Sunday, February 27, 2011

Rethinking my take on the CPRN and Entercom deal

Earlier I wrote:
Only CPRN's solid offer to take over KDFC's classical format would have given Entercom the confidence to buy KUFX. CPRN's action cleared the way for Entercom to repurpose the 102.1 frequency for simulcasting to the San Francisco area that KUFX's South Bay transmitter couldn't reach.
Two seconds after I posted that entry I reread that part and thought, "That's really dumb."

The fact that KDFC was one of the last commercial classical stations in an urban area suggests that the classical format at best wasn't making Entercom as much money as another format would. Entercom wouldn't have had any qualms about shuttering the classical format in favor of one more profitable, so it wouldn't have looked around for someone to take the format off its hands. It's more likely that CPRN found out, or suspected, that KDFC's classical format was on shaky ground, and approached Entercom. Entercom would probably have gone through with the format change for 102.1 without CPRN's offer, though.

For Entercom, what counted was acquiring KUFX. What happened to KDFC and KUSF was nothing more than fallout.

It's an historical oddity, by the way, that Entercom owns the two frequencies that most recently broadcast classical music in San Francisco: 95.7 FM (formerly KKHI) and 102.1.

Murray Attaway still active

A little disappointed that the version of "Always Saturday" I found was in mono, I grubbed around the 'net and stumbled across a reference to Murray Attaway's new band, Bomber City. He's joined by, among others, his former Guadalcanal Diary bandmate Jeff Walls.
Bomber City was originally intended to provide a live outlet for songs that Attaway has written over the last twenty years, both individually and as collaborations with Walls (many of them unreleased). The group’s set list has evolved to include material from Attaway’s 1993 solo album In Thrall (Geffen) along with Guadalcanal Diary-era outtakes, oddities, and the occasional surprise cover. Bomber City also delivers a handful of requisite Guadalcanal Diary faves with augmented instrumentation and fresh new energy.
I haven't been this excited about a resurrected musical favorite since the Effigies. Unfortunately for those of us not in and around Athens, GA, Bomber City appears to be a strictly local outfit for now. I also don't see any recorded material for sale or download, but YouTube has a taste of what the rest of us are missing: a Bomber City version of "In My Book" (from In Thrall).

S.F. tidbit: 102.1 ad and the KUSF deal

As part of the deal that handed the University of San Francisco's license for the 90.3 FM frequency to the Classical Public Radio Network (owned by the University of Southern California), the classical format of 102.1 FM, KDFC, was moved to 90.3 FM (becoming noncommercial in the process). Entercom, which owns the license for 102.1, quickly began simulcasting its South Bay rock outlet, KUFX "The Fox." Today I saw the first TV ad for the now dual-frequency station.

TV ads for radio stations aren't that common any more, but they do catch the eyes of those whose ears aren't listening. In this case, Entercom had several million reasons for wanting to pump its audience numbers up. According to, Entercom paid $9 million to buy KUFX in early January 2011.
This is the kind of fill-in deal for Entercom that would've been done pretty naturally in the trading climate of 5-6 years ago. Its announcement now suggests that things might be turning - and that Entercom's feeling comfortable enough to do the deal.
In retrospect, we now see what gave Entercom that level of comfort. Only CPRN's solid offer to take over KDFC's classical format would have given Entercom the confidence to buy KUFX. CPRN's action cleared the way for Entercom to repurpose the 102.1 frequency for simulcasting to the San Francisco area that KUFX's South Bay transmitter couldn't reach. Only that expanded audience would have justified the high price Entercom paid for KUFX.

That wasn't Entercom's only recent investment, by the way. It's touting the addition to KUFX's DJ linuep of "Big Rick" Stuart, a popular local radio personality who until recently was a fixture at San Francisco's KFOG. Stuart could not have been an inexpensive acquisition.

Closing the circle, Big Rick got his start in radio at KUSF -- the station squeezed off the FM airwaves as part of CPRN's deal with USF.

[UPDATE: corrected mangled writing in the first paragraph. Also, I revisited some of this post's thoughts not long afterwards.]

My Obsession Now: Guadalcanal Diary, "Always Saturday"

Guadalcanal Diary's Murray Attaway wasn't cut out for pop stardom, and his songwriting showed it. Attaway's obsessions, notably the history of the South and spirituality, dominate his lyrics. These lyrics and the often minor-key melodies in which they were embedded provided moments of great joy for brooding spirits like myself but guaranteed that radio programmers would shy away from the band like germophobes from a leper.

Guadalcanal Diary's best-known tune, "Watusi Rodeo," was as upbeat and conventionally pop as anybody thought Attaway and his colleagues could get -- that is, until their final album, Flip Flop, produced "Always Saturday," an unabashed stab at the pop charts.

Lyrically, it's a romp through idealized images of halcyon days that might or might not ever have been real, interspersed with a dig or two at contemporary culture, sprinkled throughout with a touch of Attaway's trademark irony and wistfulness.

"Always Saturday" emphasizes the beautiful, strong harmonizing the rest of the band (Jeff Walls, Rhett Crowe, and John Poe) could provide. Their call to Attaway's response makes for an irresistible chorus. (It may bear mentioning that I'm a huge fan of Attaway's clear, strong voice: it rings as brightly as the band's guitars.)

As if to emphasize the band's goal of hitting the charts, there's a video for the song. If the upbeat melody and arrangement fool you into thinking this is a simple, happy summer song (everything about it says "summer" to me), the footage in the video will undercut your expectations. I think the song works better without the imagery, but I'm glad to have seen the video just for the chance to see Attaway in all his 1980s glory, looking like Elvis Costello in wire-rims.

I first heard and obsessed over this song more than fifteen years ago when I stumbled across the only copy of Flip Flop I've ever seen. The song beguiles me as much today as it did then.

UPDATE: The aforementioned video not only is in mono, but also is an edited version of the song. Find a used copy of Flip Flop if you can. (I did, just the other day. The album is better than I remember.)

Friday, February 25, 2011

One more thought about the Kochs

In "Kochs pay to play in Wisconsin" I accused the billionaire Koch brothers of looking out for their wallets under the guise of saving capitalism. However, I forgot to mention the biggest reason their pretense doesn't convince me.

If they think their cause is righteous and pure, why are they so careful to avoid publicizing their considerable financial support for it?

Operation Smile Train not a happy merger

On Valentine's Day the charities Operation Smile and Smile Train announced they were merging; the new entity would be known as Operation Smile Train. The two organizations address the same malady, cleft lips in children, so the merger made sense and seemed uneventful.

Only it wasn't. As the New York Times reported, the merger was more like a hostile takeover engineered by one of Smile Train's cofounders, Charles Wang.

The terms of the deal are hard to believe:
  • Only a third of Smile Train's assets will be assigned to the merged entity. The rest of Smile Train's assets will be part of a fund under Wang's control.
  • Half the money Operation Smile Train raises over the next three years will also be placed into the Wang-controlled fund.
  • Operation Smile's cofounders will have "lifetime tenure."
Wang had disagreed with Smile Train's other cofounder, Brian Mullaney, about how the charity should plan for the future. Coincidentally, Mullaney's own disagreement with Operation Smile's founders while on its board of directors had led him to create Smile Train with Wang some years ago. It certainly looks as if Wang engineered the merger in part to get back at Mullaney, though the large amount of money that will be under Wang's control if the merger goes through probably was a big factor, too.

The only reason I know about Smile Train is that its incessant and unsolicited mailings have irritated me for years. I'd like to believe its current travails are karmic payback for being a singularly annoying outfit.

[UPDATE: I've gotten a lot less tolerant of Smile Train's begging letters. My 19 July 2011 posting explains why you shouldn't send a penny to this disreputable and unscrupulous outfit, while my 26 September 2011 posting is the first of what I imagine will be an endless set of entries documenting further unwelcome solicitations from the weasels at Smile Train.]

Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Supreme Court and race: unfinished business

The New York Times' Linda Greenhouse gives a heads-up with respect to a few Supreme Court Justices' sentiments on civil-rights legislation, and how those sentiments might play out if the Court addresses a pending challenge to the Voting Rights Act.

I'm wary of promoting opinion pieces (this is from Greenhouse's Opinionator blog), but I have a particular interest in the Court and I respect Greenhouse's insights. She puts the cases she discusses into context, explaining some of the parties involved (conservatives might well argue she spends more time exploring the conservative organizations supporting the challenges than the presumably liberal ones opposing them) and the reason why the challenged laws were put into place by Congress. That context alone is reason enough to read her blog entry.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Kochs pay to play in Wisconsin

Per the New York Times, it seems the billionaire Koch brothers' company Koch Industries "was one of the biggest contributors to the election campaign of Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin." The Times article says the Koch brothers also flexed their political muscle through the nonprofit they created, Americans for Prosperity:
Even before the new governor was sworn in last month, executives from the Koch-backed group had worked behind the scenes to try to encourage a union showdown, Mr. Phillips said in an interview on Monday.
This is nothing new.
Political activism is high on the list of priorities for Charles Koch, who in a letter last September to other business leaders and conservatives explained that he saw no other choice.

“If not us, who? If not now, when?” said the letter, which invited other conservatives to a retreat in January in Rancho Mirage, Calif. “It is up to us to combat what is now the greatest assault on American freedom and prosperity in our lifetimes.”
I don't know the context of this quotation, so I don't know what Charles Koch considers that "greatest assault on American freedom and prosperity" to be. But I would like him to say whether he considers collective bargaining an "assault" on freedom. (I don't doubt he considers collective bargaining an assault on prosperity -- his prosperity, to be exact.)

Conservative blowhards like to prate about criticisms of the wealthy being "class warfare." Bullshit. The real class warfare is being waged by the Kochs and their friends through astroturf groups like Americans for Prosperity and sycophantic media outlets like Fox News.

If you're not in the same tax bracket as the Koch brothers, but you support their supposedly pro-prosperity agenda, ask yourself one question:

Can the Koch brothers and their wealthy friends possibly imagine what it's like to earn a living today?

Don't kid yourself: they can't.

The spectacle of billionaires pontificating about the threats to their continued wealth is sickening.

How essay tests are scored

My impression is that a lot of people think standardized testing is a good way to keep pressure on schools and teachers to improve performance.

Standardized testing has its place -- but not when it's performed like this. Jessica Lussenhop's article for CityPages is a sobering look at how essay tests from around the country are graded in a kind of sweatshop atmosphere.

Actually, it's not "sobering" so much as "saddening." Then it becomes "angering."

For the familiar SATs and other multiple-choice tests, the scoring process is completely automated. There's one right answer, and ignoring issues like stray marks, a machine can tell whether the right circle was filled in. There's no ambiguity and no drama. (Mostly: Lussenhop's piece notes a few catastrophes in which automated scoring screwed up, costing the company NCS Pearson millions.)

Machines can't judge essays, though. How, then, are essay tests scored?

It would be reassuring to imagine rooms full of sharp, well-trained educators taking the time to evaluate each essay the way your teachers do (or did, or should have done). It would be reassuring, but it's not so.
Today, tens of thousands of temporary scorers are employed to correct essay questions. This year, Maple Grove-based Data Recognition Corporation will take on 4,000 temporary scorers, Questar Assessment will hire 1,000, and Pearson will take on thousands more. From March through May, hundreds of thousands of standardized test essays will pour into the Twin Cities to be scored by summer.
Since the essays are responses to a standardized test, it shouldn't surprise anyone that the scoring companies try to standardize how the essays are scored. Scorers are trained to assess each essay according to a numeric scale in which each number corresponds to a qualitative assessment of the essay's grammar, organization, vocabulary, etc. The scorer's job, then, is to reduce the essay's complexity to a single number representing how well it matched the putative ideal determined by the scoring company.

Reducing essays to scores is exactly what a teacher does, of course, but no teacher spends all day doing nothing but grading essays. One scorer, though, said "she was being asked to crank through 200 real essays in a day."
The scanned papers popped up on the screen and her eyes flitted as fast as they could down the lines. The difference between "excellent" and "good" and "adequate" was decided in a matter of seconds, to say nothing of the responses that were simply off the reservation. How do you score a kid who rails that his town sucks? What about an exceptionally well-written essay on why the student was refusing to answer the question?
How would you feel, knowing the essay over which you sweated for an hour was scored in a matter of seconds by a temp worker concerned more with filling a quota than giving your essay the consideration it deserved?

Yet that's the reality of standardized testing.

The testing industry doesn't admit its assembly-line process is problematic.
Pearson spokesman Adam Gaber warns against taking the opinions of former scorers too seriously.

In an email, he characterized their concerns as "one-sided stories based upon people who have a very limited exposure and narrow point of view on what is truly a science."
That might be the most telling and most disturbing quotation from the entire article. This guy thinks what his company does is a science.

What Pearson and its competitors do in the area of essay scoring is not a science. It's not even an art. It's a brutal reduction of thought to numbers. The principles of industrial production that gave us hot dogs now give us essay scores.

As with any standardized testing, the scoring of essays rewards kids who know how to take the test. Stick to the topic, keep your paragraphs and sentences to a certain length, use the expected vocabulary, and all will be well. Kids who don't stay within the lines suffer. It doesn't matter that some of them are bright and creative. They score badly in our industrialized testing regime, so they are problems, and not the kind that can be solved by filling in the right circle.

(Thanks to Longreads for the link.)

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

"Capitalism for the Long Term," Dominic Barton

This piece in the Harvard Business Review calls for rethinking corporate strategy, reorienting it from short-term thinking to what Barton calls long-term thinking. His emphasis on a five-year horizon isn't what I'd call long-term, but at least he's advocating looking beyond the quarterly results that preoccupy shareholders today.

What does obsession with the short term do to companies?
If CEOs miss their quarterly earnings targets, some big investors agitate for their removal. As a result, CEOs and their top teams work overtime to meet those targets. The unintended upshot is that they manage for only a small portion of their firm’s value. When [Barton's firm] McKinsey [& Company]’s finance experts deconstruct the value expectations embedded in share prices, we typically find that 70% to 90% of a company’s value is related to cash flows expected three or more years out. If the vast majority of most firms’ value depends on results more than three years from now, but management is preoccupied with what’s reportable three months from now, then capitalism has a problem.
So, how do we end this fixation on the short term? Barton says it must start with the big institutional investors.
Taken together, pension funds, insurance companies, mutual funds, and sovereign wealth funds hold $65 trillion, or roughly 35% of the world’s financial assets. If these players focus too much attention on the short term, capitalism as a whole will, too.
Why do they focus on the short term, considering they're managing assets for the long haul?
Fund trustees, often advised by investment consultants, assess their money managers’ performance relative to benchmark indices and offer only short-term contracts. Those managers’ compensation is linked to the amount of assets they manage, which typically rises when short-term performance is strong. Not surprisingly, then, money managers focus on such performance—and pass this emphasis along to the companies in which they invest. And so it goes, on down the line.
In short, there's a cascade effect that punishes anybody downstream, like money managers, who might try to do the right thing. The only way to fix this is to change the attitudes of fund trustees as to what they should expect.

To get these big investors to refocus, we need to reassess what is actually good for shareholders. Specifically, we need to understand that the interests of stakeholders -- "employees, suppliers, customers, creditors, communities, and the environment" -- are actually aligned with the interests of shareholders, if you look beyond a single quarter and consider the company's future over several years.

I regret that I don't find Barton to be persuasive on this point. He doesn't cite specific ways in which stakeholders' interests line up with shareholders', and absent such evidence shareholders large and small aren't going to be eager to adopt his mindset. I believe he's right, but that's not going to convince anyone.

Finally, Barton calls for much more effective corporate governance. To achieve that, we need more involved and knowledgeable boards of directors, a pay structure for management that encourages them "to act like owners" (stock options haven't had that effect for reasons Barton explains in the article), and what Barton calls "redefined shareholder 'democracy.'" By that he means that there must be a way to distinguish between the votes of long-term shareholders and those traders who may own a company's stock only for hours or minutes (or even seconds). The latter cannot be allowed undue influence over a company's strategic planning.

I agree with most of what Barton says, but I'm skeptical that he's going to convince anyone to follow his advice.

(Thanks to The Browser for the link.)

Another blinkered music exec

Steve Stoute is a music business exec who took out a full-page ad in the New York Times, railing against the Grammys' sponsoring organization, the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS), for using big-name artists like Justin Bieber and Eminem to promote the show, but then snubbing those artists in the final balloting. He elaborated on his letter in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter.

Stoute's most compelling argument is that the Grammys broadcast is designed with foreknowledge of the results:
For me, it wasn't Arcade Fire winning that was the problem, it was them performing twice. After the backstage moment, the production was set for them to perform again. But if Eminem had won, would he have performed again? That's when it was, like, "This is fake now."
His point appears to be that the show's producers knew Arcade Fire would win Album of the Year, and designed the broadcast to allow them to perform twice because of that fact. That's a serious but at least credible charge.

On the other hand, Stoute, a "marketing executive" according to the THR piece, seems to be laboring under the same "profits equals merit" delusion that motivated so many of the more boneheaded criticisms of Arcade Fire in the wake of its win.
The intent [of the ad] was to point out that the popular artists are used to sell the show and to get ratings. In fact, NARAS publicized that it was the highest rated Grammys since 2001, yet those same artists are not getting the critical recognition they deserve. The Grammys didn't use Esperanza Spalding in the promos to sell the show. They used Justin Bieber and Eminem. Yet Eminem, who's nominated for 10 awards, doesn't win Album of the Year. Arcade Fire does.
"I sold ten million albums so my album must be great." I'm getting tired of pointing out what a stupid argument that is. You can't correlate popularity with quality: the two might be linked, but there is no guarantee they are. (Frito-Lay sells tens, maybe hundreds of millions of bags of snacks annually, but no one is going to hold up their products as haute cuisine.) Yet Stoute seems to believe that sales are a direct measure of quality.

Or he really thinks that Eminem made a qualitatively better album than Arcade Fire but won't come out and say so. Why wouldn't he say that if that's what he believes? Maybe he thinks that would make him sound bitter rather than justifiably aggrieved. After all, quality is in the ear of the listener, but sales figures are hard facts that anyone can understand.

I don't know and I don't care what Stoute actually believes. I really don't. All I care about is that a lot of people are making noises that confuse popularity with quality. Enough.

Cycling and road rage

Tom Vanderbilt writes in Outside magazine about what makes some drivers so irrationally hostile toward cyclists.

I've never been a commuting cyclist but I have known a few, and as a driver I have tried to be understanding toward them. As a frequent pedestrian, I think I comprehend some of the points of conflict between bicyclists and drivers. Pedestrians, after all, are in a similar position of relative power toward cars as bicyclists, which is to say, "not much."

There is fault to be found on both sides. Drivers are often preoccupied when they should be paying attention to the road, they're often driving too fast, they think they own the road, and if the rest are anything like me, they're frequently late. The least unexpected wrinkle in the drive finds them woefully unprepared to accept it, emotionally and sometimes physically. (Physical unpreparedness is what leads to accidents.) And as Vanderbilt notes, cars are dangerous even when they're parked: many bicycle-car accidents result from car doors swinging open unexpectedly, the driver (or passenger) having failed to keep an eye out for bicyclists.

(The unexpected opening door catches other drivers off guard, too. Hell, a police officer did it to me the other day in a place where the lanes were exceptionally narrow. I came close to swerving into another car because it looked like the cop's door was going to hit mine.)

Cyclists, for their part, need to understand the psychology of drivers a little better. Bicycles can come up surprisingly quickly on cars, especially when the cars are stopped at intersections. We drivers don't intend to cut you off there, but when we checked five seconds before we didn't see anyone, so we figured the coast was clear. (Yeah, we should have had the turn signal on: that's another one you can hold against us.)

Two observations about some bicyclists, though, make me angrier as a driver than anything else:
  • They blow through stop signs and even red lights when traffic permits. I'm getting over being mad about this one because I can see how it makes life easier not having to pedal from a standing stop all the time. Nevertheless, this behavior pisses off a lot of drivers because it reinforces the belief, mistaken or not, that cyclists routinely thumb their noses at laws drivers must observe. Asking that drivers "share the road" with bicyclists is a tough sell when drivers think the cyclists are hypocrites about following the law.
  • They don't understand how invisible they are at night. They don't outfit their bikes with lights and reflectors, or they don't use enough of them, and they wear dark clothing.

There's no excuse for the visibility issue. Drivers are expected to maintain their cars to a minimum standard not only for their own safety but for that of others on the road. Bicyclists must be held to a minimum standard as well, and the number one priority must be to make themselves noticeable amidst a sea of overly bright car headlights and moving shadows.

Why am I so upset about invisible cyclists? Because I'm scared to death I'll nail one of them by accident. My heart accelerates to triple-time whenever I spot a bicyclist at the last second. I don't like the shock to my system and I blame the cyclist for bringing the situation about.

I like to think I'm getting better at actually sharing the road with cyclists, but it's a process that will take time. Cyclists, be patient with drivers like me, and help the process along.

Marco Arment on Apple in-app purchase requirements

Marco Arment has some well-expressed objections to Apple's new rules regarding subscriptions in iOS. Unlike most critics I've seen, Arment points to specific, substantive problems with Apple's scheme that seem to have no other basis but the company's greed.

If Arment, generally supportive of Apple, is so critical, Apple would do well to revisit its still-new policies to address his concerns. This is not like Antennagate, which affected a limited number of customers using one product. Subscriptiongate has the potential to alienate the developer and content-provider communities. Their defection to other platforms like Android could translate to the loss of a large number of customers for Apple in the long run.

My guess is that Apple's legal team is already huddling, rewording the terms of in-app subscription payments. If they're not, they should be. This is rapidly turning into the company's second big fiasco, after Antennagate, in less than a year.

Halliburton fracking info, week 14

Holy crap: Houston, we have a sign of life.

For at least twelve weeks, Halliburton's Web site dedicated to the technology known as hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking" as this unrepentant Battlestar Galactica fan likes to refer to it, remained unchanged, listing just three of the company's fracking formulations despite the site's plea to "check back often" for new information.

Finally there actually is new information. Halliburton's fracking Web site now lists three formulations from Pennsylvania and three from Texas. However, the geographically vague "Northeast" formulation has vanished; whether it was renamed or removed, I can't tell.

The breakdowns of the mixtures are also different. In the first version fourteen weeks ago, the breakdowns listed the individual components that went into the formula, but didn't specify a percentage for any of them. Now, there's a pie chart showing the percentages by purpose: friction reducer, acid inhibitor, biocide, etc. Also, and more intriguingly, the breakdowns are comprised of two sections: additives and constituents.

Additives, as best I can tell, are the pre-mixed chemical products that are combined, possibly at the drill sites, to form the actual fracking formulations. Each additive has a specific purpose: biocide, acid additive, friction reducer, etc. Many of these additives have trademarked names like "BE-9." The concentration of each additive in the formulation is also listed.

All additives also include a link to the PDF of the additive's U.S. material safety data sheet, or MSDS. The MSDS lays out the substance's hazard characteristics, such as what kind of harm it can do to a human being, how to remediate it, whether its decay products are hazardous, etc.

Constituents, according to the Web site, "are the individual components used to form the additives." The original version of the fracking Web site only listed these constituents and their "common uses"; the common uses were meant to reassure visitors like me of the harmlessness of the ingredients.

The likelihood that constituents' properties change when they're combined into additives makes the "common uses" part of the constituents table almost laughably irrelevant.

Unless you're a chemical engineer, you can't help but wonder about the relationship between "constituents" and "additives." What constituents go into which additives? What chemical changes do constituents undergo when they are mixed or otherwise combined to form an additive? What effects do these changes have on the additive? (As a trivial example, hydrogen and oxygen would be considered the constituents that form the additive called water. Knowing the properties of hydrogen and oxygen, though, tells you nothing about the properties of water.)

Nevertheless, the information about additives is extremely important. The original fracking formulation data listed only what Halliburton now calls constituents and did not specify how these base ingredients were combined. With the trade names and MSDSs of the actual additives, interested third parties have a much clearer context for what Halliburton's formulations are doing and what the consequences are of accidental leakage of these additives into the environment.

Here are the names of the formulations.

  • Pennsylvania WaterFrac Formulation
  • Pennsylvania HybridFrac Formulation
  • Pennsylvania FoamFrac Formulation

  • South Texas - Eagle Ford Hybrid Formulation
  • South Texas - Eagle Ford WaterFrac Formulation
  • South Texas - Wilcox Hybrid Formulation

I found a couple of oddities in the formulations information:
  • The Eagle Ford WaterFrac Formulation's pie chart percentages only add up to 97.01%, even though the chart itself visually implies the listed ingredients account for the entire formulation. (By the way, the percentages in question are 93.36% water, 2.56% sand, and 1.09% "fluid system," meaning all of the additives. Hydrochloric acid is the main ingredient of the fluid system, accounting for more than three-quarters of it.)
  • The Wilcox Hybrid Formulation lists not water as the base fluid, but what seems to be a 4% solution of KCl (potassium chloride) in water. Note that a concentration of sodium chloride (table salt) greater than 1% (presumably in water) is considered hazardous in a U.S. MSDS according to Halliburton's own fracking information. Potassium chloride is similar enough to sodium chloride to be used as a substitute in the human diet, so the 4% KCl solution caught my eye.

Maybe this will turn out to be more than a hollow PR exercise on Halliburton's part. I wonder if the updated information has anything to do with the subpoena the E.P.A. dropped on Halliburton last November.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Chains and community

McClelland's reminiscence of Borders started me thinking about chains in general.

I'm reflexively anti-chain because I hate seeing smaller, local businesses go under. I also hate seeing our nation homogenized.

Thinking about it, though, has made me question my hostility.

Walmart overwhelms local grocery stores because everybody sells the same brands, so the only distinguishing factor is price. And there are local grocery stores everywhere because we all need groceries, so everyone has a story about a mom-and-pop grocery store that shut its doors because it couldn't compete against the big bad box store.

There are lots of places without bookstores, though. Maintaining an eclectic bookstore is expensive because of the need to stock materials that might not sell for a while, or ever. Not every community is big enough to support such a commitment. For some communities, maybe a lot, I suspect a Borders is as close to a great bookstore as they can get. Yes, I'm making a value judgment here about what constitutes a great bookstore. I don't want to get into the debate of whether Borders is one or not. For me, a better question is, does every community need a great bookstore?

Actually, it's a broader question: does every community need a great <fill in the blank>? And if the only way to get it, or even a semblance of it, is to invite a chain to town, is that such a bad thing?

Homogenization worries me. Different regions have (or had) distinct features that made their cultures unique. Accents and dialects are obvious examples, but so are arts and crafts, or specialized food items. I'd hate to lose those unique and often wonderful creations. Cultural diversity even in this limited form keeps us from becoming too rigid and unimaginative in our thinking.

On the other hand, you can only foster a sense of community if you can induce people to share something. Reading the same books, watching the same TV shows, these contribute to a sense of a shared cultural heritage. You can't build a nation of 300 million spread across 3000 miles (east to west) if people are balkanized into tiny groups that have nothing in common.

Online vs. brick-and-mortar

Author Edward McClelland wrote a thoughtful piece for Salon entitled, "How Borders lost its soul" in which he reflected on how much Borders changed from when it was a single store in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The original Borders was charming and well-suited to its community. The chain, on the other hand, had to make itself a lowest-common denominator to be successful as a chain. However, once Borders looked like every other big-box bookstore, it ceased to be all that compelling when lower-priced competition in the form of Amazon came along. As McClellan writes:
Borders ended up caught between the variety of the Internet and the intimacy of the independents. Its outlets could never stock as many books as Amazon. Nor could they duplicate the native flavor of the corner bookstores, with their local author readings and folk music nights.
For some goods -- books, music, and shoes, in my case -- I will always prefer the brick-and-mortar experience. In the case of shoes, it's because I absolutely need to test-walk them before buying. I've had too many bad experiences buying them sight unseen.

For books and music, it's all about the browsing. The Web is a wonderful environment to find things about which you already know, but there's a sublime joy in discovering things you never knew existed, and the handiest way I know to do that is to walk down the street looking in windows.

Too, I prefer the physical act of browsing in a store because I associate searching the Web with an almost unpleasant sense of purposefulness. I don't visit Amazon's Web site to kill an hour or two: I visit it to order something I need, or that I think I need. On the other hand, dropping into Amoeba Records is pure pleasure, whether or not I buy anything (I almost always do). Even visiting an Old Navy store is more pleasurable than checking its online site.

It's far more efficient to shop online, I know. But it isn't as much fun.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

"Why Isn't Wall Street in Jail?", Matt Taibbi

Rolling Stone writer Matt Taibbi does his usual thunderingly good job of cutting through the crap in his latest feature.

In April 2010 Taibbi wrote possibly the best profile of Goldman Sachs ever, "The Great American Bubble Machine," the teaser for which read, "From tech stocks to high gas prices, Goldman Sachs has engineered every major market manipulation since the Great Depression -- and they're about to do it again." In "Why Isn't Wall Street in Jail?" Taibbi further explores the earlier article's themes of corruption through the revolving door of corporate-honchos-turned-government-regulators-turned-corporate-honchos-again.

Taibbi's article is valuable not because he has some amazing new insights, but because he cites detail after damning detail about how these people gamed and continue to game the system. Attempting to summarize the article would end up restating it, so go and read it for yourself. If, however, you need a little inducement, here's as good a bit to quote as any:
To understand the significance of this, one has to think carefully about the efficacy of fines as a punishment for a defendant pool that includes the richest people on earth — people who simply get their companies to pay their fines for them. Conversely, one has to consider the powerful deterrent to further wrongdoing that the state is missing by not introducing this particular class of people to the experience of incarceration. "You put Lloyd Blankfein in pound-me-in-the-ass prison for one six-month term, and all this bullshit would stop, all over Wall Street," says a former congressional aide. "That's all it would take. Just once."

But that hasn't happened. Because the entire system set up to monitor and regulate Wall Street is fucked up.
It's good to know, by the way, that at least one person on Capitol Hill is familiar with Office Space.

Just go read it. Set aside an hour or so, and read it. Whether you're liberal or conservative or hate those stupid reductive labels, read Taibbi's article, because if you don't understand why our financial system, and therefore our entire society, is fucked up, you will always be a victim. After all, the first step toward a solution is recognizing the damned problem.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

My Obsession Now: Jim White, "Bluebird"

This dark masterpiece gets under my skin in the best way. The lyrics are suggestive but I'll be damned if I know of what.
The lonely hiss of passing cars
Feeds the ache of ancient scars,
Like ghosts beneath my bed rattling chains.

No good luck charm or remedy
Ever proved to soothe my sanity
Nor bad medicine served to ease my pain.
White's voice, so calm it's almost eerie, is the only possible guide to his weird and wonderful vision.

The payoff:
Last time home when I played this song,
You said, "Dad, it's sad, and way too long."
Well, yeah, maybe ... but that's its glory.

Friday, February 18, 2011

KUSF in Exile

Well, that was a blast, hearing my fellow former DJs on the air, including long-ago host of "Hip Hop Slam" Billy Jam doing the MC honors.

About a dozen other independent radio stations around the country simulcast the "KUSF in Exile" broadcast, physically originating from Amoeba Records San Francisco. As WFMU's Gaylord Fields said when doing the FCC-mandated legal IDs at the top of the hour for all of those stations, reading their call letters and cities was not so much calling off a list as reading an honor roll.
  • 91.1 FM, WFMU, Jersey City, NJ
  • 88.9 FM, KXLU, Los Angeles, CA
  • 91.1 FM, KZSU, Stanford, CA
  • 89.3 FM, WXYC, Chapel Hill, NC
  • 89.7 FM, KFJC, Los Alto Hills, CA
  • 91.1 FM, WREK, Atlanta, GA
  • 88.9 FM, WITC, Cazenovia, NY
  • 90.3 FM, KDVS, Davis, CA
  • 91.7 FM, KVRX, Austin, TX
  • 90.7 FM, KALX, Berkeley, CA
  • 88.3 FM, WCBN, Ann Arbor, MI
  • 92.5 FM, KRFP, Moscow, ID
(There may have been another station that joined in at the last minute, from what I heard during the simulcast.)

I can't imagine how much sweat equity went into pulling this off. WFMU and Billy Jam deserve huge kudos for spearheading this and making it happen.

I have to say, though, that this broadcast didn't capture the breadth that made KUSF such a valuable part of the San Francisco Bay Area community. KUSF's knowledgeable music-oriented DJs were only a part of the sound, and to be absolutely honest, they -- we -- contributed the least distinctive aspect of the station's programming. There are, after all, other stations in the Bay Area, to say nothing of the Web, that provide smart and challenging music programming in diverse genres. (A few of them simulcast KUSF in Exile.)

Far more important, if you care about "the community" in the broadest sense, were the foreign-language and non-music programs KUSF aired. Where, for instance, is the Cantonese-speaking community to turn for local news and affairs programs now that Chinese Star Radio and Good News for Today are no longer available on FM? How about the German-speaking community (Radio Goethe)? At various times KUSF boasted shows broadcast largely or entirely in French, Italian, Finnish, Persian, Polish, and Azerbaijani (those are the ones I recall offhand).

It's these communities who were most screwed by USF's secretive sale of its broadcast license. It's these communities to whom USF should be forced to answer. Unfortunately, USF has ignored these communities entirely.

KUSF on air for a little bit

I really should pay closer attention to my email. Courtesy of DJ Carolyn, the news that KUSF is hitting the airwaves again ... for a few hours. Hope she doesn't mind me quoting her email in full:
We’re getting back on the airwaves Friday, February 18th, Noon – 3 pm PST. WFMU is hosting a live remote broadcast at Amoeba Music in San Francisco featuring KUSF DJs! It will be on WFMU airwaves 91.1fm NJ as well as streaming online on

Plus KZSU (Stanford, CA 90.1 FM), KFJC (Foothill College, CA 89.7 FM), KALX (Berkeley, CA, 90.7fm), KXLU (Loyola Marymount in Los Angeles, 88.9 FM), WXYC (Chapel Hill, N.C., 89.3 FM) KDVS (Davis, CA., 90.3 FM), WREK (Atlanta, 91.1 FM) KVRX (Austin, TX, 91.7fm), WITC (Cazenovia, NY, 88.9fm) and WCBN Ann Arbor, MI, 88.3fm) are all simulcasting it.

Local college and community radio needs to be saved and we're sticking together to fight for it!

12noon to 12:30pm DJ Schmeejay
12:30pm – 1pm DJ Irwin
1pm - 1:30pm Harry D
1:30pm – 2pm Carolyn
2pm – 2:30pm Jantine B
2:30pm – 2:55pm Stereo Steve

Come by Amoeba SF and hang out.

"Noon - 3 pm PST" would be right now, by the way. Tune in!

A cautious voice on the Chinese economy

The Browser has an interview with political economist Victor Shih as part of its "Five Books" series. Shih's recommended books all delve into the Chinese economy more deeply and insightfully (in my opinion) than most mainstream U.S. news coverage, and they all sound a cautionary note about how well the PRC's economy is really doing. Shih himself drops a juicy tidbit about the Chinese government's actions that should raise newly debt-aware Americans' eyebrows:
Instead of using budgetary allocation to finance local infrastructure, the central government instructed local governments to form companies and borrow money from the banks, thus hiding the deficits....

There has been so much waste, a lot of it financed by debt in the financial system instead of government debt. This means that either these wasteful projects will have to generate cash flow to pay back the banks or the banks will become insolvent. The Chinese government is grappling with this major issue.
This insight, too, should sound familiar to us:
That was the goal and continues to be the goal of policymakers in China: prop up the banks and make sure non-performing loans don’t appear on the books. We don’t actually know the amount of non-performing loans that exist on the ledgers of China’s banks. Whenever a loan becomes problematic, especially when the borrower is a major SOE [state-owned enterprise], it’s restructured – i.e. rolled over or extended.
Does that remind anyone of a certain mortgage mess that is still making its way through our financial and legal systems?

Most of us don't have as good an understanding of China and its economy as we should. Shih's recommended books and commentary are great places to start remedying that shortfall.

Why you didn't get the faculty job

That's a more accurate description for those of us not in academia of Timothy Larsen's piece in Inside Higher Ed entitled, "Why We Said No." It's an FAQ, really, addressed to those postdocs who complain, probably with a lot of justified bitterness, about the black hole into which their applications for professorial employment seem to drop.

Here is the sad underlying reality:
We announced one entry-level position this year and garnered 176 candidates. That number is a little high, but not far off from what has been a typical yield for the last five years or more. There are a handful of cranks and dreamers in the pack with a diploma-mill Ph.D. or the like, but tossing them out makes no real dent in the pile. In other words, there were at least 150 scholars who were all completely qualified and suitable.
(Thanks to The Browser for the link.)

More on Scientology

Further to my recent thoughts on Lawrence Wright's Scientology article, here is a piece in The Awl by Maria Bustillos entitled, "Meet the Heroes of Early Scientology Reporting--Plus, a Visit to the Celebrity Centre." Bustillo reminds those of us who haven't been paying attention, or who were too young to know, that others blazed the way for Wright's article. (What, you thought Scientology got its current reputation for no good reason?)

The St. Petersburg Times published a multipart series on the church as far back as 1979, while the Los Angeles Times published its own mulitpart exposé in 1990. Reporter Joel Sappell, who with Robert Welkos wrote the L.A. Times series, described the harassment he underwent while facing off against Scientology:
"During the course of our series," Sappell wrote in an email, "multiple private investigators rooted around in our past. I was falsely accused of aggravated assault (the alleged victim, it turned out, gave the LAPD a bogus name and address.) My dog—like the pets of others who'd drawn the ire of church leaders—was poisoned on the day that my partner and I wrote a front-page obituary of Hubbard that sharply contradicted the church's biography of their founder and the many claims he'd made about himself. That same morning, a blustery Boston attorney for the church had called us and shouted: 'If you want a f***ing war, you just got one!' That was a bit unnerving since we thought we already were in one."
Browse the comments, too, especially the one from "kenlayne" describing what it was like to live across from a major Scientology center in 2000. I can't vouch for its accuracy, of course, but it sounds about right to me.

(Thanks to LongReads for the pointer to Bustillo's piece.)

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Fox News uses misleading footage

Michael Calderone of Yahoo!'s Cutline news blog has a piece highlighting Fox News's use of mismatched footage to put Ron Paul on the spot during an interview. The footage, supposedly of audience boos greeting the announcement this year that he had won the Conservative Political Action Conference's presidential straw poll, was actually from last year's conference.

Fox called the use of the wrong footage a "mistake". However, Calderone cited three other uses of misleading footage that, as he put it, "could be perceived as benefiting certain Republicans."

Once is a mistake. Four times (and counting) is a pattern.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Planted callers on talk radio

Courtesy of Tablet, "a new read on Jewish life," a piece that discusses fake talk-radio calls, calls scripted and performed by paid professionals. The calls are never revealed to be scripted.

One actor who auditioned for the "Premiere On Call" service decided to look into his would-be employer:
[He] learned that Premiere On Call was a service offered by Premiere Radio Networks, the largest syndication company in the United States and a subsidiary of Clear Channel Communications, the entertainment and advertising giant. Premiere syndicates some of the more sterling names in radio, including Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and Sean Hannity.
The next time you find yourself getting emotional over some talk show caller's tale, you might want to consider the possibility you're being played.

It's bad enough to wonder whether Glenn Beck is a fiery truth-teller or an outrageous character portrayed by an entertainer coincidentally named Glenn Beck. Now we have to wonder about the callers to his show, too?

We assume talk shows are fueled by ordinary people responding to the host and guests. We expect that what we hear are the honest sentiments of people motivated enough to call in. We're inclined to believe their stories, to allow ourselves to share their emotions. They can shape our attitudes about issues of great import.

That's how it should be. That's how it must be. We must believe that these people, whom we only know indirectly as faces and voices on TV or just as voices on the radio, are genuine human beings just like ourselves. That belief is what holds us together as a nation, as a society.

If we stop believing that what we hear is genuine, if the putatively ordinary people whom we only know as voices and faces cease to be real to us, then we cease to care about them. We cease to care what happens to them. They become no more important to us than characters in a book or a movie.

That's why blurring the line between fiction and nonfiction is so dangerous. That's why treating "reality" as entertainment is such a despicable, even evil, act. It diminishes our trust in one another. And that trust is what holds us together.

Producers, if you're using Premiere On Call to pretend you have more interesting listeners than you do, you aren't polishing your show: you're undermining our society.

[UPDATE: Edited to clarify that the people I'm talking about are those we assume to be ordinary folks just like us.]

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Colbert on Palin fatigue

Ah, Stephen, Stephen, Stephen, will you never cease to make me laugh? From the 18 January 2011 edition of The Colbert Report, here's the transcript of part of a segment entitled, "Mika Brzezinski Experiences Palin Fatigue." (Brzezinski is cohost on MSNBC's Morning Joe. She had expressed her disgust on the air at having to cover yet another Palin story on the show because she felt the story had no news value.)
Mika, you need to buck up.

I know you think this story has no purpose other than keeping Sarah Palin's name in the headlines for another news cycle.

I know you think she has nothing to offer the national dialogue and that her speeches are just coded talking points mixed in with words picked up at random from a thesaurus.

[voice rising] I know you think Sarah Palin is at best a self-promoting ignoramus and at worst a shameless media troll who'll abuse any platform to deliver dog-whistle encouragement to a far-right base that may include possible insurrectionists.

I know you think her reality show was pathetically unstatesmanlike and at the same time I know you believe it also represents the pinnacle of her potential, and that her transparent--transparent desperation to be a celebrity so completely eclipsed her interest in public service so long ago that there would be more journalistic integrity in reporting on one of the lesser Kardashians' ass implants.

And I know--I know that when you arrive at the office each day you say a silent prayer that maybe, just maybe, Sarah Palin will, at long last, shut up for ten f---ing minutes.

I know--I know 'cause I can see it in your eyes.

[sternly] Well guess what, Mika? That's the gig. And it's only January 2011, kiddo. You have a minimum of two more years of this ahead of you. You want to stay in this game, you dig deep. You find another gear. You show up to work every day, get your hair and makeup done, you slap on a smile, get out there on TV and repeat what Sarah Palin said on Hannity last night right into the lens. You know, news.

"The king of home equity fraud," Luke O'Brien

Fortune has a profile of a consummate scam artist, Tobechi Onwuhara, who gathered readily available information online and then used social engineering to access wealthy homeowners' home-equity lines of credit. He garnered an incredible fortune in a relatively short amount of time, all while spending like a drunken sailor on shore leave. If he hadn't hit the wrong mark, an ex-Treasury agent who knew whom to call when he found his line of credit drained, Onwuhara might still be at it. As it is, the scammer is still at large because his loyal crew warned him that the FBI was on his trail just before they were arrested.

(Thanks to Longreads for the link.)

The cloud, a quick revisit

In "Enough with the cloud," I fulminated against the cloud in the context of what auto industry types see as the future of in-car entertainment. Specifically, I wrote:
The cloud is a fraud. The promise of the cloud is a lie.
A conversation with a cooler-headed friend has made me reconsider those sentences.

In its most abstract essence, the cloud is a technological framework that provides the illusion of infinite storage and computational power. What novel applications the cloud will make possible, I can't currently envision; it's worth noting, though, that there are big problems that only become feasible to tackle by harnessing more computing resources than any single entity on Earth can bring to bear (think SETI, for instance). For mere mortals, the cloud is a place to stow data so it's accessible from anywhere at any time, with the added bonus that others can access it as well if you wish.

Somebody has to pay for the cloud, of course, but there are different ways to do so and nothing in the technology itself dictates how that should happen.

The quoted auto industry pundits unquestioningly opined that the only option for in-car entertainment someday would be cloud-based, and like radio, cloud-based entertainment would be paid for either by subscription or through ads. However, by making it impossible for you to use a personal music device (a CD, tape or iPod, for instance) in your car, such a model would have you paying over and over for the privilege of playing your (now cloud-based) music collection. You know, the collection you bought precisely so you could play it without paying further for the privilege.

That chain of thought was what set me off. However, it has nothing to do with the cloud per se. Rather, it's all about the starry-eyed greed of people whose only vision in life is reaping endless payments for the same material.

The cloud is not a fraud. The promise of the cloud is not a lie.

On the other hand, the goal of the entertainment industry and its enablers, like these auto industry pundits, is both.

"How Bloomberg Does Business," Aram Roston

A piece in The Nation shows how well Bloomberg LP, the "media conglomerate" whose majority shareholder is New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, protects its interests. The conglomerate's assets, which include Bloomberg TV, seem to coordinate their efforts remarkably well. (A Bloomberg TV spokesperson denies that the news organization participates in such joint efforts.)

(Thanks to The Browser for the pointer.)

Monday, February 14, 2011

"Who is Arcade Fire?"

Kottke noted the furor over Arcade Fire winning the Grammy for album of the year.

I guess a lot of "music fans" expect the Grammys to validate the sales charts. From whoisarcadefire on Tumblr:
How can this group get album of the year when they didn't even have as many top 20 as Gaga. Did this group even have a number 1 hit?
If that's your mindset, why bother having Grammys? Just use the Billboard chart or some other sales metric, and save us all from yet another awards show.

I'm starting to feel a little sorry for the music industry, crazy as that sounds. All this time I thought its problems were self-inflicted and stemmed largely from greed. Now I have to wonder if it's the victim of a profoundly clueless, tasteless mass market that doesn't know jack about music and doesn't want to know.

I don't expect that everyone will have heard of Arcade Fire. That's fine. What takes me aback is the viciousness of some people's response to what they do not know.

When a dark horse takes the best-picture Oscar, it's a net boon for the movie: people are curious what the buzz is about. Is that not true for music today?

Congratulations, Arcade Fire. Let's hope that I'm wrong about the stupidity of the mass market, and that you go on to greater success.

Microsoft pays big to play with Nokia

According to InformationWeek:
Speaking at the World Mobile Congress in Barcelona, [Nokia CEO Stephen] Elop said the deal's value to Nokia is "in Bs not in Ms." The comment sparked speculation that Microsoft is, in effect, paying Nokia—the world's biggest cell phone manufacturer in terms of market share—to carry Windows Phone 7 on its smartphones.
Pay to play, or down payment?

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Clarence Thomas, five years mum

Sorry for the slight exaggeration in the title, but it was too hard to resist a catchy swipe at one of my least favorite justices. No, he hasn't been totally silent like a Trappist monk, but as New York Times Supreme Court analyst Adam Liptak put it:
A week from Tuesday, when the Supreme Court returns from its midwinter break and hears arguments in two criminal cases, it will have been five years since Justice Clarence Thomas has spoken during a court argument.

If he is true to form, Justice Thomas will spend the arguments as he always does: leaning back in his chair, staring at the ceiling, rubbing his eyes, whispering to Justice Stephen G. Breyer, consulting papers and looking a little irritated and a little bored. He will ask no questions.
Now, I do have to question the propriety of a reporter characterizing someone as "a little irritated and a little bored." However obvious that might seem to Liptak, it's not an objective description. Some people can't help their facial features. (In repose, my face looks habitually sullen. I am not always sullen, however. Most of the time, perhaps, but not always.)

Why does Thomas say nothing? He has claimed to be "self-conscious about the way he speaks," having been teased as a boy. He also has said that it is only common courtesy to listen when a lawyer is arguing before the court.

I'll give him a pass on the self-consciousness front, although having been on the Court as long as he has, he should realize that whatever anyone thinks of him, it has nothing to do with the way he speaks.

As for the common courtesy bit, it's a nice thought, but let's look at the big picture: by the time a case makes it to the Supreme Court, numerous briefs have been filed in, and numerous oral arguments have been made to, lower courts. The record is full of arguments and counterarguments, not to mention findings by federal judges. If a lawyer hasn't made his or her best arguments by then, he or she never will.

On the other hand, only the justices know exactly how a case landed on their docket. The Court only accepts cases that seem to present a controversy on which the Court must rule to provide guidance to lower courts. Sometimes the controversy is obvious, but even in those cases, not every Justice's perspective is. The only chance a lawyer has to persuade a Justice whose concerns have not been aired is at oral argument -- and even then, only if the Justice verbalizes his or her concerns.
Justice Thomas routinely issues sweeping concurrences and dissents addressing topics that had not come up at argument.

He asked no questions, for instance, in a 2007 case about high school students’ First Amendment rights. In a concurrence, he said he would have overturned the key precedent to rule that “the Constitution does not afford students a right to free speech in public schools.”

Neither side had advanced that position. The basis for and implications of his concurrence were not explored at the arguments, because, by asking no questions, Justice Thomas did not tip his hand.
I remember reading a one-paragraph concurrence written by Thomas concerning the legitimacy of a traffic stop during which drugs were found concealed in the vehicle. The majority opinion declared that drivers had no right to privacy in their vehicles, unlike their homes. Thomas's concurrence didn't actually agree with the majority's reasoning: in fact, he offhandedly remarked that were it in his power he would severely curtail the police's Fourth Amendment rights to search and seizure. This astonishing revelation was then followed by a one-sentence explanation that precedent bound him to uphold the majority's position anyway.

I don't know if Thomas made his Fourth Amendment views known at oral argument in that case. However, this casually tossed-off bombshell is emblematic of a communication style that is reticent to a fault. Any other Justice would have explained the reasoning at length, knowing it was a novel view that deserved some fleshing-out.

Thomas is almost Scalia's clone, to the point where some wags suggested the Court could save money by booting Thomas and giving Scalia two votes. However, Thomas has shown flashes of interesting perspectives and opinions. He just can't be persuaded, or perhaps bothered, to air them in ways that might alter the terms of the Court's debate. From where I stand, that might be a good thing -- I suspect Justice Thomas and I don't see eye-to-eye on a lot of issues, so to me it's just as well that he doesn't advocate his views with great vigor -- but it might well be good for the Court, and maybe even the country, if Thomas were less of a cipher.

Nokia and Microsoft, sitting in a tree ...

With Nokia embracing Microsoft to power its phones, the mobile phone maker has jumped off the burning platform and into the sea.

CEO Stephen Elop said the water would be freezing, and if the opining I've read is any indicator, he was right.

Ars Technica's Ryan Paul:
Adoption of Windows Phone 7 is fundamentally an act of capitulation by Nokia—an acknowledgement that the company is incapable of building its own ecosystem or innovating above the hardware layer.


Whether this deal can save Nokia is a question that's difficult to answer, but it's clear that the company's ambitions have diminished. Adopting Microsoft's platform puts Nokia in the unenviable position of being dependent on Microsoft and the success of Microsoft's fledgling mobile platform.
Eric S. Raymond wrote a brutal assessment of the partnership (thanks for the link, Technologizer) in which he hammered Elop for creating even greater confusion within Nokia by splitting the company's resources into divisions pursuing mutually incompatible goals. Raymond is so bewildered by Nokia's strategy that he even wonders if Elop is attempting to "head-fake Microsoft," using Redmond's resources to buy time while Nokia quietly attempts to develop Android phones. (Read Raymond's blog entry for yourself: I can't neatly summarize his thinking.) In the end, though:
The reorg may dissipate Nokia’s people and energies into so many officially-sanctioned missions that it can’t execute on any of them – in fact I think that’s the outcome to bet on. It’s the company that’s burning now, not the platform; I would no longer bet on Nokia surviving another 24 months.
Nokia appears to have killed its first MeeGo handset, which may bode ill for MeeGo's future. On the bright side, some of the confusion Raymond predicted might be diminished.

Harry McCracken at Technologizer isn't a critic as much as the friend standing to one side, giving advice. It's good advice, but the companies probably don't want to hear it because it throws cold water on their bravado. Among his points: "Build something that feels like it came from one company" (in my opinion, Microsoft will have a tough time making that happen because that just isn't the way the company works with its hardware partners), and "Be humble. Very, very humble," which to Harry boils down to, "if I were you guys, I’d try to reduce expectations, not raise them." (Again, I'm having a tough time imagining Steve Ballmer taking that to heart.)

Horace Dediu at Asymco has a wickedly amusing survey of Microsoft's strategic partners in the mobile sphere. Not a happy ending in the bunch. Check out the comments, too: mostly on-point and smart, two qualities lacking in most comment forums. I like best the shortest and harshest pair:
[Commenter "Synth"] Two dinosaurs mating.
[Commenter "TheOtherGeoff"] as a 5km meteor plummets towards the Yucatan Peninsula.

Courtesy of Daring Fireball, a piece from Matt Drance entitled, "Microsoft Buys Nokia for $0B." Drance doesn't think Microsoft is what Nokia needs:
Nokia’s problems, according to Elop, are with focus and execution—two things I wouldn’t say Microsoft is known for.
But Drance's central thesis is that Nokia is irrelevant: it's Microsoft that actually made news with this partnership. Microsoft effectively took over Nokia, in Drance's opinion (backed by some interesting rumors reported at the time Elop, an ex-Microsoft executive, took the CEO job at Nokia).
We like to think of Steve Ballmer throwing chairs when his executives leave. I think this time he told Elop, “Fine. Go get me some hardware I can own.” Elop did.
The move gets Microsoft as close as it can get to having an integrated hardware/software solution in the mobile environment.

Nokiasoft, Microkia, Nokioid (per Raymond's somewhat wild-eyed speculation) ... whatever this turns out to be could be interesting. Or it could wind up as yet another Microsoft partnership that didn't work out.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Mubarak steps down

Breaking news from the New York Times.

Now the real challenge begins. I wonder how many Egyptians realize that. (I was skeptical that most Americans understood how small a step Barack Obama's election was toward fixing our nation's many ills, and I was right.)

I wonder what George W. Bush thinks of what has happened in Tunisia and Egypt. One of the many arguments he made to justify the invasion of Iraq and the deposing of Saddam Hussein was that a democratic Iraq would inspire other nations under the heels of autocratic governments to rise up and embrace democracy. He might look on Tunisia and Egypt as authoritarian dominoes falling before the irrepressible desire for freedom and democracy, much as he claimed to envision would happen.

On the other hand, neither Tunisia nor Egypt was part of the "axis of evil." It's not likely he would be too happy at Mubarak's exit. And Bush certainly knows that democracy doesn't guarantee results that the U.S. likes: witness Hamas's victory in the 2006 Palestinian elections.

Perhaps, liberated from the presidential bubble, he will be able to ponder the truth of the old saying, "Be careful what you wish for."

In any case, the Egyptian population wasn't fired up by the inspiring example of Iraq (mild sarcasm intended). It was infuriated by skyrocketing prices for food and the fear of rising unemployment, and resentful of decades of corruption by the ruling party.

Hospitals not hiring smokers

According to the New York Times:
More hospitals and medical businesses in many states are adopting strict policies that make smoking a reason to turn away job applicants, saying they want to increase worker productivity, reduce health care costs and encourage healthier living.
This isn't sitting well with some people:
“There is nothing unique about smoking,” said Lewis Maltby, president of the [National] Workrights Institute, who has lobbied vigorously against the practice. “The number of things that we all do privately that have negative impact on our health is endless. If it’s not smoking, it’s beer. If it’s not beer, it’s cheeseburgers. And what about your sex life?”
Previous attempts to deny smokers employment resulted in legislation in many states that prohibits "discrimination against smokers or those who use 'lawful products.'" Some of these laws carve out an exception for health care organizations, though.

As a live-and-let-live person, Maltby's argument resonates with me.

On the other hand, the smell of a cheeseburger isn't detrimental to your health.

Smoking is a troublesome habit because its effects aren't limited to the smoker: they encompass everyone within range of the smoke. And secondhand smoke is a health hazard.

So while in the abstract I don't care whether you smoke, in practice I care very much whether I have to suffer your cigarette's side effects.

I much prefer social pressure, rather than legislation or drastic measures like hiring bans, to change people's behavior. However, if I'm stuck in a hospital bed, I can do without an attendant reeking of stale cigarette smoke. If it takes a ban on hiring smokers to ensure that, so be it.

In the tradeoff between the freedom to smoke and the right to be free of smoke, count me in the latter camp.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

"Paul Haggis vs. Scientology," Lawrence Wright

I don't have much use for religions. They encourage a way of thinking that elevates faith above questioning and rational inquiry. Where rational inquiry is of no help -- say, concerning what happens after death -- that's not a problem, but too often faith takes primacy even when rationality is critical, as with our species' response to overpopulation, for example.

But Scientology is appalling even as religions go.

Lawrence Wright's extended piece in The New Yorker is centered on Hollywood screenwriter and director Paul Haggis's departure from the church of Scientology. Haggis reflects on his multi-decade membership in the church and what led him to renounce it in 2009. Briefly, the final straw was the church's refusal to denounce California's Proposition 8, which outlawed same-sex marriage in the state. Haggis felt the church's position was morally indefensible and personally offensive to him as the parent of two gay children. The church's recalcitrance led him to investigate how it was perceived by others, which in turn led to his discovery that church officials lied to outsiders about church practices. At that point, he felt he had to leave.

Wright uses Haggis's story as a framework into which to weave the stories of other ex-Scientologists, all of whom tell harrowing tales of escaping total domination by the organization. In some cases this domination included physical abuse at the hands of the church's current de facto leader, David Miscavige.

The church of Scientology denies the allegations of abuse and coercion lodged by its former members. Although the allegations inspire disgust, they are, unfortunately, not well supported by evidence that impresses the legal system: most of the cases against the church have been dismissed. Because of this, the church has been able to claim its accusers are untrustworthy and spiteful:
The church characterizes Scobee, Rinder, Rathbun, Hawkins, De Vocht, Hines, and other defectors I spoke with as “discredited individuals,” who were demoted for incompetence or expelled for corruption; the defectors’ accounts are consistent only because they have “banded together to advance and support each other’s false ‘stories.’ ”
A presumption of innocence is due to Scientology as much as to any person or organization named in a lawsuit. Nevertheless, the idea that these people would bother to conspire with one another is tough to swallow. The fact that so many people have accused Scientology of coercive, abusive behavior tells me that either
  1. Scientology is good at recruiting vengeful, spiteful people who will band together to discredit it for no apparent reason (and waste a good deal of time, money, and emotional energy in the process); or
  2. the accusers are right.
Wright pressed Scientology spokesman Tommy Davis on the church's attempt to discredit ex-members:
I asked how, if these people were so reprehensible, they had all arrived at such elevated positions in the church. “They weren’t like that when they were in those positions,” Davis responded. The defectors we were discussing had not only risen to positions of responsibility within the church; they had also ascended Scientology’s ladder of spiritual accomplishment. I suggested to Davis that Scientology didn’t seem to work if people at the highest levels of spiritual attainment were actually liars, adulterers, wife beaters, and embezzlers.

Scientology, Davis said, doesn’t pretend to be perfect, and it shouldn’t be judged on the misconduct of a few apostates.
That's one way to look at it. Or you could believe that the church's denials are sounding a little desperate.

It would help Scientology's credibility if the church could point to an ex-Scientologist whom it didn't have to vilify.

Let me rephrase that: it would lend Scientology its first scintilla of credibility if it could find such a person.

Don't hold your breath waiting.

If the deeply disturbing revelations of child molestation by Catholic priests have done nothing else, they have reminded us that the more religious organizations distort the normalcy of human lives, the more likely are terrible consequences. Scientology has its share of weird and unhealthful practices, and they're often directed at its adherents, not those who serve in a clerical role. For instance, in many cases the church demands its adherents cut themselves off from nonbelievers, including immediate family: the church claims too much contact with non-Scientologists will interfere with its adherents' quest to be better Scientologists.

Another example is the church's "Sea Org."
The Sea Org became the church’s equivalent of a religious order. The group now has six thousand members. They perform tasks such as counselling, maintaining the church’s vast property holdings, and publishing its official literature. Sea Org initiates—some of whom are children—sign contracts for up to a billion years of service. They get a small weekly stipend and receive free auditing and coursework. Sea Org members can marry, but they must agree not to raise children while in the organization.
It's bad enough that married couple cannot raise children in this group. Just leave that aside for a moment.

What is the possible justification for permitting a child to contract him- or herself to the church for what is effectively his or her entire life?

I can't imagine a child being handed over to act as clergy for any religion. And yet, this and other alleged (but sadly, credible) disturbing practices within Scientology will go on, unchallenged by Scientology's adherents, because they believe.

Wright elaborated on this point when he was interviewed by Terry Gross on NPR's Fresh Air. In the course of the interview Gross asked Wright about the "notice of separation" Hubbard received from the military upon his completion of service in World War II. The church of Scientology produced one version of the document. It stated Hubbard had been grievously wounded, a key fact because Hubbard claimed to have discovered the basis for Dianetics, and thus Scientology, while recovering from those injuries.

Wright received a different notice of separation from the U.S. military in response to his queries. That document makes no mention of the injuries Hubbard claimed.

The church claims Hubbard's official military record was sanitized because Hubbard was a covert intelligence officer, but its claim rests entirely on the analysis of an ex-intelligence officer who "worked as a consultant for Scientology" and who died in 2001.

It's hard to believe the church could magically gain access to Hubbard's supposedly secret, true military record if it had been sanitized by the intelligence community. Moreover, the church cannot explain why the notice of separation it produced wrongly claimed Hubbard had completed college with a degree. In short, its version of the document screams, "Forgery!"

From NPR's transcript of the interview:
GROSS: So, the document that you have, L. Ron Hubbard's notice of separation, what impact do you think that is going to have on Scientology?

Mr. WRIGHT: It's hard to measure, because we're dealing with a religion, and people are drawn to it because of faith. And if it were simply a matter of reason, then one could put this document down in front of you and say: Here is conclusive proof that the founder of Scientology lied about his military record and lied about his injuries and lied about the very fundamental principles out of which he created the Church of Scientology.

But that may not matter to people who are involved in it, who may feel that they are gaining something from their experience, either because they feel like the truths of Scientology enhance their lives or because the community of Scientologists that they live among is something like their family. So they intentionally shield themselves against knowing these kinds of things.
Faith trumps rational inquiry.

"The Riddle of Jimmy Carter," Nicholas Dawidoff

Rolling Stone has a lengthy piece on former president Jimmy Carter. (It's also available in a print-friendly format, but that version lacks any credit for Dawidoff. Odd.)

Modern presidents are fascinating creatures because it takes such uncommon determination to attain office, and even more uncommon skill to do well once there. Of course, "doing well" is in the eyes of the beholder, and Carter more than most presidents has suffered from a perception that he meant well but didn't do well in office.

I wasn't old enough to vote when Carter achieved the Oval Office. I was old enough to read, though, and I remember the many articles in that most populist (and admittedly, often fearmongering) of magazines, Readers Digest, that warned of the dangers that surrounded us. Nuclear war with the Soviet Union was a favorite topic, as was the energy crisis (it had expanded beyond the original "gas crisis" by then) due to inevitable fossil fuel depletion. There were even the first articles I remember about global warming. (Then there were the curious "I am Joe's [name of organ]" pieces -- but I digress.)

The adult world toward which my generation was hurtling seemed full of troubles that no one was addressing -- until Carter came along.

I was definitely in the minority in cheering the man when he tried to wean the country off fossil fuels. It was an ambitious goal, and one that would take decades, that much I knew. What I didn't know was that the American voter has no taste for self-abnegation or long-term thinking. Carter was booted out of office in a historic landslide for Reagan, and Carter's small but farsighted steps toward making an energy-independent future for ourselves were all but entirely undone by his successor (one of many reasons I have nothing but contempt for the whitewashing of Reagan's reputation by disingenuous or genuinely misinformed people).

Dawidoff's piece makes it clear that Jimmy Carter is still a riddle, even to longtime friends. He is full of demonstrable contradictions, and is not above reimagining and romanticizing his past like any other politician. This comes as an unwelcome surprise to those of us who believed that he was different from our other presidents in that he always told us the truth, no matter how much it hurt us (or him). As Dawidoff explains:
No one can become president without a tremendous aptitude for politics, and Carter has always been an enormously political man. Perhaps because his own faith and virtue have always been such vital political attributes, he just doesn't like us to think so.
Yet for a politician, Carter could be surprisingly tone-deaf. Perhaps that has to do with his conviction that the facts trump everything.
"He's an engineer," says Andrew Young, whose loyal support of Carter's political career led the new president to appoint him U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, the first African-American to hold the job. "Engineers will tell you exactly how to build a bridge, but they can't seem to explain why you need this bridge."
All in all, this is a fascinating attempt to make sense of a man few understand, even today.

Nokia CEO's blunt assessment

Courtesy of Daring Fireball, an Engadget piece quoting Nokia CEO Stephen Elop's "brutally honest" memo to employees. It seems to be genuine and to have been leaked to Engadget and at least a couple of other media outlets. (Whether the leaks were intentional or not is unknown. Nokia might not be averse to outsiders seeing the memo: credit agencies are considering whether to downgrade the company's credit rating, and any sign the company is trying to turn itself around might help to forestall such a move.)

It's not often you see a company executive, much less the CEO, deliver such a forthright appraisal of his own firm. It helps, of course, that Elop was brought in as new blood because Nokia was already in trouble, so he can put much of the blame on actions and people who preceded his arrival.

Elop explained that Apple's iPhone dominated the high-end smartphone market, that Google's Android is "now winning the mid-range," and Chinese manufacturers are churning out competitive low-end phones that are "taking share from us in emerging markets." Nokia, meanwhile, has been unable to muster a challenge on any of these fronts: MeeGo, its high-end smartphone technology, has been a bust; Symbian, Nokia's OS for mid-range phones, is "non-competitive in leading markets like North America" and "an increasingly difficult environment in which to develop to meet the continuously expanding consumer requirements." And Elop made one of his harshest criticisms of his own company by quoting one of his own employees:
At the lower-end price range, Chinese OEMs are cranking out a device much faster than, as one Nokia employee said only partially in jest, "the time that it takes us to polish a PowerPoint presentation."
Ouch. It's one thing for the rank and file to grouse about corporate atherosclerosis. It's quite another for the CEO to do it.
I believe at least some of [Nokia's decline] has been due to our attitude inside Nokia. We poured gasoline on our own burning platform. I believe we have lacked accountability and leadership to align and direct the company through these disruptive times. We had a series of misses. We haven't been delivering innovation fast enough. We're not collaborating internally.
If I were a Nokia executive I'd be updating my resumé. It sounds like a housecleaning is on the way.

Speculation is that Nokia will announce it is adopting either Android or Windows Phone 7 at a media event the company has scheduled for 11 February.

David Kelley takes on Wonder Woman

Yes, it's that David E. Kelley, Mr. Ally McBeal, taking on Wonder Woman, the DC Universe superheroine, for NBC. Comics 101's Scott Tipton got a peek at the script for the pilot, apparently written by Kelley.
So is it as bad as you've heard?

Well, in the immortal words of Opus the Penguin, "It's not that bad, but, Lord, it ain't good."
Tipton's review of the script (the script, mind you, not the filmed pilot) makes the old series with Lynda Carter sound positively Shakespearean by comparison.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Halliburton fracking info, week 12

Halliburton's fracking Web site is unchanged, still listing just the original three formulations.

Hollow PR exercise. And getting more embarrassingly stale by the moment.

Enough with the cloud

So the car cassette deck is dead. Okay, I can see that. Nothing on cassette is unavailable in some digital format these days, aside from those mix tapes with painstakingly planned and executed segues I made a couple of decades ago for a road trip.

But why is the inevitable future for car entertainment the cloud?
“We went from radio to tape to optical and then to flash memory or a hard disc drive, and now we’re moving away from memory and to storage of our tunes in the cloud,” said Mike Kahn, director for mobile electronics of Sony Electronics.
One analyst posits we'll pay subscriptions or endure ads in return for cloud access.

Not me.

You assholes want us to go back to the days before we were allowed to own content, when the only way to listen to music in the car was to endure ads on the radio. You want us to surrender physical control of our preferred content and pay you for the privilege.

Screw that.

Screw you.

You content providers are forcing the cloud down our throats because you love charging us again and again and again and again and again for the same stuff. The cloud is a fraud. The promise of the cloud is a lie. And you are pigs.

I paid for it. It's my music.

I'll cheerfully pass on any car that forces me to use the godforsaken cloud, and I'll tell my family and friends to do the same.

Once again, screw that.

Screw you.

More on the HuffPo acquisition

Further to my thoughts on AOL acquiring the Huffington Post, Daily Beast contributor Randall Lane explores the deal's slightly odd terms:
AOL, even after its spinoff from Time Warner in 2009, remains a public company. So why did it pay almost completely in cash? (Just $15 million of the [$315 million] transaction is in stock.) Because while AOL clearly believes fully in The Huffington Post, Arianna and her squad just as clearly don't believe fully in AOL.
"AOL stock? Uh, no, we'd prefer compensation that will hold its value in five years, thanks."

Fellow Beast contributor Dan Lyons (aka Fake Steve Jobs) thinks the deal is "a slow-motion train wreck and will end in disaster." Not all his arguments are convincing but enough of them ring true that I'd be worried if I were an AOL shareholder.

Lyons portrays the match as salespeople meeting journalists. AOL CEO Tim Armstrong "is a sales guy," implicitly making HuffPo the journalists. One problem with thus romanticizing HuffPo's work is that HuffPo was routinely criticized for being a story aggregator, like Google News, rather than a content creator, like the New York Times. Story aggregation is to be strictly circumscribed at AOL: the leaked "AOL Way" slides (see my earlier entry) make clear that AOL is determined to keep all clicks in-house.

(Nothing wrong with story aggregators, by the way: I'm one myself, after all. However, I'm not charging you to read this.)

Lyons speculates -- whether his tongue is in his cheek, I don't know -- that the acquisition is part of a long-term strategy to consolidate outlets for ad dollars:
If the problem is that we have too many organizations chasing after the same ad dollars, why not roll everyone up and give advertisers fewer choices? Then we can bump the ad rates up. It worked in broadcast TV, when we had three big networks and they operated an oligopoly.
(Speaking of consolidation, the Daily Beast just merged with old-school newsmagazine Newsweek.)

The best tidbit to come out of Lyons' article is the probable reason HuffPo was available for acquisition:
Huffington and her partner Ken Lerer had raised $37 million in venture funding, much of it from Softbank Capital. In June 2009, as Softbank grew impatient for a return, the VC fund had installed Eric Hippeau, one of its partners, as CEO of Huffington Post. In our conversations, Hippeau talked about how he was determined to build a “strong and independent” business—which in the world of tech and media is code for, “We’re for sale.”
Hippeau, Lyons reports, is not joining AOL as part of the deal. 'Nuff said.

Lyons quotes Gawker's Nick Denton, pithily summing things up:
“AOL has gathered so many of our rivals— Huffington Post, Engadget, Techcrunch—in one place. The question: Is this a fearsome Internet conglomerate or simply a roach motel for once lively websites?”
Lane's and Lyons' pieces only strengthen my conviction that AOL just threw a pile of money down the drain -- again.