Friday, October 29, 2010

What public-service advertising is and isn't considered acceptable in America?

1. NYC's anti-soda ads are considered acceptable.

As that article suggests, the debate behind the scenes boiled down to "fear" ("'I think what people fear is getting fat'") vs. "science" ("'As we get into this exacting science, the idea of a sugary drink becoming fat is absurd'"). Guess which value won out?

2. But this German ad promoting condom use would probably not be considered acceptable in America.

The German text in the ad uses a double entendre to explain the visual joke: "Prevents short-sightedness."

I almost want to put a "NSFW" disclaimer because some people might consider the ad too graphic. But that's part of the problem.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

"Irony as a political statement is no politics at all."

That's what Ana Marie Cox says in a good Bloggingheads discussion with Rich Lowry about Jon Stewart's "Rally to Restore Sanity" and Stephen Colbert's "Rally to Keep Fear Alive" — and about protest politics more broadly:

With this post, I'm creating a new tag: "signaling." That word isn't used in the clip, but signaling is what they're talking about. I'm also adding the tag to the post on Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

Article Skipper: The New York Times on the first 2 years of Obama’s presidency

P052410PS-0239I’ll bet you saw Peter Baker's NYT article called “The Education of a President” earlier this month and thought to yourself: “Wow, this looks like an important article. I should read this.” But it’s over 8,000 words. You never got around to reading it, did you?

That's why I'm posting this. The article is important — but it's too long. And Baker does the MSM thing of letting his main themes pop up sporadically throughout the piece rather than organizing them clearly. In fact, Baker uses no subheadings at all to guide the reader through his grand narrative.

In this post, I give you the most interesting parts of the article, in a choppy and blunt list format. I haven’t removed all the padding; I’ve tried to leave in just enough padding to give a feel for the much more padded original.

1. The premise and selling point of the article:

For all intents and purposes, the first chapter of Obama’s presidency has ended. On Election Day, the next chapter will begin. . . .

Last month, I made my way through the West Wing talking not only with Obama [for an hour] but also with nearly two dozen of his advisers . . . hoping to understand how the situation looks to them. 

2. Obama admits how he went wrong tactically:
a) He realized too late that “there’s no such thing as shovel-ready projects” when it comes to public works.  
This baffled Ezra Klein, who said:
Over the past two years, the stimulus has funded more than 15,000 transportation projects. In total, it's funded more than 75,000 projects. Those efforts weren't ready for shovels the morning after the bill passed, but it didn't take more than a couple of months to break ground on many of them, and all of them hit within the stimulus's two-year target range.

And even if the president was disappointed by the progress, why is he giving ammunition to the stimulus's critics only weeks before the midterm election?
I assume that Obama knows what he's talking about here and that he wouldn't violate the laws of politics by distorting the truth against his own interests.

More of Obama's admissions:
b) Perhaps he should not have proposed tax breaks as part of his stimulus and instead “let the Republicans insist on the tax cuts” so it could be seen as a bipartisan compromise.

c) Obama acknowledged that the succession of so many costly initiatives, necessary as they may have been, wore on the public. “That accumulation of numbers on the TV screen night in and night out in those first six months I think deeply and legitimately troubled people,” he told me. “They started feeling like: Gosh, here we are tightening our belts, we’re cutting out restaurants, we’re cutting out our gym membership, in some cases we’re not buying new clothes for the kids. And here we’ve got these folks in Washington who just seem to be printing money and spending it like nobody’s business.

“And it reinforced the narrative that the Republicans wanted to promote anyway, which was Obama is not a different kind of Democrat — he’s the same old tax-and-spend liberal Democrat.”

P080410PS-09123. As far as broader strategy, Obama and his staff admit they were blindsided, debunking any defense along the lines of “Everyone in the administration knew all along how hard it was going to be — it was only the media / the Republicans / the public who had unrealistic expectations”:
a) “We’re all a lot more cynical now,” one aide told me. The easy answer is to blame the Republicans, and White House aides do that with exuberance. But they are also looking at their own misjudgments, the hubris that led them to think they really could defy the laws of politics. “It’s not that we believed our own press or press releases, but there was definitely a sense at the beginning that we could really change Washington,” another White House official told me. “ ‘Arrogance’ isn’t the right word, but we were overconfident.” 
b) The biggest miscalculation in the minds of most Obama advisers was the assumption that he could bridge a polarized capital and forge genuinely bipartisan coalitions. While Republican leaders resolved to stand against Obama, his early efforts to woo the opposition also struck many as halfhearted. “If anybody thought the Republicans were just going to roll over, we were just terribly mistaken,” former Senator Tom Daschle, a mentor and an outside adviser to Obama, told me. . . . 
“Perhaps we were na├»ve,” [David] Axelrod told me. “ . . . I think he believed that in the midst of a crisis you could find partners on the other side of the aisle to help deal with it. I don’t think anyone here expected the degree of partisanship that we confronted.” 
c) From the start, Obama has been surprised by all sorts of challenges that have made it hard for him to govern — not just the big problems that he knew about, like the economy and the wars, but also the myriad little ones that hindered his progress, like one nominee after another brought down by unpaid taxes. Obama trusted his judgment and seemed to have assumed that impressive people in his own party must have a certain basic sense of integrity — and that impressive people in the other party must want to work with him.

4. Obama had a major role in creating the messianic expectations of his presidency:
a) When Obama secured the Democratic nomination in June 2008, he told an admiring crowd that someday “we will be able to look back and tell our children that . . . this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal . . .” 
I read that line to Obama and asked how his high-flying rhetoric sounded in these days of low-flying governance. . . .
If you promise to save the planet, might people think you would, you know, actually save the planet? He laughed, before shifting back to hope and inspiration. “I make no apologies for having set high expectations for myself and for the country, because I think we can meet those expectations,” he said. 
b) [I]t is Obama himself, and not just his supporters, who casts his presidency in grandiose terms. As he pleaded with Democrats for patience at another fund-raiser in Washington two weeks later: “It took time to free the slaves. It took time for women to get the vote. It took time for workers to get the right to organize.” 
c) Obama came to office with enormous faith in his own powers of persuasion. He seemed to believe he could overcome divisions if he just sat down with the world’s most recalcitrant figures . . . . As it turned out, the candidate who said he would be willing to meet in his first year with some of America’s enemies “without precondition” has met with none of them. 

5. Despite all those admissions, Obama and his staff offer plenty of defensive justifications, which aren’t very compelling since any administration could use the same formula filled in with the specific issues of the day. I’ll give a very selective sample, since the article is overflowing with this kind of thing:
a) “[W]e probably spent much more time trying to get the policy right than trying to get the politics right.” 
b) He quoted Mario Cuomo’s line about campaigning in poetry and governing in prose. “But the prose and the poetry match up,” he said. “It would be very hard for people to look back and say, You know what, Obama didn’t do what he’s promised. I think they could say, On a bunch of fronts he still has an incomplete. But I keep a checklist of what we committed to doing, and we’ve probably accomplished 70 percent of the things that we talked about during the campaign. And I hope as long as I’m president, I’ve got a chance to work on the other 30 percent.” 
The Washington Post is tracking the status of "Obama's Key Promises." Out of 25 promises, it calls 7 "completed" and 15 "in progress," with the other 3 still on the "to do" list.

Back to the defenses:
c) “Democrats just congenitally tend to see the glass as half empty,” Obama said at a fund-raiser in Greenwich, Conn., last month. “If we get an historic health care bill passed — oh, well, the public option wasn’t there. If you get the financial reform bill passed — then, well, I don’t know about this particular derivatives rule, I’m not sure that I’m satisfied with that. And, gosh, we haven’t yet brought about world peace. I thought that was going to happen quicker.”
In short, he dismisses any disappointment with his policies that comes from his own side, as if they should blindly praise all Democratic policies. But how can you take this position while simultaneously presenting yourself as a bipartisan, unifying figure? It you expect Democrats to fall in line with your policies, why wouldn't you expect Republicans to unite in opposing your policies?
d) “The mythology has emerged somehow that we ran this flawless campaign, I never made a mistake, that we were master communicators, everything worked in lock step,” he told me. “And somehow now, as president, things are messy and they don’t always work as planned and people are mad at us. That’s not how I look at stuff, because I remember what the campaign was like. And it was just as messy and just as difficult. And there were all sorts of moments when our supporters lost hope, and it looked like we weren’t going to win. And we’re going through that same period here.”
He’s right that there were huge missteps in his campaign; to suggest otherwise would be flat-out amnesia. (Jeremiah Wright, bitter clinging, weak debate performances, etc.) The more legitimate point would be: while both his presidency and his campaign had their low points, the high points of his campaign haven’t carried over into his presidency. In fact, Obama admits this too:
[B]y his own rendering, the figure of inspiration from 2008 neglected the inspiration after his election. He didn’t stay connected to the people who put him in office in the first place.
e) White House aides wonder aloud whether it is even possible for a modern president to succeed, no matter how many bills he signs. Everything seems to conspire against the idea: an implacable opposition with little if any real interest in collaboration, a news media saturated with triviality and conflict, a culture that demands solutions yesterday . . .

6. Most illogical defensive argument:
In this environment, [White House aides] have increasingly concluded, it may be that every modern president is going to be, at best, average.

7. People who refreshingly cut through the defensive justifications:
a) The first refuge of any politician in trouble is that it’s a communication problem, not a policy problem. If only I explained what I was doing better, the people would be more supportive. . . . Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, laughed at the ever-ready assumption that all problems stem from poor communication. “I haven’t been at a policy-problem meeting in 20 months,” he noted.
b) “He’s no Bill Clinton when it comes to having the ability to move and to wiggle,” says Joe Gaylord, a top Gingrich adviser. “I find rigidity in Obama that comes from his life in liberalism.” 
c) White House officials largely agree they should not have let the health care process drag out while waiting for Republican support that would never come. “It’s not what people felt they sent Barack Obama to Washington to do, to be legislator in chief,” a top adviser told me. “It lent itself to the perception that he wasn’t doing anything on the economy.”
d) [Ed Rendell, Democratic Governor of Pennsylvania, advises Obama to] stop moaning about what he inherited: “After the election, I’d say no more pointing back, no more blaming the Bush administration. . . . [T]o do it as much as we do it, it sounds like a broken record. And after two years, you own it.”
By the way, the comments from Obama and other staffers in the article are almost entirely defensive, not making an affirmative case for their accomplishments.

8. Baker heard “eerie” parallels between Obama and the last two presidents:
Obama says the easy issues never make it to him, only the hard ones; Bush often said the same thing. Obama says our war with terrorists will never end in a surrender ceremony; Bush often said the same thing. Obama says he does not want to kick problems down the road; Bush often said the same thing. In the days leading up to the 1994 midterm elections, Clinton mocked Republicans for promising to balance the budget while cutting taxes, saying, “They’re not serious.” In our conversation, Obama used some variation of the phrase “they’re not serious” four times in referring to Republican budget plans.

. . . Like Clinton, he digs into the intellectual underpinnings of a policy decision, studying briefing books and seeking a range of opinions. Some aides express frustration that he can leave decisions unresolved for too long. But like Bush, once he has made a decision, Obama rarely revisits it. 

P092710PS-01699. Insights into Obama’s personality:
a) “He’s still never gotten comfortable here,” a top White House official told me. He has little patience for what Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser, calls “the inevitable theatrics of Washington.”
But in politics, theater matters, whether it should or not, a lesson Obama keeps relearning, however grudgingly. His decision to redecorate the Oval Office was criticized as an unnecessary luxury in a time of austerity, no matter that it was paid for by private funds. On the campaign trail, he thought it was silly to wear a flag pin, as if that were a measure of his patriotism, until his refusal to wear a flag pin generated distracting criticism and one day he showed up wearing one. Likewise, he thought it was enough to pray in private while living in the White House, and then a poll showed that most Americans weren’t sure he’s Christian; sure enough, a few weeks later, he attended services at St. John’s Church across from Lafayette Square, photographers in tow. 
b) Obama comes across as an introvert, someone who finds extended contact with groups of people outside his immediate circle to be draining. He can rouse a stadium of 80,000 people, but that audience is an impersonal monolith; smaller group settings can be harder for him. Aides have learned that it can be good if he has a few moments after a big East Room event so he can gather his energy again. Unlike Clinton, who never met a rope line he did not want to work, Obama does not relish glad-handing. That’s what he has Vice President Joe Biden for. When Obama addressed the Business Roundtable this year, he left after his speech without much meet-and-greet, leaving his aides frustrated that he had done himself more harm than good. He is not much for chitchat. When he and I sat down, he started our session matter-of-factly: “All right,” he said, “fire away.” 
c) By all accounts, Obama copes with his political troubles with equanimity. “Zen” is the word commonly used in the West Wing. That’s not to say he never loses his temper. He has been known to snap at aides when he feels overscheduled. He cuts off advisers who spout information straight from briefing papers with a testy “I’ve already read that.”

P072210PS-009710. Obama’s public persona is vague:
As an author, Obama appreciates the rhythms of a tumultuous story. But who is the protagonist, really? At bottom, this president is still a mystery to many Americans. During the campaign, he sold himself — or the idea of himself — more than any particular policy, and voters filled in the lines as they chose. He was, as he said at the time, the ultimate Rorschach test.

Now the lines are being filled in further . . .
Are they? That last sentence seems like something you’d write half-heartedly, either because it sounds good or to transition to another thought. Does Baker really believe the general public has increasingly come to understand Obama’s personality, when he also writes in the present tense that “this president is still a mystery to many Americans”?

11. Ideas for how the Obama administration could have a good next 2 years:
a) [W]ould he jeopardize re-election absent an immediate crisis? The choice may confront him soon after the midterms when his bipartisan fiscal commission reports back by Dec. 1 with plans to tame the national deficit with a politically volatile menu of unpalatable options, like scaling back Medicare and Social Security while raising taxes.
b) Obama also anticipates putting immigration reform, another divisive issue fraught with political danger, back on the table. “If the question is, Over the next two years do I take a pass on tough stuff,” he told me, “the answer is no.”
c) “You’ll hear more about exports and less about public spending,” a senior White House official said. “You’ll hear more about initiative and private sector and less about the Department of Energy. You’ll hear more about government as a financier and less about government as a hirer.”
d) As a senior adviser put it, “There’s going to be very little incentive for big things over the next two years unless there’s some sort of crisis.”

12. White House officials' predictions about 2012:
[They believe] the Tea Party will re-elect Barack Obama by pulling the Republican nominee to the right. They doubt Sarah Palin will run and figure Mitt Romney cannot get the Republican nomination because he enacted his own health care program in Massachusetts. If they had to guess today, some in the White House say that Obama will find himself running against Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor.

13. Historical pattern to watch:
The last four presidents who failed to win a second term were all challenged in their own party. Lyndon Johnson was driven out of the race in 1968 after nearly losing the New Hampshire primary to Eugene McCarthy. Gerald Ford fended off Reagan in 1976 but went on to lose the general election to Carter, who likewise had to beat a primary challenger four years later, Ted Kennedy, before falling to Reagan. And George H. W. Bush had to overcome Patrick Buchanan before losing to Clinton in 1992.

14. Most bleak depiction of Obama’s staff:
[T]his is an administration that feels shellshocked. Many officials worry, they say, that the best days of the Obama presidency are behind them. They talk about whether it is time to move on.

15. Baker's most opinionated statement:
As he told a group of visitors during the week last spring that Congress passed health care and his administration reached agreement on an arms-control treaty with Russia, “I start slow, but I finish strong.”
He will have to, if the history he is writing is to turn out the way he prefers.


(Photos from Obama's Flickr site.)

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Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Does wearing pink for Breast Cancer Awareness Month do any good?

Robin Hanson says:

In case you haven’t noticed, there’s lots of pink on display this month, especially in things that aren’t usually pink. The pink reflects a campaign to “raise awareness about breast cancer”, and I’ve been pondering what about it bugs me the most. . . .

I think I’m . . . bothered by the campaign being less about doing something and more about “awareness”, which translates mostly into social pressure to get other folks to show pink, buying pink products, wearing pink clothes, etc. Much of the money donated goes not to tests or research but to paying celebrities to make more publicity.

Now this social pressure couldn’t really work if it weren’t pretty widely known that showing pink is associated with the breast cancer, which seems at odds with the claim that there is a lack of awareness of breast cancer. Even more at odds is the fact that pink campaigns rarely offer concrete arguments that theirs is an especially worthy cause; it is just assumed that listeners pretty much agree. Really, what fraction of folks don’t know breasts can get cancer, tests might detect it, and academics research it? . . .

[A]nti-breast-cancer is framed as being pro-women. Thus one can insinuate that folks who resist social pressures to support the campaign are anti-women. Since folks fear seeming anti-women much more than seeming anti-health, a breast-cancer campaign can tap into far more social pressure than can an exercise or sleep campaign.

Think pink gets much of its energy by offering a way for folks to be indirectly political; one can seem pro-women, and insinuate that others are anti-women, while only ever explicitly talking about health and medicine. AIDS awareness gets a similar political punch; one can talk only health, yet insinuate that others are anti-gay. Much of medicine is not about health, but about showing that you care, in this case caring about the right political groups.
One good argument for breast cancer awareness would be that breast cancer used to be stigmatized. I'd agree that erasing this stigma is important. But have we not reached the point where the stigma has been successfully erased?

A commenter on Hanson's post notes the irony that the more beneficial an awareness campaign would be, the less likely it is to happen:
There are diseases that are not well known where wider knowledge could significantly improve the lives of those who suffer from it (such as Coeliac). However, because most people are ignorant of them and thus would require a larger time commitment in explaining them, they have little signaling value.
Another commenter says pink culture is actively harmful:
Someone who had breast cancer told me she hates it because it served as a ubiquitous reminder of her illness. Even after she was better, everything from tyres to water bottles made it impossible for her to move on. This seems like a significant cost to sufferers.
This is similar to the critique given by Barbara Ehrenreich, who devotes the whole first chapter of her book Bright-Sided to analyzing pink culture. She argues:
[T]here is a problem when positive thinking "fails" and the cancer spreads or eludes treatment. Then the patient can only blame herself: she is not being positive enough; possibly it was her negative attitude that brought on the disease in the first place. At this point, the exhortation to think positively is "an additional burden to an already devastated patient," as oncology nurse Cynthia Rittenberg has written. (42)
Ehrenreich gives her first-hand experience:
I, at least, was saved from this additional burden by my persistent anger—which would have been even stronger if I had suspected, as I do now, that my cancer was iatrogenic, that is, caused by the medical profession . . . .

Breast cancer, I can now report, did not make me prettier or stronger, more feminine or more spiritual. (43-44)
What I'd like to know is why certain kinds of cancer seem to be privileged over others. How do the people with less glorified kinds of cancer feel? Maybe they'll turn down a hospital blanket, saying, "'No, not for me . . . . That's for the other people.'"

Monday, October 25, 2010

Since people stopped sending personal letters . . .

. . . everything I get in the mail either says, "Dear John, give us money," "Dear John, thank you for your money," "Dear John, we might give you money," or "Dear John, we're not going to give you money."

"Rich Mom, Poor Mom" article in New York Times glosses over economic reality.

Nancy Folbre, a University of Massachusetts economics professor, writes in the New York Times:

The Mama Grizzlies running for office this fall oppose increased government spending, including programs that could help parents balance paid employment with family work.

Perhaps increased economic inequality in the United States means that individuals running for office don’t have a very clear understanding of the problems facing people in different circumstances than their own. In particular, they don’t fully appreciate the difficulties many mothers face holding down difficult jobs while caring for young children.

You might assume that highly paid women suffer a bigger economic penalty than other women when they have a baby because, after all, they have more earnings to lose.

In a startling new look at the “motherhood penalty,” however, two sociologists at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Michelle J. Budig and Melissa J. Hodges, show that mothers with lower earnings suffer the biggest percentage loss in hourly wages.
Folbre criticizes other people for lacking a full understanding of what it's really like to be a mother.

What I quoted is a small portion of the whole article. If you click the link and read the whole thing, do you notice what Folbre never mentions?

Hint: It's a hugely important factor in how much money a person actually has, which is not the same as how much money a person earns.

As comment #4 on the article says, the article never mentions "husbands" or "fathers" or "spouses" or "families."

As Thomas Sowell says in Economic Facts and Fallacies (discussing a different issue, the gap in pay between men and women):
In principle, family responsibilities can be divided equally between husband and wife, father and mother. In practice, that has not been the norm in most places and in most periods of history. Since economic consequences follow from practices, rather than principles, the asymmetrical division of domestic responsibilities produces male-female differences in incomes . . . . Moreover, statistical records of money payments can be misleading as to economic realities. Family income is pooled income, and how it is spent, for whose benefit, does not depend on whose name is on the paycheck or paychecks, or whether one paycheck is larger than the other.
Everyone depends on other people in life. No one is just a lone individual. Your money isn't necessarily equal to the money you receive from the paycheck at your job.

All of this applies to mothers at least as much as it applies to everyone else in the world.

Are we simply not supposed to mention these basic facts? Maybe some people find them distasteful for some reason, and would rather leave them unsaid. Fine . . . but then, they shouldn't criticize other people for selectively ignoring economic realities.

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Sunday, October 24, 2010

Burma ("Myanmar") is changing its flag, name, and anthem . . .

. . . two weeks before the national election (via Robert Wiblin's public Facebook page):

The country's new name is the Republic of the Union of Myanmar, instead of the Union of Myanmar. . . .

The new flag has a horizontal band of light green at the top, dark green in the center and red at the bottom, with a white star in the middle. There has been no official explanation as to what the colors or the star represent.

Nor has there been any explanation as to why the changes, which include a new state seal, were being made.

"We were caught by surprise when we got the order at short notice. There was also an order that the old flags must be burned," said one official who declined to be identified. . . .

"It must have been instructed by astrologers," he said.

Myanmar's secretive military rulers, who will retain ultimate power no matter who wins the November 7 parliamentary election, are widely believed to consult astrologers. . . .

One, who declined to be identified, said the change was akin to putting old wine in new bottles: "The label has changed but what is really needed is a change of the wine."
XKCD looks at what a capitalist society would be like if astrology and other "crazy phenomena" actually worked.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

3 ways to deal with loneliness

I'm reading the book An Intimate History of Humanity by Theodore Zeldin (published in the UK in 1994), which describes how people throughout history and all over the world have tackled problems that he claims are common to people in all times and places.

Each of the 25 chapters is on a different one of these problems. There's a chapter on how people have dealt with — or, in his preferred metaphor, immunized themselves against — loneliness. He takes this problem extremely seriously:

The fear of loneliness has been like a ball and chain restraining ambition, as much of an obstacle to a full life as persecution, discrimination or poverty. Until the chain is broken, freedom, for many, will remain a nightmare. . . .

Feminists were the latest group to be thwarted by it. Simone de Beauvoir's idea that work would be a protection, a better one than the family, proved mistaken. Even she, who claimed 'I am sufficient to myself', found she needed someone who could 'make me pleased with myself'; even she was 'made stupid by falling in love'; even she felt lonely when Sartre, in his last years, was no longer himself. All movements for freedom come to a halt at the wall of loneliness. . . .

Fifty-nine per cent of those who say they feel lonely are women, and 41 per cent men, but it is impossible to be sure what reticence conceals . . . (60)
There may be a reporting bias here, if women are generally encouraged to be open about their feelings more than men.

Zeldin corrects a misconception about the history of loneliness:
The story we are usually told is this: in the beginning everybody lived cosily in a family or tribe, people did not originally even know what loneliness was, never conceiving of themselves as separate individuals. Then suddenly, quite recently, togetherness crumbled. . . .

But it is not true that loneliness is a modern ailment. The Hindus in one of their oldest myths say that the world was created because the Original Being was lonely. Even when all humanity was religious, there were sufferers from loneliness, as the prophet Job, in the fourth century BC, testified . . . :

'My kinsfolk have failed, and my familiar friends have forgotten me. They that dwell in mine house . . . count me for a stranger: I am an alien in their sight. . . . ' (60-61)
So how have people fought loneliness? Here are 3 of the 4 ways, according to Zeldin:

You can become a "hermit":
They were men and women who felt out of place in the world, who did not like its greed, cruelty, and compromises, or who believed they were misunderstood; as one of them, Narcissus, Bishop of Jerusalem, said in the year 212, 'Weary of the world's slanders against him, he retired to the wilderness.' Instead of feeling alienated in society, they left it to become professional aliens, aiming deliberately to be 'strangers' or 'exiles' . . . . The reward they sought was internal peace. Some subjected themselves to painful mortifications, almost starving, or tying themselves up with heavy chains, or living in graves, in order to have spiritual illuminations; some became deranged; but the famous ones were those who triumphed and emerged with a sense of having discovered the realities that mattered; and they radiated an internal peace which was immensely impressive: admirers flocked to get their blessing. (61)
There's another bias: success bias. We glorify whoever is most successful, without looking at how everyone who followed their path turned out.

2. You can stay a part of society but cultivate your individuality:
The Romantics claimed that each individual combines human attributes in a unique way, and that one should aim at expressing one's uniqueness in one's manner of living, just like an artist expressing himself in his creative act. . . . 'The truly spiritual man feels something higher than sympathy' [the quote is from August Wilhelm Schlegel]: he feels the individuality of other people, and he considers that individuality sacred, not because of how important or powerful its possessor is, but because it is individuality. Such opinions expanded the dreams of the Renaissance by demanding that one should like a person because he is different. (66)
3. You can pursue and associate yourself with some "truth" out of a sense that you're part of larger network of truths:
The final form of immunisation has been achieved by thinking that the world is not just a vast, frightening wilderness, that some kind of order is discernible in it, and that the individual, however insignificant, contains echoes of that coherence. People who believe in some supernatural power have their loneliness mitigated by the sense that, despite all the misfortunes that overwhelm them, there is some minute divine spark inside them . . . . Much of what is called progress has been the result of solitary individuals saved from feeling totally alone, even when persecuted, by the conviction that they have grasped a truth, a fragment of a much wider one too large to capture. (68-69)
That could explain why people write nonfiction books.
But getting beyond loneliness in this way does not eliminate all forms of loneliness, any more than one vaccination will protect against all forms of disease. (69)
He says none of these are surefire ways to fight loneliness. You still need other people "for clear thoughts and for knowing where one wants to go; only knowledge of humanity's previous experience can save on from suffering disillusionment." (70)

He concludes:
Having won the right to be alone, to be an exception to generalisations (which can be even more dangerous to freedom than generals), having freed oneself from the generalisation that humans are condemned to suffer from loneliness, one can stand it on its head: turn being alone upside down and it becomes adventure.

(Video via + via.)

Thursday, October 21, 2010

How to harmonize Islam with feminism, freedom, and Europe

Mona Eltahawy and Claire Berlinski have an hour-long conversation on that question:

(Links to a couple websites they refer to: Ricochet and Musawah.)

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Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Film of a San Francisco street in 1906, 4 days before the earthquake/fire

(Via Metafilter, which got it from 60 Minutes. There's more historical background here.)

The soundtrack is "La Femme D'Argent" by Air. A commenter on Metafilter says:

I like how the tram operator's boombox slowly fades in at the start. I guess he realized the ambient sound would be filtered out by the windshield and thoughtfully provided us with a soundtrack to illustrate what people were listening to in 1906.

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Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Why don't people know about the Obama tax cuts?

The New York Times looks into this question:

What if a president cut Americans’ income taxes by $116 billion and nobody noticed?

It is not a rhetorical question. At Pig Pickin’ and Politickin’, a barbecue-fed rally organized here [in Huntersville, North Carolina] last week by a Republican women’s club, a half-dozen guests were asked by a reporter what had happened to their taxes since President Obama took office.

“Federal and state have both gone up,” said Bob Paratore, 59, from nearby Charlotte, echoing the comments of others.

After further prodding — including a reminder that a provision of the stimulus bill had cut taxes for 95 percent of working families by changing withholding rates — Mr. Paratore’s memory was jogged.

“You’re right, you’re right,” he said. “I’ll be honest with you: it was so subtle that personally, I didn’t notice it.”

Few people apparently did.

In a troubling sign for Democrats as they head into the midterm elections, their signature tax cut of the past two years, which decreased income taxes by up to $400 a year for individuals and $800 for married couples, has gone largely unnoticed.

In a New York Times/CBS News Poll last month, fewer than one in 10 respondents knew that the Obama administration had lowered taxes for most Americans. Half of those polled said they thought that their taxes had stayed the same, a third thought that their taxes had gone up, and about a tenth said they did not know.
The North Carolinians' feeling that their taxes had been raised did have some basis in reality:
[T]axpayers in more than 30 states saw their state taxes rise, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

That is what happened here in North Carolina. The Treasury Department estimated that the federal tax cut would put $1.7 billion back in the hands of North Carolina taxpayers this year. Last year, though, North Carolina, facing a large budget shortfall, raised a variety of state taxes by roughly a billion dollars.

“It was a wash,” said Mr. Tillis.
Who's Mr. Tillis? That would be Thom Tillis, someone of no significance to the New York Times' readers except that he allows the reporter to voice his opinion through someone else. (Michael Kinsley explained this phenomenon in his excellent piece on why newspaper articles are so long.)

Back to the tax cuts: Obama makes it sound like he planned for people not to notice them:
President Obama said that structuring the tax cuts so that a little more money showed up regularly in people’s paychecks “was the right thing to do economically, but politically it meant that nobody knew that they were getting a tax cut.”

“And in fact what ended up happening was six months into it, or nine months into it,” the president said, “people had thought we had raised their taxes instead of cutting their taxes.”
I find it hard to believe that the economics and the politics were so out of sync with each other. If the specific way the tax cuts were implemented caused people to feel like they hadn't gotten any relief, wouldn't that have undermined the goal of stimulating the economy?

Monday, October 18, 2010

Why can't Google create a social networking site that's successful in the US?

The New York Times reports:

“Google’s culture is very much based on the power of the algorithm, and it’s very difficult to algorithm social interaction,” Ms. Li said.

For example, the introduction of Buzz in February caused a wave of criticism from privacy advocates and everyday users, because it automatically included users’ e-mail contacts in their Buzz network. Google quickly changed the service so that it suggested friends instead of automatically connecting them.

Before Buzz’s release to the public, it was tested only by Google employees.
Why wasn't that good enough? The NYT quotes one blunt employee:
“There is some belief at Google that their DNA is not perfectly suited to build social products, and it’s a quite controversial topic internally,” said a person who has worked on Google’s social products who would speak only on the condition of anonymity.

“The part of social that’s about stalking people, sharing photos, looking cool — it’s mentally foreign to engineers,” the person said. “All those little details are subtle and sometimes missed, especially by technical people who are brought up in a very utilitarian company.
This poses a huge financial danger to Google:
[A]s people spend more time on closed social networks like Facebook, where much of the data they share is off limits to search engines, Google risks losing the competition for Web users’ time, details of their lives and, ultimately, advertising.

“Google’s made a lot of money helping people make decisions using search engines, but more and more people are turning to social outlets to make decisions,” said Charlene Li, founder of Altimeter Group, a technology research and advisory firm. “And whenever people make decisions, there’s money involved.
That reminds me of an insight given by a Metafilter commenter named "blue beetle":
If you are not paying for it, you're not the customer; you're the product being sold.

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Friday, October 15, 2010

Australian dollars have reached parity with US dollars

An Australian Facebook friend of mine said the other day (quoting this), when he was anticipating the news:

We're going to parity like US$20 is $19.99

Does empirical research confirm the "Caring for Introvert" article?

In this little Atlantic article about introverts from 2003 (which was so wildly popular that the Atlantic saw fit to publish not one, not two, but three retrospectives about it), Jonathan Rauch said:

Are introverts misunderstood? Wildly. That, it appears, is our lot in life. "It is very difficult for an extrovert to understand an introvert," write the education experts Jill D. Burruss and Lisa Kaenzig. (They are also the source of the quotation in the previous paragraph.) Extroverts are easy for introverts to understand, because extroverts spend so much of their time working out who they are in voluble, and frequently inescapable, interaction with other people. They are as inscrutable as puppy dogs. But the street does not run both ways. Extroverts have little or no grasp of introversion. They assume that company, especially their own, is always welcome. They cannot imagine why someone would need to be alone; indeed, they often take umbrage at the suggestion. As often as I have tried to explain the matter to extroverts, I have never sensed that any of them really understood. They listen for a moment and then go back to barking and yipping.
This 2009 psychology study (via) said in its abstract:
We examined the differences between estimating the emotions of protagonists and evaluating those of readers in narrative comprehension. Half of the participants read stories and rated the emotional states of the protagonists, while the other half of the participants rated their own emotional states while reading the stories. The results showed that reading comprehension was facilitated when highly extraverted participants read stories about, and rated the emotional experiences of, extraverted protagonists, with personalities similar to their own. However, the same facilitative effect was not observed for less extraverted participants, nor was it observed for either type of participants under the condition in which participants rated their own emotional experiences. Thus, at least for highly extraverted participants, readers both facilitated the construction of a situation model and correctly estimated the emotional states of protagonists who were similar to themselves, perhaps due to empathy.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

John McWhorter and Glenn Loury debate: Has Obama been a "failure"?

I'm planning on doing a post listing the main ways I've found Obama disappointing as president.

What do you think? How has he disappointed you? Or has he actually done a "good job"? Feel free to put any thoughts in the comments (not necessarily about the same issues McWhorter and Loury talk about).

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Should I switch from Blogger to a different blogging service?

Blogger seems to be very buggy lately, in a lot of different ways. I don't even feel like starting to list them here. It's gotten to the point where I'm considering switching to a different service.

I'd be interested to hear anyone's opinions on this. My impression is that it's easy to import a Blogger blog into any of the other major platforms. But I wonder if this would also import the comments. I wouldn't want to lose those.

There are no major features I can think of that I'd like to add. Blogger can already do most of what I want, but it does those things too clunkily.

Are misconceptions worse if they're about facts or concepts?

In a post on Marginal Revolution called "Economic Misconceptions," Alex Tabarrok says:

Students typically come to an economics class with many misconceptions, not just random errors but systematic biases.
He gives several examples from a 2009 study by a macroeconomics professor who surveyed his students. For instance:
When asked about profits as a percentage of sales the median student guessed 30% (actual rate, closer to 4%).
In each example, the "misconception" is a guess about a specific fact, which is always in the form of a percentage. But I wonder if this is such a good way to tell whether someone has "misconceptions" about economics. The implication is that we should be good at estimating percentages on the spot.

But why would you think the human mind was well-equipped to do that? Maybe economics professors have some misconceptions about how people think or how they should think.

I notice that for each question asked of the students (at least the ones given in the blog post), the right answer is either a tiny or huge percentage. For instance, in the example I quoted, the answer is tiny — 4%. For another question, the answer is a huge 248% (the increase in American incomes since 1950).

By contrast, the median wrong answers the students gave were 35%, 30%, 11%, and 25%. The students might not have had any fundamental misconceptions about how the world works — maybe people are just bad at guessing percentages. So they gravitate toward mid-range ones like 25%, 30%, 35% because they feel like these are relatively safe guesses. They really have no idea, but they don't want to be too far off.

I've also seen polls asking what percentage of Americans are Jewish. I can't find these now, but I remember the answers being around 25%. The correct answer is between 1% and 2%.

But again, does this represent a serious problem that should be corrected? Anyone who needs to know the actual statistic can easily look it up. Beyond that, is it so bad if people intuitively imagine a given minority group as making up a much larger chunk of the population than it actually does?

I'm more convinced by this New York Times column by Robert H. Frank, which focuses not on people's success or failure at guessing statistics but on their understanding or misunderstanding of basic concepts. And Frank targeted not just economics students but economics professors:
Consider, for example, the cost-benefit principle, which says that an action should be taken only if its benefit is at least as great as its cost. Although this principle sounds disarmingly simple, many people fail to apply it correctly because they do not understand what constitutes a relevant cost. For instance, the true economic cost of attending a concert -- its ''opportunity cost'' -- includes not just the explicit cost of the ticket but also the implicit value of other opportunities that must be forgone to attend the concert.

Virtually all economists consider opportunity cost a central concept. Yet a recent study by Paul J. Ferraro and Laura O. Taylor of Georgia State University suggests that most professional economists may not really understand it. At the 2005 annual meetings of the American Economic Association, the researchers asked almost 200 professional economists to answer this question:

''You won a free ticket to see an Eric Clapton concert (which has no resale value). Bob Dylan is performing on the same night and is your next-best alternative activity. Tickets to see Dylan cost $40. On any given day, you would be willing to pay up to $50 to see Dylan. Assume there are no other costs of seeing either performer. Based on this information, what is the opportunity cost of seeing Eric Clapton? (a) $0, (b) $10, (c) $40, or (d) $50.''

The opportunity cost of seeing Clapton is the total value of everything you must sacrifice to attend his concert -- namely, the value to you of attending the Dylan concert. That value is $10 -- the difference between the $50 that seeing his concert would be worth to you and the $40 you would have to pay for a ticket. So the unambiguously correct answer to the question is $10. Yet only 21.6 percent of the professional economists surveyed chose that answer, a smaller percentage than if they had chosen randomly.

Some economists who answered incorrectly complained that if people could apply the cost-benefit principle, it did not really matter if they knew the precise definition of opportunity cost. So the researchers asked another group of economists to answer an alternative version of the question in which the last sentence was revised to read this way: ''What is the smallest amount that seeing Clapton would have to be worth to you to make his concert the better choice?'' Again, the correct answer is $10, and although this time a larger percentage got it right, a solid majority still chose incorrectly.

When they posed their original question to a large group of college students, the researchers found that exposure to introductory economics instruction was strikingly counterproductive. Among those who had taken a course in economics, only 7.4 percent answered correctly, compared with 17.2 percent of those who had never taken one.

Teaching students how to weigh costs and benefits intelligently should be one of the most important goals of introductory economics courses. The opportunity cost of trying to teach our students an encyclopedic list of technical topics, it seems, has been failure to achieve that goal.

Monday, October 11, 2010

What do liberals / progressives / Democrats stand for?

Sara Robinson writes in The New Republic:

Every American over the age of ten knows what the GOP and the conservative movement stand for. Sing it with me now: low taxes, small government, strong defense, traditional families. See? You know the tune, and the harmony line, too.

OK, now: What do Democrats and progressives stand for?

Take your time. It's a tough question.

Give up? So have most progressives. Even the movement's most deeply committed members often have a hard time answering this one.

And that's a problem. Specifically, it's a branding problem. Conservatives have worked hard for the past 40 years to create a long-term brand identity for their ideas. Progressives haven't.
I'm generally wary of arguments in which someone defends their political side (whether it's a party or ideology or candidate or policy) by saying: Oh, our problem is we just haven't communicated well enough. This can be a cheap way to avoid confronting the deeper, more substantive problems with your side. I'm not saying there are no deeper, substantive problems with liberalism. But Robinson makes a pretty convincing case that liberals have spent many years letting conservatives run away with the race to create the strongest brand. (She mainly refers to conservatives vs. liberals/progressives. The article might have more precise if she had instead talked more about Republicans vs. Democrats, since that's what she seems to mean.)

Being the Official Conservative Candidate allows you to bask in its reflected glow−which, in turn, gives you all kinds of automatic credibility with the voters. Even if people don't know your name and are unfamiliar with your record, they're strongly inclined to trust you because you represent a brand they're deeply invested in. You don't have to waste valuable time or energy explaining your policies or values (which are already understood), hiring brilliant and expensive strategists (because the voters are already on board), or even selling yourself very hard to the electorate (because they already trust the brand you're affiliated with: they'd even vote for Bonzo, as long he was a conservative). With all that elaborate cognitive infrastructure already in place, running your campaign is as simple as standing up and repeating the familiar conservative tropes, knowing that your voters are already emotionally hard-wired to respond.

Progressives, on the other hand, have never tried to brand themselves in any kind of organized, coherent way−which is why even progressive leaders are often caught flat-footed when asked about the core values our movement stands for. There's no self-defined narrative through-line that carries us from one election to the next (let alone from one decade to the next). When Democrats do engage in PR, they do it in the most ineffective way possible−in piecemeal one-off campaigns that are entirely too much driven by polls and focus groups, and not nearly enough by the imperatives of long-term brand-building and values cultivation. Instead, we do it in limited, short-term bursts that are dedicated to promoting a personality or an issue, not the movement as a whole.
Notably, even though she does spell out the core principles of the Republican brand (those 8 snappy words in the first block quote), she never makes even a tentative suggestion as to what the Democratic brand's core principles are, or should be.

Blogger of the Day: Andrew Sullivan, The Crusader

This is the first post in a new series: "Blogger of the Day." This will occur at irregular intervals — definitely not every day. With each post, I'll highlight a blogger I like. Some will be obscure enough that I might hope to give them a slight boost in traffic or visibility. Some will be so big that I can't possibly expect to give them any help. The first Blogger of the Day clearly falls into the latter category: Andrew Sullivan. (Wikipedia.)

He’s been blogging daily — on a blog he calls The Daily Dish but which everyone else just calls "Andrew Sullivan" — for exactly 10 years today. Here, he looks back on what he's proud of and "ashamed of" about that decade of blogging.

Today, he's running "Toasts or Roasts": other bloggers say what they like or don't like about his blog. So far, he's posted 16 men — including Dan Savage, Jonah Lehrer, Reihan Salam, Ezra Klein, Tyler Cowen, Marc Ambinder, and Ben Smith -- and 1 woman: my mom, Ann Althouse. She's the only who says anything critical, aside from a few others who blandly mention that they don't always agree with Sullivan. (She also describes how Sullivan's blog was responsible for her marriage.) Without her, it would have been all "Toast" and no "Roast." Good for Sullivan for including my mom's post: he didn't have to do that, but his homepage today would be pretty dull without her contribution. She concludes:

Andrew is always changing, and one could go through cycles of loving or hating him — I especially love the Andrew Sullivan of "The Great Gay Debate" — but it's not really worth getting all exercised about which Andrew Sullivan we're reading today. We keep reading.
Here's my Toast and Roast. But first, some background.

Sullivan was one of the first blogs I read on a regular basis — along with Talking Points Memo, Kausfiles, Instapundit, and Metafilter — circa 2000-2001. It's impressive that they're all still thriving, though you could also say there's a problem here: the blogs that got big early on tend to keep dominating the blogosphere. There isn't the space for some new brilliant person to come along and be a Sullivan or a Kaus or an Instapundit.

Of those 5 blogs, I still read 3 regularly: Kausfiles, Instapundit, and Metafilter. I don't read TPM much because it's no longer the same blog it was in the early 2000s. It used to be the dashed-off daily thoughts of a random journalist who had fled the American Prospect, apparently because he didn't fit neatly with that magazine's liberal orthodoxy. Josh Marshall was the kind of Democrat whose mind was flexible enough that he would praise Bush for his rhetoric in the aftermath of September 11, 2001 and offer qualified support for the Iraq war. Today, TPM is a homogeneously liberal super-blog.

And in contrast to my mom's roast/toast to Sullivan, I can't say I always keep reading him no matter how matter how much he changes. The truth is that I don't read Sullivan regularly anymore.

Oh, I'm sure his blog continues to be excellent. But he got too passionately moralistic about every issue — especially when he would flip-flop on foreign policy without bothering to dampen his moralistic fervor.

However, I have to give him credit for recognizing his own failings: he wrote an unblinking mea culpa for supporting the Iraq war. In 2008, to mark 5 years into the war, he wrote that he had committed "four cardinal sins," one of which was "narrow moralism":
I became enamored of my own morality and this single moral act. And he was a monster, as we discovered. But what I failed to grasp is that war is also a monster, and that unless one weighs all the possibly evil consequences of an abstractly moral act, one hasn't really engaged in anything much but self-righteousness. I saw war's unknowable consequences far too glibly.
Today, he says his
greatest failure by far in these ten years . . . was giving in to my legitimate but far-too-powerful emotions after 9/11 and cheer-leading for a war in Iraq that remains one of the most disgraceful, disastrous and murderous episodes in the history of American foreign policy. I was wrong - but more than wrong, I was dismissive of those who turned out to be right. Some of those I mocked I did so for the right reasons. But some I didn't listen to when I should have. All I can say is that the great virtue of this blog is that it gave me nowhere to hide. And if you read the archives, you can see my mind and soul twisting slowly in the wind of reality, as illusion after illusion fell from my eyes . . . . In many ways, you forced me. You demanded that I hold myself responsible for my errors and, yes, sins. And we did this together, you and I, in a way that no form of media had achieved before. So in the shame and error, there was some kind of achievement. At its best, that is what blogging can do.
Self-righteousness and dogmatism are generally not a perfect fit with foreign policy. Sullivan's style is what it is. It isn't perfect, as even he admits. But he has done far more good than most cheerleaders for the Iraq war by exposing and analyzing his own shortcomings in thinking about war.

But when I think of Sullivan's political voice, I won't think first about foreign policy. I'll think about the issue he showed me how to think about.

His opening remarks about same-sex marriage in that video (back in 1997, before he was a blogger) are dated. He thought Hawaii was soon to be the first state in the US with same-sex marriage; the first such state was Massachusetts in 2004, and Hawaii still doesn't have it. He didn't do a great job at predicting the future, but his message still has great resonance today.

I was going to find some choice moment of this video, transcribe it, and quote it here to draw your attention to it. But I would have felt like just transcribing the whole thing. So please, watch the whole thing. To say this is Sullivan at his best would be an understatement.

I love how he starts by giving definitions of homosexuality and heterosexuality that seem so uncontroversial as to be hardly worth explaining — and then leverages those definitions into his case for same-sex marriage (both as something that should happen and as the most important front in the gay rights movement).

Though he's often criticized as overly emotional about political issues, he took the political issue he feels the most strongly about in his life and made his case with lucid logic. He did it when it was a lot less popular than it is now, and he did it over and over.

Thank you, Andrew Sullivan. You have made a difference.

This is Andrew

UPDATE: Thanks to Andrew Sullivan for including this post as one of the "toasts and roasts" on his blog today.

(Photo of Andrew Sullivan by Trey Ratcliff.)

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Is there more or less stigma against a mental illness if people believe it's genetic?

This article looks at the question. The most striking finding: in a metastudy of 19 studies, "18 found that belief in a genetic or biological cause was associated with more negative attitudes to people with mental health problems. Just one found the opposite, that belief in a genetic or biological cause was associated with more positive attitudes."

The writer, Ben Goldacre, juxtaposes those psychological findings with this quote from a professor of neuropsychiatric genetics, responding to research that says ADHD is partly genetic:

"We hope that these findings will help overcome the stigma associated with ADHD . . . . Too often, people dismiss ADHD as being down to bad parenting or poor diet. As a clinician, it was clear to me that this was unlikely to be the case. Now we can say with confidence that ADHD is a genetic disease and that the brains of children with this condition develop differently to those of other children."
As Goldacre observes, anyone who's been campaigning against the stigmatization of mental health disorders seems have a severely mistaken assumption about people's attitudes toward mental health. If you believe someone's behavior comes from their genes, you won't necessarily be more inclined to forgive them. You might look down on them more: it's a problem with the whole person, not just a one-time decision they made. (That may be a very simplistic way to look at it. But I'm just describing how people in general might think; I'm not approving of these views.)

Saturday, October 9, 2010

"Imagine no 'Imagine' . . . "

My mom imagines it.

Wouldn't it be weird if they didn't play the same song for every tribute to John Lennon? This time the tribute is for his 70th birthday. And Google's simple search page is playing the predictable.

That's what John Lennon was all about, right? Soothing predictability?

Of course not. I like my mom's suggestion for a different song they could play, "Love." I also wouldn't mind if it were "Real Love." But if they want to honor him, why not pick a different song every time and not worry much about whether it's fitting? He was the irreverent type, after all. And for me, this would evoke more emotion, since I've become numb to "Imagine."

Friday, October 8, 2010

The albums I bought from eMusic this month: Ra Ra Riot, Belly, Aloe Blacc

I buy most of my music from eMusic, an excellent website with prices that are a tiny fraction of what you'd pay on iTunes or Amazon. You have to spend a certain number of "credits" per month (a credit is usually, though not always, equal to a track), or you lose them when the next billing cycle starts.

[UPDATE: My timing was terrible here. Very shortly after I posted this, eMusic sharply raised its prices and switched from a credit-based system to a more conventional system where each track costs the same amount of money for everyone.]

Here's what I spent my 35 credits on this month (that's about $12 — an amazing deal):

1. Ra Ra Riot - The Orchard (August 24, 2010)

I love their instrumentation: violin, cello, guitar, keyboards (sometimes), bass, drums.

Here's "Boy."

From their previous (debut) album, here's "Ghost Under Rocks":

Ra Ra Riot sticks to a fairly predictable formula. And they're great at it.

2. Belly - Star (1993)

I bought this because I listened to the song "Feed the Tree" over and over back when I put it on my list of the best grunge songs, and I had to hear the rest of the album. Not as good as the Breeders' Pod or Last Splash, but still worth having. (I make that comparison mostly because the two bands played in a similar genre around the same time, but they also had overlapping personnel: the leader of Belly, Tanya Donelly, was in the Breeders' early Pod incarnation.)

Here it is: "Feed the Tree" — good enough to embed twice!

And here's "Gepetto," which today sounds a bit quaint in its mid-'90s-ness:

3. Aloe Blacc - Good Things (September 28, 2010)

eMusic describes the album well: "Gold-standard, pitch-perfect soul formalism."

Here's "I Need a Dollar."

"Miss Fortune":

4. I had a few credits left over for this month, so I used them up on a few live songs by Regina Spektor. One of them is "The Ghost of Corporate Future," a clever but understated little song that has a wonderful humanity to it. This is one of those songs that I can't put on as background music and go do something else; it unfailingly compels me to listen straight through.

People are just people, people are just people, people are just people like you . . .

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Computers are wonderful and horrible - the view from 1982

Here's another gem from the Atlantic's project of digging up old technology articles from its archives: a 1982 article by James Fallows (who still writes for the magazine) called "Living with a Computer."

The Atlantic's blog post about the article points out how obsolete the references to companies are now, as they've since been the victim of creative destruction:

Nearly all the companies building system components that Fallows mentioned are gone or bit players now: Optek, Ball Corporation . . . , Lanier, Wang, Digital Research, Heath-Zenith, Victor. As Fallows noted, it was like the automobile industry of 1910, "a thousand little hustlers trying to claim a piece of the action." Neither Apple nor Microsoft made it onto his radar.
I find it fascinating to read Fallows describing his encounters with a machine we use all the time without thinking about it, back when this was such a novel experience that it merited a lengthy essay in the Atlantic. I'm tempted to copy and paste the whole article into this blog post, but that would be inappropriate. Here's the gist of it:
I'd sell my computer before I'd sell my children. But the kids better watch their step. When have the children helped me meet a deadline? When has the computer dragged in a dead cat it found in the back yard?

The Processor Technology SOL-20 came into my life when Darlene went out. It was a bleak, frigid day in January of 1979, and I was finishing a long article for this magazine. The final draft ran for 100 pages, double-spaced. Interminable as it may have seemed to those who read it, it seemed far longer to me, for through the various stages of composition I had typed the whole thing nine or ten times. My system of writing was to type my way through successive drafts until their ungainliness quotient declined. This consumed much paper and time. In the case of that article, it consumed so much time that, as the deadline day drew near, I knew I had no chance of retyping a legible copy to send to the home office.

I turned hopefully to the services sector of our economy. I picked a temporary-secretary agency out of the phone book and was greeted the next morning by a gum-chewing young woman named Darlene. I escorted her to my basement office and explained the challenge. The manuscript had to leave my house by 6:30 the following evening. No sweat, I thought, now that a professional is on hand.

But five hours after Darlene's arrival, I glanced at the product of her efforts. Stacked in a neat pile next to the typewriter were eight completed pages. This worked out to a typing rate of about six and a half words per minute. In fairness to Darlene, she had come to a near-total halt on first encountering the word "Brzezinski" and never fully regained her stride. Still, at this pace Darlene and I would both be dead—first I'd kill her, then I'd kill myself—before she came close to finishing the piece. Hustling her out the door at the end of the day, with $49 in wages in her pocket and eleven pages of finished manuscript left behind, I trudged downstairs to face the typewriter myself. Twenty-four hours later, I handed the bulky parcel to the Federal Express man and said, "Never again."

Over the next few weeks, my thoughts often drifted to the advertisements I had seen in airline magazines, in which trim and cheerful secretaries effortlessly produced documents by typing in front of computer screens. Were these devices real? I checked with a salesman for a company called Lanier and discovered that while their word-processing system, called "No Problem," was quite real, it cost some $15,000. If I had drawn a pie chart representing my annual income, No Problem would have been a very large piece of pie. I called Wang, Digital Equipment, and some of the other big-name manufacturers and got roughly the same news. If I called the same manufacturers today, I'd hear much more encouraging news, but my options were to start writing shorter articles, go into hock, or take my chances again with Darlene.

The way out of my dilemma came from an unexpected quarter. My father-in-law often dealt with inventors who put together computer systems to monitor various industrial processes, and he thought that one of them might have the answer. On his advice, I followed a trail of leads and suggestions that eventually led me to a converted church in the farmlands of central Ohio. There, Bill Cavage, Marv Monroe, and Bill Jones, three young engineers doing business as the Optek Corporation, tinkered with disk drives, photo-sensors, and other devices in hopes of making the big sale. Optek's specialty is making machines like the one they produce for drug companies, which counts pills as they pass by at a rate of 24,000 per minute and kicks out any bottles that receive the wrong number of pills. For men who can do all this, I thought, turning a small computer into a word-processing system should be a cinch.

For a while, I was a little worried about what they would come up with, especially after my father-in-law called to ask how important it was that I be able to use both upper- and lower-case letters. But finally, for a total of about $4,000, Optek gave me the machinery I have used happily to this day.

The ingredients were the basic four of any word-processing system. First was the computer itself, the Processor Technology SOL-20. Its detailed specifications—its 48K of random access memory, its Intel 8080 microprocessing chip—are now of antiquarian interest, since Processor Technology went out of business several months after I bought my computer.

The second element in my system was the monitor, a twelve-inch TV screen. Some monitors are like black-and-white TVs; mine—which, oddly enough, was produced by the same company, Ball Corporation, that makes home-canning supplies, displays light-green letters against a background of dark green and is supposed to be easier on the eyes. Third was the external storage device—the equipment that saves the documents you've written when the computer is turned off. The equipment I chose, two small tape recorders, was such a complete disaster that I must discuss it separately later on. Fourth was the printer, a ponderous machine, built like a battleship, which had been an IBM Selectric typewriter before it was converted to accept printing instructions from a computer.

These four machines, and the yards and yards of multi-strand cable that connected them, were the hardware of my system. The software consisted of a program called The Electric Pencil, with a manual explaining the mysteries of "block move," "home cursor," and "global search and replace."

I skip past the day during which I thought the computer didn't work at all (missing fuse) and the week or two it took me to understand all the moves The Electric Pencil could make. From that point on, I knew there was a heaven.

What was so exciting? Merely the elimination of all drudgery, except for the fundamental drudgery of figuring out what to say, from the business of writing. The process works this way.

When I sit down to write a letter or start the first draft of an article, I simply type on the keyboard and the words appear on the screen. For six months, I found it awkward to compose first drafts on the computer. Now I can hardly do it any other way. It is faster to type this way than with a normal typewriter, because you don't need to stop at the end of the line for a carriage return (the computer automatically "wraps" the words onto the next line when you reach the right-hand margin), and you never come to the end of the page, because the material on the screen keeps sliding up to make room for each new line. It is also more satisfying to the soul, because each maimed and misconceived passage can be made to vanish instantly, by the word or by the paragraph, leaving a pristine green field on which to make the next attempt.

My computer has a 48K memory. Since each K represents 1,024 bytes of information—each byte representing one character or digit—the machine can manipulate more than 49,000 items of information at a time. In practice, after allowing for the space that The Electric Pencil's programming instructions occupy in the computer's memory, the machine can handle documents 6,500 to 7,500 words long, or a little longer than this article. I break anything longer into chunks or chapters and work with them one at a time.

When I've finished with such a chunk, I press another series of buttons and store what I have written on my disk drive. This is a cigar-box-shaped unit that sits next to my computer, connected through a shocking-pink ribbon cable containing thirty-four separate strands. Inside the drive is the floppy disk, which is essentially magnetic recording tape pressed into the shape of a small record and then enclosed in a square cardboard envelope, 5 1/4 inches on each side. The system transfers data from the computer to the disk, or vice versa, at about 1,000 words per second, so it is no nuisance to pause after each fifteen or twenty minutes of writing to store what I've just done. Each of the disks in my system can hold about 100K of information, or more than twice as much as a full load from the computer memory. If one disk is full, I pull it out and snap another in.

When I finish what I'm working on, I switch on my printer. If I'm sending a letter, I load the stationery into the printer and push the print button, and then fish each piece of paper out of the printer when it is done. There are machines that automatically feed single sheets of paper into the printer, but that takes us back to big slices of the income pie. If I am printing a draft of an article, I can hook up my tractor feed, push the print button, and go out for a beer. The tractor pulls an endless sheet of paper through the printer—and the perforated paper can be separated into pages when the printing is done, so it looks like a normal manuscript.

The system prints about thirty characters per second, which means it takes less than a minute per double-spaced page. When it has completed its work, I take the manuscript and start working it over with a pencil, just as I did in days of old. The difference is that after I've made my changes, I have only to type in the changes I have made and start the printer up again—rather than retype the whole mess.

None of this may sound impressive to those who have fleets of secretaries at their disposal, or to writers who can say precisely what they mean the first time through. Isaac Asimov recently complained in Popular Computing that his word-processor didn't save him much time on revisions, since he composes at ninety words per minute and "95 per cent of what I write in the first draft stays in the second [and final] draft." My first-draft survival ratio is closer to one percent, so for me the age of painless revisions is a marvel.

You won't catch me saying that my machine has made me a better writer, but I don't think it has made me any worse. Since I now spend less time and energy retyping, I have more left over for editing and rewriting.
I think he's basically right, and if anything he's understating how much of a boon computers have been to the writing and editing process. They don't make writing quicker at the expense of quality; they improve the quality by allowing you to write and edit more quickly.

He then describes a strange way to use technology to improve editing, which I had never heard of:
When I think I'm finished with an article, I set the print speed to Slow. This runs the printer at about 100 words per minute, or roughly the pace of reading aloud. I stuff my ears with earplugs and then lean over the platen as the printing begins. Watching the article printed at this speed is like hearing it read; infelicities are more difficult to ignore than when you are scooting your eye over words on a page.
I have not yet stooped to the politician's trick of programming the computer to write standard letters of reply. I have, however, discovered a few other sneaky word-processing feats. Suppose you are writing an article in which an unusual word appears frequently—let us choose "Brzezinski" once again. When writing the draft, you simply type a certain character, say * or + , each time Brzezinski should appear, and then when you're ready to print you signal the computer to insert "Brzezinski" in place of the character.
Imagine thinking that this keyboard shortcut was so devious it was worth mentioning in the same breath as having an artificial-intelligence ghostwriter!

He also used a precursor to TurboTax:
In addition to The Electric Pencil, I bought the software for a computer-programming language known as BASIC . . . . When I want to know how many prime numbers there are between one million and two million, or how quickly my mortgage payments would bankrupt me if interest rates rose to 35 percent—that is, when I don't want to do my work—I can kill ten minutes writing programs to tell me the answer. Getting down to business, I use the computer to do my income tax. My economic life is a mess of $2.75 parking-lot tickets and $13.89 lunch receipts, which used to pile up like fall leaves until I spent a week burrowing through them at income-tax time. Now all I do is sit down at the machine for five minutes every few nights and type in all transactions of interest to the tax man—so much in from my employers, so much out to the credit-card company. At the end of the year, I load the income-tax program into the computer, push the button marked "Run," and watch as my tax return is prepared. Since it took me only about six months to learn BASIC (and the tax laws) well enough to write the program, I figure this approach will save me time by 1993.
Fallows goes on to discuss a long litany of technical issues that are now happily irrelevant to us. Should you use tapes or disks to store your information? If you use disks, should they be 5 1/2 or 8 inches in diameter? And should they have "single-density" or "double-density storage"? Fallows reports that he bought two 5 1/2-inch disks, but was frustrated that "each disk fills up too quickly and I have to keep rotating different disks in and out of the drive."

He admits that his computer has caused serious problems:
For one, it creates yet another reason to feel vulnerable to the workings of fate.

Shortly after I got my machine, I was typing away in the basement as a summer thunderstorm moved into town. Knowing what I now know, these days I immediately shut off the machine and unplug it from the wall whenever thunder is reported any nearer than West Virginia. But I was not so wise then. I had turned on the printer and gone upstairs when a bolt of lightning struck the house. There was a huge boom, and a white flash outside windows on all sides of our house. Several million volts coursed through our wiring and blew out nearly every electrical appliance that was plugged in. The blast burned out a clothes iron, and if it had that effect on a big hunk of steel, you can imagine what went on in the computer's delicate interior. For a month I was machine-less, thrown back on my Smith-Corona, while computer repairmen replaced one silicon chip after another that had melted in its casing.

Computers cause another, more insidious problem, by forever distorting your sense of time. When I first saw the system in the back room at Optek, I was so dazzled by the instantaneous deletion of sentences and movement of paragraphs that I thought I could never want anything more. When the scientists at Optek warned me about certain bottlenecks, I had to stifle my laughter. In particular, they warned me that I might grow impatient with tape recorders as a way to store data. You have to understand, they told me, it can take five or ten minutes to load a long draft into the computer from tapes, whereas a disk drive (which would add a thousand dollars to the cost) could do the job in seconds. Typical vulgarians of the machine age, I told myself. How could they imagine that I would object to five or ten minutes, when I had been spared Darlene?

Three weeks later, I was griping constantly about the tapes and scanning the pages of Byte magazine, looking for a good deal on a disk drive. Ten minutes was intolerable when everything else happened in a flash. Worse, the tapes had the fatal defect of unreliability; even after waiting ten minutes, you were never quite sure that the information was safely stored. The only way to tell was to try to feed the data back from the tapes into the computer, which took another ten minutes and often led to the infuriating message "Tape Error." After one article disappeared forever behind a thicket of Tape Errors, I scraped up $800 for a cut-rate disk drive. Now my discontent is awakened only when I read stories about the new disks—larger ones that hold twice as much data as mine, and double-density models that hold twice as much as that.

I CAN HARDLY BRING myself to mention the true disadvantage of computers, which is that I have become hopelessly addicted to them. To the outside world, I present myself as a man with a business need for a word-processing machine. Sure, I have a computer: I'd have a drill press if I were in the machine-tool business. This is the argument I make frequently to my wife. The truth, which she has no doubt guessed, is that I love to see them work.

I nearly destroyed my health, to say nothing of my marriage, during the months when I switched off The Electric Pencil at ten or eleven at night-and then switched on BASIC and spent a few hours refining a tax-and-accounting system. At first my goal was merely to design a program that would work, that wouldn't print "Syntax Error in Line 2140" when I tried to run it. Then I started playing around, seeing if I could work out a scheme for financial projections that would take care of estimated tax payments to the IRS. Would it have been easier to mail in the $150 each quarter and then square accounts with the IRS at the end of the year? Of course—but that was not the point. Eventually, I aspired even to elegant programming, designing the matrices and the nested loops in a way that added the beauty of simplicity to the scheme.

When I contemplate my future with computers, my emotions are mixed. Because time and progress have passed my machine by, I simply can't buy any new programs for the SOL. They don't exist. This is a source of unending frustration: how I'd love to use a new word-processing program, one that could insert footnotes at the bottom of the proper page or automatically prepare an index for a book. How I'd love to get VisiCalc or SuperCalc or one of the other accounting systems that can turn a home computer into a miniature version of the National Bureau of Economic Research. How deprived I feel as I read the fliers for CompuServe and The Source, the over-the-phone services that enable you to make airline reservations, call up old newspaper articles, and send computer mail, all from the privacy of your home. How I wish my employers would install computers in their headquarters, so I could submit articles over the telephone, one computer to another, instead of fighting the crowds at the Express Mail window.

Yet even as I think these thoughts, I fear their fulfillment. My computer already competes with wife and children for my affection: can our family stand anything more? The question will remain moot until the price of replacement computers comes down a little more—or until I succeed in convincing my wife that she, too, needs a computer, so I can give her mine and rush out to buy a new one for myself (for business purposes, of course).
He ends by telling us of his shockingly modest hope "for a world in which my sons can grow up to have a better computer than their father had." Uh, yeah!


(Photo of my brother by me.)