalent.  All we can hope is that a larger number of e-books sell to make up for this shortfall.

Publishers

The manufacturers of books – the publishers – have never been short of raw materials.  They have always been inundated with more manuscripts than they can handle in several lifetimes.  Their trade is also fraught with sometimes substantial risks.  How many titles have they published which don’t even cover the cost of printing, not to mention the occasional advances and huge marketing and distribution costs?

E-publishing has cut the cost of production for publishers to the bare minimum, although physical production probably accounts for a small part of a publisher’s total cost.  A few printers will go out of business.  The cost of distribution has also come down, as there is no real physical handling of an e-book.  Besides, there are now more cost-effective channels for promotion, such as social networking.

The price of an e-book, however, is sometimes 20% cheaper than its paperback equivalent, and sometimes even more expensive.  As e-publishing guts a publisher’s business of costs, book pricing doesn’t seem to have fallen proportionally.  Publisher profitability should have gone up, and the business should be less risky.  Although publishers are also vulnerable to literary agencies selling rights direct to new-world retailers such as Amazon, as Wylie did last year, this doesn’t seem a widespread threat yet.

As purveyors of quality products the reading public wants to buy, publishers should feel secure in their jobs, as long as they continue to keep close to the taste of readers, insist on quality writing, embrace new media and don’t get too naïve about forking out huge advances for celebrity appeal.

Literary agents

Authors love to hate literary agents.  They need them to get to a decent publisher and a wide market, but simply getting to them is a five-year project itself.  With the right confluence of temperament, a literary agent will remain an author’s best friend.  This sometimes cantankerous and oddball breed will likely continue to thrive, and behave just as obnoxiously to the unfortunate writing low-life that dares cross its path.

Booksellers

By all accounts, booksellers seem to have hurt the most.  In an article in Fortune magazine dated June 21, 2010, Borders CEO Michael Edwards defends the raison d’être of bookstores: “If they continue to innovate in the services and experiences they offer…consumers will continue to make bookstores a vital part of their lives…The next chapter is up to them.”  For Borders, that next chapter was Chapter 11, in February, 2011.

My personal experience may be a curved mirror of reality, but it should nevertheless make booksellers stand up and take notice.  Browsing in bookstores is no longer a pastime.  The few physical books I have bought in the last year have either been bargain end-of-the-line titles, or ones I need to share with others.  A few months ago, I saw a title in an exhibition which appeared to be on sale, around 20% cheaper than in bookstores.  There and then, I looked online, found and downloaded an electronic copy at almost half the already reduced price at the exhibition.

Predictions about the demise of anything are usually correct in direction but wrong in timing.  Die-hard physical book lovers will be far bigger in number and slower to change their habits than futurists envisage.  Bookstores will die a slow, painful death.  A few may even survive.

Readers

For the already overloaded reading public, it’s now harder to separate the wheat from the chaff.  Who cares?  We have always made bad choices anyway, and can now do so at lower cost.  Nor do we need to find bigger bookshelves to house those unwanted and unread titles.  As a life-long reader, I find the immense convenience of e-books simply irresistible.  Similar sentiments may even drive up general readership, and give the book industry needed impetus for growth.

In conclusion

As a reader not in any way involved in the book industry, I am excited by the changes I have seen, but would like to see more.  I want more titles to be available electronically, and at the same time as the hard copy comes on to the market.  I want pricing to come down further.  I’d hate to get caught in the commercial maelstrom, though.

Alexander Lazarev slows down with the HK Philharmonic at the Cultural Centre June 6, 2010

Posted by Alan Yu in Classical, Culture, Music.
Tags: , ,
3 comments

The last time I saw Alexander Lazarev he was somewhat like a prancing hyperactive teenager, and nearly botched Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings at the Festival Hall in London.  In the Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall on June 3rd, he was a changed man.
 
Stepping on to the stage slowly behind the soloist of the evening, he was the very epitome of composure and maturity.  Together with the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra and its principal clarinettist Andrew Simon, Lazarev opened the programme with Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto in A, K622.
 
Mozart completed the Clarinet Concerto, said to be his last purely instrumental work, a few months before his death in 1791.  It’s one of several works for the clarinet he wrote for fellow Freemason and master clarinettist Anton Stadler.
 
My introduction to this work was some 30 years ago, in a recording by Jack Brymer and the London Symphony Orchestra under Sir Colin Davis.  At the time, Brymer also happened to be the host of a weekly BBC music programme I played on the radio.  When Brymer made this recording in 1964, he was almost 50 years old, probably a tad older than Simon.  I had high expectation, which Simon fulfilled.
 
Before the orchestra launched into the work, Simon explained that he was going to use the “basset-clarinet”, for which the work was originally composed.  The basset-clarinet has four more semi-tones than the modern clarinet with which we are more familiar, reaching the low C instead of just the E.
 
Lazarev meticulously coaxed a gentle and subdued tone out of the orchestra in the delicate and somewhat bashful introduction, in a measured tempo Mozart would have approved, maintaining an even rhythmic pace throughout the rest of the first movement.  Simon handled his entry with equal finesse.  The fine interplay between soloist and orchestra was balanced and lively.  Although Simon’s fluency in the rapid scales and arpeggios was less silky than that of Brymer, his tone was fuller with the resonance of his instrument in the lower register.
 
Simon brought out the best of the wistful lilt in the Adagio – popularised by the movie Out of Africa in the 1980s – a melody you could almost sway to in a reverie.  In the last movement, he was able to maintain the vivacious pace without becoming overly ebullient, with the orchestra always a step behind lending solid support.
 
The second work in the programme, Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 11 in G minor, Op. 103, with the title The Year 1905, was no less than a “great leap forward” from Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto in historical as well as musical terms.  An evocative work that surveys 50 years of suffering by the Russian people in the first half of the 20th Century, the work spans a range of moods, melodies and harmonic structures, sometimes adopting the somber pace of a funeral march, and sometimes the heady pace of blood-curdling violence born of desperation.
 
As a first generation “baby boomer”, born just after World War II, Lazarev would not have suffered cultural persecution under Stalin.  Nevertheless, as an ethnic Russian, he would no doubt have empathised with Russian composers from that era in their pain.  He clearly succeeded in transferring this empathy to the Hong Kong Philharmonic, which effectively captured the contrasting moods and raw emotional power of the four consecutive movements of the Symphony, culminating in a deafening combination of percussion and clanging bell in the final movement, entitled The Tocsin.
 
At the end of the concert, a small gesture by Lazarev showed that he understood the essence of leadership.  As the audience raved in rapturous applause after the concert, he re-entered and stood at the side of the stage rather than the centre to acknowledge the contribution of the orchestra.
 
Under Edo de Waart as Artistic Director and Chief Conductor in the past few years, the Hong Kong Philharmonic has honed a mature and subtle tone of world-class quality.  It’s said to be one of the finest orchestras in Asia.  Its handling of the diversity of the two works on June 3rd demonstrated its coming of age.
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