Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Frank Rich on the 9/11 decade

[Note: I hate the term "9/11", but it's too convenient a shorthand not to use for this post's title.]

Nobody ties scattered pieces together like Frank Rich. His essay in New York magazine looking back on the decade since the 11 September 2001 terrorist attack against the U.S. is about as damning an indictment of the George W. Bush administration and its cronies as you'll find. If Bush and his cohorts were capable of feeling shame, this would make them crawl under a rock. The squandered opportunities for uniting the nation in genuine common cause, for instilling a new sense of national purpose, and for making the nation stronger rather than weaker, are enough to make one weep.

It's hard to choose one passage to quote, and you should definitely read the whole thing (it's not too long), but here's a taste:
By portraying Afghanistan and Iraq as utterly cost-free to a credulous public, the Bush administration injected the cancer into the American body politic that threatens it today: If we don’t need new taxes to fight two wars, why do we need them for anything? But that’s only half the story in this alternative chronicle of the decade’s history. Even as the middle class was promised a free ride, those at the top were awarded a free pass—not just with historically low tax rates that compounded America’s rampant economic inequality but with lax supervision of their own fiscal misbehavior.
Correct: the attacks themselves were not the cancer, but they gave cover to it -- and to those responsible for spreading it.

The one thing I think Rich overlooks is our collective responsibility for letting these amoral assholes lead us down this path. Too many of us were ready to believe that the way we live doesn't cost as much as it does.

Just read it, okay?

(Thanks to LongReads for the link.)

Get it right

I've harped a bit on the subject of avoiding cable news. Actually, I've done so more than once. I promise, I've followed my own advice ... for the most part.

Everybody backslides, though.

Last night I wanted to find out more about Irene's aftermath, and since it was time for Olbermann's newscast I thought I'd see what, if anything, he would report.

Now, the fact that Irene wasn't a really high-profile part of the newscast didn't bother me. His show is avowedly political and I knew that going in. Since Michele Bachmann had made an inflammatory remark about Irene being God's hint to politicians to get right with the public, it made a certain amount of sense for him to make her fatheaded rabble-rousing the focus of his Irene coverage.

No, the trouble came when analyst Sam Stein weighed in:
... the other thing that's striking about it is that there are legitimate, uh, implications or lessons to be learned from the, uh, earthquake here in DC and the hurricane that followed, uh, shortly thereafter up the East Coast, and that's a very scientific lesson, which is that the Earth is actually changing, uh, its climate, and we can have a very serious discussion about those things ...
Uh, no, we can't have a serious discussion about "those things" if you're going to call an earthquake a sign of climate change.

Look, it's hard enough for the public to keep scientific research and the current state of scientific knowledge in a variety of fields straight. It doesn't help for journalists to muddy the waters by making flatly and ridiculously wrong statements. The problem is worsened when those journalists assert the authority of "science" to support their factually incorrect statements.

Olbermann himself has a special burden in this regard. He repeatedly, and justifiably, has called out hard right-wingers for anti-scientific bias and assertions that contradict scientific evidence. He therefore has placed himself firmly on the side of science. That, in turn, confers a responsibility for not passing along, and not allowing others on his show to pass along, blatantly wrong information to his viewers. Olbermann did not call Stein on his ridiculous assertion. He therefore is as culpable as Stein for misinforming his audience.

How much should a journalist know about science? I frankly don't know. What I do know is, if you're trying to advocate on behalf of scientific research and you screw up your facts badly enough that a nonscientist who's only half paying attention catches you at it, you don't know enough. Stein and Olbermann aren't doing science or scientists any favors by passing along bogus information.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Jobs steps down

Steve Jobs resigned yesterday as CEO of Apple Inc. Jobs' own announcement pretty much covers all that is publicly known.

John Gruber's take is optimistic:
Zoom out enough and you can see that the same things that define Apple’s products apply to Apple as a whole. The company itself is Apple-like. The same thought, care, and painstaking attention to detail that Steve Jobs brought to questions like “How should a computer work?”, “How should a phone work?”, “How should we buy music and apps in the digital age?” he also brought to the most important question: “How should a company that creates such things function?”
Jobs is often called a micromanager. I don't think that's quite accurate. Rather, I think he is and always has been insistent that the little things that bother him, the little things that those who are in charge of product development would otherwise tend to ignore if a deadline loomed, must always be fixed before the product ships. When Apple products ship, their shortcomings tend to be features that aren't present, not features that don't work well. Missing features can be added in updates. Badly working features are harder to correct, not least because people quickly habituate themselves to the brokenness and fixing it requires people to change their habits. Changing habits can be as irksome as the badly working feature itself was.

While I think Apple as a company has absorbed Jobs' attention to detail, I'm not so sure whether it has also learned how to break new ground on its own. I'm not sure a company can. An exceptional person can, but I don't know about a group of people.

Harry McCracken at Time has what I think is a more realistic perspective:
The post-Walt history of the Disney company is a sobering example of what can go wrong when an organization's defining leader no longer calls the shots. For years after his death in 1966, it floundered, subsisting on his leftover projects and rehashed ideas. It kept asking itself "What would Walt do?" The answers usually involved more family movies and additional theme parks. But if Walt Disney had been running the joint, chances are that he'd have pursued goals that you'd never come up with simply by trying to channel Walt Disney.
Yep. The Disney company arguably is still following the tracks that Walt laid down; it's just doing so far more profitably than it did in the immediate wake of his death. That, I aver, is how Apple will fare, and that's no knock on Apple. Unfortunately, it might not be enough to keep the company going as long as the Disney company has: tech is a far less stable environment than entertainment.

Tribute to a lovely lady

I got some news last night that left me saddened and bone-weary.

You probably never heard of Shawn Bates unless you were an aficionado of the San Francisco indie music scene in the 1980s and 1990s. I wasn't such an aficionado until the late '80s, but by way of compensation, when I did get into the scene it was through the hard-driving, tumultuous, and to this sheltered soul, deeply weird world of KUSF, the onetime FM outlet of the University of San Francisco.

KUSF, as most who have volunteered there will tell you, was a tough place in which to find one's niche. It took me ages, and at times I wondered why in the hell I was bothering with this bunch of people who, at best, appeared not to care whether I was around or not. Aside from my fellow newbies, it took a while for me to make even a scraping acquaintance with any of the veterans. One of the first was Shawn Bates.

Shawn didn't go out of her way to befriend me, and I certainly don't fault her, or anyone else, for that: a lot of people passed through the doors and most of them didn't stick around for long. It made good sense not to fall all over new arrivals. However, once I started doing a (very) little real work around the station and interacting with the veterans, Shawn was possibly the first to smile and look me in the eye. A little thing, but it was the first crack in the ice.

Eventually I was trained to be on the air. After a few sessions alongside the resident trainer, the unflappable Marisa, it was time to fly solo for one or two more shows. At the time, the training shift was on Sunday afternoons, so a lot of people potentially could listen.

If memory serves, it was during the second solo shift that I finished backannouncing a set, then haltingly started the next. Or that's what I meant to do, anyway. What actually happened was that I started the wrong record, the one I had just played. In disgust with myself, I uttered an expletive, potted the playing song down and started the correct one. And then I noticed that there were not one, but two active pots (inputs) on the board: the one marked "TT 2" and the one marked "Board Mic".

In short, I had forgotten to shut off the microphone.

The expletive I had uttered was one of the Forbidden Seven immortalized in George Carlin's well-known routine, the ones that get broadcasters into deep trouble. After slowly shutting off the mike, I stood there for a moment, absolutely frozen, not knowing what to do. The only thought going through my head was that I would be the first DJ in history to lose an FCC license before it had even been issued.

At that moment, the staff phone line started blinking.

I had visions of the program director apologetically but firmly telling me to clear out of the studio. I thought it might even be the station's general manager, the usually genial Steve Runyon, calling in to scream at me for destroying the station he had founded. I imagined having to squirrel away every cent of my miniscule salary for twenty years to pay off an FCC fine for indecent language.

I finally realized that no matter who was on the other end, it would do me no good to ignore the call. Slowly I picked up the receiver.

The first thing I heard was a gale of laughter. With difficulty the woman choked down her amusement just long enough to sputter out something that I interpreted as, "We've all done something like that", then hung up.

It was, of course, Shawn. And with her brief call, she unparalyzed my brain so I was able to go on with the show.

This was just one little act of kindness from a kind, lovely woman. And note that it was enough of an act of kindness merely to have listened at all. Training shifts were seldom pretty: raw DJs had no knowledge of mike levels, tended either to babble witlessly or to say virtually nothing at all, and often made dubious musical choices. I was no exception.

I enjoyed Shawn's own show: it consisted of pretty accessible alternative music coupled with her own sense of older tunes that would fit. Ramsay Lewis' rendition of "The In Crowd" and the term "Cocktail Corner" will always bring Shawn's laid-back, joyful show to mind.

Shawn left the station years ago, and unfortunately we didn't stay in touch. I found out last night that she passed away three weeks ago at the cruelly early age of fifty. Well, all right, I suppose that objectively speaking "fifty" isn't cruelly early: that term is usually reserved for one who dies before hitting, let's say, thirty. But as far as I'm concerned, it's the right way to describe the premature passing of a woman who was such a warm, often joyous presence.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Sports extremists

Brian Stow got beaten into a coma at a baseball game, apparently by a couple of Dodgers fans who didn't like that he was wearing a Giants jersey.

One young guy got beaten to within an inch of his life in a restroom at the recent Niners-Raiders game, while a couple of others were shot outside the stadium during or shortly after the same game.

To those committing these acts:

What the fuck is wrong with you?

You can't control yourself and you're a danger to the rest of us. You should be penned up behind a chain-link fence like the animal you are. You shouldn't be allowed to breed.

By the way, booze doesn't make you do anything. You'd like to believe that, but it's not true. The violence is part of you.

Knowing you're a raging asshole when you're drunk should make you steer clear of the sauce, but evidently you can't be bothered to take even that small step toward being a better person.

I can understand why religion turns some into dangerous fanatics: religion is all about life, death, and What It All Means. Yet you somehow get equally worked up by a game.

That is a sorry comment on your priorities, and on what passes for your soul.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Stewart on Megyn Kelly's transformation

Jon Stewart had a brilliant piece on Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly's surprising change in attitude following her return from maternity leave.
Welcome back. As you know, I watch, uh, I wa--I watch a lot of, uh, uh, Fox News, because I hate my own head. Uh, but my favorite n--Fox News personality, and this is true, hands down: uh, Megyn Kelly, the host of America Live. It runs in the afternoons, and, uh, Megyn went on maternity leave three and a half months ago, and Fox tried to pull a fast one, replacing her with, uh, this lady [clip of Martha MacCallum] for a little bit, and then, in some cases, this other lady [clip of unidentified anchor]. Come on, Fox, you think you can sneak just any pretty blonde lady into Megyn Kelly's chair and we won't notice? [Stewart looks uncomfortably at head shots of the three anchors] All right, it did take me a couple of days to notice. By the way, I happen to know it isn't "anchor lady harvest season" until October.

Well, good news, my friends: Megyn Kelly, back in the studio this week [clip of Kelly with shorter haircut], new hairdo, but the same "take no prisoners!" attitude. Watch her take on this talk-radio host who had the nerve to make a crack about her while she was off the air:

[8 August 2011]
[Kelly] Here's what you said --
[Mike Gallagher] Now let me put on --
[Kelly] -- on your rating--on your radio show --
[Gallagher] Yes.
[Kelly] Stand by.
[from Gallagher radio interview with Chris Wallace from 27 May 2011]
[Gallagher] Megyn's on--still on maternity leave, right?
[Wallace] Yes.
[Gallagher] Boy, that's a--
[Wallace] What do you mean, you--you complaining? She's--
[Gallagher] Well--
[Wallace] She's bonding with her baby.
[Gallagher] What a racket that is. I mean, men don't get to bond--
[Wallace] What a racket?
[Gallagher] Well, how much time does she get off to have to sh--
[Wallace] Probably three months.
[Gallagher snorts derisively]
[Kelly] Would you care to explain those remarks, Mr. Gallagher? Maternity leave? It's a racket?
[edit]
[Gallagher] Well, are you going to disagree that there isn't -- now, again, I'm a, I'm on my knees--
[Kelly] Oh, you're standing by--are you doubling down?
[Gallagher] --in, in, in apology--
[Kelly] No no no -- are you not taking those remarks back? Is maternity leave, according to you, a racket?
[Stewart, apparently imitating Joe Pesci from Goodfellas] How is it a racket? Does it make you laugh? Is my special bond with my baby here to amuse you? You tell me how it's like a f---ing racket, you son of a bitch! How is my maternity leave a racket?! [pauses] (You f--- my wife? No. Different movie.)

[normal voice] Megyn Kelly is badass. That guy -- that guy was calling maternity leave "a racket". He was saying that women shouldn't get paid for -- and Megyn Kelly was just like, "Raahhr!" Never get between a mama grizzly and her maternity leave. She's making quite a spirited argument, that workers are entitled to certain benefits and that society has an interest in protecting these benefits -- which is great, and really weird. [looks puzzled] Wait, because that's not the -- Fox Megyn Kelly that I thought I knew.

[15 April 2010 interview with Rep. Ron Paul]
[Kelly] Do you think that there's ge--any, um, getting the tentacles that government has--has placed into our lives out [edit] or are we just stuck with these massive entitle--pr--ment programs that we have now?
She used to hate entitlement programs, mandated benefits and things like that. See if you can spot the difference between Megyn Kelly coming off of maternity leave and, and some of her earlier work.

[8 August 2011]
[Kelly] What is it about getting pregnant and carrying a baby nine months that you don't think deserves a few months off so bonding and recovery can take place, hmm?
[13 October 2010]
[Kelly] --the entitlement, you know, that sense of entitlement [edit] -- that they've been built into the cake, you know, they're in the system, and so to try to take them away now, it's like trying to take Social Security away. Once it's in--
[John Stossel] Very tough.
[Kelly] --how do you get rid of it?
[8 August 2011]
[Kelly] -- United States is the only advanced country that doesn't require paid leave.
[16 February 2009]
[Kelly] -- free markets should dictate.
[guest] America is still --
[Kelly] The free market should guide.
[guest] No no no --
[Kelly] That's the way it works in Ame--in American society.
[8 August 2011]
[Kelly] If anything, the United States--
[Gallagher] I--I--
[Kelly] --is in the dark ages when it comes to maternity leave --
[11 February 2009]
[Kelly] -- lot of our viewers don't see it that way: they see it as a, the first step toward socialism, they see it as c--the creation of a welfare state --
[8 August 2011]
[Gallagher] Well, do men get maternity leave, Megyn? I, I--
[Kelly] Yeah --
[Gallagher] --can't believe I'm asking you--
[Kelly] Guess what, honey? They do.
[Gallagher] --this 'cause you're just gonna kill me--
[Kelly] Yes, they do. It's called--
[Gallagher] No--really?
[Kelly] --the Family--
[Gallagher] Real--
[Kelly] --Medical Leave Act. If men would like to take--
[Gallagher] Right.
[Kelly] --three months off to go take care of their newborn baby, they can.
[12 June 2008]
[Kelly] Correct me if I'm wrong, Lee, but don't they call it "maternity leave" for a reason? [edit] How is it discriminatory to give less time to the man who didn't have the baby?
[Stewart pauses uncomfortably to look at audience] I know what happened: when you cut your hair, it sapped your conservative strength, like a right-wing Samson. That means Rachel Maddow's just ten scissorsless weeks from a Fox contract!

See this--this is the problem with entitlements: they're really only "entitlements" when they're something other people want. When it's something you want, they're a hallmark of a civilized society, the foundation of a great people. "I just had a baby, and found out maternity leave strengthens society. But since I still have a job, unemployment benefits are clearly socialism."

To put it more simply:

[George Carlin standup footage]
Have you noticed that their stuff is s--t and your s--t is stuff?
Once again, George Carlin says in a sentence what took us three and a half minutes.

So either Megyn Kelly has inadvertently exposed the hypocrisy at the heart of conservative demonization of unions and the working class, or -- oh my God, it's worse than we thought: Megyn Kelly is suffering from postpartum compassion.

It'll pass.
Here's the clip.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Gmail ads

When I got Gmail a while back (thanks for the invitation, Chris!), I was a little creeped out by how Google trawled through my mail to figure out what ads to present. I hadn't had a lot of experience with the company's business model, and still had an old-fashioned notion that Google had to have some way of making money that didn't depend on exploiting me. Ah, to be innocent again.

Today, the ads were pretty much irrelevant to anything I've emailed about in months, if ever. I'm not sure how I feel about that. Does Google no longer care enough about me to bother keyword-searching my in-box? If so, I'm a little hurt. Yo, Google, are you saying I'm not enough of a consumer to bother targeting? (I'm probably not, but even exploitation is a form of attention, and everyone needs attention....)

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Ridgway videos

After months of not being in the mood, I finally popped in a DVD of Stan Ridgway's music videos, Showbusiness [sic] is My Life. The 2004 DVD covers his early career, from his brief flirtation with pop stardom as lead singer of Wall of Voodoo through his fourth solo album, Black Diamond.

The Wall of Voodoo material includes his best-known song, "Mexican Radio", which I've never liked but which is given an appropriately tongue-in-cheek treatment that makes it kitschy fun. Far better as a song is "Call Box" (truth be told, I can't think of a WoV song that isn't better than "Mexican Radio"), whose video consists largely of jump cuts and quick edits that capture the song's twitchiness admirably. "Twitch" was Ridgway's chief characteristic in his WoV days, and when the videos represent that visually they tend to be pretty good.

His first solo album, The Big Heat, featured a number of memorable songs and remains one of my favorites even today. The video for the title track beautifully conveys the film noir feeling with which the lyrics practically drip. A live performance with his then-current backing group, Chapter Eleven, freshened up a couple of tracks I had burned out on years ago due to over-listening, "Pick It Up (And Put It In Your Pocket)" and "They Can't Stop the Show". However, the video for "Camouflage", the album's magnum opus, is a great letdown: it consists mainly of the standard performers-pantomiming-to-the-track schtick, with a few perfunctory depictions of the actions in the lyrics thrown in. It looks ill-conceived and cheap, and illustrates the futility of trying to literalize what Ridgway's lyrics already so expertly convey, unless you go all out and make the entire video a story as in "The Big Heat". The one saving grace about the "Camouflage" video is that it's set to a shortened version of the song so there's less to endure.

If there's a fault common to Ridgway's less successful videos, including "Camouflage", it's that Ridgway often is filmed mouthing the lyrics while staring into the camera. The man's a gifted songwriter but he does not have an expressive mug. His deadpan expression undercuts the vibrant worlds his lyrics create.

It could be argued that the majority of Ridgway's songs simply don't lend themselves to making mainstream-style videos. That's certainly the impression left after seeing the video for "I Wanna Be a Boss", the exception that proves the rule. The song is a little-man lament and power fantasy, a relatively uncomplicated subject given an absurd lyrical treatment which is a bit unusual for Ridgway. The video boasts a goofy, B-52s-style visual sensibility that suits the song well.

"I Wanna Be a Boss" also hints at why it's usually hard to put Ridgway at the center of his videos. He may be the primary creative force behind his weird and wonderful tales, but those tales are not about Ridgway the artist. It's not Ridgway who is following the mysterious traveler in "The Big Heat", it's the narrator (until, in the last verse, it becomes the traveler). It's not Ridgway who entreats, "You be the knife and fork, and I'll be the plate", it's the protagonist of "Knife and Fork". Unlike most singer/songwriters, it's not enough for him to mouth his lyrics as he sits or strolls past pretty backgrounds: his songs, the early ones especially, are first and foremost stories, so if he wants to be onscreen he must first and foremost be an actor in those stories.

By that logic, it could well be that Ridgway has made, or could make, much more satisfying videos out of his later material, especially off his last few solo albums. His songwriting slowly has drifted away from cinematically vivid morality tales to more abstract and more personal works that would lend themselves more readily to traditional "mime singing while walking along the beach"-style videos.

It could also be that Ridgway's early videos simply were no better than the times allowed. That would explain why the videos for "Big Dumb Town", "Knife and Fork", and "Bel-Air Blues" are so much less awkward-looking than those for earlier songs. The later videos are quick-cut pastiches of short clips that suggest rather than show outright, and the less direct visual style well suits the less direct lyrical style. Someone, either Ridgway himself or his directors, also figured out that he shouldn't stare directly into the camera lens, eliminating one of the most amateurish traits of the earlier efforts. Overall, the style of the later videos likely reflects the increasing sophistication of the music video production community generally.

Ridgway's videos aren't horrible for the most part, but they definitely aren't essential. His music needs no visual accompaniment.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Ruby koans

I am having more fun than any non-geek will readily imagine possible as I run through the path.to.enlightenment.rb tutorial from the Ruby Koans site. Kudos and thanks for the exceedingly entertaining exercise to the authors, Jim Weirich and Joe O'Brien.

(I'm making a hell of lot more progress learning Ruby this way than I have made in multiple attempts to run through the more creative but, alas, somewhat less rewarding Poignant Guide that is far better known.)

Monday, August 15, 2011

Buffett speaks out

You've probably heard about Warren Buffett's op-ed piece in the New York Times. In that piece Buffett, after citing some disturbing statistics about the steep decline in the tax rate on the extremely wealthy, bluntly concludes:
My friends and I have been coddled long enough by a billionaire-friendly Congress. It’s time for our government to get serious about shared sacrifice.
I await the Koch brothers' response to this direct challenge to their greedy, destructive agenda that seeks to throttle government altogether. Don't look for it to be an open, attributed response, though: the brothers prefer to channel their money and their influence covertly, through astroturf outfits like Americans for Prosperity.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Uncompromising

Sheryl Gay Stolberg in the New York Times has written a piece about why national politics in the U.S. are so resistant to compromise. Multiple factors contribute to this problem, but for me this one is key:
Every time I see surveys saying people want compromise, I just kind of chuckle,” Mr. Smith said. “To me a question like that is more a gauge of people’s frustration with the process than it is necessarily a true indication that people are willing to accept any sacrifice in order to come to some agreement.”
J. Walker Smith is chairman of a marketing firm. If anybody should understand this country's psychology, it would be a marketer.

Also in the Times, Gretchen Morgenson wrote an op-ed piece masquerading as news about Thomas M. Hoenig, the retiring president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City. Hoenig has been a lone dissenting voice at the Fed, calling for overlarge banks to be broken up and for denying government insurance to financial institutions engaged in "risky activities". We can see how well his common-sense admonishments have played out at the Fed and elsewhere in policy-making circles.

Hoenig also made an observation that echoed Stolberg's piece.
Another important theme for Mr. Hoenig concerns the mistrust that has arisen as regulators provide favors to powerful institutions while asking other industries, and ordinary Americans, to accept less.

...

If there were a sense that everyone, big and small, powerful and weak, would be asked to sacrifice, we might be able to agree on a way forward for the economy, Mr. Hoenig said.

“We have to bring a greater sense of equitable treatment,” he said. “When we do that Americans will say, ‘Yes, we are all in this together.’ ”
Maybe that's the bottom line underlying J. Walker Smith's cynical yet accurate observation. We're not interested in compromising because we don't see any equity in the burden-bearing.

How much have the Koch brothers and their kindred spirits helped the rest of us in this economic downturn?

(And it ain't class warfare if it's true.)

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Marco Arment on software patents

Referencing two Marco posts in 24 hours? Well, he's good. His latest entry explains "why software patents are not fixable."

If you've ever developed software, you know he's spot-on when he writes, "like every software developer, I've probably unknowingly infringed upon hundreds of patents while routinely doing my job." It's practically impossible to develop without infringing, because the whole point of writing software is to solve somebody's problem, and the patent system is built on registering people's solutions to problems. The trouble, as Arment notes, is that the Patent Office grants patents when it shouldn't, when the "innovation" represents what most practitioners of ordinary skill in the field would consider logical and obvious applications of existing knowledge.

It's time for a serious call to end the practice of patenting software. Arment's blog post is a good place at which to point your local Congresscritter, especially if he or she is under the deluded belief that software patents somehow foster innovation and creativity.
The patent system is a good idea, in theory.

The patent rules are sensible and should prevent highly damaging patents from being issued, in theory.

The patent office should make every reasonable effort to ensure that they enforce the rules, in theory.

But in practice, this isn’t what happens. It’s not even close.

Good public policy isn’t based on what should be, but what is.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Marco Arment's iPad success story

I've never seriously considered getting an iPad. However, Marco Arment's tale of how he used one to help his mom with a home renovation project might have cracked the door open just a bit.
I’ve had laptops and cellular internet connectivity for 7 years, but I never would have done something like this before. Why?
His list of answers is a compelling set of considerations. I had thought about a few of them in isolation, but the sum total is more attractive than I realized.

China's inferiority complex

Within a Reuters story about the launch of the People's Republic of China's first aircraft carrier, there was this citizen-on-the-street reaction to the news:
"An aircraft carrier is the mark of major powers," Pan Chunli, a 29-year-old IT technician in Beijing told Reuters.

"China has grown dramatically. The whole world should take a fresh look at China, viewing it as a rising power that it has the ability to defend its rights and territory."
"The whole world should take a fresh look at China." That statement signifies an undercurrent of resentment at being overlooked, at being dismissed by the rest of the world.

China would be a force to reckon with even if it were thoroughly confident in itself and its prospects. The fact that its populace carries a chip on its shoulder, though, makes the rest of us view it with apprehension rather than respect. And while some claim it's better to be feared than respected, fear doesn't make for harmonious relations.

(Yeah, it can be argued that the U.S. is feared more than it is respected these days, so you could say it's a bit hypocritical for a U.S. citizen to be harping on this subject. Or you could see my opinion as that of a sadder, wiser observer of this kind of great-power nonsense. Does China want to follow the U.S. down that dead-end road?)

Monday, August 8, 2011

Murdoch as godfather

Courtesy Daring Fireball, a pointer to an AdWeek article by Michael Wolff about the Murdoch empire's resemblance to the Mafia.
It’s all about the organization. It’s an organization all about doing what Rupert wants you to do, or doing what you imagine Rupert wants you to do, or doing what you imagine your boss imagines Rupert wants done. There are few companies as large as News Corp. that are so devoted and in thrall to one man.
(There's at least one other large company that operates that way: Apple Inc. It was curious that Gruber, of all people, didn't make that point.)

While my instinct is to mistrust pile-ons of the sort that ... well, just about everyone is indulging in at News Corp.'s expense, I can't help believing that the characteristics displayed by Fox News -- endemic, brazen hypocrisy and self-aggrandizement, most notably -- would not be tolerated were they not implicitly endorsed right up to the top level of management. I therefore have no trouble believing Wolff's withering take on Murdoch and News Corp.

"How the Navy’s Warship of the Future Ran Aground," David Axe

You know, when conservative hawks decry cutting the Pentagon budget, they seldom acknowledge costly fiascos like the littoral combat ship (LCS). David Axe's long profile of the U.S. Navy's intended next-generation combat vessel in Wired is a sad and alarming tale of airy military theories that were never properly vetted before being misinterpreted, hijacked for ideological purposes, and worst of all, funded anyway.

Axe cites a litany of problems, including terribly bad (read: optimistic) cost projections and time-to-delivery forecasts, but to my mind this is, or was, the crux of the model's problems:
Five years and billions of dollars into the LCS program, the Navy still hadn’t figured out what the coastal combatant was really for. Today, the sailing branch is no closer to an answer.
What comes through loud and clear in Axe's account is that Donald Rumsfeld's DoD jumped on the purely theoretical savings and flexibility the original concept promised, but never properly evaluated that concept. DoD never determined if the required technologies could be produced at a reasonable cost. It never determined if the numerous types of missions proposed for the model were compatible within the same physical platform. DoD never even reconciled a fundamental tension between its vision for the ship and that of the LCS's originators, a pair of Navy strategists. Those strategists regarded the LCS in its original form as disposable, while the Navy recoiled at the idea of a disposable capital ship.

Hindsight is 20-20, of course, but if you premise your concept of a product, any product, as disposable, you have a fundamentally different idea of how your product should be built and used than someone who conceives of a similar product which is not disposable. Did the Navy and DoD ever consider this conceptual difference when they leaped on the LCS's supposed cost savings?
No one had taken the time to clarify the LCS requirements and reconcile that important difference.
The LCS's low cost, relative to other capital ships, made it attractive to those who wanted the Navy's overall number of ships to increase. Left unsaid in Axe's account is whether those number-boosters, including Congressman Edward Schrock (R-VA), had a good reason for their numerical targets. Fortunately, Axe linked to the 2003 Navy League interview in which Schrock explained his reasoning for wanting to quicken the pace of ship-building to 14 ships per year:
If we are going to truly get to the 375-ship Navy that the current chief of naval operations aspires to, we have to do better than [build] five, six, or seven ships every year. We have to produce 12 to 14 ships every year.
Now all we need to do is to figure out what the then-chief of naval operations wanted to do with those ships. Did it include missions for which the LCS in any of its incarnations would have been appropriate?

In that same Navy League interview, Schrock had a beautiful vision for the LCS:
That's going to be a transformational ship, because it's going to be "plug and play." You can put in new technology and not have to practically rebuild the ship every time [upgrades are needed]. You just unplug one thing and plug another in.
I don't know what Schrock's background is, but I doubt he knows anything about computers or he'd know that "plug and play" is a concept in disrepute. The idea originated from the electrical grid, where it is indeed possible to plug in any consumer-grade electrical appliance and just have it work -- or at least, the appliance will draw power without further fuss. What plug-and-play advocates in any field never mention is how much work has gone into making the electrical grid consistent. Just take a look at the National Electrical Code.

Tell us, Rep. Schrock, how much work has gone into making modular weapons systems, or communications systems, or detection systems? Do they exist today? If not, will they exist tomorrow? How much do they, or will they, cost?

Discrete systems long have been "modular" in the sense that upgrades are designed to be compatible with the environments in which they're currently used. The Navy's former workhorse fighter, the F-14, was kept in service long after its projected retirement by upgrades to its radar and other electronics systems. It wasn't designed to be modular, though, in the way Schrock envisions. To my knowledge, no military hardware platform is that flexible. Military technologies change too quickly for anyone to develop forward-compatible specifications, like the national electrical code, to which military contractors can design systems. That's what would be needed to develop fully plug-and-play modularity of the kind that Schrock imagines (and I stress "imagines," as in "fantasizes about").

Rumsfeld's and the entire George W. Bush administration's dodgy fingerprints can be seen all over the inception and dubious conception of the LCS. As naval analyst Bob Work wrote in a February 2004 report for the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, the Navy first announced its desire for a relatively small vessel on 1 November 2001. This represented an abrupt and unanticipated about-face by the Navy. Even worse, "there was no broad supporting constituency for the LCS within the Navy itself," so "the Navy’s leadership was forced to test out arguments for the new ship on the fly."
Sometimes the LCS was labeled transformational because of its high speed and the new associated hull forms; other times it was because the ship was designed to defeat “asymmetric” littoral threats such as submarines, mines, and “swarming boats;” other times it was because of the ship’s modular combat system, new technology, and automation; and still other times the Navy trumpeted the ship’s transformational impact on the American shipbuilding industry. The constantly changing rationale for the new ship helped to confuse both the Navy’s internal and external audiences.
"Constantly changing rationale" -- does that remind you of anything else? A certain Iraq War, perhaps? The G.W. Bush administration specialized in making policy directives before evaluating whether they made sense.

Billions have been spent on the LCS, and we still don't know if it will serve for any of the missions for which it has been claimed as the solution. Yet reducing Pentagon spending -- forcing it to perform the same kind of hard-nosed spending-efficiency analysis that Congress itself must perform (at least, if it's any good at its job) -- is off limits to conservatives? That artificial stricture makes no sense.

Kind of like the LCS.

(Thanks to LongReads for the link to Axe's piece.)

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Google makes money off this stuff?

Perusing an article about Standard & Poor's downgrade of the U.S. government's credit rating, my eye was caught by one of those "Ads by Google" provocatively (and bewilderingly) entitled, "Obama Loves Annuities."

He does? And even if he does, is any D.C. politician so popular these days that he or she is a good bet to attract would-be consumers?

I suppose the teaser line did its job, and made me read the ad. On the other hand, my immediate reaction to this prominent ad box was, "This is sleazy."

That was also my reaction to the smaller ads populating another box next to the same article, ads shilling for credit reports, payday loan relief, and repairing one's credit rating.

The process of generating those ads is automated, of course, and it is amusing to imagine the government consulting a credit-repair outlet: "You have how much debt? Holy crap, how did you manage that???" Yet there's no getting around the fact that these tacky come-ons for by and large shady outfits tarnish the reputation of the sites that feature the ads.

The New York Times' reputation won't suffer much. You have to wonder, though, whether these ads are reaching anybody who will follow through (click) on them. The kind of person reading the New York Times seems unlikely to be so ill-informed as to be susceptible to one of these clumsily-worded teases.

This kind of mismatch is what Google delivers for advertisers' dollars? And advertisers actually find this worth their money?

Responding to "The Response"

I haven't seen a more intelligent response to Texas governor Rick Perry's evangelical-Christians-only gathering, "The Response," than law professor Paul Horwitz's New York Times op-ed piece.
To hold that elected officials can’t publicly invoke their religion won’t help a country of believers, agnostics and atheists reach any kind of consensus. It will only impoverish the conversation, depriving many citizens of the ability to make, and judge, arguments that reflect their most cherished views.
The Supreme Court has held many times that the cure for offensive speech is more speech, not less. That principle is critical. It's the only way to make a pluralistic society work. (Responsible listening is the other component of this free-speech equation, but that's a different rant.)

I have no use for Rick Perry's exclusivist religious agenda. My desire, though, is for everybody else to reach that same conclusion by having their eyes opened as to what kind of narrowminded, bigoted, angry country he and his fellow religionists would create. (They've already taken us way too far down that road.) Convincing people of that is the crucial task, not trying (unsuccesfully) to keep Perry and his ilk from speaking at all.

What if I'm wrong about the public, and Perry's kind of zealotry takes hold of the American imagination? Well, in that case, I'll have to take a slightly larger view, and hope that the rest of the world will (rightly) see the U.S. as going in a tragically wrong direction that will impoverish it intellectually, emotionally, economically, and morally.

We try to do too much through the courts. It's way past time to recognize that a lot of things can't be regulated by laws or judges: they're matters that can only be addressed by fixing the human heart.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Another splint

The prevailing wisdom, such as it is, is that nobody is happy with the recent budget "deal", ergo it must be a real compromise. That, in turn, suggests that it was the best deal that could be reached, but no one is foolish enough to say that out loud. And perhaps no one should, because there's going to be a lot of pain that comes out of this deal. Even if you think the pain is deserved, admit that it won't be pretty. And if you support cutting spending as the only cure to the problem, and the spending cuts knock on your door (or take it away), don't cry about it. You asked for it. Share the fucking pain for the greater good, like you supposedly wanted.

At heart, each of us believes one, and only one, of the following:
  • The only way to reduce the national debt is to cut spending. We need to identify where the money is being wasted in Washington and to stop wasting it! Saying there isn't enough money for what government should be doing is simply delusional and lets government expand without limit.
  • The national debt cannot be paid off without increasing revenues, i.e., raising somebody's taxes. Spending cuts are fine, but they cannot get us all the way there. We have been unwilling to acknowledge that we want more from government than we are willing to pay for, but we can be blind no longer to this reality.
These views are irreconcilable.

What we got from Washington this week is a new splint on a broken leg that isn't healing.

We've been limping along on this leg for ages because we had a pretty good painkiller in economic growth. But we've never gotten over the nearly century-long dispute over what government should and shouldn't do. Now that spiralling costs (especially of medical care), no or negative economic growth, and fiscal irresponsibility by nearly every president and Congress during the twentieth century (and indefensible fiscal mismanagement on the part of George W. Bush) have left us with an overhanging debt that scares the bejeezus out of us, the debate over government's role is front and center once again.

My feeling is that small-government advocates are loud and have an easily-understood argument, but they bring about as much subtlety and expertise to the national debt as surgeons of the eighteenth century brought to battle wounds. They both have the urge to cut things off because that's the most straightforward approach.

I don't want to go back to the eighteenth century. Small-government advocates by and large refuse to accept the complexity of the twenty-first.

These bones aren't knitting.