Saturday, November 25, 2006

Great Weekend Reads - Mike Miner on the man who set himself on fire, Eschenbach implodes, and Microsoft against itself

Three great weekend reads:

A newspaper averts its gaze - In this week's Chicago Reader, media columnist Michael Miner revisits the story of Malachi Ritsher, the 52-year-old who set up a video camera at the Ohio Street off-ramp to capture his self-immolation in what he intended to be a protest against the war in Iraq. The story was covered extensively both on the web and by traditional outlets all the way to Le Monde in Paris, but was completely ignored by the Chicago Tribune. In covering both the ethics and evasions of the Trib, and Ritsher's own complex, often troubled life, Miner creates a probing, provocative snapshot that reverberates beyonds its intimate frame, towards an epic portrait of the tragic disconnects of our time.

A cautionary tale for the CSO? - Chicago Symphony Orchestra President Deborah Card, mired in an ever-lengthening search for a replacement for departed music director Daniel Barenboim, must be getting the heebie-jeebies from the troubles of Christopher Eschenbach, the conductor who headed up the Ravinia Festival for several years before being named music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra in 2003. A Wednesday story in the New York Times by music critic Anthony Tommasini details how Eschenbach's relationship with the orchestra began to sour soon after his appointment, with orchestra members leaking complaints to the press that included a claim that the conductor "has gotten lost during performances." He recently announced his resignation, effective in 2008, when his five year reign will become the shortest in the orchestra's history. Fortunately, the CSO players appear to love their two current provisional co-leaders, Pierre Boulez and Bernard Haitink, but it's important to remember that love is not all. Neither Fritz Reiner or Georg Solti were touchy-feely personalities, but they presided over two of the most glorious periods of the orchestra's history. Love is a bonus; respect a necessity.

Microsoft against itself - Business Week's current cover story profiles Microsoft's J Allard, the hotshot tech guru and "brash team leader" behind the company's new Zune music player. The magazine plays up the story as the awakening of Microsoft from its self-absorbed slumber, but other reports portray a company still unable to escape its nature, that doesn't enable reformers so much as reprogram them. Reaction to the Zune has often been toxic, from cNet's Molly Wood's description of it as "the wrong answer to the iPod at the wrong time," to Sun-Times tech writer Andy Ihnatko's scathing judgement of the Zune as " a product that's so absurd and so obviously immune to success that it evokes something akin to a sense of pity," and the experience of using it "about as pleasant as having an airbag deploy in your face." When it comes to choosing between the desires of the consumers to which it actually pitches its products, and the demands of music publishers, corporate lawyers, and its own compulsive need for absolute control, the consumer gets short-shrifted almost every time. The true soul of Microsoft remains CEO Steve Ballmer, who, like the alcoholic always promising he'll never touch another drop, is again claiming that the unending delays in getting Vista, the latest in a long line of ever-more bloated operating systems, to market "will never happen again", even as he shoots up with his other major addiction, FUD (Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt), by declaring that companies foolish enough to insist on choosing Linux over Microsoft's own products face "an undisclosed balance sheet liability" from secret Microsoft "gotcha" patents that he claims - completely devoid of disclosed evidence - that Linux infringes.

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