Saturday, December 31, 2011

Looking back on 2011

This is going to be short. 2011 wasn't much of a year for me.

I reconnected with a few people. One or two of them, perhaps I should have left the connections cut. Not a big deal, though.

A fair bit of time spent on the computer, reading news on the Web and blogging about some of it. Too much time, I think. I'll have to work on that.

The TV habit is waning, for now. I'm starting to realize how much I've been missing by sitting, immobile and hypnotized, in front of that damned screen. I think I don't have to watch everything Tim Goodman recommends, however entertainingly he writes.

Took one big trip. Just getting out of town was a bit of a relief, even though there's no great pressure on me at home. Driving wasn't much fun, but flying would have been a whole lot worse. A couple of wonderful memories, a whole lot of "meh" ones, and a really bad bout of depression that struck on the ride home as it occurred to me just how screwed up one aspect of my life is.

I'm finding it harder to care that the human race seems to be too stupid to survive. Yet I still have that nagging voice in my head saying, "Prove me wrong. Show me a spark of intelligence."

The most pressing question right now: stay in and get drunk, or go out and get drunk?

Here comes 2012.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Solitude and leadership

The title of this post is the same as Kottke's entry on the subject, which directed me to William Deresiewicz's speech of the same name.

The title, though, is misleading on at least two counts. First, "solitude" in Mr. Deresiewicz's mind does not always mean a complete absence of other people.
So solitude can mean introspection, it can mean the concentration of focused work, and it can mean sustained reading. All of these help you to know yourself better. But there’s one more thing I’m going to include as a form of solitude, and it will seem counterintuitive: friendship. Of course friendship is the opposite of solitude; it means being with other people. But I’m talking about one kind of friendship in particular, the deep friendship of intimate conversation. Long, uninterrupted talk with one other person. Not Skyping with three people and texting with two others at the same time while you hang out in a friend’s room listening to music and studying.
Has long, intimate conversation gone out of fashion? I can't tell, because I do my best to keep my conversations long and intimate, and to interact mostly with people I like well enough to make the conversations worthwhile. I want to focus on the other person, and I want the other person to focus on me. (If you're an introvert, as I am, you probably prefer this style of personal interaction too.)

In his speech Deresiewicz was concerned with "solitude" as a tool to hone one's leadership skills. However, solitude is really a way to get to know yourself, as he noted in the quoted excerpt. That brings me to the second way in which the title of his speech is misleading: it doesn't convey the utility of solitude to the great majority of us who don't need to lead. Getting to grips with what makes one tick is always a good thing.

I know, it's beyond tedious to hear yet again that the trend of multitasking (which I'm engaging in right now, by the way, as I pay part of my attention to the news on TV) is Considered Harmful. That's not what Deresiewicz said, though. Rather, he wanted his audience to understand that multitasking isn't sufficient to make a good leader, and that we would do well to make room for the seemingly devalued concepts of solitude and concentration if we would nurture our leadership potential. I agree, except that I think the potential we would nurture goes well beyond "leadership".

Happy birthday, Jon Polito

Make that a belated happy birthday to one of my favorite actors, Jon Polito, born on 29 December 1950. He's best known for his numerous Coen Brothers movie appearances, but my favorite role of Polito's was that of Steve Crosetti in Homicide: Life on the Street. (I've mentioned Polito before in connection with a Homicide episode in which, ironically, he didn't appear.)

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Where capitalism went off the rails

Maybe saying that all of capitalism went off the rails is hyperbole ... or maybe not. You decide: read Steve Denning's article (really, an opinion piece) for Forbes, "The Dumbest Idea in the World: Maximizing Shareholder Value".
Although Jack Welch was seen during his tenure as CEO of GE as the heroic exemplar of maximizing shareholder value, he came to be one of its strongest critics. On March 12, 2009, he gave an interview with Francesco Guerrera of the Financial Times and said, “On the face of it, shareholder value is the dumbest idea in the world. Shareholder value is a result, not a strategy… your main constituencies are your employees, your customers and your products. Managers and investors should not set share price increases as their overarching goal. … Short-term profits should be allied with an increase in the long-term value of a company.”
Shareholder value is a result, not a strategy. (I'd have said "goal" rather than "strategy", but I imagine that's what Jack Welch meant anyway.)

This is such a simple and obvious idea that I actually waded through all the comments looking for the counterargument I must have missed. No one, including the contemptuous and inappropriately rude Forbes staffer Mike Ozanian, has articulated any.

I've read a lot of good stuff in the last year or so, but very little that immediately struck me as being so important to our society, to our very way of life, as Denning's article and the book to which it refers (which for Denning's sake I'll force you to discover by reading his piece).

By the way, here's how ingrained the idea of making good products (and thus satisfying the customer) is, or at least was, in American pop culture: Warner Brothers was asked to make three educational shorts that doubled as "normal" theatrical cartoon releases, with the goal of educating the public about how corporations and investment work. Friz Freleng helmed all three:
(They're not his best work, but let's be grateful it was Freleng and not Bob McKimson who was tapped for the job.)

Getting back to Denning's piece ... hmm, it seems I have no more to say. Just read it.

(Thanks to Daring Fireball for the link.)

Pete Townshend

Simon Garfield wrote a feature piece on Pete Townshend for Intelligent Life, an imprint, it would seem, of The Economist.

I was a bigger fan of the Who when I was younger, but I still have a healthy respect for the band's place in rock history (a healthier respect than I have for the Stones). I haven't bothered checking out his solo material, but this article makes me think I should. (A perceptive mind, though, is no guarantee of a musician's appeal to me: I have yet to warm to Elvis Costello, for instance.)

I didn't understand Townshend's well-known dislike for Steve Jobs and Apple's iTunes until I read this:
He is working on another long-form piece called “Floss”, for which he has written about 40 segments and is currently reinforcing the narrative. But will anyone hear it? In the age of iTunes, when we buy individual tracks with a click, the notion of a story-led album seems whimsically outdated. “I’m finding it very difficult to change,” Townshend says. “I’ve been through phases where I’ve wanted to get on a plane and kill Steve Jobs.”
I can understand his feeling about his fans without endorsing it.
Townshend used to feel, “like David Cassidy”, he was being buried under so much fan mail that he could never process it. Most of it came from “maybe 400 people” who wrote regularly. They still do. How does he feel about them? “I don’t like fans really. But that’s because they’re my employer—I don’t like the boss. I feel much happier about the record company giving me a load of money to piss away rather than someone coming up to me in the street saying, ‘I saw you in Blah Blah Blah and you were really great —when are you going to do another tour?’ It feels to me like, you know, ‘When are you going to put in a decent sink, or whatever it is that you do?’
While Townshend's right that "fans" are performers' "bosses", he's also smart enough to know that fame and fans are always potential side effects of sharing one's art. If you don't like fandom, should you perform? (I don't have an answer. But methinks he doth protest too much.)

(I think I got this from LongReads, but I'm not sure.)

Why blog?

Kind of funny, but I got to this older post about blogging by Marco Arment from another blogger I like, Kottke.
As more people start realizing that there are better reasons to write blogs beyond trying to squeeze pennies out of ads, I bet we’ll see a significant movement toward tearing down these barriers. We’ll see more complete people blogging their whole lives, not just trying to emulate magazine columns or news sites. Some of them will get large audiences, but most won’t — and it won’t matter.
Count this in the "most won't" category, but I'll continue to do it anyway, mostly so I don't bombard my friends (especially you, Chris) with these ramblings.

[UPDATE: Whoops -- I found Marco Arment's post via Marco himself. That's what happens when you check out everybody's RSS feeds in the space of a few minutes.]

Saturday, December 24, 2011

"Stories to Live With", Philip Connors

From Lapham's Quarterly, one man's story of his brother, and the evolution of their relationship.
We tell stories about the dead in order that they may live, if not in body then at least in mind—the minds of those left behind.
Yes, relationships evolve even after death.

(Link courtesy of LongReads.)

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Pity the pilloried rich

Matt Taibbi, as usual, cuts through deep rivers of bullshit spewed by a handful of rich businessfolk to get at a truth they have completely missed in his new Rolling Stone piece, "A Christmas Message From America's Rich".
People like Dimon, and Schwarzman, and John Paulson, and all of the rest of them who think the "imbeciles" on the streets are simply full of reasonless class anger, they don't get it. Nobody hates them for being successful. And not that this needs repeating, but nobody even minds that they are rich.

What makes people furious is that they have stopped being citizens.
How have these doth-protest-too-much rich folk stopped being citizens?
Essentially, Jamie Dimon handed Birmingham, Alabama a Chase credit card and then bribed its local officials to run up a gigantic balance, leaving future residents and those residents' children with the bill. As a result, the citizens of Jefferson County will now be making payments to Chase until the end of time.

Do you think Jamie Dimon would have done that deal if he lived in Jefferson County? Put it this way: if he was trying to support two kids on $30,000 a year, and lived in a Birmingham neighborhood full of people in the same boat, would he sign off on a deal that jacked up everyone's sewer bills 400% for the next thirty years?
We're all sinners, as Christians would put it. The rich, though, are able to sin in ways that screw a whole lot more people.

Taibbi's piece, by the way, was prompted by a piece by Max Abelson for Bloomberg. Abelson's article quoted several prominent (and, of course, wealthy) businessmen "using speeches, open letters and television appearances to defend themselves and the richest 1 percent of the population targeted by Occupy Wall Street demonstrators."

Feeling persecuted by the 99 percent? Congratulations: that means you're doing damned well these days. Don't begrudge the rest of us complaining about you. Better yet, why don't you examine your conscience and see if you really are being a good citizen of this nation?

(Thanks to Daring Fireball for the link.)

Quicken for Mac

When Apple switched its computers from being based on the Motorola PowerPC processor set to Intel processors, the change required software vendors to recompile their software for the new processors. By and large, this wasn't a big deal, or at least it shouldn't have been: only software that is intimately tied to the specific hardware on which it's running would have encountered significant difficulties in transitioning to the new hardware. Apple, knowing that companies would require time to transition over to Intel hardware, provided an emulator (called Rosetta) that allowed PowerPC-based software to run on Intel-based Macs.

Quicken for Mac, produced by Intuit, was one of the premier personal finance management applications for Mac users. The last version, dubbed Quicken for Mac 2007, was built for PowerPC systems. Due to the emulator, many users undoubtedly never noticed that Quicken was not a "native" application.

The emulator was never intended to be used indefinitely, and Apple never said it would stick around forever. Sure enough, when Mac OS X 10.7 ("Lion") shipped, the world discovered that the emulator was no longer present. Its absence might have gone unnoticed except that, of course, Quicken for Mac 2007 stopped working.

Now Intuit has issued a (very) belated apology to its Quicken for Mac customers. The open letter from the new general manager of the Intuit Personal Finance Group, Aaron Forth, reads in part:
As you may know, Quicken for Mac 2007 does not currently work on Apple's latest operating system, Mac OS X 10.7 (Lion). I understand the frustration this may have caused you and have put a team in place to address this issue. I am happy to announce that we will have a solution that makes Quicken 2007 for Mac "Lion-compatible" by early spring.
I'll give Forth the benefit of the doubt and assume he didn't share responsibility for Intuit's strategic direction regarding Quicken for Mac. He might be perfectly sincere in his desire to keep Quicken relevant to Mac users.

I still have no reason to continue being a Quicken user. You don't, either.

Intuit used Apple's emulator as a crutch. The emulator let Quicken for Mac 2007 keep running, thus keeping it a (nominally) viable product while allowing Intuit to avoid committing significant resources to maintaining it. What direct evidence do I have that Intuit didn't commit significant resources? None -- but tell me, do you think that if Intuit had had a sincere desire to keep Quicken for Mac up to date, it would have sat on its hands for four years? If there had been some technical obstacle preventing the (trivial) recompilation of Quicken for Intel hardware, Intuit would have raised the issue with Apple and it would have been resolved long ago. I conclude that there was and is no technical obstacle: the problem is political, and it's inside Intuit. Intuit simply didn't give a damn about Quicken for Mac but didn't want to admit it. Only when enough customers made a stink, and perhaps failed to take Intuit up on its not so subtle hints to transition over to its subsidiary, did the company decide it needed to do something to keep Quicken for Mac 2007 running.

Does this mean Intuit has had a change of heart, and will treat Quicken for Mac as a first-class product? Maybe -- but Intuit has pissed away whatever patience and goodwill it could have expected its Mac users to have. I'm not giving the company the same benefit of the doubt I gave Forth. If Intuit truly had been interested in signalling a change of heart, its CEO would have issued a mea culpa, mea maxima culpa for the company's mishandling of Quicken for Mac. By foisting that duty onto the new group manager, Intuit's still telling us that Quicken for Mac doesn't matter.

Back in August, Jeffery Battersby wrote a piece for MacWorld listing alternatives to Quicken. Take a quick look at this piece and go with one of those alternatives. You might want to think twice about, though, considering it's owned by Intuit, the company that left you high and dry with Quicken. Besides, stores your data in the cloud, and while you probably don't care if the wrong people see your music collection, you might be less comfortable wondering who might be able to inspect your financial assets.

(Thanks to Daring Fireball for the link to Forth's letter.)

Letting ads pose as news is sleazy

I'm generally satisfied with the quality of the news provided by local TV station KTVU. The station's news department has a reputation for hard news stories, though with an hour to fill at each of its three main newscasts (5, 6, and 10 PM) it's inevitable that a certain number of softer, more human-interest stories slip in.

I don't have a problem with those softer stories -- for the most part. The exceptions would be the segments on the Fox singing competition shows American Idol and The X Factor.

Cross-promoting Fox Broadcasting's entertainment shows during local affiliates' newscasts is probably seen by network management as one hand washing the other: higher ratings for the series mean bigger lead-in audiences for the affiliates' newscasts. And if we were talking about airing more ads for the series during the newscasts, I wouldn't be squawking.

However, taking up actual news time with stories about the shows is another matter.

Segments hosted by actual KTVU reporters that talk about the competitions as if they're developing news simply embarrass the news department. Does anybody at either KTVU or Fox Broadcasting think these segments are regarded as "news"? If so, let me burst your little bubble. The audience sees your clumsy efforts for what they are: long commercials masquerading as "news".

I'll admit, I hate reality TV shows, and I especially loathe these damned singing competitions. Nevertheless, I'd be just as pissed off if KTVU's newscasts started airing segments about Terra Nova or any other Fox entertainment show.

Fox Broadcasting, of course, doesn't care: it's getting the extended-length commercials it wants.

Unfortunately, the KTVU news department is getting the short end of the deal. Its hard-won reputation as a trusted news source is being eroded, the faux-news segments eating away at the station's good name like drops of acid.

Every time I see one of these segments coming up, I switch to another channel. And every time I do, I come closer to not switching back.

What kind of news department allows itself to be taken doggy style like this?

What kind of network screws over its affiliates like this? (Oh, right: all of them. Never mind.)

Tonight, KTVU aired two segments, both about The X Factor. That's about five solid minutes that might otherwise have been devoted to worthy local or national or international news. More importantly, it was a deadly double blow to the credibility of whoever's running the news team. No day in the Bay Area can have been so slow on the news front as to excuse plugging that stupid show twice in twenty minutes.

From a pissed-off but still reasonably loyal viewer of the 10 o'clock newscast to whomever's in charge of that newscast, a request:

Grow a spine and some balls.

Stop prostituting yourself and your staff.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

How to spot a losing argument

A couple of weeks ago Harry McCracken at Technologizer wrote a piece entitled, "How the iPad 2 Became My Favorite Computer". It was a fascinating look at how a veteran technology journalist shed not only pounds from his carry-on luggage, but preconceptions as well.

Would that the same held true for some of Harry's commenters. An irritating number of them couldn't be bothered to notice how carefully he described his own workflow and explained why the iPad 2 (plus an external keyboard and a collection of apps) suited that workflow. They assumed Harry had claimed an iPad 2 was suitable for all workflows. These same clueless souls trumpeted the iPad 2's inability to satisfy their working needs as proof of the iPad 2's inability to solve anyone's working needs. They thus made the very mistake they wrongly believed Harry had made, that of generalizing from their own limited experience to reach a wrong conclusion. Ah, irony.

One commenter, hackles raised, closed his or her remarks thusly:
This is the experience of many people not just myself.
If you have to say that, you've lost the debate.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Miscellaneous usage peeves #1

Certain misuses of English have become commonplace in my lifetime. They bother me no end, like sores that won't heal.

  • Temperature is a measure of heat, so don't describe or qualify it with adjectives that characterize heat or cold. In other words, temperatures aren't "hot" or "cold": they're high or low.
  • Amount refers to a quantity of a substance that is not "countable." We speak of a small amount of sand or large amounts of oil, but not of a large amount of pigeons, since we can imagine counting the pigeons even if we never do so. In the case of countable objects, like those pigeons, we speak of a large number of them.
  • The expression is "shouldn't have". "Shouldn't of" is flat-out wrong.
  • It's "that jibes with my experience", not "jives".
  • I don't care what New Yorkers say: you stand in line, not on line. Maybe we'd be better off adopting the British queue up instead.

The erroneous use of temperature is especially puzzling. I grew up watching and listening to meteorologists who spoke (correctly) of "high" or "low" temperatures, so that usage is second nature to me. Did today's meteorologists, like the irritatingly perky Roberta Gonzales at KCBS, not pay attention when they were young?

Not-history makes money

A while back I ranted about the septic tank of crap programming that calls itself the History Channel. Conceding that other cable channels like AMC and MTV had changed themselves out of all recognition from what their original names suggested, I nevertheless wondered, "What is the History Channel's excuse for its steady drift toward mentally enfeebling dreck?"

Apparently, the excuse is money -- piles of it.
The final ratings for 2011 will show that History, a unit of A + E Networks, attracted more middle-aged men than any other cable channel except ESPN. Among all prime-time viewers, History was No. 5 on cable this year, up from No. 8 last year.
And it's not just this year that History has done well: it has increased its audience year-over-year for the past five years. That's a hell of a record.

It's also a hell of a statement about what middle-aged men like to watch.
What History has is reality TV — and its success also attests to the success of documentary-style dramas and competitions featuring average people.
Once again, I'm out -- way, way out -- of the mainstream.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Death doesn't take a holiday

North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il is dead. Couldn't have happened to a stranger guy.

Former dissident turned national leader Vaclav Havel died on Sunday.
Mr. Havel spent five years in and out of Communist prisons, lived for two decades under close secret-police surveillance and endured the suppression of his plays and essays. He served 14 years as president, wrote 19 plays, inspired a film and a rap song and remained one of his generation’s most seductively nonconformist writers.
Now that's a resumé.

Closer to (my) home, Warren Hellman died. Hellman was a financier who was perhaps best known for sponsoring the ever more successful Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in San Francisco.

You have to respect Havel, but I'll probably miss Hellman the most. Hellman's generosity made the San Francisco Bay Area a better place for all of us to live.
He bankrolled San Francisco ballot measures that reformed the city's pension system and created an underground parking garage beneath Golden Gate Park. He funded the San Francisco Free Clinic and helped set up an endowment to support aquatic sports at UC Berkeley, where he played water polo as a student. Concerned about dwindling local news coverage in the Internet age, he helped form the Bay Citizen online journalism site.
(The underground parking garage is still controversial, but the Bay Citizen is nothing short of a wonder.)

If you still need convincing of Hellman's (and his family's) goodwill, try this on for size:
In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be made to the San Francisco Free Clinic, the Bay Citizen and the San Francisco School Alliance. The family also requests a donation of blood or platelets to a local blood bank.
The world is a poorer place without Havel and Hellman. As for Kim Jong-Il -- good riddance. North Koreans are a tiny step closer to rejoining the human race. Only a tiny step, though.

[UPDATE: the Bay Citizen's obituary of Warren Hellman is, unsurprisingly, a lot better than SFGate's.]

Saturday, December 17, 2011

How ignorant should Congress be allowed to be?

The Stop Online Piracy Act has been roundly condemned by everybody, and I do mean everybody, who knows jack and s--t about the Internet. Unfortunately, that doesn't include many members of Congress, as Joshua Kopstein writes.
When the security issue was brought up, Rep. Mel Watt of North Carolina seemed particularly comfortable about his own lack of understanding. Grinningly admitting “I’m not a nerd” before the committee, he nevertheless went on to dismiss without facts or justification the very evidence he didn’t understand and then downplay the need for a panel of experts. Rep. Maxine Waters of California followed up by saying that any discussion of security concerns is “wasting time” and that the bill should move forward without question, busted internets be damned.
I can't express my outrage better than by quoting Kopstein further.
But the chilling takeaway of this whole debacle was the irrefutable air of anti-intellectualism; that inescapable absurdity that we have members of Congress voting on a technical bill who do not posses any technical knowledge on the subject and do not find it imperative to recognize those who do.

This used to be funny, but now it’s really just terrifying.
The trope of aw-shucks-regular-guy-or-gal-ness is merely annoying as an affectation to woo voters. Adopting it as your way of analyzing legislation, though, is beyond annoying: it borders on criminal recklessness.

Of course, another interpretation of this behavior would be that Waters, Watts and their allies are simply playing dumb so as to conceal their deep indebtedness, financial and otherwise, to Big Content.

Come clean, Mel. Fess up, Maxine. Are you really as proud of your gross ignorance as you sound, or are you too scared to admit you're screwing Internet users because Hollywood donated big time to your campaigns?

(Steve King, I don't give a damn whether you are as dumb as a rock, which is certainly how you come off: you're a waste of space in Congress no matter what.)

(Thanks to Marco Arment for the link.)

"The Rise of the NBA Nerd", Wesley Morris

To me, the sports world is like the ocean: big, mysterious, and largely irrelevant to my daily life. (Also like the ocean, it occasionally spawns weather that does impinge on my life: a World Series victory here, a doping scandal there.) Every so often, though, something -- the equivalent of an especially noticeable wave -- pops up that gets my attention. Such is Wesley Morris' piece for Grantland, "The Rise of the NBA Nerd". It ties recent pop culture history to emergent NBA style statements and spins a story out of the melange. Is it a "true" story, i.e., do all the pieces fit together the way Morris says they do? I don't know. But it's an entertaining meditation, and worth spending a few minutes reading.

(Thanks to Kottke for the link.)

Friday, December 16, 2011

Pakistan and America

Back at the New York Times, former executive editor Bill Keller wrote a long, thoughtful piece for the Sunday magazine giving us chronically underinformed and inattentive Americans a history lesson concerning the latest sore spot in the nation's foreign policy, Pakistan. To say there are faults on both sides is trite but true.

Perhaps the greatest obstacle to U.S. foreign policy in general is its perceived lack of continuity. Other countries wait on tenterhooks around every national election, knowing that a change in parties in either the White House, the House of Representatives or the Senate may signal an abrupt change in policy come January. The U.S. is structurally incapable of setting or fulfilling long-term policy goals, so it's no wonder that many other countries are reluctant to enter into complex security arrangements with us.

Pakistan is no different from anybody else in looking out for its own interests: it simply is in the awkward and unasked-for position of being in the middle of a hot spot that overheated and simplistic rhetoric by Washington politicos has declared essential to pacify. Pakistanis know they have a more complex problem than those politicos will ever acknowledge, or perhaps even understand. For instance, here's how Keller describes the Pakistani outlook on the Afghan National Security Forces:
If the U.S. succeeds in creating such a potent fighting force, that makes Pakistanis nervous, because they see it (rightly) as potentially unfriendly and (probably wrongly) as a potential agent of Indian influence. The more likely and equally unsettling outcome, Pakistanis believe, is that the Afghan military — immature, fractious and dependent on the U.S. Treasury — will disintegrate into heavily armed tribal claques and bandit syndicates. And America, as always, will be gone when hell breaks loose.
That's how the rest of the world sees us: we kick over the anthill, then walk away before the nest boils over and wreaks havoc in the area.

I'm no isolationist, but we simply and literally cannot afford to be the world's policeman any more, even if that were what the rest of the world wanted -- and it doesn't. Even if there are areas asking for our help, especially for our military intervention, we have a duty to ourselves and to successive generations to make the hard decisions about what we can and cannot do. A mature adult has to understand his or her limitations, and has to refuse to make promises he or she can't keep. The same holds true for nations of (supposedly) mature adults.

Teller and the red ball

That would be the Teller of Penn & Teller fame. Gruber at Daring Fireball posted a link to a 2008 Las Vegas Weekly profile by Richard Abowitz. It's fascinating because Teller is one of those people who can dedicate themselves monomaniacally to getting something just right and getting a peek into such a person's mind is always rewarding.

Christmas chaos

The New York Times has a pretty funny compendium of Christmas-related domestic disasters written by Joyce Wadler.
“The cats are already obsessed with the tree, and they drink the water under the tree and get sick all the time,” Ms. Fuller says. “They start attacking the tree, eating feathers, like, daily, vomiting feathers. My husband wanted to kill me; his eyes are swollen, he’s puffing and sneezing, he’s saying, ‘I’m allergic to the feathers.’ I’m saying, ‘Honey, just take a Zyrtec, you’re fine, it’s hay fever.’ ”

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

No Reservations holiday special, 2011

I only caught bits of Anthony Bourdain's latest holiday No Reservations special, flipping to it during commercials on one of the local newscasts, but it looked like the usual celebrity-filled collection of vignettes we've come to know from his past holiday specials.

And then I got to the last five minutes.

Bourdain rather famously has shat upon many of Food Network's better-known and popular hosts, e.g., Sandra Lee and Paula Deen. Less often noted have been his snarky asides about fellow Travel Channel host Samantha Brown, whose bionic smile and relentless perkiness seem to have been granted by the same unmerciful Power that foisted Giada DiLaurentiis or the unbelievably annoying Rachel Ray on the world. (Tell us, O Lord, what unholy offense we gave Thee that Thou saw fit to visit these mighty afflictions upon us!) Bourdain has used Brown's name as shorthand for "fake and crappy travel experience" on more than one occasion, implying that his show (not to mention his show's audience) is qualitatively superior to hers.

The last five minutes of the holiday special have to be Bourdain's attempt to kiss and make up with her. The scene rehabilitates Brown's reputation with Bourdain's audience, and most impressively, it does so on Bourdain's terms. If it looks like both of them are trying a little too hard, at least the scene doesn't fall into the trap of heartwarming reconciliation, the way anyone else's special would.

If you need more convincing of Bourdain's sincerity, check out his blog entry teasing the episode.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Lowe's steps in it

We have some stupid people in this country with too much time on their hands and too few brain cells to live peaceably with the rest of us in the real world. They're easily (mis)led and make far more noise in support of their wrongheaded beliefs than their numbers and the validity of those beliefs warrant. Case in point: the Florida Family Association, now in the headlines, albeit in somewhat small print, for cowing Lowes, the home-improvement chain, into pulling its advertising from TLC's reality TV series All-American Muslim.

First things first: I haven't seen the show. I'm not coming to its defense because I'm a fan. The reviews I've read have been mixed, lauding it for being a step in the right (that is, "not paranoid") direction while lamenting that it's simply not all that good.

However, I don't have to have watched the show to see the Florida Family Association for what it is: a bunch of ignorant, paranoid bigots who know sod-all about Islam or Muslims.

The blog The Pulp, "your daily dose of news from Broward and Palm Beach", has an entry by Matthew Hendley devoted to the controversy. Hendley looked up FFA's suggested letter to send to offending advertisers like Lowe's. In that letter, here's the unambiguous message the FFA wants to send:
Clearly this program is attempting to manipulate Americans into ignoring the threat of jihad and to influence them to believe that being concerned about the jihad threat would somehow victimize these nice people in this show.
As Hendley notes:
Not surprisingly, all of the "research" promoting the theory that TLC is trying to help advance a Muslim "agenda" is from Pamela Geller, who's been posting her work on World Net Daily -- which typically saves its space for 9/11 and birther-related conspiracy theories.
It's a sorry spectacle, the ignorant being led by the hateful.

Sarah Posner at Religion Dispatches has more info on the FFA and its overwrought leader, David Caton. People for the American Way's Right Wing Watch put together a "greatest hits" list of FFA's regressive campaigns over the years.

Time to make Lowe's understand what it has done. Let them know that you will not spend a penny at their stores, physical or virtual, until they disavow their cowardly caving to the ignoramuses of the FFA. The phone number for Lowe's Public Relations is 704-757-9210 (fax 704-757-0611). The company's "help" number is 1-800-445-6937, if you want to contact them on their dime.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

"Now That Books Mean Nothing", Nell Boeschenstein

Boeschenstein has written an essay about her struggle to recover from a double mastectomy. Although most of her piece is about her seemingly odd turn from bibliophile to bibliophobe, she writes something that I hope a lot of us think about:
It’s not easy or appropriate to tell people who love you and who are trying to help you that what they are doing is not helping, that books are not what you want or need, that what you want and need right now are flowers, letters—notes, even—stupid movies, something that might help you feel pretty, emails that contain funny anecdotes from the outside world. That what you want is quiet company, conversation, to talk about you or him or her or whatever, who cares, that the last thing you want is to be left alone either with your thoughts or with a book chock full of someone else’s thoughts and into which your own encroach all too easily. Minds can become Frankensteins, and you’ve gotten gun-shy of yours and the noises it makes in the night.
Never assume you know what's going through the mind of someone facing serious illness. Tread lightly until you figure out what kind of company, if any, he or she wants. Yes, you're walking on eggshells and it adds to your tension, which may add to the tension in the room -- but get past that stage and be the loved one you're supposed to be.

(Thanks to LongReads for the link.)

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Mythbusters mishap update

According to a comment in the Discovery Channel Mythbusters "water cooler" forum, the show has suspended production "until the investigation is over". Whether that's the official police investigation (I assume one is under way) or the production's own, I don't know.

Have no idea what I'm talking about? See my earlier post.

[Update to the update: from my cursory scan of the Mythbusters online forums, those familiar with the show cut the team a lot more slack; they're inclined to think this is a one-in-a-million fluke rather than a screwup born of carelessness. Looks like the producers had better hope the affected property owners are fans.]

Vagueness does not a vision make

I read brain-dead nonsense all the time on the Web and never write about it. I recognize doing so would be a colossal waste of my (and your) time. However, when I pay for the privilege of reading it, that's another matter. So here's a big raspberry to the New York Times for printing the meaningless nonsense that is Georges Nahan's essay "New Tools for New Computing Challenges".

As far as I can tell, Nahan sees "big data" as a challenge for current software and the current Internet. Well, duh. Let me be the first to break the news to him that this has been true for at least a decade. Where has he been? (It has been true of data in the nonvirtual world for far, far longer, by the way: witness the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, the most visible failure of data mining and data sharing just in the past decade.)

What's Nahan's prescription to address this challenge? Beats me. All he can muster is palaver like this:
It is likely that software will become more “responsible,” able to make decisions on the fly to contain threats to the entire Web ecosystem. We can also expect smarter, content-aware network technologies to emerge to further ease these threats. Everything will increasingly happen in real time, increasing the need for robust and responsive systems for reputation management and trust. These systems will rely mainly on software algorithms, augmented by online collective human judgment.
What kind of "decisions on the fly"? How will "content-aware network technologies" "ease these threats"? How is today's Internet and software not "real time"? And what a revolutionary concept, "software algorithms ... augmented by online collective human judgment" -- why, I wish someone would apply it to existing problems. Oh wait, they do: it's how most spam is filtered by the big email providers. In fact, it's how they've been filtering spam for years.

The whole essay is of a piece with the almost-complete paragraph I quoted. It's a load of puff pastry without any filling. Or, to borrow from Gertrude Stein, there's no there there.

To be generous to Nahan, it would be impossible to provide detailed answers in a short piece like this ... but the editor(s) knew that. Why, then, did he, she, or they let Nahan tackle what was obviously an unsuitably broad topic that could only result in a content-free piece?

Even if the contributor is interested in writing such arrant nonsense, I expect better editorial judgment than to publish it.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Mythbusters mishap

"Failure is always an option," goes Mythbusters cohost Adam Savage's oft-stated maxim. That was certainly the case this afternoon when a Mythbusters test at the Alameda County Bomb Disposal Range went awry, sending a cannonball through the wall of a house. Nobody was injured, but the story led tonight's 10 o'clock news broadcast on KTVU. So far, no one from either the Discovery Channel or the Mythbusters production crew has commented.

If I were living near the bomb range (specifically, in Dublin, CA), I'd be wondering what havoc other accidents, Mythbusters-spawned or not, might wreak. I hope this doesn't make the show unwelcome at the bomb range: blowing stuff up is crucial to the show's success, and it's not clear where else these guys could perform their explosive experiments.

I can't wait to see how this accident gets spun for the show.

Useful developer advice

As a sometime software developer, I always like to hear other developers talk about the problems they've faced and the lessons they've drawn from solving (or not solving) those problems. Most developers, though, only share those stories with their friends over beers. While a lot of those stories deserve no wider an audience, the rest represent hard-won wisdom that could benefit others. For the most part, though, even in this text-soaked age, that wisdom remains only part of an oral tradition, slowly diffused drink by drink and engineer by engineer.

That's why it's refreshing and encouraging to see something like Marco Arment's "Browse vs. Search: Which Deserves to Go?". It's a brief history of a design decision he made in his Instapaper product and an assessment of that decision.

In taking the time to write up his own learning experience, Arment has helped other developers to avoid a mistake he made, and encouraged them to think about the right way to approach similar problems. It's a generous act that I, for one, appreciate.

Monday, December 5, 2011

A Charlie Brown Christmas

Everyone has his favorite Christmas television special or movie. Most of those in my generation favor How the Grinch Stole Christmas. That would be the animated version, of course, directed by legendary Termite Terrace alumnus Chuck Jones.

I appreciate the Grinch, but it has never come close to being my favorite. No, my favorite has always been the slightly older, decidedly scruffier and more offbeat A Charlie Brown Christmas.

Wait, "scruffier"? "Offbeat"?

Look at it. No, really look at it. Try to imagine you're seeing it for the first time. Compared to contemporaneous Hanna-Barbera output (the last season of The Flintstones, to give a concrete example), Mendelson's and Melendez's first Peanuts outing is twitchy in the animation department. Characters don't always stay in the plane they should, for instance, sometimes finding themselves slightly above or below where they belong. Oftentimes characters seem to go from pose to pose without inbetweens, adding to the impression of jerkiness.

It's not just the animation that's inexact, either. The color of changing elements (Charlie Brown's face, for instance) sometimes flickers between two or more shades. The vocal performances, by real children, are often stiff and sometimes, as in the case of Sally, are downright weird in their timing and inflection. The script embeds a number of daily strips wholesale, but never quite figures out how to transition from punch lines back to the main story: generally the show pauses for a few seconds, then carries on as if nothing had happened.

All this comes under the heading of "scruffiness." The show feels like a mutt, like a weird patchwork of scenes that could use some polishing.

As for "offbeat," it's true that next to the utterly fantastic world of the Grinch, the Peanuts crew looks ordinary. Ordinariness, though, describes only the show's bare bones. Sure, the premise is that a group of suburban kids kills time in the run-up to Christmas, but consider both how the story would usually have been handled at the time the show was made, and how Schulz decided to tell his story.

First, this show was nominally aimed at kids, but in fact it couldn't help but have an adult sensibility because the Peanuts strip itself had an adult sensibility. No other Christmas special aimed at children is appealing to adults except for purposes of nostalgia, and that includes How the Grinch Stole Christmas. The latter appeals to adults today only because we who grew up hyperaware of Golden Age Warner Brothers cartoons have sentimental affection for all of Jones' work. (Well, not me so much: I'm partial to Freleng. But I digress.)

Second, jazz music was reserved for edgy dramatic series, not low-key holiday specials.

Third, "low-key"? What kind of holiday special is low-key? Virtually every network special before and since has gone out of its way to show how special it is. (None of them comes close to trading in the melancholy that hangs over Charlie Brown, either.)

Fourth, what primarily comedic holiday special ever made an extended Biblical quotation its very centerpiece?

All in all, A Charlie Brown Christmas should never have survived to become a holiday classic. Yet it did. Why?

I have to believe a lot of its appeal is rooted in the popularity of the strip, and in particular, the popularity of the strip in the 1960s and 1970s. It was smart, concise, visually clean, and reliably funny. Those are formidable accomplishments for a daily comic strip in any era. Few strips can claim anything close to Peanuts' artistic success in its prime.

A Charlie Brown Christmas is surprisingly successful at preserving the strip's distinctive and appealing visual attributes while imbuing Schulz's world with motion. What's so tough about that? Well, comic strip characters are not always designed with motion in mind. Schulz's characters, for instance, have extremely short, almost nonexistent legs terminated by huge feet -- not the easiest designs to animate walking, I would imagine.

Vince Guaraldi's compositions are so beloved today, it's hard to imagine Peanuts without them. The strip, though, mentioned only classical music, generally Beethoven by way of Schroeder. It would have been easy to key off the strip and use classical, or to resort to conventional movie music (as the later specials like Snoopy Come Home did). A breezy, low-key (there's that term again) jazz backdrop was an inspired alternative.

And what about that Biblical quotation that almost literally stops the show in its tracks? Why do I, a certified nonbeliever, find that moment so right?

I've thought a lot about this over the years, and the only answer that comes to mind is, it's refreshing to hear one of these Christmas specials acknowledge what the holiday is about. I don't have to believe in it to be moved by that scene. Mendelson, Melendez and Schulz took a risk staging it as they did, eschewing splashy animated action or sound effects or music, and ending on a few precious seconds of absolute silence before Linus says, in a matter-of-fact tone, "That's what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown."

Come to think of it, the actual reading from the Bible isn't my favorite moment. It's that pregnant pause, followed by the magnificently simple, perfectly natural reading of that one line, that always gets me. The other moment that stands out for me occurs as Snoopy realizes, belatedly, that Schroeder has stopped playing. The exuberantly dancing beagle looks at Schroeder, then at Lucy, and at the sight of their identically hostile faces, grimaces in that uniquely Schulzian expression of queasy embarrassment before sinking off the piano and slinking off stage. His expression never fails to make me laugh.

Speaking of laughing -- no laugh track. Glorious. Canned laughter kills pathos.

I prefer the strip to its TV adaptations, and routinely watch only the three end-of-year holiday specials. Of these, A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving has Peppermint Patty and a didactic tone, and was therefore fatally flawed from the moment the storyboard was approved. (Peppermint Patty's introduction represented the beginning of the strip's long downward slide into lameness, which it reached sometime in the late 1970s.) It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown is enjoyable, especially in the scenes featuring Linus and Lucy, but lacks sweetness and a unified storyline. Only A Charlie Brown Christmas got the mix just right.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Colbert interviews Tyson

That would be Stephen Colbert, interviewing Neil deGrasse Tyson. Entertaining, informative, and a terrific video to show anyone who wonders why we should invest in science and education. Colbert, by the way, is not in character, and it's a pleasure to see him cutting up in a less manic, less provocative way.

(Thanks to Kottke for the link.)

"One Nation, Under Arms", Todd Purdum

I'd love to say something intelligent about George Kennan, who is the protagonist of Todd Purdum's tragic (in the "Greek tragedy" sense) tale in Vanity Fair. However, Purdum does far too good a job of explaining Kennan and his regrets about taking U.S. foreign policy in its current direction for me to add anything.
For a nation struggling to know what to make of the newly dawned nuclear age, Kennan’s prescription seemed a firm and reassuring guide. It is not too much to say that his analysis, greatly amplified and expanded beyond his wildest dreams, led to the wars in Korea and Vietnam; to various lesser conflicts and adventures then and since; and even to the country’s ongoing entanglements in Iraq and Afghanistan. For all this—in speech after speech and interview after interview—Kennan expressed profound regret. He had intended to argue for political containment of Soviet ambitions, he insisted, until Russian Communism could collapse of its own internal contradictions (as, indeed, it eventually did). Instead, Kennan’s words helped prompt the abandonment of the settled understanding of American foreign policy that had prevailed since John Quincy Adams’s day—that the country “goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy”—in favor of a view of America as the world’s policeman. The transformation, accomplished bit by bit over many decades, was ultimately so complete as to create a country that Kennan himself, near the end of his long and lucid life, confessed he no longer recognized.
It must be tough to live through a sea change in your own country's way of thinking, knowing not only that the new direction is profoundly at odds with what you think is best, but also that you played a pivotal role in bringing the change about.

It's a good article that provides a great deal of background information with which to place our current, distorted national culture in context.

Perspective on Carrier IQ

You might have heard about the company Carrier IQ and what was initially reported as a nefarious plot to report all activities on your mobile phone to ... well, nobody was quite sure where. Seth Weintraub at 9to5Google clarified some of the initial confusion, and that short piece is the best summary I could find after a quick scan of recent Daring Fireball entries. I don't have a good overview of the story since I wasn't going to mention it at all and therefore didn't keep track of what I had read. However, that changed when I found what is perhaps the best dose of common sense I've seen on this subject from a commenter dubbed "plus MEDIC" in Rob Beschizza's piece "Today in corporate denials: Carrier IQ edition":
How ridiculous are all of you concerned to such a degree about Carrier IQ? For the love of god, you're using their network. How do I put emphasis on this? YOU'RE USING THEIR NETWORK. Your phone calls and text messages and photos don't reach their end destination via magic. It's routed over their towers. Your phone calls aren't encrypted. Your SMS aren't encrypted. Your photos aren't encrypted. As they pass through their towers, they have every single bit of information, less the diagnostic information that Carrier IQ is providing them, about what you're doing. They have the content, the time, the recipient, their replies. That information is there, and they have access to it already.
Most followups to plus MEDIC's comment complained that this isn't proper, but couldn't argue that this isn't true. (The question of whether the information gathered included interactions via WiFi rather than the cellular network isn't clear, at least to me. If non-cell network interactions are also monitored and reported, that's definitely wrong.)

We have very, very few genuinely private spaces, physical or otherwise, in our lives these days. I don't like that, and you might not either, but we'd be fools not to recognize that truth.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Unix history

Read Warren Toomey's feature piece for IEEE Spectrum if you have any interest in Unix and/or Unix history. I also learned a great deal by following the link to Andrew Tanenbaum's overview of microkernels (misleadingly characterized as a "debate" with Linus Torvalds) that Mark B. Rosenthal included in the comments.

I've been using a Unix or Unix-like system since I started learning how to program. You're using a Unix system, too, if your computer is running Mac OS X (I think Apple still has the certification, anyway).

(Thanks to LongReads for the link.)

Friday, December 2, 2011

The Fed's hidden gift to big banks

Still think keeping your money in BofA or Chase or one of the other big banks is okay? Then read Bob Ivry's, Bradley Keoun's and Phil Kuntz's investigative report for Bloomberg Markets magazine.

You think the $700 billion in loans through the Treasury Department's Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP, was the extent of the largesse big banks received? Oh, you trusting soul. The Federal Reserve's contributions dwarfed Treasury's.
Add up guarantees and lending limits, and the Fed had committed $7.77 trillion as of March 2009 to rescuing the financial system, more than half the value of everything produced in the U.S. that year.
The Fed loaned out ten times the amount Treasury did.

The sheer size of the loans and guarantees is bad enough. Worse, though, is how hard the Fed and the banks tried to hide it.
The Fed, headed by Chairman Ben S. Bernanke, argued that revealing borrower details would create a stigma -- investors and counterparties would shun firms that used the central bank as lender of last resort -- and that needy institutions would be reluctant to borrow in the next crisis.
The question is, would that stigma have been such a bad thing?
While Fed officials say that almost all of the loans were repaid and there have been no losses, details suggest taxpayers paid a price beyond dollars as the secret funding helped preserve a broken status quo and enabled the biggest banks to grow even bigger.
Ben Bernanke and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner consistently argued that we couldn't allow certain financial institutions to fail. That might well be true: you can never tell about the path not taken. But we certainly were entitled to know the truth about those institutions' shaky condition when we, through the Treasury and the Fed, started pouring money into them. Neither Treasury nor the Fed was interested in telling us, and the banks were intent on painting the rosiest picture possible.
On Nov. 26, 2008, then-Bank of America (BAC) Corp. Chief Executive Officer Kenneth D. Lewis wrote to shareholders that he headed “one of the strongest and most stable major banks in the world.” He didn’t say that his Charlotte, North Carolina-based firm owed the central bank $86 billion that day.
The Fed even pretended it was following its own rules about lending.
Bernanke in an April 2009 speech said that the Fed provided emergency loans only to “sound institutions,” even though its internal assessments described at least one of the biggest borrowers, Citigroup, as “marginal.”

On Jan. 14, 2009, six days before the company’s central bank loans peaked, the New York Fed gave CEO Vikram Pandit a report declaring Citigroup’s financial strength to be “superficial,” bolstered largely by its $45 billion of Treasury funds.
These guys made obscene profits -- better than $13 billion worth, by the reporters' calculations -- on the money we loaned them to keep them from destroying our economy. They did it because we let them. We let them get too big, and we let both the Bush and Obama administrations appoint officials who had too close ties to the biggest and least responsible financial firms.

I could go on and on, but that wouldn't be fair to Bloomberg: you need to read the article for yourself. It's shocking.

Then take your money out of the big banks. Whether or not they're currently stable (and I can't judge that), they don't deserve your business. Moreover, we can't afford to let them hold us hostage. We need to give them a glide path toward irrelevance. The way to do that is to pull our money out, a little at a time. If they're going to screw over anyone, let it be the big companies who actually need the scale only a gargantuan bank provides.

  • Big banks don't deserve our business.
  • We can't let them hold us hostage.
March into Citibank, Wells Fargo, or one of the other megabanks and move your money out.

Screw them before they screw us (again).

Rakoff's rejection of S.E.C.-Citibank settlement

You might have heard that U.S. District Judge Jed Rakoff rejected the Securities and Exchange Commission's proposed settlement of its complaint against Citibank. The S.E.C. alleged that Citibank had offered a collection of mortgage-backed securities (collateralized debt obligations, or CDOs, to be precise) to investors without revealing that Citibank itself was shorting those securities -- in other words, that Citibank was betting against them and assumed they would be lousy investments. As is customary in such cases, Citibank opted to settle with the S.E.C., giving up the profits it made on the deal plus a penalty. As is also customary in such cases, Citibank admitted no wrongdoing, even as it promised not to engage in such behavior in the future.

Translating that last bit: "I'm not saying I did it, and I promise not to do it again."

If that sounds fishy to you, join the club. Unfortunately, the club doesn't include a lot of federal judges: they routinely approve S.E.C. settlements with such terms. I don't know why the judges approve, but I assume it has to do with deferring to the S.E.C.'s presumed expertise in performing cost-benefit analyses of potential litigation. The judges, in other words, assume the S.E.C. has concluded that going to trial is not likely to result in a better net outcome.

Judge Rakoff disagreed. It's worth reading his opinion to see the numerous ways in which the S.E.C. did not well serve the general public.

The S.E.C. initially agreed that any settlement had to be "fair, reasonable, adequate, and in the public interest", but in a more recent filing the Commission asserted that "the public interest ... is not part of [the] applicable standard of judicial review" (that's Rakoff's quotation of the S.E.C.'s original wording, from page 5 of his opinion). Even if "the public interest" had to be taken into account, the S.E.C. wanted Rakoff to agree that the Commission was the one to decide what was in the public's best interest. Rakoff, though, would have none of that: not only is the public interest a vital consideration, but the court (Rakoff) must be the arbiter of what is in the public interest.

Rakoff then considers the other requirements, or "standard for judicial review", of any settlement: fairness, reasonableness, and adequacy. It's here that Rakoff makes a point that commentators I've read all miss. The problem he sees isn't that the S.E.C. is whitewashing wrongdoing for a song (which is what the Commission's critics have long accused it of doing). Rather, the problem is that the S.E.C. is asking courts to force defendants to modify their behavior without ever showing that the defendants misbehaved in the first place.

This is a smart way to challenge the S.E.C.'s timid and arguably lazy (if not sleazy) practice of prosecution-by-threat. Rakoff can't out-and-out say that the S.E.C. has been complicit (or at least too cozy) with the companies it is supposed to regulate, though reading between the lines, I detect a whiff of that accusation. Rakoff can, however, challenge the S.E.C. on the patently illogical "I'm not saying I did it, and I promise not to do it again" language in its settlements. The judge even noted that Citibank's attorney was ready to deny the allegations in court; that the company chose instead to settle with the S.E.C. strongly suggests that it views the settlement
... as a cost of doing business imposed by having to maintain a working relationship with a regulatory agency, rather than as any indication of where the real truth lies.
(Rakoff's words, from his opinion.)

Rakoff makes a convincing argument that the S.E.C. and Citibank were playing a game rather than engaging in a genuine dispute. The settlement would have allowed both to claim victory without the cost and risk of a trial. Citibank, obviously, would have gotten off with a slap on the wrist. Rakoff thinks the S.E.C. was after high-profile headlines that would putatively prove to everyone that it was doing its job. Neither was genuinely interested in fighting over what Citibank did.

The S.E.C.'s willingness to play along with Citibank is hard to explain except as either collusion or sheer laziness. That's what Rakoff found so unpalatable. It's not that Rakoff wants to stick it to Citibank, or Wall Street generally. (Or even if it is, Rakoff can't say that out loud.) Rather, he wants the public to see what, if anything, Citibank did wrong. One way would be through a trial. The other would be through a settlement that included both meaningful penalties and meaningful admissions of wrongdoing.

Of course, the S.E.C. could drop its case. If it did, though, we, the general public, should demand that it be dissolved, and replaced by an organization with genuine teeth (and a spine). Really, that's the choice the S.E.C. should face: go after Citibank, or go out of business.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Writing has changed

In an article about the late diplomat and foreign policy expert George Kennan, Todd Purdum quotes from a 1992 entry in Kennan's diary:
“The dispatch of American armed forces to a seat of operations in a place far from our own shores, and this for what is actually a major police action in another country and in a situation where no defensible American interest is involved—this, obviously, is something that the Founding Fathers of this country never envisaged or would ever have approved. If this is in the American tradition, then it is a very recent tradition.”
Forget the political content of that statement and consider only the elegance of the style. Can you imagine reading anything this gracefully expressed in any mainstream publication today, let alone in a diary (whether or not intended for eventual public view)?

Kennan was not a professional writer (not primarily, anyway). His writing can fairly be considered representative of how well-educated Americans of his generation expressed themselves on paper.

Forgive me if I lament how badly the standard for good writing has slipped since Kennan's time.

Eliminating email

IT specialists (or, as they like to style themselves, "business technologists") AtoS are looking to eliminate email in the workplace. At least, Chairman and CEO Thierry Breton is making this his goal. From the company's zero-email manifesto:
The volume of emails we send and receive is unsustainable for business. It is estimated that managers spend between 5 and 20 hours a week just reading and writing emails. Furthermore, they are already using social media networking more and spend around 25 per cent of their time searching for information.
I'm sympathetic to this point, but AtoS's goal of using social media and collaboration tools to replace email entirely is misguided.

First, it would help to know if the increased use of "social media networking" is for business purposes exclusively, or if it includes workers' personal social media presences. If the latter is the case, then it's wrong to cite this point in favor of moving further in the direction of social media for workplace communication.

More importantly, though, if your job is in sales or some other area that requires instant communication, social media and the old standby, the telephone, might be good replacements. However, one reason so many of us no longer use the phone for routine communication is that our jobs do not require instant communication. Quite the contrary: our jobs require the ability to concentrate on whatever problem it is we're solving. The phone and other synchronous communication media, like instant messaging, are fundamentally unwelcome distractions. The ring of the phone or the chime of the new message is an imperative that must be responded to right now, even if the response is to let the call go to voicemail or to ignore the incoming message. Such distractions break one's concentration and can be significant impediments to progress.

Email represents a good tradeoff, in principle, between the sender's and receiver's priorities. The sender generally wants an answer sooner rather than later, but some respect is given to the receiver's need to get real work done. The problem is that some people don't understand when not to send email. Sometimes covering your ass by passing along barely relevant information isn't helpful. Sometimes you need to refrain from sending that hilarious but totally useless rant to your colleagues. Sometimes you should consider if there's another way to get your question answered than by bothering the person who's supposed to be getting that critical project done.

Breton and those who feel as he does probably see more useless email than front-line workers because management always generates and receives more useless administrivia than people who actually make products or render services. Making "zero email" a goal, though, doesn't address the fundamental problem that some communication simply isn't necessary. Teach people to say only what they need to say, rather than forcing everyone to make communication rather than real work their primary focus.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Wise words from JWZ

JWZ (or jwz, as he usually spells it) is Jamie W. Zawinski, a self-described winner of "the Netscape Startup Lottery" and semi-legendary engineer. In his blog entry "Watch a VC use my name to sell a con", jwz takes Michael Arrington to task for
... trying to make the point that the only path to success in the software industry is to work insane hours, sleep under your desk, and give up your one and only youth, and if you don't do that, you're a pussy. He's using my words to try and back up that thesis.
Read the blog entry to find out the eminently more sensible advice jwz has for young developers today. Along the way he explains why venture capitalists like Arrington want you to believe that working insane hours is the path to success.
When a VC tells you what's good for you, check your wallet, then count your fingers.
(Link courtesy of Hacker News.)

Monday, November 28, 2011

The cult of ignorance

Not sure why this made John Gruber's radar, but Isaac Asimov's brief quote about the "cult of ignorance" in the U.S. is all too appropriate to our time.

Barney Miller on DVD

Finally, somebody's releasing all of Barney Miller on DVD.

Sony evidently didn't see enough of a market for the 1970s TV cop comedy, and after releasing only the first three seasons, announced it wouldn't release any more. That was very bad news for those of us who have somewhat clearer memories of it than the New York Times' Mike Hale, who could only muster the faint praise, "But even though the show was a comedy, its mood was informed by the darkness of the times and the troubles of New York City, where it was set."

Hale's right, but doesn't go far enough. The joy of Barney Miller is that it made that darkness hilarious. The show reveled in confronting the detectives of the 12th Precinct with absurdity after absurdity, all rooted in the difficulty ordinary people have seeing eye to eye in the pressure cooker of New York City. For the most part, the detectives were jaded enough merely to be sardonically amused by their unwilling guests. The witty banter was generally low-key, a refreshing contrast to the dopey histrionics of other shows like Happy Days, the 900-lb. gorilla of ABC's comedy lineup at the time. Even the staging was relaxed, with more long, uncut sequences than usual in sitcoms, giving it the feel of a play. Barney Miller, a little like another contemporary, All in the Family, also wasn't shy about using silence to build tension, both in service of a joke and occasionally to highlight a more dramatic moment. Unlike M*A*S*H, however, Barney Miller never forsook comedy for preachy drama, remaining smart and funny right to the end.

So it's great news that Shout Factory is making all eight seasons available in a 25-disc box set, even if some of us who own the earlier Sony-issued seasons are feeling bitter toward Sony for essentially making us pay twice. It's worth it to be able to watch all the hilarities at the ol' 1-2 any time we like. Raise a mug of Yemana's legendarily bad coffee and be happy.

Brownback vs. Sullivan

Another politician, another imbroglio. This time fate dragged Kansas governor Sam Brownback into the spotlight when Kansas high school student Emma Sullivan tweeted a disparaging remark about the governor. Brownback's staff spotted the tweet and made enough of a stink about it that Sullivan's principal hauled her into his office and ordered her to write an apology. ABC News has the story.

It never seemed to occur either to the principal or to Brownback's staff that the story might not reflect well on them if it became known to a larger audience. As it did, of course.

Ironically, I think this will turn out to be a net win for Brownback. His damage control was perfect:
“My staff over-reacted to this tweet, and for that I apologize. Freedom of speech is among our most treasured freedoms,” Brownback said in a statement.
The notion of punishing an unknown teenager for a rude tweet -- and it was merely rude, not even insightful -- is grade-A stupid, so stupid that it's hard to imagine any seasoned politician countenancing the effort. My guess is that Brownback, no novice pol, genuinely believes his staff overreacted. Whether or not I'm right, though, Brownback looks magnanimous, albeit at his staff's expense. The net boon to his reputation, though, is probably great enough that nobody on the staff will lose his or her job.

However, I'd like to know more about Karl Krawiak, Sullivan's principal. Here's an excerpt from an early account of the incident in the Wichita Eagle:
The principal “laid into me about how this was unacceptable and an embarrassment,” Sullivan said. “He said I had created this huge controversy and everyone was up in arms about it … and now he had to do damage control.

“I’m mainly shocked that they would even see that tweet and be concerned about me,” she said. “I just honestly feel they’re making a lot bigger deal out of it than it actually was.”
How is it that Sullivan, 18, is so much wiser than Krawiak, who one assumes is older than she?

Somebody decided it was better to cater to the governor's clueless and oversensitive staff than to exercise a little common sense and say, "This isn't a big deal." Was it Krawiak or somebody higher in the school district? That is, was Krawiak threatened with disciplinary action by his superiors, or does he come by his servility naturally?

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Killing the golden goose

The golden goose, in this case, is Web content people want to consume, and what's killing it is the overweight and highly irritating context of ads and other noncontributory nonsense surrounding it. I've been seeing more pieces about this since Brent Simmons' The Pummeling Pages started heating up the blogosphere. Rian van der Merwe's "Please let this not be the future of reading on the web" echoes Simmons' complaints and provides examples and analysis of a couple of egregiously bad pages (also read the comments to van der Merwe's piece for more analysis).

What the mainstream publishing industry's presence on the Web has trained me to do is to be expert at ignoring its ads. Anything that flashes, bounces, or otherwise behaves like a five-year-old desperate for the teacher's permission to go to the bathroom simply doesn't register with my brain. If something other than legitimate content obscures the whole page, boom! -- the page goes.

Is that what you advertisers want?

Of course, at home I have broadband, so the considerable additional bandwidth required for this absurd barrage of advertising isn't too burdensome (yet). Wandering about outside, though, is another matter. As the owner of an older phone that doesn't support 3G, I have learned that Web pages load only after interminable waits, nearly always because third-party ads take forever to load and the pages are designed not to display content until the ads have finished downloading. I all but completely avoid the Web when I'm stuck with the EDGE connection.

Is that what you advertisers want?

Here's a perceptive comment from someone claiming to work for "a big media company":
... the systems in place are difficult to remove. I tried to sell my bosses on the Deck (didn’t work, we have an in-house ad networks with thousands, if not millions already already invested, tough to change something when, from the purely bottom-line perspective, the status quo works for publishers). A membership system would require infrastructure changes and a total rethinking of the entire system. That’s not something that’s going to happen overnight. In short, the status quo works, it makes money. And that makes it very tough to convince publishers that something needs to change. Over the long run current practices are hurting publishers because they’re alienating their readers, but publishers are only looking at the bottom line, and, at the moment, they’re not seeing that hurt yet.
Greg Golebiewski responded and further illustrated the problem:
Back in 2008 when we started pitching publishers about other, better, ways of content monetization (including small or nano payments; they can work for large publishers as well), we received a unanimous “no way,’ even though most of our interlocutors were well aware of the changes in the marketplace and willing to admit that advertising might not be enough to sustain their online presence. Still, they were rejecting anything other than ads. One of our contacts then, had the guts to explain why: publishing is run by advertising guys and they see the other streams of revenue as undermining their role. Most journalists are against direct payments as well. Imagine one or two popular columnists receiving all the tips or on-demand payments, and the rest of the writers close to nothing.
If you work in publishing and care more about content than ads, you might want to rethink working for a big publisher, assuming Golebiewski's right about who's running the show.

The trend of the advertising tail wagging the content dog is driving a lot of us away from the ad-supported Web. I, cheapskate extraordinaire, broke down and started paying for the New York Times. Other discriminating readers are going to look for alternative support systems like micropayments. We're looking to escape the torrent of ads -- not just because they're numerous, but because they consume ridiculous amounts of bandwidth and they actively interfere with the primary reason we're on the Web in the first place.

Publishers and advertisers both, wake up before you crush your golden goose under the weight of your ads. Find a better way, because for too many of us, this one isn't working.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Give us a better-written future

It amused me to stumble over a small nest of pieces wondering whether it's possible to resurrect the Star Trek franchise as a new TV series. It seems the whole megilla was kicked off by a pair of essays by Graeme McMillan, "Why Isn't There a New Star Trek TV Show Already?" and "Why Star Trek Might Not Work For Today's TV Execs". Susana Polo followed up with "Is Star Trek Unpalatable to the Television Industry's Modern Tastes?". Alyssa Rosenberg cited both Polo's and McMillan's pieces in her own "Would Star Trek Work On Television Today?", while Erik Kain built on Rosenberg's proposal in his "Making Star Trek for This Generation" and Alex Knapp "snarked at both of them" (Rosenberg and Kain) and came up with a proposal for three interlocking series in his blog entry "How to Reboot Star Trek for Modern TV". My goodness.

All of these writers seem to agree that nothing like Trek exists on TV today and wonder if the reason is, TV execs have decided the audience doesn't care for utopian futures. They also wonder if perhaps the broad tonal palette of all the series is perceived to be off-putting: that is, they wonder if modern TV series are expected to be all action, or all comic, or all dramatic, or ... well, you get the idea. And finally, they wonder if TV execs believe science fiction on TV only works if it has long story arcs, as the remake of Battlestar Galactica did.

These folks start with the premise that Trek as a whole, or if pressed one particular Trek series (though they can't agree which), has been good television. So good, in fact, that TV simply can't figure out how to market it.

I'm sorry: I have to laugh.

I've admitted liking the original Star Trek -- to being mildly obsessed by it at one time, in fact.

That doesn't mean I think Trek in any of its incarnations, and I've seen them all, was very good as a TV show. Quite the contrary. The writing and acting for the most part were substandard. Actually, that's being kind: the writing and the acting for the most part were wretched. Any time a Trek series wandered into the areas of character development or emotional conflict, the writing sank into the morass of melodrama and the acting followed. Patrick Stewart and John Billingsley are the lone franchise regulars to have escaped with their dignity intact (and Stewart had more than his share of close calls).

I've never spent time with hardcore Trekkers, as they prefer to be called, but I will guess that their affection for all the series stems from the fundamental hopefulness of Gene Roddenberry's vision of the future, rather than from the episodes being great TV. I, too, have an affection for a hopeful, rather than a dystopian, future. The thing is, the Trek franchises only gave us adolescent portrayals of such a future. These days, even portrayals of adolescents are more emotionally complex and real than most Trek scripts.

My guess is that McMillan's first piece nailed the reasons no new Trek series are in the works: a concern that a series would weaken the newly-strong movie franchise, and uncertainty over who has the right to make a series at all (it's more complicated than you think; read McMillan's piece for details). That is, the reasons probably have little to do with the franchise being wrong in some way for contemporary TV audiences.

But whatever the reason(s) for the dearth of Trek, as far as I'm concerned, this Trek-less period is a good time for somebody else's vision to take hold.

Babylon 5 showed us an alternate and just as hopeful future back in the 1990s, but while J. M. Straczynski's series was exquisitely well-plotted, dialogue and acting were usually abysmal (always excepting Peter Jurasik's and Andreas Katsulas' superb performances). The Battlestar Galactica remake showed everyone how to make a space opera for the modern age, with engrossing writing and compelling acting, but it was a tad grimmer than most Trek fans would probably like.

Can't somebody produce a deep-space series that shows us a hopeful future while being written for adult sensibilities?

It's long past time that the Trek franchises' stranglehold on the public imagination was broken. Make a smart TV show I won't cringe to share with my friends. Show me a future I can actually believe in.

Food labels

It's an old blog entry (from early August 2011), but Anahad O'Connor's piece on serving sizes is still worth reading if you haven't thought much about how food labels can mislead.

Manufacturers of processed foods have to list the amounts of fat (generally broken down further into specific kinds of fat), cholesterol, sodium, protein, and a number of other -- what does one call them, "characteristics"? -- of their products. The nutritional facts are always listed on a per-serving basis, and therein is the rub: the manufacturer gets to decide what size a serving is. Naturally, the way to make your not terribly healthful product look better is to make the serving size as small as you can. Critics have been after the Food and Drug Administration for years to require manufacturers to use more realistic serving sizes in their calculations. O'Connor's piece reported on findings by the Center for Science in the Public Interest that highlighted the "worst offenders" in misleading food labels.

Perhaps I'm getting more reactionary as I get older, but it seems like forcing the FDA to mandate more realistic portion sizes is merely letting Americans get lazier and dumber.

I've been reading food labels for years. It didn't take long for me to figure out that no matter what the label called a "portion", I knew how much of that bag of chips I was going to eat. Eight, ten, or twelve "portions" in that "supersized" bag? Uh, that depends on how hungry I am. And as for canned soups, one of the categories specially called out on CSPI's list of worst offenders, I know I'm not going to eat just half a can: I'm going to eat the whole thing.

For years, then, I've been doing mental arithmetic in the store aisles to calculate just how much sodium and saturated fat I would actually be taking in if I picked up one of these products. It hasn't been hard, and if it had been, I'd have carried a cheap pocket calculator.

Forcing companies to change what constitutes a "portion" of their products isn't going to make people look at the labels if they aren't already doing so. The information is already there for the reading, and has been for years.

(Well, most of the information, anyway. The one change I would favor is for manufacturers to disclose the per-container totals for items whose per-serving percentage is zero, because manufacturers are allowed to round down to zero.)

I understand the impulse to compel reporting more "realistic" portion sizes. But it's pointless: your portion is not my portion, and the manufacturer's idea may not match either of ours. Besides, this is an area where I think consumers have to take some responsibility. If we're not going to think even a little about how much we're eating and how much fat (or sodium, or protein, or ...) we're taking in as a result, the companies selling us our foodstuffs aren't responsible for what happens to us. There's a point past which "help" becomes "coddling".

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Don Young vs. Douglas Brinkley

Rep. Don Young (R-AK) was participating in hearings on drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge when he got into a heated exchange with historian Douglas Brinkley. Evidently taking umbrage at Brinkley's temerity for interrupting Young's hectoring lecture to correct the lawmaker's previous misstatement of Brinkley's name, Young burst out:
“I'll call you anything I want to call you when you sit in that chair. You just be quiet.”
Brinkley's breach of Congressional etiquette (nowhere else would it be considered out of line to correct someone for calling you by the wrong name, but it seems lawmakers deem themselves worthy of special consideration) pales in comparison to Young's delusion of importance.

Don Young, if you were anywhere near as smart as the people who testify at Congressional hearings, you'd have a real job. Instead, you're a sorry little man desperate for respect, and you use your public office to extort it from people during hearings. But guess what? A lot of them see through your little game of ... well, let's call it "Overcompensation", and some of them will call you on it. While a distant part of them might feel a little sorry for your, um, shortcomings, they will not put up with your infantile temper tantrums and tragic efforts to shore up your low self-esteem.

This sorry practice of Congress calling people in to "testify" when in reality lawmakers want to puff and preen and scold has got to stop. While I have my doubts that many lawmakers are intellectually capable of understanding it, the testimony they ought to be soliciting is of vital importance to getting the nation's business done. (At least, it should be important. Otherwise, Congress shouldn't be wasting people's time.) If lawmakers aren't going to listen and to learn something, they should give up their seats in favor of those who will. And asinine displays like Don Young's should automatically disqualify the perpetrating lawmaker from further public service.

Don Young, you're a self-important (and, the evidence suggests, little) prick.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

"What is Sony Now?", Bryan Gruley and Cliff Edwards

In my circle of acquaintances, Sony has had a crummy reputation for decades. I was one of the last to give up on it, and that was only after I had blown good money on a dual cassette deck and a multi-CD changer, both of which developed problems within six months of purchase. As the hardware suggests, this was way back in '92 or so.

Almost from the moment competition showed up for Sony's Walkman, the company was said to overcharge for its merchandise. The quality justified the cost, though -- at first. Then companies like Aiwa started making high-quality electronics for slightly less. Simultaneously, Sony's quality control nosedived.

I have heard no indications that Sony's quality-control or pricing problems have turned around in the years since I started reflexively ignoring the company's products. Bryan Gruley's and Cliff Edwards' article for BusinessWeek gives a pretty good idea why. Although the company's problems certainly predate CEO Howard Stringer's tenure, he hasn't helped.
It’s not lack of sleep, though, that irritates him when it’s suggested that Sony is not thought of as the innovator it once was. “Oh, f–k, we make so much more than we used to,” he says. He ticks off some of the products coming out this year, including binoculars that can record video and goggles for watching 3D video games and movies. “Don’t tell me that Sony technology isn’t great.”
Hey Howard: Sony technology isn't great. Get your head out of your ass, and/or stop blowing smoke up ours.

Making more crappy products isn't the answer: making better products is. But as long as management won't acknowledge the mediocrity of what it makes, Sony is screwed.

(Thanks to LongReads for the link.)

Friday, November 18, 2011

"Rock weak"

You couldn’t call it unexpected, but when “rock week” came to The X Factor for two nights, it turns out only one of them actually knew what to do with a rock song. Rock weak was more like it.
That's Tim Goodman's verdict on The X Factor's stunt theme.

Goodman was a music critic before he became a TV critic, so it's surprising to find him so annoyed by The X Factor's failure to live up to his expectations. He even admits, "any rock fan knows that most of these singing competition shows are as far away from the essence of actual rock and roll than [sic] any brain can imagine".

Or maybe it's touching that after years of reviewing TV, "taking bullets" for his readers, he still can hope that these shows will be better than they are.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Eddie Murphy

Rolling Stone has an interview with Eddie Murphy conducted by Brian Hiatt. I can take Murphy or leave him alone as a performer, but I have to give him credit for seeming to have his head screwed on right.
This whole period of documenting an artist's work, movies, records, all this shit, it's 100 years old, if it's that. It's brand-new. Beethoven and those fuckers couldn't even listen to their shit, do you know how hard it was to find a mother fucker with a violin that worked back then? And his stuff went through the ages. Technology has it to where they gonna play this stuff forever. But the reality is, all this shit turns into dust, everything is temporary.
(And if stuff doesn't turn to dust, there will be so much of it that much of it will simply be buried in the hard drive of history. Any way you look at it, pop culture is evanescent.)
After all these years, I've done well and I'm cool. I feel comfortable in my skin, I've saved some paper, everybody's healthy, my kids are beautiful and smart, doing different things, it's all good. I'm trying to maintain my shit like this, and do a fun project every now and then.
Good for him. Not only does he deserve his leisure time, but by taking it, he frees up roles for younger performers.