Monday, January 31, 2011


@Discographies on Twitter writes witty, often brutal overviews of pop musicians' careers by categorizing their albums.

I'm not the music aficionado @Discographies is, so many of the entries fly by without leaving an impact. The ones for the Beatles and the Replacements, though, made me laugh harder and louder than anything in a long time.

On a more serious note, I hadn't thought about Nick Drake (or Big Star, for that matter) in quite that way, but it resonates.

As for Gram Parsons, well, @Discographies is entitled to mess up here and there.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

FCIC report

The Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission's report is available here. It includes the dissents.

Philips and feedback

Further to the previous entry, I went to Philips' Web site to get specifics on what comes with one of their products.

First, the site makes extensive use of Flash, which annoys me since I use ClickToFlash nowadays and every once in a while a Flash-based site doesn't play well with it. Philips' is apparently one of those sites: the page for the model I looked up showed what looked like a "loading" animation over one of the unloaded Flash widgets. No amount of clicking would get that widget to load. I ended up nuking the page, since it didn't include a "package contents" listing anyway.

Since I had previously agreed to participate in an "opinion survey" after finishing with Philips' site, I proceeded to the survey. The first question was, "How likely are you to recommend this site to others?" On a scale from 0 (would not recommend) to 10 (very likely to recommend), I gave it a 2 based on the experiences I described above.

After a brief animation, the survey ended, thanking me for my participation.

Huh. Wouldn't you imagine a company interested in having a Web presence would be interested in hearing from those visitors who might have suggestions for improvements? Or if they're not interested in improving the site, why bother asking visitors their opinion?

Choice and confusion

My dentist recommended I buy a Sonicare toothbrush. He coyly refused to specify a model, saying only, "I'd choose the latest one with the most features."

Some of us don't have money to burn, Doc, so we have to balance our needs with provided features. Online I went to investigate, and found myself confronted with a dizzying array of choices.

Choice is all well and good -- it's the mantra of free-market advocates everywhere, and a world where Henry Ford got to tell us we can live with our black Model T and like it would stink -- but choice only helps the consumer if there are meaningful bases for deciding between alternatives.

Nobody is interested in breaking down what "Essence" or "Flexcare" or "Elite," all Sonicare model names, actually means. No one is interested in making a list of common features they share or don't share, even (especially) Philips, Sonicare's manufacturer (Philips' Web site boasts a "compare" feature which was distinctly unhelpful). Some sites don't even bother to cite Philips' model numbers, the only way to ensure that the idiosyncratic "model names" these sites use are talking about the same model.

Amazon's user comments saved me. Somebody who has owned a number of Philips' toothbrushes explained the differences between the different lines, and convinced me to get a higher-end model than I would have otherwise. Of course, I have no way of knowing if that comment came from a Philips employee, do I?

Caveat emptor, indeed.

I like my dentist, but by making such a vague "recommendation" I have to wonder whether he's getting a kickback.

Issa and FOIA

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, has asked "for the names of hundreds of thousands of ordinary citizens, business executives, journalists and others who have requested copies of federal government documents in recent years."

According to the New York Times article, Issa "says he wants to make sure agencies respond in a timely fashion to Freedom of Information Act requests and do not delay them out of political considerations."
“Our interest is not in the private citizens who make the requests,” said Kurt Bardella, a spokesman for Mr. Issa. “We are looking at government responses to these Freedom of Information requests and the only way to measure that is to tally all that information.”
Even if you take Issa at his word -- and I find it hard to do so -- what is it about some lawmakers (mostly Republicans, but then there's Joe Lieberman and Dianne Feinstein) that makes them so tone-deaf to the implications of their actions for the privacy of ordinary citizens?

Friday, January 28, 2011

Republican S.E.C. commissioners oppose new broker recommendations

In a dissenting statement to the Security and Exchange Commission's proposed recommendation that insurance and stock brokers be required to put their clients' interests first, S.E.C. commissioners Kathleen L. Casey and Troy A. Paredes contend that the S.E.C. hasn't investigated the potential impact of the new recommendations.

As the New York Times explains, the recommendation itself was the outcome of a study undertaken pursuant to "the Dodd-Frank financial regulatory overhaul law." After receiving more than 3500 comments, the S.E.C.'s staff concluded, "most people say they believe these investment professionals — all of them — are working in their own best interest." However, "[t]oday, only investment advisers are required to operate in that manner."
Insurance brokers, who sell products like variable annuities, and stock brokers, many of whom call themselves advisers, are required only to recommend investments that are suitable. That means they can potentially sell you a product that is more lucrative for them when a better option is available. And that’s perfectly fine in the eyes of the law.
Thus the S.E.C.'s staff
recommended that stock and insurance brokers be required to act as fiduciaries — in other words, they would need to put their client’s interests first when providing personalized financial advice.
Commissioners Casey and Paredes, both Republicans, think investor confusion as to the fiduciary duties of different kinds of financial advisors is not adequately understood:
Such confusion is a serious matter. However, the practical consequences resulting from that confusion for those very investors have not been sufficiently studied or documented. Moreover, the Study does not address the possibility that the Study's own recommendations will not resolve or eliminate investor confusion and may in fact create new sources of confusion.
This argument is quite flimsy. As a financial layman I can tell you, the S.E.C. staff's recommendation makes a hell of a lot more sense to me than this ominous but completely abstract warning of unintended consequences. What do Casey and Paredes think "the practical consequences" of investor confusion have been? If they think the rest of us are missing something obvious, whey don't they tell us what it is? Similarly, why don't they explain what "new sources of confusion" they see in the offing? Absent specifics, they're just fear-mongering.

Casey's and Paredes' second objection is less vague:
... the Study, in our view, does not appropriately account for the potential overall cost of the recommended regulatory actions for broker-dealers, investment advisers, and retail investors. The Study unduly discounts the risk that, as a result of the regulatory burdens imposed by the recommendations on financial professionals, investors may have fewer broker-dealers and investment advisers to choose from, may have access to fewer products and services, and may have to pay more for the services and advice they do receive. Any such results are not in the best interests of investors; nor do they serve to protect them.
I can imagine that too much regulation could kill an industry. I just don't see that happening in this case, though. People who want investment advice in today's regulatory environment will still want advice in the proposed environment, too.

Might some existing insurance and stock brokers no longer be able to compete in a cost-effective way due to the increased cost of complying with that new regulatory environment? I suppose that's possible. On the other hand, unmet demand tends to induce someone to meet it. I don't see the proposed new regulatory regime having a long-term effect on the number of advisers.

Might there be "fewer products and services"? Only if those products and services weren't appropriate for customers, is my guess.

Might costs go up? Again, I suppose it's possible. On the other hand, would those increased costs outweigh the amount of money insurance and stock brokers' customers are leaving on the table because those brokers are more concerned with their own bottom line than their clients'?

I'm a layman, so I know better than to hazard a guess as to that question. On this score, it might indeed make sense to conduct further study. After all, the fact that those brokers are legally allowed to look after themselves first doesn't mean they all do. I also have no idea what the increased costs for having a formal fiduciary duty to one's clients would be.

Still, Casey and Paredes come off as stonewallers trying to stand for the entities they're supposed to be regulating, rather than advocates for, or at least defenders of, individual investors.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Colbert, O'Reilly, and Christ

I can't remember what, besides illness, kept me from noting this at the time, but Colbert unleashed an unusually barbed set of arrows at Bill O'Reilly and Bernard Goldberg just before Christmas. The subject was O'Reilly's and Goldberg's reductions of Jesus's teachings into the straitjacket of modern conservative doctrine, and Colbert, a devout Catholic who has taught (and might still teach) Sunday school, responded with devastating broadsides.

Here's a transcript of the relevant portion of the show.
Folks, it just seems -- just seems to me that the Democrats don't get Christmas. Another example: Congressman Jim McDermott, who used the baby Jesus to push his pro-poor people agenda. Jim?
[12 Dec 2010 clip, source unknown]
This is Christmas time. We talk about good Samaritans, we talk about the poor, the little baby Jesus in the cradle and all this stuff, and then we say to the unemployed, "We won't give you a check to feed your family." That's simply wrong.
Of course it's wrong: we shouldn't be talking to them at all! They've got unemployment cooties! And I am not the only one upset by McDermott's flagrant injection of charity into the Christmas season: so is Papa Bear, Bill O'Reilly. In his weekly column he wrote:
[9 December 2010 column]
Every fair-minded person should support government safety nets for people who need assistance through no fault of their own. But guys like McDermott don't make distinctions like that. For them, the baby Jesus wants us to "provide" no matter what the circumstance. But being a Christian, I know that while Jesus promoted charity at the highest level, he was not self-destructive.
Good point, Bill. Jesus said we only have to love those who deserve it. And what I like best about Bill's argument is its complete factual inaccuracy, because it would be inconvenient to guys like us to repeat what Jesus actually said. For instance, if someone wants your coat, give them your cloak as well; rich people should sell all their possessions and give the money to the poor. Plus, the fact is, Jesus was way beyond self-destructive: he was self-sacrificial. I mean, the guy is God! He could have floated off that cross like Criss Angel, MindFreak!

And I love--I love how Bill closes with, "The Lord helps those who help themselves," kind of implying that Jesus said that, when it was actually Ben Franklin, who I believe belched out that proverb between mouthfuls of French whore.

But as much--as much as I'm a fan of Bill's willfully ignorant, borderline heretical self-justification, I gotta tip my hat to Bernie Goldberg, who came on "The Factor" to call Jesus like he sleezus. Jim?
[13 Dec 2010 O'Reilly Factor]
As a matter of fact, you know, Jesus probably would be, except for one or two issues, a liberal Democrat if he were around today.
Yes. Jesus was a liberal Democrat. It's right there in his name: Jesus H. Christ! That "H" clearly stands for "Hussein"! Plus Jesus was always flapping his gums about the poor, but not once did he call for tax cuts for the wealthiest two percent of Romans, even though they create all the good slave jobs. And don't forget, Jesus hung out with tax collectors and prostitutes, and no good conservative would be caught dead with tax collectors.

What frightens me--what frightens me really--what really frightens me about this is, now we know we got a liberal Jesus seated at the right hand of the Father. He's basically Yahweh's Joe Biden. Anything happens to the big guy, we could end up with a Socialist deity redistributing my loaves and fishes.

Well, it hurts me to say this, folks, but if Jesus really is a liberal, it's time to get the Christ out of Christmas. Now, listen, listen listen: you know me, you know me. I'm no fan of the term "Xmas," or X-anything: I make my kids play "Christbox 360," and if they break a bone, they get "Christ-rays." But it is time to take baby Jesus out of the manger! Replace him with something that's easier to swallow. How about a Honeybaked ham? Because if this is gonna be a Christian nation that doesn't help the poor, either we've got to pretend that Jesus was just as selfish as we are, or we've got to acknowledge that he commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition -- and then admit that we just don't want to do it.

Merry Xmas, everybody!
This is only the second time I can recall that Colbert the man has allowed true anger to leak through the mask of Colbert the persona, the first being his turn at the 2006 White House Correspondents dinner. In both cases, his outrage -- against an overly compliant, almost complicit White House press corps and regally detached President in 2006, against a pair of theologically untutored commentators misrepresenting Christ in 2010 -- seems to have overwhelmed his usual determination to stay in character.

And in both cases, his biting satire has been a searing indictment of hypocrisy and outright falsehood.

(I look forward to catching up with his response to Limbaugh's racist jabbering.)

R.I.P. Charlie Louvin

From the AP, sad news from Wartrace, TN: Charlie Louvin passed away.

Louvin and his brother Ira, as the Louvin Brothers, were country music icons. More importantly for me, the Louvin Brothers had a heavy influence on later y'alternative icons like Gram Parsons and Uncle Tupelo.

My first exposure to the Louvin Brothers was via Parsons' album Grievous Angel, though I didn't know it at the time; Parsons covered the Louvins' "Cash on the Barrelhead," masking it as a faux-live performance. I loved it but didn't pay attention to the songwriting credits, not that I had heard of the Louvin Brothers at the time.

They finally came to my attention on the amazing March 16-20, 1992 album from Uncle Tupelo; the band covered the Louvins standard "Atomic Power." Uncle Tupelo was a terrific proponent of its artistic forebears, and I'll always be grateful for the extensive liner notes on the long-delayed rerelease.

The Louvins harmonized beautifully, and Ira, whom Charlie credited as the main songwriter of the duo, had a knack for good lyrics.

I can recommend When I Stop Dreaming: The Best of the Louvin Brothers.

Frank Rich on the Giffords shooting

Not quite as insightful as some of his better work, but still worth reading: Frank Rich's 15 January 2011 column devoted to the Tucson shooting.
That Loughner was likely insane, with no coherent ideological agenda, does not mean that a climate of antigovernment hysteria has no effect on him or other crazed loners out there.
I've seen a few crazy lawsuits filed by crazy people. In each instance the complaint, the legal filing laying out the plaintiff's grievances, was a litany of conspiracy theories involving J.F.K., the CIA, the current president, the Pope, and a host of other well-known figures and institutions. The only common factor (to a sane person, anyway) is that all of these people and institutions were constantly "in the news," constantly being mentioned in various contexts.

A drumbeat of hysteria does have an effect on the irrational. It has an effect on all of us.

Allusion in the age of hyperlinks

I'm not sure what Nicholas Carr's essay "The quality of allusion is not google" is getting at. (By the way, "Google" is spelled lower-case in Carr's title.) His point seems to be that mere hyperlinking, the functionality that makes the World Wide Web what it is, is not the same as "alluding," but I can't tease out what he thinks "allusion" is.

Here's his first stab at a definition:
An allusion is a hint, a suggestion, a tease, a wink. The reference it contains is implicit rather than explicit. Its essential quality is playfulness; the word allusion derives from the Latin verb alludere, meaning "to play with" or "to joke around with."
That didn't clear things up for me. Care to try again?
An allusion, when well made, is a profound act of generosity through which an artist shares with the audience a deep emotional attachment with an earlier work or influence.
That makes a bit more sense to me. However, it raises another question: if the audience is unaware of the earlier work or influence, was the artist's deep emotional attachment to the latter conveyed to that audience?

That's a silly question, because an artist would have to be a fool to make his or her work's impact depend too heavily on a familiarity with another. A work of art stands on its own. Those who miss an allusion in that work will still feel something of what the artist meant to convey.

So what's Carr's gripe with hyperlinks as they relate to allusions? He cites the inclusion of footnotes in certain editions of T. S. Eliot's "The Waste Land" to make his point:
By turning his allusions into mere citations, the notes led readers to see his poem as an intricate intellectual puzzle rather than a profound expression of personal emotion - a confusion that continues to haunt, and hamper, readings of the poem to this day. The beauty of "The Waste Land" lies not in its sources but in its music, which is in large measure the music of allusion, of fragments of distant melodies woven into something new.
Hyperlinks, of course, are nearly invisible inline citations. You can choose to ignore them, or you can follow them. Carr seems to be arguing that including them diminishes the artistic creation.
If you see an allusion merely as something to be tracked down, to be Googled, you miss its point and its power. An allusion doesn't become more generous when it's "democratized"; it simply becomes less of an allusion.
He has lost perspective. Hyperlinks don't change the nature of allusions. The presence of hyperlinks doesn't transform a poem into "an intricate intellectual puzzle." Only the audience can do that.

You can certainly argue that not including hyperlinks in the online text of a poem (or novella, or image of a sculpture, or ...) would prevent some people from treating the work as a puzzle rather than as an expression of emotion by the artist. However, isn't that overkill? Are we not banning sharp objects from the house because children might find them?

The culture has changed markedly since Yeats or Eliot (not to mention Shelley or Shakespeare) wrote their allusive works. We are educated differently, we have different baselines of shared experiences, shared cultural touchstones. We undoubtedly perceive poetry of a century ago differently than our great-grandparents did. Should we disallow even the possibility of recapturing something of their understanding of those poems by foregoing a technology as innocuous as hyperlinking?

In the end, Carr makes a good point that most of us overlook (I know I did):
My intent here is not to knock Google, which has unlocked great stores of valuable information to many, many people. My intent is simply to point out that there are many ways to view the world, and that Google offers only one view, and a limited one at that.
The flip side, though, is that Internet search engines represent merely a high-powered extension of one organizing principle -- the indexing of key words -- humanity has attempted to impose on its great stores of information ever since the invention of the printing press. If search engines are reductive, it's because that organizing principle is reductive. The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our search engines, but in ourselves.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Book and blog

Via TightWind, a link to a brief essay by Mandy Brown reflecting on the future of the book and the relationship between a book and a blog. I would quote from it, but the essay is so brief, you should read the whole thing for yourself.

In college I was so uncertain of my ability to write well, and so concerned that what I turned in should reflect that the university had not made a mistake by admitting me, that I frequently sat paralyzed before the typewriter. (You can keep the follow-on wisecracks about abaci to yourself.) I could not start, because I couldn't imagine how I would ever finish, how I would ever polish the assignment to the impossible level of perfection I had set for myself.

Somehow, I graduated. Writing became easier, due in no small part to a job I loathed that required a lot of formulaic but precise letters and memoranda. Eventually I discovered email, and honed a personal style of writing that neither school nor work had ever allowed me to develop.

Brown notes of a blog that "roughness is its natural state." It's true. The only reason this blog exists is that I'm free not to care overmuch about rough spots. Occasionally I touch up an older entry to remove a misspelling or make other minor corrections, but I've trained myself not to obsess over mangled metaphors or awkward phrasing.

Brown writes, "blogging is the kind of writing authors have done for centuries but which usually remained hidden away." Evidently it's also the kind of writing of which the non-professional writer has always been capable, too.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Messing with the aesthetics

As you might have noticed, I started messing around with this blog's appearance, or at least, I think that's what I think I've been doing.

What prompted this was my extreme dissatisfaction with how emphasized text was being displayed in the original font, Arial. It was barely noticeable to my eyes, which obviously was contrary to intention. As it happened, once I started fiddling with the design settings, other design elements ended up changing as well.

I must admit that I was also motivated by a sternly phrased admonition I recently read, scolding bloggers for failing to take typography sufficiently into account. (I can't find the link to it, of course.) Now, I happen to agree with the blogger The Atlantic identified as Tom Lee, who trenchantly observed of typographers and typography fan(atic)s:
I love you guys, but you’re crazy.
Nevertheless, I thought a change of appearance, including typeface, was in order. If it seems a step backwards to you, by all means, please comment.

Low-power FM

With all the blathering I've been doing (and have been keeping myself from doing, just so you know) about KUSF, this piece in the New York Times about low-power FM stations resonates with me in ways it might not have a week ago.
A majority of Americans “still get their news and culture over the broadcast dial,” said Hannah Sassaman, a longtime advocate of community radio. For Ms. Sassaman and others, this month’s bill signing was the culmination of 10 years of lobbying for more access to the airwaves. “I care about this because I have seen these stations light people up and cause political coverage, local music and community organizing to happen around the country and the world,” Ms. Sassaman said.
The bill in question was the Local Community Radio Act, which allows the FCC to give out more licenses for low-power FM stations. Such stations operate at 100 watts. To give you a basis for comparison, KUSF's transmitter ran at 3000 watts; commercial radio stations operate at even higher power levels.

Considering how much time the average person in the U.S. spends in a car, and how much broadband costs, an Internet stream just doesn't cut it if you want to reach a large number of people in the immediate vicinity. Radios are cheap and ubiquitous.

In short, if you give a damn about the local community, especially those who aren't well off, radio is still an extremely effective medium.

(It's okay, Father Privett, we know you don't give a damn.)

Halliburton fracking info, week 10

Illness kept me from checking up on Halliburton's fracking Web site for a few weeks. Let's see all the exciting updates we missed!

[short pause for browsing]

Huh. No updates. Who'd'a thunk?

To reiterate: it has been ten weeks since Halliburton launched its hydraulic-fracturing, or "fracking," Web site, supposedly to tell the world what's in its fracking formulations. It started with three formulas, the company explaining that different locations required different mixtures. Its cheery little message ended with a promise:
Check back often: Many more states to come.
Let me repeat: ten weeks without an update.

I wonder if the company has finished responding to the E.P.A.'s subpoena yet?

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Where did 15 million jobs go?

The National Journal has a fascinating article by Jim Tankersley, "The Phantom 15 Million." It asks the question, "Why aren't there as many jobs as everyone expected?"

To understand what everyone expected, here's some context:
At the turn of the millennium, the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicted that the U.S. economy would create nearly 22 million net jobs in the 2000s, only slightly fewer than the boom 1990s yielded. The economists predicted “good opportunities for jobs” and “an optimistic vision for the U.S. economy” through 2010.
Now, you don't have to tell me that the past decade included some (mostly) unexpected calamities for the U.S. Tankersley doesn't put a lot of stock in such long-term projections in any case, calling them "inexact by nature."

However, as long as we have the projection, we might as well see how accurate it was. The answer is, "not very": "At the decade’s economic peak, though, that number [jobs created] stood at only 7 million." Thus the "phantom 15 million" to which Tankersley referred.

Since the long-term projection was so much entrail-reading in the first place, it's not immediately obvious whether 7 million jobs created is impressive or not. A table on the article's second page puts it in perspective: the 7 million jobs created in the last decade represent not just the lowest absolute number of jobs created in any decade since the 1940s (the next lowest is the 1950s, when 10.6 million new jobs were created), but also represent by far the lowest growth rate, at 5%. Again, to put that in context, Tankersley writes, "Ever since the Labor Department began tracking employment in the late 1930s, no previous decade produced less than 20 percent payroll growth."

I don't want to cheat Tankersley of readers, so I'll stop summarizing his piece and urge you to read it for yourself. It's well-written and contains what I think is a lot of compelling information and useful ideas.

Olbermann, MSNBC part ways

I wasn't going to mention it because I don't care much either way, but as you probably know, Keith Olbermann broadcast his last Countdown Friday night. Olbermann and MSNBC "have ended their contract," according to MSNBC's official statement. There's no word on what Olbermann will be doing in the immediate future.

Having given up on the cable news networks, I can't say I was personally affected: in fact, I haven't watched Countdown since early 2010. However, I found a nice piece by Niall Stanage in Salon entitled,"Why I'm glad Keith Olbermann is gone" that perfectly sums up my own feelings on Olbermann and his broadcast.

Here, for instance, is a key weakness of Countdown that bothered me for a long time:
... there was a years-long procession of pundits whose only apparent purpose was to confirm the correctness and brilliance of the host’s every utterance. The spectacle was one in which purportedly respectable journalists seemed to fall over themselves to play courtier to King Smug.
And Olbermann often seemed to be throwing his stones from inside an extremely fragile glass house:
Olbermann rose to prominence in large part through attacking other media figures -- most notably Bill O’Reilly -- for both their gloating self-regard and their rhetorical recklessness.

Olbermann’s claim to the moral high ground here was strictly relative.
What I wrote when Olbermann was suspended for two days still applies:
I wanted Olbermann to be as effective, if not as angry, an observer and critic of Obama as he was of Bush. I wanted Olbermann to channel his formidable intellect into constructive and illuminating avenues. Perhaps that was never in the cards. Maybe, having let his inner attack dog run loose for several years, he doesn't know how to rein it in again. Whatever is going on in his head, he stopped being a trustworthy voice months ago. It's too bad.
I still respect the man's "formidable intellect." I just hope he uses it more constructively and effectively in whatever he does down the line.

A look at Portugal's legalization of drugs

The Boston Globe last week ran a piece on Portugal's experiment in drug legalization.

It's a pretty positive story, though not unmixedly so (and no one should have expected it to be). One statistic cited to show the failure of Portugal's decriminalization policy, though, proves that preconceptions can blind you to what data actually mean.
According to the latest report by the European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction, the number of Portuguese aged 15 to 64 who have ever tried illegal drugs has climbed from 7.8 percent in 2001 to 12 percent in 2007. The percentage of people who have tried cannabis, cocaine, heroin, amphetamines, ecstasy, and LSD all increased in that time frame. Cannabis use, according to the drug report, has gone up from 7.6 to 11.7 percent. Heroin use jumped from 0.7 to 1.1 percent, and cocaine use nearly doubled — from 0.9 to 1.9 percent. In other words, said Keith Humphreys, a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University, the changes in Portugal have had a somewhat expected outcome: More people are trying drugs.

“What it says to me is that when you decriminalize, use goes up — potentially dramatically,” said Humphreys. “You can see a doubling of cocaine use, a doubling of heroin use. And because drug use carries some risk — no one disputes that — it becomes inevitable that as use goes up, more people will get hurt.”
First, the article conflates "trying" drugs with "using" them. There's a big difference. Not everyone who has ever tried marijuana, or even cocaine or heroin, has become a regular user, though the risks of addiction are obviously much greater with the latter two. It's not clear what the monitoring center actually measured, so there's no way for me to know if Humphreys' finger-wagging is justified.

However, even if it is, Humphreys is still handicapped by a large blind spot. "As use goes up, more people will get hurt" is an argument that can be applied to the legal drug alcohol as well. I don't know if Humphreys wants to make alcohol illegal on that basis, but it doesn't matter because the U.S. is never going to return to Prohibition: that experiment failed on a massive scale and everyone knows it.

A decent counterargument to Humphreys' position is that it's quite possible legalization of some drugs, combined with proper education of their effects and proper treatment for abuse, would result in a reduced strain on our justice system and lower costs overall. It might not, of course. But spectacular misinformation disseminated by the federal government (about marijuana in particular), and the resulting distortion of our national debate about controlled substances, have prevented us from even engaging in a serious discussion about a realistic strategy to combat drug abuse. That's the real problem, and that's why Portugal's experiment is so important to watch.

No one knows how much, if any, of Portugal's great experiment would work in the U.S. Still, what Portugal has done should be studied for what it can teach us. The problem with applying any of it, though, is that federal drug policy prevents the states from acting as the smaller-scale laboratories that they were intended to be for controversial policies. Maybe that's a good starting point for the U.S.: to revisit the federal government's draconian controlled-substance policies to allow for state governments to customize their approaches to drug enforcement.

One last caveat:
Even [Portuguese drug czar João] Goulão himself cautions against decriminalizing drugs without offering what he called “the whole package”: expanded treatment services, increased prevention measures, and a nationalized effort to attack drug addiction, and its consequences, as a public health problem, not a criminal justice issue. “There’s no choice,” he said, “in becoming an addict.”

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Father Privett responds

Apparently feeling the need to defend USF's somewhat tarnished reputation in the aftermath of the KUSF shutdown, USF president Stephen Privett submitted a brief piece to SFGate to describe the university's reason for selling its FM radio license.

I've already explained that I think USF was within its legal rights to dispose of the FM license as it saw fit, so most of Father Privett's statement is non-controversial to me. However, he does attempt to shade things to put USF and himself in the best light, and I feel compelled to set the record straight.
KUSF is not going away, nor will the FM 90.3 frequency go silent. As, the station, in an online streaming format, will have the ability to reach a truly worldwide audience without the weather or geographical impediments that a small radio station has.
Fr. Privett harped on this point during Wednesday's meeting with the community, but never seemed to grasp the salient and central point the community was trying to convey in response: KUSF's global audience is not the issue -- its local audience is.

During the meeting, one gentleman asked what KUSF's poorer local listeners who do not have broadband Internet access were supposed to do to access the station's programming. Fr. Privett said that the problem of broadband access for the poor was not within USF's power to address.

The statement is true, but hardly demonstrates the sense of compassion one expects from a good Catholic.

Moreover, the fact that the "90.3 frequency" will not "go silent" is totally irrelevant. USF has relinquished ownership of that frequency, so it has no business making statements about it.
It is true that USF was unable to give prior notice of the sale. This was part of our legal agreement with the new owners. We did not intend to cause hard feelings with those who believe they had a right to be informed beforehand, but we were obliged to follow this part of the contract.
This bland statement totally avoids the real issue I raised earlier:
What about recording a brief message explaining the situation, and having the station's manager, a paid staffer, take over the air booth just before transmitter shutdown to play that message over the air?

Would that have been beyond the pale, Fr. Privett? Did even this meager sop to your (former) station's staff and listenership simply never occur to you?
The station manager was one of those who knew of the sale beforehand. While unable to discuss the matter with volunteers himself, he certainly would have been free (and I know for a fact that he is technically able) to pre-record a brief statement that essentially would have explained that the station was leaving the air, that KUSF programming would no longer be available at 90.3 FM, and that interested parties should look for a formal statement from USF media relations personnel. He would have been able to play such a statement just before the transmitter was shut down. Listeners, not to mention the on-air staff then present, would then at least have had a minimal understanding of what was going on. It would have been a courteous act -- the minimum one would expect from someone who appreciates the "dedication and passion" of the station's volunteers, as Fr. Privett claims.

Then there's this howler:
On Tuesday, we closed the station for engineering and other changes necessary to make the transition. In doing so, we took a number of reasonable and timely security measures. We believe these were appropriate and regret if any individuals were inconvenienced in that process.
Fr. Privett, I ask you again:
Was it really necessary to cut off the transmitter in the middle of a song, and herd the volunteers then present out like criminals?
"Regret" is the most you can muster?

Now, lest you think I'm being a bit hard on Fr. Privett, consider this statement:
What began as a student enterprise evolved over the years into a near-entitlement for the community.
Note the word "entitlement." This word, better than any other, conveys Fr. Privett's true opinion of KUSF and its listenership. It explains why Fr. Privett's protestations of "regret" ring hollow.

"Entitlement" is a politically charged term these days that carries with it the suggestion that the beneficiaries are getting something they should not. An entitlement is something for which "the entitled" are supposed to be grateful. An entitlement is the sort of thing that fiscal conservatives are anxious to cut out of budgets.

When I wrote:
And the tone he set at the meeting was redolent of indifference to anyone but his students, exactly in keeping with the tone set by his staff on the day of the shutdown (except that even student volunteers were treated pretty badly that day).
-- it was because Fr. Privett clearly conveyed his sense that the community had been getting a free ride that it did not deserve. (Fr. Privett also seems to be under the badly mistaken impression that KUSF was entirely an entertainment-oriented station, which suggests he doesn't pay as much attention as he should to details.)

Unlike Fr. Privett, I will speak plainly. Fr. Privett is mouthing pieties, truly an irony for a good Jesuit, in which he does not believe. He has made legalistic statements that attempt to hide the depth of his indifference to the listenership and volunteer staff of KUSF. He and USF are legally within their rights as far as I can tell -- but don't let them fool you into thinking they actually give a damn about what they shut down Tuesday. They don't.

Limbaugh responds

Media Matters excerpted a segment from Rush Limbaugh's 20 January radio show in which he attempted to explain his "ching chong ching chong" gibbering the day before:
... Normally when you watch these things the translation is either simultaneous or else the foreign language spokesman will speak for a while, pause, the translator will translate it, then resume, then the translator will translate, then resume, and what I noticed was, it was the first time ever, they just kept going, both sides of this. So I'm saying, well, I -- I -- I have no idea of what Hu Jintao is saying, I wanted to report to you what he was saying, but there was a translation [sic], so all I could do is tell you what he said, which I did a remarkable job of doing for someone who doesn't know the language.



I'm sorry, I couldn't speak for a moment, as I had to pick my jaw up from the floor.

If I believed that Rush Limbaugh were a comedian as subversive as Stephen Colbert, that would have come off as a carefully considered, maybe even brilliant bit of self-parody.

However, Limbaugh's not a comedian. He apparently thinks of himself as an entertainer (see below), but he's no comedian, and he possesses neither the talent nor the intelligence to pull off subversive humor of the quality of Colbert's. What we got above was a stunning bit of chutzpah.

Perhaps a Yiddish term is appropriate, as Limbaugh continued by invoking a man who speaks only English and Yiddish, but for his livelihood pretended to speak many more languages:
But back in the old days, you know, Sid Caesar, for those of you old enough to remember, was called a comic genius for impersonating foreign languages that he couldn't speak. But today [chuckles], today the left is exercised. I mean, I -- that was racism, it was bigotry, it was insulting. It wasn't. It was a service. I insulted the ChiComs. I insulted the ChiComs, I insulted 3000 years of Chinese history. I did, I insulted -- wait, here, let me find it here, there's a state senator in California by the name of Leland Yee, he's from San Francisco, and he claims that I owe the Chinese community an apology for mocking the speech. [apparently quoting] "State senator Leland Yee [of] San Francisco called on conservative radio personality" -- that's a new one -- "Rush Limbaugh to apologize to the ChiCom community today for mocking Chinese President Hu Jintao's speech."
Let's pause right there for a moment, and work backwards to analyze Limbaugh's impaired logic.

First of all, Limbaugh -- intentionally or not, we'll never know -- uses the term "ChiCom" in his (apparent) quotation of Senator Yee's statement. If you're a Dittohead, "ChiCom" is Limbaugh-speak for "Chinese Communist." Not being a Dittohead I don't know why he feels the need to abbreviate, but there it is. However, Yee did not use that term, nor the term "Communist," anywhere in his statement. According to multiple sources (including the SF Weekly, SFGate, and the San Mateo County Times), here is what Yee actually wrote:
Mr. Limbaugh owes the Chinese community an apology for this pointless and ugly offense.
Forget trying to mimic Mandarin, Rush, you need to learn to read English first.

Now, let's get back to the estimable Sid Caesar. Caesar, as Limbaugh notes, is a comedian, one of the giants of early television. One of Caesar's trademark riffs was speaking long passages of unintelligible gobbledygook that was nevertheless curiously suggestive of actual languages, such as Italian. Of course, Caesar performed his bits as part of comedy sketches on his TV shows. Is that what Limbaugh claims he was doing, performing a comedy sketch? Why, no: "it was a service."

Rush, you can claim you were playing the fool, as Caesar did, or you can claim you were performing a service for your audience, but you can't claim both, even in your weird little world. (By the way, I've heard your original "service," and to mention your extended gibbering in the same breath as Caesar's inspired verbal gymnastics is deeply insulting to Caesar.)

So I'll take him at his word: Limbaugh thinks he performed a service to his listeners, and did "a remarkable job" of it to boot.

You know, Rush, I knew ten-year-olds when I was growing up who performed the same service to their Asian classmates. By your standards, they, too, did "a remarkable job" even though they didn't know the language. Curiously, though, they didn't seem to take the same kind of pride in their job as you do: they only performed their service when no adults were around, and only when they outnumbered their Asian audience. When I was older, I learned the name of this service: "race-baiting."

Those ten-year-olds' excuse was that they were ten. What's yours?

I thought about continuing to quote from Media Matters' excerpt of Limbaugh's show, but what's the point? He race-baits at the level of a ten-year-old, and he defends himself with words and logic that only a ten-year-old could accept.

Is he still pulling 20 million people to his show? That's kind of a sad commentary on this country -- as is the ringing silence from most quarters on Limbaugh's gibbering. Aside from Asian-American elected officials, no one seems to be all that upset. I've seen more commentary and criticism on the Huckleberry Finn bowdlerization.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Limbaugh the bigot

Courtesy Agence France-Press, an article about the criticism of Rush Limbaugh for the most juvenile kind of anti-Asian bigotry. Speaking of the delay in translation that tripped up People's Republic of China President Hu Jintao's joint press conference with President Obama:
"He was speaking and they weren't translating. They normally translate every couple of words, but Hu Jintao was just going, 'ching chong, ching chong, chong,'" Limbaugh said, continuing his imitation at length.
The article quotes Reps. David Wu and Mike Honda smacking down Limbaugh in forceful but statesmanlike remarks. Thank you, gentlemen, but on behalf of us private citizens more evolved than Limbaugh I can afford to be a little more direct:

Rush, shouldn't you make it a little less transparent what an ugly racist pig you are?

Do your advertisers care that you're so singlemindedly intent on pandering to your fellow bigots, or is that exactly the demographic they want?

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Thoughts on the KUSF meeting

I attended a meeting Wednesday night (19 January), called by the administration of the University of San Francisco to explain to the community at large, including KUSF paid staff and volunteers, the background behind the university's sale of the FM license and transmitter to the University of Southern California.

There will probably be more comprehensive accounts in various media later today, and I don't intend to provide a blow-by-blow account. This is purely and only my distillation of the high points, followed by a personal comment.

Father Stephen Privett, university president, was on hand to present the university's position. Fr. Privett didn't present any information that hasn't been in news accounts such as those I listed earlier. However, Fr. Privett placed great emphasis on the non-disclosure agreement by which USF was bound from the beginning of its negotiations with USC. Agreeing to the NDA was a requirement for commencement of negotiations, he said, and the NDA also prevented him from discussing the sale with anyone outside a small circle of USF executives until it actually went through.

Fr. Privett also stressed that the sale of the license and transmitter was motivated solely by his judgment that the operation of a radio station was not part of USF's mission, and that the resources devoted to the station would be better directed elsewhere. The fact that the station was regarded as an invaluable community resource was not relevant to his decision, he said. His responsibility was only to determine the best course of action for USF's students.

As for the online stream promised by USF's press release as KUSF's future, Fr. Privett made it clear that every aspect of it would be designed with students in mind. He said no firm plans had yet been made regarding the stream.

I give credit to Fr. Privett for addressing this gathering, and for placing no conditions on who could attend. He got a cross-section of KUSF volunteers, many of whom had not been active participants for some time (by the way, nice to see you, J Boogie, Linda Champagne, Kathy w/ a K, Ratso Russo, Ira of the Morning, Mystery DJ, Squid, Carrie, David Katz, Debi Dangerously; apologies to any other oldsters I saw but forgot to mention), as well as a sizable turnout from the station's listenership, and several current USF students, most of whom are also station volunteers.

I also think Fr. Privett made himself admirably clear on most points.

Let me say that I'm grateful to USF for giving me the opportunity to be on its airwaves, to experiment in its production studio, and to listen to more music than I ever knew existed. I have had a hell of a lot of fun in my more than two decades of on-again, off-again volunteering there. I always knew I was doing so at the sufferance of the university, and I always tried to be a responsible beneficiary of its generosity.

The FM license was always USF's to dispose of as it saw fit. While I am disappointed, of course, that USF decided to sell the license and to get out of the business of operating a radio station, I can understand Fr. Privett's reasoning and feel no need to ascribe malice to his decision.

That all said, I have no respect for Fr. Privett personally.

The inarguable fact is, USF exercised its police powers to shut down KUSF without notice to the volunteers who have done the lion's share of the work to keep the station on the air the last 33 years. It shut down KUSF without regard for the listenership. USF's treatment of all those parties has been shabby, high-handed and contemptuous.

And the responsibility lies with Fr. Privett. He sets the tone for the university. And the tone he set at the meeting was redolent of indifference to anyone but his students, exactly in keeping with the tone set by his staff on the day of the shutdown (except that even student volunteers were treated pretty badly that day).

That's his right, of course, and some university partisans might even consider it his responsibility. But it's not an attitude that will foster respect for him or the university.

Fr. Privett's profound indifference to the community outside USF suggests that it never crossed his mind that it might be a charitable act to allow the large volunteer staff to say goodbye to its listeners over the air. I have no doubt that he will take refuge behind the almighty NDA to explain this misstep. However, my reading of the man from his statements at the meeting indicates that he simply didn't care.

Still, let's assume that Fr. Privett did consider the possibility of a mass farewell, and decided that the logistics would simply not permit it. What about recording a brief message explaining the situation, and having the station's manager, a paid staffer, take over the air booth just before transmitter shutdown to play that message over the air?

Would that have been beyond the pale, Fr. Privett? Did even this meager sop to your (former) station's staff and listenership simply never occur to you?

Was it really necessary to cut off the transmitter in the middle of a song, and herd the volunteers then present out like criminals?

Are you really that devoid of human feeling, Fr. Privett?

In a ludicrous postscript, Fr. Privett guardedly, and only once, invited the KUSF volunteer staff to participate in the online feed, whenever it is back up. At the moment, no facilities exist from which to originate this feed, as the old studios have been vacated and new ones have not been made available. (This small oversight makes a mockery of Fr. Privett's insistence that the license's sale was carefully considered and planned.) More to the point, given Fr. Privett's demonstrated indifference to the volunteers, what on earth would motivate them to participate?

I rather expect Fr. Privett is counting on minimal volunteer enthusiasm so as to compel significant student input from the start. Again, that's his right, but it would have given me a smidgen of respect for him had he simply said this.

Ah well. I'm done with him, and he with me. Good riddance.

Stick a fork in KUSF as you knew it: it's done.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Two world views

The KUSF shutdown and a recent Paul Krugman column prompted some rueful reflections this morning.

Actually, what really prompted this entry was an excerpt from former KUSF mentor/DJ Howie Klein's Down with Tyranny blog, an entry called "The Systematic Destruction Of Independent Media--From KUSF To NBC". Even more specifically, Klein quoted a recent newsletter from Sen. Al Franken, in which Franken lamented the FCC's recent decision to clear the sale of NBC to Comcast:
I’ll be candid with you: This is an awful development for those of us who care about media consolidation. It will restrict your freedom of choice and raise your cable and Internet bills. And it could pave the way for even more media mergers and even less room for independent voices in the media.
Being out of the mainstream in some (not all) of my tastes, I'm sensitive to the loss of small, independent voices in our national culture. My concerns, though, are, if not quite incomprehensible, then trivially irrelevant to a significant percentage of my fellow citizens, as Krugman's recent column, "A Tale of Two Moralities," made clear.
One side of American politics considers the modern welfare state — a private-enterprise economy, but one in which society’s winners are taxed to pay for a social safety net — morally superior to the capitalism red in tooth and claw we had before the New Deal. It’s only right, this side believes, for the affluent to help the less fortunate.

The other side believes that people have a right to keep what they earn, and that taxing them to support others, no matter how needy, amounts to theft. That’s what lies behind the modern right’s fondness for violent rhetoric: many activists on the right really do see taxes and regulation as tyrannical impositions on their liberty.
Krugman casts this divide in terms of taxation, but in fact this philosophical divide on the role of government and taxes is but a part of a larger question of how we shape our own society.

One side of the debate vehemently denies that government has any but the smallest role in determining how our society evolves and responds to problems. The federal government is there to ensure that no external power interferes with us, and state and local governments are there to ... well, it's not clear to me exactly what role people on that side of the debate see for state and local governments, but a role exists, if only because the Constitution parses out power between the federal government and "the states." How does society handle everything else? Presumbly it's a tradeoff between state/local legislation and the free market. The market is assigned a rather large role in this world view, because the collective wisdom of its impersonal workings is presumed to be a better guide than the grand schemes of individual technocrats.

The other side of the debate posits that government at all levels is the great leveler, counterbalancing unwholesome influences in the free market and imposing some measure of responsibility on the profit motive. If the free market seems to be steamrolling over some, the government's role is either to stop the steamrolling or to mitigate the suffering, e.g., through unemployment insurance or a last-ditch health care option.

Obviously most of us fall somewhere in the middle of this divide, but the terms of the debate are set by the most extreme advocates of either side.

So what does all this have to do with Sen. Franken's opinion of the NBC/Comcast deal, and for that matter, what does it have to do with KUSF?

Well, Sen. Franken obviously feels that the untrammeled workings of the market in the NBC/Comcast case are, in fact, detrimental to our society. The concentration of media ownership in fewer and fewer hands is detrimental to our national debate because it lessens the likelihood that voices critical of the controlling owners, or critical of policies and trends those owners favor, will be heard. It gives those owners an increasingly powerful voice in that debate. Unsurprisingly, Franken believes government, the FCC in this case, had a role to play, but failed to play that role.

As for KUSF, it was a small voice on the FM dial owned by an entity that had (and has) no other major media outlets. Though not known for political programming as such, its on-air personalities were largely free to speak their minds, and certainly were free to play a range of music that owed nothing to any corporation's pocketbook. It hosted guests who spoke on a myriad of topics, guests who might have found it difficult if not impossible to be heard anywhere else on the dial. Again, these were not political conversations for the most part; these were people speaking on the arts, on culture, on topics of interest to the San Francisco Bay Area. For the most part they weren't controversial: they were simply not significant enough to warrant airtime on bigger radio stations.

I can guarantee you that 90.3 FM, KDFC, will not be airing those voices. That's not its aim. And so, without malice but certainly with some harm, an outlet for those disparate voices is gone.

KDFC will be playing classical music, and that's all. It will not be airing foreign-language programs, or Shoestring Radio Theater, or Rampage Radio, or Radio Goethe, or any of the dozens of other programs serving a myriad of communities. Even whether the variety of KDFC's music can approach the variety available on the old KUSF's airwaves, like MTheo's Monday night show Classics Without Walls, is yet to be seen (but I'm not holding my breath).

Oh, and who owns the 90.3 FM license? The University of Southern California, which already owns its own radio station, KUSC, in Southern California.

I'm not saying USC will do badly by its new acquisition, but is consolidation of ownership always a good thing?

We as a nation are confronting that very question, and have been for a couple of decades, yet for the most part people don't care. Rupert Murdoch's Fox empire, the Clear Channel media empire, the Disney media empire, and now the Comcast media empire -- is it good for us to be getting our information and entertainment (since the two are now so closely entwined we have to consider them together) from such behemoths?

Is it good for us to let the free market operate untrammeled to permit economies of scale in our media? Is bigger always better?

Do we want our government to rein in such consolidation? Is there a need for government to play such a role?

Is the popularity, or market share, of an idea or of a voice a reliable gauge as to its importance to our society?

We will be playing out the answers to these questions whether we like it or not. Unfortunately, my sense is that too few of us feel the answers matter, and so through apathy and inaction we will lose many, many small but significant voices who could have enriched and improved our national debate about who we are and what kind of society we're going to have.

And we'll never know what we missed.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

No more radio for KUSF

It's the end of an era: San Francisco's little college station that could, KUSF, is off the FM airwaves, seemingly for good.

KUSF's broadcast license was held by the University of San Francisco (USF), a private institution. Today, USF announced it was giving up that license.
The university has reached an agreement to assign the FCC license for radio frequency 90.3 FM to Classical Public Radio Network, which is launching a non-commercial classical music station in the Bay Area. CPRN is owned by University of Southern California.
The station's nearly all-volunteer staff was caught by surprise, and USF apparently wasn't much interested in such niceties as allowing the currently on-air DJ to sign the station off properly, as is typically required (by the FCC) when a radio station stops broadcasting. According to the Bay Citizen's's account:
At 10 a.m. this morning, Irwin Swirnoff, a DJ and music director at KUSF, was doing some volunteer work in the station when he heard an alarming thing: silence. Or rather, the sound of static as USF, per an agreement with USC-owned Classical Public Radio Network, cut the transmitter.

To those present at the station, including the on-air DJ, Howard Ryan, it seemed that no one had been given warning of the sale.
Here's an excerpt from the SF Weekly's story:
USF officials abruptly shut the doors to KUSF, the college's well-known indie radio station today, locking out students and DJs with no notice.

Security guards walked into the station on campus this morning in the middle of a show and ordered everyone out, according to one student DJ. The university then shut down the station, and allowed staff to go back inside and get their things.
The deal is part of a larger rearrangement of the Bay Area radio dial in which classical commercial station KDFC (102.1 FM) will change formats and call letters, simulcasting San Jose station KUFX, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. The actual call letters "KDFC" will be assigned to the old KUSF frequency, 90.3 FM, on which CPRN's noncommercial classical music feed will air. (Apologies for the awkward phrasing, but I'm not interested in clarifying it for the nonce: read the linked articles for the full picture.)

The Bay Guardian also has a piece on the incident, as does the San Francisco Chronicle's Peter Hartlaub. (Note that Hartlaub wrote both an article on the classical-music angle and one on KUSF proper, links to both of which are in this entry.)

Now, I must disclose that I have had an on-again, off-again association with KUSF for a long time. I've been a DJ on New Music Programming and other programs, and I've done my share of recorded announcements for the station, too. I've put in countless hours of my time and provided my own music, at my own expense, for some of my shows. I'm therefore no dispassionate observer of this fiasco.

As you can probably tell, I think it bites. As the license holder, USF was free to dispose of the license as it saw fit, but to do so without notice to the volunteer staff or to the community at large that listens to the broadcast signal was insensitive at best. The word "loutish" best captures my sentiment, I think.

Rather than rehashing what the referenced articles say, allow me to read the tea leaves from USF's own public statements.

According to the University, only the broadcast license was sold; "KUSF" will continue to be heard online.
The call letters KUSF were not sold, and the KUSF logo and all music inventory will remain USF property. All KUSF staff will be offered similar positions at

The move to online-only distribution gives KUSF a powerful opportunity to grow its worldwide audience. Previously, the station was limited to 100 online listeners at a time, but capacity will be increased to accommodate thousands of listeners.
Also from the press release:
As it shifts to an online-only format, USF will focus on the station’s primary purpose as a teaching laboratory for students.
As a "teaching resource," KUSF's value lay in its operation as a radio station. The station's format -- well, let's clarify that KUSF did not adhere to a single "format" as most people understand that term. KUSF boasted an eclectic range of programming that didn't hew to a single theme or even organizing principle. On weekdays, from midnight to 6 PM, "New Music Programming" held sway; this is the format that gained KUSF most of its fame, as it focused on breaking new and often "difficult" music that commercial stations would not touch -- until KUSF and other college stations helped to build an audience for it. The heyday of KUSF's influence in this regard was the 1980s and early 1990s, when acts like R.E.M. and Nirvana crossed over from college stations to commercial recognition.

However, KUSF's programming went well beyond "New Music." Weekday evenings between 6 PM and midnight, as well as weekends, were given over to a variety of programs, some of them in other languages (Mandarin, Cantonese, Farsi, German, Finnish, French, Italian, Turkish, and Azerbaijani, to name only the ones I can recall), some of them non-musical in nature and focused on specific subjects like theater or food, and still others focused on specific types of music like soul, dance, electronica, obscure classical, heavy metal, etc.

These programs all had small but loyal audiences, as their like didn't and doesn't exist on the airwaves. Also, because they aired on a radio station, they also were far more likely to be locally oriented, even after KUSF became available as an Internet stream. They and New Music Programming promoted local businesses and people, too, either as on-air guests or as underwriters (businesses which donated money, goods or services in support of the station).

It's this web of locality, and the sense of community it nurtured, that USF is giving up. USF is forcing the San Francisco Bay Area to give it up, too.

So, now that we have a better understanding of KUSF's programming, what does USF's declared "primary purpose" for KUSF, "as a teaching laboratory for students," signify?

Well, it depends on what USF is interested in teaching students, doesn't it?

In the old days, KUSF existed to teach students what they needed to know to work at a radio station. (Indirectly, a number of volunteers learned valuable lessons about how to work in the music industry, too, as this reminiscence from former DJ Denise Sullivan notes.) The specific programming on KUSF came about organically due to the need to fill 24 hours of air time, seven days a week; the content of the programming was not of as much concern to the University as the opportunity to practice being on the air (and to cut tape, and to produce recorded announcements).

Now, again, what's USF interested in teaching students?

After that dramatic buildup, you might think I have some clever answer up my sleeve. Sorry, I don't. I wish I did, believe me.

If USF were interested in demonstrating how to construct an insanely diverse, wildly divergent set of audiences for the same 'net feed, I think the current programming would stand an excellent chance of surviving. If USF were interested in demonstrating how a university could nurture goodwill in its local community, I think the current programming would be around indefinitely.

I doubt USF is interested in these things. And unfortunately, whatever its real interests and intentions, I'm not sure how the current programs will fit.

At the moment, the future of the entity formerly known as the FM station KUSF is in flux. I'll be keeping tabs on it.

Apple's next CEO

Steve Jobs goes on medical leave, and the pundits unleash their advice. InformationWeek's Paul McDougall's MLK Day column was entitled, "Steve Jobs Should Be Apple's Last Rock Star CEO."
But, healthy or not, Jobs' work at Apple is done. He's not the guy to take the company to the next level, and here's why.

On the consumer side, Jobs' not-invented-here phobia limits the ecosystem around Apple's products and puts a chokehold on growth. The Mac was relegated to niche status in the PC market because Jobs' insistence on complete control over the hardware and software environment made the platform pricey and lacking in applications compared with Windows PCs. Despite its head start, the same thing could happen to the iPad unless Apple loosens the reins on developers and embraces the notion that not all third-party hardware and software is crap until Apple says it isn't.
Now, granted, this article appeared in a publication dedicated to IT professionals, but even so, do all of these writers have such gigantic blind spots?

Anybody who has looked at Apple's stock performance since 2000 can see that Apple's niche status hasn't hurt its stock price one bit as far as Wall Street is concerned. (I don't happen to think that Wall Street is an exceptionally wonderful yardstick for whether a company is successful or not, but this is McDougall's world and Wall Street's judgment matters there.) And although I don't have any links handy, it has been noted again and again that Apple's products command a greater profit margin than most if not all of its competitors.

McDougall's whole mindset is that market share trumps everything else. If you buy into that mindset, his argument has some merit, but if you think becoming the next Microsoft is not the end-all, be-all of corporate fates, McDougall's advice is totally irrelevant.

McDougall is also curiously ignorant about certain facets of IT:
Jobs' Shoeless Joe approach (if you build it, and it's beautiful, the customers will come) isn't enough in the enterprise market, where big accounts have to be wined and dined, products must be sold as "solutions," channels must be cultivated and nurtured, and everything has to work securely and reliably with everything else, including that 30-year-old accounting application that was written in COBOL. Steve is, well, just too cool to be bothered with all that (and I mean that without sarcasm).
"Coolness"? That's McDougall's explanation for why Apple doesn't compete in the enterprise market? What kind of sophistry is that?

McDougall knows, or bloody well should, that competing in the enterprise market is expensive. HP, IBM, Oracle -- these companies spend untold hundreds of millions of dollars annually to foster those cozy relationships with customers, to fill in the niches of their existing product lines so they're one-stop shops, to support their software and hardware products for definite, often long, life cycles. Inertia is a huge competitor, too: if you've invested in Oracle, you're going to think long and hard before you let a competitor in the door, because there are huge costs associated with switching to a new vendor. Jobs' alleged coolness is not the reason Apple is not in enterprise, and if McDougall were clearheaded -- or simply honest -- he would acknowledge that.

McDougall's advice being so misguided, it's not surprising his candidates for CEO don't inspire my confidence:
Former HP CEO Mark Hurd comes to mind. He's an ops and logistics expert with big time IT experience, and the betting here is that his ability to coexist with the volatile Larry Ellison at Oracle, where Hurd is currently a co-president, will expire sooner than a quart of milk bought from a gas station.

Speaking of Ellison's road kill, Scott McNealy has been unemployed since Oracle closed out its acquisition of Sun Microsystems last year. At Sun, McNealy ran a company where, like Apple, the hardware, software, and chips were all developed in-house and sold as an integrated system. But under McNealy Sun was also one of the first enterprise players to fully embrace open source as a means to battle competitors that were richer and enjoyed better economies of scale. That's the kind of flexibility Apple needs right now, and McNealy is even cool enough to work there.
Hmm ... the guy HP canned for impropriety, and the guy who ran Sun Microsystems into the ground while trying, unsuccessfully, to compete with HP, IBM, and its eventual buyer, Oracle. Be still, my beating heart.

Oh, and I must note McDougall's deep sense of compassion:
... it's not out of the question that Jobs, just 55, is at this moment facing his mortality.

So let's dispense with sentimentality for now and take a hard look at what Apple needs to do without Steve Jobs.
Yes, by all means, the first thing to do after noting that a man might be dying is to "dispense with sentimentality."

They pay McDougall to write this drivel?

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Ars on FCC net neutrality vote

I used to read Ars.Technica a lot more, but I kept getting sucked into the comments threads. As with virtually all comments sections on the Web, Ars' are long, sometimes informative, and always time-consuming. Eventually, even though Ars thoughtfully now hides an article's comments by default, I gave up trying to drink from that firehose.

I had forgotten all that when I waded into a 22 December 2010 piece on the FCC's then just-issued rule mandating an "open Internet". Nate Anderson's article chastises other commentators, such as those on Engadget and TechCrunch, who reacted with suspicions of back-room conspiracies between the FCC and big ISPs like Verizon. Anderson's claim is that the FCC did its best to tread lightly between the sharp-edged political rocks on all sides, and in particular he thinks it's more technically astute than many of its critics believe.

The FCC's rule, or at least its preliminary notes thereon (nothing is set in stone as yet), attracted a lot of bickering in the comments. Actually, it attracted a really prolonged and occasionally vituperative exchange between a few posters. I commend them for their technical savvy, but a few of them -- I'm thinking of one in particular, but I'll refrain from specifying which -- would benefit from a little introspection as to whether their condescension and improperly personal jibes help or hurt their arguments. You can be technically right and still lose the debate because people are too repelled by your behavior to weigh your arguments on a rational basis.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Leave Twain alone

A publisher is cleaning up The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. NewSouth Books is replacing the word "nigger" with the word "slave" throughout.

Not that NewSouth Books came up with the idea itself.
Alan Gribben, a professor of English at Auburn University at Montgomery, approached the publisher with the idea in July. Mr. Gribben said Tuesday that he had been teaching Mark Twain for decades and always hesitated before reading aloud the common racial epithet, which is used liberally in the book, a reflection of social attitudes in the mid-19th century.

“I found myself right out of graduate school at Berkeley not wanting to pronounce that word when I was teaching either ‘Huckleberry Finn’ or ‘Tom Sawyer,’ ” he said. “And I don’t think I’m alone.”
I think you're alone, Professor Gribben.

What, are you afraid your African-American students will think you're calling them "niggers"? I daresay most college students understood that when a professor reads from a book, he's, well, reading from a book. You know -- using the author's words, not his own.

Do you think the word will scald flesh? Are you afraid it will start a riot? What exactly is your hangup?
Mr. Gribben said no schools had expressed interest yet in teaching the book — nor did he say what ages he thought the edition appropriate for. In his introduction, however, he writes that “even at the level of college and graduate school, students are capable of resenting textual encounters with this racial appellative.”
I'm sure some are. You know something? They need to learn that they're reading a book. They're not being called out by some white guy who has been dead for a hundred years. They're reading a literary work which for generations has been judged worthy of study. If some students want to call that judgment into question, fine: academic debate is a great thing. If, someday, Twain's work falls off reading lists because it no longer seems to have something to tell us, so be it. But if you're going to teach the book at all, you use the text Twain wrote, not the one you wish he had written.

I'm glad that no schools have expressed interest in the book. Without intending malice toward NewSouth Books, I can but hope this edition doesn't fly off the shelves.

The word was common enough in Twain's time for him to feel comfortable using it in a book for the masses. Pretending the book doesn't use it is dishonest, and to my mind astoundingly stupid. Huckleberry Finn comes with baggage, as all books do. Proper teaching acknowledges, elucidates, and contextualizes that baggage. Students don't benefit from, if you will pardon the pun, whitewashing history.

Professor Gribben, you're deeply misguided.

Bad security in Taipei

Taipei has deployed a smartcard-based payment system that is open to theft using no more than a $40 card reader and several hours. It's possible to add money to these cards merely by possessing the right software. As the security consultant who demonstrated the exploit remarked, "Using this in the year 2010 as a payment system is ignorant, clueless, and a sign of gross negligence."

How did the government come to make such a boneheaded decision? It seems that the existing EasyCard system, used to make payments for transportation-related services, offered to implement the wider payment system the government wanted. EasyCard, though, was known to be vulnerable to crackers at least three years ago.
According to [security consultant Harald] Welte, researchers from the University of Taiwan wrote a letter protesting the decision, noting the security problems. But early in 2010, the EasyCard system was rolled out on a widespread basis . . .
The Taiwanese government (or the Taipei municipal government; the article isn't clear) either pretended EasyCard wasn't vulnerable but actually knew better, or it genuinely didn't know better. If the government did know better, clearly something shady happened to land EasyCard the concession.

Corrupt or clueless -- which do you prefer?

Advice to fix bad copy

Cindy Alvarez is a product management specialist. The 30 December 2010 edition of her online column "The Experience is the Product" is well-written, so it's probably worth your time to read it and ponder its message.
Your emails. Your marketing copy. Your in-app copy. Your whitepapers. If you aren’t reading them out loud before publishing, they probably suck.

And that’s killing your business.
No doubt a lot of copy goes out without adequate review. Not long ago I read someone's product proposal, produced in order to drum up venture capital for a startup, and was shocked by how shoddy the composition was. That's the equivalent of sending out your resume with typos: you have no business doing that. Come to think of it, you'll have no business, doing that.

Nevertheless, I can't endorse the "read it out loud" advice wholeheartedly because I have firsthand experience of how easy it is to misconstrue your own writing. No, really, it's absurdly easy.

I wrote and rewrote a speech I was to deliver at a friend's wedding. It went from many scribbled, scratched-out pages to a typed draft on the computer, and still, the day before the wedding, I happened to notice an extra word in one sentence.

You might dismiss such a thing as trivial, but understand that I had been rehearsing this speech for several days and not once had vocalized the extra word. Moreover, on review of the original handwritten drafts afterwards, the extra word had been present all the way back at the start. Whatever caused my blindness to the extra word blinded me repeatedly. The brain is powerful that way.

Your mind, too, will trick you into thinking you have written exactly what you meant. If you try to read your own work out loud, chances are that your mind will continue to leap over problematic phrases, insert invisible pauses where the writing mandates none, and otherwise will compensate for the writing's deficiencies. Whatever blind spots you have for your own writing are rooted in cognition, and they will persist no matter how you try to express the same words.

You need an extra pair of eyes attached to a different brain to spot the deficiencies in your cherished bit of writing.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Links before I sleep

A few links to stories that I found interesting, sans (much) comment:

Even simple phones vulnerable to "SMS of death"

And you were sitting there all smug with your free Nokia handset watching the iPhone people freak out. Ha! (Actually, the iPhone people stopped freaking out over a year ago because they just assumed Apple fixed the problem with a software update. That might or might not have been a wise assumption: I seem to recall that much of the vulnerability lay in AT&T's own insecure wireless infrastructure.)

Tim Bray's wish for the country, 2011
Here’s the country I want to be a citizen of: the one that decides to buy comfort and convenience by deploying courage.

Krugman on "The New Voodoo"

Expedia drops American Airlines
The Fort Worth, Texas-based airline has said that it would like to sell more tickets through its own website, as paying to have its flights listed on sites such as Expedia can be costly.
The article notes that American pulled out of Orbitz last month. Translation: American doesn't like competing head-to-head with other airlines. If its service is still anything like what I experienced fifteen years ago on a transatlantic flight, it's right to be afraid.

The view from Mr. Borges' window

I wish we could have gotten a photo instead of a line drawing. Not that it would have made it any more straightforward to bend my mind around his stories.

Pro ball at 48

In the "what about some happy news for a change" department, Herb Johnson is 48 and still playing pro basketball.

He's living in Switzerland these days and doesn't know if he'll return to the states when he retires, whenever that is:
"It was comfortable to choose Switzerland and why not?" Johnson said. "Look at it. I mean you're in a situation where you traveled throughout Europe and at the end of your career you get to stay right in the center of it in a place like Switzerland. I mean, it's a no-brainer."
A no-brainer indeed.

New thoughts on care for Alzheimers patients

The New York Times has a decently detailed piece on how a Phoenix, Arizona nursing home is caring for some of the most difficult patients. Essentially, their approach is to cater to the patients' emotional well-being as a way to improve their overall well-being. That means they have some unconventional remedies on hand:
Dementia patients at Beatitudes are allowed practically anything that brings comfort, even an alcoholic “nip at night,” said Tena Alonzo, director of research. “Whatever your vice is, we’re your folks,” she said.

Once, Ms. Alonzo said: “The state tried to cite us for having chocolate on the nursing chart. They were like, ‘It’s not a medication.’ Yes, it is. It’s better than Xanax.”
I sat on the prior blog entry for months because it was a little uncomfortable to discuss the subject so openly. However, the Times piece made me reconsider. It's so rare to hear about ways of helping patients feel better that I wanted to mention it. Yet if the Times article has a fault, it is that the specifics of the challenges to coping with such patients is not much discussed. (The article is part of an ongoing series in the paper, though, so I've no doubt other pieces in the series go into sufficient detail.) In that light, the months-old, unpublished entry seemed worth dredging up.

Bus stop for Alzheimers patients

[Note: I wrote this back in July, so I don't know if the Telegraph article is still valid.]

A German nursing home installed a fake bus stop to keep some of its patients from wandering away.

Patients suffering from ailments that degrade their memory, including Alzheimer's disease, don't remember why they're in a facility rather than in their own homes. Confused and afraid, they seek the familiar places they still remember:
“... Their short-term memory hardly works at all, but the long-term memory is still active. They know the green and yellow bus sign and remember that waiting there means they will go home.” The result is that errant patients now wait for their trip home at the bus stop, before quickly forgetting why they were there in the first place.
This is a clever solution to a problem that breaks my heart.

50 First Dates is centered on a woman with an extreme form of short-term memory loss. Being a romantic comedy, you're supposed to take the romance part somewhat seriously (enough to make you care about the couple), and that bothers me a little.

It's wonderful to imagine that love can conquer a mental deficit that prevents one from remembering anything of the last twenty-four hours. In the real world, though, even less severe deficits produce results that are neither funny nor charming. Following complex stories, whether they be suspense novels or the narrative of the BP oil gusher in the Gulf of Mexico, becomes impossible since the details cannot be retained long enough to put the picture together. Memory is lost in last in, first out order, so the afflicted stop living in the present, mentally. The personality start unravelling, too, as more and more of what made up that personality disappears.

One of my parents suffered from Alzheimer's, or an ailment that effected similar degradation of memory. The only upside was hearing stories I'd never been told, stories from decades past that undoubtedly had been buried under the weight of accumulating later memories that now were vanishing. Otherwise, the experience was deeply unsettling. The forceful personality I'd known for my entire life became an apathetic shell that sometimes forgot to eat. Every day one of us children would visit, in part to check that all was well (even with a daytime caregiver, we worried), and in part to spend time talking; we knew that things likely would worsen to the point where conversation was impossible, and even recognition might be difficult, so we wanted to take advantage of the cogent mentality that remained.

Yet we heard the same stories again and again, which strained our patience. Our visits generally came at the end of long and stressful work days that left us with little energy or patience to cope with a reluctance to eat, or to clean house, or to do any of a hundred other tasks you and I perform as part of what we consider a civilized life.

Mental ailments like Alzheimer's disease do more than take away your memory: they take away your dignity and your deepest sense of self. I'm glad to hear of inventive approaches, like the fake bus stop, to keeping sufferers from these diseases safe without unduly agitating them. It doesn't diminish my sorrowfulness for them one bit, though.