Friday, October 29, 2010

The holidays have started

With the first viewing of It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown on network TV, my holidays have started.

Sony stops Walkman production in Japan

The AP reports that Sony has stopped production of its iconic Walkman in Japan. It will still be produced in China.

Ah me, that takes me back. The BBC commemorated the Walkman's thirtieth anniversary in 2009 by giving one to a teenager in exchange for his writeup on using it in place of his contemporary digital music player for a week. He was surprised that anyone could have been content with such a device. I wrote this email to friends in response:
I want to smack that kid. "I can't imagine having to use such basic equipment every day." That device was a miracle! I'd like to show him the other options: a boom box (do they make those any more?), or a "portable" record player -- I seem to remember there was one in which the record stood vertically, and mostly out in the air, as the motor and needle were all encased in a box much smaller than the record itself. Maybe I hallucinated that one, or am confusing it with a record washer.

I could never afford a Walkman. My first player was a Sanyo knockoff, bright red plastic and one of the crappiest gadgets I've ever owned, but it got me through the first couple of years of college before I ponied up for a Panasonic boom box so I could entertain others (and not have to wear the lousy, head-pinching Sanyo headphones). One huge advantage of the Sanyo over the first Walkman, IIRC, was that the Sanyo had a radio -- the headphone cable acted as the antenna. When the batteries started getting low (the little red power light--probably incandescent--started to dim), I could switch to the radio and get a couple of hours more listening if I couldn't get to a power outlet.

(Here's how primitive the Sanyo was. Its radio tuner appeared to stop working for a time. It wasn't until I took the case apart that I discovered that the tuner dial was connected to the actual tuner--another biggish wheel--by a string and the string no longer had enough tension for the tuner dial to drag it along by friction. After that I had to leave the tuner on one station, unless I happened to be in the dorm where I could remove the case and move the string by hand. Digital tuner? What's that?)

After the Sanyo came a couple of Aiwas, more or less equivalent quality to the Sonys but cheaper because Aiwa didn't have the marketing overhead (rumor was that the Aiwas were actually made by Sony, but I wonder now if that was urban legend). I'm pretty sure I still have either the last Aiwa or whatever its successor was, along with a collection of now-dead rechargeable AAs.
I gave up on cassettes sometime in the 1990s (I stayed with them longer than most) and picked up a Discman for on-the-go listening. It didn't last long, Sony's quality control having gone down the drain by 1990. Only a few years after I bought its replacement, a sturdy Panasonic device, Apple came out with the iPod.

While the first iPod was another miracle, the feeling couldn't compare with the satisfaction and joy that crummy Sanyo brought me.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Halliburton supplied bad cement

It looks like Halliburton will have to share some of the pain for the Deepwater Horizon well disaster.

I'm weeping.

The New York Times is reporting that the presidential commission investigating the incident has determined that Halliburton knew the cement mixture it provided was not up to the job. While the Times article gives the high points, you should check out the letter to the commissioners from the lead investigator, Fred H. Bartlit, Jr., which the Times has provided on its site.

According to Bartlit, Halliburton conducted four tests of the cement mixture it intended to supply. Only one of those tests resulted in a "stable" result. Although Halliburton is known to have emailed the results of one of the other (failed) tests to BP, "There is no indication that Halliburton highlighted to BP the significance of the foam stability data or that BP personnel raised any questions about it."

Willful ignorance, unjustified trust, or simple carelessness?

Based on their own independent testing and the documents Halliburton provided to them, the commission's investigators concluded:
  1. Only one of the four tests discussed above that Halliburton ran on the various slurry designs for the final cement job at the Macondo well indicated that the slurry design would be stable;
  2. Halliburton may not have had—and BP did not have—the results of that test before the evening of April 19, meaning that the cement job may have been pumped without any lab results indicating that the foam cement slurry would be stable;
  3. Halliburton and BP both had results in March showing that a very similar foam slurry design to the one actually pumped at the Macondo well would be unstable, but neither acted upon that data; and
  4. Halliburton (and perhaps BP) should have considered redesigning the foam slurry before pumping it at the Macondo well.
Not that this in any way absolves BP or Transocean, the rig's owner:
Because it may be anticipated that a particular cement job may be faulty, the oil industry has developed tests, such as the negative pressure test and cement evaluation logs, to identify cementing failures. It has also developed methods to remedy deficient cement jobs. BP and/or Transocean personnel misinterpreted or chose not to conduct such tests at the Macondo well.
In other words, somebody should have known better.

It's a truism that modern manmade disasters are usually the result not of a single failure, but a whole series of them. Deepwater Horizon is clearly such a disaster. And we almost certainly haven't found all the failures yet.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Radio is still kicking

Never visit The Browser if you're supposed to be doing something else. What was supposed to be a ten-second check for new articles turned into an hour of reading the first one that caught my eye: an overview of contemporary public radio news/talk offerings in the New York Review of Books.

The Browser's summary blurb is a trifle misleading: it promises someone asking (and presumably answering) the question, "Why don't we discuss radio content the way we discuss books and TV?" It could be that the anonymous collator who decided to list this piece was misled by its opening sentence: "Radio receives little critical attention." In fact, Bill McKibben's piece is specifically about the world of public radio, profiling several respected shows in that realm that aren't nearly as well known as, say, All Things Considered.

I'd like to add that it isn't just news and talk that is worth listening to on the non-commercial airwaves. While commercial music radio has been creatively dead since, oh, 1975, non-commercial radio stations have been programming interesting, sometimes challenging, generally obscure genres and artists for decades. The zenith of college radio's influence (this music is most often heard on current or former college radio stations) was perhaps the 1980s and early 1990s, when artist after artist crossed over from those commercial-free airwaves into the public consciousness, turning rock and pop on its ear. The music continues today, albeit at a much less noticeable level as far as the general public is concerned.

The key to non-commercial music stations' influence and continued relevance (and they are very much still relevant) is the freedom of their mostly unpaid DJs. These people volunteer their time and often their money to put together weekly shows just for the love of the music, and that love shines through in the care with which they construct those shows. The best of them mix old favorites, obscure and not, with new releases. It's a way of enticing people to listen to those new releases, embedding them within songs the audience has heard before.

Do you know what's wrong with substituting your iPod in "shuffle" mode for the radio? You won't be exposed to anything new. And while some of you might be happy recycling the same ten, twenty, one hundred, or even five hundred albums (or even, heaven forbid, songs), that just won't work for most of us.

What about the Internet? A number of sites offer up samples of what's new and what's good (in someone's eyes, anyway), and some of them try to guess at what you'll like by breaking every song into discrete characteristics and matching on those characteristics to point you at music you haven't yet heard. None of that, though, matches the skill that a live human brain steeped in music can bring to the party.

A really good radio DJ may plan out sets in advance or may rely entirely on seat-of-the-pants inspiration, but he or she always has the flow of the set in mind. One song might follow another because they have similar arrangements, or because one ends with a note in the same key as the other starts with, or they're roughly the same genre, or the lyrical content is similar, or one ends and the other begins with cymbal crashes, or they have identical beats (or can be coerced that way), or ... you get the idea. Something about the current song triggers the next one in the DJ's mind. Software can't match it. It's magical. And it leads to magical results on the radio. Well, on non-commercial radio stations, which are the only places a radio DJ has this kind of freedom.

Let yourself be surprised, and maybe pleased, by what those who have a passion for music can bring you on the non-commercial airwaves.

R.I.P. Alex Anderson

Alex Anderson, co-creator of Crusader Rabbit and the Rocky and Bullwinkle cast of characters, passed away on 22 Oct 2010 at the age of 90. Cartoon Brew has a brief obituary, which also references the more detailed New York Times obit.

Oh, and since Time magazine doesn't seem to have a convenient feedback mechanism to correct errors, let me note here that Richard Corliss' appreciation of Anderson contains at least three egregious errors: he credits "June Frees" with being Rocky the Flying Squirrel, when of course he meant the indefatigable June Foray; and he omits Paul Frees (Boris Badenov and a host of others) and William Conrad (the Bullwinkle segments' hilariously breathless narrator) altogether. Corliss, however, does convey the deep affection those of us who grew up with Frostbite Falls' denizens feel for them.

Liberal opportunists

So far, I've known more or less what I want to say about everything I've mentioned in this blog. Not so in this case.

Via Common Dreams, here's an essay by Chris Hedges entitled "The World Liberal Opportunists Made." It uncompromisingly accuses people like me of being complicit in the transformation of this country into a corporate state. At best, we're useless. At worst, we're evil.
The lunatic fringe of the Republican Party, which looks set to make sweeping gains in the midterm elections, is the direct result of a collapse of liberalism. It is the product of bankrupt liberal institutions, including the press, the church, universities, labor unions, the arts and the Democratic Party. The legitimate rage being expressed by disenfranchised workers toward the college-educated liberal elite, who abetted or did nothing to halt the corporate assault on the poor and the working class of the last 30 years, is not misplaced. The liberal class is guilty. The liberal class, which continues to speak in the prim and obsolete language of policies and issues, refused to act. It failed to defend traditional liberal values during the long night of corporate assault in exchange for its position of privilege and comfort in the corporate state. The virulent right-wing backlash we now experience is an expression of the liberal class’ flagrant betrayal of the citizenry.
Strident? Yes. Denunciations are. That doesn't make them wrong (or right, for that matter).
The liberal class no longer holds within its ranks those who have the moral autonomy or physical courage to defy the power elite. The rebels, from Chomsky to Sheldon Wolin to Ralph Nader, have been marginalized, shut out of the national debate and expelled from liberal institutions. The liberal class lacks members with the vision and fortitude to challenge dominant free market ideologies. It offers no ideological alternatives. It remains bound to a Democratic Party that has betrayed every basic liberal principle including universal healthcare, an end to our permanent war economy, a robust system of public education, a vigorous defense of civil liberties, job creation, the right to unionize and welfare for the poor.
"Social justice" is a much-maligned term, but perhaps that's a reflection of how debased our politics and morality have become. We -- I -- assume there's no fair way to pay for such programs, but I haven't been listening to those agitating in their favor. Maybe the agitators know.

Hedges says the liberal elite have tried to have their cake and eat it too, mouthing feeble rhetoric while trying to hold onto their "privileged status." I don't have a privileged position within the corridors of power, but I agree my rhetoric has been feeble and it echoes the liberal political elite. I feel like Hedges nailed me.

And then again ... maybe my ambivalence, my confusion, just shows the old stereotype of the terminally and pointlessly guilt-ridden liberal to be accurate.

I don't know what to think.

Monday, October 25, 2010

25 years of Sun City

It's hard to believe that a quarter-century has passed since Little Steven's defiant protest record, "Sun City."

Mark Deming wrote a good review of the song which you should read if you don't know of it. As a music fan, I can only offer my highly biased opinion: this is the one "charity" record of that period you should seek out.

As Deming remarks, "Between 1984 and 1985, it seemed as if every rock star on the planet had suddenly developed a conscience after that decade's long binge of cocaine and hair spray, and decided it was time to do something for their pet charitable cause." The trend started with Band Aid's "Do They Know It's Christmas?" which featured a number of then-hot U.K. pop stars collaborating on a high-profile single whose proceeds would benefit victims of Ethiopa's drought. U.S. pop stars evidently felt left out, so under the rubric "U.S.A for Africa" they issued their own single, "We are the World," also benefiting Ethiopia.

In both cases, the goal was laudable, and both singles raised significant money. Musically, the results were mixed at best. "Do They Know It's Christmas?" is the better of the two: a mid-tempo beat, a decently ominous opening and a touch of reverb throughout give it a little energy and the sense you're listening to Something Special. "We are the World," on the other hand, has all the appeal of soggy bread. It's drippy and vapid, desperate to convince you It Means Well And You Should Feel Something Because All These Stars Are Raising Their Voices Together. I felt something all right: nausea. It was the product of Lionel Richie's and Michael Jackson's worst lyrical and musical instincts.

It probably helped the musical side of "Sun City" that Little Steven (Steven van Zandt, then primarily known as a member of Springsteen's E Street Band) decided to focus on the inequities of the apartheid system in South Africa. Sun City was a resort located in the then-independent state (as South Africa viewed it) of Bophuthatswana. Although the subject of a cultural boycott sanctioned by the United Nations, the resort attracted a number of high-profile artists from around the world. (Some of them are listed in Wikipedia's entry on Sun City.)

Much of the rest of the world regarded Bophuthatswana as an administrative fig leaf intended to justify South Africa's apartheid system in which blacks and whites were segregated. Sun City was a powerful symbol of the apartheid system, and van Zandt intended to shame not only South Africa's government but fellow entertainers who might consider appearing there. Anger, therefore, fueled van Zandt and undoubtedly many of the musicians who worked with him, and in my experience anger, properly channeled, produces great music.

Van Zandt worked with journalist Danny "the News Dissector" Schechter to assemble the "Artists United Against Apartheid." By the time they were done, they had enlisted musicians from straight-ahead rock, jazz, rap, reggae, funk, spoken word, punk, and various other places on the musical map (where, for instance, does Lou Reed fit?). It's an amazing group of respected performers, and the quality of these musicians undoubtedly is a big reason "Sun City" is, first and foremost, a great song. In fact, their collective creativity resulted not just in a single but an album of six songs, including two versions of the title track.

According to the liner notes, the following artists contributed in one way or another to the project, though not necessarily on "Sun City":
  • Afrika Bambaataa
  • Ray Barretto
  • Pat Benatar
  • Big Youth
  • Ruben Blades
  • Kurtis Blow
  • Bono
  • Duke Bootee
  • Jackson Browne
  • Ron Carter
  • Clarence Clemons
  • Jimmy Cliff
  • George Clinton
  • Miles Davis
  • Bob Dylan
  • Peter Gabriel
  • Peter Garrett (of Midnight Oil, remember?)
  • Grandmaster Melle Mel
  • Daryl Hall
  • Herbie Hancock
  • Daryl Hannah (apparently included on background vocals because she was dating Jackson Browne at the time)
  • Nona Hendryx
  • Linton Kwesi Johnson
  • Stanley Jordan
  • Kashif
  • Eddie Kendricks (credited as Eddie Kendrick; a former Temptation)
  • Keith Le Blanc
  • Little Steven
  • Darlene Love
  • John Oates
  • Sonny Okosun (credited as Sonny Okosuns)
  • Bonnie Raitt
  • Joey Ramone
  • Lou Reed
  • David Ruffin (a former Temptation)
  • Run-D.M.C.
  • Gil Scott-Heron
  • Shankar
  • Bruce Springsteen
  • Zak Starkey
  • Ringo Starr
  • Pete Townshend
  • Tony Williams
  • Bobby Womack
  • Doug Wimbish
(This is only a partial list, emphasizing recognizable names.)

(Tantalizingly, punk pioneer Stiv Bators -- listed as Stiv Bator -- is shown in a photograph with Michael Monroe and Little Steven, but neither Bators nor Monroe is credited with vocals.)

From its compelling start -- a voice intones, "Ahhhhhhhhh, Sun CI-ty" and then the backbeat kicks in -- "Sun City" announces that it's not just another plea for pity: it's altogether darker and fiercer than its charitable forebears. The first verse, rapped rather than sung, declares:

We're rockers and rappers united and strong
We're here to talk about South Africa we don't like what's going on
It's time for some justice it's time for the truth
We've realized there's only one thing we can do
The chorus is memorably simple:
I ain't gonna play Sun City
I'm not a musician so I'd only embarrass myself if I tried to deconstruct the song further; just trust me that it remains fiery and eminently listenable.

"Sun City" didn't get a lot of airplay. While the Wikipedia entry on the song speculates (without attribution) that some radio stations refused to play it because of its criticism of President Reagan's policy of "constructive engagement," I think a bigger reason -- perhaps the main one -- was that the song didn't fit comfortably into the balkanized playlists of the day. American music radio of the 1970s and 1980s was divided into a relatively small number of well-defined formats: hard rock, soft or "lite" rock, soul, country, and Top 40 (although "40" was largely an irrelevant number by that time). Hard-edged music that wasn't pure rock had difficulty finding a home, and "Sun City"'s mix of rap, funk, rock, and bluntly political lyrics would have disposed most safety-minded programmers against it. In the Boston area, for instance, only the rock powerhouse WBCN was both adventuresome enough and secure enough in its ratings to play it. (It probably helped that Schechter was a frequent contributor to the station.) If memory serves, even WBCN only played version II of the song, which lacked most of the rapped verses -- no doubt because of the perception, right or wrong, that white audiences would not listen to music that was perceived to be for blacks, as rap then was. Alas, I have no doubt that 'BCN's programming gurus knew their audience, and other programmers around the country probably faced similar pressure.

It's ironic that the only "charity" song from that time whose cause has been achieved is the only one good enough to be played today. ("Do They Know It's Christmas?" isn't terrible, but by no means is it the vibrant creation that "Sun City" is.) Originally released on vinyl, it was issued on CD as well in 1993. Celebrate its twenty-fifth anniversary by buying your own copy (they're cheap used), or by digging it out and giving it another spin.

Eric Schmidt should stay quiet

The headline is "Wary of Google Street View? Move, CEO says." Yet the article says things weren't quite so clear-cut.
During an appearance on CNN’s “Parker Spitzer,” previewed on CNN.com, the Google chief responded to questions about personal data the company collects, including images of private homes presented on Street View.

“Street View, we drive exactly once,” Schmidt said, referring to the vehicles mounted with cameras sent out to take photos for the service. “So, you can just move, right?” After a brief, subsequent exchange with co-host Kathleen Parker, Schmidt laughed, making it unclear whether the remark was made in jest.
You could take MarketWatch to task for downplaying the ambiguity of the original statement. Or you could take note that this wasn't Schmidt's first stupid remark. In some respects, MarketWatch can't be faulted for casting Schmidt in a poor light: his serial stupid remarks invite us to think the worst of him.

What's that, Eric? You meant it as a joke? Avoid open-mike nights, then, because your delivery stinks.

If I were a Google shareholder, I'd insist he either trade in his brain or keep his yap shut.

Why Tea Partiers piss me off

I've been struggling to explain -- to myself as much as to anyone else -- why the Tea Party, whatever it is, pisses me off so much. I think I've found somebody who has put his finger on the nub: Mark Warren at Esquire, in his 22 Oct 2010 blog entry, "The Questions We Have Refused to Ask of the Tea Party".

Warren looks at Sharron Angle, the Tea Party candidate running against incumbent Nevada senator Harry Reid.
Sharron Angle has advocated "Second Amendment solutions" should the elections not go to the tea partiers' liking, adding darkly, "If we don't win at the ballot box, what will be the next step?" Sharron Angle has said that Social Security and other government programs have replaced God and so are in violation of the First Commandment. As a consequence, she has said that she wants to do away with Social Security. Sharron Angle has said that there ought not be a separation between church and state, and that furthermore, there is no Constitutional basis for one. Sharron Angle has said that the Department of Education is "unconstitutional." Sharron Angle believes that insurance companies shouldn't be required by law to pay for anything. Sharron Angle thinks that autism is a big-government conspiracy. Sharron Angle harbors the delusion that several American metropolitan areas are governed by Sharia Law. Sharron Angle doesn't believe that it is the role of a United States Senator to aggressively advocate for his or her state.
If this is the kind of person the Tea Partiers nominate, what are the Tea Partiers themselves like? Warren has met enough of them to notice some commonalities:
They are outraged — outraged — at the growth and reach of the federal government and the explosion of the debt and deficit. And they are equally outraged — beyond outraged! — at the prospect of the services they demand and rely on being cut by Washington. (And that is but the central contradiction. Oh, but there are many, many more.) And of course, they operate in a fever dream in which the Constitution has been raped and all their freedoms are gone. Starting from the second that Barack Obama was sworn in. They cannot point to a single right or privilege or Constitutional provision that has been so attacked, but to say that is to be a stickler in today's journalism.
To sum up:
When you have no idea of your own history (are proudly ignorant of it, in fact), and have warped ideas compelled by your warped resentments, then you either are Sharron Angle or you are drawn to figures like Sharron Angle.
As Warren notes, "It's impossible to win an argument with an ignorant man." And yet here we are, having to argue at the ballot box with these manifestly and defiantly ignorant people.

What the hell is the matter with the rest of us that we have allowed them to hijack the national conversation?

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Humor and religion

The Atlantic article "Blue Like Jazz: The Quest to Get Christians to Laugh at Themselves" describes how difficult it was for author Donald Miller to secure funding from either Hollywood or the evangelical community to turn his memoir into a film. Hollywood couldn't see the commercial appeal in Christians who weren't gross stereotypes. Miller thinks evangelicals have an institutional aversion to self-criticism and compares this to how other religious groups deal with unflattering portrayals of themselves:
"In Jewish culture, Jewish people can criticize themselves and it's endearing," he says. "They do it all the time—Woody Allen's a great example. In Catholic culture, it's sort of the same thing—you can make a major motion picture and have some priest be a bad guy. And for some reason, those communities don't rise up and get angry."

But that's not the case in the evangelical community, according to Miller: "There's an incredible sensitivity to self-criticism...It's a community that's unable to be balanced and have an objective view of itself, which is extremely unhealthy."
(By the way, the Atlantic's correspondent, Eleanor Barkhorn, uses "Christian" throughout this piece, even though Miller explicitly limits his own comments to evangelicals. For a moment I found myself wondering if Catholics weren't Christians because of Barkhorn's imprecision.)

Miller's barking up the wrong tree if he expects self-criticism of any religious group. Jews don't criticize or mock Judaism, they make fun of the Jewish condition (which extends well beyond religion). Catholics can shrug off a villainous priest as an anomaly that doesn't threaten their religion. (It's not self-criticism anyway.) Religious people take religion quite seriously. Their souls are at stake, after all.

No, what Miller praises is the ability of most of Judaism's and Catholicism's adherents not to take themselves too seriously.

I don't see anything in evangelical Christianity per se that precludes its adherents from having the same sense of humor about themselves. However, being an evangelical Christian at this point in time means that you take your religion much more to heart than most do. It virtually defines who you are. And that's why evangelicals don't have a taste for self-mockery: laughing at oneself is tantamount to laughing at Christianity, which is intolerable.

I also think evangelicals and fundamentalist Christians have a deep sense of insecurity. They feel like the rest of the country is laughing at them, which, to be fair, it often is. If they were absolutely convinced of their rightness, they wouldn't care what the rest of us thought. They wouldn't mind humorous looks at themselves, the way Mel Brooks mocks Judaism or Dave Chappelle mocked African-American culture (although Chappelle eventually concluded that his audience wasn't getting his jokes as he intended). Until evangelicals and fundamentalist Christians come to terms with their own doubts, they won't be ready for the kind of humor Miller champions.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Foreclosures dirtier than I thought

The other day I referenced an article describing the foreclosure attempt that started the whole foreclosure freeze across the country. I ended my entry thusly:
It seems likely, then, that unless she finds another job, the trial will result in her losing her home. That's probably the case for most suspended foreclosures, unfortunately.
I still believe the first sentence. The second? Not so much after reading this Columbia Journalism Review piece citing coverage of wrongful foreclosures across the country. It's chilling stuff. Quoting the CJR piece, itself quoting from a Cleveland Plains Dealer article:
Michael and Pamella Negrea have never been late on a mortgage payment in the 15 years they’ve owned their home in Eastlake. But they’ve been foreclosed on three times.

Martin and Kirsten Davis, meanwhile, lost their home in Cleveland to foreclosure two years ago. The reason: a mess that started when they accidentally paid 14 cents too little on their monthly payment.

And Michael Rendes of Berea had his mortgage sold last year to Bank of America. The bank foreclosed on him in November, after insisting for months that it didn’t hold his loan and wouldn’t accept his payments.
Holy ____.

The underlying facts of the Nicolle Bradbury case appear to justify the foreclosure attempt, though obviously GMAC is (rightly) in hot water for submitting false affidavits. These other cases, though, look like unjustified and unjustifiable nightmares for the affected homeowners.

I shouldn't be surprised. Of course the lenders would cut corners by managing the paperwork in a hurry -- they were counting on being able to settle on the rare occasions the borrower had the wherewithal to fight them. Those settlements would have been cheap compared to the money they stood to make, and did make.

A tidbit from the Plains Dealer article: GMAC is now Ally. You know, the same institution that has been advertising all over television. Memo to self: stay the hell away from Ally.

The Miami Herald also has a story, as does the Wall Street Journal (freely available right now, but I don't know if it will disappear behind a paywall later).

Business ethics? What are they?

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Science and its detractors

In the recent Delaware senatorial election debate with her Democratic opponent Chris Coons, Republican candidate Christine O'Donnell said:
"Talk about imposing your beliefs on the local schools," she said. "You've just proved how little you know not just about constitutional law but about the theory of evolution."
Coming from someone who didn't know that the principle of separation of church and state arises from the First Amendment, this is a bold statement indeed. Coming from someone who claimed that "there is just as much, if not more, evidence supporting [creationism]", well, it's a breathtaking display of ignorant arrogance. She's batting 0-for-2, after all.

What is it with the creationist crowd that they think they know so much about science that they can pooh-pooh it? They manifestly don't. No, no, stop with the "reputable scientists work at the Discovery Institute" blather. Creationism is not science, period, end of discussion. Intelligent design is creationism with an asterisk and therefore is not science, period, end of discussion.

Why? Because any question posed by the fossil record that does not have an answer is assumed to represent the handiwork of God (or in the parlance of intelligent design, a designer that could, if you wished, be regarded as God).

Positing that God is responsible for as-yet unexplained anomalies in the fossil record allows creationism's supporters to declare victory and go home without even trying to answer the question. That, I suspect, is the tremendous appeal of creationism to its advocates: it forecloses the need for inquiry. It is a step toward removing the study of life from the realm of science.

No one who has the slightest inkling of what science is, and who has the tiniest shred of intellectual honesty, can possibly buy into such an intellectually dishonest way of thinking.

O'Donnell's advocacy of creationism demonstrates her anti-scientific bent. At a time when we need more and smarter people running the country, she and her ilk are the last ones we can afford to be setting policy. They are intellectually lazy or dishonest and they have a profoundly harmful agenda.

O'Donnell would have been a more reasonable candidate if she'd stuck to being a witch.

GMAC acted in bad faith

A few days ago I noted that the former CEO of Countrywide Financial Corp. had settled fraud and insider trading charges with the SEC, but that a criminal probe apparently remained extant. I hoped that the criminal probe would not be settled, because the public needed to know what shenanigans the vendors of mortgages to marginal borrowers had been up to.

That same day, The New York Times ran an article about the foreclosure that started the faulty-paperwork foreclosure freeze. The unlucky homeowner is Nicolle Bradbury, who became unable to make her mortgage payments to GMAC after she lost her job (ironically, as an employment counselor). Ms. Bradbury contacted a nonprofit legal assistance group in a last-ditch effort to prevent the foreclosure. Thomas A. Cox, an attorney volunteering for the group, caught the case and was the first, it seems, to notice that GMAC had filed faulty paperwork.

Mr. Cox deposed the GMAC employee who signed off on the foreclosure forms, Jeffrey Stephan. The forms on which he signed off included affidavits to the court attesting to his personal knowledge of the facts stated in the affidavits. As the deposition makes clear, though, Mr. Stephan was little more than a rubber stamp on documents prepared by others -- hundreds of such documents every day. That's unfortunate for him, since court affidavits that I've seen certify that their contents are "true, correct and complete" (or some such language) and represent the signer's personal knowledge "under penalty of perjury." Nor did Mr. Stephan violate GMAC policy:
Q. Is it your understanding that the process that you follow in signing summary judgment affidavits is in accordance with the policies and procedures required of you by GMAC Mortgage?
A. Yes.
Mr. Stephan's deposition was so damaging to GMAC that the company attempted to keep it out of the public record, citing "the embarrassment GMAC and its employees have suffered, and will continue to suffer, from the posting of excerpts from Stephan's deposition transcript on an Internet blog." (The blog in question appears to be that of Matt Weidner, an attorney.) The judge denied GMAC's motion, stating, "That the testimony reveals corporate practices that GMAC finds embarrassing is not enough to justify issuance of a protective order [to prohibit disseminating discovery materials in this case, including Mr. Stephan's deposition]."

This deposition played a big part in the court reversing its prior summary judgment against Ms. Bradbury. In its order, the court took special notice of GMAC's prior bad behavior:
The Court is particularly troubled by the fact that Stephan's deposition in this case is not the first time that GMAC's high-volume and careless approach to affidavit signing has been exposed. Stephan himself was deposed six months earlier, on December 10, 2009, in Florida. His Florida testimony is consistent with the testimony given in this case: except for some limited checking of figures, he signs summary judgment affidavits without first reading them and without appearing before a notary. Even more troubling, in addition to that Florida action, in May, 2006, another Florida court not only admonished GMAC, it sanctioned Plaintiff lender [the Federal National Mortgage Association, or Fannie Mae] for GMAC's affidavit signing practices. As part of its order, the Florida court required GMAC to file a Notice of Compliance, indicating its commitment to modify its affidavit signing procedures to conform to proper practices. The experience of this case reveals that, despite the Florida Court's order, GMAC's flagrant disregard apparently persists. It is well past the time for such practices to end.
The court also found that GMAC filed Mr. Stephan's affidavits in bad faith:
These documents are submitted to a court with the intent that the court find a homeowner liable to the Plaintiff for thousands of dollars and subject to foreclosure on the debtor's residence. Filing such a document without significant regard for its accuracy, which the court in ordinary circumstances may never be able to investigate or otherwise verify, is a serious and troubling matter.
Ms. Bradbury's troubles aren't over, as the court's orders merely allow the foreclosure to go to trial. According to the Times article, neither she nor anyone else in her household has been able to make a mortgage payment for two years. It seems likely, then, that unless she finds another job, the trial will result in her losing her home. That's probably the case for most suspended foreclosures, unfortunately.

The hamster wheel of news

The Columbia Journalism Review has a piece warning that journalists are pursuing quantity rather than quality in their stories. This is largely driven by the perceived value of providing a constant stream of new information, rather than chasing down stories that might be more significant but that require more time to nail down (and thus prevent the reporter from writing other pieces in the meantime). This is the "hamster wheel" on which reporters and their publications are running -- and getting nowhere.
The most underused words in the news business today: let’s pass on that.
The lament that journalists don't do enough long-form investigative pieces isn't new: I remember hearing this as far back as the 1980s, when newsrooms were already suffering painful cuts. The McPaperization of our newspapers probably has gotten worse since then, though. Back in the '80s the New York Times could reasonably be considered a luxury if you didn't live in New York. Today, in the San Francisco Bay Area, it's the only paper that provides enough context to its stories for them to make any sense. If the best-known of the area's local papers, the lamentably bad San Francisco Chronicle, had any good investigative pieces on any kind of regular basis, I'd consider subscribing to it. Hell, if its ordinary stories had any kind of depth, I'd consider it. As it is, though, it's a ridiculously easy decision to ignore the Chronicle's periodic importuning for my business. (Sorry to Tim Goodman, the paper's sardonic TV critic and a longtime favorite of mine.)

The piece also reminds me that "information" in some contexts is, as Wikipedia's definition puts it, merely "an ordered sequence of symbols." Information as such isn't necessarily valuable: radio static, for instance, can be considered information. That's what today's Web reminds me of, radio static. That's what the CJR piece is warning against: mindless, meaningless, valueless noise, peddled as journalism.

A non-obvious side effect of running on the hamster wheel is that, "for all the activity it generates, the Wheel renders news organizations deeply passive," making them easily manipulable by public relations specialists. Ask yourself how beneficial that is for the average person. You can't even rely on a finely honed bullshit detector, because there is nothing but bullshit being flung far and wide on some stories.

The piece concludes that the hamster wheel is a dead end both journalistically and financially. I don't know about that. The elephant in the room is that back in the 1980s, USA Today showed that people will buy the journalistic equivalent of mediocre tapas plates, little bites that, if consumed in sufficient quantity, leave you with the impression you've had a full meal. The paper's malign influence spread throughout the industry, and now a whole lot of people consider that kind of short, context-free writing to be sufficient for their needs. How will the journalists and publications who won't run the hamster wheel make a living in the face of the public's degraded taste in news?

Monday, October 18, 2010

Wyatt Cenac on strategic defaults

I'm behind on my Daily Show viewing, so I just saw this: Wyatt Cenac on the strategic default crisis. He caught the Mortgage Bankers Association acting with supreme hypocrisy and I hope it stung. This is the best correspondent bit since Ed Helms' piece on Guns for Tots from 2005 (possibly a re-airing of a 2003 piece). Brilliant.
Cenac: To better understand the complexities of home mortgages, I caught up with the head of the Nevada Mortgage Bankers Association, Jon Copeland.

[cut to sit-down interview]

Cenac: If I get the house, how long should I wait before I default on it?

Copeland: Um, you're going to never default. You signed a promissory note --

Cenac: But the Mortgage Bankers Association defaulted on their $79 million headquarters in Washington, DC.

Copeland: [stammers]

Cenac: [gestures as if to say, "Well?"]

Copeland: Correct.

Cenac: If they did it, why can't I?

Copeland: For the association to default doesn't mean that it was the right thing to do.
Note that Mr. Copeland is not the villain of the piece. The real flaming hypocrite here is John Courson, head of the national MBA.

UPDATE: Both the Daily Show and I are way behind on this story. The Wall Street Journal broke this story back in February; the Journal's story is hidden behind a paywall, but boston.com has its own article that links to the Journal piece.

What if the Tea Party was black?

I love The Browser. Here's a video asking the question, "What if the Tea Party was [sic] black?" (Ah, if only the subjunctive were taught in school. Not that I learned it in my English classes either; it was left to my overburdened French teacher to introduce the concept.)

Obama on Mythbusters

President Obama is to appear on the 8 December 2010 episode of Mythbusters. Apparently he will set up the show's third test of the legend that Archimedes "set fire to an invading Roman fleet using only mirrors and reflected rays of the sun." (The previous tests were on the 29 September 2004 and 25 January 2006 episodes.)

The Secret Service checks for this one must have been amusing. "Mr. Hyneman, can you explain why your mustache has traces of C4?"

Though I enjoy the show enormously, I hold out no hope that the President's appearance itself will be entertaining. Mythbusters' scripted banter is invariably bad and I don't see Mr. Obama improvising anything witty. He's a smart man, but not a funny one.

Longer lives, greater debt?

Life expectancy throughout the developed world is up. So are the costs of supporting the aged. That's the thrust of a New York Times article explaining how current state-sponsored pensions and health-care spending will be unequal to the bills run up by populations that stay old longer.

Several reforms are discussed, all of which are easy to state and none of which looks easy to implement in the short term: raising the retirement age, increasing opportunities for older people to work, finding cures for Alzheimer's and other age-related diseases, and decreasing the amount governments spend on health care.

There's also the glass-half-full school of thought:
[S]ome governments and companies may need attitude adjustments so they can view aging populations not as debt loads but as valuable wells of expertise.

“I rather dispute your calling it a problem,” said Lady Greengross when I called to ask her how governments could better handle global aging. “It’s a celebration.”

As one example of how to embrace aging populations, she cites an equality act, recently passed by British legislators, that prohibits discrimination against older people (among others) seeking goods and services like car rentals or mortgages. Separately, she says, Britain next year will eliminate its default retirement age of 65, allowing people to remain in the work force longer.
Baroness Greengross is " a member of the House of Lords in Britain and chief executive of the International Longevity Centre U.K in London." She should, therefore, know more about aging and the aged than I. Yet I can't help thinking she missed the boat here. She is cheerleading for us all to adopt a better attitude toward the elderly. That's a lovely prescription for how you should treat your grandparents. What does it have to do with the problem of ensuring that their state-provided income and health care expenses don't bankrupt your country?

To be a "valuable well of expertise," a person has to possess skills or other knowledge that are in short supply. Given how quickly the world has been changing, the older you are and the further you have gotten from your days in the work force, the less expert you are likely to be today.

As for that "equality act," of what earthly relevance is that to this discussion? Discrimination on the basis of age is to be discouraged, but I rather think the problem we're going to face -- and the one we certainly face right now -- is that we won't have enough jobs for people who haven't reached current retirement age, much less enough for those who have.

At the rate we're going in the United States and Europe, I don't see the "elder quake" ending well. It's going to be a wrenching shock because until external forces (read: your country's creditors) decide your nation can afford no more, your government is going to avoid the problem of how to pay its elder-related costs.

Watching the elite

The New York Times article "Scrutinizing the Wealthy, Whether They Like It or Not" is a study in how poorly we understand ourselves as a nation.

Here we have the spectacle of perhaps the nation's most elite newspaper trying to describe a conference of elite academics convened to discuss "the elite." And who are the elite? Damned if I know from the comments by the attendees.

Are they rich? It would seem so:
“When we study the poor, it’s relatively easy,” said Sudhir Venkatesh, a professor of sociology at Columbia and the author of “Gang Leader for a Day” (Penguin Press, 2008). “The poor don’t have the power to say no. Elites don’t grant us interviews. They don’t let us hang out at their country clubs.”
By the way, if you were left aghast by the hubris of "The poor don't have the power to say no," you weren't the only one. It conjures images of ivory-tower academicians haughtily scrutinizing people like bacteria under a microscope.

Many of the researchers discuss income inequality and wealth concentration, further cementing the idea that the elite are the wealthy. Yet at one point, the article describes one reasearcher's finding that "top leaders" generally did not inherit money. I don't know whether the researcher or the reporter was conflating "leader" with "wealthy person," but it jibes with my experience, and probably yours, too. Wealth automatically confers some notion of leadership, or at least membership in, yes, the elite.

Yet the article notes:
Those at the conference defined the elite as people with power over others, and the debate was framed largely in economic terms. But professors at an Ivy League university are part of an elite, even if their salaries do not reflect it.
That's the reporter's opinion, entirely unsupported by quotations from the attendees, yet again, it jibes with our own experiences. The elite are not all wealthy: some of them are rich in knowledge.

(What are we to make of the Times' own readership? I daresay today's populists on the right don't hesitate to paint them -- excuse me, us: that's one group in which I can't plausibly deny membership -- as snobbish, condescending elitists, if not part of the elite themselves.)

There's a hazy sense that if you are wealthy, you know more, and if you know more, you're wealthy, or at least you have a good chance of becoming wealthy. It's an article of faith with most of us that wealth leads to power, so all three -- wealth, knowledge, and power -- are intertwined. Possessing any of these makes you elite.

It seems none of us wants to be seen as part of the elite because "they" have ruined the country. The financial elite have bankrupted us; the governmental elite have shackled us; the social elite have corrupted us; and the academic elite have bamboozled us into accepting the others' depredations. That's the conventional wisdom, anyway, and the slowly rising tide of anti-intellectualism ensures that rational arguments and evidence to the contrary won't sway some percentage of the country -- those who respond favorably to appeals to gut instincts and a sense of grievance, a sense of loss, a sense that they're confused not because the world is complex, but because "the elite" are trying to conceal their self-serving handiwork.

What's worse, I don't know that there are arguments and evidence to the contrary. Not that I buy into conspiracy theories that the Trilateral Commission is pulling the strings (and I don't know to what end they'd be doing so anyway), but it's hard to argue with the idea that the financial elite created, then wiped out, hundreds of billions of dollars of virtual wealth -- wealth the rest of us believed was real, but that the financial elite knew was not.

As I think about it, our troubles are rooted in human nature run amok. We wanted to believe that we could become wealthy by investing, and we spent as if we already had accrued that wealth. We wanted to believe we could achieve a happier, more just society by loosening old social taboos (this took place throughout the twentieth century), but forgot why those taboos had been established in the first place. We wanted to believe that government was able to shape society as we wished it to be, but lost sight of the fact that government is only as good as we are. We wanted to believe the schools could teach our children, but we stopped wanting to do our part by making our children teachable.

We took the easy way out, hoping to buy a better future on the cheap. We no longer want to invest money or sweat equity because we no longer remember how much of both it took to build this nation.

And the elite? They're the ones who are better at gaming the current, broken system.

Is the answer to vilify the elite? Of course not. It might make us feel better, but it won't accomplish anything. Like it or not, we have to understand our way out of our predicaments. And judging from this article, we have a long way to go.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Loma Prieta 1989 reminiscences

The last major earthquake to hit the San Francisco Bay Area was the Loma Prieta temblor on 17 Oct 1989. Now that my memories of the event are old enough to drink, I thought I'd write them down for posterity.

At the time, I was a drone working in a downtown San Francisco high-rise building. (Well, my job title wasn't "drone," but that accurately reflects my level of satisfaction.)

In school I had been thoroughly drilled in what to do when a quake struck: get away from the window and duck under the nearest table or reinforced doorway. So of course, I sat at my desk for the entirety of the tremor like the proverbial deer caught in the headlights, my mind refusing to accept that the shaking of the floor and walls could be the result of anything more serious than an exceptionally heavy cart being rolled at high speed down the hallway. By the time my paralyzed higher logic functions had processed that it was, in fact, an earthquake, the shaking was over. (The U.S. Geological Survey says the Loma Prieta quake lasted ten to fifteen seconds, making my poor reaction time embarrassing but not humiliatingly bad. Oh, and read the linked USGS report with a critical eye, inasmuch as the author made at least one big typographical mistake by stating that the quake occurred at 4:15 PM: in fact, the quake occurred at 5:04:15 PM. USGS, that is the sort of carelessness that we cannot afford in a primary source document.)

The building included some then-sophisticated seismic safety features, so it suffered little if any damage. However, individual offices were another story. Many of the choicer ones boasted free-standing bookshelves six or more feet high, and none of them was secured to a wall. One man's shelves fell against his desk and blocked the path to the door; though he was uninjured, it took him an hour to make his way out.

On reaching the street, the quake's most immediately obvious effect was the power outage that had rendered the traffic lights and electric buses inoperative. This, in turn, had brought traffic to a standstill in every direction. Since the subway was also electrically powered, I assumed it would not be running, and even if it were, it would be packed to the gills. The weather was warm, the days were still long, and I was young, so it seemed reasonable under the circumstances not to rely on catching a ride, but instead to walk home to the inner Sunset district.

Heading southwest on Market Street, I walked through the financial district. None of the relatively modern skyscrapers had suffered any externally visible damage and the main evidence of a crisis were the gridlocked streets and milling crowds. Leaving the financial district, though, damage became more evident, especially as I reached the more run-down areas near the Tenderloin and Civic Center. There, the older buildings had suffered shattered windows and there was powder, as from plaster, on the sidewalks. One small building's brick front had completely collapsed into the street, leaving the second- and third-floor rooms exposed; the first floor, by contrast, was occluded by the brick rubble.

By the time I reached Market and Gough, I had been walking for the better part of an hour and I was thirsty. One of the small grocery stores was open and had posted handwritten signs advertising bottled water, but the price was much higher than usual. It was my first brush with price-gouging and although I suppose it shouldn't have surprised me, it did: I had been so impressed by the relative civility and calm of my fellow involuntary pedestrians that I thought we were immune to the usual unseemly instincts of human beings in times of crisis.

At some point, I turned off Market to walk up through Twin Peaks. I think I was concerned that the elevated part of Market Street, just east of where it turns into Portola, might have been damaged; the collapse of the upper decks of the Bay Bridge and the Cypress Expressway had been widely reported by that time, making all elevated roadways suspect in my mind. It was a pity that I didn't stay on Market, since the observation area near the intersection with Corbett boasts one of my favorite views of the City. That day, of all days, the view might have been especially memorable.

Though I don't remember my exact path -- I meandered, even though it prolonged an already long journey; I couldn't help thinking of this as something of a jaunt, in spite of the terrible circumstances -- at some point I found myself walking up 14th Street, just west of Castro. One would never have known an earthquake had occurred just by looking here: the rather upscale houses had suffered no visible damage and there were, if I recall correctly, even lights on in many of them at a time when many other neighborhoods through which I had passed had lost power.

From 14th Street, I turned onto Roosevelt Way and followed its curving length to 17th Street, then Twin Peaks Boulevard, then Clarendon Avenue. Clarendon passes over one of the Twin Peaks. On the eastern side, it is a two-lane road completely lined with single-family homes; near the summit, the homes give way to what I believe were the original inhabitants of the area, tall evergreens.

What made this part of the walk memorable was the abrupt change in my perception of the whole experience. Auto traffic speeds along at 35 MPH or better at the summit, which is great if one is travelling on Clarendon but intimidating if one is trying to turn onto it, or worse, to cross it from one of the side streets since Clarendon has no stop signs at that intersection. Clarendon sees little pedestrian traffic as a rule and correspondingly little attention is paid to providing crosswalks or other assistance to walkers. Darkness was falling, but this area was still without electric power so the street lights were out. I was wearing a dark grey tweed jacket and black slacks, making me virtually invisible against the backdrop of the dark green and brown trees.

Naturally, it was at this intersection, risky for cars even in daylight and dangerous for pedestrians at any time, that I found I had to cross Clarendon (on the other side of the intersection, Clarendon lacked a sidewalk). My little adventure, as I had thought of it up to that point, was suddenly a lot less fun: all I could think of was winding up as a stain on some fast-moving Oldsmobile's front grille.

While I caught my breath -- I had set a brisk pace coming up the hill, realizing that walking after dark on this night would be hazardous -- I tried to think of an alternate route. None came to mind, though, and the thought of being paralyzed by my indecisiveness until the next morning finally spurred me to dash across.

I would never have guessed that I would set a personal speed record in penny loafers.

It was halfway down Clarendon that I got my only offer for a ride that day. A woman in a station wagon, her daughter in the back seat, slowed down and yelled to me through the open window to hop in. It was a kind offer, and the sensible thing to do would have been to accept it, but a combination of borderline clinical paranoia (an evidently ineradicable part of my makeup) and idiotic pride (I wanted to be able to say I walked the whole way) made me refuse. She offered again, apparently sure that I was only being polite, but when I insisted, she reluctantly went on her way.

It took a little over three hours to make the whole journey. It wasn't exotic or especially dangerous; nevertheless, it was a trip I'll never forget.

Microsoft tries to protect nonprofits

Microsoft has widened its efforts to prevent national governments from using antipiracy laws to suppress dissenters. According to the New York Times, the company is issuing free software licenses to half a million "advocacy groups, independent media outlets and other nonprofit organizations in 12 countries with tightly controlled governments, including Russia and China."

On the face of it, this makes eminently good sense for Microsoft. The company has spent many years and who knows how much money pushing for more stringent antipiracy laws in Russia, China, and elsewhere. It therefore had to have been a PR nightmare last month to have the Times reporting that those laws were being used by the Russian government against its political enemies, especially since it seemed the real problem was that even if Microsoft's U.S.-based company leadership was embarrassed by the company's role in these transparent abuses of power, its Russia-based actors -- local lawyers and company staff -- either didn't share or weren't allowed to share the home office's sentiments.

The company's latest moves not only represent a reversal of its hands-off attitude toward politically motivated antipiracy investigations in some countries, but also signal that the company is trying to prevent its local lawyers from being used by those governments in those investigations.
The security services in Russia have confiscated computers from dozens of advocacy organizations in recent years under the guise of antipiracy inquiries. Some of these groups did have illegal software, and the authorities have said they are carrying out legitimate efforts to curtail software piracy. But they almost never investigate organizations allied with the government.

Microsoft had long rejected requests from human-rights groups that it refrain from taking part in such cases, saying it was merely complying with Russian law.

But now, the organizations would be automatically granted the software licenses without even having to apply for them, meaning that any programs that they possessed would effectively be legalized. That essentially bars the company’s lawyers from assisting the police in piracy inquiries against the groups.
No doubt Putin's authoritarian instincts will lead him to a way around Microsoft's latest maneuvers, but the company at least has gotten a respite in Russia. It's not clear what difference, if any, Microsoft's actions will make in other countries.

How Microsoft determines what organizations should receive the free licenses will be tricky, too, I suspect. It can't be seen as having a political agenda of its own or it will be dragged into local politics. It also can't make the giveaways too easy or its profits might suffer. All in all, it may find it has traded in one set of troubles for another.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Burning question for the day

Does anybody else prefer the theme from the 2001 Justice League series to the one from Justice League Unlimited?

The first is so majestic, so stirring. The other isn't bad, but it isn't in the same league (ahem).

Discomfort or honor

I haven't seen an argument against openly gay people serving in the military that doesn't boil down to, "It will make some straight soldiers uncomfortable."

As one who has never served in the military, I was willing to accept that the unique conditions of military life might make such discomfort a real morale problem. (Not that I know what those unique conditions might be; I just accepted that they exist.)

Then I read this, from an article reporting that gay soldiers have been cautioned not to out themselves in the aftermath of a federal judge's order that the military should stop enforcing the "don't ask, don't tell" policy. A closeted soldier, after remarking that he thinks the ban will eventually be lifted, added:
"The day that that does happen, then that's when I'll walk out of the darkness and say, 'This is who I am. I've been serving my country for seven years, and I've done it just fine — being who I am,'" said the 23-year-old, who returned last weekend from a nine-month tour in Iraq. "I just want to shout out to America to open your eyes and know we DO serve America. We DO fight for your freedom."
That's when it hit me. That's when I realized what "don't ask, don't tell" does.

If you are open about who you are, your accomplishments don't matter, your abilities don't matter, your dedication doesn't matter, your patriotism doesn't matter. All that matters is the presumed unease of somebody else in your platoon, or division, or service. Nobody even needs to admit to being uncomfortable.

As a nation, we weighed discomfort against honor -- and we deemed discomfort more important.

That decision was indefensible.

"Don't ask, don't tell" is wrong. It has to go.

Countrywide CEO settles with SEC

The AP reports that Countrywide Financial Corp. CEO Angelo Mozilo has settled fraud and insider trading charges with the SEC:
Mozilo agreed to repay $45 million in ill-gotten profits and $22.5 million in civil penalties. Former Countrywide President David Sambol will repay $5 million in profits and pay $520,000 in civil penalties, and former Chief Financial Officer Eric P. Sieracki will pay $130,000 in civil penalties.
This is not to say these guys are on the hook for the money:
Sambol's attorney Walter Brown said in a statement after the hearing that Bank of America Corp., which bought Countrywide in July 2008, would pay his client's $5 million in ill-gotten profits.
Oh, and speaking of BofA:
The payment comes on top of $600 million that Bank of America agreed to pay in August to end a class-action case filed by former shareholders against Countrywide.

Mozilo lawyer David Siegel did not return a message asking whether the former countrywide chairman's $45 million forfeiture would also be paid by the bank.
If I were a BofA shareholder, I'd want to ask its board of directors and CEO why BofA acquired Countrywide.

The SEC charges related only to the harm allegedly done to shareholders. Presumably the harm allegedly done to homeowners is to be covered by a still-pending criminal probe.

I know settling cases is supposed to get more bang for the buck than taking them to trial -- lower expenses, no risk of exoneration by a jury -- but I hope the Feds don't settle a criminal case against these guys, if they find that one exists. I can't imagine that shareholders' harm can compare with that suffered by homeowners facing foreclosure. A trial might finally answer the question of whether those homeowners were deceived by criminally dishonest lenders, or walked into those dippy loans ("interest-only mortgages"? Really?) with open eyes and empty heads.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Economist on the music industry

Again courtesy of The Browser, here's an article in The Economist explaining why the music business isn't dying -- which is not to say that the major labels are doing well.

Audiences spend money on live shows, and prices have never been higher:
In 1996 a ticket to one of America’s top 100 concert tours cost $25.81, according to Pollstar, a research firm that tracks the market. If prices had increased in line with inflation, the average ticket would have cost $35.30 last year. In fact it cost $62.57. Well-known acts charge much more. The worldwide average ticket price to see Madonna last year was $114. For Simon & Garfunkel it was an eye-watering $169.
The article also mentioned a factor in the decline of music sales that I hadn't considered, "the end of the digital 'replacement cycle', in which people bought CDs to replace tapes and records." The music industry by the 1980s must have gotten altogether too used to the idea that consumers would have to replace their music collections every couple of decades or so as the industry rolled out new media formats. With the advent of user-friendly software, though, music was divorced from industry-controlled media formats and became just more data on people's computers. Thus endeth the replacement cycle for the foreseeable future.

Albums are and have been in decline, of course, as online services make it trivially easy to purchase individual songs. I can't say I'm altogether sorry about this. Of the couple of thousand albums I've heard or owned over the years, only a handful -- fewer than twenty -- are perfect in my opinion, meaning that they contain no weak tracks. Many, perhaps most, disposable pop albums consist mostly of weak tracks: their sales have been driven entirely by the one or two gigantic hits into which all the care has been poured. We won't miss the filler. (Albums that are worthy of the name -- say, the Who's Who's Next or Neutral Milk Hotel's In the Aeroplane over the Sea -- will still find their audiences.)

Between the focus on individual tracks, live performing and the increased importance of publishing departments, which the article claims "have become vital cash machines" to music companies, the industry sounds like it has come full circle. Back at the turn of the twentieth century, before sound reproduction was a mass-market phenomenon, music companies specialized in marketing the sheet music for individual songs. The only way to hear music was for someone to perform it live, whether in the parlor or the concert hall. A curious symmetry a century apart.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Good reading, bad writing

Courtesy of The Browser, here's a blog entry by Edward Jay Epstein explaining why television and movies have swapped roles, with cable TV being the home of "elite entertainment" and movies focusing on mindless, crowd-pleasing fare.

It's a compelling analysis rooted in the economics of cable TV versus movies and is well worth reading. However, for a guy who makes his living as an author, he is a pretty sloppy writer on his blog.
Even with a $30 million budget– the average in 2010– studios cannot afford to reach the entire prime time audience, so they must concentrate their blitz on the cable programs that are demographic groups with a proven disposition to go to movies on weekends cluster around.
Even if you see that removing "are" from that sentence makes it scan, that's not the clearest writing around. Nor is this an isolated example: his longer blog entries are riddled with run-on sentences and half-edited thoughts. Not the best advertising for his care as an author.

More hope the world is changing

A while back I suggested that changing the world starts with us. Not my idea, of course: that thought has been around forever. Proof that other people are thinking the same way, though, is welcome. Here are a couple of instances, one little, one big:
The second piece noted an interesting catalyst for the military's action:
Concerns about the military’s dependence on fossil fuels in far-flung battlefields began in 2006 in Iraq, where Richard Zilmer, then a major general and the top American commander in western Iraq, sent an urgent cable to Washington suggesting that renewable technology could prevent loss of life.
Given the military's penchant for wargaming and planning for future battle scenarios, this was a surprisingly late wakeup call. Didn't anybody involved in strategic forecasting see this was going to be a problem? Didn't the term "non-renewable" filter up the chain of command? Why hasn't research along these lines been going on since, say, the 1970s, when OPEC first flexed its muscles?

That article also references a white paper published by the Center for Advanced Defense Studies in 2008. The document, entitled "Department of Defense Seeks Alternative Fuels," is sometimes refreshingly blunt:
Energy reform in both military and civilian sectors is likely to occur if increased public awareness and attention to the issue is an indicator. This awareness, in turn, stimulates attention given to alternative energy policies by the government.
I'll bet this truism was known back in 2001. It explains former Vice President Cheney's refusal to discuss any aspect of his energy task force's deliberations at that time. Any publicity might have drawn attention to the antediluvian direction of the George W. Bush administration's so-called energy policy.

The same paragraph goes on:
The issue of alternative energy has always been politically charged. Politicians are aware that alliances could be called into question if renewable energies are too heavily researched and pursued, putting the United States into a position where oil could not be as easily obtained. If our oil supply were to be limited, the country’s security could be called into question if alternative energy sources are not available.

These alliances are especially difficult due to the instability of the Middle East, as well as the hypocrisy of being allies with certain countries that run contrary to U.S ideals and foreign policy goals. This can be seen most vividly in the U.S. alliance with Saudi Arabia, a non-democratic country that is a strong human rights violator. Heavy reliance on such a volatile region could lead to numerous problems if a back-up plan is not created.
What a Catch-22.

Perhaps it's time we little people demanded a solution from the free market, sidestepping the politicians. (I never claimed government had or could have all the answers.)

In the meantime, we could all give the researchers time by reducing our energy footprint, like Kartheiser. The trains and buses are running anyway, people: make each gallon count for a little more.

Unfortunately, the white paper is distressingly wrongheaded in spots. It strenuously advocates nuclear power, glowingly describing its advantages (including completely omitting the following from its "environmental impact") and framing its disadvantages as perceived rather than real:
Nuclear energy also has some pronounced disadvantages, although in reality the problems associated with nuclear energy are actually not an issue of safety, but rather public perception. In regards to the environment, nuclear energy creates radioactive waste material that must be stored for thousands of years. Today, this waste is stored throughout the United States in concrete or metal bunkers in solid form. Currently this poses no risk to the public.
This is a brazenly cavalier attitude. Of course a newly minted, properly designed and manufactured storage container poses little (I wouldn't say "no") risk to the public. The problem is when the container is a hundred years old. Whether or not the United States is still a political entity at that time (and in a hundred years, who knows?), those containers will pose a threat: little that our civilization builds is designed to last for a century. Even if the U.S. is still a functioning nation, who knows if the political resolution will exist to maintain or to refurbish those containers? The political will to fix our aging water and electrical infrastructure seems to be in short supply today, and we're incomparably richer now than we were a hundred years ago.

Thinking about the future demands more than short-term thinking when the problems are known to be long-term. We have a responsibility to our descendants not to dump our unresolvable problems onto them if we have a choice, and in this case, we do.

At any rate, the military at least recognizes there's a problem and is taking steps to deal with it. So is Vincent Kartheiser. The rest of us should follow their lead.

Psych majors least satisfied

The Wall Street Journal claims that psychology majors have the lowest career satisfaction rate among a smattering of popular majors. The Journal speculates that this low satisfaction rate might have to do with the need for a graduate degree for most psychology-related jobs.

I don't know the exact survey methodology but I'm skeptical of any poll that claims to measure "satisfaction" with anything.

That said, here's a bit of folklore I'm inclined to believe at least as much as this survey: people choose psychology for their major because they are trying to figure out why they are unhappy. I wouldn't expect these people to wind up miraculously happier about their circumstances, good or bad, after graduation.

But that's my bias. I don't know why psych majors are less satisfied, if they even are. I don't care, either. Why should I? Why should you?

What good does this survey do? None.

What difference does it make? None.

Does it help anybody? No.

I've said it before, and I'll say it again: the key to surviving this information-soaked age is to be savvy about what you absorb. Ignore this stupid poll and this stupid article. I wish I had.

We poll ourselves too much. Instead of this pointless (and almost certainly misleading) navel-gazing, why don't we do something useful?

Let's tell the pollsters and their clients where to stick their polls. Next time somebody calls to subject you to a poll, just hang up.

When the career satisfaction of pollsters takes a sharp dive, we'll have accomplished something.

Monday, October 11, 2010

O'Donnell and Paul

Lawrence O'Donnell has a newish talk show on MSNBC, and the guest tonight was well-known libertarian Ron Paul of Texas. (Note, though, that Paul runs under the Republican Party banner.)

Mr. O'Donnell, may I ask that in future, you be a little more thoughtful than you were tonight?

You kept trying to bait Mr. Paul. He kept trying to explain the logic of his positions, and you either kept deliberately ignoring or failed to grasp his reasoning. You're not a dummy, so I have to assume you were ignoring him. That's not right. You're better than that.

Ron Paul's positions may involve outcomes with which you disagree, like the eventual end of Medicare (and I would assume Social Security, though tonight's discussion didn't touch on that). That's arguably less important than the fact that Paul's stance on these issues not only has been consistent over time, but flows logically from his core libertarianism. For instance, I think he made a valuable point in claiming that the Civil Rights Act infringed on private property by forcing businesses to implement desegregation. The ends might have been laudable -- you're probably right that we'd still have segregation today if that legislation hadn't passed -- but Paul certainly made a convincing case that the legislation on its face was unconstitutional, and it's important for all of us to understand what it means to live within the boundaries of our Constitution.

You had a chance to open up a terribly important discussion on whether ends always justify means in our legislation. You could have discussed how we can reconcile our Constitution with our desire not to leave people without help if they need it, or even if we can reconcile the two. Instead, you kept trying to get Paul to admit he wanted to kill Medicare, presumably so you and others could pull the clip out later.

In order for this country to have a full debate on the topics that divide us, we need for the citizenry to understand fully what the possible consequences of various actions will be. If, for instance, people think we need a smaller government, people need to understand what will flow from the act of reducing the size of government.

Ron Paul, whether you agree with him or not, at least is not airbrushing the picture. That makes him far more valuable to our national dialogue than most politicos. We need to foster a greater understanding of what he's saying, because I have the uneasy feeling that far too many of his onetime Tea Party fledglings don't grasp the consequences of their anti-government rhetoric the way he does.

So Mr. O'Donnell, in the interest of our national debate, listen to him next time.

(This is not to say that everybody deserves the same courtesy. For instance, the arrogant jackass whom Rachel Maddow attempted to interview last week, who kept bleating that she was being sarcastic, was simply a prick who wanted air time without any questioning of his positions or statements. More than once I wished Maddow had had the gumption to cut off the braying donkey's microphone, since he was contributing nothing but horseshit to the interview.)

Music as Trojan horse

Converse is building a recording studio in Brooklyn. Yes, that's the shoe company, building a facility in which bands will be able to record for free.
For the brands the desired payoff is coolness by association. And while a generation ago these arrangements would have carried a stigma for the artists, branding deals are now as common in rock as guitars. A band’s decision to do business with a soft-drink company is often no different from its decision to sign with a record label.
A few details of the scheme:
Converse’s studio, called Converse Rubber Tracks, is the brainchild of Geoff Cottrill, the company’s chief marketing officer. On a tour of the raw space he wore a pair of ripped jeans, a Rolex watch and a big, I-swear-it’s-true smile as he described the plans for the studio, which is to open by the end of the year. After applying online, bands deemed dedicated and needy enough will be able to record whatever they want there. No need to prepare rhymes for “Chuck Taylor” — Converse says it will have no influence on the music, the artists will keep ownership rights, and, as with many brand-as-patron projects, the songs aren’t intended to be used in ads.

Mr. Cottrill said the company wants to “give back” to its loyal customers, but of course the enterprise is not purely altruistic. The idea is that helping new bands will build good will for the brand (and generate future sales) and also give Converse an advantage over all the other companies out there competing for young eyeballs.
Furthermore:
[T]he patronage model grows out of the same kind of margin-trolling philosophy that has led big companies like Apple and Nike to license music by rising but still low-profile artists, said Josh Rabinowitz, director of music at the Grey agency.

“Indie-inflected music serves as a kind of Trojan horse,” Mr. Rabinowitz said. “Consumers feel they are discovering something that they believe to be cool and gaining admittance to a more refined social clique.”
I can't claim that Converse operating a record label is any worse than Sony operating one: the profit motive is the profit motive, after all, no matter who's in charge. As a practical matter, this tactic has "fad" written all over it: Marketing is desperately seeking a way of differentiating and enhancing The Brand, and this is one more thing they'll throw against the wall to see if it sticks. If it does, eventually we'll end up right back where we are today, a handful of survivors monopolizing mind- and market share and the rest absorbed or shut down.

Still, I can't shake the feeling that there are downsides somewhere, downsides we can't see -- yet. The companies that are most hard-headed about this, the ones that have a strategy beyond "let's see if we can generate street cred," are likely to make their private labels serve their corporate needs in ways we can't imagine (and, perhaps, in ways we can; who's to say that other companies will follow Converse's example and pledge not to interfere with the creative side?). Then the question will be, can those companies get the talent to play the company tune?

Coming at it from the other side, I have to wonder if musicians who are predisposed to work with corporate patrons are compromised before they start composing.
Ms. Cosentino of Best Coast said that her decision to work with Converse was not just about the publicity. She’s a fan of the company — “I’ve been wearing Converse since I was a child,” she said — and noted that when she recorded “All Summer,” the Converse-sponsored track with Kid Cudi and Mr. Batmanglij, the company gave no instructions other than that it was looking for a “summer vibe.”

“We just made something that is a fun song,” she said, “that will hopefully make people dance around in their Converse during the summer.”
Listening to the guys footing the bills is not, in itself, unprecedented or even wrong. Music labels and music producers have been making specific requests of their composers and performers since the industry began. Yet it seems to me that would-be musicians looking for their big (or even little) break will look to tailor their sound or image to what they think the would-be patron is seeking. It's not unlike the practice of customizing one's resume to the job opening, an accepted strategy in today's job market. However, music isn't just a business: it's a form of self-expression.

As a music fan and music consumer, I've heard enough music to know that there's a discernible difference between those artists that are in it for the money and those that have something to say on their own behalf. While there are always exceptions, the ones who are in it for the money first are generally less interesting and less vital than those who write and perform because they must, because the music within them is crying out to be heard. For instance, I loved Death Cab for Cutie from the moment I saw them for the first time because I could tell they were telling me about themselves through their songs. Would their music have resonated with me to the same degree if they had been focused at the start on getting a deal with a boutique music label owned by Microsoft instead of writing and performing without knowing if the band would go anywhere?

In short, I worry that these little buzz-seeking labels will cause otherwise decent musicians to jump past the necessary phase of finding their own voices in favor of catering to someone else's to gain a contract.

As for the elusive coolness factor these labels are intended to cultivate (and thence to impart to their parent companies), I'd like to share a few observations from my years of listening, rather more intently than most consumers, to many different music styles and artists. In hindsight, these observations should have been bloody obvious to anyone with four functioning brain cells, but they weren't to me, and perhaps they won't be to you, either:
  • Coolness is not branded.
  • If you think coolness is defined by others, you will never be cool.
  • Music and coolness are unrelated to each other, no matter what Miles Davis thought.
  • Corollary: if you're listening to music for its coolness, you're not listening to music.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Scalzi on Rand

An odd bit of link-jumping led me to John Scalzi's thoughts on Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand.

I'm jealous of anyone who can write like this:
The fact that apparently a very large number of people don’t recognize Galt as the genocidal prick he is suggests a) Rand’s skill at stacking the story-telling deck is not to be discounted, and b) as with any audience with a large number of nerds in it, a non-trivial number of Atlas Shrugged readers are possibly far enough along the Asperger spectrum that they don’t recognize humanity does not in fact easily suss out into Randian capitalist superheroes on one side and craven socialist losers on the other, or that Rand’s neatly-stacked deck doesn’t mirror the world as it is, or (if one gives it any sort of genuine reflection) model it as it should be.
Scalzi, though you might not have guessed it from the foregoing, is a fan of the novel. Not so I.

Somewhat to my surprise, I was angry when I finished reading -- but not by the political philosophy: I couldn't take the book seriously enough for that. No, what left me completely pissed about Atlas Shrugged was its unrelenting dullness. The limp story was hardly worth the telling, for starters, but Rand went further by devising a uniquely overwrought, yet lifeless, style, and sustaining it for hundreds of pages beyond what even a dedicated word-padder like Dickens would have dared. I had been promised a life-changing novel: I got a pointless, joyless screed. I was angry that I had lost time to it, and I wanted that time back.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Buster Keaton, 2010

Happy birthday to Joseph Frank "Buster" Keaton, one of the silver screen's greatest comedians. He would have been 115 years old today, and you probably would have been able to hear every one of his creaking joints as he got out of bed; I've never seen anybody perform stunts like his. An astonishing and underappreciated genius.

Scalia and originalism

Antonin Scalia has been something of a pain in my backside for his entire tenure on the Supreme Court. He is the most dangerous kind of reactionary in that he possesses a brain and is adept at using it.

Okay, calling him a reactionary is probably unfair. At his best, he is conservative in the most literal sense of the word, preferring to keep what works rather than rushing headlong into the new. Unlike the nitwits who populate Fox News and much of conservative talk radio, Scalia can persuasively argue in support of his positions in a way that makes even those of us who habitually disagree with him grudgingly concede that he might have a point.

In recent remarks to students and faculty at Hastings College of the Law, Scalia called his greatest legal achievement the advancement of originalism.
Originalism, as applied by Scalia, is a theory of interpreting the 1789 Constitution and later amendments according to the meaning understood at the time they were ratified.

As Scalia explained it during his talk, "I interpret in the way it was understood by the society at the time."
It's a shortcoming of many liberal critics of Scalia that "originalism" is often discussed as if all of the amendments are to be understood in a 1789 context as well. In fact, what Scalia is saying is that what the text says has to be understood in the context of the time in which it was written, whatever time that was.

This approach has its merits. As Scalia noted, it gives "easy, easy answers" to a number of questions. An opposing approach, which he calls evolutionism, regards the Constitution as a "living document," whose text is subject to interpretation according to the mores and customs of the present. As Scalia sardonically notes, "Every day is a new day for evolutionists."

(I will resist speculating what Scalia thinks of the scientific theory of evolution. Stay focused, stay focused....)

Scalia would prefer to make new laws rather than to reinterpret the Constitution. In his eyes, the Fourteenth Amendment, for instance, was intended to apply to racial discrimination and should not have been extended to apply to sexual discrimination: "If the current society wants to outlaw sex discrimination, hey, we have legislatures."

So what do those who consider originalism an invalid, or at least insufficient, way of interpreting the Constitution think? Here's an excerpt from a story about newly retired Justice John Paul Stevens:
"To suggest that the law is static is quite wrong," he says. Stevens argues that "the whole purpose was to form a more perfect union, not something that's perfect when we started. We designed a system of government that would contemplate a change and progress."
Now, I admire Stevens, but his argument simply misses Scalia's point. Scalia admits that society can change; he simply contends that government should adapt to those changes through legislation rather than reinterpretation of the Constitution's plain text.

The article about Stevens continues:
This clash of views [between Stevens and Scalia] is exemplified in a 1990 opinion Stevens wrote, which invalidated the Illinois patronage system as a violation of employees' First Amendment rights to freedom of association.

Stevens notes that when he first encountered the question, he thought the claim had no merit. After all, as Justice Scalia would subsequently observe, patronage existed at the time the republic was founded. But Stevens, upon examining the question, reached a conclusion exactly opposite of what he originally thought.

"It did persuade me that some things that have been part of our law for a long, long time are not necessarily correct interpretation [sic] of the Constitution," he said. "The best example of that, of course, is racial discrimination. ... But the patronage system, it seemed to me, was a misuse of government power; the government has a duty to act impartially."
Being viscerally opposed to many of the conclusions Scalia has reached over the years through his originalist interpretation of the Constitution, I used to think that originalism was daffy, to put it kindly. In fact, I used to consider it a mere fig leaf to justify mean-spirited decisionmaking intended to further political ends. However, now I can see it could be the basis for a justifiable theory of the Court's role in the federal government. The Court and the federal court system would play a far less active role in forging our society than they have in the past. It would force much more of our national debate to be exercised through Congress and state legislatures.

One question, of course, is whether this would be a good thing for the country. Another is whether Scalia and his philosophical brethren on the Court are deciding in full, consistent accordance with originalism. Not being a lawyer, or even an exceptionally well-read amateur Court watcher, I don't have an answer to either question. (For instance, I assumed that an originalist reading of the Constitution would have resulted in a different conclusion in Brown v. Board of Education. In fact, the Brown Court examined the Fourteenth Amendment's ratification debate and racial segregation practices at that time -- precisely as originalism demands -- and concluded: "This discussion and our own investigation convince us that, although these sources cast some light, it is not enough to resolve the problem with which we are faced." So much for my legal expertise.)