Thursday, June 30, 2011

"Unholy marriage," my ass

The Browser pointed to an opinion piece by Frank Furedi in Spiked entitled, An unholy marriage of snobbery and snideyness". Its (tired) thesis is that the advocates of gay marriage are as or more intolerant of their opponents as those opponents are portrayed as being.
From a sociological perspective, the rise of the campaign for gay marriage provides a fascinating insight into the dynamics of the cultural conflicts that prevail in Western society. Indeed, over the past decade the issue of gay marriage has been transformed into a cultural weapon, which explicitly challenges prevailing norms through condemning those who oppose it. This is not so much a call for legal change as a cause, a crusade – and one which endows its supporters with moral superiority while demoting its opponents with the status of moral inferiority.
Well, of course that's the case. You don't fire up people to support a cause without convincing them they will hold the higher moral ground by doing so. In case it has escaped your attention, Mr. Furedi, that's what the opponents of gay marriage do, too.
In the Anglo-American world, gay marriage has become one of those causes through which the cosmopolitan cultural elites define themselves and construct a moral contrast between their kind and ordinary folk. What’s really important for them is the sense of superiority experienced through the conviction that ‘we’ are not like ‘them’. In this way, a clear moral distinction can be drawn between the forward-looking attitudes of an enlightened, courageous minority and the backward-looking prejudices of a homophobic majority.
And I suppose that agitation in favor of equal rights for blacks in the 1950s and 1960s was also an elitist movement because it confronted the backward-looking prejudices of a racist majority?

Furedi's language invites us to see support for gay marriage as a way for so-called cultural elites to make themselves feel superior to the masses. It seems to annoy him most especially that celebrities like Britney Spears and Tracy Morgan have made noises in favor of gay marriage, Morgan's remarks in particular seemingly issued for the purpose of damage control after he was lambasted for earlier antigay remarks. Well, they may or may not be opportunists. However, that doesn't mean that support for gay marriage is a feel-good exercise for everyone who advocates it.

It is, in fact, the height of "snobbery and snideyness" to imply as much.

I don't care one way or the other about gay marriage. As long as gays have the same rights under the law as straights (e.g., they can get the same tax breaks), I don't much see the point of having the right to marry versus, say, the right to enter into civil unions. But the argument for "equal rights" makes a lot more sense to me than the argument that "gay marriage would hurt society," which seems to be the only reason opponents of gay marriage can muster, and never with a follow-on explanation of how gay marriage would hurt society (more than a 50% divorce rate does, for instance).

Furedi claims at the outset, "Whatever one thinks about the pros and cons of gay marriage, a tolerant society cannot deny the right of homosexual couples to formalise their relationships." Yet what he writes suggests he has little respect for those who support codifying that right.

"The Neverending Nightmare of Amanda Knox," Nathaniel Rich

I have no patience for bad-thing-happened-to-attractive-girl stories. They generally involve girls who disappeared without a trace, or were murdered in grotesque ways, and the media coverage in the U.S. is invariably (1) salacious, (2) outraged, and (3) prolonged beyond what any dispassionate observer would deem suitable to the importance of the story. Call me callous if you will, but tell me, honestly, what makes the death of one girl you didn't know, thousands of miles from your home, matter to you or to your family, friends or neighbors? Why should you care more for this girl than for, say, the teenaged boy who was gunned down in a drive-by shooting several blocks away?

The interest in bad-thing-happened-to-attractive-girl stories is prurient: let's not pretend otherwise.

The name "Amanda Knox" drifted into my consciousness a few times in the last couple of years, but with all the other things I've wanted to read, and without reading anything about Knox, I made a snap judgment to place her name into the bad-thing-happened-to-attractive-girl category and banished her from further consideration. It wasn't until LongReads pointed me at a Rolling Stone piece on her trial that I learned why she had been in the news in the first place.

The Rolling Stone article portrays the Italian justice system in pretty unflattering terms, and Italians in general even less positively. They come off as delusional (the police and prosecutor) and lazy (virtually no one is interested in what we consider the fundamental right to a speedy trial if it interferes with holidays). The citizens of the community in which the crime and trial occurred believe the ludicrous confession Knox was coerced into signing. It all reads like a bad movie, except that apparently, it isn't.

[UPDATE: Some have a serious beef with Rich's article: see my followup post.]

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Shady business in Cheyenne

Great investigative reporting by Reuters produced a look at a "business-incorporation specialist" based in Cheyenne, Wyoming.
A Reuters investigation has found the house at 2710 Thomes Avenue serves as a little Cayman Island on the Great Plains. It is the headquarters for Wyoming Corporate Services, a business-incorporation specialist that establishes firms which can be used as "shell" companies, paper entities able to hide assets.
If desired, WCS can provide "shelf" companies with a long enough track record of blameless corporate activity to satisfy bankers and others who would subject newly minted companies to greater scrutiny. WCS can also arrange for many of its clients' activities to be hidden by attorney-client privilege.

There are a few legitimate uses for shell companies, but as with anything designed to conceal information from prying eyes, there's a lot more motivation to use them to protect shady and illegal enterprises. The article traces a couple of WCS's clients to illustrate. Pavlo Lazarenko, formerly the prime minister of the Ukraine, is accused of using WCS-created shell companies to hide money stolen from the Ukrainian government. Ira N. Rubin allegedly trafficked in bogus credit cards and hid illegal payments to online poker sites.

It says a great deal about the U.S. that while we fear and loathe the secrecy of other nations that allows money to be laundered by criminal organizations into legitimate enterprises, or to be funneled from supposedly legitimate charities to terrorist groups, we have done nothing to prevent corporate shell games from flourishing in the territorial U.S. WCS is hardly alone, nor is Cheyenne.
The incorporation industry, overseen by officials in the 50 states, has few rules. Convicted felons can operate firms which create companies, and buy them with no background checks.

No states license mass incorporators, and only a few require them to formally register with state authorities. None collect the names and addresses of "beneficial owners," the individuals with a controlling interest in corporations, according to a 2009 report by the National Association of Secretaries of State, a group for state officials overseeing incorporation. Wyoming and Nevada allow the real owners of corporations to hide behind "nominee" officers and directors with no direct role in the business, often executives of the mass incorporator.
Federal legislation to make corporate ownership more transparent has been opposed, successfully, by critics who cite high compliance costs to businesses and who claim the legislation would infringe on states' rights. In short, the opposition is rooted in people who dislike the federal government and who want maximum freedom for corporations. The same people, curiously enough, who brought us the dysfunction of the George W. Bush years. Imagine that.

Autism and high tech

I'm ambivalent about linking to an article entitled, "More Autism Diagnoses in High-Tech Areas, Study Finds".
Researchers from Cambridge University in England found that nearly three times as many children were diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder in a region of the Netherlands known as a center of high-tech industry than in two other regions with fewer high-tech jobs.
I've worked around enough engineering types to have more than a fleeting suspicion that many of them (er, us) have personalities that, depending on your definitional rigor, could be called autistic. The observation that some people relate better to machines than to other people is quite accurate.

However, the study in question has serious methodological flaws.
Researchers acknowledged their study had limitations, including the possibility that parents in the high-tech region were more attuned to the signs of autism and that the kids were more likely to be diagnosed, and that they relied on numbers from the schools but were unable to examine the kids themselves.
What this says to me is, the researchers worked off secondhand, anecdotal information. That should have invalidated this as serious academic research.

Nevertheless, if you work with seriously focused engineers and are frustrated by the experience, this article provides some interesting insights that might help you to find a modus vivendi.

Kottke on punctuation

Kottke has many of the same idiosyncratic punctuation habits I do. Note especially how he creates m-dashes and quotation marks: both of his techniques, which I also follow, arise out of typewriter usage.

It occurs to me that those who learned to "print" using typewriters bear the same relationship to traditional printers (who use printing presses) as backyard grillers do to true barbecuers. What I suspect raises the ire of those who prefer, e.g., smart quotation marks, is that nobody uses the typewriter any more. Everyone with a computer now has full traditional print capabilities at his fingertips through programs like Microsoft Word. (To complete the analogy, this is like having a smoker rather than merely a Weber grill.)

Why do Kottke and I continue to "grill" rather than move up to the more sophisticated "barbecuing"? For me it's a matter of wanting my posts to live in the simplest possible native format, ASCII text without Unicode escape codes.

Monday, June 27, 2011

An overheated machine

How do you slow down an overheated machine?

I wondered that not long after reading a Mother Jones piece about the still-incompletely understood spate of neurological disorders afflicting workers at a pig-processing plant associated with Hormel in Austin, Minnesota. The affected workers all spent time at or near the station where pigs' brains were flushed from the skull. The process aerosolized the brains and the inhalation of the vapors is suspected to have triggered autoimmune responses in the workers' bodies, since porcine neurological cells are so similar to humans'.

The trend of afflictions came to Minnesota public health officials' notice in the mid-2000s. However, the plant had operated with the brain-flushing equipment, "off and on, for more than a decade," begging the question of why the disorders were only first being seen in 2006 or so. The MJ writer speculates that increased demand for the plant's core product, Spam, led to four changes that greatly increased the risk for workers.
  • Increased line speed, from 900 pig heads per hour in 1996 to 1,350 per hour in 2006, increased the hourly exposure.
  • The machine actually flushing the brains from the pig skulls was changed, increasing the number of misfires and thus spatter.
  • In late 2006, the increased speed of the line led to a pileup of pig skulls that cracked the plexiglass shield protecting some workers from the spatter.
  • The plant's hourly wages were rather low, making overtime desirable for workers; meanwhile, overtime helped Hormel keep up with demand. Workers' daily exposure times thus were increased.
There's a lot in this article -- repetitive strain injuries caused by workers having to perform the same physical operation again and again alongside machines, illegal immigrants working under false IDs, backstabbing of labor unions by companies, shell companies shielding Hormel from adverse publicity, threats of retaliation against workers who spoke out -- but the bottom line is, this is how our industrial meat-packing system works today. And why does it work that way? Because we all want more for less.

That's the way our industrialized capitalist system works. It is a system whose perceived benefits have been lionized for a century. We all know the mantra: increased production leads to lower costs, leading to increased purchasing power for the consumer, leading to increased sales for the company, leading to increased profits, leading to more money that can be spent on research to lower production costs, and so the machine spins on. It's supposed to be a virtuous circle for the company.

The consumer is himself a worker during another part of the day, though. Therefore, he is being paid by a company that produces something. At minimum, the worker needs to be paid enough to buy what he needs to survive (and what his kids need, too).

Here's where the mantra breaks down, though. Companies long ago realized that they could ship jobs to nations whose labor costs were much lower. That made a great deal of sense as far as lowering costs were concerned, and in fact the U.S. is often portrayed as a beneficiary of that disparity in costs. However, it broke the implicit and necessary bargain with domestic workers. More and more of those workers no longer make enough money to be good consumers.

Company management has less and less reason to care about this problem since the company is more and more interested and (literally) invested in a global market. If North American sales and profits decline, the company can make it up in Latin America and Asia. What's to happen to the managers' fellow citizens who can't buy the company's goods and services? Legally, it's not their problem, and morally, well, talk to shareholders. Managers are not being paid to worry about anything but the company's financial well-being.

Workers, meanwhile, increasingly fall into two categories: the well-paid and the barely-holding-on. The former are only as numerous as they must be, so their number doesn't increase significantly. More and more workers, then, live on a tight budget. They will search out the lowest price they can for what they need.

Meanwhile, shareholders demand growing profits. (Those who have money to invest need for it to grow or inflation will eat its value away over time.)

In the face of these twin pressures, how does Hormel respond? The way any company does: it tries to lower costs any way it can. Speeding up the processing line is an obvious tactic.

I see a death spiral. Companies in the U.S. can only remain competitive with their overseas rivals if they follow the cost-cutting spiral downward, but in so doing they cut the knees out from under their workers: wages or jobs decrease (often both). These workers are domestic consumers whose buying power has been slashed, so they look for the lowest price for goods and services. These socks made in Vietnam are cheaper than anything produced domestically? Good enough.

U.S. companies are overheated machines that aren't creating viable domestic jobs, just profits. And as others have pointed out, more and more of those profits aren't even reaching these shores except as insane compensation to corporate upper management.

The success of these companies -- in fact, their very survival -- imperils the entire U.S. economy.

The only end result I can imagine is a standard of living reduced to the lowest sustainable level, which at this point can probably be found in southeast Asia or sub-Saharan Africa. That's where globalization will take us before we can ever hope to dig ourselves out (as a species, not merely a nation).

Eventually, a truly global economy might achieve equilibrium between wages and production costs. I don't see even the possibility of that happening in the next fifty years, though.

You advocate stopping global trade? Okay. How are the advanced industrialized economies to get some of the raw materials they need to sustain domestic production? As well-endowed as the U.S. is with raw materials, not everything is available here.

As scary as the meat-processors' neurological disorders are, I see them as a symptom of a systemic ailment that is grinding all of us down.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

You are not above proofreading

This is probably the result of severe overwork, but my feeling bad for the guilty party doesn't take him/her/it off the hook for this:
True Blood’s Ryan Kwanten Talks Fourth Season Secets and Surviving Shart Attack
"Secets." "Shart." If either had appeared in the body of an article, I might overlook it. But this was a headline. Twelve words. (And there was another headline on the same site that used "lead" instead of "led.")

Is anybody bothering to read these things before throwing them up for all to see, or does nobody at The Hollywood Reporter know how to spell?

Twelve words. How hard would it have been to proofread them? Don't you care enough to make even that minor effort?

Friday, June 24, 2011

Inside view of the 1991 Soviet coup

Nearly twenty years ago, a lot of us were nervously wondering if the U.S.S.R. was going to turn back the clock to the bad old days of the Cold War.

Boris Yeltsin's then-secretary of state, Gennady Burbulis, has written a first-person account of his observations the day Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev was removed from power by a coup.

Burbulis believes the coup essentially was responsible for the mess that the former U.S.S.R. is today.
The failure of the August coup was both ironic and tragic. In taking the extraordinary measures they believed were necessary to hold the union together, the putschists ensured its destruction. Without the coup, the union would likely have endured, albeit in a form that might have eventually resembled the European Union more than the old Soviet Union. But the three-day standoff in Moscow exploded that possibility.

A gradual transformation of the Soviet Union would have been manageable; the instant collapse caused by the coup was disastrous. The coup was the political Chernobyl of the Soviet totalitarian empire.
Burbulis thinks the coup allowed the old Communist apparatchiks to worm their way into the infant union's polity and economy, poisoning and corrupting both. I think he's overly optimistic about the path not taken (Russia had a culture of corruption long before Lenin), but we'll never know.

I enjoyed Burbulis' tale a lot, but that might be because I didn't follow it too closely at the time so the details are all new to me. (I was nervous about the possibility of the U.S.S.R.'s resurgence as the Evil Empire, but I also was preoccupied with a career change.)

(Thanks to LongReads for the link.)

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Joseph Epstein on Stanley Fish and writing

Courtesy LongReads, a link to a review of Stanley Fish's How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One that doubles as a reflection of how difficult it is to teach people how to write.

Epstein's article is well worth reading until he gets to the part where he actually has to review Fish's book. As for that part, which is slightly more than half the article, all I can say is, I wanted to appreciate it. I like snarkiness as much as the next cynic. However, I thought it uncharitable to go on at such length about a book whose mission was doomed from the start.

Heaven knows, there's room in this world for writing guides designed to teach people to write clearly. In addition, I'd pay for somebody who could force would-be citizen journalists of all stripes to read one or more such guides. (Dear Akit: I love what you're trying to do, but your garbled writing sabotages your effort, and not incidentally drives me bonkers!)

Fish's book, though, doesn't fall into the category of simple writing guide. From what I can tell, Fish set himself the more ambitious task of teaching the reader how to write well by analyzing good and bad sentences.

So what's the difference between writing clearly and writing well?

Writing clearly is a subtask of writing well. Writing well, though, requires more. What's the "more"? Ah, that's where the flaw lurks that dooms efforts like Fish's. It's a matter of style, and as Epstein himself admits at the very beginning of his review:
After thirty years of teaching a university course in something called advanced prose style, my accumulated wisdom on the subject, inspissated into a single thought, is that writing cannot be taught, though it can be learned—and that, friends, is the sound of one hand clapping.
Everyone needs to learn to write clearly. Writing at its heart is about communication, and if you aren't writing clearly you aren't communicating clearly. You're failing at Job 1 of writing! Why do you bother to write if not to be understood by others?

Yes, I'd prefer to read a mail message that was written well than to read one merely written clearly. If it's a matter of needing to know the new design parameters for the project I'm working on, however, by all means break your ideas down until they form the simplest and least creative of sentences, so long as I can understand you.

Writing well, though, requires that you develop your own voice. Like Epstein, I know of no easy way to do that except by reading authors who use the language well (who they are depends on your taste) and paying attention to the tricks they employ.

Oh, and to learn to write well, you also need to write. The hoary cliché about needing to write a hundred thousand words of tripe before one can approach writing well is all too true. You have a lot of bad habits and trite ideas to work out of your system. I know: I'm still purging myself. (Just look at this blog. Little of it reflects genuinely deep thought on my part, which is why the process is taking so long.)

So without ill will to Stanley Fish or other (presumably well-intentioned) would-be writing mentors, you'll never learn to write well by reading their books. If you look around, you can probably find a guide to using the language properly, that is, a guide to writing clearly. Settle for that as your first goal. Only after you've mastered clarity can you move on to the (largely self-guided) task of finding your voice and style. Somewhere along the way, you'll discover you're writing well.

The clock of the Long Now

I had read about the Long Now Foundation years ago but my all too human preoccupation with what I suppose we must, by contrast, call the short now, drove the foundation and its work from my mind.

Fortunately, writer Kevin Kelly, a board member of the foundation, has written about the foundation's signature project, the 10,000-year clock. The foundation hopes to build many such clocks; the one Kelly described is inside a mountain in western Texas.

The challenges to building anything designed to last for 10,000 years are daunting. Consider that, according to the History Channel show Life After People, no current human construct will last for that long except, possibly, for the figures on Mount Rushmore, and Hoover Dam. (If you're considering a very long-term bet, put your money on Mt. Rushmore, by the way: concrete is good, but granite is better.) The Great Pyramid might survive (though it's possible it will have been buried in the sand by its ten-thousandth year), as might Stonehenge.

These objects, except for Hoover Dam, are made out of rock and don't move. The Clock, as Kelly calls it, isn't made of rock and must move. Its survival for 10,000 years, therefore, would be an unprecedented achievement -- and it means it has no precursors on whose experience the Clock's designers and builders can draw.

For the pessimists out there (and I suppose I count myself among you), the Clock is intended to keep time without human maintenance. The Clock uses an ingenious mechanism that relies only on the sun for this primary function. Marking the passage of that time, however, e.g., by chiming, requires visitors to provide the energy by winding up certain parts of the clock. It's a clever inducement to keep society interested in the Clock -- as long as society lasts, that is. The point, though, is that the Clock doesn't need humans to carry out its mission.

As far as I can tell, the Clock isn't designed to withstand extraordinary crises. If a comet or asteroid strikes anywhere nearby, the Clock will likely be irreparably damaged or destroyed. If the supervolcano under Yellowstone blows and throws enough debris into the atmosphere to reduce the amount of sunlight reaching the earth above the Clock, its timekeeping will almost certainly be thrown off. Other, more localized seismic events that affect the structure of the mountain may damage the Clock. A lot can happen in 10,000 years.

Nevertheless, it's a fascinating exercise to think in terms of building for the truly long haul (on the human timescale). And, as the quest to put a man on the moon demonstrated, such seemingly quixotic efforts can yield unexpected boons to society.

Let's hear it for the Long Now Foundation and its Clock!

(Thanks to LongReads for the link.)

More on David Carr

I'm neither a New York Times nor David Carr groupie, but Tom McGeveran's writeup on Carr in Capital New York caught my eye. Together with the admiring portrait of Carr by Aaron Sorkin in Interview that I referenced yesterday, McGeveran's piece makes it a good week for Carr.

Of more interest to the rest of us is that McGeveran gives a quick overview of the Times' recent history that led to what McGeveran called the "development of the Times having a superego beyond the 'daily miracle'." McGeveran lays the blame for many of the paper's travails in the past decade on former editor-in-chief Howell Raines, whose tenure from 2001-2003 McGeveran calls "Kremlinesque" (without explanation, which I, at least, needed). The response to Raines, apparently, was for the Times to become more transparent about itself.

The line from this piece that grabbed me wasn't actually from this piece. It's a line McGeveran quotes twice (and a line Carr struggles to explain at the article's close) from Carr's memoir Night of the Gun:
We all walk this earth feeling we are frauds. The trick is to be grateful and hope the caper doesn't end any time soon.
Indeed.

[UPDATE: I've been very bad at crediting recent entries. The link to the Capital New York article is courtesy of LongReads.]

Consensus on Jay Maisel

I regularly follow three bloggers: John Gruber (Daring Fireball), Jason Kottke (kottke.org), and Marco Arment (marco.org). They don't generally cover exactly the same topics, though Gruber and Arment are wont to weigh in on Apple-related matters and occasionally cite one another.

Today, however, all three inveighed against photographer Jay Maisel. The reason is set forth in writer Andy Baio's blog piece, "Kind of Screwed," in which Baio explains how he was threatened with a lawsuit by Maisel's attorneys for violating Maisel's copyright on the photo used for the cover of Miles Davis' well-known album Kind of Blue.
After seven months of legal wrangling, we reached a settlement. Last September, I paid Maisel a sum of $32,500 and I'm unable to use the artwork again. (On the plus side, if you have a copy, it's now a collector's item!) I'm not exactly thrilled with this outcome, but I'm relieved it's over.

But this is important: the fact that I settled is not an admission of guilt. My lawyers and I firmly believe that the pixel art is "fair use" and Maisel and his counsel firmly disagree. I settled for one reason: this was the least expensive option available.
Gruber:
What a dick this Maisel guy is.
Kottke:
Unfortunately, Baio's post does nothing to dissuade me that Maisel is a joyless putz.
And Arment:
He got screwed by dick Jay Maisel, the insanely rich photographer of the original album’s cover art.
The Facebook page to which Gruber linked is full of (relatively low-key) invective. It's a pity that Maisel is almost certainly unaware of the page because amid the name-calling posts there are plenty that would prick his conscience, assuming he has one. Take this thoughtful slam by "Nikki Thompson":
Jay, I have always held deep respect for you and your work but greed and abuse of the legal system are not respectable characteristics. I have lost an art hero and Andy Baio has lost his kid's college fund. You are a sad old man.
Maisel might well feel his work was misappropriated, but there were far less heavyhanded ways he could have made his point and preserved his rights. Civility, decorum, and restraint don't matter legally, but an artist should be concerned for his reputation, too. Maisel's, as far as I am concerned, is shot.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Laurie sings the blues

Hugh Laurie, who plays the title character on the TV series House, has always had a musical side to him. GQ profiles that side in a feature piece on Laurie, published to coincide roughly with the issuance of Laurie's first album, Let Them Talk. (Interestingly, GQ files the piece under TV rather than Music.)

Laurie knows that the idea of a Brit playing the blues is bound to give people pause, and tries to downplay expectations.
Laurie's rationale is reassuringly matter- of-fact, and is perhaps best explained in a photocopied letter from Laurie that arrived at GQ a few months ago. "I was not born in Alabama in the 1890s," wrote Laurie. "You may as well know this now. I've never eaten grits, cropped a share, or ridden a boxcar. No gypsy woman said anything to my mother when I was born and there's no hellhound on my trail, as far as I can judge. Let this record show I am a white, middle-class Englishman, openly trespassing on the music and myth of the American South... The question of why a soft-handed English schoolboy should be touched by music born of slavery and oppression in another city, on another continent, in another century, is for a thousand others to answer before me: from [Alexis] Korner to Clapton, the Rolling Stones to the Joolsing Hollands. Let's just say it happens."
allmusic.com has a review of the album. I think it's fair to say the review is respectful but guarded.

Myself, I miss Laurie's native accent and his considerable comedic chops. I think I'll watch Black Adder the Third again.

[UPDATE: Link to the GQ article courtesy The Browser.]

In praise of editors

[I've been sitting on this post for a while, saving it for a rainy day, as it were, but in light of the David Carr interview, it seems like a good time to share it.]

I remember the excitement when the implications of the World Wide Web became clear, first to non-technical pundits, then to the public at large. At last, everyone would have his own microphone, his own space in an infinitely large Hyde Park Speakers' Corner. There would be no gatekeepers, no one whose arbitrary, idiosyncratic, and possibly stupid whims one would have to satisfy before being allowed access to the masses.

That's a grand vision. However ...

I value good writing. I value it a lot.

Good writing is clear, but more than that, it is easy, even pleasurable, to read.

However, the ugly truth is that most people don't write well. They toss off their thoughts as quickly as they can type, and don't seem to proofread before committing the results.

Many mistakes are small, like pebbles in a road: you can step over them and not lose your way. Still, you have to make the extra effort. That takes away from the pleasure of reading.

Other mistakes are larger, and can throw the reader off the road entirely. I'll stop reading right there, and you probably will, too.

That's why I value editors. Gatekeepers they may be, but I prefer to think of them as a competitive advantage. By having a competent editor review your writing before it goes out the door, you've increased the likelihood that a reader will stay with your piece, which is the point, isn't it?

I wish the Internet had more editors. I know why it doesn't, but as a lover of good writing, I wish it did.

Aaron Sorkin interviews David Carr

Carr is a media columnist for the New Tork Times; Sorkin is the fellow who created The West Wing, among other things.

The names drew me in, but these remarks of Carr's are what make me recommend that you read the interview. (Page One is a new documentary about "the inner workings" of the paper.)
But I think one of the things that Page One does an amazing job of demonstrating is the importance of editors. You can see our editor, Bruce Headlam, shaping, arguing, pushing back. Of course, that’s what you don’t have a lot of in the blogosphere. There is nobody pushing people to support what they’re saying, nobody arguing against the assumptions that are brought to the table—and reporters, even the ones I work with, are full of all sorts of notions. Some of them have ideas that are pretty hair-brained or not really provable.
There's a reason editors came to be a critical part of the publishing ecosystem, people.

[UPDATE: Somehow I forgot to link to the Interview article. Oops. Link courtesy of LongReads.]

Pistachios

I've never eaten pistachios. Nothing against them, they just haven't figured largely in my life.

In the last few days, though, they've crossed my path (so to speak) a couple of times. The other night, I was looking at the menu of a restaurant that served Turkish Delight. Plain TD was 50 cents; TD with pistachios was $3.50. I was surprised, but shrugged the disparity off as either my own myopia or a glitch on the wall-mounted menu.

Then I ran across a post about pistachios on the Web site for Toscanini's, a Boston-based ice cream store.
Pistachio nuts are another product that saw a huge price increase. The explanation is that suddenly richer countries like China and India are buying enough pistachios to raise prices. In fact there are reports of hijackings of agricultural commodities including nuts and tomatoes.
I guess the Turkish Delight with pistachios really is that much more expensive.

[UPDATE: Link to the Toscanini's blog courtesy of Kottke.]

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

To pay or not to pay

I have gotten into the habit of checking out the featured Yahoo! stories that show up on the splash page after logging out of a Yahoo! Mail account. (The jury is still out as to whether this is a good habit: the content is generally horrendous, but it gives some idea of what the country is obsessing about at any given moment.)

An article about private school tuition topping $40,000 caught my eye. Not the most pressing of topics, but I'm always curious about how the rich spend their money.

There is fretting of the "where will it all end??" sort, of course, but as more than one observer quoted in the article resignedly noted, there are plenty of people who will be happy to foot the $40K+ bill at the Riverdale Country School in New York City. Riverdale is no outlier, by the way: the average private school tuition in the city is $39,700.

As a public service, let me strongly recommend that you not waste your time reading the comments attached to any Yahoo! article. If the article itself is mediocre in content quality and writing style, it nevertheless sounds positively erudite next to the hastily typed drivel readers share with the world. (It doesn't help that Yahoo!'s unmoderated comments attract scam artists.)

That said, I couldn't avoid glancing at the first comment presented for this article. The commenter's cogency and spelling are slightly above average and his or her point, therefore, came through (a rarity):
LMAO special perks like learning mandarin?? My public high school had that AND Japanese. Thankfully I live in California and can pay instate tuition for world class schools like Berkeley & UCLA.
I'll hazard a guess that the commenter went to school in one of the more affluent districts of the state, probably in an urban area and likely near the coast. California's public education system is in dire straits because its enormous costs invite slashing during budget deliberations. Well-intentioned attempts to remediate past years' (hell, past decades') funding cuts, such as voter-approved state measures that wall off certain education-related monies from the general fund, have in some respects only exacerbated the problem by allowing critics to portray the public education system at all levels, including college, as a giant, corrupt special-interest sinkhole for tax dollars. Tuition hikes in recent years at both the University of California system and the California State University system (think of them as "varsity" and "junior varsity" college systems) have routinely resulted in protests from students who claim, not without justice, that California's supposedly accessible public colleges are becoming out of reach for many academically qualified students.

The commenter's smugness is ill-deserved, because for better or worse, it's becoming more politically acceptable to advance the libertarian argument that subsidizing other people's tuition is unfair. California's public schools (K-12) are already in sorry shape; UC and CSU are wavering between becoming unaffordable and becoming mediocre. (My personal take is that CSU is well on its way down the path of mediocrity, but I'm highly biased because I didn't think many of the teachers I had were qualified to teach their subjects.) California's still-lousy economy guarantees its education systems' funding woes will get worse before they get better, if they get better. More affluent parents will start moving their kids into private schools ... and as demand drives up prices, Riverdale Country School's tuition won't look so outrageous to wealthy Californians.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Lunch with David Mamet

A correspondent for the Financial Times sat down with David Mamet for lunch. (Thanks to LongReads for the link.)

Before this article I knew nothing about Mamet except his name: I've never seen or read any of his works. I'm told he's a genius, at least in the world of theater.

When asked whom he would prefer as President (he is contemptuous of Barack Obama):
He replies that he is “not current” with the Republican contenders until I mention Sarah Palin. “I am crazy about her,” he answers immediately. “Would she make a good candidate for president? I don’t know but she seems to have succeeded at everything she put her hand to.”
I have much, much less interest in learning anything more about David Mamet.

One soldier's suicide

Back to that Stars and Stripes article I mentioned in the last post.

The article itself is mostly about the suicide of one soldier, Army Spc. Brushaun Anderson, deployed to Afghanistan. According to the article, Anderson was bullied, humiliated, and subjected to fatiguing physical duties as punishment for infractions. It struck me as grimly ironic that Anderson was punished for falling asleep at his post: what did his supervisor expect when Anderson was forced to undergo workouts in full body armor in the Afghanistan sun? Talk about a Catch-22.

That said, the article sheds absolutely no light on why Anderson was singled out for such abuse, and he was singled out by all appearances. There are hints he made more serious mistakes than were usual even among soldiers of his inexperience, but some anonymous soldiers claimed his mistakes were not severe enough to warrant the punishments he received. Bolstering these anonymous claims is the (to my mind, credible) accusation that Anderson was punished for technical infractions of regulations that went unpunished when committed by others.

A few commenters lamented the portrayal of the three sergeants an Army investigation found primarily at fault, along with the battery commander (a captain), for Anderson's suicide. The sergeants were lionized by these commenters in a way that was even more more artificial than their demonization by the correspondent.

I've never served in the military, and I know nothing about the actual circumstances here beyond what was laid out in the article. However, I'm as entitled to weigh in on this topic as any other barely-informed idiot, so here goes.

It sounds like Anderson was the sore thumb in his outfit -- the fellow who sticks out. Every group has at least one. And it's extremely tempting to pick on the sore thumb, especially since it gives the superficial impression of more closely bonding the rest of the group. That impression carries an obvious appeal for those, like the aforementioned sergeants, who are charged with fostering camaraderie and cohesion. Unfortunately, it's a false impression.

I've been the designated weirdo in more than one group, and I've been in the putatively normal majority in other groups. It has been a while since I ran into a leader stupid enough to employ the pick-on-the-weirdo strategy (corporate America's HR departments frown on it, and if you don't respect their rules you quickly find yourself facing corporate America's legal departments), but the few I've seen try it have wound up creating fractured groups. There are the bullies, the bullied, and the conscience-stricken who despise the leader for employing such a cruel and counterproductive strategy. Only the bullies are willing to follow the leader's orders: the rest obey only grudgingly.

Grudging obedience has been enough for armies, historically speaking. It's not enough for an all-volunteer force like the U.S. military, though. Like it or not, in the absence of conscription, the U.S. military has to work harder to hold onto soldiers.

As for Anderson himself, I can't help wondering whether he made more mistakes than other soldiers, and might have drawn unwelcome attention to himself. It's at least a possibility, however unwelcome that possibility might be to his family. I'll add that it in no way excuses what appears to have been the cruel, or at the very least glaringly futile, punishments foisted on Anderson.

Maybe the biggest unanswered question in my mind is, if he was such a problem that he merited unusual punishment in the guise of additional training, why didn't someone recommend transferring him? If he was endangering his fellow soldiers, why did they keep him around?

Maybe Anderson hadn't been there long enough to justify a transfer, and he was being disciplined as per normal, in spite of what the article claims. Maybe Anderson's superiors really were the sadists they're made out to be. Maybe Anderson wasn't smart enough to do the job he was assigned to do (once or twice I got that impression), or had an undiagnosed mental illness that contributed to his suicide. I don't know.

The Army has to figure out whether Anderson was an anomaly, or another victim of whatever is causing the unprecedented level of suicides in the last nine years.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Soldier suicides

I haven't finished reading the Stars and Stripes article yet, but I was so appalled by this statistic that I had to post:
The U.S. Army is confronting an unprecedented suicide crisis. Since the start of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, more than 1,100 soldiers have taken their own lives, with the numbers escalating each year for the last six years. Last year alone, 301 soldiers committed suicide — a new record.
More than 1100 soldiers have taken their own lives.

What the f---?

That ... that leaves me so shocked, so devastated, so sad, I don't know what else to say.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

iCloud: a change in Apple's strategy

The OriginalSpin summation of Apple's Worldwide Developer Conference (WWDC) announcements is entitled, "Today's Apple's WWDC Keynote: The PC Is Dead, Long Live the Cloud, Digital Amnesty for Pirates—Ahoy!"
... the PC is dead — or at least demoted to "just another device," as opposed to the "hub of your digital life" (their old slogan). The PC, as Jobs famously said in the last keynote, is like a truck. It's a heavy-duty info-mover that's not really necessary for 90% of the things we do today, especially with so much computing power sitting out in data centers and accessible via the persistent wireless Internet. We still need to fire it up for some things, but we really don't need to dock to it anymore — that's just annoying. Instead, the cloud` is the center of digital everythingness now.
[emphasis in the original]

There's a bit of sloppy phrasing in the foregoing. "Computing power" as such is not tremendously important for typical consumer-level activities. The value of "the cloud" for typical consumers is as a virtually limitless data store that is accessible from anywhere. (Having said that, the vision of "the cloud" from the beginning included virtually unlimited computational power and memory, too. The cloud, in short, always was intended to virtualize the entire general-purpose computer, with the network becoming the analog to the computer bus.)

I haven't been too interested in Apple's iCloud plans so this is the first coverage that I've read of them. I have a distinct bias against cloud computing because the necessary tradeoff between convenience and privacy is completely foreign to my tastes. I also mistrust many of those who seek to play in the cloud-computing arena. If they don't seek to charge us yet again for the media content we already bought, they seek as much data about each of us as they can get for the purpose of better targeting advertisements and other inducements to spend.

And don't forget that neither Amazon, Google, Microsoft, Apple, nor any other company providing you cloud-computing resources is going to care about your data as much as you do. If you think you'll have any meaningful recourse if your cloud provider screws up and loses or exposes your data, you're dreaming.

It is possible to preserve some semblance of privacy by encrypting one's data before storing it in the cloud, but it's onerous so few will ever follow that path. Some will also wonder what cryptographic attacks could be mounted by anyone with access to the encrypted data, too, especially considering the commensurately massive computational power available in the cloud.

I understand the tremendous appeal of the cloud. The convenience of a single view of one's data shared across all the devices one owns is not to be overestimated. The cloud can also be thought of as a cheap, ubiquitous, and hassle-free backup, and for a lot of users will be the only backup they will ever have.

It's still not for me.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

We're all cracked

Citibank got cracked. The breakin, for so we must consider it even though no physical building was penetrated, resulted in the theft of over 200,000 customers' card numbers and contact information. Citibank is getting well-deserved flak for its failure to notify its customers; one wonders if they would ever have found out had the Financial Times not broken the story and ruined Citibank's cone of silence.

I was all set to be outraged until I searched for information about the breach. Here are some of the pieces I found:
The breach is certainly not unique, nor is Citibank's failure to report it. Too bad on both counts.

It's also too bad that the political response is unsurprising, as some of the listed pieces report. The FDIC wants "some banks to strengthen their authentication when a customers signs onto online accounts." Well, that would be nice. I have a low opinion of the quality of authentication methods I am allowed to choose from in the case of several large organizations with which I have an online relationship. However, is that really the, or even a, leading cause of breaches like Citibank's?

Nowhere have I seen any details about how the crackers actually broke into Citi's systems. I'd be surprised, though, if they got in by compromising a customer account. Cracking a customer account shouldn't give you access to the entire backing database that includes other customers' information. If it does, I'd argue that the real problem lies in how the customer-facing software is allowed to access that database. After all, that means that any of the company's legitimate customers could crack the system, too.

A more serious breach occurred in March, when crackers broke into RSA Security "and made off with information about its SecurID products." RSA didn't think the matter was too serious until it determined that information from that breach was used in an attack on Lockheed Martin, an RSA customer, in May.

Why does the RSA breakin matter? Well, RSA Security is a respected security solutions vendor, one that has provided hardware and software solutions to others for years. If RSA can't guarantee the security of its servers, who can?

Nobody, says Bruce Schneier.
"Everyone is probably equally sucky," he said of network security in general. "Some may be better than others.

"Unfortunately, the moral here is that you give your information to a third-party, blindly trusting them, a bank, a credit card company, a phone company, Amazon, J. Crew, or Sony. You are blinding trusting that they will use the information wisely and secure it. And you have no say how they do that and you have no recourse if they fuck up."
Other observers agree. Regarding the group responsible for the recent breaches of, among others, Sony's Playstation Network:
LulzSec is running around pummelling some of the world's most powerful organisations into the ground... for laughs! For lulz! For shits and giggles! Surely that tells you what you need to know about computer security: there isn't any.
Some even think the U.S. government likes it that way.
To this point most data security systems have been proprietary and secret. If an algorithm appears in public it escaped, was stolen, or reverse-engineered. Why should such architectural secrecy even be required if those 1024- or 2048-bit codes really would take a thousand years to crack? Isn’t the encryption, combined with a hard limit on login attempts, good enough?

Good question.

Alas, the answer is “no.” There are several reasons for this but the largest by far is that the U.S. government does not want us to have really secure networks. The government is more interested in snooping in on the rest of the world’s insecure networks. The U.S. consumer can take the occasional security hit, our spy chiefs rationalize, if it means our government can snoop global traffic.
Cringely thinks that truly good encryption isn't on the market because the N.S.A. is quick to squash any business that looks like it is marketing a high-security product the N.S.A. can't crack. All the existing solutions have been made vulnerable, in his opinion, so as to allow the N.S.A. to decrypt and to monitor supposedly secure communications. Most governments, though, already suspect the N.S.A. of such capabilities, so they roll their own secure communications protocols -- again, according to Cringely.

My take is slightly different:
Even if the United States put surveillance-friendly technologies in place, what on earth would induce the rest of the world to follow suit? And if the rest of the world is doing something else, or more likely a lot of something elses, how useful is the ability to conduct domestic surveillance? The targets of interest aren't domestic, remember?
Ah well, it's late, and I'm discouraged. I'll give Schneier the last word:
"You're doing OK, I'm doing OK. I buy stuff online all of the time. I bank online. And what other option is there?"
We're all fu--I mean, cracked.

Friday, June 10, 2011

The U.S. Postal Service nears collapse

That's the title of this BusinessWeek piece, and I can't think of anything to add.
With the rise of e-mail and the decline of letters, mail volume is falling at a staggering rate, and the postal service's survival plan isn't reassuring.
The postal service's current executives aren't imaginative enough to see why its current revenue model is broken, and are reluctant to learn from the experiences of other countries' postal services as they have become profitable. It's true that no one knows if those services can remain profitable over the long term, but it's also true that the U.S.P.S. is still hoping it won't have to change much of how it does business. That seems absurdly unrealistic.

The government settles with Drake

The government has done a not entirely bad thing, but for entirely the wrong reasons.

The Justice Department has reached a plea agreement with former N.S.A. official Thomas Drake. Drake provided documents to a reporter about an N.S.A. program he and others believed was a waste of $1.2 billion.

The judge in the case ruled that the government would have to show some of the documents to the jury. Evidently the government felt the documents were too sensitive to be shown, and without those documents prosecutors deemed it necessary to seek a plea to lesser charges. The end result is that Drake will plead guilty to a misdemeanor charge of "misusing the agency’s computer system by providing 'official N.S.A. information' to an unauthorized person." Although the judge could impose a prison term of up to a year, he is unlikely to do so since the Justice Department is not seeking prison time.

The Times account claims, "Friends said Mr. Drake resisted during long hours of negotiations because he did not want to admit to a crime, however minor, that he believed he had not committed." However, there is no explanation as to why he eventually capitulated.

The Times article does a poor job of providing sufficient background information on Drake's actions and the highly political reasons he was prosecuted. The New Yorker article by Jane Meyer remains the best piece on the Drake case.

Although I'm happy Drake will not suffer the most severe penalties the government first sought (the original charges could have resulted in 35 years of prison time), I'm unhappy that he had to cop a plea. As I wrote last month, this appears to have been a badly considered attempt to intimidate others who might be thinking about exposing government wastefulness. The only proper outcome would have been for the government to drop the case altogether. Instead, what we've seen is, in the words of Yale law professor Jack Balkin, “the bipartisan normalization and legitimization of a national-surveillance state.”

If Drake is guilty of misusing a computer system, the Obama administration (in collusion with the George W. Bush administration) is guilty of misusing the legal system.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Punctuation topics for today

It's a dangerous position to be a grammar nitpicker when you don't know all the rules. I can spot egregiously bad usage but I can't explain to others why they're wrong, except for really obvious problems like misusing "however".

That's why I like citing the better-informed writings of others. Take, for instance, Noreen Malone's essay in Slate, "The Case–Please Hear Me Out–Against the Em Dash". The essay's stylistic conceit, absurd overuse of the em-dash, is belabored, but Malone has a point.
The problem with the dash—as you may have noticed!—is that it discourages truly efficient writing. It also—and this might be its worst sin—disrupts the flow of a sentence. Don't you find it annoying—and you can tell me if you do, I won't be hurt—when a writer inserts a thought into the midst of another one that's not yet complete?
I certainly use the em-dash for effect, and I don't think I've overused it, but I'll admit to being surprised and a little abashed by how often it showed up (in its degraded basic-keyboard form, the double-dash) in an incomplete count of about a quarter of my blog entries. Just as with an earlier bout of self-examination involving the colon, I'll probably be on my guard for excessive em-dash usage -- for a while, anyway. (That one doesn't count.)

(Who am I kidding? I love sentences that veer off the path to touch on a side issue before veering back to finish off the first thought. It's a Wodehousian stylistic quirk that I've adopted as my own, and I know all the tricks to work around anyone's disfavored punctuation. If I can't have my em-dash, I'll use parentheses or commas or even unholy combinations of colons and semicolons.)

And then there's the higher-profile piece in Slate, "Logical Punctuation". The article takes on the thorny question of whether punctuation should be embedded within quotation marks or outside of them.

In case you've never thought about the problem (and judging by my online reading in the last twenty years, a lot of you haven't), here it is in a nutshell. Which of the following is properly punctuated?
He said, "Go West, young man," so we went north.
Or:
He said, "Go West, young man", so we went north.
Did you even spot the difference? It comes down to whether the comma after "man" should be part of the quotation or not. In the U.S., the first version is considered proper; in Britain and elsewhere logical punctuation applies, the second version is correct.

From a logical standpoint, it makes no sense for that comma to be within the quotation marks: it logically belongs to the rest of the sentence, not to what "he" said. That's the way the British have always looked at it. However, the U.S. adopted the convention that some, not all, punctuation should be embedded within the quotation:
According to Rosemary Feal, executive director of the MLA, it was instituted in the early days of the Republic in order "to improve the appearance of the text. A comma or period that follows a closing quotation mark appears to hang off by itself and creates a gap in the line (since the space over the mark combines with the following word space)." I don't doubt Feal, but the appearance argument doesn't carry much heft today; more to the point is that we are simply accustomed to the style.
By all rights I should be a vocal proponent of logical punctuation. English is illogical and inconsistent enough without egregious wrongheadedness like U.S.-style punctuation around quotation marks. U.S.-style punctuation has caused me grief when embedding hyperlinks in this blog, too, because there is no way to reconcile my preference to include the quotation marks but not the comma or period in a hyperlink (see, for instance, the citation of the "Logical Punctuation" article itself, above).

However, I worked hard to absorb the implicit lessons of properly edited texts when I was a kid, and I'm reluctant to throw those lessons away (or, more accurately, I prefer to flaunt them in the face of such widespread ignorance of the rules). Even the proponents of logical punctuation are forced to admit that much of the supposed "adherence" to logical punctuation is happenstance:
... the vast majority of the legion of logical punctuators are not consciously rejecting illogical American style, or consciously imitating the British. Rather, they follow their intuition because they don't know the American rules. They don't know the rules because they don't read enough. Don't read enough edited prose, that is; they read plenty of Facebook posts and IMs that make these same sorts of mistakes.
That last point is underreported and worthy of more serious and in-depth examination. In days past, people were far more likely to read properly edited text than not because most of the available reading material (newspapers and books, for the most part) was edited. Today, we are far more likely to read unedited or badly edited material in the form of email, tweets, IMs, blog entries, etc. Hell, even articles by supposedly professional writers contain grotesque errors that would have been caught by the least competent of editors twenty years ago. Take the howler that found its way into this article about Apple's proposed new campus:
The current Apple campus has some 2,800 employees, with the rest disbursed in rented buildings throughout the city.
[emphasis added]

The article is credited to "Pueng Vongs, Y! SF Editor." That's right: the editor is the one who doesn't know the difference between "disbursed" and "dispersed."

It's tempting to conclude that the barbarians are at the gates, grammatically speaking. The truth, though, is that the gates fell down through neglect decades ago, and we are the barbarians pillaging the language.

Olbermann's next job

I had no idea Keith Olbermann would have a new job so soon after being booted from MSNBC. Starting 20 June, he'll be helming what looks to be more or less the same show, Countdown, for Current TV. Rolling Stone has a Q & A with him.

Lots of questions about his parting of the ways with MSNBC and the controversies that surrounded him during his tenure there. No harsh criticism of NBC; in fact, he says little about the network per se, but rather, reserves special praise for the late Tim Russert and veiled criticism for Tom Brokaw. Undoubtedly Olbermann is constrained by his nondisclosure agreement with NBC, and perhaps also recognizes that his upcoming (re)launch would benefit from more positivity than negativity from him.

As a fan of Jon Stewart and a former fan of Olbermann, I've been curious for a long time whether the two get along. Rachel Maddow, after all, has made at least two Daily Show appearances in the last few years, while Olbermann hasn't made any. I've suspected for a while that neither Stewart nor Olbermann cares for one another. This interview offers no hints. While he admits that Stewart's criticism of his remarks about then-Senate candidate Scott Brown made him realize those remarks were "over-the-top," Olbermann didn't pay particular attention to Stewart's call for tonal moderation. And when asked whether there were broadcasters he admired, Olbermann had a surprising response:
Within news, no. Most of them can't be themselves because they're terrified of losing their jobs. But David Letterman never gets the credit he deserves. He's not afraid to ask any question. If he turned that into a sit-down format with politicians on Current, he'd be terrific at it—tremendously smart, very responsive, easily catches people in contradictions, and relentless. The other one who is tremendously relevant in terms of his grasp of reality and America is Craig Ferguson. His openings are marvelous, and often brilliantly insightful.
Not a fan of Olbermann? Don't bother reading the article, because it's exactly what we've come to expect from him, for better or worse.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Apple's next campus

GreenTech has an article about the little that is publicly known about Apple's plans for its next campus.

Steve Jobs made a presentation to the Cupertino City Council on Tuesday, 8 June 2011, during which he showed off the architects' plans for the new building. It will take the form of a giant ring enclosing a large courtyard. The building will provide space for 12,000 employees. Most of its parking will be underground. The campus is intended to supply most if not all of its own power.

Housing 12,000 employees in one building will be a significant improvement over the current situation in which workers in Cupertino are scattered among many buildings around the main campus. Don't underestimate the positive effect of having ready, or at least readier, physical access to coworkers, access that doesn't require a shuttle bus or crossing traffic (either or both of which are required today).

Now we know why Harold Camping's second prediction for the date of the Rapture, 21 May, was wrong, and we can be confident that Camping's third guess isn't going to work out either: obviously, the Rapture can't happen until Steve's mothership is ready sometime in 2015....

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Goodman on Oprah

I've never been an Oprah fan. I don't go in for talk shows in general, though, so you could argue I never gave her (or any of her competitors) a chance.

Tim Goodman, though, has. In his 25 May column about her last show, Goodman acutely identifies what made Oprah the phenomenon she is.
Credit her for spurring the wave of self-affirmation and aspirational television that followed. Had she not won, then maybe Maury Povich would have.
He also pinpoints why others don't have much use for her.
For those in the world who don’t like to be in a flock, can help themselves get through life or otherwise live their lives privately, content to both endure and succeed without talking it to death in public, Oprah and her show have always been a turn-off, a carnival of self-help navel-gazing and smugness.
I don't care about Oprah one way or the other. This was just an excuse to point you at my favorite TV critic (again).

Friday, June 3, 2011

"Cowboys and Pit Crews," Atul Gawande

Dr. Gawande's commencement address to Harvard Medical School's 2011 class has been making the rounds. His thesis is that medicine has become so complex that it is beyond the capability of most of its practitioners to keep in their heads everything they must keep in their heads. The solution is to reorient how doctors at all levels think of their jobs: instead of being "cowboys," i.e., people who solve problems on their own, they need to become organized into "pit crews," people who are able to work in teams with the shared goal of giving the patient the best treatment.

Dr. Gawande's diagnosis (ahem) of the problems facing doctors today seems pretty accurate to this non-doctor. I like one of his specific proposals: adopting checklists, a simple but efficient tool adopted by numerous technically challenging fields like aviation and submarining. He neatly and unexpectedly links increased health-care costs to reduced spending on education by mentioning his encounter with the superintendent of his children's school district.
I told him how worried I was to see my kids’ art classes cut and their class sizes rise to almost thirty children in some cases. What was he working on to improve matters? I asked.

“You know what I spend my time working on?” he said. “Health-care costs.” Teachers’ health-benefit expenses were up nine per cent, city tax revenues were flat, and school enrollment was up. A small percentage of teachers with serious illnesses accounted for the majority of the costs, and the only option he’d found was to cut their benefits.
I think Dr. Gawande is quite perceptive when it comes to the challenges of transforming cowboys into pit crews. However, a throwaway remark suggests that he is consciously avoiding a giant obstacle in the road.
I spoke to a hospital executive the day after he’d presented to his board a plan to reorient his system around teams that focus on improving care outcomes, improving the health of the community, and lowering its costs of care. The meeting was contentious. The aims made sense, but hospital finances are not based on achieving them, and the board wasn’t sure about asking payers to change that. The meeting ended unresolved.
[emphasis mine]

The problem is not rooted only in how our doctors are trained. It is embedded in the way our current system of paying for health care allows insurers to dictate how care is provided. The insurers have built their businesses around the way things are done today. It's a lucrative business indeed, and it will require extraordinary measures to induce, or more likely to compel, those insurers to come around to Dr. Gawanda's patient-centric model. That treatment model, after all, would almost certainly affect the insurers' business model, perhaps drastically.

The fact that the unknown hospital board didn't come to a resolution suggests that getting doctors on board with Dr. Gawanda's prescription may be a lot easier than getting the bean counters to go along. Getting doctors to set aside their egos is one thing: getting businessmen to sacrifice their profits is something else.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Comics and continuity

I got into comics shortly after DC turned its universe upside-down for the first time, which is to say, right after its multiverse became a universe in the epic storyline CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS.

The rationale for CRISIS was so simple. "Fifty years of unplanned, uncoordinated continuity has left a giant mess! It's time to clean house and set up a history new fans can understand!"

The execution was not nearly as simple or as straightforward as the rationale was. Inevitably, the attempt to iron out fifty years of in-comic history didn't fully succeed, and in the last quarter-century DC has tried several times to clean up the clean-up. I wasn't a collector long enough to have seen, or even heard of, most of those attempts, but my impression is that none of them was a resounding success, either as sales boosters or continuity fixes.

Now DC will try again in September. The official information is available in a 1 June posting on DC's blog The Source, from DC co-publishers Jim Lee and Dan DiDio. Of more interest, though, are a couple of takes from comics watchers. Snell's opinion is summed up in his post's title, "DC Punts".
Has there ever been a more thorough admission of failure? "People don't like the comics we're publishing, they're not at all relevant, so we're going to start over." As if the comics that were allegedly lifeless and and [sic] irrelevant and not being told for today's audience were somehow being published by elves or fairies, and not by the exact same people making this announcement. The new product will be much better than the old product!! Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.
[emphases in the original]

Scott Tipton's Comics 101 blog sounds a similarly skeptical note. In addition to making the same point about the turnaround being masterminded and executed by the same people who apparently are doing a substandard job today, Tipton also notes that DC's switch to simultaneous digital and dead-tree publication practically invites specialty comics retailers to downplay DC's comics in favor of publishers who give those stores a competitive edge by delaying digital releases. Finally, Tipton wonders whether DC may have visited the continuity-reboot well too often:
Watching DC once again take a hammer to their history in pursuit of short-term gains, I'm reminded of an analogy Mark Grunewald once made. Mark said that at Marvel, continuity was like a tree, and every so often they would prune it back, to keep it looking good, but the trunk remained strong and healthy, and the roots remained deep. Whereas at DC Comics, continuity was like a skyscraper, and every 20 years or so they knock it down and rebuild it from the ground up, even though there were plenty of folks living in the building who liked it just fine.

You have to wonder how many times people will be willing to move back in.
I was too old to be much interested in superhero comics by the time I started collecting, though I did collect a number of them out of curiosity and a desire to keep tabs on the DC universe. There were a few interesting experiments in the mainstream books: the highly entertaining run of Giffen, DeMatteis and Maguire on JUSTICE LEAGUE that mixed broad humor with the superheroics; O'Neil's and Cowan's erudite version of THE QUESTION; the controversial run of Giffen, Tom Bierbaum and Mary Bierbaum on THE LEGION OF SUPER-HEROES; and the extremely bizarre, yet somehow compelling, Grant Morrison revamp of THE DOOM PATROL.

These experimental takes on the superhero appealed to older readers. They also proved either to be aberrations from their series' tonal norm (JUSTICE LEAGUE) or flops (or both), and had little effect on the tone and style of mainstream comic books. My experience is that comics aimed at adults and superhero comics don't overlap. The exceptions, like Alan Moore's terrific WATCHMEN, are just that, exceptions. The superhero comic's main audience is, and always will be, juvenile.

Since superhero comics are aimed at a young audience, of how much concern should continuity actually be to a publisher? If your audience ages out of comic collecting every decade or so, how hard should a publisher try to keep several decades' worth of storylines consistent? To borrow Tipton's metaphor, isn't it okay to blow up the skyscraper every so often, since most of your tenants keep moving out? (And yes, I question his assertion that "plenty of folks living in the building ... like it just fine.")

I doubt DC's upcoming reboot will be any more successful at resolving continuity contradictions than its previous ones. However, I understand the impulse to try.

Lodsys sues developers

The threatened war by Lodsys on small developers has started: Lodsys has filed suit against seven of them for alleged patent infringement.

Florian Mueller's FOSS Patents blog has a good overview of Lodsys' litigation strategy. (There is a bit of triumphaiism in Mueller's entry: he took a dimmer view of Bruce Sewell's much-heralded letter to Lodsys than most did, and his gloomy prognostications turned out to be a lot closer to reality than most observers'.) Mueller has a guess as to why Lodsys chose to file now:
The only way I understand Lodsys's claim that it needed "to preserve its legal options" is presumably that Lodsys feared Apple might seek declaratory judgment of non-infringement in a different jurisdiction than East Texas, the troll-friendly venue Lodsys chose (as I expected). Maybe it would have been a good idea for Apple to seek declaratory judgment much sooner, but Apple either didn't want to do that or was just too slow.
"Troll-friendly" is the only hint to Mueller's feelings about Lodsys.

Lodsys itself shrugs off name-calling. In a blog entry entitled "What is the platform promise?" Lodsys accuses Apple of deceit, claiming that "Apple marketing" promises developers rights, but that "Apple legal doesn't have those rights to offer."
For many people, it is easier to call Lodsys and other rights holders names for trying to be compensated for their rights, within a system that is established and known, than it is to consider one’s own responsibility, or the promises and motivations of the platform provider.
"To consider one's own responsibility" -- is Mark Small really staking out the moral high ground for himself (and his cronies, if any)?

Is this non-contributing leech on society really telling productive developers, who create genuine intellectual property for a living, that he is the injured party here?

I thought Silvio Berlusconi and Rush Limbaugh were the poster children for shamelessness. I'll have to add Mark Small and any other partners in Lodsys to the Gall of Shame.

I wonder how much Lodsys paid for these patents. I wonder how much the original rights holders, the ones who filed for these patents (and therefore the ones who presumably put in the real work), will see from this suit. I wonder how large a profit Lodsys is making, merely by having cash to burn on acquiring patents.

Rewarding those who create is the reason for the patent system. Lodsys took over a number of patents in the expectation that its cost for doing so would be less than its revenues from those patents. But Lodsys does nothing to earn those profits. Lodsys provides nothing to the rest of us to justify its place in the patent dance.

Lodsys and other patent trolls turn rights ownership into a drag on our society. The economic inefficiency they introduce should not be permitted by our laws. I'm willing to compensate genuinely useful, creative people for their work. I'm not willing to pay useless parasites like Lodsys.