Politics, Technology, and Language

If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought — George Orwell

Archive for May, 2007

Memo to Brownback: When deep in the hole, stop digging

Posted by metaphorical on 31 May 2007

In our sound-bite political culture, it is unrealistic to expect that every complicated issue will be addressed with the nuance or subtlety it deserves. So I suppose I should not have been surprised earlier this month when, during the first Republican presidential debate, the candidates on stage were asked to raise their hands if they did not “believe” in evolution. As one of those who raised his hand, I think it would be helpful to discuss the issue in a bit more detail and with the seriousness it demands. — Sam Brownback

Today’s NY Times has an op-ed piece by Sam Brownback, Republican senator, presidential candidate, and self-foot assassin. He writes in defense of his disbelief in the theory of evolution, as asserted in a debate among the Republican candidates early this month.

I included some of the transcript in a post on 4 May, and a link to the YouTube moment, but here’s the key exchange again:

MR. VANDEHEI: Senator McCain, this comes from a Politico.com reader and was among the top vote-getters in our early rounds. They want a yes or no. Do you believe in evolution?

SEN. MCCAIN: Yes.

MR. VANDEHEI: I’m curious, is there anybody on the stage that does not agree — believe in evolution?

(Senator Brownback, Mr. Huckabee, Representative Tancredo raise their hands.)

SEN. MCCAIN: May I — may I just add to that?

MR. VANDEHEI: Sure.

SEN. MCCAIN: I believe in evolution. But I also believe, when I hike the Grand Canyon and see it at sunset, that the hand of God is there also.

The short response to Brownback, then, is this: You had the same choice McCain did. McCain said yes, then qualified his answer with a little fresh meat for the radical religious conservative base. Brownback said no, and now offers a few slices of month-old bologna to the non-crazies in his party.

The rest of this post is a longer look at Brownback’s baloney, which turns out to sandwiched between slices of logical inconsistencies and a spread, as thick as mayonnaise, made of Orwellian language abuse. As I understand the Times’s on-line policies, the article will, within hours, disappear behind the TimesSelect wall, so I’m going to quote more extensively than I normally would. In fact (shhh), I’m going to quote every word of it.

The premise behind the question seems to be that if one does not unhesitatingly assert belief in evolution, then one must necessarily believe that God created the world and everything in it in six 24-hour days.

This is a bizarre assertion, and one that depends on the reader of the op-ed not actually seeing the question. But as the transcript makes clear, the question — which was five words long: “Do you believe in evolution?” — had absolutely no premises behind it at all: “”They want a yes or no.”

But limiting this question to a stark choice between evolution and creationism does a disservice to the complexity of the interaction between science, faith and reason.

Let’s just flag this for now: the interaction between science, faith and reason.

The heart of the issue is that we cannot drive a wedge between faith and reason. I believe wholeheartedly that there cannot be any contradiction between the two. The scientific method, based on reason, seeks to discover truths about the nature of the created order and how it operates, whereas faith deals with spiritual truths. The truths of science and faith are complementary: they deal with very different questions, but they do not contradict each other because the spiritual order and the material order were created by the same God.

(If they operate in different, complementary realms, Sam, where would the complex interactions come into it?)

People of faith should be rational, using the gift of reason that God has given us.

As I’ve written before, people of faith can’t be rational. To have faith is to believe that things that are off limits to science still have causal consquences in the world. To have faith is to believe that science can’t explain all the physical events of the world.

At the same time, reason itself cannot answer every question. Faith seeks to purify reason so that we might be able to see more clearly, not less.

Here’s the first Orwellianism — a beautiful and meaningless word, “purify,” used to signal that faith has a role, even if we can’t say what it is. In a section of “Politics and the English Language” entitled “Meaningless words,” Orwell wrote:

In certain kinds of writing, particularly in art criticism and literary criticism, it is normal to come across long passages which are almost completely lacking in meaning.2 Words like romantic, plastic, values, human, dead, sentimental, natural, vitality, as used in art criticism, are strictly meaningless, in the sense that they not only do not point to any discoverable object, but are hardly even expected to do so by the reader.

But then, Sam reverts to the hackneyed distinction between science and values.

Faith supplements the scientific method by providing an understanding of values, meaning and purpose. More than that, faith — not science — can help us understand the breadth of human suffering or the depth of human love. Faith and science should go together, not be driven apart.

(Fine Sam, we’ll give you values, letting the last 100 years of aesthetics, ethical theory, and normative analysis go by the wayside. It’s going to be an uphill battle, though, to explain how this font of values, faith, is going to change the way atoms and molocules move, without there being any faith-atoms and faith-molocules in the world.)

The question of evolution goes to the heart of this issue. If belief in evolution means simply assenting to microevolution, small changes over time within a species, I am happy to say, as I have in the past, that I believe it to be true. If, on the other hand, it means assenting to an exclusively materialistic, deterministic vision of the world that holds no place for a guiding intelligence, then I reject it.

The website Understanding Evolution has a nice, succinct description of evolution:

Biological evolution, simply put, is descent with modification. This definition encompasses small-scale evolution (changes in gene frequency in a population from one generation to the next) and large-scale evolution (the descent of different species from a common ancestor over many generations). Evolution helps us to understand the history of life.

Through the process of descent with modification, the common ancestor of life on Earth gave rise to the fantastic diversity that we see documented in the fossil record and around us today. Evolution means that we’re all distant cousins: humans and oak trees, hummingbirds and whales.

(Do you believe that Sam? As it was in the debate, it’s a simple question. Please answer yes or no.)

There is no one single theory of evolution, as proponents of punctuated equilibrium and classical Darwinism continue to feud today. Many questions raised by evolutionary theory — like whether man has a unique place in the world or is merely the chance product of random mutations — go beyond empirical science and are better addressed in the realm of philosophy or theology.

The most passionate advocates of evolutionary theory offer a vision of man as a kind of historical accident. That being the case, many believers — myself included — reject arguments for evolution that dismiss the possibility of divine causality.

It’s a strain to find any sense to Sam’s digressions here, but let’s try. People who believe in evolution also believe man is a kind of historical accident. Since Sam doesn’t believe man is a kind of historical accident, he’s also disbelieving evolution. Here’s a quarter, Sam, buy yourself a clue: Even if every evolutionist were a Yankee fan, you could still root for the Red Sox and call yourself an evolutionist — if you wanted to. Apparently the base doesn’t want you to, and that’s good enough for you.

Ultimately, on the question of the origins of the universe, I am happy to let the facts speak for themselves.

Oh, would that it were so!

There are aspects of evolutionary biology that reveal a great deal about the nature of the world, like the small changes that take place within a species. Yet I believe, as do many biologists and people of faith, that the process of creation — and indeed life today — is sustained by the hand of God in a manner known fully only to him. It does not strike me as anti-science or anti-reason to question the philosophical presuppositions behind theories offered by scientists who, in excluding the possibility of design or purpose, venture far beyond their realm of empirical science.

(It may not strike you, Sam, as anti-science or anti-reason to believe that there are unknown and unknowable causes in the world responsible for everyday event, including ones for which we have perfectly good causal explanations of already, but it is.)

Biologists will have their debates about man’s origins, but people of faith can also bring a great deal to the table.

Orwell would have liked “bring a great deal to the table.” He called these “operators, or verbal false limbs”:

These save the trouble of picking out appropriate verbs and nouns, and at the same time pad each sentence with extra syllables which give it an appearance of symmetry. Characteristic phrases are: render inoperative, militate against, prove unacceptable, make contact with, be subjected to, give rise to, give grounds for, having the effect of, play a leading part (role) in, make itself felt, take effect, exhibit a tendency to, serve the purpose of, etc., etc. The keynote is the elimination of simple verbs. Instead of being a single word, such as break, stop, spoil, mend, kill, a verb becomes a phrase, made up of a noun or adjective tacked on to some general-purposes verb as prove, serve, form, play, render.

And there’s another verbal false limb on its way:

For this reason, I oppose the exclusion of either faith or reason from the discussion. An attempt by either to seek a monopoly on these questions would be wrong-headed. As science continues to explore the details of man’s origin, faith can do its part as well.

“Can do its part” is almost as good as “bring a great deal to the table.”

The fundamental question for me is how these theories affect our understanding of the human person.

The unique and special place of each and every person in creation is a fundamental truth that must be safeguarded. I am wary of any theory that seeks to undermine man’s essential dignity and unique and intended place in the cosmos. I firmly believe that each human person, regardless of circumstance, was willed into being and made for a purpose.

And there it is. There’s no room in evolutionary theory, presumably, for the willing of humans into being. And so evolutionary theory is wrong. We could have saved a lot of time, Sam, if you had said that from the get-go.

While no stone should be left unturned in seeking to discover the nature of man’s origins, we can say with conviction that we know with certainty at least part of the outcome. Man was not an accident and reflects an image and likeness unique in the created order. Those aspects of evolutionary theory compatible with this truth are a welcome addition to human knowledge. Aspects of these theories that undermine this truth, however, should be firmly rejected as an atheistic theology posing as science.

Without hesitation, I am happy to raise my hand to that.

In other words, a Brownback presidency would be a continuation of Bush’s, where war is peace, freedom is slavery, and evolutionary theory is undermining science.

Posted in language | 6 Comments »

Hurricanes – we’re putting ourselves in harm’s way

Posted by metaphorical on 29 May 2007

Thursday marks the start of the hurricane season. Since 1950, the year the Weather Bureau started naming them, the population most threatened by them, coastal lands from North Carolina to Texas, has more than tripled, from 10.2 million to about 35 million.

This, despite storms such as Katrina, Hurricane Ivan, which in September 2004, “kicked up the tallest, most extreme waves ever measured… more than 90 feet (27 meters) tall from crest to trough and 600 feet (183 meters) long,” and 1989’s Hugo, one of the most severe storms ever to hit the U.S.

In the 20th century, along the United States east coast (north of Florida) – no tropical cyclone has ever recorded a lower pressure, stronger winds, or higher tidal surges at landfall.

In the middle of September 1989 – millions of people throughout the Caribbean and the eastern United States watched in profound amazement as Hurricane Hugo traveled thousands of miles with great intensity. On September 22 , five days after Hugo had left Guadeloupe and Montserrat in shambles, the tropical cyclone was 1,500 miles away in the United States – still ripping roofs off buildings in South Carolina. In terms of size, intensity, and destruction, Hugo was a record storm.

In Charleston Cty, S.C., 1500 miles and 5 days from its devastating Carribean landfall, Hugo’s death toll was 85; the property toll was $2.8 billion.

Despite the damage, people keep moving there. The population of the county has risen 12.5 percent since 1989, from 295,000 to 331,917.

Three of the top 20 U.S. metro areas in population are along the firing line, Houston (#6), Miami (#7), and Tampa-St Pete (#19).

The 35 million people living in the primary hurricane zone includes about 12 percent of the U.S population, up from 7 percent in 1950. Half of that 35 million lives along Florida’s two-sided coastline. In just the single year 2005 to 2006, roughly speaking the year after Katrina, Florida’s coastal population grew by 1.7 percent.

All the uncited stats here came from a very nice Census.gov page. A thank-you to Al Tompkins at the Poynter Institute for the link.

Posted in journalism, politics | 20 Comments »

Smoke em if you got ‘em

Posted by digglahhh on 26 May 2007

In the latest installment of the imitation cycle between life and art, the MPAA announced that it will include a film’s depictions of smoking as part of the “criteria” when assigning ratings. Could the movies have made a more complete reversal? As facetiously portrayed in “Thank You for Smoking,” the movies have been the cigarette’s greatest marketeers for decades, and the sexiness of cigarettes clung to the movies like smoke to a sports jacket. In an odd way, of course, there’s no reversal at all. The new rating system is a frank, if tacit, acknowledgement that smoking still has all the sex appeal it ever had.

In his craven concession to anti-tobacco advocates, MPAA chairman and CEO Dan Glickman off-loaded his decision-making to the public at large, “Clearly, smoking is increasingly an unacceptable behavior in our society,” he was quoted as saying.

Really, Dan? The Altria Group, parent company of Philip Morris, is the ranked by Forbes (on the basis of sales, market value, assets and profits) as 27th biggest company in the world. Nearly 70 percent of its profits (almost $70 billion in 2006) come from tobacco. Altria is also the second most active sponsor of Congressional lobbying. It seems a little disingenuous to refer to an industry that does hundreds of billions of dollars worth of business and from which hundreds of millions of dollars flow into Washington as selling a product that is becoming “unacceptable” in society, however unpleasant it is to get stuck in an elevator with someone coming back from their twice-an-hour cigarette break.

I have a friend who worked for a public relations company that represented several drug companies and medical innovators. Part of his job was to negotiate product placement packages with television and film production companies. These companies pay, as part of their marketing campaigns, for specific drugs or elective surgeries to be written into shows like ER. So we are pressuring writers to write smoking out of the same scripts they write rhinoplasty and OxyContin into.

It’s not as if I have a soft spot in my heart for big tobacco. In fact, I’m glad that the MPAA is taking a moral stand on the content of movies and what it deems appropriate for children to see. After all, it’s not like children ever see R-rated movies. And this sets an important precedent. We live in an unhealthy and dysfunctional culture, so let’s bring it on, and address America’s bad habits. I herewith offer a short list of other behaviors for the MPAA consideration when determining the ratings of movies.

1. Excessive consumption of red meat, fast food, soft drink, chocolate, potato chips, or any other generally unhealthful food or beverage products:

The favorable placement of the products merits a PG-13 rating. Moreover, scenes that sexualize chocolate should get an automatic NC-17 rating. If there are any objections from the Screen Actors Guild, I personally volunteer to set the example by licking wheat germ off of Scarlett Johansson’s breasts. Scale back one rating level for the substitution of organic soybeans in any scenes involving ice cream or “comfort food.”

2. Environmentally irresponsible behavior with automobiles:

Is there any reason Spiderman and Venom can’t carpool to work? They may be arch enemies, but the planet is everybody’s friend. Not to mention, what’s the point of saving/exploiting the world if it’s all going to hell anwyay? That’s a shitty prize at the bottom of the cereal box, no? Remember most movies depicting cereals that offer prizes are now PG- 13 rated, at least. (see rule #1).

3. Shopping scenes and the depiction of luxury items in general:

Private debt in this country is out of control. Not to mention the fact that if terrorists didn’t find out, through movies, that we had things like plasma TVs and La Perla lingerie, a certain pair of towers in downtown Manhattan might still exist. This rule, like the biographical considerations for the smoking depictions, can be adapted for context, such as glorifying college study and denigrating trades such as plumbing and carpentry. After all, if we don’t reinforce lives of glamour and glitz as the reward for hard study at the best colleges, millions of young girls may cease working toward their dreams of living the life of Julia Roberts in “Pretty Woman.” What’s that?… Oh, well, I’m sure she worked hard at being the best damn whore she could be. Anyway, it is all this living beyond their means that lead these characters to have to skip out of restaurants without paying the check.

Smoking, after all, is barely the tip of the iceberg when it comes to harmful behaviors glorified by Hollywood. From deriving self-esteem from physical appearance and material possessions to binary gender roles to environmentally destructive behavior, Hollywood, and its step-sister, Madison Avenue, exploit our insecurities, offer material surrogates for psychological and emotional injury, and laugh their way to the bank, entirely divorced from any real ethical concerns for the healthy development of our nation.

But don’t worry kids, though you can’t see an actor lighting up because it might encourage you to make some poor choices about your health, you can always redeem your ticket stub at the local McDonalds for a small piece of plastic crap manufactured by kids half your age in a dank Indonesian basement, provided you purchase an e. coli burger, enough fries to feed a Thai orphanage for a week, and a 77 oz. Coca Cola.

Posted in digglahhh, food, pop culture | 2 Comments »

What do you read?

Posted by metaphorical on 25 May 2007

A thread on a mailing list generated a good discussion (thanks, Esther, for starting it), so I thought I’d get it started here as well. It’s based on a New York Review of Magazine (which I’d never heard of) questionaire.

1. How many print magazines do you subscribe to?

home, self: The New Yorker, Communications of the ACM (I’m a member), NY Times Magazine, NY Times Book Review (as part of the newspaper subscription), Climbing, Rock + Ice, Poets & Writers, Fourth Genre

home, other: New York magazine, EW, Newsweek, Prevention, Rolling Stone

work, self: a bunch of the free ones, eWeek, CIO, Information Week, etc.

work, access to: SciAm, Tech Review, Wired, Nature, the Economist, Chronicle of Higher Ed, etc.

2. What print or online magazines do you read regularly?

see above

3. What underappreciated magazine or Website do you think deserves a wider audience?

mine (IEEE Spectrum), FindLaw, the Onion, Financial Times, South China Morning Post

4. What print or online newspapers do you read regularly?

print: NY Times

online: none. very irregularly: WashPost, WSJ, LA Times, Mercury-News

5. What Websites do you consider essential reading?

I read a bunch of blogs regularly, but they’re mostly my friends; Google News, the feeds I’ve set up for my.yahoo. I still get most of my breaking news from mailing lists and other e-mail. Bruce Schneier’s blog is pretty essential, however.

6. What book(s) are you reading now?

Panasonic; Best Words, Best Order; The Goldfish Went On Vacation

7. What was the last great book you read?

American Bloomsbury, by Susan Cheever

8. What author or writer has the best Website/blog?

besides myself?!

So what do you read?

Posted in journalism, the arts, writing | 1 Comment »

Parenthood, playgrounds, and the age of unreason

Posted by metaphorical on 24 May 2007

How many children are reported missing each year?

According to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children

The U.S. Department of Justice reports

* 797,500 children (younger than 18) were reported missing in a one-year period of time studied resulting in an average of 2,185 children being reported missing each day.

* 203,900 children were the victims of family abductions.

* 58,200 children were the victims of non-family abductions.

* 115 children were the victims of “stereotypical” kidnapping. (These crimes involve someone the child does not know or someone of slight acquaintance, who holds the child overnight, transports the child 50 miles or more, kills the child, demands ransom, or intends to keep the child permanently.)

The use of the term “stereotypical” is fair, accurate, and ironic. We have this picture in our head of a standard kidnapping (consider the word itself!), it’s what we as parents fear, and it happens almost never — 1 out of every 7000 missing kids, or 0.014% of the time. (And the prototypical horror story of “Children are spirited away from amusement parks and shopping centers by kidnappers who alter the appearance of their victims before smuggling them out the exits” is a complete urban legend.)

And yet, we fear it so greatly that we keep tabs on our kids obsessively, we need to drive them everywhere, we won’t let them play by themselves without adult supervision. When I was growing up, in the summer I headed out on my bicycle after breakfast and came home for dinner at night. A parent who let their kid do that today would probably be arrested for wanton neglect. If you think I’m exaggerating, last month a mother of four reported in Newsweek that letting her daughters walk home from school alone required administration approval.

She also mentioned

Australian study that shows that playground injuries have not abated one bit since we began installing these boring, idiotic injury-proof jungle-gyms. It seems that kids take far more risks in pursuit of fun because the playground equipment is so boring when used as intended.

Which, if you remember childhood, is just what you’d expect. While I can’t find the actual study, Newsweek’s mention of it inspired plenty of chatter in the blogverse. One blogger mentioned it favorably, recalled his own risk-laden childhood “before helmets, pads, and hand sanitizer,” and noted he managed to survive. Though he was only adding his own anecdotal note to what was, presumably, a scientific finding, he nonetheless got this comment from someone named paula:

Ed, just because you managed to exit childhood relatively unharmed is not evidence that childhood is basically safe. You just got lucky.

Here’s a final how-many stat from the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.

How many children have been recovered through AMBER ALERTS?

Since 1997, the AMBER Alert program has been credited with the safe recovery of 308 children. To date there is a network of 116 AMBER Plans across the country.

If you’ve never been around when an AMBER Alert hits, all I can say is, watch out. Every police resource available is instantly redeployed. Television stations flash the alert endlessly, and stay-at-home parents suddenly become a weird posse comitatus for childhood safety. You could probably rob a bank without a bandana if you carefully synchronize your heist with an AMBER Alert.

In that light, let’s look at the stats again. 800,000 missing kids a year, to use last year’s number, and in the last 10 years, 308 kids recovered. That’s a success rate of no better than 1 in 2500 and probably more like 1 in 25,000, or 0.004%. In other words, the program is a complete waste of public resources and a failure of public policy.

We show our disrespect for rationality every day when we overprotect our children; we’re raising a generation of Paulas who can look data in the face and still talk of luck.

Tomorrow marks the 25th National Missing Children’s Day (a thank you to Al Tompkins of the Poynter Institute for the idea and the link). Newspapers, television and radio stations, and websites are going to mark the occasion with renewed hand-wringing over one of the country’s big problems. Wouldn’t it be nice if instead we renewed (or at least started) a commitment to accurate risk-assessment and rational behavior?

Posted in education, politics, pop culture | Leave a Comment »

Orwell, free speech, and the price of privacy

Posted by metaphorical on 23 May 2007

The rights to sell information and possess technologies that protect your privacy will conflict.
— Michael R. Nelson of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, February 1995


If Orwell were alive today, he’d be concerned that Big Brother isn’t always the government. Sometimes it’s a drug company peering over a doctor’s “shoulder and into his prescription pad” in the form of “a letter from a drug representative.”

So reports the Washington Post (okay, not the Orwell reference) in an article about the datamining of prescription information that you thought—incorrectly—was a private matter between a patient and a doctor.

The situation is even more Orwellian than that.

Last year, New Hampshire became the first state to try to curtail the practice, but a federal district judge three weeks ago ruled the law unconstitutional.

Okay, it’s not quite Freedom=Slavery, but it’s a little bit like the free speech rights of dataminers put us under the thumb of the drug companies. When Mike Nelson noted more than a decade ago that if we’re to have robust free speech rights, we have to sacrifice some of our privacy, this isn’t what he had in mind. He was thinking, for example, that if we’re to be able to take photographs freely in public, then people who thought they had more privacy than they do would be in them.

You can understand the reasoning of the court. I’m sure it’s something like this: Dataminers are publishers, albeit of data. And there’s some truth to that. What’s less clear is where the data is coming from. Is it pharmacists? If so, we could close the flow of data right there. The article doesn’t say, but does say this:

Data-mining companies and the pharmaceutical industry argue that the practice has value far beyond the corporate bottom line. The information helps companies, federal health agencies and others educate physicians about drugs, track whether prescribing habits change in response to continuing medical education programs, and promote higher-quality care, they say. They stress that patient names are encrypted early in the process and cannot be accessed, even by the data-mining companies.

So the drug prescription information is being collected for epidemiological and other more justifiable medical reasons, and then mined for its value to drug company marketers. Interestingly, the prescription data seems to include only the barest of identification data about the physician—the entity the drug companies want to market to. The rest of the needed information comes from the AMA itself.

The American Medical Association, a larger and far more established group, makes millions of dollars each year by helping data-mining companies link prescribing data to individual physicians. It does so by licensing access to the AMA Physician Masterfile, a database containing names, birth dates, educational background, specialties and addresses for more than 800,000 doctors.

This is hardly the first time dataminers have been given new rights via some bizarre twist on the First Amendment. Drivers’ license data has long been in the hands of data companies because driving is a privilege, not a right, a distinction that conveniently allows the 50 states to make millions of dollars selling our data, including, for many states, our Social Security numbers along with our addresses and dates of birth. Voter registration data is also sold by many states (see for example, here and here).

So the problem needn’t be with the First Amendment, even though that’s the thrust of the Washington Post’s report. Before the First Amendment enters into it, there are the organizations we initially entrust with valuable data, who then turn around and sell our privacy for a few million dollars. We can start with the 50 states. Sure, they’d have to raise our taxes a few pennies each to make up the miniscule revenue shortfall. So the real question is, what value do we put on our privacy?

Posted in Orwell, politics, technology | 5 Comments »

The humble interview

Posted by metaphorical on 21 May 2007

The humble interview, the linchpin of journalism for centuries, is under assault.

So wrote Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz on Monday. (Thanks to Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols for the link.)

Kurtz noted that

in the digital age, some executives and commentators are saying they will respond only by e-mail, which allows them to post the entire exchange if they feel they have been misrepresented, truncated or otherwise disrespected. And some go further, saying, You want to know what I think? Read my blog.

“The balance of power has shifted,” says Jay Rosen, who teaches journalism at New York University. “Everyone used to be landlocked, and the media was the outlet to the sea of public discussion. But now there are many routes. . . . Readers have more power because they have more sources, and sources have more power because they can go direct to readers.”

There’s nothing humble about a journalistic interview, and the possibility of being misquoted is real. Back in te summer of 2000, I was interviewed by a NY Times reporter, as an ordinary citizen, about Al Gore. The idea was that many voters who might be expected to support a fiscally-conservative liberal Democrat like Gore weren’t, or were supporting Gore only with much reluctance. I described what it would take for me to support Gore ethusiastically. The Times quoted me as simply ready to vote for Gore with my nose held.

The reporter, or his editor, got it almost 180 degrees wrong. What I do for a living was misstated and I was called a “die-hard progressive,” which isn’t even true, let alone descriptive of my politics. There was no fact- or quote-checking. The reporter’s stated premise was that he was writing a series of articles and would check back periodically and see if my feelings about Gore changed. There were no follow-up calls or articles. I’ll know I’ll never talk to the NY Times again.

A few years ago, I did a story about the Slammer worm, one of the first big Internet viruses. It had taken out a number of Bank of America ATMs. A number of articles about it implied that the ATMs were on the net and the worm had infected the bank’s ATM network, which seemed to me obvious yet highly unlikely.

I got a Bank of America press representative on the phone and asked point-blank. She said yes, and so I had my money quote, on the record and everything. It still seemed very unlikely that the ATMs were directly on the Internet, though, and the spokesperson didn’t seem knowledgeable at all. So I asked her to please check with the people running the network. Instead of filing my story (on-line), I waited a day. Sure enough, the virus had overloaded a network that the ATMs relied on, making them unable to complete transactions. The ATM network itself, however, was unconnected to the Internet and uninfected.

Newspapers aren’t the only publications to practice Gotcha Journalism, as it might be called, but they’re the main players of that game. If sources have new policies against being interviewed live or over the phone, it wouldn’t suprise me to see newspapers the principal objects of it. Other journalists I know, both at my magazine, in the technology trade press, and elsewhere, don’t seem to be to be feeling the wrath of our sources.

I tell my interviewees that I will check any direct quotes I use, that I will provide them the context, and that even if they said what I quoted them as saying, they can ask me to change the quote to better represent what they actually mean. (If they can’t explain what was misleading in the original quote, I’ll feel free to use it and stand by it.) I’ve lost a few money quotes along the way with this policy. But I think readers can tell the difference, and in any event they are better served when journalists are fair—and accurate—with sources.

If newspapers like the Post are concerned about sources having new interview policies, they should think about changing their own.

Posted in journalism, politics, Times-watch | 7 Comments »

When religous nut cases fight, everybody wins

Posted by metaphorical on 20 May 2007

This year, watching the Republican side of the presidential race just never stops being fun. When Giuliani was leading in the polls, his views on abortion went under the microscope—and the scalpel. Now maybe it’s Mitt Romney’s turn.

Mitt Romney has sprinted ahead of presidential competitors John McCain and Rudy Giuliani in a new Iowa Poll of likely Republican caucus participants.

The Des Moines Register poll shows Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, is the top choice of 30 percent of those who say they definitely or probably will attend the leadoff Iowa caucuses in January.

(I looked at Giuliani’s flip-flopping on abortion last week; and the political complexities of Romney’s Mormonism back in April.)

According to The Politico, the poll has McCain and Giuliani vying for second place. It places McCain ahead, 18 percent to 17, but it has a margin of error of almost 5 percent. That’s not enough to put anyone close to them: “None of the other eight GOP candidates on the Iowa Poll list have support in double digits.”

Last week, Romney gave the commencement address at Pat Robertson’s Regent University. Are Christians ready to vote for a Mormon?

That’s the question facing legions of evangelicals as they gird their loins for battle in the Bible Belt political primaries. They are waiting to see if Romney will publicly address their concerns about his deep Mormon faith.

As Terry Mattingly, a “senior fellow for journalism at the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities” noted this week, he’s not addressing them yet. So when it comes to accepting his Mormonism, maybe not.

Robertson’s own Christian Broadcasting Network which is headquartered on the Regent campus, apparently includes Mormonism on its “How Do I Recognize a Cult?” Web-site page:

It states, for example, that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a “prosperous, growing organization that has produced many people of exemplary character. But when it comes to spiritual matters, the Mormons are far from the truth.”

It’s not just the fundamentalist nutjobs who place Mormonism outside the bounds of Christian faith. Mattingly notes, “The Vatican, for example, refuses to recognize the validity of Mormon baptisms.”

The feelings are apparently reciprocated.

Mormons do believe that the Old and New Testaments — as read by traditional Christians — are packed with errors and that Mormonism is the one true faith. Mormons believe that their president is a living prophet and that faithful mortals, in the next life, can achieve godhood. Thus, Mormons reject or redefine the Trinity, teaching that this world’s Father God has both a literal body and a literal wife.

So it seems that there’s plenty of tinder, and we can only hope that Romney’s new poll standing will be the spark that sets it off. If so, here’s a taste of the religious right-wing conflagration we can only hope for:

Bill Keller of LivePrayer.com, for example, bluntly states that the teachings of the “Mormon cult are doctrinally and theologically in complete opposition to the Absolute Truth of God’s Word. There is no common ground. If Mormonism is true, then the Christian faith is a complete lie.”

Posted in politics, religion | 1 Comment »

Fifteen wins ain’t what it used to be

Posted by digglahhh on 19 May 2007

Here’s two things you thought were true but aren’t:

The unemployment rate for 2006 was 4.6%

E.R.A. is nearly a complete measure of a pitcher’s effectiveness

Let’s break down the unemployment rate first.

The U.S. unemployment rate is constantly cited as an economic indicator and a consistently low rate is seen as proof of the efficiency of the market based economy. There’s only one problem: it does not measure the prevalence of joblessness in a community. There are two reasons the U.S. unemployment rate severely under-represents precisely what is claims to represent.

First and foremost, the way in which the stat is calculated is inconsistent with its title. It does not include those who are jobless but have not applied for or exhausted their benefits. The unemployment rate is a measure of what percentage of the population is actively seeking work. Our European counterparts do not suffer from higher unemployment rates because they are too foolish to adopt the hyper-efficient neo-classical economic model that we do. They post higher rates because they define jobless and unemployed to mean the same thing.

The other reason why our unemployment rate is disingenuously low is that we use the legal system as a cruel step-sister surrogate to our social welfare system. We incarcerate our citizens at 5 to 8 times the rate of most industrialized nations, according to the Sentencing Project, a rate that increased dramatically during the 1990s. Our prison population dwarfs that of any other Westernized nation.

Good research on the subject estimates that more than one in three inmates were unemployed at the time of incarceration. Hundreds of thousands of our unemployed are uncounted, hidden in our penal system, many for petty offenses and low-level drug crimes. The impact that the penal system has on joblessness is manifold. Upon release, the stigma of incarceration becomes a powerful deterrent to potential employers, which leads individuals back toward illegal behavior. Joblessness leads to incarceration which leads back to joblessness. Not collecting unemployment while in jail, lacking the immediate work history to qualify for benefits upon release, and often landing back in prison, a prisoner may go uncounted in the unemployed population for years.

A study by Bruce Western and Katherine Beckett published in the January 1999 edition of the American Journal of Sociology estimated that when the U.S. unemployment rate was readjusted for our imprisoned population, we fare no better than industrialized European nations in terms of providing work for our citizens. In fact, the study showed that the prison boom negated the job creation of the economic upturn in the 1990s, and then some.

“U.S. employment performance looks weaker once the size of the prison population is taken into account… The modified estimate suggests that unemployment in the economically buoyant period in the mid 1990s is about 8% – higher than any conventional U.S. unemployment rate since the recession of the early 1980s.”

We also don’t count the underemployed, involuntary part-time workers, involuntary early retirees, those with disability who would like to work but are not working, or those who chose to return to school because of the job market.

While the unemployment rate doesn’t measure enough to accurately portray what it claims to, a pitcher’s earned run average (ERA) measures many confounding variables beyond a pitcher’s control. It is also a precarious statistic that has garnered far more trust from its general community than it has earned.

A pitcher’s ERA is highly dependent on the defense that plays behind him. Voros McCracken’s research has shown that the percentages of balls in play that become hits are surprisingly consistent from pitcher to pitcher. Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP) is about .300 for virtually all pitchers over the course of their careers.

To understand that statistic, let’s first note that in any given at-bat, there are three possible outcomes that do not involve the defense: the homerun; the strikeout; and the walk. All other outs must be recorded by players other than the pitcher (except for the small percentage of balls hit to the pitcher himself). You will often hear baseball men refer to a particular pitcher’s ability to “induce weak contact,” that is, his ability to get hitters to hit weak ground balls or pop ups that wind up as outs. Such a pattern has rarely been documented as an attributable skill. BABIP measures the batting average in at-bats that do not result in strikeouts or homeruns. Some of the absolute best pitchers of all time have shown ability (at least in their primes) to consistently post below-league average BABIPs, like Pedro Martinez and Mariano Rivera, but they are rare exceptions (and future first-ballot Hall of Famers).

Take a look Roy Oswalt and Ramon Ortiz. Oswalt is consistently one of the best pitchers in the game while Ramon Ortiz has been a below average pitcher for most of his career. Yet their BABIPs are very similar. When you look at the defensive independent numbers though, a huge difference is apparent. Approximately speaking, Oswalt, on a per nine inning basis, strikes out 50% more, walks 33% fewer, and gives up homeruns half as often. This is the difference between an annual Cy Young candidate and a retread journeyman.

The differences in ERA between pitchers who do these three things at similar rates are attributable to two things, the defenses behind them and luck. Sometimes stellar defense and/or random fluctuation allows a pitcher to defy BABIP when balls are hit within the range of fielders at an unusually high rate or an exceptional set of defenders are able to field more balls than normal, especially when these events happen to occur in prime scoring situations. But only a handful of the all time greats can do so regularly, and with differing casts accompanying them.

I like to say that most things that happen on a baseball field that fans traditionally chalk up to luck are really just the random variation expected to occur in outcome over a large sample size. Whether those random variations happen at particularly high leverage points in the game is the luck. That is to say that a ground ball that scoots through, two inches beyond the shortstop’s glove is not luck at all, though the batter had no control over whether that ball was two inches to the left or right. What is luck is if that event happened to occur with the bases loaded or with two outs and nobody on. Of course, the pitcher would have not done his job any better had that ball been hit two inches to the left, or if there was nobody on and the runner was left stranded. His ERA would reflect failure though, even if the reason the shortstop didn’t get to the ball was because he got a bad jump, misread the trajectory or has atrocious range up the middle (cough, Derek Jeter, cough).

ERA alone is not a reliable predictor of year to year success; it is too subject to fluke strings of events and the performance of one’s defense. ERA measures a variety of things, but none of them particularly precisely. The reading it gives is partially driven by skill, partially driven by luck and partially driven by the skill of those whom it is not measuring. Sometimes a confluence of circumstances will create a perfect storm that plays to a pitcher’s tendencies. Brandon Webb’s Cy Young performance last year coincided with Arizona improving its infield defense drastically from the previous year, including the signing of Orlando Hudson (arguably the best defensive 2B in the game). Webb’s balls in play are ground balls more frequently than any other Major League starter.

This doesn’t even begin to address the differences in home ballpark, quality of opposition, not having to face your own team’s offense, the impact of unearned runs, relievers inheriting runners already on base (who are charged to the starter if they score) and the myriad other issues that impact ERA.

To get an accurate picture, one has to look at the core components of performance, components controlled solely by the person whose performance the stat indicates. So, while some people marvel at the phenomenal start of 2007 for sub par pitchers like Jason Marquis and point to his tiny ERA, his BABIP is 70 points lower than he has posted at any point in his career. Mr. Marquis is simply benefiting from an anomalous string of events taking place over a comparatively small sample size. It will not last.

In the world of baseball, there is a burgeoning movement to analyze the game from a more scientific perspective and really test the validity of long-standing assumptions. I don’t see that as in mainstream political and economic rhetoric. The dramatic rise in incarceration rates has coincided with declining crime rates. This should be a big story. Either there is some egregious error in the way crime is being reported or our practices of incarceration have to do with things more profound than simple law breaking.

Michael Lewis’s Moneyball has become one of the most influential sports books ever written. In it, Oakland A’s general manager, Billy Beane, talks about how much money is invested in the game of baseball and how big the stakes of winning are. One of the themes of the book is how preposterous it would be to entrust the making of such huge financial and strategic decisions simply to the hunches and gut feelings of coaches, managers and GMs, yet teams do just this – all the time. Beane adopted a scientific approach to the game that was expounded by a marginalized group of niche baseball students. This epistemological approach to baseball is called sabermetrics and it is not new, but, since the book’s appearance, perhaps only porn has grown more as a result of the internet. Meanwhile, the Oakland A’s compete with the big boys every year with a fraction of the budget and seem to have an endless supply of talented young players, especially pitchers.

The Oakland A’s rarely sacrifice bunt, they rarely steal bases. Run expectancy matrices calculated over thousands of games illustrate mathematical truths that contradict accepted baseball wisdom. Trading an out for a base advanced worsens your chances of scoring runs. Getting caught stealing is anywhere from two to three times as detrimental as a successful steal is beneficial (depending on the overall offensive context of the game). Still, small ball is praised by the old guard who lament the lost art of the bunt, ad nauseam. Of course there are many variables and under different situations and with different players certain strategies become more viable than others. But isn’t it at least beneficial for the managers and commentators to know the base from which deviations occur?

One of FireJoeMorgan’s favorite quotes is from Ron Gardenhire, manager of the Minnesota Twins, who claimed that their second baseman, Luis Castillo was worth 15 extra wins to their team. Well there are stats that try to determine these things. According to WARP (Wins Over Replacement Player), Barry Bonds was worth about 15 extra wins in 2004, when he set the single season record for on-base percentage and had the fourth highest single season slugging percentage of all time! This is like an economic analyst saying that Google is worth a “shitload of cash” or “a bazillion dollars.” Of course, these mathematically driven total player metrics have their problems as well and there is no shortage of debate about how to make them more accurate.

We’ve seen only half-hearted pop-culturish attempts to look beyond generally accepted assumptions in an attempt to analyze things at a much more elemental level when it comes to paradigm shifts, social trends our own decision making processes—books like Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink and Levitt and Dubner’s Freakonomics. Of course, I’m speaking outside the realm of academia.

This type of insight is threatening to mainstream pundits. Many of ESPN’s baseball analysts outright deny the veracity of anything sabermetric, often using generic platitudes like, “games aren’t played by computers.” They are understandably defensive; the iconoclast ideas presented threaten to expose those batting average worshippers and NASDAQ watchers as naked emperors.

Joe Morgan, ironically, takes every opportunity to bash sabermetrics and Lewis’s book, though he’ll freely admit that he never read it. He says that he’s played the game and there is nothing about it that a computer could teach him. I say it is ironic because it is the sabermetric interpretation of statistical analysis that transforms Morgan from the lower-tier Hall of Famer the public sees him as, into, arguably, the greatest 2B of all time.

You’ll hear about the prison system as an ironfisted surrogate for the social welfare system on CNN as often as you’ll see BABIP listed in the New York Post. Just further proof why you shouldn’t be getting your information about things you care about from either.

Back in March, Meta had a post, “The housing market: everything you know is wrong” (by which he meant, everything he thought he knew was wrong) that looked at a surprising graph of housing prices. The post remains stubbornly popular, having been viewed on all but 11 of the past 79 days, perhaps a tribute the willingness of visitors to this site to have their everyday assumptions challenged.

We live in a data-rich world and economists and social scientists are just getting used to using the vast resources of computing power and cheap data storage available to us. Using the data effectively often takes great cleverness and imagination. The greater difficulty, however, may be to get people used to the idea that the things everyone knows can now be verified—and all too often falsified.

Posted in digglahhh, language, pop culture, sports, technology | 4 Comments »

Here, Bullet

Posted by metaphorical on 17 May 2007

There’s a great poetry thread going on over at Brookynite’s place; some very nice poems have been posted.

My favorite book of poems of the moment is a bit harrowing, so maybe not perfect for librarian’s salon. But I can’t pass up an opportunity to pimp it. (And yes, the rest of the book is this good too. More info and ordering here.)

The author, Brian Turner, is the real deal — an MFA poet who then served in Iraq. One humorous note, and then on to the harrowing. I ordered from Abebooks and the shipper did the usual lastname, firstname. When added to the comma-spliced title poem name, the e-mail confirmation said: “Turner, Brian Here, Bullet”. Which took me a few seconds to parse.

Anyway, back to Turner, whose poems do to me what poetry is supposed to — stop the world for a heartbeat, then start it again with a flow of blood behind your ears so strong you can hear it as much as feel it. Understanding unfolds like the dawn herself, and each time you re-read a poem, a new part of the sky lightens, until you can see clear out to the horizon. At least, that’s how it works for me.

Here, Bullet

If a body is what you want,
then here is bone and gristle and flesh.
Here is the clavicle-snapped wish,
the aorta’s opened valves, the leap
thought makes at the synaptic gap.
Here is the adrenaline rush you crave,
that inexorable flight, that insane puncture
into heat and blood. And I dare you to finish
what you’ve started. Because here, Bullet,
here is where I complete the word you bring
hissing through the air, here is where I moan
the barrel’s cold esophagus, triggering
my tongue’s explosives for the rifling I have
inside of me, each twist of the round
spun deeper, because here, Bullet,
here is where the world ends, every time.

Posted in language, the arts, writing | 1 Comment »

Our endangered biblioecology

Posted by metaphorical on 16 May 2007

“I don’t understand why newspapers, when they want to cut space, they immediately think of depriving people who like to read.”
  — Frank Wilson, book-review editor, Philadelphia Inquirer


Sunday marked the last standalone book review section in the Chicago Tribune. Back in April the paper announced that beginning 19 May, its book section would move to Saturday, which “will cut circulation of the section roughly in half,” according to a comprehensive round-up of the dramatic decline in book reviewing by Art Winslow in the Huffington Post last month.

Is that better or worse than running book reviews on Sunday, but not as their own section? Readers of the Los Angeles Times will be able to judge for themselves. According to an article in the Wall Street Journal back in March,

Sometime this spring, the Los Angeles Times is expected to announce that it is folding its highly esteemed Sunday book review into a new section that will combine books with opinion pieces.

The Journal reports that

the book review as a separate section is endangered not only at the Los Angeles Times but at other major newspapers like the Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle and San Diego Union-Tribune.

The Philadelphia Inquirer did this some years ago (though it is flirting with the idea of reversing it). The upshot is that you can now count on exactly one hand the last review sections standing.

That would reduce to five the number of separate book-review sections in major metropolitan newspapers still published nationwide, down from an estimated 10 to 12 a decade ago. The reason: not enough ads.

The toll is taken throughout, not just in separate review sections. Winslow found book reviews hurting everywhere, it seems:

among the most recent examples is the mid-April decision by the The Atlanta Journal-Constitution to eliminate its book editor position, leaving the fate of book reviews there in doubt,

Elsewhere, at the The News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C., book editor Peder Zane’s position was recently cut.

In the fall, book critic Jerome Weeks of The Dallas Morning News left the paper rather than face the dramatic cuts in arts coverage that were imposed.

The Village Voice as well “booted out its book editor in a reorganization.” Then there are the newspapers that have made their cuts a different way— in the length of the reviews.

At the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, book editor Bob Hoover observed that 250 words is getting to be the standard length for reviews at his paper.

Some papers have cut their local reviews in favor of wire-service ones. Winslow mentions the Cleveland Plain Dealer and five others.

The two articles chronicle a virtual plague sweeping through American newspapers, a sort of reverse Dutch elm disease that will leave more trees standing — not just with the fewer pages they will need to print, but, inevitably, the fewer books that will get sold. For make no mistake about it — even as book publishers find other ways to market books more efficiently, they are more concerned with margins than total revenue:

The shift away from traditional advertising hasn’t helped the industry sell more books. Bookstore sales in 2006 dropped 2.9% to $16.1 billion from $16.6 billion in 2005, according to preliminary estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau.

What neither article talks about is the residual damage this loss of review sections will do to the industry as a whole. The book world is a complex ecosystem that includes not just publishers, bookstores; and other stores, such as drug stores, supermarkets, newsstands, and WalMarts that incidentally sell books; but also writers and readers.

Some writers I know (such as Vivian Gornick and Francine Prose, whose classes I took) burnish their reputations as well as help keep the rent paid by writing reviews. Sophisticated reviews like theirs don’t just move books but ideas as well. Books are an essential part of the ongoing consideration of ideas that constitutes the essence of culture. A good book review not only describes the contribution a given book makes, the review itself moves the discussion forward.

Indeed, it seems obvious that the books that will be most greatly harmed here will be the ones whose ideas and contributions can’t be summed up in a headline news scroll. The big popular books sold on the front tables of Barnes & Noble may do as well or better than ever, but literary books, non-fiction books on unpopular topics, and first-time authors of all stripes will surely suffer.

The same populist triage of our culture is taking place in newspapers themselves (an irony made apparent in the Frank Wilson quote that starts this entry) and elsewhere. I hope to write something soon about how new postal rates new trigger another plague, this one killing small magazines and their publishers.

Posted in journalism, politics, the arts, writing | 2 Comments »

Ding, dong, the wicked witch is dead

Posted by metaphorical on 15 May 2007


“I shudder to think where the country would be right now if the religious right had not evolved.” — Rev. Jerry Falwell, televangelist

For my part, I shudder to think where the country is right now because the religious right evolved, to use a word you wouldn’t expect to see come from Falwell’s mouth. After all, students at Liberty University, which Falwell founded, are required to take a class in creationism.

So out of touch was Falwell with reality that, as the AP reported today,

He dreamed that Liberty would grow to 50,000 students and be to fundamentalist Christians what Notre Dame is to Roman Catholics and Brigham Young University is to Mormons.

Notre Dame teaches science, Jerry, and leaves religious nuttiness to the religion classes. But being out of touch with reality was Falwell’s hallmark. There was his campaign against Tinky Winky, which, Falwell’s National Liberty Journal characterized as, “a gay role model and morally damaging to children,” as the AP put it.

More than once, the tenuousness of Falwell’s grasp of reality harmed his own cause, such as when,

In 1999, he told an evangelical conference that the Antichrist was a male Jew who was probably already alive. Falwell later apologized for the remark but not for holding the belief.

Then there was the incident on which the movie “The People v. Larry Flynt” is based.

In 1984, he sued Hustler magazine for $45 million, charging that he was libeled by an ad parody depicting him as an incestuous drunkard. A federal jury found the fake ad did not libel him, but awarded him $200,000 for emotional distress. That verdict was overturned, however, in a landmark 1988 U.S. Supreme Court decision that held that even pornographic spoofs about a public figure enjoy First Amendment protection.

As Positive Atheism notes on its page of Jerry Falwell Quotations, the good minister blamed “civil libertarians, feminists, homosexuals, and abortion rights supporters for the terrorist attacks of Tuesday, September 11, 2001.”

Here are some quotes attributed to Falwell after 9/11:

God continues to lift the curtain and allow the enemies of America to give us probably what we deserve. — Jerry Falwell

When a nation deserts God and expels God from the culture … the result is not good. — Jerry Falwell

I sincerely believe that the collective efforts of many secularists during the past generation, resulting in the expulsion from our schools and from the public square, has left us vulnerable. — Jerry Falwell

The ACLU’s got to take a lot of blame for this. — Jerry Falwell

Even Billy Graham apparently found him sanctimonious, as the AP reported:

The Rev. Billy Graham once rebuked him for political sermonizing on “non-moral issues.”

Politicizing religion, and injecting religion into politics, was Falwell’s legacy, to our great detriment. For example,

In 2006, Falwell marked the 50th anniversary of his church and spoke out on stem cell research, saying he sympathized with people with medical problems, but that any medical research must pass a three-part test: “Is it ethically correct? Is it biblically correct? Is it morally correct?”

For Falwell, of course, this was really a one-part test. It’s a further mark of his conflation of reality and unreality that he thought the Bible offers an unequivocal judgment about the probity of stem cell research, which has the potential to develop into the ultimate fishes-and-loaves approach to medical cures.

In a self-aggrandizing press release quickly issued on ChristianNewsWire, Rob Schenck, a Virginia evangical preacher, called Falwell a “religious Dutch uncle” and described him as “a bold, unapologetic, uncompromising voice for Biblical truth that pushed the envelope and challenged secular culture to its limits.”

It’s hard not to notice that the world’s problem with people like Khomeini, Muqtada al-Sadr, and the Taliban is precisely that they are similarly challenging secular culture to its limits. They are, of course, Falwell’s allies in the great battle between reason and unreason, next to which all other ideological battles pale by comparison. One of unreason’s great warriors died today. Fundamentalists of all stripes should mourn his passing.

The idea that religion and politics don’t mix was invented by the Devil to keep Christians from running their own country. — Jerry Falwell

Posted in politics, religion | 1 Comment »

To understand Murdoch’s bid for Dow Jones, don’t follow the money

Posted by metaphorical on 14 May 2007

Bloomberg.com has an absurd and misguided take on Rupert Murdoch’s brilliant and surely unstoppable bid for the Wall Street Journal.

Murdoch’s Bid Places Google-Like Value on Dow Jones (Update3)

By Leon Lazaroff

May 11 (Bloomberg) — Rupert Murdoch’s $5 billion takeover bid for Dow Jones & Co. values the Wall Street Journal publisher higher than Google Inc., based on a measure used by analysts.

You might think from the wording that somehow Google is worth only $5 billion (or less), a pretty crazy idea given that it recently purchased DoubleClick for $3.1 billion. No, Google’s market value is $140 billion, and the “measure used by analysts” is multiples of earnings. Google trades at 32x its projected 2007 earnings, which is higher than the 40x of Dow Jones’s projected earnings that Murdoch’s $60/share purchase price works out to. The fact that if Murdoch or anyone else tried to swoop in and grab Google it would have to pay a significant premium—surely more than 25%—on the current valuation is just one of the many many facts seemingly lost on Mr Lazaroff.

But talk of valuations, projected earnings, and multiples completely misses the point of what Murdoch is doing, and those who forget recent history are doomed to have their lunch eaten just as CBS’s was back in 1993.

No, the thing to remember is Super Bowl XXXI.

Super Bowl XXXI was the first to be broadcast by the then-struggling Fox Network. It was a phenomenal success and it marked the true birth of Fox as the nation’s fourth broadcast network.

Tech-notes.tv has all the essential history. Fox debuted on 9 Oct. 1986 with the utterly unmemorable Late Show with Joan Rivers. In 1987 it started to have some success with Married… With Children. By 1989 it was broadcasting on three nights, and by 1990 on five.

By 1993 it had programming all seven nights, but it was still thought of as the odd location of a couple of good shows—most notably The Simpsons, beginning in 1990—rather than as a fourth network. To get over that hump, Rupert Murdoch did two things. First, he spent an ungodly sum of money. Second, he spent it wisely, though it didn’t seem that way to most observers at the time.

The spending wasn’t limited to football—In 1995 Fox would pick up rights to a major league baseball game-of-the-week, even-year World Series, and odd-year All-Star games. But it was its outrageous December 1993 grab of four years worth of NFL football games, culminating in Super Bowl XXX1, that put the network on the map.

Here’s what a contemporary Washington Post article had to say about the lengths Murdoch was prepared to go:

They also were told by Fox executives that money would be no object, that the network was willing to pay whatever it took for either the prestigious package of National Football Conference games held by CBS or the American Football Conference package held by NBC. Fox was not interested in becoming a bit player such as ESPN or Turner Network Television (TNT), which split the Sunday night package. Fox wanted it all and, essentially, was willing to become the network of the NFL.

Industry sources already are estimating that Fox could lose $500 million to $700 million in this deal. But Fox, trying to use the NFL to strengthen America’s fourth and newest network, has chosen to accentuate the positive, one critical factor in getting the NFC contract.

In early negotiations, Rupert Murdoch, the Australian media baron whose parent company, News Corp., owns Fox, told the NFL he was prepared to pay at least $1.2 billion ($300 million a year) for the four-year NFC package and $840 million ($210 million per year) for the AFC. CBS had paid $1.06 billion over the last four years; NBC had paid $792 million. Murdoch’s numbers were far beyond what either network initially had been prepared to pay this time.

It’s indisputable that Murdoch’s bold and potentially “money-losing” move did in one stroke what years of careful programming advances couldn’t. In a 1998 episode of The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, media analyst Elizabeth Stevens said this about Murdoch’s big-ticket bid:

it really made the Fox Network, you know. Before it had been the fourth network, a challenger, and really an after thought in a lot of people’s minds. And it transformed its fortunes, really at the expense of CBS. But what Fox did was, you know, come in with a bid so far and above what CBS was willing to pay in 1993, and at the time CBS’s owner, Larry Tisch, had been very vocal that sports programming rights, even back then, were so out of line that it was–it put profits under such pressure that it wasn’t worth pursuing. So he made a financial decision–CBS did–not to go forward. And Murdoch made a strategic decision to build the, you know, value of the Fox asset and get the football rights. That, you know, led to a whole slew of grief for CBS. Murdoch was able to snare away a great number of very important CBS affiliates, local stations throughout the country, got them to switch over to Fox, and CBS has yet to really recover and Fox, you know, has–though it does not make money on his football contract–even, you know, the previous football contract–you know, strategically, it allowed it to build itself into a much different sort of network, and, you know, a real leading network at this point.

Of course, looking back, we can see that the NFL was worth what Murdoch paid. As Wikipedia puts it:

CBS apparently underestimated the value of its rights with respect to its advertising revenues and to its promotional opportunities for other network programming. Indeed, FOX was still an upstart player in 1993, not yet considered on par with the “Big Three” networks – CBS, NBC and ABC. It had already had offbeat hits such as The Simpsons, but had no news or sports divisions, and its coverage was significantly weaker than that of its elder counterparts.

Which brings us back to Dow Jones. If Murdoch is to launch a financial news network, what’s it worth to co-brand the Fox name with those of Dow Jones and the Wall Street Journal?

Lets remember the early days of Fox News, when it seemed inconceivable that CNN could lose its lock as the leading 24-hour news network. Let’s also note that TV Week predicts that lead will finally disappear entirely in 2007:

While CNN’s ad revenues are growing, however, Fox News Channel’s are growing faster. According to estimates by Kagan Media, Fox News will surpass CNN in ad sales during 2007. Kagan expects Fox News to generate $507 million in gross ad revenue compared with $467 million for CNN. MSNBC’s ad revenues are expected to rise to $156 million.

So there’s one difference between being the leader and being an also-ran: $507 million vs $156 million, or a third of a billion dollars per year. What if Dow Jones added a few hundred million dollars per year to the value of Fox’s financial news network in addition to the admittedly lackluster profits it already makes as a largely print-based financial news empire? And what if it also adds tens of millions to the rest of Murdoch’s vast global television news holdings, Sky Television and all his other holdings in Australia, China and elsewhere?

I guess it’s not surprising that Bloomberg.com can’t see the big picture. In this comparison, Bloomberg, a financial news network in its own right, is the MSNBC-like also-ran.

Posted in journalism, politics, pop culture | Leave a Comment »

The fine line between insanity and madness

Posted by digglahhh on 12 May 2007

There’s a fine line between genius and insanity.
I have erased this line.
— Oscar Levant

There is a thin line between ignorance and arrogance, and only
I have managed to erase that line.
— Dr Science

So too, there’s a fine line between bad reality, bad journalism, and flat-out humor. Let’s see if we can erase it. Two of these stories were published by real-news organizations and the third was published in The Onion. Your task is simple: identify the fake news story.

Pa. teen wins text-messaging contest in New York :-)

NEW YORK – Thirteen-year-old Morgan Pozgar, of Claysburg, Pa., was crowned LG National Texting champion on Saturday after she typed the first two lines of the “Mary Poppins” song “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” in 15 seconds.

“I’m going to go shopping and buy lots of clothes,” the teen said after winning her $25,000 prize from the electronics company LG.

Morgan defeated nearly 200 other competitors at the Roseland Ballroom in Manhattan to become East Coast champion and then beat West Coast champion Eli Tirosh, 21, of Los Angeles.

She estimated that she sends more than 8,000 text messages a month to her friends and family.


Congress Launches National Congress-Awareness Week

WASHINGTON, DC—Hoping to counter ignorance of the national legislative body among U.S. citizens, congressional leaders named the first week in August National Congress Awareness Week. “This special week is designed to call attention to America’s very important federal lawmaking body,” Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert said. “At least three citizens in every state, and as many as 55 in California, presently have some form of congressional duty, whether it’s as a senator or as a representative.” The festivities will kick off with a 10-mile Walk for Congress Awareness, when blue ribbons will be handed out in honor of those who served in the first 107 congresses.

Parents Convicted in Baby’s Death

ATLANTA (AP) A Superior Court jury in Atlanta convicted a vegan couple of murder and cruelty to children Wednesday in the death of their six-week old, who was fed a diet largely consisting of soy milk and apple juice.

27-year-old Jade Sanders and 31-year-old and Lamont Thomas will receive automatic life sentences for starving the boy, who weighed just 3.5 pounds when he died.

Defense lawyers said the first-time parents did the best they could while adhering to the lifestyle of vegans, who typically use no animal products. They said Sanders and Thomas did not realize the baby, who was born at home, was in danger until minutes before he died.

But prosecutor Mike Carlson told the jury yesterday during closing arguments that they are “baby killers.”

Hopefully (if we see hope in not being able to differentiate real and fake news), some of you will be fooled. Answer will be posted Sunday evening.

Posted in digglahhh, journalism, pop culture | 7 Comments »

The wrong way to be right about women’s rights

Posted by metaphorical on 12 May 2007

I would grant women the right to make that choice. — Republican presidential candidate Rudi Giuliani.


Rudi Giuliani made a key speech last night defending views that were popular enough when he was mayor of the epicenter of American sin, six years ago, but put him at odds with the Republican base all candidates must win, or at least neutralize, in order to buy a ticket into the general election, at which point defending sin can once again have its benefits.

“If we don’t find a way of uniting around broad principles that will appeal to a large segment of this country, if we can’t figure that out, we are going to lose this election,” he said.

While the media focuses on how much good, if any, Giuliani did for himself by honestly describing his disagreements with the social activist wing of the conservative movement on abortion, gun control, and gay rights, I’d like to look at the language he used. Because while others are busy praising his candor (and rightly so), I think he still found a way to pander to the Republican base. In doing so, he managed to find a way to be wrong even as he was being right on women’s rights.

The NY Times has at least three articles with Giuliani’s speech variously exerpted, but both of the quotes I want to look at can be found in today’s front-page article. The first is this:

“Where people of good faith, people who are equally decent, equally moral and equally religious, when they come to different conclusions about this, about something so very very personal, I believe you have to respect their viewpoint,” he said. “You give them a level of choice here.”

In the first part of the sentence he seems to be talking about all of us, the people in favor of abortion rights and those opposed. But at “I believe” the sentence pivots to us and them, where “their” viewpoint is suddenly that of those in favor—even though Giuliani is one of “them”!— and therefore “us” is those opposed—even though he’s not one of the “us” in question!

He continues with this odd us/them distinction, where somehow he says “us” when he himself is one of “them,” and enriches it by mining the deep vein of paternalism that runs through right-wing activist politics.

“Because I think ultimately even if you disagree, you have to respect the fact that their conscience is as strong as yours is about this, and they’re the ones that are most affected by it,” he said. “So therefore I would grant women the right to make that choice.”

Now the “they” is even more isolated—not all abortion rights defenders, but women who defend abortion rights— “the ones that are most affected by it.” And now that he’s only talking about women, Giuliani can apply the paternalistic coup de grâce:

“In a country like ours, where people of good faith, people who are equally decent and equally moral and equally religious, where they come to different conclusions about this, about something so very, very personal, I think you have to respect their viewpoint,” he said. “I would grant women the right to make that choice.”

“It’s okay,” Giuliani wants to tell the Republican base. “Yes, you have the right to withhold abortion; I’m not saying otherwise. But like children coming of age, these women have to be allowed to make their own mistakes. And I as your father-figure president would grant them that right to make that mistake.”

“We agree,” Giuliani is telling the base, “philosophically, even if we don’t politically. We agree that abortion is wrong, but just as importantly, we agree that we have the right to determine the legality of things like abortion, gun ownership, and gay partnerships.”

Posted in language, Orwell, politics | 26 Comments »

leap year orchid

Posted by metaphorical on 11 May 2007

This is another spam subject-line poem. (The last, and first, one was is here.) Once gain, the rules are as follows. The subject lines are unedited except minimally for punctuation and capitalization. This time, I tried not to even edit punctuation.

The day you feel fine comes soon

The day you feel fine comes soon
you of number
affirmation preeminence
augment
tumble within
did you know
did you see
disrespect
As shibboleth do ceremony

With quail each unbidden
dry obliging scrubland
what doeth them and the navy of gray hairs of the king even
blue vastly
be outworn
manufacturer of the tents

Even the night’s dour note
which must characterize a nation riding modern technology
you pyramid
do standard
as tonight
do writings
on discretion
do be destiny
by thin
with context
should sit down to reign lifted up their own heart, after the land

Is nocturne so castigate
leap year orchid
without even mentioning
algebraic
shall drink therein.
this kind think
as meant

Replacing parts is easy
quid pro quo evenings
cannery goose
picnic inferno
maze entrapment
grammar plated
do no noun
gnarls
godforsaken
in the cadaver
in the mills
is by reflection
is it causation

Posted in language, spam poetry, technology, writing | Leave a Comment »

Graduation

Posted by metaphorical on 10 May 2007

[This is an open-letter to the person who asked.]

If you listen carefully, you can hear faint cries from Manhattan, every so often, from 2 May at 4:45 pm, when I turned in my MFA thesis, until 2:30 pm on the 18th, which is Commencement. The cries are pleasure or pain, like a baby’s, or the bouncing ones from the couple in the motel room next door getting it on. They’re pleasure and pain both, the bittersweet realization that school is over. I loved each and every class, and my classmates, and being with them, and I’m going to miss it all.

The literature seminars were terrific, though in an regular university way. A writing workshop class is something else again. There’s the ownership we have in our words, the risks we take in writing them, the way even fiction and poetry are about ourselves, one way or another, and the way the risks are all doubled and tripled when we show others work that still in progress…. It all makes for something that’s part encounter group, part martial arts.

Bittersweet as well was the thesis reading last week. For three days, Thurs/Fri/Sat, we each read 350 words from our theses; 30+ per night, almost 100 in the program in total. Two hours a night, snack food, beer, wine, an intermission, it was very pleasant. Last year apparently they had a longer time limit, and crammed it into two nights that were marathons of 5 and 4 hours.

350 words is not enough by half when you’re choosing them, but it turned out to give a real taste of what people did in their thesis and to let you know which ones you really wanted to go to the library and read (one copy of the thesis will be in the New School library forever). They were funny and fun and sad and revealing and sometimes the words soared high above and exploded like fireworks, and sometimes they hit you as if you had tried to catch a football with your ribcage.

I was put next-to-last on Friday night and couldn’t decide between two choices. My advisor wanted me to read one the end of Chapter 1, which is about a day of ice climbing. The other choice was the beginning of Chapter 3, about my climbing partner Crazy Mike.

The Crazy Mike selection would be easier for people to understand and it had a killer image in the first paragraph, the kind that blinds you like a camera-flash and lingers, making it hard to hear what’s next. It also ended with a great list, and writers love lists (because readers love them). It had a character who was a real character. Basically, it showed a lot of what I learned in the program and it was well liked in workshop.

The ice climbing passage had some drama, emotions, some nice images, and was about climbing, which was a huge plus. In addition, it went, as my advisor, the writer Susan Cheever, put it, from the particular to the general, which she said always worked. It didn’t workshop nearly as well.

Even at the intermission I, I was undecided. I asked Susan again, and again she said the ice climbing piece. I was still unsure. Finally, I said to myself that she knows what she’s talking about. She’s written book after book, she’s given hundreds of readings, she just finished a book tour where she had to decide what to read. She knows what works, and why the hell was I asking her if I didn’t think she knew best.

I brought both versions to the podium, looked up, said my name, adjusted the microphone, and decided to trust Susan. As I was reading, I knew it was going well. I was slow, I was clear, I was quietly animated, I was standing just the right distance from the microphone. I could barely look up at the 200 or so people sitting there—I hadn’t practiced the ice climbing piece, so I had to really look at it. The one time I remember raising my eyes I saw, in the front row, three faces listening intently—the head of the program; my final-semester workshop teacher; and the head of the fiction program.

I sat down to applause, shaking. (The next night I would talk to the person who I think had the absolutely best reading, a poet named Liesel, who described how much she shook after reading.) I looked over at Robert, the head of the program. He was waiting to make eye contact with me and smiled and nodded. I smiled back and looked to his right. My workshop teacher smiled and nodded. Then the head of the fiction program, who didn’t know me even by sight, did the same. The next night she would stop me as our paths crossed during the intermission, clasp my arm lightly, and tell me how much she liked my piece.

Thanks Susan. What I didn’t realize until afterwards is that it was the right choice because it was the risky choice; it was the believe-in-yourself choice.

A lot of people aren’t going to the recognition ceremony our part of the school is holding next week, nor the university-wide Commencement, the day after, so there was a strong sense on everyone’s part that this was our real graduation. In a sense, we were done last Wednesday when we turned in the thesis, or when we read from our thesis, or not until Commencement, but I know that, when Robert said, at the end of the thesis readings on Saturday night, “Congratulations,” that’s when it was really over for me.

I was graduated (sweet!) and we would never be together again (bitter), not for classes, or readings, or the bar after; we would see each other, but not in groups, not as fellow students, not with our writing raw and our selves turned inside-out, exposed to one another as if an experiment in collective open heart surgery. I miss it already.

Posted in education, language, writing | 2 Comments »

Liberal bias – against liberalism

Posted by metaphorical on 10 May 2007

“One of the great pressures we’re facing in journalism now is, it’s a lot cheaper to hire thumb-suckers and pundits and have talk shows on the air than actually have bureaus and reporters.”

  — former CNN president Walter Isaacson to Bill Moyers

I finally watched last month’s Bill Moyers special report, “Buying the War,” which PBS has made available here.

The day after it aired on 24 April, Tom Shales had a good write-up in the Washington Post. He called it one of the most gripping and important pieces of broadcast journalism so far this year,” but added,”it’s as disheartening as it is compelling.”

It’s always depressing to learn that you’ve been had, but incalculably more so when the deception has resulted in thousands of Americans dying in the Iraq war effort.

The Moyers report starts with Bush’s 6 March 2003 so-called press conference, which was anything but. As Shales puts it: “The press conference was a sham, with Bush calling only on ‘friendly’ reporters who’d ask friendly questions.” Bush called out names from a list that was visible on podium; there was no pretense made, and the reporters themselves laughed nervously as Bush looked around after he said one of the lucky reporter’s name.

“At least a dozen times during this press conference,” Moyers says, Bush would “invoke 9/11 and al-Qaeda to justify a preemptive attack on a country that has not attacked America.” The link between al-Qaeda and Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was never proved and had to be taken on faith, Moyers recalls, as did the administration claim that Hussein had developed, was developing, or might soon develop weapons of mass destruction.

Moyers does not set out to attack anyone himself; instead he tries to find out why journalists — electronic and print — behaved in ways that are supposed to be anathema to a free press in a free nation.

Isaacson, quoted above, talked about being caught between the hyper-patriotism of the country and having a strong competitor, Fox, eager to exploit it. He described pressures from big corporate advertisers telling him not to run video of killed or wounded soldiers in Afghanistan. (Similarly, newspapers were getting angry and even threatening letters when images of dead soldiers were put on the front page.) Isaacson said he told his reporters to mix in footage of 9/11, hoping that “putting the war” in context would placate the public and his advertisers.

The pressures on CNN weren’t the exception, they were the rule.

Pressures subtle and blatant were brought to bear. Phil Donahue’s nightly MSNBC talk show was virtually the only program of its type that gave antiwar voices a chance to be heard. Donahue was canceled 22 days before the invasion of Iraq, Moyers says. The reason was supposedly low ratings, but the New York Times intercepted an in-house memo in which a network executive complained: “Donahue represents a difficult public face for NBC in a time of war. At the same time, our competitors are waving the flag at every opportunity.”

Dissent was deemed not only unpatriotic, Donahue recalls, but — perhaps even worse — “not good for business.” Most of Moyers’s report involves serious, respected journalists who let themselves be swept up in war fever and who were manipulated by the administration sources who had cozied up to them. Instead of investigating administration claims about al-Qaeda and WMDs and such, cable news offered up hours and hours of talking-head television.

At the same time as Moyers’s report, Jeff Cohen wrote about his experiences at MSNBC and the the network news channels. Cohen is the founder of Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting. Much of his post was excerpted from his book Cable News Confidential. Cohen saw first hand the fairness problems at CNN that Isaacson spoke of.

I know TV news better than I ever wanted to. I started appearing as a guest on CNN in the 1980s when it was the only news channel on cable. But CNN attracted competitors, as others saw how easy and relatively cheap it could be to spatter “news” across 24 hours. Over the years, I’ve been a pundit on all three such channels: I got my feet wet at CNN, waded halfway in at Fox News, where I appeared each week for five years—and then became completely submerged at MSNBC, where I was a producer and pundit until terminated for political reasons three weeks before the Iraq war.

What I found inside cable news was a drunken exuberance for sex, crime and celebrity stories, matched by a grim timidity and fear of offending the powers-that-be—especially if the powers-that-be are conservatives. The biggest fear is of doing anything that could get you, or your network, accused of being liberal.

I also found in cable news a passion for following the media pack (sometimes resembling a lynch mob)—whether in pursuit of a sex scandal or war. And a fear of finding yourself alone, asking questions no one else is asking.

Here’s Cohen’s take on Donahue’s problems at MSNBC:

And actual journalism might undermine the “show.” Stars might refuse to appear on your channel. Big “gets” from the White House would be found only on rival programs.

When Phil Donahue toughly interviewed big-name guests, MSNBC execs were petrified that the VIPs would be offended and not make return engagements. They’d complain that Phil was “badgering” the guests. “Access is everything in Washington,” Phil later told a reporter. “If you’re the executive producer at one of the big news shows and you piss off Karl Rove, you’re not going to get Condi or Rummy or any of those guests who would legitimize your show as a serious, important program.”

Cohen says that he once booked former Attorney General Ramsey Clark on Donahue’s show as a critic of the Iraq war. “Soon after, I was told it wasn’t supposed to happen; MSNBC bosses had Clark on some sort of blacklist.”

What we have, Cohen says, is a media so cowed by charges of a liberal bias that it was highly biased in the opposite direction. Regarding the two week period before and after Colin Powell’s U.N. presentation about Iraq’s weapons of mass distruction, he says, a “FAIR study of the nightly newscasts on CBS, NBC, ABC and PBS” found that:

Of the 393 people interviewed about Iraq during those crucial weeks, only three were antiwar advocates. That’s a fraction of 1 percent—a nondebate, at a time when polls showed half the country opposing a rush to war.

As I sat at my MSNBC desk watching Bush or a top associate carry on, I knew painfully well that my network would not be following the administration event with a critical view, no matter how dubious or manipulative were the official claims. To do so—to practice actual journalism—might prompt the dreaded charge of “liberal bias.”

Posted in journalism, Orwell, politics, pop culture | 2 Comments »

Eating science’s seed corn

Posted by metaphorical on 9 May 2007

At a time when climate change impacts are accelerating, our ability to observe those impacts from space is deteriorating.

The BBC reported last week not only that we’re in effect choosing to see less, not more, from space:

Cuts in US government funding for Nasa programmes will dramatically weaken scientists’ capacity to monitor and understand the planet’s climate; at least, so says a major study from the National Research Council (NRC), published earlier this year.

Or, as Bob Parks said in his estimable weekly newsletter,

Sea ice in the Arctic is melting far faster than estimated. Molly Bentley points out in BBC News that the NRC found our ability to monitor change from space deteriorating as NASA collapses under the weight of human space flight.

Parks has been critical of manned space flight long before Bush’s jury-rigged a “Mission To Mars” goal out of duck tape, sealing wax, and the budgets of any number of NASA programs that do real research and contribute to the storehouse of human knowledge.

It’s as if Bush promised to build a new community center, and put up the frame with bricks and nails and studs ripped from the building next door. (Oh, and by the way, it’s not as if the community center ha a greater than zero chance of being completed, since we’re not actually going to Mars in the foreseeable future.)

If we had an unlimited budget or three wishes from a genie, manned space flight might be one of them, Parks seems to think (or would be if we could make the odds of survival significantly better than a hundred to one or whatever they currently work out to be with a shuttle blowing up every few years).

But we don’t, and there’s a lot of real work to do with the limited funds we have, e.g., studying climate change. Of course, for the Bushies, we already know more than we want to about that topic, as I’ve noted previously. That people will be harmed in the short term as well as long is of little consequence to the current administration.

Programmes involving measurements of temperature, ozone, ocean winds, water vapour, and solar radiation are among those expected to be curtailed.

The substitution of more economical but less capable instruments on some missions will worsen forecasts of El Nino, hurricanes and coastal weather, the study says.

Or as the NRC understated,

“To permit the Earth-observing capability to diminish at this time is unwise.”

Computing power and storage have become so cheap that we’re at the brink of a new understanding of complex phenomena, such as hurricane formation. The number of variables is enormous, but so, no, is our capacity to account for them. If, that is, we can get our hands on the raw data. That’s where the NASA satellites come in.

The NRC Earth-observation report recommends that 17 new satellite missions be flown in the next decade. They were chosen from over 100 proposed missions based on cost, readiness, and the potential to answer critical scientific and policy questions, among other criteria.

The new satellites would be developed for launch between 2010 and 2020, with price tags for each mission ranging from $65m to $650m (£30m to £300m).

Each would provide key measurements to help form an integrated picture of the planet’s dynamics. This would help researchers answer basic scientific questions about the climate system, monitor climate change, and forecast weather.

The satellite data could help us tackle any number of problems, not just weather:

Some new projects could help monitor risks to human health. For example, one mission designed to monitor soil moisture may contribute to more reliable forecasts of vector-borne disease outbreaks.

The cost of the entire program is estimated to be “$2 per person per year.”

Science funding is one of those things that require planning ahead. There’s a lag time between investment and its return, and likewise between defunding and its consequences. That makes it particularly problematic for politicians: their successors get credit for what’s done on their watch, while there’s no downside to them when they grab science’s money and do other more visible things with it.

The NRC comments that the Earth science budget remains well below the 2000 funding, even with the president’s proposed boost for 2008.

The president’s budget includes a five-year projection. After 2010, the trajectory for Earth science funding continues downward.

“By 2012 we go to a 20-year low,” says Dr Moore, “and Earth sciences goes in the tank.”

Posted in politics, technology | Leave a Comment »

White men can’t jump, but maybe they don’t have to

Posted by digglahhh on 5 May 2007

The New York times reports on a paper written by Justin Wolfers and Joseph Price, a University of Pennsylvania assistant professor and a Cornell graduate student, respectively. The paper has yet to be published or peer reviewed. It claims that, in the NBA, white referees call fouls on black players at a higher rate than they do against white players. It also notes a reciprocal but weaker relationship between black officials and white players. The study covers thirteen seasons worth of data and attempts to control for an inordinate amount of variables, including just about all of the ones that first popped into my head when thinking about potential problems with such a study.

The idea of implicit racial associations playing a role in how we view sports and athletes is not only not new to me, I’ve been arguing on this behalf for years. I was recently involved in not one, but two, on-line discussions started by fellows who believe that modern baseball players who wear baggy uniform pants and/or slightly tilted caps disrespect the game with their “sloppiness” and “unprofessional” appearance. Beyond the notion that “professionalism” is a social construct, I was struck by the historical ignorance these statements. (This was a forum for baseball junkies, after all.)

See, baseball heroes of yesteryear wore baggy pants and tilted hats. The Hall of Fame is full of them. Many of the actual plaques of old-time Hall of Famers even depict the player wearing a crooked hat. Oh yeah, old time ballplayers were white.

One of the members dryly noted, after a series of photos of old time players in baggy pants and cocked caps:

“You also have to remember that the players back then were white so it was okay. Nowadays minority athletes are doing it so it is bad.”

The concept of implicit racial association is simple; you are subconsciously conditioned to associate positive characteristics with light skin and negative characteristics with dark skin. This is not an indictment of the person who makes such an association as a racist; but simply a statement of race’s place in how we are conditioned to think. Still, in knee-jerk fashion, people categorically deny that race informs their decisions and opinions.

The NBA’s reaction to these allegations didn’t really surprise me. It claims no racial bias in its officiating, and it claims it has done its own studies to support their claim. Maybe the NBA is right, but their officials are social beings like the rest of us. To be sure, more than a few league officials and players deny the phenomenon, but a conscious denial of a subconscious relationship is just what you’d expect. Notably, two black coaches declined to comment.

A racial bias could have real implications in terms of game outcomes. Wolfers notes:
Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in digglahhh, journalism, language, sports, Times-watch | 13 Comments »

 
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