Politics, Technology, and Language

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

Archive for January, 2007

I feel badly – about some “rules” of grammar

Posted by metaphorical on 28 January 2007

The almost-always-right Grammar Girl falls into the prescriptivist trap this week with her correction of “feel badly,” as in, “I feel badly about that.” I already wrote a comment on her blog, but the topic is interesting enough that I thought I’d say a little more about it here. As I look into it, it seems that even the grammarians who allow the expression criticize it. I think even they are wrong.

Grammargirl’s point is summed up when she says,

The quick and dirty tip is that it is correct to say you feel bad when you are expressing an emotion. To say, “I feel badly,” implies that there’s something wrong with your sense of touch. Every time I hear people say, “I feel badly,” I imagine them in a dark room having trouble feeling their way around with numb fingers.

She’s hardly alone, in fact, hers is probably still the prevailing view. More moderating views have been coming to the fore in recent years, but they are still in fundamental agreement. For example, the American Heritage Book of English Usage says, “There is nothing wrong with maintaining this distinction, but don’t expect everyone else to share this view. It’s another useful distinction that is often ignored.”

The grammarian Diana Hacker says,

Of course, people are not actually confused by the incorrect uses. When we say I feel badly, no one in fact thinks we have a poor tactile sense. If the context suggests that health is the issue, everyone knows that we feel ill. If the context suggests that an emotional state is the issue, as in I felt badly upon hearing of her death, everyone knows that we feel sad.

yet she can’t quite give up the ghost. Hacker concludes,

Feel bad is the preferred form, but whether you write feel bad or feel badly, some educated readers will object. A sensible solution is to write around the problem. After all, we can always say that we feel ill (or don’t feel well)—or that we felt depressed, saddened, or despondent upon hearing the bad news.

I’ve never been a fan of the correction of ‘feel badly’ to ‘feel bad’ and after listening to Grammargirl I think I can say why.

The fact is, when people say “I feel badly,” we know they’re referring to their emotional state. The correction isn’t pedantic, it’s literally nonsense.

It makes no sense to say, “Since feel means to touch things, feeling badly means you’re having trouble touching things” because it makes no sense, or it is at least rude, to say to someone, “I know you’re talking about your emotional state, but because you spoke infelicitously, you really said something about the state of your fingers.”

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Which Austen heroine are you?

Posted by metaphorical on 28 January 2007

I am Elizabeth Bennet!

Jupiter9 scores again when it comes to finding fun quizzes. What’s especially neat about this one is that it looks underneath Austen’s bonnet to show the thematic engines that rev within the pages.

Take for example this question:

4. Your ideal mate is…

  • Surprisingly un-dashing, but romantic in a quiet way.
  • Unpretentious and loving.
  • Proud and a bit standoffish, but kind-hearted and passionate.
  • A bit blind to your charms, and sometimes blindsided by a pretty face and sharp wit.
  • A good judge of character, with a playful sense of humor.
  • Constant.
  • Mature, generous, and good-looking.

That’s not meant as any kind of criticism of Austen. Themes, when stripped down to their essentials, always look like clichés; they’re supposed to. Theme is the universalistic part of writing, it represents the way a story speaks to everyone. Stories are then differentiated by unique and engaging characters, well-described adventures, engaging scenes, and so on—the ways the heroine overcomes adversity, finds true love, or matures, works through her pride, and releases herself from her prejudices.

How well does this quiz do? It’s dead-on! I am Elizabeth Bennet (as is Jupiter9!), my favorite character in my favorite book by my favorite author.

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


Posted by metaphorical on 27 January 2007

I’ve always been a diffident tourist. I love new places, but I hate being out of place. So I can sit my room for hours on end with a world of colors and tastes and languages just outside the hotel lobby doors. Having broadband in a hotel just makes it worse, of course, but I’ve always been like this. T spent one entire college summer in Berkeley without ever going to Candlestick Park, even though, back home, I had been going to Shea Stadium on my own for almost half a decade.

Yesterday I had an entire day to myself here in Shanghai, my first without appointments and work e-mailed from the office. I frittered the morning away, just as I might on a lazy Saturday morning back home. Finally, driven, not by adventurousness but the needs of my disfunctional metabolism, I left the room around 12:30.

The day before, while visiting the Sino-Italian Cooperation Program for Environmental Protection, I grabbed a booklet, “Shanghai/Tempo libero/Curiosita/Indirizzi utili.” The booklet is mostly in Italian, but not hard to decipher. There was a whole section on Italian restaurants, including a “MoCA Caffe”—‘MoCA’ being, I gathered, a now-universal abbreviation. The first Museum of Contemporary Art I ever went to was in Los Angeles, and it’s still one of my favorite museums anywhere—compact and beautiful, thought-provoking without exhausting.

The booklet gave the address as ‘231 Nan jing Road,’ essentially the street my hotel is on, and ‘People’s Park.’ “This is close enough to walk to?” I asked the conceirge. He looked dubious, more comfortable putting his guests into taxis than sending them into the city defenselessly. “Maybe 15 minutes,” he allowed. On a map, he put a dot right in the middle of a green patch.

People Park is a rare respite from Shanghai’s density, which is 50 percent greater than New York or Tokyo. There are few green patches on the city map, and if People’s Park were placed alongside the bottom of Central Park it would barely reach as far north as the Sheep Meadow. The green is a bit misleading too, with nearly as much concrete as grass. Still, it seems much beloved by the Shanghainese and deservedly so. A maze of walkways are lined by low trees with twisted trunks and branches. Bare in winter, they invite you to look through to the city’s skyline.

People’s Park

People’s Park

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Getting neither the message nor the massage

Posted by metaphorical on 25 January 2007

“Rolex? Omega?”

“You want massage?”

“Handbag, handbag.”

“You want Chinese girl? Very young. Pretty.”

A lot of people in Shanghai speak English, but not a lot of it. If you stay in the tourist areas you get by without too much trouble, but once you leave the shore, any step can be the one with the drop-off and suddenly the water is neck-high. It’s hard not to fear you’re about to drown in an alien culture.

I take cabs to all my appointments. I ask the concierge desk to write out in Chinese the address I’m going to, and even then, the bellhop at the door calls the cab and discusses the destination with the driver. The bellhop then nods to me that the driver understands, and off I go. I have the hotel’s card, which I use to get back. Tomorrow, I’ll go from one appointment directly to the next; the concierge will have to write out both for me and I’ll hope for the best on the risky middle leg.

The street behind the hotel is an enormous shopping strip that goes on for a kilometer or so. It has no curbs, and cars apparently can’t drive down it, though there are streets that are allowed to cross it. There are no curbs, but some traffic lights, and people walk everywhere; the cars and bicycles weave through the pedestrians who sometimes wait for the light and sometimes don’t. At night the main street is crowded with neon signs and brightly lit stores and hotels and shops. People walk and mill about by the hundreds. But the side streets that don’t have traffic lights are dark, narrow alleyways that you can’t see down and haven’t changed since the invention of the light bulb.

During the day, I get asked a lot about watches and handbags, but at night it’s mostly about massages. I’ve learned to keep walking, but they sidle up beside me, keeping pace, leaning in so our arms are brushed up against one another, and they ask incessantly. “You want massage?” “You want Chinese girl?”—one question per stride. I look straight ahead and keep walking. After about a dozen paces with no response, they drop off, looking, I guess, for the next white face in the crowd. Sometimes it’s women who are doing the asking, and I can’t tell if they’re asking for themselves. I want to look them over but I keep my eyes straight and keep walking.

Tonight I asked the concierge to recommend a place to eat. Up to now, I haven’t wanted to be bothered. For the first few nights, I wasn’t able to synch with the time zone, so I’ve collapsed at 5:00 or 6:00 pm, gotten up at 9:00, and then rushed off to the Royal Meridien hotel next door, which serves dinner until 10:00. The food there is pretty good, but with my weird and hard-to-match diet, there’s only a couple of things on the Chinese menu for me. The Italian restaurant has a single dish—an overpriced spaghetti in oil and garlic. It’s nice and garlicky, but with a glass of overpriced wine and a small bottle of Perrier that costs the same as the wine the bill is about RMB 300. Divide by 7.7 and you’ve spent $40 on a light dinner in what should be, at least for meal prices, still a third-world country. Two years ago, traveling with Jen Liu, we would routinely stuff ourselves at restaurants she knew for under RMB 100 total.

“You want restaurant?”

Two nights ago, instead of Rolexes or massages, a teenager asked about restaurants. He had a menu in one hand; with the other he pointed upward. Across the street, up on the third floor, I could see the windows of what might have been a restaurant. It was after 9:00 pm, and I was looking for a dinner, but it seemed a little weird—out on the streets of Shanghai, every sentence drips with double meaning and is tinged with risk.

The next day, I ventured back in the bright sunlight of lunchtime. The same teenager was there and this time I let him lead me up and elevator, through a department store, and into a Chinese restaurant. It was tasty and cheaper than the Meridien, but not third-world cheaper.

So tonight I asked the concierge. He wants to know what kind of food and I say Chinese. “You want Shanghainese food?” he asked. I have no idea what the differences are so I say sure. He writes out an address and a very crude map. It’s out the front door and only about a 10 minute walk, with only one turn. “41. Just look for the number,” he says. “41.”

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What do 200 calories look like?

Posted by metaphorical on 23 January 2007

Wisegeek has a sobering page for anyone who cares about what they eat or how much they weigh. It shows pictures of 90 foods that are 200 calories, giving their weights in grams and ounces.


One-half of a rather plain-looking Jack In The Box cheeseburger, just about two and a half ounces, makes the list. So does bacon, at a measly 34 g (1.2 oz).

It takes a whopping 3 lbs of celery to get to 200 calories, or a pound and half of either broccoli or carrots. But the news isn’t all good for vegetarians.

Peanut butter weighs in at exactly the same, um, weight, as bacon—1.2 oz, about a single finger-scoop. If you order french fries instead of that half-burger, you only get about two and a half ounces of them for your 200 calories.

The news is worst of all for the sweet-toothed. Less than a single glazed donut tips the scale; so does just 8 chocolate kisses.

Sites like these are important, if only because your government won’t help you, at least not when it comes to food labeling. In fact, in this case the libertarians may be right about government. By overseeing labeling poorly, we’re worse off then if it didn’t exercise any oversight at all.

On 12 January 2007, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved a modification to the definition of the term “lean.” The motive, as explained by petitioner and noted health-food manufacturer Nestle Prepared Foods Co., isn’t crazy—it was to provide for prepared foods or, in agency parlance, “mixed dishes not measurable with a cup”.

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We’re choking language with spikes and surges

Posted by metaphorical on 23 January 2007

Robert Fisk had a nice rant last week about Orwellian euphemisms (though George himself wasn’t cited).

This jargon disease is choking language.

Only this week I received another request, this time to join “ethics practitioners” to “share evidence-based practices on dealing with current ethical practices” around the world. What on earth does this mean? Why do people write like this?

There is something repulsive about this vocabulary, an aggressive language of superiority in which “key players” can “interact” with each other, can “impact” society, “outsource” their business – or “downsize” the number of their employees. They need “feedback” and “input”. They think “outside the box” or “push the envelope”. They have a “work space”, not a desk. They need “personal space” – they need to be left alone – and sometimes they need “time and space”, a commodity much in demand when marriages are failing.

These lies and obfuscations are infuriating. “Downsizing” employees means firing them; “outsourcing” means hiring someone else to do your dirty work. “Feedback” means “reaction”, “input” means “advice”. Thinking “outside the box” means, does it not, to be “imaginative”?

It is a disease, this language, caught by one of our own New Labour ministers on the BBC last week when he talked about “environmental externalities”. Presumably, this meant “the weather”. Similarly, an architect I know warned his client of the effect of the “aggressive saline environment” on a house built near the sea. If this advice seems obscure, we might be “conflicted” about it – who, I ask myself, invented the false reflexive verb?

I’m pretty sure he’s wrong about “environmental externalities,” however. In the language of economists, politicians, and U.N. bureaucrats, an externality is a cost that is borne by someone other than the actor whose behavior generates it. We are allowed to sue the maker of a defective car so that the hospital bills aren’t externalized by the car’s manufacturer.

Consider all that packaging that we have to tear apart and throw out whenever we buy so much as a dozen galvanized nails. The companies that shrould nails in cardboard and plastic don’t have to pay for the landfill it fills all too quickly. That’s an example of an environmental externality.

And if the highly educated Robert Fisk can be confused by this euphemism, that’s all the proof we need that, as Orwell wrote, “The writer either has a meaning and cannot express it, or he inadvertently says something else, or he is almost indifferent as to whether his words mean anything or not.”

Posted in language, Orwell, politics | 4 Comments »

Trust, but verify

Posted by metaphorical on 22 January 2007

The question has come up whether the phrase “trust but verify” is meaningless, and if it’s meaningful (which I think it is), what it’s meaning is.

ThinkExist.com attributes it to Damon Runyon, but the phrase is indelibly associated with Ronald Reagan, specifically his farewell address to the nation on 11 January 1989.

We must keep up our guard, but we must also continue to work together to lessen and eliminate tension and mistrust. My view is that President Gorbachev is different from previous Soviet leaders. I think he knows some of the things wrong with his society and is trying to fix them. We wish him well. And we’ll continue to work to make sure that the Soviet Union that eventually emerges from this process is a less threatening one. What it all boils down to is this. I want the new closeness to continue. And it will, as long as we make it clear that we will continue to act in a certain way as long as they continue to act in a helpful manner. If and when they don’t, at first pull your punches. If they persist, pull the plug. It’s still trust but verify. It’s still play, but cut the cards. It’s still watch closely. And don’t be afraid to see what you see.

A little earlier in history, Oliver Cromwell is alleged to have said,

While preparing to cross a river to attack the enemy one day, Oliver Cromwell stopped and turned to address his troops. “Put your trust in God,” he famously declared, “but mind you, keep your powder dry.”

Finally, to judge from the Google results, the phrase has become common in computer security circles.

Trust but verify: authorization for web services

This paper introduces a trust-but-verify framework for web services authorization, and provides an implementation example. In the trust-but-verify framework, each web service maintains authorization policies. In addition, there is a global set of “trust transformation” rules, each of which has an associated transformation condition.

If I understand it (not so very likely), the problem is that a web service may require information that’s only obtainable through an intermediary. So A asks B for information that B will request of C. The web service (A), essentially tells B what sorts of conditions ought to be placed on C. B gets the information from C and reports back to A that the conditions were met.

That’s not really different from what Reagan apparently meant by it. Trust is a behavior—I accept what you say, or what you do, but I’m monitoring the situation.

The people who object to the phrase don’t see trust that way. Acceptance is one thing, trust is another. On the mailing list where this came up, one person said, “Which part of that situation is ‘trust’? I see accept and verify.” On this view, trust seems to be blind, an acceptance without verification.

When it comes to the meaning of ordinary words, you can, to paraphrase Yogi Berra, hear a lot just by listening.

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Not getting the massage

Posted by metaphorical on 22 January 2007

It started in the climbing gym a week ago. I pointed out a new hard route in a section of the gym that I usually enjoy. Mike couldn’t get it, then I told him how I thought it ought to go, and it worked. So then I had to try it. There’s a weird part where two walls meet at an angle. I wedged myself in to get the weight off my arms., pressing my back hard against one wall—so hard that I hurt it pretty badly. I finally just let go, but the damage was done.

That was a week ago Sunday. I got to the chiropractor on Tuesday with muscles so tight it was hard to walk. He loosened them, which is when the real pain started. It turns out those muscles were tense for a reason—to protect the one severely pulled muscle underneath. It was not going to be the best week to spend fourteen and a half hours on single plane. Even a comfortable plane.

I don’t know whether seat 26H was designed by the top sadist over at Boeing or just an idiot. Have you ever slept on a pull-out sofa bed where there’s a bar running across the middle of your spine? This was a sitting-up version of that. For fourteen and a half hours. Then came the 40 minute queue at Customs. Have you ever been at JFK and looked over at the lines for everyone with a foreign passport and thanked god you weren’t one of them? That’s the line I was on at the Shanghai airport. If JFK and PVG are in some kind of retaliatory arms race, then we need a new round of strategic abuse limitations talks. I only mention this because I had to pick up my bags and move them, and me, two feet up about 230 times during those 40 minutes. Then came the taxi line.

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A truly web-based birthday?

Posted by metaphorical on 21 January 2007

Here’s one at the intersection of language and technology, no politics involved. It’s a birthday cake, apparently decorated by MS Outlook or the like.


The backstory is here.

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The age of the Grand Canyon, again

Posted by metaphorical on 21 January 2007

An earlier post needs an addendum. On 30 December I wrote about the National Park Service and the Grand Canyon.

the Park Service continues to sell a religious-based, scientifically absurd book at its visitor centers, apparently at the insistence of fundamentalist political appointees back in Washington. So reports Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, “a national alliance of local state and federal resource professionals.”

The use of the word “apparently” was fortuitous. In fact, I used it twice and in each case, it represents the difference between regret and apology.

Moreover, the park service employees are apparently not permitted to tell park visitors the same things the official NPS website tells virtual ones.

Along comes Michael Shermer to contest both allegations, and more. Shermer, like me, called attention the report by PEER, in his case in the electronic edition of Skeptic magazine.

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19 hours, 7700 air miles, and 13 time zones

Posted by metaphorical on 19 January 2007

To my thousands and thousands of devoted readers and subscribers: I leave for Shanghai early Saturday morning, returning the evening of the 31st. Posting may be sporadic, and might take a travelogue-like turn. But don’t expect the stylistic second coming of Paul Bowles (more like Jane Bowles, I would think). Mambo-king: I expect to see a draft of your first assignment, no matter where I am.

Oh, and for the sticklers: the figure of 19 hours is door-to-door, or at least terminal-to-terminal, including a 2-hour layover in Chitown. I’ll only have 17 hours in the air, and only 14:30 on the main leg. Luckily I’ll have about 137 hours worth of reading material with me.

By the way, might be a good time to point out, as Brooklynite does on his blog, that this is National DeLurking Week 2007!

More posts from Shanghai here and here.

Posted in travel, Uncategorized | 1 Comment »

Why would a newspaper promote literacy?

Posted by metaphorical on 19 January 2007

Would you say there’s a direct connection between literacy, the ability to use the English language, and promoting interest in reading and in reading newspapers? There used to be one in Rhode Island, but not anymore.

The Providence Phoenix, the city’s alternative paper, is reporting that Rhode Island’s main newspaper, the Providence Journal, has withdrawn its “sponsorship for the Rhode Island Statewide Spelling Bee — resulting in the cancellation of this year’s competition.”

The Journal’s decision to no longer serve as the event’s main sponsor was communicated in a letter sent just before Christmas time to the Rhode Island Association of School Principals, which helps to coordinate the bee. “Unfortunately, it won’t happen this year as a result,” says John Golden, the association’s executive director.

Being the lead sponsor for the bee, which was scheduled for March, “is expensive and it eats up a lot of staff time,” particularly in the ProJo’s promotions department. Golden, who was unable to identify the precise cost of lead sponsorship, places it at “something in excess of $5000.” Because of the cancellation, schools have been encouraged to conduct their own local spelling bees.

The Phoenix reports that “a number of ProJo staffers are angry and flabbergasted by the newspaper’s withdrawal of sponsorship, which has gone unreported in Rhode Island’s newspaper of record.”

“This is just incomprehensible,” says reporter John Hill, president of the Providence Newspaper Guild. “I don’t see how you could have an event that is more connected to a newspaper’s mission, which is reading, and learning about the world, and expanding your vocabulary. These are things that you need to learn if you’re going to be a newspaper reader or a Web site reader.”

Hill recalls having covered a packed Rhode Island spelling bee last year in which study guides provided by the ProJo were a ubiquitous sight. “To throw that away, I’m completely baffled by it,” he says. “It just betrays a tone deafness to what the Journal’s role in the community ought to be, and we are diminishing that role.”

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Does anybody know what time it is — armageddon-wise?

Posted by metaphorical on 19 January 2007

How close are we to the end of the world? And will it come from a nuclear Armageddon, or global climate change?

I haven’t seen this discussed much, but the Doomsday Clock was moved forward two minutes the other day. It’s not a trivial change—from 7 minutes to midnight, to 5 minutes is a change of more than 25 percent. The clock has been moved only 17 times since it was created 60 years ago.

Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists Adjusts Clock From 7 to 5 Minutes Before Midnight; “ Deteriorating” Global Situation Cited on Nuclear Weapons and New Factor: Climate Change. 

WASHINGTON, D.C. and LONDON, ENGLAND /// January 17, 2007 /// The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (BAS) is moving the minute hand of the Doomsday Clock two minutes closer to midnight. It is now 5 minutes to midnight. Reflecting global failures to solve the problems posed by nuclear weapons and the climate crisis, the decision by the BAS Board of Directors was made in consultation with the Bulletin’s Board of Sponsors, which includes 18 Nobel Laureates.

More than the percentage, the change is significant in another way, though—this is the first time a reason a reason was cited other than nuclear proliferation.

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists was founded in 1945 by University of Chicago scientists who had worked on the Manhattan Project and were deeply concerned about the use of nuclear weapons and nuclear war. In 1947 the Bulletin introduced its clock to convey the perils posed by nuclear weapons through a simple design. The Doomsday Clock evoked both the imagery of apocalypse (midnight) and the contemporary idiom of nuclear explosion (countdown to zero).

The BAS statement said, “The dangers posed by climate change are nearly as dire as those posed by nuclear weapons.”

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Magazines’ clogged circulation

Posted by metaphorical on 18 January 2007

The NY Times is having a little cat-fight with People magazine. Last week, it put out a press release:

NEW YORK–(BUSINESS WIRE)–Jan. 10, 2007–The New York Times Magazine is the number one publication in advertising pages for 2006, according to The Publishers Information Bureau (PIB). For the year 2006, The Magazine had a total of 3,965 ad pages – a gain of 181 pages over the previous year. This is the fifth consecutive year that The Magazine has ranked in the top five among all national magazines measured by PIB.

For the period Jan. 1, 2006 through Dec. 31, 2006, PIB ranked the top national magazines according to total ad pages:

1. The New York Times Magazine

2. People Weekly

3. InStyle

4. Forbes

This week, People struck back, as Women’s Wear Daily reports. After all, the Times magazine section is a section of the paper; we buy the paper, not the magazine section itself:

Told of the ranking, which put People at number two, People’s publisher, Paul Caine, argued it compared apples and oranges, since the Times’ magazines are officially considered part of the Sunday magazine category and aren’t sold on their own. “Lots of magazines have a lot of ad pages — controlled circulation magazines, for example, or in-flight magazines. I saw one for truck drivers that was superthick.” (Incidentally, some Times folks have taken to calling the ad-driven T supplement and its offspring “the in-flight magazine of the Times.”) Caine added, “The phone book probably sells more ads than us, but PIB [Publishers Information Bureau] makes a distinction for a reason.” People’s ad pages were down 2.9 percent in 2006 compared with 2005, to 3,741.18. A spokesman for the Times defended the list, saying it had compiled the ranking for several years without complaint. 

The Times’ ranking also didn’t mention that People’s PIB-reported ad revenue of $872.7 million, up 2.6 percent from last year, is twice that of the PIB-estimated New York Times magazine’s $427.1 million. In fact, within the Sunday magazine category, Parade and USA Weekend significantly outpaced the Times’ magazine in PIB-reported revenue, if not in pages.

The question is, does People really want to open this can of worms?

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Segregation, self-respect, and a YouTube video

Posted by metaphorical on 17 January 2007

“I believed in the 1950s that a significant percentage of Americans were looking for a way out of the morass of segregation. It was wishful thinking.” — Kenneth Clark, 1984

When James Brown died, it felt important to me, but also not important. It’s taken me a month to account for both reactions.

First, important: Bob Davis, of the Soul Patrol, in his coverage of the viewing of James Brown’s body at the Apollo Theatre, called Brown the Godfather of soul, echoing Al Sharpton’s moving tribute. The line to get into the Apollo, which is on 125th Street, went down as far as 104th Street, he reported. Listening to Davis, I remembered junior high school. “Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud,” was released in August 1968. Returning to school that September, the song filled the cafeteria and the hallways.

There was an ugly racial divide in my school, and black kids would not just sing it proudly, but defiantly, hostilely, even threateningly. The song gave voice to feelings—both good and bad —that had lain just beneath the surface. Music filled the middle space between civil rights marches and riots. (Just as Dylan, long hair, and LSD would be, for me, more than an anti-war rally but less than raiding a draft board.)

James Brown did that. Sure, Aretha’s “Respect” did that as well (and was sung in the hallways too), Stevie Wonder, and more, but never with the same punch in the stomach of James Brown. Nothing as loudly. Nothing as proudly.

Next, unimportant: I knew there was an opposite side of the story, but couldn’t put my finger on it until viewing the video “A Girl Like Me” today. This video hasn’t exactly been been hidden under a rock. It showed at the Tribeca Film Festival here in New York back in April. It was featured on NPR in October, and has been written about in newspapers around the nation.

The 7-minute film starts out discussing race, beauty, dark skin, and the self-image of young black women, in their own words, until about half-way. Then it recreates the famous experiment that Kenneth and Mamie Clark conducted in the 1930s, about the time James Brown would have entered elementary school, asking black children to choose between a white doll and a black one.

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Will private equity save the newspaper industry?

Posted by metaphorical on 17 January 2007

“Media companies in transition should be private. When you’re privately backed, you have the flexibility to be nimble.”  — Scott N. Flanders, president of Freedom Communications, the parent of the Orange County Register.

We may know soon the fate of the LA Times and its parent, the Tribune Co. Yesterday, the Washington Post reported that:

Tomorrow is the deadline Tribune has set for bids on its $7.3 billion newspaper and television empire. But enthusiasm for Tribune has been tepid, rousing little interest from publicly traded newspaper companies but plenty from private money.  

That unsettles some, who fear that private equity’s focus on short-term gain will lead to more cuts and quality reductions in an already shaky industry. But Freedom president Scott N. Flanders said private-equity ownership of newspapers is actually the best idea for this turbulent era.

“Media companies in transition should be private,” Flanders said. “When you’re privately backed, you have the flexibility to be nimble.”

Though they are not growing, many newspapers continue to make healthy profits, making them appealing targets for equity firms: small groups of moneyed investors who typically hold their new companies for a few years, urge them to cut costs and create value, and then sell their interest and move on.

Some have called private money the industry’s salvation: no more quarterly earnings reports, no more forecasts to meet, no more stock-price-crazed Wall Street sharpies.  

But private money is no panacea.

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Sex goes high-tech, as usual

Posted by metaphorical on 16 January 2007

The porn industry, or to use the accepted euphemism, the adult industry, has long led the way into mainsteam adoption of technologies, from commercial photography to the VCR and the Web. So it’s interesting to look at a few recent trends. Indeed, the porn industry has been given some of the credit for the success of VHS over Betamax, back in the 1980s.

Unsurprisingly, then, there are those looking to the adult industry in the question of HD-DVD vs Blu-Ray.

MacWorld has a story saying the industry is opting for HD-DVD, based largely on the fact that Digital Playground is releasing four HD-DVD films.

MacWorld reports that industry leader Vivid Entertainment is “currently using the HD-DVD format because it was the first to come out, but his studio will begin burning to the Blu-ray format as soon as it’s available.”

Back in November, though, TVPredictions.com reported that, “the studio’s first high-def DVD will be on Blu-ray and not HD-DVD.” It quotes Vivid’s CEO, Steve Hirsch as saying, “As of now, it will just be Blu-ray. But that’s not to say we won’t release it in HD-DVD later.”

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Do bees know something about genetically modified foods that we don’t?

Posted by metaphorical on 15 January 2007

It’s hard to know what to make of this, but a recent study is leading some environmentalists to argue that wild bees shy away from the genetically modified version of rapeseed.

The study, initially published by the Ecological Society of America before being picked up in Italy, looked at pollination and the response of wild bees to organic, conventional and GM rapeseed crops. 

It measured the abundance of bees and the pollination deficit, which is the difference between potential and actual pollination.

The results showed no pollination deficit in organic fields, a slight pollination deficit in conventional fields and a high pollination deficit in GM fields.

Likewise, bees were most abundant in organic fields and least so in GM fields.

The problem with GM food is, to quote the noted epistemologist Donald Rumsfeld, the unknown unknowns. Read the rest of this entry »

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“Newspapers aren’t dying but committing suicide.”

Posted by metaphorical on 14 January 2007

“What is really frightening is that newspapers appear to be dying so quickly that they may disappear, or at least disappear as a serious part of our lives, before we have a replacement for them. That’s a grave danger to democracy,” says [Washington Post veteran and Pulitzer Prize-winner David] Maraniss. “As flawed as journalism as practiced by newspapers is, we don’t have another vehicle for journalism that picks up where newspapers leave off. That’s what we should be worried about. Maybe newspapers can be replaced, probably newspapers can be replaced. But journalism can’t be replaced–not if we’re going to function as any kind of democracy.”

An article in the current issue of The Nation, “Newspapers…and After?”, writes of “a hemorrhaging of journalism jobs, as reporters and editors join manufacturing workers in the ranks of ‘disposable Americans’.”

More than 44,000 news industry employees, at least 34,000 of them newspaper journalists, have lost their jobs over the past five years. Roughly 200 jobs have been cut at the Chicago Tribune over the past year. The Akron Beacon Journal, a Pulitzer Prize-winning Ohio daily that once set the standard in the state for investigative journalism, has slashed newsroom jobs by 25 percent. The San Jose Mercury News is in the process of shedding 17 percent of its newsroom positions. And deep cuts are being implemented in Denver, Pittsburgh, St. Paul, Philadelphia and dozens of smaller cities where traditional beats–labor, farm, federal courts–are disappearing as retiring reporters are not replaced. 

The Project for Excellence in Journalism’s current report on “The State of the News Media” notes, “In some cities, the numbers alone tell the story. There are roughly half as many reporters covering metropolitan Philadelphia, for instance, as in 1980. The number of newspaper reporters there has fallen from 500 to 220. The pattern at the suburban papers around the city has been similar, though not as extreme. The local TV stations, with the exception of Fox, have cut back on traditional news coverage. The five AM radio stations that used to cover news have been reduced to two. As recently as 1990, the Philadelphia Inquirer had 46 reporters covering the city. Today it has 24.”

The pressures on newspapers to be highly profitable, quarter after quarter, are intense, and they’re rarely in the direction of better journalism.

Individual owners and powerful families–who often, though by no means always, settled for reasonable profits in return for the ego boost that went with putting out a quality newspaper–are exiting the stage. Increasingly newspapers are owned by the shareholders of national chains, who do not even know–let alone care about–the names of the papers from which they demand profit margins that are generally twice the average for other industries. Where a local family might have grudgingly accepted a weak quarter and a downturn in revenues, shareholders greet any softness on the bottom line with demands for draconian cuts. If a paper’s current managers are unwilling to make them, investors look for more ruthless managers. Investors forced the breakup and sale, in 2006, of the venerable Knight Ridder chain, which owned Pulitzer Prize-winning newspapers like the Philadelphia Inquirer, the San Jose Mercury News and the Miami Herald. Similar pressures have forced the Tribune Company, which publishes the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, the Hartford Courant and several Florida dailies, to put itself on the block.  

In recent months, Morgan Stanley has been pressuring the New York Times Company to alter its voting structure to reduce the influence of the Sulzberger family, which has opted for reasonably high–if often imperfect–journalistic standards over unreasonably high profits. The company’s “current corporate governance practices deviate from what is widely considered to be best practice,” explained Morgan Stanley Investment Management, owner of almost 8 percent of the Times stock, in asking shareholders to vote at this April’s annual meeting in favor of its plan. The Sulzbergers shot back with a statement that the family “has no intention of opening our doors to the kind of action that is tearing at the heart of some of the other great journalistic institutions in our country.” But the bosses at Knight Ridder once said much the same thing, and even if the Sulzbergers do manage to maintain one major newspaper in something like its current form, their statement is an acknowledgment that the broader trends are in the wrong direction.

Presumably, those pressures are what led the Times to cut some jobs and outsource others at the Boston Globe, which it owns. And there and elsewhere in the Times organization, “pay, benefits, job security and other contract provisions” are being renegotiated, according to the Newspaper Guild.

The article quotes syndicated columnist Molly Ivins as saying that “newspapers aren’t dying but committing suicide.”

“What really pisses me off,” she told the journal of the newspaper industry, Editor & Publisher, is “this most remarkable business plan: Newspaper owners look at one another and say, ‘Our rate of return is slipping a bit; let’s solve that problem by making our product smaller and less helpful and less interesting.'”

It doesn’t have to be that way.

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Big brother’s contractor is watching you

Posted by metaphorical on 12 January 2007

Longtime privacy activist Bill Scannell reports that “the Department of Homeland Security plans to outsource REAL ID implementation to third-party data aggregators, according to official DHS documents.”

Congress passed the REAL ID Act in 2005. It requires the states to issue IDs that meet federal requirements, spelled out in the Act, having to do with things like measures to prevent counterfeiting, as well as how people establish their identities in getting those IDs. In practice, the driver’s license will be the main form of “federally approved ID.” In turn, such a federally approved ID card will have to be shown “to board an airplane, open a bank account, collect Social Security payments, or take advantage of nearly any government service,” according to an FAQ at New.com.

Scannell reports:

According to a still-secret several hundred-page dossier sent last week by DHS to the Office of Management and Budget, DHS considered three ways to implement the REAL ID Act:

  • Plan A: Order the individual states to find a way of communicating data to one another. This idea was given short shrift by DHS, who dismissed it out of hand.  
  • Plan B: Have DHS build a centralized database for the states to query before issuing REAL ID-compliant drivers licenses. This idea was also rejected.
  • Plan C: Have a private data aggregator act as the central database. This is the plan advocated by DHS. The plan calls for the outsourcing of all drivers license and ID card checks to a private corporation, who would then charge the states for each check performed. DHS head Michael Chertoff personally ordered this option to be chosen, according to a senior administration source.

There are a few problems with this. Under plan A, our personal ID information would remain with the state, shared with other states on an as-needed basis. Under plan B, our information would be held by our state and the federal government. In either case, a variety of privacy laws would apply.

Once the government is getting the information from a private company, Scannell notes, different, more lax laws apply, as they do when the government gets information from commercial databases like Acxiom and ChoicePoint. (One of those two companies may well be the private company ultimately selected for REAL ID.)

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