Monday, May 31, 2010

Memorial Day pieces

"Memorial Day is one of the few good holidays whose meaning has not become totally obscured over time." -- Michael Ian Black

"Let us acknowledge the measure of their sacrifice by honoring them as brave women, and by honoring them as women who served without thought of glory which we accord to heroes of battle." -- Metafilter, quoting Wings Across America

"The best way to respect and honor it is to reflect on what it means to serve and perhaps die for your country, and to think about the value of the cause, the power of the reasons, and the strength of the evidence you would need before asking someone—someone like your brother, or friend, or neighbor—to take on that burden." -- Kieran Healy

"If it is 'the health of the state,' . . . then it can also be an agent of emancipation and nation-building and even (as was proved after 1945) of democracy. But even this reflection can never abolish the insoluble problem: how to estimate the value of those whose lives were cruelly cut off before victory was in sight. It is sometimes rather lazily said that these soldiers 'gave' their lives. It would be equally apt, if more blunt, to say that they had their lives taken. . . .

"Memorial Day transcends the specific, and collectivizes all disparate recollections into one single reflection upon the losses inflicted by war itself. . . . Our 'Memorial Day' is now the occasion of a three-day holiday weekend (over the protest of the Veterans of Foreign Wars) and has become somewhat banal precisely because it seems to honor nobody in particular." -- Christopher Hitchens

"But her answer was always devoid of a personal story. It was always: 'You have to understand how it was for everyone at the time. There was a war.'" -- Ann Althouse

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Time magazine lists the 50 worst inventions.

Here they are. (Via Metafilter.)

I clicked on the entry for "Pop-Up Ads." The piece says:

Blinking ads, flashing banner ads . . . . Though pop-up blockers were eventually created, you still never know when you're going to click on a link that will bring a flurry of pop-up ads or freeze the computer screen altogether.
But before I had a chance to read that text, I was distracted by a banner at the top of the page, where a blue credit card zips across the screen along with a big button urging me to "learn more." Meanwhile, on the right-hand side of the page, a blue pot containing some kind of asparagus entree fades to white, then fades back to the image, and so on, several times. These aren't pop-up ads -- they're even more annoying than pop-up ads. At least you can close a pop-up ad. (As a side note, I'd like to know when everyone decided that blue is the most effective color at selling a product.)

Another thing about the list (I also said this in a comment on Metafilter): here are a few of the entries:
New Coke

Agent Orange

Subprime Mortgages

Crocs
Having these all on the same list is kind of like saying, "You know what my pet peeves are? People who crack their knuckles, genocide, extreme poverty, and shopping cart wheels that get stuck." I mean, OK, but the juxtaposition is a little insensitive.

ADDED: Jason (the commenter) says:
Corsets, foot binding, blood letting, lobotomies; it's like Time couldn't be bothered to think.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Two songs from the Arcade Fire's upcoming album, The Suburbs

On NPR's "All Songs Considered." If you click the link labeled "Hear The Interview And Songs," they play one song ("The Suburbs") right at the beginning of the interview (1:10), and there's one more song ("Month of May") at 16:40. The album is supposed to be released in the US on August 3.

Both of the songs are pretty mediocre for a band that's had so many great songs in the past -- and these are presumably highlights of the new album. The music is OK, not bad, but they've lost that magic that made their debut album, Funeral, so compelling.

It's also painful listening to the interviewer (Bob Boilen), after they play "Month of May," struggling to formulate a question about how the band's music has changed. Boilen seems to be an Arcade Fire fan, and I bet he realizes that the new album is probably going to be a disappointment. But when you're on NPR interviewing one of the most acclaimed indie bands, you're not going to criticize their music. So you have to come up with a question like this:

When I think of the scope of your music and falling in love with it in 2004, and then hearing this, I feel like you're sort of gravitating more to, uh, rock 'n' roll fare, and the early stuff was more like, "What kind of sound is this?" I mean, obviously, we've only heard two songs from the record, so it's a little hard to tell.
This is a somewhat understandable reaction to "Month of May," which is self-consciously heavier than the Arcade Fire usually is -- though it's akin to the scorcher from Funeral, "Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)." The question makes less sense applied to the title song, "The Suburbs," which sounds like a watered-down version of songs from their previous two albums. It's not in a particularly different genre than "Rebellion (Lies)": mid-tempo, intense but restrained, piano-driven rock with soaring melodies over a steadily thumping rhythm section. The difference is more intangible: "The Suburbs" just isn't the breath of fresh air that "Rebellion (Lies)" (the #29 song of last decade) was.

What Boilen might have been thinking, but couldn't say, is that the Arcade Fire started out seeming like they would be one of the great bands of their generation, but it seems more and more like their greatness was mostly confined to one album. Of course, I'll have to listen to The Suburbs in full once it comes out to see if I'm right about this . . .

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Kid's menus are "the death of civilization."

So says Nicola Marzovilla, who owns a resaurant in Manhattan's Gramercy Park called I Trulli. (Via.)

He expounds his view of restaurant's "kid's menus" in that New York Times piece:

"The table is very important," Mr. Marzovilla explained as we sat around one at his restaurant early Sunday evening with our five collective children. "It’s about nutrition, it’s about family; you go right down the line. And the children’s menu is about the opposite — it’s about making it quick, making it easy, and moving on." . . .

"You know, I’m their parent, I’m not their best friend," Mr. Marzovilla noted. "I have a duty to mold and teach." . . .

"Some parents, it’s important to them that their kids do sports," Mr. Marzovilla said. "To me, it doesn’t mean a thing. To have this experience with their family is more important." . . .

"If you don’t ask your children to try things, how will they ever know what they’re capable of?" Mr. Marzovilla said. “And isn’t the same true of us?"
What do his children have to say about this? The Times interviewer asked about his success in "encouraging" them to try new foods, and his daughter took umbrage at the verb choice:
"Try 'forced,'" said Julia, the 14-year-old.

"There wasn’t a time we didn’t end up trying it,” said Domenico, the 17-year-old. "Sometimes it took longer than others."
RELATED: Why parents shouldn't hide vegetables in their kids' food.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Do the media understand how bad Facebook's latest privacy problems are?

Let's look at two MSM publications -- the New York Times and the Economist -- and see how they've underreported some of the latest privacy issues with Facebook.

First, the New York Times uncritically ran this interview with a Facebook executive named Elliot Schrage, who answers questions from Times readers -- all of them about privacy. Of course the Times isn't endorsing what he's saying just by publishing the interview. But they didn't need to publish it in that form; they could have used the interview as the basis for an article that provided fact checks and counterpoints from other sources. In particular, all of these answers by Schrage are disingenuous:

[NYT reader:] I love Facebook, but I am increasingly frustrated by the convoluted nature of the privacy settings. It’s clearly within Facebook’s ability to make the privacy settings clear and easy to use — why hasn’t this been a focus? . . .

[Schrage:] Unfortunately, there are two opposing forces here — simplicity and granularity. By definition, if you make content sharing simpler, you lose granularity and vice versa. To date, we’ve been criticized for making things too complicated when we provide granular controls and for not providing enough control when we make things simple. We do our best to balance these interests but recognize we can do even better and we will . . . .

[NYT reader:] Why not simply set everything up for opt-in rather than opt-out? Facebook seems to assume that users generally want all the details of their private lives made public. . . .

[Schrage:] Everything is opt-in on Facebook. Participating in the service is a choice. We want people to continue to choose Facebook every day. Adding information — uploading photos or posting status updates or “like” a Page — are also all opt-in. Please don’t share if you’re not comfortable.

[NYT reader:] Why must I link to a page for my school, job, or interests and make them public, or delete the information entirely? . . .

[Schrage:] It turns out that less than 20 percent of users had filled out the text fields of this information. By contrast, more than 70 percent of users have ‘liked’ Pages to be connected to these kinds of ideas, experiences and organizations. That is the primary reason we offered the transition — because it reflects the way people are using our service already. While we see tremendous benefit to connecting to interests, we recognize that certain people may still want to share information about themselves through static text. That’s why we continue to provide a number of places for doing this, including the Bio section of the profile. In these places, just as when you share a piece of content like a photo or status update, we give you complete control over the privacy of the information and exactly who can see it.
I used to defend Facebook's privacy settings; I thought they were actually pretty admirable in allowing users to fine-tune exactly which kinds of people would be able to see which kinds of content. (For a given category of information, such as your job history, you could allow it to be seen by a hand-picked group of your friends, or all your friends, or also "friends of friends," or "everyone.") I knew there were a few components with no option to keep them from the public -- including your name, your profile photo, and things you're a "fan" of -- but I considered these pretty trivial. So I would have been fairly sympathetic to Schrage's answers. I knew about Facebook's indefensible privacy violation called Beacon, but Facebook discontinued that program, so I was optimistic that they had learned their lesson.

I changed my mind about this when I tried to sign on to Facebook a few weeks ago. I described my experience in a comment on the NYT interview with Schrage; here's what I said (with some slight tweaking to my original comment):
Schrage's answer to the last question ("Why must I link to a page for my school, job, or interests and make them public, or delete the information entirely?") is unsatisfactory. He doesn't explain why Facebook is apparently forcing users to either delete their profile info or make it public.

See, I was recently prompted by Facebook to connect info in my profile -- my job and education history, as well as favorite music, books, movies, and TV shows -- to "pages." (This is also known as being a "fan" of these things.) Your pages are always visible to everyone; Facebook's normal privacy settings don't apply to pages. So I unclicked the boxes because I didn't want to link all that info to pages, thus causing it to become public.

Facebook gave me a warning saying that if "none" of my info was linked to pages, it would all be deleted. I thought this warning meant that I just needed to link some info to pages in order to prevent all my info from being deleted. So I became a "fan" of some of my favorite music and books -- that is, I opted to link a few of these items in my profile to their pages. When I went to my profile info, my job and education history (among other things) were gone! I immediately realized that I had misinterpreted Facebook's notice: they didn't just mean that all your info will be deleted if you don't link at least some of it to pages; they meant that any particular item will be deleted if that item isn't linked to pages. That seems obvious in retrospect, but the whole thing didn't make sense to me when I initially read it (Facebook has so many interface tweaks -- I don't have time to keep track of the rationales for each one), so I wasn't in a good position to interpret their warning correctly.

There was no way to undo this. So now, I apparently need to retype all of my work and education history, and also a bunch of my favorite music, movies, etc. that I didn't happen to link to pages. But even if I could easily restore the info, that still wouldn't be acceptable, because that would be giving up privacy I don't want to give up.

Facebook is using this new requirement of linking your info to pages as a ploy to get people to give up the privacy of their info. Surely, many people are not aware that pages don't have privacy "granularity"; again, pages are always public. In fact, this very interview is an example of Facebook's lack of transparency about this, since Schrage's "granularity" remark is inconsistent with how pages work and how they're taking over the site.

I can't believe that Facebook thinks this is best-described as "opt-in," or that it "reflects the way people are using [Facebook] already."
To be clear, there isn't an option to list my past and present jobs under "work," or my education history under "education," without connecting each employer and school to a public page. Schrage makes it sound like you're free to keep this information private. You're not.

What about Schrage's rationale that only 20% of users had filled out these forms, while 70% of users had become a fan of pages? For one thing, I simply don't believe that only 20% of active users fill our their profile. But even if it's true that there was a real need to encourage more users to fill out this information and that the best way to accomplish this was by forcing you to connect your profile info to pages, that still wouldn't explain why they couldn't have added privacy settings to pages. This wouldn't require a delicate balancing act of "simplicity" against "granularity" (as Schrage puts it) -- they could have just applied the same granular privacy settings that always applied to these categories. Surely the Facebook executives in charge of this decision knew what they were doing; they didn't just lose track of the fact that pages are always public.

This is one of the things Senators Chuck Schumer, Al Franken, and two others complained about last month in a letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. As you can see at the link, the problem I'm focusing on in this blog post is just one of several. (The senators mentioned that the FTC will be looking into these issues.)

Now let's look at what the Economist says:
Facebook faces criticism for making more information about its users available by default. . . .

Facebook claims that most of its users are comfortable with the changes it has introduced, including one that lets it share detailed customer data with some external sites. It has blamed the furore on media hysteria; only a few privacy activists have publicly committed “Facebook suicide” by closing their accounts . . . .

[Facebook] has some of the most extensive privacy controls on the web, but these have now become so complex—and are tweaked so often—that even privacy experts find them bamboozling. The company also has a powerful incentive to push people into revealing more information. Facebook generates most of its revenue from targeted advertisements based on users’ demography and interests, so the more data users share publicly the more money it can mint from ads. It may well be betting that users are now so hooked that they are unlikely to revolt against a gradual loosening of privacy safeguards.

The worst thing is Facebook’s underlying prejudice against privacy. Sign up and it assumes you want to share as much data as possible; if not, you have to change the settings, which can be a fiddly business. The presumption should be exactly the opposite: the default should be tight privacy controls, which users may then loosen if they choose.
I'm glad to see the Economist taking a generally critical stance on Facebook's privacy issues, but their commentary is too bland and generalized. They're right that default settings matter because many users won't bother to change them. But I don't feel that it's a major problem if many people sign up for a site and never bother to change the privacy settings from the default. Presumably, anyone who's very protective of their privacy will make sure to tweak those settings to their liking.

The problem isn't just about default settings. It's about first establishing privacy settings, giving people the sense that they are in total control of those settings, and then weakening the privacy protections without clearly letting users know about the change.

Now, one of the most common defenses of Facebook seems to be:
How can you complain about a free service? If you don't like Facebook's privacy levels, the solution is simple: don't use Facebook.
Of course, this is missing the point. The problem isn't simply that people are giving up some of their privacy when they use Facebook. For instance, I would have no sympathy with someone who signs up for Flickr, publicly posts photos of people they know, then complains that they don't want strangers viewing these photos. Flickr's privacy settings are transparent and flexible, which is why you don't see uproars about Flickr even though people regularly waive their privacy by using the site. I have my name, photo, and a few personal facts posted on this blog, and it doesn't bother me -- because I always specifically chose to reveal this information. The problem with Facebook is that it deprives users of the freedom to decide whether they're comfortable with the extent to which they're giving up privacy by using the site, because so many of the privacy features have either been changed without notice or made so convoluted that it's a whole research project to figure them out.

Here's another comment on the NYT interview with Schrage that sums up the whole situation well. I'm not generally a fan of so much ALL CAPS, but it's rather appropriate here:
Listen up, because this is the big, fundamental difference between you Facebook executives and we the people who are screaming about privacy. You may THINK you know why I come to Facebook and you have assumed TOO MUCH. I come to share and interact with specific people that I already know. DID YOU HEAR THAT? SPECIFIC PEOPLE THAT I ALREADY KNOW. I do not want ANY information revealed to strangers by default. I am not alone in this. Your assumption that I come to connect with strangers is completely erroneous. Did you hear that Facebook? I will repeat - YOUR ASSUMPTION THAT I'VE COME TO FACEBOOK TO CONNECT WITH COMPLETE STRANGERS IS COMPLETELY ERRONEOUS. Are you getting it now? Is there any way I can make this more plain? It's about control - give me control over my personal details. Some people may want them known - fine, give them the control to reveal all and give me the control to reveal nothing. But do not just assume that you know what I want. Your assumption is what's best for YOU. It's not what's best for me. Do you get it now?
Although I would love to feel like I could send a message to Facebook by deleting my account, I admit that the site is just too useful to me for that to be worth it. But I did post this status update on Facebook:
Facebook deleted all my education and work history (and other info) without asking me. As a small protest against Facebook's new interface that prompts you to either make this info public or have it deleted, I'm going to leave it off my profile. Anyone who's interested in knowing my education or work history will have to find out the old-fashioned way.
I know that's not much. But I don't feel that even a whole movement of people deleting their accounts would make a dent. They'd inevitably be swamped by the millions of people who are signing up with Facebook all the time. It's more useful if those of us who care about privacy stay on Facebook so we can monitor the changes, stay part of the discussion, and speak up when things like this happen.

This piece by Mark Zuckerberg, in which he says that Facebook will fix the privacy settings in response to all the criticism, is encouraging. We'll have to wait and see what actually happens -- we certainly can't trust Zuckerberg's vague promises to make things better -- but maybe, this time, they'll get it right.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Why it's a good thing if people are losing interest in reading books

"If books are more boring than before, it is because one sees the new ideas more quickly on the web." — Tyler Cowen

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

"Comfortable Zionism has become a moral abdication."

Peter Beinart, who admits that he "was comfortable there too," explains why "the American Jewish establishment" has lost its former luster among a new generation of Jews. (Via.)

A sample:

[T]he message of the American Jewish establishment and its allies in the Netanyahu government is . . . : since Jews are history’s permanent victims, always on the knife-edge of extinction, moral responsibility is a luxury Israel does not have. Its only responsibility is to survive. As former Knesset speaker Avraham Burg writes in his remarkable 2008 book, The Holocaust Is Over; We Must Rise From Its Ashes, "Victimhood sets you free."

This obsession with victimhood lies at the heart of why Zionism is dying among America’s secular Jewish young. It simply bears no relationship to their lived experience, or what they have seen of Israel’s. Yes, Israel faces threats from Hezbollah and Hamas. Yes, Israelis understandably worry about a nuclear Iran. But the dilemmas you face when you possess dozens or hundreds of nuclear weapons, and your adversary, however despicable, may acquire one, are not the dilemmas of the Warsaw Ghetto. The year 2010 is not, as Benjamin Netanyahu has claimed, 1938. The drama of Jewish victimhood—a drama that feels natural to many Jews who lived through 1938, 1948, or even 1967—strikes most of today’s young American Jews as farce.
As John McWhorter has argued in a different context, the sense of victimhood, even if it begins as an entirely appropriate reaction to horrendous injustices against the victimized group, can gradually make a "transformation . . . from a problem to be solved into an identity in itself." (That's from page 2 of his 2000 book Losing the Race -- a brilliant page-turner that I give my highest recommendation.)

Previously on this blog: "How to think: Minimize your identity?"

Monday, May 17, 2010

Word deflation

We just looked at words that should be avoided altogether, but here's something different: words that are important to keep around, but whose meanings are becoming endangered due to severe overuse:

1. beautiful

2. lovely

3. great

4. hero

5. legend

6. genius

7. miracle

Any additions to the list? Feel free to add them in the comments.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Words and phrases to avoid

This little blog keeps track of them. The blog is called Don't Say Industry, which is how each entry is phrased. These are my favorites:

Don’t say “writing about music is like dancing about architecture”.

Don’t say “log on to our website”.

Don’t say “orientated”.
Here are a couple of my own suggestions that I'd like to see banned:
"cool beans"

"pulling the plug on Granny"

Thursday, May 13, 2010

What if placebos are actually effective?

Should we make use of them outside of experiments?

Or would using fake treatments be unscientific and unethical?

But wouldn't the really unscientific thing be to rule out the possibility of using a remedy that has been empirically shown to work? And wouldn't the really unethical thing be to withhold a remedy that could help people?

Also, isn't it begging the question to say we shouldn't use them because they're "fake"? If they became widely accepted, wouldn't they be "real" by definition?

I also wonder if objections to placebos are based on a gut feeling that a remedy that operates psychologically is somehow less valid than one that operates physically. This distinction itself would seem to be unscientific, since the enlightened view is supposed to be that what happens in the mind is actually physical (specifically, brain states), right? But even if you're a dualist and don't equate the mind with the body, I still don't know why we should privilege the physical over the mental.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

All you need to know in order to be productive

. . . is this 11-word formula:

One thing at a time. Most important thing first. Start now.
So says Skelliewag (via Penelope Trunk, who got it from Lifehacker, which got it from Scott Rosenberg).

Unfortunately, quoting productivity tips is not the most important thing for me to be doing.

CORRECTION: This is actually bad advice! My mom (Ann Althouse) explains in the comments section:
This tip is wrong if the important thing is huge. We all do lots of little things that aren't very important. We keep our spirits up with variety and fun. I object to this tip! It's too nose-to-the-grindstone. It works for some people, maybe, but you need to know whether you are one of those people. I think the world's a better place because most of us are not.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Are gender norms more of a hindrance to women's or men's careers?

Rachel Kranton and Will Wilkinson (with the latter interviewing the former about a new book she co-authored, Identity Economics: How Our Identities Shape Our Work, Wages, and Well-Being) say . . . it's complicated:

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Blogs that fill niches you wouldn't have thought existed

1. Unphotographable. Descriptions of photographs not taken.

2. The Rosa Parks of Blogs. Keeping track of a ridiculously overused idiom.

3. Derek's Big Archive of WalMart Purchase Receipts. A long-defunct site by a guy who posted every one of his WalMart receipts from 1997 to 2002. The comments sections were surprisingly active.

Just a note: I don't expect to be blogging in the next few days, as I'll be traveling for a job interview.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Is there discrimination against single people?

Yes, according to a 2007 study -- here's the abstract:

Providing the first empirical evidence of discrimination against singles, participants in multiple experiments favored married couples over various types of singles and failed to recognize such differential treatment as discrimination. In four experiments, undergraduates and rental agents read descriptions of multiple applicants for a rental property and chose one. The applicant pool, varying across experiments, included a married couple and different types of singles. Although the applicants were similar on substantive dimensions, participants consistently chose the married couple over the singles and explicitly stated that the applicants' marital status influenced their choice.

In Experiment 5, participants read examples of housing discrimination against singles and other more recognized stigmatized groups. Participants rated discrimination against singles as more legitimate than discrimination against virtually all of the other groups.
I got that from a blog post called "Are single people unfairly stereotyped?" on the wonderfully informative blog Barking up the Wrong Tree. That post also links to another study, in which people had to rate other people, and themselves, on a variety of metrics ("personality characteristics" and "overall well-being"). Single people were rated by others as worse than "partnered" people on all the metrics, even though single people rated themselves just as highly as partnered people rated themselves. One exception was "satisfaction with relationship status" -- single people were, not surprisingly, less satisfied than partnered people with their relationship status.

Barking up the Wrong Tree adds:
I haven't seen a very definitive book on being single and this one isn't terribly relevant for guys.
Well, there's Singled Out by Bella DePaulo, who's one of the co-authors of the first study. Here's DePaulo having a conversation on the topic with my mom, Ann Althouse:

Monday, May 3, 2010

How to deal with our lack of understanding of financial reform

The New Republic's Jonathan Chait makes a confession that's rare for a pundit: he doesn't know what he's talking about. Specifically, his "commentary on financial regulatory reform has been somewhat hamstrung by my skeletal understanding of the substance of the issue." He also thinks this ignorance isn't just his own quirky failing but extends to liberals and policy wonks in general:

Other policy commentators have learned more about this issue than I have, but even their opinions are heavily sprinkled with self-doubt. This points to the fact that liberals and the wonk community have a lot less confidence that financial regulatory reform will work than we did that, say, health care reform would work.
So how should they respond to this state of affairs? Chait says:
We could wait a few years until the debate has matured, but the truth is that only is the shadow of an economic crisis and a backlash over the bailouts does the political space exist to impose a reform that actually takes a bite out of Wall Street.
Apparently, the issue has addled his brain so much that he has trouble writing in grammatical sentences.

He continues:
So at this point, the best bet is to pass the toughest, most anti-Wall Street reform possible while the window of opportunity remains open. Then, if it proves too tough, or if somebody comes up with a better way to regulate the system, you can bargain away the too-tough parts of the law for something better.
You rarely see someone argue: we're unusually lacking in confidence about whether our ideas will work; therefore, let's try to exert as much power as possible, as quickly as possible! But just because this is a counterintuitive line of reasoning -- and one that most commentators wouldn't be willing to make explicit -- doesn't mean it's a bad idea.