Friday, July 30, 2010

If you care about music

... never buy a song merely because you've seen the video and it "sounds" amazing.

Always, always, always listen to the song. Ignore the images: they always make the song "sound" better.

Don't go with the flow

In a piece entitled How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Flow, Peggy Nelson finds something positive in her conversational partners' abrupt interruptions to deal with their cell phones. At first, like most of us, she felt cut off from her friends across the table.

Eventually I learned to stop worrying and love the flow. The pervasiveness of the new multiplicity, and my participation in it, altered my perspective. Altered my Self. The transition was gradual, but eventually I realized I was on the other side. I was traveling with friends, and one of them took a call. Suddenly, instead of feeling less connected to the people I was with, I felt more connected, both to them and to their friends on the other end of the line (whom I did not know). My perspective had shifted from seeing the call as an interruption to seeing it as an expansion. And I realized that the story I had been telling myself about who I was had widened to include additional narratives, some not “mine,” but which could be felt, at least potentially and in part, personally. A small piece of the global had become, for the moment, local. And once that has happened, it can happen again. The end of the world as we know it? No — it’s the end of the world as I know it, the end of the world as YOU know it — but the beginning of the world as WE know it. The networked self is a verb.

I have no idea what that last sentence means, but I think the gist of what she is saying is clear enough.

Nelson goes on to find dubious links between this phenomenon and the possibilities for greater participation in storytelling through current technologies like Twitter (and the cell phone itself), particularly the telling of the story that is our life as a species and as a global society. It makes sense that Nelson would try to connect her sophistry to the global-connectivity trope in order to lend her argument some weight. All you have to do, though, is to ask yourself how connected you feel to a stranger you can't see or hear, monopolizing the friend you can see and hear, and all "the networked self" blathering sounds like so much horse manure.

If I wanted brief, vapid, abruptly truncated conversations, I'd attend a party. If I'm breaking bread with you and it's not to discuss a business deal, I'd like you to be here now, if I may abuse Ram Dass' famous phrase.

"The flow" is an illusion. What's real is right in front of you. Across the table, in fact.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

When you're a stranger

Just noticed that when approaching a dog and its owner, nine times out of ten I'll focus on the dog rather than the person.

That explains a lot about my social life.

CEO compensation

An article about the highest-compensated CEOs in the U.S. noted:

Four of the 10 highest-earning executives ran companies whose shareholders lost money over the decade: IAC/InterActive, Countrywide, Capital One and Cendant Corp.

It makes you wonder what the hell is going on in some boardrooms.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

I was wrong about iPhone 4 response

Just under a week ago I predicted Steve Jobs and Apple would ignore the furor about the iPhone 4 antenna-shielding issue and a proximity sensor issue:

Steve Jobs (and the public relations management for any problem of this magnitude is going to be under Jobs' control) isn't going to acknowledge that this is a design defect. He's going to assume Apple can respond the same way it responded to the debacle of the third-generation iPod: by doing nothing.


By now, most of us know that Apple held a press conference, with Steve Jobs presiding, to discuss the antenna problem. In that press conference, Jobs not only admitted there is a problem, but also announced that Apple would provide a free case to everyone who had purchased iPhone 4. He also said that Apple is investigating the proximity sensor issue.

I was wrong. Ah well. Hope you didn't have a bet riding on it.

In passing, I'd like to note that Jobs is a master of spin. It goes beyond the reality-distortion field. He can marshal data like nobody's business. He got statistics on dropped calls from AT&T. He had stats from AppleCare and the retail stores. These numbers, which Jobs took pains to present slowly enough to ensure reporters could jot them down accurately, told a compelling story. It's not necessarily the truth -- Jobs must present Apple in the best possible light, after all -- but it's compelling.

News priorities

This past Friday, I was listening to the network news on my local CBS radio affiliate. I knew that BP was about to try its latest and greatest scheme to cap the uncontrolled oil gusher (let's stop calling it a "spill," okay?) in the Gulf of Mexico. I fully expected that story to lead all others, unless some other catastrophe had occurred.

The first story was about Apple's announcement that all iPhone 4 customers would receive a free case to ameliorate the infamous antenna interference problem.

Huh?

Let's see: on the one hand, you have one of the greatest environmental disasters in U.S. history, adversely affecting the lives and livelihoods of hundreds of thousands if not millions of people. On the other hand, you have a corporate press conference to address a non-life threatening fault in one of the company's products, a product that can reasonably be called a luxury item.

Hey, CBS Radio news execs, here's a bulletin for you: you run a reputable news organization. At least, that's what you're supposed to be doing. Yet you essentially packaged Apple's press conference into an audio press release for the company and made it your lead story.

How the hell was the announcement of a free case so thunderously important that it trumped the latest attempt to staunch the obscene outpouring of oil into the Gulf?

What the hell happened here? Were the adults out to lunch?

Friday, July 16, 2010

Colon count

This article about the use of the colon prompted me to examine my own postings. It was supposed to be a fifteen-minute exercise. However, as I type, it has been two-and-a-half hours. Sigh.

Here are a few statistics:

  • Excluding those required for URL schemes, my published posts contain 121 colons.
  • 59 of those colons are segmental.
  • I'm also fond of syntactical-descriptive colons, sprinkling them in 34 times.
  • 11 appear to be syntactical-deductive.
  • A mere two denote subtitles, while only one seems to be appositive.
  • Evidently I've picked up on the Internet style of what article author Conor J. Dillon calls "jumper colons." I cannot classify the remaining 14 uses in any other way: they all follow dependent clauses, and that's the end of their similarity to one another.


(For the definitions of these usages, see the Wikipedia entry on Colons (punctuation).)

As my tentative phrasing suggests, I'm not convinced I got the breakdown completely right. The distinctions between syntactical-deductive, syntactical-descriptive and appositive are not at all clear to me.

The mere thought of using a colon now fills me with dread. Need proof? Prior to reading the first-mentioned piece, I'd have made the previous paragraph a single sentence, with a colon following "right."

Sitting kills?

The New York Times' health blog has a piece suggesting that sitting is unhealthful, regardless of how much strenuous exercise one gets. How unhealthful?

Men who spent more than 23 hours a week watching TV and sitting in their cars (as passengers or as drivers) had a 64 percent greater chance of dying from heart disease than those who sat for 11 hours a week or less.

Many of these men also exercised regularly.

I'm disposed to believe that remaining in any position for too long is bad for a person: our bodies aren't built for it. However, the crux of the problem doesn't appear to be sitting as such, but the associated lack of movement for most of us while we're seated. (It would be interesting to see if users of old-fashioned, non-motorized wheelchairs had the same probability of dying from heart disease as the seated-by-choice.)

Only time will tell whether further research will confirm or refute this initial conclusion. In the meantime ... well, it can't hurt to sit a little (or a lot) less, unless you've got bunions....

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Al Hart, gentleman

While summer cleaning, I unearthed my recording of the local TV stations' stories about longtime radio pro Al Hart's retirement ten years ago.

Hart was a fixture on San Francisco news radio station KCBS-AM for 34 years, holding down the morning drive-time (6-10 AM) slot for nearly twenty-five years of that run. That's rare in a business as volatile as radio. He could have kept his job even longer, but retired in order to spend time with his wife Sally, who suffered from ALS. (Sally passed away in 2002.)

Even rarer than his on-air longevity is the universal esteem in which he was (and is) held by his peers and by the public. In addition to being a pro's pro as a broadcaster -- his voice was warm, but his tone was brisk, as befitted a man delivering hard news -- Hart was (and is), by all accounts, an unpretentious and just plain nice man. He seemed genuinely moved, and a little overwhelmed, by the fuss made when he retired. Every local TV station sent a news crew; there were on-air tributes from current and former colleagues, and even by longtime competitors at other radio stations; Gov. Gray Davis declared the Friday that Hart retired, 2 June 2000, "Al Hart Day" throughout California; the San Francisco Board of Supervisors issued a similar proclamation for San Francisco, board president Barbara Kaufman wryly noting that the unanimous passing of the proclamation was a first in the board's history.

One of the last things Hart said on the air that day was that although he had received "a stack" of cards and letters wishing him well, he would reply to every single one of them. He kept his word: my summer cleaning also produced his handwritten note to me, not merely acknowledging that I had written, but replying specifically to a couple of remarks I had made. No form letters for Mr. Hart!

Though I wish he could have stayed on the air forever, I count myself lucky to have been part of his audience for most of his run in the mornings.

I can think of no higher praise than to borrow a phrase from Wodehouse: Al Hart is one of nature's gentlemen.

Peanut butter

Can somebody sell peanut butter in a biodegradable container?

I don't want to clean out a plastic peanut butter jar ever again. I just want to compost the whole damned thing if need be.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Jackson Browne, too

Jackson Browne's "The Late Show" hit me at just the right moment. Not right after the Calexico track, but some time later, and it's hard to tell if it caught my mood exactly, or set it.

Maybe people only ask you how you're doin'
'Cause that's easier than letting on how little they can care
But when you know that you've got a real friend somewhere
Suddenly all the others are so much easier to bear
Now to see things clear, it's hard enough I know
While you're waiting for reality to show
Without dreaming of the perfect love and holding it so far above
If you stumbled on to someone real, you'd never know

Calexico heals all

Looking back on my postings so far, I come off as a crank. Let me try to redress that.

I don't think there's anything a little Calexico can't improve. The boys popped up on shuffle when I wasn't expecting them, and instantly "Corona" transported me to the Southwest, out in the desert, the afternoon sun beating down on me, dust in the air; I think a bead of sweat formed on my brow.

Calexico is magical, that's all there is to it.

iPhone 4 sensor issue

[see UPDATE at end]

Though I've heard much about the infamous iPhone 4 antenna problem, I hadn't known about a proximity sensor issue affecting the phone as well. Marco Arment, a respected developer and blogger, cites these as the two major flaws that will place "a huge asterisk" next to any discussion of the phone's quality.

Arment bluntly concludes that although a recall to fix the hardware is the only solution,
I seriously doubt that the same Apple that wrote that giant-middle-finger response to the antenna problem would swallow their own pride enough to admit that they were wrong and conduct a recall on their flagship product.

I'm sorry to say, he's probably right. Steve Jobs (and the public relations management for any problem of this magnitude is going to be under Jobs' control) isn't going to acknowledge that this is a design defect. He's going to assume Apple can respond the same way it responded to the debacle of the third-generation iPod: by doing nothing.

The third-generation iPod boasted four touch-sensitive buttons in a row over the touch-sensitive scroll wheel. The four buttons (Reverse, Menu, Play/Pause, and Forward) were identical in size, and because every iPod before (and since) placed the buttons on or around the scroll wheel, it took time for a user to get used to the non-standard placement. More troublingly, the touch-sensitive buttons were ridiculously easy to press by accident if your hand brushed the front of the device, yet they required actual contact with the skin to use. That meant that controlling the iPod within your pocket was pretty much a non-starter: there were no physical buttons that could be pressed through fabric, and if you stuck your hand into your pocket you ran the risk of triggering one or more buttons while groping for the right one. (Yes, I owned one. I suffered with it for four years.)

A bad, some would say terrible, user interface -- kind of a black eye for a company that prides itself on getting user interaction right. Yet nothing was done. A little more than a year later, the fourth-generation iPod was released and the 3rd was quietly forgotten.

Arguably, the iPhone 4 issues are worse from a public-relations standpoint because the iPhone is so much higher-profile than the iPod was in its day. Technically, the issues are probably worse too, since adapting to the third-gen iPod's quirks was relatively simple to do, while working around the phone's problems is much more awkward if you're experiencing them.

But that's the key: not everyone is experiencing these problems. So even though the phone's problems are worse, they aren't ubiquitous. That's going to militate against publicly fixing anything.

My guess is that Jobs is going to assume Apple can slide on iPhone 4's problems as it did on the third-gen iPod's, and in a year or so, when the next iPhone is released, all will be forgiven and forgotten.

(Note that mysteriously activating faceplates are not unique to iPhone 4. I've experienced them, and continue to do so, on my first-gen iPhone. I don't know if the root cause is the same. Oh, and my cheek tends to hit the Mute button rather than hanging the call up.)

UPDATE: Whoops: Apple responded.

Hackers, the movie

Remember the movie WarGames? Matthew Broderick is a teenaged phone phreak/pre-World Wide Web hacker (in the non-cracking sense) who almost causes World War III when he interfaces with a nearly intelligent supercomputer running the military's war games simulations.

It's a silly film in a lot of ways, unsurprisingly so since it was made in 1983. Yet I can still enjoy it today because Broderick and co-star Ally Sheedy are charming naifs, and the special effects didn't overwhelm the story.

The same can't be said of 1995's Hackers, a cross between WarGames and a bad music video, with echoes of Tron thrown into the mix. It has a cast that would go on to do much better (or at least bigger) things, including a young Angelina Jolie, Matthew Lillard, Lorraine Bracco (later of The Sopranos), Penn Jillette, and a surprisingly flappable Wendell Pierce (later my favorite rumpled detective, Bunk Moreland, on The Wire and currently the roguish Antoine Batiste on Treme).

That's where the upside ends.

The plot is not just beyond silly, the crime at the center of it is recycled from what my viewings of Office Space tell me is Superman III (coincidentally, another film from 1983). The teenaged hacker heroes all have mad skills, of course, and hack banks just for kicks (and over dialup, to boot). (The lead hacker, portrayed by Jonny Lee Miller, is supposed to have engineered the largest exploit of all time -- when he was eleven. The exploit resembles, in broad form, Robert Morris' famed Internet worm of 1989, but the plot has to go Morris one better not just by making Miller's character half Morris' age, but by setting the fictional exploit a year earlier, in 1988.) The jargon, some realistic and some less so, flies thick and fast in an unsuccessful attempt to dazzle the audience. Above all, the desire to make the hackers not just heroic, but edgy, just renders them cartoonish.

The effects are absurd. The vocoder-ed "Joshua" was intrusive in WarGames, but the overblown virtual environment of every major computer system in Hackers is teeth-gnashingly stupid. The conceit of visually transitioning between the real cityscape and the virtual chip-scape is rooted in the same kind of thinking that keeps bringing us bad user-interface metaphors, like the clunky emulation of a real notepad in the iPhone Notes application.

It's sad to see that in twelve years, Hollywood didn't get better at delivering a film about hacking. Quite the contrary: Hollywood got worse at it, significantly worse.

In his review of this film, Roger Ebert addresses criticisms like mine in his first two paragraphs:
`Hackers" wasn't even in theaters before attacks on it started online. It represents a new genre, "hacksploitation," Mac expert Andy Ihnatko grumbled on CompuServe, adding that like a lot of other computer movies it achieves the neat trick of projecting images from computer screens onto the faces of their users, so that you can see graphics and data crawling up their chins and breaking over their noses.

This grinching illustrates my theory that you should never send an expert to a movie about his specialty. Boxers hate boxing movies. Space buffs said "Apollo 13" showed the wrong side of the moon. The British believe Mel Gibson's scholarship was faulty in "Braveheart" merely because some of the key characters hadn't been born at the time of the story.

Maybe so, maybe so. But I prefer to think that we need to push Hollywood harder until it gets hacking right. I refuse to believe it's not possible.

Google Voice misgivings

A friend invited me to Google Voice a while back. I accepted the invitation because he's my friend, not because I felt I needed the service. Initially, I simply didn't see the point. Having thought about it, and having read David Pogue's enthusiastic overview, I understand better what purpose it serves and why it appeals to people. The gymnastics of "Call me at 111-111-1111 before 11, 222-222-2222 from 11 to 6, and 333-333-3333 after 6--unless I have to pick up Jimmy from soccer practice, which will mean you won't be able to reach me until 7 at the earliest" can be replaced by, "Call me at 555-555-5555," and magic will happen so you can take the call on whatever phone is handiest. As inventions go, I'd have to rank this just a notch or two below sliced bread: it's genius. (I don't believe it's Google's invention, either, although Google is likely the first not to charge customers for the service.)

On the other hand, it gives more of my life -- or at least the information therein -- to Google. That bothers me from a privacy standpoint: Google, and therefore the world, already know more about me than I would like. Moreover, adopting the service would place me even more deeply in thrall to the company. Every time Google simplifies access to and management of another sector of data in our lives, it does so by consolidating control of that data in its servers. Those servers used to hold merely our search queries; now they store our email, photographs, videos, spreadsheets, word-processing documents, and calendars. By positioning itself as a person's de facto personal data hub, Google is becoming as indispensable as the water or power provider. However, I don't know how to forage for my own water or to generate my own electricity; I do know how to manage my own data, and I take a certain pride in doing so. That attitude may turn out to be as anachronistic as clinging to the horse and buggy in the face of the automobile, but there it is.

So I remain ambivalent about Google Voice.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Drinking

What does it say about me that I'm drinking more today than I did when I was eighteen?

It says I'm keeping bad, bad company. Like you, MMJ (no, not My Morning Jacket) and CB, from last night. Or EB from a couple of weeks ago. Or JRL and BT at that Belgian bar before that. Tsk, tsk, tsk -- bad influences all.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Talking past each other

As part of a moralistic essay in the New York Times, columnist David Brooks contrasted the hard work of the fictitious "Ben," a fellow who "labored when others didn't," with those whom "Ben" saw in Washington, DC:
People in Washington spent money they didn’t have. They just borrowed it from the Chinese. People in Washington taxed those with responsible homes to bail out people who’d bought homes they couldn’t afford.

"Ben" feels that neither the mainstream Republican nor mainstream Democratic candidate suits him, so he picks one of the more polarizing candidates on left or right. As Brooks warns:
In a few years’ time, Ben is going to be disappointed again. He’s going to find that the outsiders he sent to Washington just screamed at each other at ever higher decibels. He’s going to find that he and voters like him unwittingly created a political culture in which compromise is impermissible, in which institutions are decimated by lone-wolf narcissists who have no interest in or talent for crafting legislation. Nothing will get done.

Brooks' moral:
[T]hese days, the political center is a feckless shell. It has no governing philosophy. Its paragons seem from the outside opportunistic, like Arlen Specter, or caught in some wishy-washy middle, like Blanche Lincoln. The right and left have organized, but the center hasn’t bothered to. The right and left have media outlets and think tanks, but the centrists are content to complain about polarization and go home. By their genteel passivity, moderates have ceded power to the extremes.

I agree that the center is all but unrepresented in this country's governance, but perhaps that's because the center has been all but completely discredited in our national debate -- unfairly so, in my opinion, but discredited nonetheless.

Satirist Stephen Colbert's shtick is discomfiting because it more accurately reflects the failure of our national debate than any of his fans, including me, would like to admit. When he thunders, "Pick a side: we're at war" on every trivial issue, his peremptory challenge to his opponent (not his "guest") is funny because it's absurd -- yet the bluff, discourteous outburst is altogether too representative of the bluff, discourteous way in which "debate" and even "discussion" are conducted today.

We don't speak to each other: we yell at and past each other. We have been encouraged to do so by decades of polarizing rhetoric on left and right. I have my own feelings about which is more responsible, and you do too, but we're past the point where the infamous "blame game" is going to serve any useful purpose.

Actually, that's not true. I know who is to blame, and I think it would do an enormous amount of good if we could shame the guilty party into facing its culpability.

So ... who is it?

Us.

I'll lay a few cards out on the table, just so we have a concrete basis for discussion. I think Fox News and conservative talk show radio are mean-spirited and feed their audiences' basest instincts. I think they love to assume that liberals and leftists are compassionate beyond all reason (the shorthand is "bleeding heart"), and that those liberals and leftists want to use government to take every dollar from every citizen to redistribute according to the warped priorities of every failed socialist/Marxist/Communist theoretician and revolutionary in history so as to bring about some kind of paradise on earth.

It's a terrible caricature of liberalism and progressivism. Yet I can see how some quite rational and concrete fears could underlie this twisted picture.

For instance, somebody with progressive tendencies needs to explain how Social Security and Medicare are going to continue to operate when as far as I can tell, intake of funds is and will continue to be insufficient to cover current obligations for the foreseeable future.

What about illegal immigration? If you don't want to build a border wall, what do you want to do about the problem? (I think a border wall is a stupid idea -- it didn't do much for East Berlin, did it? -- but I'll admit, I don't have any alternative suggestions.) And by the way, can't we admit that it is a problem, by virtue of being illegal? You don't need to impute other motives, such as the handy charge of racism, which is altogether too easy to make and too hard to refute. If you think that the folks who are here illegally should be here, the argument should be about our immigration laws, not about how we enforce them. Changing immigration policy is a tough row to hoe, I'll agree, but that's the situation we're in.

Yet conservatives, it would be nice if you'd admit your world view has a number of holes in it, too. You may think that fighting terrorism should be the government's highest priority, but do you know exactly what that means? How heavily should government control the production and distribution of raw materials that could be turned into an explosive or toxin, for instance? Should there be a national identification card? (For the hard-core "Obama birthers" out there, by the way, if he should be required to show his birth certificate, shouldn't we all?) Should our private communications be subject to random monitoring? (They already are, sadly.) Perhaps the bottom-line question on anti-terror: if fighting terrorism ends up drastically modifying the society in which we live, haven't we done the terrorists' work for them?

What about Grover Norquist's vaunted government-you-can-drown-in-a-bathtub? Is that really what you want, fiscal conservatives? Do you want all our roads to be privately owned? Do you wish for agencies like FEMA not to exist, or would you like them to be privately owned, too? I can't say that the recent actions of BP, or the records of our contractors (like Halliburton and Blackwater) in Iraq, convince me that the profit motive is the best guarantor of good services in all situations.

How's that drug war going? Do you still think the best way to fight it is to quash supply, when that supply is far, far away but the demand is right here? Are you sure that you have all the facts on marijuana and its real dangers relative to, say, alcohol, or tobacco? Is there anything we could learn from our experiment with Prohibition nearly a century ago?

None of the points I've raised has an easy solution. We'd do well to stop pretending that they do, and to stop vilifying "the other side" when they object to our pet schemes on rational grounds. That's how we might rediscover "the center." We're never going to stop arguing (nor should we), but let's at least try to make the arguments go somewhere by figuring out how to listen -- and to talk -- to one another again. And let's not wait for those increasingly mythical "moderate politicians" Brooks seeks.

Thoughts on the Mehserle verdict

Former BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) police Officer Johannes Mehserle was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter yesterday.

Mehserle shot and killed BART rider Oscar Grant on New Year's Day 2009. A number of riders witnessed the shooting, including one who captured the incident with a cell phone video camera. The video was played repeatedly on local newscasts and undoubtedly contributed to the decision to change the trial's venue to Southern California.

The footage convinced many that Mehserle shot deliberately, so the verdict was something of an unwelcome surprise. A protest erupted in downtown Oakland earlier tonight, reportedly degenerating into looting of at least a couple of businesses.

I don't understand how you can justify trashing somebody's business (or home, for that matter) when you're supposedly angry about a verdict that is totally unrelated to that business. It happens all over the world, so it must be something quite fundamental in human nature that prompts this stupidity -- but it's sad that innocent parties whose buildings and property happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time end up paying for our primitive behavior.

However, what prompted me to comment on this case was not the violent protest, but the implication that "the system" once again failed a black victim:
John Burris, an Oakland attorney representing Grant's family, decried "a true compromise verdict."

"The system is rarely fair when a police officer shoots an African American male," Burris said. "No true justice has been given." Grant was African American and Mehserle is white.

Grant's uncle, Cephus "Bobby" Johnson, said that "we knew from the beginning that we were at war with the system. ... We have been slapped in the face by this system that has denied us true justice."

I didn't follow the trial so I don't know where Burris or Johnson saw bias. However, it's likely their remarks encompass the jury, which included no African Americans. This dearth at first blush lends credence to Burris' and Johnson's accusations. Yet how likely is it that the jury consisted only of racists and spineless cowards content to be led by those racists?

Perhaps Burris and Johnson see the non-African American community not as crudely racist, like the Ku Klux Klan, but as blindly racist -- unaware of their own bias, yet biased all the same. That might indeed account for the verdict.

I think there's another possible explanation. Mehserle asserted that he mistook his pistol for his Taser, pulling the wrong weapon out. This may sound ludicrous to you; I'm sure it sounded unbelievable to Grant's family. However, there's no way to know how it sounded to the jury.

More generally, it's next to impossible to have the same perspective as the jury without being a juror. Jurors see and hear only what the trial judge permits: they're not necessarily present for the entirety of the trial. They are supposed to ignore news reports about the trial while they are empanelled. Their deliberations are guided by specific restrictions, embodied in the instructions they receive from the judge.

I served on the jury in a murder case. None of us had wanted to serve: we all had jobs and lives that would suffer, and I'm sure more than a few of us didn't want the burden of deciding someone else's guilt or innocence. Yet once we were picked, we took the oath seriously. If, like me, your closest exposure to a murder trial is a rerun of Law & Order, there's something about the atmosphere of the courthouse and a trial that makes it unthinkable to be anything but earnest and honest.

A few of my fellow jurors were jocular enough at lunches and during breaks in the trial, but as soon as we got down to deliberating, we all became deadly serious. None of us was a lawyer, but we spent a fair amount of time pondering and parsing the language of the jury instructions. There were fine distinctions to be made between the charges of murder and manslaughter, and even finer distinctions between first- and second-degree murder, and voluntary or involuntary manslaughter. We rehashed the facts adduced at trial, and had to determine who was to be believed and to what degree. At times, our deliberations became heated: we would disagree over how to interpret an instruction, or whether a witness had asserted some fact, or, worst of all, what to do about seemingly critical missing information.

As in the Mehserle case, the defendant in our case was convicted, but not for the highest count of first-degree murder. According to subsequent news accounts, the victim's family was disappointed and angered by our decision. Not all of us jurors were thrilled by it, either. Yet whatever our shortcomings as jurors and as a jury, we did our best to render a verdict that accorded with the facts we had and the instructions we were given.

The Mehserle decision isn't what a lot of people expected or wanted, but not being on that jury, I can't second-guess it.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Don't write like this

Most of what I read is written for a reasonably intelligent and mature audience. Perhaps that's why this article, listing things not to ask your t(w)een offspring, struck me so forcefully: I seldom encounter articles aimed at adults that sound as if they were written by a (stereotypical) teenager.
Believe it or not our kids even like us and want us in their lives! (Really!!!!)

Four exclamation points? I can't take seriously any writer who thinks this is a good way to denote emphasis.
More US kids than anywhere in the world believe ...

There's no way to make a construction like that work. "More kids in the U.S. than anywhere else in the world believe ..." is closer to the mark, but it's still awkward. Something like, "More so than anywhere else, kids in the United States believe ..." might have worked better.
Neuro-imaging confirms that their pre-frontal cortex is still developing – the exact place where decision-making and impulse regulations are forming.

Why doesn't "the exact place where ..." immediately follow "pre-frontal cortex"?
Tweens are discovering the “opposite sex” and have their first “crushes.” When there’s a friendship tiff or breakup with a “first love”, ah the anguish! Though the anguish may seem juvenile, don’t dismiss your kid’s hurt and tell her to “Get over it.”

Overusing quotation marks seems to be a curse of the age. Aside from denoting text directly copied from another source, the main, if not only, reason to use them is to mark off words or phrases requiring special attention, often because they are unusual and are being introduced to the reader. What is so unusual about the phrase "opposite sex"? Why quote "crushes" and "first love" but not "friendship tiff," a phrase not in common use? (And since that last sentence won't stand by itself without the quoted phrase, "get" shouldn't be capitalized.)

If the article were aimed at the t(w)eens under discussion, that might excuse, or at least explain, its breathlessly silly tone. However, it's aimed at their parents.

The author, Michele Borba, holds a doctorate in education. I assume she knows how to write well. I hope this wasn't a representative sample of her best effort.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Of Mice and Magic is 30!

It's hard to believe it has been thirty years since the publication of Of Mice and Magic, one of the earliest histories of animation in the United States.

I ran across this book in 1980 or 1981 quite by accident. The paperback edition's distinctly and delightfully cartoony cover first caught my eye, but both eyes bugged out when I read the subtitle: "A History of American Animated Cartoons." I couldn't believe such a book existed. Who would have expected anyone would write a book on cartoons? I mean, I'd always hoped for one, but never imagined I'd see that hope fulfilled.

The store's only copy was torn on the spine, but I bought it anyway. It ranks as one of my favorite spontaneous decisions ever.

If you aren't a fan of old cartoons, it's next to impossible to explain this book's appeal (I know: I've tried). But if you are a fan, you must have this book. It is, quite simply, the best, most engaging overview of Hollywood cartoons ever written.

For my part, it changed my life -- not by turning me into an animator or filmmaker, but rather, by validating my nascent, hardly articulable sense that these cartoons were something special. Have you ever had your self-confidence boosted by finding that others shared, or exceeded, your passion for an arcane hobby? Suddenly, you were no longer a singular freak. More accurately, you might still have been a freak in the eyes of the community at large, but you were no longer alone. That kind of validation is powerful, especially for a socially awkward teen.

Today Leonard Maltin is far better known as a film critic at large, and Jerry Beck is a respected animation historian and booster of cartoons of all stripes. My collection of animation books is larger than I ever thought it would be, and includes additional tomes by each of the aforementioned. But even after thirty years, their collaboration on Of Mice and Magic stands head and shoulders above all the others in my affections. Michael Barrier might have been the first to shine a long-overdue light on the history and background of old cartoons via his seminal zine Funnyworld (and Barrier has started, at least, to share some of the long-defunct magazine's articles), but for those not already part of the then-small community of animation devotees, Of Mice and Magic remains the book that started it all. Messrs. Maltin and Beck, to you I offer congratulations on the book's thirtieth anniversary -- and my deepest thanks.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Steele on Afghanistan

RNC chairman Michael Steele's claim that the conflict in Afghanistan was a "war of Obama's choosing" is arguably the worst underestimation of the collective recall and intelligence of the public that any Washington politico has made in recent memory. Dana Perino and Rudy Giuliani have both tried to burnish Bush 43's time in office by falsely claiming that the country was safer in that time than it is now, and let's not get into Dick and Liz Cheney's nightmarish surrender to terror in the name of fighting terrorism (yes, it's such a good idea to live in mortal fear of terror because that's exactly what the terrorists don't want us to do -- geez, how bereft of vision and genuine love of the country's ideals do you have to be to embrace such a counterproductive and self-defeating strategy as that?), but Steele's idiotic remark could only be accepted at face value by people whose only functional brain component is the medulla oblongata.