Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Using "however"

Once in a while I'll get peeved enough by a widespread grammatical, spelling, or punctuation error that I'll carp about it here. For my very first such post, let's take the punctuation around "however."

From Technologizer contributor Ed Oswalt's piece on Microsoft's Kin:
Verizon is playing it off as part of a set of price reductions across its entire lineup, however most times when you see a price drop this early into a product’s lifespan, it has something to do with poor sales or not meeting certain goals.

Sorry, but that single comma before "however" is not correct. If you were to read the sentence out loud, you'd notice that when you reached "however," you paused longer than a comma would require. That's the sign that the all-purpose grammatical speed bump isn't sufficient.

The correct way to punctuate around "however" is with either a semicolon or period preceding it, and a comma following it:
Verizon is playing it off as part of a set of price reductions across its entire lineup; however, most times ...

or
Verizon is playing it off as part of a set of price reductions across its entire lineup. However, most times ...

If the whole thought is brief enough, a semicolon will do. For instance:
Most thought he was guilty; however, that was not the case.

Longer and more complex thoughts, like Oswalt's, should be punctuated as separate sentences. Even shorter ones can be punctuated as separate sentences for the purpose of emphasizing the contrary idea prefaced by "however":
Most thought he was guilty. However, that was not the case.

Another way that "however" can be used is illustrated -- incorrectly -- by another Technologizer posting, this time from David Worthington discussing some of Microsoft's plans for Windows 8:
There is however potential for an intelligent PC to really “know” its user and its environment, and it’s neat that Microsoft is looking into that.

This is a variant on the two-sentence usage of "however," and it could just as easily have been written thus:
However, there is potential for an intelligent PC to really “know” its user and its environment, and it’s neat that Microsoft is looking into that.

If, however, you want to use the construction Worthington attempted, you must frame "however" between commas:
There is, however, potential for an intelligent PC to really “know” its user and its environment, and it’s neat that Microsoft is looking into that.

And as long as we're on the subject, there's another use of "however" that doesn't require a trailing comma:
Money doesn't grow on trees, however much you may wish it did.

Here, "however" isn't serving to link ideas together in a conjunction-like way, as in prior examples. Rather, "however" is used in an adverbial sense to modify "much."

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

North Carolina atheists' ad vandalized

Organized religion has a stranglehold on the U.S. Most adherents of the monotheistic religions in the U.S. are at least civil if not completely accepting of other faiths (admittedly, it would be asking a lot for more than civility when the subject is religion). However, a disturbingly high-profile minority of cement-headed jackasses regards the least challenge to the putatively Christian character of the nation as a threat that must be countered by force or, as in this case, vandalism of a billboard suggesting that the Pledge of Allegiance worked quite nicely before Congress shoved "under God" into it.

Is this worse than Jake Knotts' ignorant braying about Nikki Haley's (possibly former) beliefs? I can't decide.

"One nation, indivisible." Is it so hard to imagine that phrase? More to the point, is it so damned threatening?

Until the hysteria of the McCarthy-era 1950s, "under God" was not part of the Pledge of Allegiance. A number of us believe we have the right to declare our allegiance to this country without simultaneously declaring an allegiance to a deity in which we do not believe.

To the ignorant and paranoid yahoos who decided a billboard was a threat to their precious religion -- all you've done is to confirm our suspicions that religion softens the brain. The defacement shows that you didn't start out with much in that department.

Friday, June 25, 2010

AT&T service

AT&T gets all kinds of grief for how badly it has handled the load imposed on its network by data-hungry smartphones like the Apple iPhone. It deserves that grief.

However, give it credit: AT&T does its best to discourage you from signing up for its service in the first place.

A while back, circumstances required that I sign up for AT&T wireless service. (UPDATE: actually, the provider was Cingular, then being absorbed by SBC. However, Cingular definitely had its roots in AT&T.) The company encouraged prospective customers to enroll on the Web for reasons that will become clear in a moment. The Web site walked me through a number of pages and took a while, largely because the servers took f-o-o-o-r-e-e-e-v-e-r to respond to input. In fact, my first attempt appeared to fail; my hazy recollection (this happened more than five years ago) is that the client-side software decided the transaction had timed out. I went through the tedious signup process again and appeared to succeed.

A week or so later, I got invoices for two new wireless accounts. Clearly, my first attempt hadn't failed as far as AT&T's servers were concerned. I'm sure there was an option to clear this up on the Web site, but I had had enough of those overloaded servers: it was time to talk to a human being on the phone.

Five solid minutes of phone-tree hell later, I understood why the company wanted would-be customers to use the Web. I had managed to avoid natural language-interpreting software until then; I mourn my loss of innocence. I speak unaccented American English and modestly claim that I do it well, yet every attempt to "speak" my needs (because, of course, there was no support for such a primitive mode of interaction as pressing one of the buttons on the phone) utterly baffled the software on the other end of the connection. Worse, every attempt to interpret my answers required two or three seconds of what I'm sure was intensive computation, and while a few seconds isn't long in general, in interactive terms it is an eternity.

Eventually I got to a dead end: the software was responding in a way that suggested it wasn't going to route my call properly on its own any time soon, and I couldn't imagine trying to walk back up the decision tree to a point where talking to an operator was a supported operation. I gave up and called in again, enduring another five minutes of disgracefully inefficient and gratingly cheerful promptings to speak my request. (Why the devil that software couldn't respond the way the marginally less annoying keypad-oriented software does -- meaning that the software is ready to acknowledge your response as soon as the prompt is being read -- is beyond me.) By the time I managed to convince that never-to-be-sufficiently-cursed software that I wanted to talk to flesh and blood, it felt like the seasons had changed -- multiple times.

Years went by, and the time came to order DSL for a new residence. Once again, the Web was my first stop. Once again, I found myself unimpressed by AT&T's servers. After several minutes of comparing available options, I made my selection -- except I didn't: I got back a "Systems Unavailable" error. I waited, tried again, and things appeared to succeed, except for a small problem in which I had to fill out a form twice. A little more time passed, then I got email informing me my order had not succeeded and I had to call customer service. It turned out that when the Web site noticed my error in filling out the form, it had saved all of the information I had typed in (a good thing), but had inexplicably reset a pull-down menu to its default (empty) value. In advising me of my own mistake, the server software introduced one of its own and thus dished my order. Wonderful.

During the customer-service call, I had occasion to walk through AT&T's Web site again to verify the company's service offerings. It turns out that if you make a mistake filling out the form asking for your address (a fallback if the search-by-phone-number doesn't find DSL is available), the server doesn't handle the error at all well. It prompts you for the same information again (in an apparently unformatted form and without having preserved the information you had already entered), but is unable to process the form: every submission simply results in the server presenting that form again. I had to restart at the top of the site.

Hey, Ma Bell (yeah, you've gotten big enough that the old moniker applies once more), listen up. Your so-called high-speed Internet offerings are only palatable because your only competition, my evil cable provider, offers exactly one expensive tier of service that is overkill for my needs. I'd like to save some money and you're the beneficiary of my parsimony. But if you can't get your act together so that contracting for service with you isn't a colossal waste of my time and an exercise in raising my blood pressure for no good reason, you can take your crummy offerings and choke on them.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Nigerian spills are worse than the Gulf

I hate that this is news to me: Nigeria suffers from worse annual oil spillage than has been suffered in the Gulf of Mexico.
The scale of the pollution is mind-boggling. The government's national oil spill detection and response agency (Nosdra) says that between 1976 and 1996 alone, more than 2.4m barrels contaminated the environment. "Oil spills and the dumping of oil into waterways has been extensive, often poisoning drinking water and destroying vegetation. These incidents have become common due to the lack of laws and enforcement measures within the existing political regime," said a spokesman for Nosdra.
That's the government agency acknowledging that over twenty years, Nigeria suffered the equivalent of over nine Exxon Valdez-sized spills. (The Valdez spilled 10.8 million gallons, or over 257,000 barrels. One barrel of crude oil is 42 gallons.)

For reference, according to the New York Times, the U.S. government estimate of oil spilled in the Gulf incident is anywhere between 37 million gallons (about 881,000 barrels) and 105.5 million gallons (over 2.5 million barrels) as of 20 June 2010.

Here's where you and I come in:
With 606 oilfields, the Niger delta supplies 40% of all the crude the United States imports and is the world capital of oil pollution.
40% of U.S. crude oil is supplied by a country being devastated, environmentally and politically, by the pursuit of that oil.

We have got to reduce our crude oil consumption. We need more fuel-efficient vehicles. We need alternatives to fossil fuels to supply our current vehicle fleet, and long-term, we need vehicles that don't burn fossil fuels at all. We need an energy grid whose inputs are sustainable and home-grown: wind, water, solar, and everything else a national Manhattan Project-scale R&D push can devise.

And if you haven't thought long and hard about how to reduce your driving, and your electricity usage (how do you think a lot of that electricity is generated?), it's past time to start -- and then to make the changes you can.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

"fishgrease" and an explanation of "booming"

Normally I don't care that I'm way, way the hell behind on news and current events, because you can generally hear the echoes for weeks so you don't end up missing much. However, that means I occasionally miss good tidbits whose impact doesn't create echoes loud enough for me to hear, even though the content is, or at least looks, accurate and important. Such is the case with "fishgrease"'s introduction to booming, or the art of diverting and redirecting the flow of oil in large bodies of water. Warning: the linked piece contains copious profanity. I think that's far less offensive than what is happening in the Gulf of Mexico, but your mileage may vary.

Caveat: I have no idea whether whether "fishgrease," the otherwise unidentified DailyKos poster's handle, is actually what he claims to be, an oil industry worker with more than thirty years' experience. I also have no idea whether his summary of booming and his criticisms of the BP-led booming efforts in the Gulf of Mexico is accurate.

All that said, "fishgrease" sounds like somebody who knows what he's talking about. Unlike everything coming from BP and the federal government, this information makes sense. There is no easy solution here, but if "fishgrease" is right, what BP and the Coast Guard are doing is about as far from anything like an actual solution as you can get.

I've been searching in Google for someone who is willing to go on the record as a verifiable oil industry employee or former employee to confirm or to refute "fishgrease"'s posting. It has only been a half-hour of searching but I'm already predicting I won't find anyone.

Usually, remarks as direct and as pungent as "fishgrease"'s elicit a contradicting response from an industry as big and as sensitive to its public image as Big Oil. Given BP's demonstrated record of indifference to safety, its credibility on technical matters affecting the safety of Gulf residents--technical matters like booming, for instance--should be priority number one for its public relations department. In this case, silence speaks volumes.

If that's the case, you might be asking (especially if you lean conservative and notice that it's the progressive blogosphere that has embraced "fishgrease"'s postings), why is "fishgrease" seemingly the only one blogging about how badly BP and the federal government are mismanaging the spill response? My guess is that the people who actually know how to do spill remediation all work for either the oil industry or the Coast Guard. If these people were caught contradicting their superiors, they'd be disciplined, probably fired.

The better question is, why has the Obama administration been all but complicit in BP's criminal mismanagement of both the spill and the original drilling? Why, in particular, did the administration, via the Coast Guard, rely so heavily on BP's estimates of the severity of the spill in the immediate aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon explosion?

Rolling Stone claims that the administration has embraced offshore drilling in exchange for Senate action on climate-change legislation. If true, that's ... really, really, really dumb. Obama needs to realize that placating less well-informed politicos -- and their even less well-informed constituents -- is a losing proposition. If he wants to justify his election, he has to stop treating with these people and start educating them. That's why the bully pulpit exists.

Login isn't a verb

Fighting online illiteracy is like bailing out a leaky rowboat with a teaspoon. Nevertheless, I respect those who try, including whoever cobbled up loginisnotaverb.com. I'm sorry to say that my quick gloss of it suggests it's patronizing in spots, but it claims to be targeted at, among others, non-native speakers so maybe I'm misinterpreting great attention to covering all bases.

In any case, "login" isn't a verb. Kindly remember that.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Toy Story meets The Wire

The Wire, filtered through Toy Story. Ingenious and hilarious (and NSFW language, if you care).

Make your own legends

One last thought inspired by Cartoon Brew.

Amid Amidi's entertainingly profane 17 February 2005 polemic against Warner Brothers' diseased "reimagining" of its classic characters, Loonatics, made an obvious point that nevertheless continues to elude the pencil pushers who control content creation and distribution in this country:
... for every misguided show like LOONATICS, we lose out (and Warner Bros. loses out) on discovering the next Chuck Jones, the next Bob Clampett, the next Tex Avery, the next individual who could be creating the Bugs Bunny’s and Daffy Duck’s of our generation.

...

It’s about time that we set aside our misguided reverence for Bugs Bunny and redirected that into respect for today’s artists and the enormous potential that they hold.
When I first learned about the artists who created Warner Brothers cartoons -- Avery, Clampett, Freleng, Jones, their incredibly talented animators and writers, voice artist Mel Blanc, composer Carl Stalling, all the rest -- my first reaction was, "Damn, I wish I'd been able to work with them." I felt the same way when I read about the recording sessions for Jay Ward's Rocky and His Friends, aka Rocky and Bullwinkle: every participant emphasized how funny and how much fun those sessions were, and having thoroughly enjoyed the end results, I wished with all my heart I'd been alive at that time and talented enough to be in their company.

These people created legends. Yet if you asked me to contribute to a revival of either set of characters (assuming I had some relevant skill, like drawing), I'd decline. Trying to recapture glories someone else gained insults the pioneers. Moreover, it never works.

I don't want to hack on someone else's legends. I want to make my own.

MGM title cards

Again courtesy of Cartoon Brew, some gorgeous title card art. I'm not a complete fuddy-duddy when it comes to cartoons: I was a huge fan of the late, lamented Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends, for instance. But my heart belongs to the Golden Age of Hollywood animation. Take a look at those title cards, particularly the ones for Dance of the Weed and A Rainy Day. Just look at the marvelous details in the latter: the staves are thick, rough, solid; the surface of the water shimmers ever so slightly. I'll grant you that the cartoons themselves probably aren't great: MGM was still a couple of years away from discovering the brasher, faster style that the Warners crew was starting to unleash. Still, I dare you not to find this artwork evocative and, if not always beautiful, then at the least, charming (e.g., the one for the Milt Gross characters).

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Olive Oyl, fashionista

Courtesy of Jerry Beck's highly active Cartoon Brew site: Olive Oyl as fashion icon. No, really.

BP spill questions

A month ago, I dismissed talk of "Obama's Katrina" as vengeful right-wing chatter. Now, I'm not so sure, but my reading on the subject has been too spotty to know if I have a good picture of how it all unfolded.

Was Obama too trusting of BP at the start? Should he have pushed harder for independent assessments of the disaster?

Is there a maritime equivalent of the NTSB that investigates these matters? It seems like there isn't; have memos surfaced in which low-level officials urged the creation of such a body? Will the Obama White House find itself in the same position as Bush 43's, fending off justified accusations of inattention to such warnings?

Aside from BP's now leaked internal memos detailing the warning signs in the days and hours leading up to the rig explosion, were there memos sent to or by regulatory officials -- again, memos that were improperly ignored?

Are there reasonable remediation efforts that should have been taken but haven't been, or have been ineffectually undertaken due to mismanagement at BP or within the federal bureaucracy?

In short, should the Obama administration have known more about the extent of this spill, and been more urgent in its response?

David Brooks on oil

David Brooks, a columnist with whose outlook I often disagree, closed a recent column about the struggle over capitalism thusly:
We need healthy private energy companies. We also need to gradually move away from oil and gas — the products that have financed the rise of aggressive state capitalism.
I'm pretty sure Brooks doesn't read this blog, so it's heartening to see that more and more people are reaching the obvious conclusion. You don't have to be an environmentalist to think our addiction to oil isn't good for us.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

My Obsession Now: John Denver, "Matthew"

[Every so often, I become obsessed with a song or an album, and am wont to annoy one of my close friends by writing at some length about it in email. Since that friend convinced me to start this blog, it seemed appropriate to write the discursion here instead.]

I can't remember how I became enamored of my family's records. I was very young, and the records were stored in a large cabinet with a sliding door of polished wood. Part of the appeal, no doubt, was sliding that heavy door back and forth to reveal the metal record holder, a spindly-looking affair with large rings connected to a pair of parallel spines on which the albums would rest; the rings were spaced closely together, offering just enough room between them to slide one record in its cardboard cover. In theory, the albums wouldn't rest against one another and could be more readily accessed. (In practice, double LPs and those with gatefold art tended to get stuck, and trying to put records back between the rings was a pain.)

Not being old enough to have my own preferences, I gravitated toward the records I heard my family play. One of them was John Denver's Back Home Again, a favorite of my mother's. Mostly it got played on weekends, when she had the time to enjoy it.

As I got older I left Denver behind, mentally assigning him to the same bin as James Taylor, Carly Simon, the Carpenters, and a lot of other Top 40 soft-rock denizens to whom I had had far too much exposure and of whom I was thoroughly sick. I despised them for not having the talent or passion to do "real" rock, which I finally had discovered when I inherited a stereo with an FM tuner and could explore the rumored frequencies to which older kids listened.

No doubt it was unjust to consign some artists to that bin of oblivion based solely on their radio singles. Willie Nelson, for one, still hasn't found what is probably his rightful place in my affections, but it wasn't his fault that some Top 40 programmer decided to rotate "On the Road Again" so heavily that eventually I wanted to rip my ears off when it came on. In the case of John Denver and a few others, though, I'd heard enough evidence to know they were guilty: they deserved to be put away with other childish things, hidden under a dropcloth with a sign pinned to it reading, "Didn't Know Any Better."

I kept broadening my musical tastes, and after a couple of decades found myself attracted to the country-inflected sounds coming from the likes of the Mojave 3 ("Return to Sender"), as well as explicitly alt-country artists like Whiskeytown and Uncle Tupelo. Then came Take Me Home: A Tribute to John Denver, which reworked some of Denver's material in darker, starker ways than I imagined was possible. Granfaloon Bus's rendition of "Matthew" unexpectedly made me want to hear the original again. I made a mental note to look for it on CD ... and promptly forgot.

The other day, though, serendipity dictated that as I was passing the Denver divider card in a local store's rack, Back Home Again should stare me in the face. It came home with me, and I listened to it tonight with a mixture of hopeful expectation and apprehension. I was right on both counts. Some of the lyrics do not bear close inspection, and I'm not referring to "Grandma's Feather Bed" on that score. However, "Matthew" holds up well. As a child, the lyrics meant nothing and the tune wasn't catchy. As an adult, the words paint an affecting portrait of a dignified man, and the slightly quirky melody of the chorus (not being a musician I can't explain why it's quirky; I just know it is) is no longer an impediment to appreciating the whole.

I can already tell that "Matthew" is not going to be one of my enduring obsessions, but listening to it anew recovered a little piece of my childhood that I'd unjustly buried.

Monday, June 14, 2010

It starts with me

Like everybody else, I get overwhelmed by the world sometimes. It doesn't matter what your political persuasion is: the world doesn't accord with it, and as a result, it's going to pot, or to seed, or to hell.

A lot of the problems we face will force us to make decisions about how we direct large amounts of money and time, and it's proper that those decisions be hammered out in public debate about what our government should or should not be doing.

However, we residents of the U.S. need to look a lot harder at the decisions we make at the individual level as well.

Do you think about how you live your life? Do you think about whether you could live it in a way that is less costly, both to yourself and to society at large?

Here's a trivial example of behavior that bothers me by its lack of reflection. Alton Brown, a Food Network personality, frequently recommends using large amounts of aluminum foil for convenience while cooking. The food-stained foil can be thrown out at the end of the cooking process, saving you the trouble of washing up another pan or sheet.

Alton, that's a nice consideration if you're coping with a water shortage. But have you ever considered that it takes a lot of energy to mine that aluminum? That the aluminum doesn't break down quickly in the landfill, and therefore can be considered unrecoverable in ours and our children's and our children's children's lifetimes?

We produce and we consume, but we don't have a closed cycle for most of our manufactured goods. What we dispose of is effectively lost to our civilization forever.

Consider that in nature, nothing is lost. Dead plant life is broken down and nutrients restored to the soil for other plants to use. Dead animals feed bacteria and insects and sometimes larger scavenger animals. Rock is eroded or melted, eventually to become rock again.

The waste byproducts of what we consume, by contrast, have a limited future of repurposing at best. Plastic bottles can be shredded to produce carpeting, we are told. That's nice, but what happens to the carpeting at the end of its useful lifetime?

Even those things we can recycle more or less endlessly can fall victim to our laziness or our failure to establish clear routes for recycling. You can't recycle a glass bottle or an aluminum can if it winds up in the landfill because you tossed it in the garbage can rather than finding a recycling bin.

Fixing this problem will require rethinking our entire way of life; it's a massive problem that will require a massive effort and it will involve government (sorry, libertarians). Until we find the intelligence and the will to make this effort, the best we can do is to rethink how each of us lives. Little decisions can have a big effect if enough of us make them.

Thomas Friedman wrote a column that sums up where we are and where we need to go.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Apple misunderstandings

In a New York Times Opinionator piece, Robert Wright contends that in spite of Apple Inc. CEO Steve Jobs' "authoritarian tendencies," which include decisions to ban porn and "some kinds of political commentary" from the iPhone and iPad App Stores, Jobs is not on the road to becoming Big Brother.

I agree, and not just for the finicky reason that the term "Big Brother," borrowed from George Orwell's 1984, properly applies only to a government entity that exerts the kind of content control about which people seem to be worrying. (If Orwell had written his dystopian novel in 1984, he might well have made "Big Brother" a corporate icon rather than the equivalent of Uncle Sam, but we'll never know.) Corporations exert enormous influence on modern life and get away with behavior for which a flesh-and-blood person would go to jail, but corporations and their brands can go from being trusted to reviled, or forgotten, in the blink of an eye (small consolation, yes, but that's what the Supreme Court's declaration of the equivalence of corporations to human beings has left us). How's your BP stock these days? Does Toyota still have the sterling reputation it had five years ago? Flown Pan Am or TWA lately?

As Wright put it:
The nature of the digital landscape makes it hard to be both a control freak and a global hegemon. And Jobs’s history suggests that he’ll choose control over power.
It's worth clarifying something right off the bat, by the way: by "control," Wright means control of the "platform," "platform" being a useful shorthand for whatever device is under discussion (Mac Mini, iMac, Mac Pro, MacBook, MacBook Pro, MacBook Air, iPad, iPod, iPhone). "Power," on the other hand, is Wright's shorthand for "global hegemony." Wright's point, then, is that Jobs wants full control over whatever piece of the world is available to him, rather than domination of as much of the world as possible.

This seems as rational an explanation for Jobs' and Apple's behavior as any I've seen. I can understand if people don't agree with this explanation, and the commenters on his piece include some who don't. A few, however, miss the point for various reasons, and since I'm too lazy to log onto the Times' site to rebut them ...

"mymoon" in comment 10 wrote:
You're kidding, right? He wants to take over the world. Otherwise, he's not serving his shareholders. He wants to take over the world.
("Blad" in comment 188 made a similar remark.)

Serving shareholders means maximizing the value of their investment, and you don't have to rule the world to do that. By way of illustration, let's compare Microsoft's stock performance to that of Apple, since Microsoft arguably is the poster child for the "rule the world to serve your shareholders" point of view. Microsoft's stock closed at $33.4375 on 5 June 2000 and at $25.89 on 1 June 2010, including a 2-for-1 split in 2003; Apple's closed at $22.8281 on 5 June 2000 and at $260.83 on 1 June 2010, including 2-for-1 splits in 2000 and 2005. (Figures are from dailyfinance.com.) Microsoft distributed a dividend in that period while Apple didn't, but I doubt the dividend has made up for the disparity in stock price performance. If you had invested $100 in both companies on 5 June 2000, which investment would you have felt better about on 1 June 2010?

"Alvin" in comment 17 said that Apple emphasizes form over function:
You need to be somewhat of a tech enthusiast (or, at the very least, understand computers a little bit) to appreciate the value of function; to harness the true power of, say, a Windows-based computer or an Android-based handset. Once you realize how much more you can do, how many more options you have, how much freedom you have to tailor the entire experience to your liking, there's really no argument as to how form can be more valuable than function.
I confess that until recently I counted myself in "Alvin's" camp. In fact, I was an even more effete snob, if you consider effeteness to increase as market penetration decreases, since I've used *nix boxen (including Macs) almost exclusively and feel most comfortable at the shell prompt.

However, when the iPad was announced and I reflected on What It Meant, I realized that what Apple did with the iPad, and previously had done with the iPhone, was to make an appliance that just happened to have many of the guts of a computer and a variation on a commercial computer operating system at its heart. The point is that Apple focused on the appliance part rather than the computer part. Most people don't tinker with their microwave oven or their vacuum cleaner. Most people don't want to tinker with their computer, either. That's hard for computer enthusiasts to understand, because for them tinkering is the primary joy (albeit not always the primary purpose) of owning the machine. However, for most people, the computer is a tool with which to accomplish something else. Tinkering with it isn't uppermost on their minds and they only do so when they must, which with current desktop machines and laptops is lamentably often. That's the appeal of computers-as-appliances. If Android endures, it will be because the devices it supports are good appliances that work well for a large enough part of the market, not because the OS can be modified by the end user.

I reproduce comment 23, by "JH," in its entirety:
Microsoft Vs Apple -The United States VS the Soviet Union.

Notice how Conservative Republican Bill Gates who grew up in the 1970's created an open operating system that allowed ANYONE to develop any application and do anything-an open digital democracy.

Then look at Liberal Hippie Steve Jobs who traveled the world seeking "enlightenment" in the 1970's who then created a closed digital command and control system operating system-a Soviet Style operating system-who's applications are dictated from the "Central Committee" of Apple Headquarters.

You would think things would have turned out EXACTLY opposite given currently accepted stereotypes-you would think.
The sound of an axe being ground was unpleasantly loud, wasn't it?

I hope "JH's" job isn't teaching history because s/he has a lamentably poor grasp of it, and knows even less about the technological side of things. The misspelling of "whose" disqualifies "JH" to be an English teacher, while the childish capitalization of "conservative" and "liberal hippie" for (little) effect make "serious political commentator" unlikely. The quality of the thinking and the writing, though, make it entirely possible that s/he makes a living as an analyst.

"ridge guy" in comment 51 wrote:
Dislike the ever-narrowing gates of choice with respect to applications and functions for iPhone - don't want Mr. Jobs to block apps that I find valuable.
I can empathize with this sentiment, but I think it's slightly misleading in that it makes it sound like the problem is existing apps being removed from the App Store. Although that is a concern, it's not the main issue.

Developers have two main complaints about Apple's iPhone/iPad app review process: (1) the interpretation of the App Store's rules for developers by Apple reviewers is inconsistent and fraught with ambiguity; and (2) Apple reserves the right to change those rules at any time, even retroactively.

Some apps retroactively have been deemed unsuitable for distribution through the App Store, and that is a damned shame for those developers and a black eye for Apple. The explanation most charitable to Apple is that the retroactive removals are a side effect of proceeding up a steep learning curve. That's no consolation to the affected developers, of course, nor is there any guarantee that Apple won't rewrite its rules and retract already approved apps in the future.

However, the number of apps retroactively banned is relatively small (so far). The bigger concern is that these two large developer complaints are discouraging other developers from creating apps we can't imagine. We don't know what we're missing, in other words.

The value of untapped potential is impossible to gauge, of course, but the existence of policies that make untapped potential more likely is damaging to Apple and its customers.

In comment 53, "Harry Applebaum" wrote:
When Robert Wright starts a company in his garage and that company becomes as successful as Apple, then Robert Wright will be free to offer his critique of Steve Jobs.
This kind of boneheadedness is what Apple's critics like to call "fanboyism." And they're right.

In comment 95, "Al Feldzamen" wrote a lengthy entry that was a little hysterical at times. I'll excerpt only what I need.
In the late 18th, the 19th, and early 20th centuries, "company towns" began to be formed, small communities centered around a factory -- towns that had "company stores" to provide the workers with foodstuffs, clothing, fabrics, hardware goods, etc. In time, these stores came to be considered symbols of oppression.
I'll bet you can already see where he's going, but let's continue:
Imagine, for example, the furor that would arise today were Microsoft to engineer a new Windows operating system that would prevent totally using any word processor other than its own WORD application. Only this year did the European Union force Microsoft to present other internet browsers than its own EXPLORER on an equal footing in the latest version of WIndows.

But Apple, always fiercely defended by its ultra-loyal devoted partisans, has seemingly managed to create its own "company store," successfully selling one data handling device to which it totally controls normal access, the iPhone, and now the iPad.
The last paragraph doesn't parse for me, but I'll assume he means that Apple allows unmodified iPhones and iPads to download apps only from the Apple App Store. That's true. That doesn't constitute total control of "normal access" to these devices, however. Safari can access most Web content, for instance (though not supporting Flash edges Apple closer to the dark place Feldzamen imagines it already to be).
Certainly, Apple has the right to sell what it wishes in its own stores, but preventing others from selling software to its products? That's precisely the 21st century update of the "company store."
A "company town" was (and is) reviled because its inhabitants, the company's own employees, were forced to live there. Rents, and prices at the company store, were set so the inhabitants could never afford to quit, rendering them indentured servants for all intents and purposes.

I'm not sure where Feldzamen sees the analogy to company towns in the Apple situation. "Preventing others from selling software to its products" sounds like he's claiming that customers are being held hostage, which is nonsense. Customers can leave any time they like (ignoring AT&T's exorbitant early-termination fee, which is not under Apple's control). Developers, on the other hand, may feel they have no choice but to code for what seems like the most lucrative platform. However, that's not what Feldzamen's words say. (Google is mounting a vigorous challenge in Android, and we've yet to see what HP will do with Palm's WebOS, so even middling developers will very likely have more viable choices before long.) (UPDATE: the words of HP CEO Mark Hurd don't bode well for HP building on Palm's smartphone work, but it's still too soon to tell.)

Finally:
Perhaps Apple's "company store" policy can also be voided, because Apple does have a quasi-monopoly, established by its restrictive operating systems, over the hardware universe it has pioneered.
This made me smile. One of the persistent criticisms of Apple by technically knowledgeable people is that Apple has never "invented" its vaunted innovations from scratch. "Never" is, perhaps, too strong, but consider that the original Macintosh's graphical user interface was pioneered at Xerox PARC, while the original iPod was far from the first digital music player. It's therefore ironic to hear an Apple critic talking about a "hardware universe it has pioneered."

However, again, if a monopoly exists, developers are the oppressed ones, not customers. And as I noted above, Google and others are doing their best to give developers, and customers, choices other than Apple.

"FTJ" in comment 103 wrote:
When is Wright, wrong. It is when Robert Wright says Steve jobs is a control freak. Great creativity is happening at Apple. Creativity does not happen with a control freak. Think about! What Steve Jobs controls is the philosophy of how the company is run.
Wright confined his analysis to what customers see. How Jobs runs his company is a separate matter. I doubt he's a micromanager: people like that tend to lose strategic focus too easily, and loss of strategic focus is not one of the criticisms leveled at him. I'm sure, however, that he's detail-oriented and doesn't allow products to go out the door looking or behaving other than as he wishes. That degree of control doesn't necessarily hurt creativity.

Comment 122 from "Tone" bluntly concluded:
Use Apple products? You're supporting low-wage
sweatshops with an inherently toxic environment.
The Taiwanese company Foxconn has experienced a rash of suicides, the news coverage of which, as well as accompanying accusations of poor working conditions and low wages, have caused concern for Apple and other companies that contract with Foxconn.

On the other hand, if there is a manufacturer of electronic devices whose entire supply and assembly chain is devoid of sweatshop labor, that manufacturer is hiding its light under a bushel. That's not to trivialize the subject, but rather, to show that the problem goes well beyond Apple.

In comment 129, "Paul" wrote:
An iPhone/Pod/Touch/Pad is nothing more than a Linux computer with a neat touch screen user interface.
Although "Paul" claims he's "computer literate," he evidently doesn't know as much as he thinks.

Speaking pedantically, Linux (the operating system kernel) is nowhere to be found in the Apple ecosystem. Max OS X is derived from both "classic" Mac OS, the operating system that powered Macs through OS 9, and NeXTStep, the Mach-based OS that powered NeXT computers. iOS (formerly known as iPhone OS), in turn, is based on Mac OS X, with parts of the OS significantly modified to account for the demands and constraints of non-Macintosh devices. iOS powers both the iPhone and iPad. (According to a 2004 article from MacTech, iPods run Mac OS X, though it seems likely what they run is closer to iOS than Mac OS X, iPod hardware being what it is. It's not clear that one can tell the difference between OS X and iOS without knowing kernel version numbers.)

Speaking philosophically, "nothing more than a Linux computer" is an example of the shortsightedly dismissive attitude that many software folks have with regard to what might be called "user experience." "Paul" doesn't understand why the fit and finish of a computer interface -- especially of an interface that is designed to provide an appliance-like experience -- is important. It's hard to make a good user interface that supports a good user experience. I daresay that most software engineers who have tried will attest to that.

Another excerpt from "Paul's" comment:
Jobs doesn't see the device user as his only customer. He wants to be a content provider and a content channel, and he wants a piece of the retail and the advertising revenue. To do that he has control the delivery channel (iTunes), and to do that he has to close the underlying Linux operating system.
I can understand interpreting Jobs' and Apple's behavior in this way, although I happen to disagree. (And again, Apple doesn't ship its devices with Linux.)

iTunes started as a way to manage music, period. I believe that the iTunes (né iTunes Music) Store was a way to keep Macs and iPods from being perceived as piracy enablers by the RIAA -- essentially, it was a necessary sop to the music industry to keep Apple out of distracting and draining legal fights over unauthorized content distribution. If you happen to believe this is so, then providing content is a necessary -- well, perhaps not "evil," but a necessary cost of doing the business of selling hardware and software that, among other things, let customers consume media.

The interests of a hardware manufacturer and a content provider are not always aligned. Hardware historically has been content-neutral (you wouldn't want your Sony DVD player not to play DVDs published by Warner Brothers), while the advent of more and more effective copying technologies has made content providers more and more concerned with thwarting unpaid copying. The most effective way of fighting unpaid duplication of content is to get manufacturers to implement copy protection (what an Orwellian piece of doubletalk) in hardware, which unlike software still poses a high barrier for users to bypass. However, adding that kind of functionality is expensive and hard to market to consumers (would you consider "makes it harder to copy movies!" a good slogan for your product?), rendering the work less than attractive to hardware folks. (With HDCP, content providers finally got their wish.)

In my opinion, Apple would be crazy to try to straddle the two worlds of creating content and delivering that content to the end user. If Steve Jobs has made that same calculation, then Wright's analysis is the correct one: Apple's control is not about getting as much of the revenue stream as possible, as "Paul" contends, but rather, it's about providing the user experience Jobs wants for content delivery -- and creating content is not in Apple's future.

In comment 137, "R Russell" wrote:
Just how many billions per month does Apple spend on marketing? I head six a long time ago.
("head," presumably, should be "heard")

The sarcasm would have been more effective if "R Russell" had stopped after the question. Pretending to answer it with "six" irritated me enough to look up the actual figure. According to CNN Money, Apple spent $501 million for all of fiscal year 2009. By comparison, Microsoft spent $1.4 billion and Dell $811 million.

Why did I spend so much time on commenters to this one op-ed piece? I don't know. I suppose I've read too many silly and uninformed pro- and anti-Apple remarks on the Web, and this was my way of declaring, "A plague on both your houses!"

[EDIT: "maximimizing" --> maximizing]

[NOTE: I've discovered that the links to the dailyfinance.com quotations for Microsoft and Apple are dynamic searches, so the 5 June 2000 values are no longer available. After enough time has elapsed, the 1 June 2010 values won't be accessible via those links, either. If you're reading this, it's a surprise to me: I expect this blog to be a singleton, unlinked to the rest of the Web, so I'm not going to spend more time finding a permanent source for the stock information. Sorry about that.]

Thursday, June 10, 2010

A little Google jab at Apple

Interesting: when spell-checking my last post, the blogging software highlighted "iPads," "iPhones," and "MacBooks" as potentially misspelled. "Coca-Cola," however, went unchallenged. Is it mere coincidence that the putatively misspelled terms are all Apple product names, and this blogging site is owned by Google?

Chevrolet marketing irony

Apparently, deep reflection is not the strong point of certain execs at G.M. According to the New York Times, G.M. wants its Chevrolet employees to stop using the nickname "Chevy" and instead to refer to the brand only as "Chevrolet." A memo was issued that described, and explained the reasoning behind, the new policy:
“When you look at the most recognized brands throughout the world, such as Coke or Apple for instance, one of the things they all focus on is the consistency of their branding,” the memo said. “Why is this consistency so important? The more consistent a brand becomes, the more prominent and recognizable it is with the consumer.”
However:
Although the memo cites Coke, it does not note that Coke is shorthand for Coca-Cola — or that Apple is not commonly used in reference to its products, which are known simply as iPads, iPhones and MacBooks.
I'll admit, I would have missed this irony. Then again, I'm not G.M.'s vice president for marketing, who co-signed the memo.

For someone whose job it is to understand branding, that oversight speaks volumes, no?

(UPDATE: G.M. has clarified its position. Apparently, a lot of people thought the company was trying to get its customers to stop saying "Chevy," and damage control ensued. This seemingly widespread misinterpretation demonstrates that a lot of people don't read carefully enough, which goes a long way toward explaining why this country is in such a mess.)

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Revolution Muslim vs. South Park

[I originally wrote the bulk of this essay on 27 April 2010. The controversy is no longer current, but I think this piece is still worth sharing.]

[Also, a caveat: according to the news accounts I've read, the group under discussion in this entry, Revolution Muslim, is extremely small. Hussein Rashid on religiondispatches.org says the group consists of exactly two men, and I have the impression that the group does not represent many Muslims beyond its own membership. Analyzing the group's statements might therefore seem unwarranted and even unwise, giving the group additional publicity that it wouldn't otherwise receive. However, I believe that for a marketplace of ideas to work, sometimes even ideas held by just a handful need to be examined.]

Overview

As I understand it, the 200th episode of South Park was a reunion of sorts, featuring virtually every celebrity the show has ever mocked. (I'm familiar with the show, but I didn't see the episode and so am relying on media accounts.) One of those "celebrities" was Muhammed, the founder of Islam.

Some Muslims believe that Islam forbids Muhammed to be portrayed in pictorial form. Respecting this prohibition would present an interesting challenge for any television show, and South Park isn't just any television show: it lives to tweak the untouchable, and the more sacred the cow, the bloodier the resulting steak tartare is likely to be. In the 200th episode, Muhammed was camouflaged in a bear costume. (To close the circle, in the 201st episode it turned out not to be Muhammed in the bear costume at all.)

According to the New York Times:
The next day the “South Park” episode was criticized by the group Revolution Muslim in a post at its Web site, revolutionmuslim.com. The post, written by a member named Abu Talhah Al-Amrikee, said the episode “outright insulted” the prophet, adding: “We have to warn Matt and Trey that what they are doing is stupid, and they will probably wind up like Theo van Gogh for airing this show. This is not a threat, but a warning of the reality of what will likely happen to them.”
In a later clarification, Revolution Muslim said:
By placing the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) in a bear suit, the creators of South Park sought to insult the sacred, and show their blatant and general disregard for religion. By insulting our beloved Prophet (peace be upon him) without the outright depicting of his image, the creators of South Park thought that they had found some loophole in the Muslim faith for them to mock.
So the creators of South Park sought to insult the sacred, and show their blatant and general disregard for religion, eh? Most fans of South Park would probably answer, "Yes," maybe even, "Hell, yes!" Trey Parker and Matt Stone, if memory serves, have made fun of not only Islam, but also Judaism, the wide swath of Christian sects, Hinduism, Buddhism, and less widespread beliefs such as Scientology. Judaism, Mormonism, Catholicism, and Scientology have come in for mockery far more often and far more savagely than Islam has. Some people undoubtedly would like for South Park to insult no one, and particularly to leave religions of any stripe alone. Well, that's not how the show works. The only person on the planet likely to escape the show's sharp tongue is Robert Smith; the rest of us can only hope to be ordinary enough to fly under Parker's and Stone's radar.

Moving on, let's consider what "the sacred" means. Doing so should prompt you to ask, "Sacred to whom?" Earlier, I made a small pun on the old expression "sacred cow," but Hindus might not appreciate my humor, cows being holy to them. Should I have foregone the pun in deference to Hindu sensibilities? It would not have cost much ... and yet, it would have been more than I'm willing to pay. It would have required me to censor my writing, and censoring writing eventually leads to censoring thought. Censoring thought is antithetical to creativity, the biggest asset our species has in the race for survival. That's why freedom of expression matters: it fosters freedom of thought, and therefore creativity.

The principle Revolution Muslim is advocating, though they never say so outright, is that what is "sacred" to any religion must not be challenged. Many non-Muslims would agree, I don't doubt. A moment's reflection, however, should give them and Revolution Muslim pause.

Are they willing to hold sacrosanct all that which another holds sacred? Are they willing to abide by another's definition of what is beyond question? What if it conflicts with their own beliefs?

As a specific example: could the followers of Revolution Islam accept the Catholic doctrine of the infallibility of the Pope?

A religion that requires fealty -- not just respect -- from non-believers challenges the very idea that different belief systems may coexist. That, in turn, begs the question of how such a religion can be accommodated within a pluralistic society, since pluralism only works if people are free to choose what to believe.

As a matter of courtesy, most of us refrain from willfully insulting the religious beliefs of others. However, I'm glad there are those who feel free to violate that and other taboos. Sometimes you only find your own limits if someone else steps beyond them. And sometimes, the only way to stumble onto wisdom is to stray off the path everyone else is following.

Revolution Muslim's response, in greater detail

Revolution Muslim had a good deal more to say in its response. I feel compelled to comment on some of it.

One of its first statements boded well, I thought, for a better understanding all around:
We would like to point out that we are not against a rational dialogue with either group [Muslims or non-Muslims] and would like to take this opportunity to ask all to read and respond with an objective mind. We live in an age of media concision, and a consequential reality which tends to afford very little opportunity for in depth discussion.
(I appreciated the use of the word "concision"; it lent an erudite tone to the writing that the average discussion thread on Slashdot, for instance, lacks.)

And then I hit a snag:
We seek to create an opportunity for correction of wrongs and the alteration of behavior that many may suggest is insignificant, but nevertheless is a behavior which we hold to be not only sacrilegious, but which we feel typifies a cancer which bites at the root of global injustice. The cancer we are referring to is that of American imperialism and its coincident culture of pagan hedonistic barbarism, a culture which drives to dehumanize the intrinsic morality of the rest of the world. As it stands today the vast majority of the world has witnessed the cloud of American debauchery, and those whom it has not hovered over have at the very least been affected by its dust.
Now, I'm not going to argue about "American imperialism"; I'll only remark that Canada and Mexico likely are irked that "American" automatically connotes "of or belonging to the United States" to the rest of the world.

However, characterizing U.S. culture (such as it is) as barbaric immediately triggers my "tirade filter." Resorting to the caricature of equating U.S. culture with barbarism -- that is, demonizing it, and by extension, demonizing the society that gave rise to it -- suggests that the writer's argument won't stand without such crude rhetorical tricks. And indeed, claiming that that culture drives to dehumanize the intrinsic morality of the rest of the world goes beyond the bounds of rational debate in my book. Intrinsic morality of the rest of the world? No, no, when you make a sweeping and unjustifiable (and, well, meaningless -- what the hell is "intrinsic morality"?) statement like that, you have forfeited your place at the debating table. If the United States holds no monopoly on virtue, neither does it hold one on vice.

(I own to being amused at the slightly Victorian tone of horror suggested by calling the barbarism "pagan" and "hedonistic.")

After briefly describing South Park's (mis)use of not only Muhammed but also Moses and Jesus, both of whom are also beloved prophets in Islam, the writer continues:
If you were to ask any American how many people had been killed in the Iraq war, then he would give you some number around 4,000. The reality is that many estimates put the complete death toll of this war at figures above 1,000,000. America is a country which murdered 500,000 Iraqi children in the decade before September 11th, 2001 under the Iraq sanctions. This is a fact which the American Secretary of State at the time Madeleine Albright admitted to. The attacks on September 11th did not even equal a week of the murder inflicted on the Muslim people by the American imperialist agenda, yet the United States unanimously viewed these attacks as a justification to kill additional hundreds of thousands of Muslims. America props up brutal dictators on our soil simply because they are friendly and they control the oil. America’s military supports the Israeli regime which stole the land it controls from Muslims. The closest thing it has done to helping the Palestinian people is to periodically give fewer munitions to Israel for them to kill Palestinians with. How can anyone possibly champion the values of such a people? In the last century only the Soviet regime and the Maoist regime murdered more innocent people than America. Not even the tyrant of the twentieth century, Adolf Hitler, beats out America on this list. However, for some reason the makers of South Park in their self-righteous obscenity feel compelled to impose upon Muslims the values of this regime. Furthermore, they felt compelled to do it through the mocking of the man whom we hold in the highest esteem, whose honor we would die for, the Messenger of Allah Muhammad bin ‘Abdullah (peace be upon him).
I'll admit that my eyes glazed over the first time I read that paragraph. I've encountered arguments like this, delivered in this strident tone, at antiwar rallies in the U.S. There is a part of me that wonders how trustworthy the messenger is when this is the message. I say this not to belittle or to deny this information, but merely to explain why I didn't automatically recoil in horror at it. To this day I am reluctant to believe that I, as a United States citizen, have been complicit in activities this terrible. And yet, history teaches us that human beings can commit or condone atrocities when they're distant from the consequences.

I will say, however, that it is unjust and unfair for an organization based in the United States, as Revolution Muslim is, to state unequivocally that the United States unanimously viewed [the September 11th, 2001] attacks as a justification to kill additional hundreds of thousands of Muslims. In the wake of the attacks some extremists ignorantly proclaimed their desire to kill all Muslims, yes. However, claiming that these loudmouthed jackasses represented the entire U.S. population is as ignorant (or as hateful) as claiming that those Muslims who loudly wish to destroy the United States represent the entirety of the Muslim world.

But back to that paragraph. Notice that it isn't until the last two sentences that the writer brings the subject back to South Park -- and has to stretch pretty far to do so. He accuses Parker and Stone of feeling compelled to impose upon Muslims the values of this regime [the U.S.].

That is, to put it kindly, a silly argument.

If Parker and Stone felt compelled to do anything, it was to test the vehement reaction of some Muslims to the attempt -- by non-Muslims -- to depict the Prophet Muhammed. In that regard, the two men's actions are of a piece with their attitude toward every subject they've ever mocked on South Park. They behave like four-year-olds: they live to provoke outraged reactions for the sake of provoking outraged reactions.

More to the point, though, how could South Park impose values on Muslims?

Was this episode beamed into the brain of every Muslim on the planet? (Is that what the satellite dish in Cartman's posterior is for?)

Assuming the beamed-into-the-Muslim-brain hypothesis is not true, we come to my moment of supreme puzzlement: why in blazes do Muslims care what non-Muslims think of Muhammed?

Honestly, I think this calls for some reflection here on the part of Muslims. To borrow a Jon Stewart-ism: Muslims, meet me at Camera Three.

Why isn't your own supreme and unyielding faith in your religion enough? Why do you care what anyone else thinks? You know you're right; why must you be defensive about it?

(The same question could be posed to the adherents of other religions, but I digress.)

I could understand if you felt pity for non-believers. I could understand if you wanted to proselytize. But does your faith really require that on certain issues you must try to make the rest of us fall in line, whether we will or no?

If, even on only one or two issues, there's no room to live and let live, we non-Muslims are going to have a difficult time accepting that imposition. Being non-Muslims, we don't believe you have the monopoly on truth. That might be blasphemy in your eyes, but not in ours.

The rest of us have a strategy for dealing with South Park when, not if, it offends us: we stop watching it. It works for other aspects of U.S. culture, too. In fact, it works for culture from all over the world. You should try it.

(Okay, we're done with Camera Three.)

Back to the RM blog. The next section has to do with taking the United States to task for its relations with and policy toward what might be called the Islamic world. In particular, Revolution Muslim accuses the United States of attempting to change Islam, and asserts:
If America was openly engaged in a campaign to change Christianity or Judaism, do you not think there would be outrage and sensitivity from these communities? It sounds like a conspiracy theory, but anyone with half an hour of free time can easily find these comments in any number of policy documents. Furthermore they can find evidence of America supporting certain scholars of Islam and hiding others with American taxpayer dollars. It is only natural for a group which is under an ideological assault from the United States to be hostile toward anything coming from an American citizen which is mocking this group.
It's difficult to sympathize with the idea of preserving Revolution Muslim's reading of Islam against attempts to change it when it clearly coexists so uncomfortably with other belief systems. The Reformation was not a pleasant upheaval, but I believe the world is better for it.
While the makers of South Park are probably unaware of these issues, and they are merely pawns in a dangerous game, they are playing right into the hands of those who wish to change our religion. The destruction of the Islamic identity is not something which Muslims can tolerate, and this is something being directly funded by the American regime. It is no secret that America’s military uses American goods to spread its culture and propaganda in order to create docile societies. Just look at Somalia where the World Food Program refused to buy domestic food in favor of American food. How do you think Obama would feel if the flag of Al-Qa’ida was stamped on his coffee mug and there was nothing he could do about it? The issue of the honor of our Prophet (peace be upon him) is an issue of honor for this entire nation. Perhaps honor is a dead value in the West, but it will never die in the hearts of this Ummah (nation).
I was surprised to find myself able to accept the logic of most of this paragraph. I don't necessarily agree with it, but I think it makes some cogent arguments in a reasonable manner. At least, until that last sentence.

And now, we reach another gaping chasm of divergent perspectives:
Free speech is a vital tool in the staving of oppression, but this function has its limits. It is hard to understand how one can feel self-righteous while defending somebody as an "equal opportunity offender." Such an illogical state of mind could only emanate from a selfish culture in which the suffering of the many is justified by the enjoyment of the few. And it may be an American "value" that all speech should be free including that which is obscene and aimed at emotionally oppressing a specific group of people, but this is not a value that the Muslims share with America as a whole. In fact, one of the major reasons there is such little opposition to American domination today is the reality that the principle of free speech, as envisioned by the founding fathers of the United States and by wise men and women throughout the ages, is a universal principle that may protect citizens from political, economic, or religious persecution. Today it is understood much differently; today “free speech” is interpreted as the right to promote pornography, homosexuality, slander, and libel against even that which is considered sacred. Indeed, it is in the shifting away from this conceptualization that America first deviated from its position as republic and assumed the role of global empire.
It takes some practice -- okay, a lot of practice -- to stand up for equal opportunity offenders. It takes a lot of practice to accept, intellectually if not emotionally, the right of others to say and to believe things you consider repugnant. I can, for instance, accept intellectually that white supremacists have just as much right to promulgate their beliefs as anybody else, but nothing can make me like that fact. Nevertheless, I accept my discomfort as the price that the U.S. pays for having a vital, vibrant marketplace of ideas. (Not as vital or vibrant today as I'd like, but that's a different essay.)

Again, there is a misapprehension of why "free speech" is valued. Protection against persecution is the means; the desired end is the free exchange of ideas for the edification of the populace. The outraged feelings manifest in the phrase the right to promote pornography, homosexuality, slander and libel against even that which is considered sacred show that "free speech" includes elements that offend the writer's sensibilities. Well, perhaps they offend mine, too, but what I find more offensive is the idea that the writer should be able to dictate what I may say or hear.

And for the record, I find some of Revolution Muslim's remarks that I've quoted to be offensive to beliefs I hold sacred, but I don't call for Revolution Muslim to be censored, or suggest (not so) innocently that the blog writer will suffer the fate of Theo van Gogh.
Is there a purpose, other than evil, in insulting something someone holds sacred?
That's a reasonable question. While I don't pretend to know what South Park's creators/producers are thinking, one possibility that comes to mind is that they find something irresistibly amusing -- or bemusing -- in the phenomenon of religious belief. That seems to be the most logical conclusion after seeing the world's major spiritual figures gathered together in an obvious parody of the old Superfriends cartoon in another South Park episode....
While insulting Jesus, Moses, or any other prophet would remove someone from Islam, we Muslims are also forbidden to insult the deities that other religions hold in high esteem. Allah says in the Qur'an:

وَلاَ تَسُبُّواْ الَّذِينَ يَدْعُونَ مِن دُونِ اللّهِ فَيَسُبُّواْ اللّهَ عَدْوًا بِغَيْرِ عِلْمٍ

Revile not those unto whom they pray beside Allah lest they wrongfully revile Allah through ignorance
Therefore, as Muslims we do not define speech which has no place in a moral society as "free speech." Furthermore, we will never tolerate the mocking or insulting of any one of the prophets, peace be upon them, from any source even if it was the Caliph (leader) of the entire Muslim world. It is truly sad that we did not speak out when they first insulted 'Isa (Jesus), Musa (Moses), or even the first time they mocked the final prophet Muhammad, peace be upon them all. However, simply because they have done something in the past and there was no outcry does not justify our silence in the present.
The Revolution Muslim blogger could not be expected to write a treatise on all the subtleties of Islam, but I cannot help remarking that I still don't have a clear picture of what constitutes speech which has no place in a moral society. I also am confident that we do not see eye to eye on what constitutes a moral society.

As a side note: it is all well and good that Islam discourages the disparaging of other deities, but there seems to be a distinct lack of interest in discouraging the disparaging of those flesh-and-blood people who don't worship any deity at all.

Now we go from what might be characterized as heated debate, to what I regard as a breakdown of talks:
As for the Islamic ruling on the situation, then this is clear. There is no difference of opinion from those with any degree of a reputation that the punishment is death. Ibn Taymiyyah a great scholar of Islam says, "Whoever curses the Messenger of Allah (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) -a Muslim or a non Muslim- then he must be killed...and this is the opinion of the general body of Islamic scholars.”

...

This shows that taking this stance is virtually obligatory, but it does not mean that our taking this stance is in some way an absolute call toward the requirement that the creators of South Park must be killed, nor a deliberate attempt at incitement, it is only to declare the truth regardless of consequence and to offer an awareness in the mind of Westerners when they consider doing the same thing.
Yeah, sure it's not a deliberate attempt at incitement.

The first paragraph is unambiguous: if you insult the Messenger of Allah, Islamic scholars say you must die.

The second paragraph is a clumsily hair-splitting dance that translates to: "We're not actually advocating murder, so don't blame us. But you'd better believe it will happen. Oh, and anybody else considering similar behavior ... pay attention."

Although Revolution Muslim's blog entry continues with extensive explanations, qualifications, and justifications, the take-away is lamentably simple:
  • Islamic law requires the death of anyone who "curses" (insults) Muhammed.
  • The South Park episode in question insulted Muhammed.
  • Trey Parker and Matt Stone are marked men in the eyes of Revolution Muslim and like-minded people.
The bigger message that comes through loud and clear in Revolution Muslim's lengthy essay:

Islam, as practiced in the way advocated by Revolution Muslim, is incapable of peaceful coexistence with other belief systems in a pluralistic society because it demands fealty to its sacred principles by non-believers.

Update

Honestly, I had no desire to revisit Revolution Muslim's Web site. To my mind, the blog postings come from a different world, and have the kind of odd and meandering not-quite-logic I've encountered in dreams (and once in a fever-induced hallucination). Nevertheless, I was curious to see what had transpired since the South Park brouhaha had come and (seemingly) gone.

On 30 April 2010, Revolution Muslim's blog quoted (in full, as far as I can tell) a thoughtful piece from Prof. Jeremy F. Walton; this post on therevealer.org appears to be the original (and is significantly more readable because of the formatting). I don't agree with everything Prof. Walton says, particularly about the advocacy of free speech; he bandies about the term free speech fundamentalists too cavalierly and impatiently for my taste. However, it's far more thoughtful than anything else I've read.

That was the upside of my update check.

Here's a posting, apparently from 19 May 2010, cheerily entitled, Tomorrow is a Nice day to Supplicate for the Destruction of the Kuffar!!! Please do not forget to make sincere du'aa:
Please take tomorrow May 20, 2010 as a special day to make many supplications incessantly for the destruction of the kuffar, their armies, their embassies, their flags, their military bases, their houses, their security, their disgusting way of life. May Allah (swt) punish them continuously, destroy their buildings, foil their plans and resurrect this jihad until even the eskimos must remove their sleds from the path of Allah's auliyya and mujahideen, amin!
"Kuffar," according to Wikipedia, is the plural of "kafir," which is usually translated as 'unbeliever' or 'disbeliever', or sometimes 'infidel'. In other words, the rest of us.

These deluded, self-righteous twits should be pariahs in polite society. Fortunately, if Hussein Rashid is correct, they already are.

[EDIT: corrected title of post from "Islam" to "Muslim"]

i, eye

iMac.
iPod.
iTunes.
iLife.
iWork.
iPhone.
iPad.

Apple Inc.'s "i"-themed names (and these are not all of them) touch on common, simple ideas like "tunes" and "work," and suggest that they "sum up" a product category. For that reason, the names are also a little creepy. Is "iLife" the company's attempt to sum up my life as a product? (Surely not: Apple makes better products than that.)

I don't recall that the "i" was ever explicitly defined to mean anything. "Internet"? "Interim"? (Remember, the "i" first appeared in Steve Jobs' job title after his Second Coming: "iCEO.")

It was only with yesterday's announcement of the new name for the iPhone OS that something clicked. The new name is "iOS." (I wonder if Cisco will have something to say about that, by the way.)

"OS" stands for "operating system," the software heart of any device. "iOS" fits neatly into the category-seizing pattern of the other "i" names. Although an operating system is not as grand a concept to have encompassed as "work" or "life" is, it's still a mighty claim to have staked out.

i ... i ... eye ...

Wait ... "eye"?

Eye ... of Sauron?

Now it all makes sense.

The "i" sees all!

Steve Jobs is Sauron!!

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Government works hard

Got a bit of correspondence from the local municipality. A response was required, and a return envelope was duly included. Some thoughtful soul had even pre-sealed it.

Our civil servants, hard at work.

(Okay, the truth: there were two return envelopes. They were both sealed. And the other documents had not been exposed to steam or water.)

Health insurance

Homeowner's insurance is for coping with the effects of catastrophically bad things happening to your home.

Car insurance is for coping with the effects of catastrophically bad things happening to your car.

Life insurance is for coping with the effects of the catastrophically bad thing that will happen to you.

So why don't we have "accident and disease" insurance instead of "health" insurance?

Monday, June 7, 2010

Overpopulation

An International Herald Tribune article describes the destruction of rain forests throughout Southeast Asia, particularly in Indonesia, due in part to the increased demand for palm oil for biofuel.

This is a tragicomic situation. The movement toward biofuels in the European Union has the best motivation: the desire to increase the fraction of its transportation fuel that comes from renewable sources. Unfortunately, to meet the growing demand for palm oil (which is also desirable in cosmetics and for shelf-stable processed foods), suppliers must grow more oil palm trees. They find the land to do so by clearing rain forests. Rain forests worldwide play a large role in recapturing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and sequestering methane from decaying biomatter.

Deciding between a renewable fuel supply and a vital component of the world's ecosystem is a terrible dilemma.

We are at the point, if we haven't already passed it, of running up against hard limits on our ever-expanding population.

The subject of overpopulation has a long and, to its critics, dubious history, starting in the 18th century with Thomas Malthus. Humanity seems to blow right past the supposed upper limits for a supportable population every time someone declares such a limit to exist, making Malthus and these other prophets of doom sound foolishly alarmist.

Nevertheless, I think the palm-oil dilemma is a sign that today's large human population is going to have more negative than positive consequences in the not too distant future.

Any species' population is as great as its food supply, predators, and diseases allow. Humans in societies don't have any predators of consequence, so our population has been limited only by the availability of food and the incidence of disease. Technology has allowed us to produce more food and to resist more diseases, to the point where today, there are a previously unimaginable six billion of us alive.

However, the scale and effect of human activities has been multiplied by technology, too. We in the United States think nothing of traveling thirty miles to shop at a particularly desirable store, for instance. Yet to do so requires burning gasoline or other fuel (unless you use a bicycle), which results in the release of carbon dioxide and other combustion byproducts. The release of those byproducts has consequences we never thought about until some forty years ago. We had to think about them because we suddenly realized that the output of one car was trivial, but the output of millions was significant. (The same principle applies if you take a bus or a train, of course.)

The complexity of our civilization practically guarantees we're never going to have a perfect understanding of the impact of our activities. Our knowledge will increase with time, of course, but so will the complexity. So how should we try to minimize the likelihood of really large-scale problems caused by the irreconcilable demands of our civilization, like the tug of war between the desire for more palm oil and the desire for breathable air and a not unduly hot environment?

How about reducing the size of that civilization, by reducing the number of ... us?

A couple of formidable objections come to mind. One is that attempts to control population growth have been regarded as dictatorial, and the idea is highly unpopular. The other objection is that in a world of contending nation-states, nations with smaller populations tend to be conquered by nations with larger populations unless the smaller nation has a significant strategic advantage.

I don't have answers to these objections. I wouldn't want to be subject to the simple but draconian population controls imposed by the People's Republic of China, even though they seem to have been successful by some measures. And North Korea's success in preserving the stalemate on the Korean Peninsula demonstrates the continuing value of threatening to unleash human waves in battle (if they're backed by a sufficiently technologically sophisticated army, anyway).

Yet I also don't think we can sustain a world of six billion people, even if not all of them aspire to lead as resource-hungry a lifestyle as those of us in the U.S.

[EDIT: spelling fix: "availabilty" --> availability]

Jon Stewart doesn't need to reassure his guests

Jon Stewart's DAILY SHOW interviews as they air are only about six minutes. That's about right for a lot of guests, too long for a few, and for more than a few but fewer than a lot, it's not long enough. Take John O'Hara, for instance, who wrote a book about the U.S. Tea Party movement. Stewart spent so much time hemming and hawing about wanting to find common ground with his guest and the Tea Party movement that O'Hara really only had a couple of minutes in which to talk about his book and the movement. (The interview is available online in two parts; part one is 3 minutes, 11 seconds, and part two is 5 minutes, 17 seconds.)

Stewart especially has this problem with guests who lean conservative: he wants to assure them that he's trying to meet them halfway, and in the process he sucks the air out of the room, and eats up all the allotted time. I've noticed this problem in his relatively frequent chats with William Kristol, and in his interview (or have there been two in the past few years?) with Bill O'Reilly.

Producing and hosting THE DAILY SHOW (and producing THE COLBERT REPORT) have got to be hard, and it's amazing how good the show has been for so long (I've been watching since 2005 or so). That doesn't mean there isn't room for improvement, though. Let your interviews speak for themselves, Jon. Except for those with Hollywood stars who aren't DS alums, flogging their latest movies -- for those, kill as much time as you can being funny, because your guests aren't up to that task.

(As for why I exempt DAILY SHOW alums, take a look at the return of Steve Carell.)

First impressions

I remember that immediately after the bombing of the Murrah building in Oklahoma City, some news reports suggested that Middle Eastern or Arab terrorists might be involved. I don't recall that anybody gave concrete reasons for such suspicions.

I mention this incident not to accuse anyone of anti-Arab bias, but instead to suggest that we should be wary of first reports in crises.

It takes time to get a complete picture of a disaster's aftermath. We're all so impatient, though, that we clamor for information, no matter what the quality. Like capitalists everywhere, the media respond to demand by ramping up supply, meaning that the pressure to cut corners on quality control is heightened.

We also try to make sense of whatever information we have. This can lead to incorrect extrapolations. In the immediate wake of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, for example, people outside the San Francisco Bay Area got the impression that all of San Francisco was on fire. That's because practically the only footage the network news showed was of burning homes. It took several days for the truth to emerge: the fires had been dangerous, but they also had been localized.

The preceding example illustrates another problem: the media, especially television, prefer dramatic stories and images. If one out of twenty homes is on fire, which house will be shown at the top of the hour, and which homeowner will be interviewed?

Another axiom: local news outlets are the first to sift truth from fiction. If we're lucky, the national and foreign media follow suit some time later. (And given Murphy's Law, even local news outlets may botch the job.)

Finally, the more pressure there is to blame a person or people for the disaster, the more likely it is for someone, on or off the record, to make an unsubstantiated accusation. In other words, sometimes bias does creep into breaking news.

So how should we react to first reports? Not with instant disbelief, any more than with instant belief. Rather, we should practice measured skepticism, bearing in mind the factors that can lead to distortion or outright error. And along with our measured skepticism, we should practice restraint in our reaction -- and discourage others from reacting precipitously, too.

(Coincidentally, not long after I finished this piece, I ran across an article, "Questions on Early News on Car Bomb," discussing the oddly certain tone of three politicians' comments regarding the 1 May 2010 car-bombing attempt in Times Square. Both Homeland Security secretary Janet Napolitano and Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) characterized the incident as a "one-off," to quote Napolitano, while Rep. Peter King (R-NY) blamed "the whole issue with ‘South Park,’ which Islamic terrorists were threatening to have retribution for." According to the article, "The three officials went on the air before the investigators working on the case had said much, at least publicly." Almost as an aside, the article also noted:

In the rush to discuss a disturbing news event, especially one that involves terrorism, some officials strive to be the face of calm. Some are eager to be out front in delivering information, even if there is little new in terms of facts that they can add to what viewers have already heard.

So we see at least one more reason why information released early might be less than completely accurate: an official is more concerned with soothing the public's jangled nerves (or otherwise influencing public opinion) than with providing solid information.)

Jake Knotts isn't the only problem

South Carolina state senator Jake Knotts was just exercising his right to free expression when a sudden s***storm broke out. (You really need to read the linked article before continuing, or you won't appreciate the story's full impact.)

Dropping in unexpectedly on an online political talk show, Knotts remarked of fellow Republican Nikki Haley, who is running for governor: “She’s a f#!king raghead.”

As the article goes on to note: "He later clarified his statement. He did not mean to use the F-word." (Well, that should put everyone's mind at ease.)

Haley's parents are Sikh. Knotts supports a different Republican gubernatorial candidate.

Knotts later claimed he spoke in jest.

What a cut-up.

Knotts would seem to be too outrageous a figure to be credible even in a work of fiction, a thoroughgoing racist ignoramus who is too proud that he is racist and is too ignorant to know he's a moron. Yet surprisingly, he isn't the only problematic figure in this story.

The talk show in question is "co-hosted by Senate Republican Caucus political director Wesley Donehue and his Democratic counterpart, Phil Bailey." Another Democrat, Rep. Boyd Brown, was in attendance as a guest on the show that included Knotts' remarks.

Donehue and Bailey later said Knotts' remarks were beyond the pale, yet they didn't challenge him on the show. Bailey went so far as to assert, "[I]t’s not my job to question Jakie Knotts."

Really?

What kind of talk show are you running, then? What is your job on that show, Mr. Bailey? How about you, Mr. Donehue? Mr. Brown, you weren't quoted in the article; care to comment?

I think there are two possible explanations for Messrs. Bailey, Donehue and Brown's inaction.

One possibility is that we got an unadulterated dose of the kind of talk that goes on when these folks don't think anyone else is listening. And by "these folks," I mean not just Knotts, but Bailey, Donehue, and Brown, too. Any surprise the latter three felt arose from Knotts' making the remarks in too public a forum, not from those remarks being unusual or even problematic.

The other possibility is that Knotts' fellow politicos were simply caught flat-footed with embarrassment. A number of years ago a fellow whom I considered a friend offhandedly made some sexist and insulting remarks about his wife, who was sitting next to him and with whom he had had a fight, it seemed. I was appalled not merely at the terrible impoliteness of dragging a third party, me, into their private dispute, but also that my friend could utter those remarks without any apparent shame. Yet I said nothing. I simply could not think of a proper response.

I'll give the other three gentlemen the benefit of the doubt, and assume they did not confront Knotts for the same reason: they simply could not think of a proper response. However, they have a problem I hadn't. Their colleague is an elected official who made his remarks in a public forum under their auspices, or in Brown's case, in his presence. If they don't subscribe to Knotts' beliefs, they should say so. Forcefully. Repeatedly. Immediately. And lukewarm pablum about "regrettable" remarks won't do it. Knotts used the epithet "raghead"; their repudiation of that term needs to be as impassioned as was Knotts' belligerent use of it.

Oh, and if you have the misfortune of being represented by Knotts but don't subscribe to his bigotry, you should let him know what you think of him. He feels he represents his constituents well. Does he?

UPDATE: It seems Brown is trying to distance himself from this mess. According to CNN:

Rep. Boyd Brown, a Democrat, was one of the show’s guests Thursday. He said he was “taken back and appalled” by Knotts’ remark.

“He said some things he shouldn’t have said. That’s Jakey,” Brown told CNN. “If I could have crawled under the table I would have.”

That's a pretty mealymouthed response. I suppose legislators consider one another coworkers, and it's hard to push back against the stupidity of coworkers with the same vehemence one would employ against strangers. Nevertheless, Brown should try harder. What I hear in his words is embarrassment. What about outrage and offense? You don't have to be Sikh to think "raghead" is ignorant and offensive.

(Salon has an interesting take on Knotts and what "racism" is all about. The essay left me wondering if I've been bandying the term "racist" about too readily here. Alas, the essay undercut itself at the very end with its inaccurate summary of Conor Friedersdorf's defense of the "tea party" movement against the charge of racism.)