Politics, Technology, and Language

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

Archive for February, 2007

Gender, inequality, and IT

Posted by metaphorical on 28 February 2007

It’s hard to believe, but people are still debating whether diversity is a good thing and, even worse, arguing that there are innate gender differences when it comes to things like technology-related professions.

A good place to start looking at the current diversity debate is Hippo Dignity, here. I’m going to take up the innate differences question. As with the recent discussion of economic inequality, it begins with a mailing list post. Different list, different poster. Let’s call him K. Here’s his case:

If you could look at women and men and how they are “wired” with respect to technology at birth, you’d find a different midpoint for their respective Normal curves, where one sex has more innate “interest” in technology. But this means that a significant percent of members of the sex that has a lower innate technology interest has a greater technology interest than a significant percent of members of the other sex.

If then the society’s nurturing customs unnaturally prod each sex in a skewed manner, then we will have a situation where some people (of one sex) who innately have a greater technology interest do not develop that nature as much as some people (of the other sex) who actually have a lower innate technology interest.

This is the situation I think we have, which is very unfair to those of one sex who are innately technologically oriented, but whose development in that area was passively (by some loving people) or actively (by bigoted people) discouraged.

The National Academy of Sciences found otherwise in a report (payment required) that was issued back in September. According to the NY Times article about it,

If there are any cognitive differences, the report says, they are small and irrelevant. In any event, the much-studied gender gap in math performance has all but disappeared as more and more girls enroll in demanding classes. Even among very high achievers, the gap is narrowing, the panelists said.

The thing is, K. is probably a very nice guy, well-meaning, bending over backwards to express these thoughts in a way that’s sympathetic and even, it you could say, politically correct. And yet as far as I can see, he’s offering little more than a slightly more sophisticated version of the same old argument about genetic differences between the genders, in the way that intelligent-design is an “improvement” over earlier forms of creationism.

Let’s take a simpler case: basketball. Basketball is a game where there surely are genetic differences between the genders of the sort that K. is talking about. Very few women could play in the men’s game, though a couple probably could, but aren’t allowed to, which K. would sympathetically find “very unfair.”

But surely it won’t have escaped K.’s notice that the design of basketball is optimized for the very genetic differences in question, most especially height. Move the basket down 30 inches and you’d see a big change. Make the ball smaller, better suited to smaller hands, and you’d see more change.

Rock climbers would almost universally agree that for at least a few years in the mid-1990s, the best climber in the world, male or female, was Lynn Hill, and that her first free climb of The Nose route on Yosemite’s El Capitan was a high-water mark in climbing history. To this day, no one has exactly repeated her ascent (except herself, a couple of years later, when she did the same 3300-foot climb in a single 23-hour push) because no one can climb the Changing-Corners pitch. You climb a crack so thin that even Lynn’s fingertips can barely use it. Then you have to stem out so widely that only a short former gymnast with a low center of mass could possibly stay in balance.

The Changing-Corners pitch is optimized for a short, explosively powerful former gymnast. There just aren’t a lot of those people to be found among male climbers—in fact, there are none at the moment. Male climbers have freed The Nose, but by opting for a variation pitch, one that lends itself better to larger hands and a higher center of mass.

Climbing as a whole is fairly gender-neutral; there are climbs that are well-suited to physiologies that men have more often than women and there are climbs that are just the reverse. The same isn’t true of sports that use balls—from basketball and baseball to volleyball and lacrosse, they tend to favor male physiologies. That’s not surprising—mountains and sheer rock walls are designed by nature but ball games are designed by men.

Which brings us to IT and other technology “sports.” Were they designed by nature or by men? The National Academy of Sciences has an unequivocal answer to that question. To quote from the Times article again, the expert panel found that

Women in science and engineering are hindered not by lack of ability but by bias and “outmoded institutional structures” in academia.

Posted in politics, technology | 7 Comments »

Notes from New York: If you see something

Posted by metaphorical on 28 February 2007

89th Street between 1st and 2nd avenues was blocked off by the police today, and when I got up to 2nd Avenue I saw that it too was blocked from 88th to 89th Street. I saw three fire department vehicles, four cop cars, and at least a dozen members of the two services, including the three cops at 1st and 89th. I had asked one of them what was up.

“Suspicious package.”

She was the kind of cop I like in New York; she managed convey “What are you gonna do?” without showing it in her voice in any way. Maybe she moved an eyebrow up just a hair, or tilted her head ever so slightly.

What are we going to do? People will call 911; we’re exhorted to do so at every turn and on every subway ride. “If you see something, say something.” Personally, if I don’t see blood or the green slime from “Outbreak” oozing out of a package, I’m probably not saying anything, but not everyone is so reluctant.

Once, I was in Chicago’s O’Hare airport, waiting at a gate for my flight to board, and a guy got up to buy a soda or use the bathroom or something. I guess he thought he’d be back in just a moment and wasn’t, but within a couple of minutes someone had called over the cops because of the unattended bag. I don’t know why he hadn’t make eye contact with someone sitting nearby and say, “I’ll be right back, can you watch this for a moment?” I’ve done that for others and asked it myself, it’s not hard. Whatever. You should be able to buy a can of pop, as they say in Chicago, at a newsstand 100 yards away without imminent arrest.

The other day, the Lexington Avenue subway had a “smoke condition,” either due to the usual refuse on the tracks, or our second and probably last sudden icy snowstorm of the year, or some interplay between the two. I barely missed it but a colleague who normally gets to work a few minutes later than me said there was near-complete chaos on the streets as people were expelled from the subway and looked for the additional buses the city ran.

If terrorists or freedom fighters or anyone else working the suspicious package angle really wants to disrupt the city, the subways are the way to go. The bagel shops and Chinese take-out at 2nd Avenue and 89th Street probably aren’t ever going to be high-priority targets. Unfortunately, the police have only one level of response, or if they do modulate it at all, their lowest level is still pretty damned high. So in the meantime, if you see something, say something only if you think the trade-off in closed streets, cops in full-body flak-coats, and idled firetrucks is worth it.

Posted in politics | 5 Comments »

Newspaper, heal thyself

Posted by metaphorical on 27 February 2007

The new scores, based on tests given in 2005, show that only about 35 percent of 12th graders are proficient in reading. Simply put, this means that a majority of the country’s 12th graders have trouble understanding what they read fully enough to make inferences, draw conclusions and see connections between what they read and their own experiences. The math scores were even worse, with only 23 percent of 12th graders performing at or above the proficient level.

An editorial in today’s NY Times decries the basic skills of U.S. high school students as insufficient for our glorious information age.

Marginal literacy and minimal math skills might have been adequate for the industrial age. But these scores mean that many of today’s high school seniors will be locked out of the information economy, where a college degree is the basic price of admission and the ability to read, write and reason is essential for success.

Let’s leave aside sad fact that the Times’s chief concern is that we may not have a sufficiently educated workforce—that, for example, $69 million energy company CEOs might not have enough $106,000 petroleum engineers to do the real work at a place like Exxon-Mobil—you know, of stuff like actually finding oil and gas and getting it out of the ground.

Let’s also leave aside the Times’s condescending omission of the idea that even back in the coal-dusty days of the industrial era students might have been reading Twain, Cather, Steinbeck and Salinger because they wanted what my friend Lizzie just last night called “a lifelong relationship with literature for its own sake.”

I’ll have more to say in a few days about basic K-12 skills, especially math, because it’s a subject that’s come up repeatedly for me lately.

What I was struck by today in reading the Times’s editorial Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in education, journalism, politics, technology, the arts, Times-watch | 1 Comment »

More out-of-control salaries

Posted by metaphorical on 25 February 2007

Late last year, Manhattan jeweler Ruedigar Albers sold a $31,000 Patek Philippe watch to an investment banker who’d just closed a big deal. The banker liked the watch so much he placed an order for another one on the spot — saying he might give it to a colleague.

According to a survey of more than 200 Wall Street professionals who took home at least $2 million in cash from their 2006 bonuses, respondents are spending 11% of their payouts, on average, on watches and jewelry. For even the lowest-paid bankers in the survey, that’s a bling budget of more than $200,000.

The other day I wrote about CEO compensation. A story in Friday’s Wall Street Journal shows it isn’t just top salaries that are out of control.

The first problem raised by this story is the extreme greed it depicts, of Wall Street wealth and year-end bonuses so great that some recipients have nothing better to do with it than buying a second $31,000 watch.

The second problem with the Journal itself. Let’s look first at the money, and then what the Journal has to say about it.

While the poll, by wealth-research firm Prince & Associates of Redding, Conn., is only a sampling of the Street, it adds to growing signs of an entirely new level of consumption there. Last year, Wall Street bonuses jumped an average of 15% to 20%, meaning that the senior bankers with the title of managing director received average pay of between $2.2 million to $3.8 million, according to the Options Group, a New York consulting firm. Overall, according to an estimate released by New York state, Wall Street will pay a record $23.9 billion this year in bonuses.

The Journal’s take on this is that

The average amount diverted to savings and investments, meanwhile, is 16.5%. “What surprised me is the low savings and investing rates for people who are making millions of dollars a year,” says Russ Alan Prince, president of Prince & Associates. “This says to me that Wall Street expects the good times to continue.”

But as it turns out, and as the Journal itself reports, they’re not just buying bling, they’re investing – they’re just not putting it all in 401Ks.

The Street crowd is spending the biggest share of its bonuses on homes, especially second or third ones: Some 16% of last year’s bonuses went toward purchasing residences, with another 10% going toward home improvements. Respondents say they’re spending about 12% of their money on fine art and collectibles, while 14% went toward “other” — a category that includes hobbies such as horses and flying lessons, as well as “mistresses and other lovers.”

A solid 26% of the bonus money was invested in homes; when you add the “savings and investments,” you’re at 42.5%, and with the resellable goods, 56.5%. Here’s the thing, though. Wall Street had a good year last year, and this year is 15-20% better. So if, hypothetically, the same dollar amount was used for investement, broadly understood, last year, it would have constituted as much as two-thirds of the bonuses. If they thought they were investing enough last year, why not spend the extra 15-20% this year largely on bling?

Which leads to the real problem with the Journal’s interpretation of its own numbers. Maybe the reason the investment quotient isn’t as high as the puritanical Journal thinks it should be isn’t because of an expectation that the good times will continue to roll, maybe it’s because they’ve been rolling for half a decade, and, really, for a decade and a half with only a small interruption.

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in journalism, language, politics | 3 Comments »

Oscar forecast: 51 percent chance of Sunshine?

Posted by metaphorical on 25 February 2007

Since the mathematically illiterate editors at the NY Times didn’t see fit to publish a letter I sent them on Friday, I thought I’d post it here. It concerns this article.

Meanwhile, enjoy the Oscars, and congrats, Martin Scorsese. The Departed was a thoroughly mediocre movie, but so much of your great work has gone unrecognized, especially the brilliant Gangs of New York (10 nominations, no statues), that whatever you collect tonight is well deserved.

To the Editor:

In his Oscar handicapping (“Some Hints, Before You Dive Into The Oscar Pool”), David Carr goes with “Little Miss Sunshine” in the original screenplay category, saying it “has tons of admirers, including, we guess, a majority of Academy voters.” I agree with Mr. Carr’s pick but not his prediction – with four other strong contenders, the word wanted here is “plurality.”

Posted in language, Times-watch | 4 Comments »

CEO v. worker pay

Posted by metaphorical on 24 February 2007

To put the CEO-worker pay gap in perspective, we calculated how much average production worker pay would be worth today if it had grown at the same rate as CEO pay. In 2005, the average worker would have made $108,138, compared to the actual average of $28,314. Similarly, if the federal minimum wage had grown at the same rate as CEO pay, it would have been $22.61 in 2005, instead of $5.15.


I’m still thinking about the remark I went off on earlier in the week, “I frankly don’t give a damn about the family living on $15K – or $50K – a year.”

The Institute for Policy Studies and United for a Fair Economy’s report, “Executive Excess 2006: Defense and Oil Executives Cash in on Conflict,” was their 13th annual compensation survey of CEO pay. They looked at “total executive compensation,” which includes “salary, bonuses, restricted stock awarded, payouts on other long-term incentives, and the value of options exercised in a given year; we do not include the estimated value of stock options awarded.”

In 2005, the average total compensation for CEOs of 350 leading U.S. corporations was $11.6 million, down slightly from $11.8 million in 2004. The ratio of CEO pay to average worker pay was 411-to-1 in 2005.

The multiple of the average worker salary has been higher—as high as 525 at the height of the dot-com bubble—and, even fairly recently, much lower—142 at the depths of the post-Reagan/Bush recession in the early 1990s.

But still the overall trend is up, up, and obscenely further up. In 1980, the multiple was a mere 42.

Even using 1990 as a baseline, over the past 16 years CEO pay as come to vastly exceed average corporate profits. If CEO’s were compensated only insofar as their companies made money, it would be hardly more than a third of what it is. While corporate profits are double what they were in 1990, CEO pay has quadrupled. Meanwhile, average worker pay—despite enormous gains in worker productivity—have hardly risen at all (4.3%) and the minimum wage earner—before the upcoming increase—is actually making less money than in 1990.

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Posted in politics, technology | 15 Comments »

The enemy within

Posted by metaphorical on 23 February 2007

Has the Bush administration been secretly making it easier for militias to take over the streets of our cities? The NY Times thinks so. So do I, but not in the way that the newspaper fears. In fact, the Times’s concern has already been refuted by a well-respected law professor. My concern has to do with the fact that the Times’s worst fears seem to have already been realized—posses reportedly patrolled the flooded streets of New Orleans after Katrina back in 2005 and shot at people.

A Times editorial earlier this week raised the concern that the Bush administration had, back in October, passed yet another of its laws “in the dead of night” that “strike to the heart of American democracy,” this one making it “easier for a president to override local control of law enforcement and declare martial law.”

The provision, signed into law in October, weakens two obscure but important bulwarks of liberty. One is the doctrine that bars military forces, including a federalized National Guard, from engaging in law enforcement. Called posse comitatus, it was enshrined in law after the Civil War to preserve the line between civil government and the military. The other is the Insurrection Act of 1807, which provides the major exemptions to posse comitatus. It essentially limits a president’s use of the military in law enforcement to putting down lawlessness, insurrection and rebellion, where a state is violating federal law or depriving people of constitutional rights. 

The newly enacted provisions upset this careful balance. They shift the focus from making sure that federal laws are enforced to restoring public order. Beyond cases of actual insurrection, the president may now use military troops as a domestic police force in response to a natural disaster, a disease outbreak, terrorist attack or to any “other condition.”

There are two things a bit odd about this editorial. First, nothing has changed in the four months since this October 2006 law. Second, a rather thorough-going refutation of exactly the view that the Times expresses was made—also back in October —by Michael Froomkin, a professor at the University of Miami School of Law. In a blog posting that was widely circulated at the time, Froomkin first quoted the new law:

(A) so hinders the execution of the laws of a State or possession, as applicable, and of the United States within that State or possession, that any part or class of its people is deprived of a right, privilege, immunity, or protection named in the Constitution and secured by law, and the constituted authorities of that State or possession are unable, fail, or refuse to protect that right, privilege, or immunity, or to give that protection; or
(B) opposes or obstructs the execution of the laws of the United States or impedes the course of justice under those laws.

and then went on to show that it changes existing law very little:

But here’s the thing: the section quoted above, the vaguest and broadest part of this statute, the very part that has some folks worrying out loud about martial law, is pretty much the same as the old language, which allowed the President to call out the troops to, 

suppress, in a State, any insurrection, domestic violence, unlawful combination, or conspiracy, if it—
(1) so hinders the execution of the laws of that State, and of the United States within the State, that any part or class of its people is deprived of a right, privilege, immunity, or protection named in the Constitution and secured by law, and the constituted authorities of that State are unable, fail, or refuse to protect that right, privilege, or immunity, or to give that protection; or
(2) opposes or obstructs the execution of the laws of the United States or impedes the course of justice under those laws.

Froomkin’s conclusion is that the if the new law is problematic, so too was the old one—and it has been for a very long time.

Laws like this are always troubling because there is no practical way to challenge their application. Unless it were willing to strike down the statute as a standardless delegation — a nearly moribund doctrine — it is very hard to see a court telling the President that, say, the chaos in New Orleans after the flood, or even the limited violence in Florida in 2000 when GOP operatives attacked the ballot counters, didn’t rise to a level that “opposes or obstructs the execution of the laws of the United States or impedes the course of justice under those laws.” The courts are going to label that a political question, or find some other excuse for the courts to duck the matter. 

But while this sort of executive discretion is always a problem for democratic rule, as I hope I’ve shown by juxtaposing the old language and the new it’s not a new problem, not at all.

I assume Froomkin is right about this; he’s the guy who’s paid to analyze laws; I have enough trouble just abiding by all of them. What’s disturbing is that the Times doesn’t even take a sentence to answer this widely-known refutatation. That’s not the way a public debate is supposed to be done, Times Op-Ed people. If you didn’t know about Froomkin, you didn’t do any research. If you did, well, that’s just intellectually dishonest.

But what’s even more disturbing is that both the Times and Froomkin—who recently reposted his refutation to Dave Farber’s influential Interesting People mailing list when the Times’s editorial was cited there—have ignored the fact that the Bush administration has already figured out a way to get militias doing what the Times fears, in a way that completely bypasses the old posse comitatus laws, the new one, and, probably, any possible one.

It’s pretty well known that we have private militia corporations—firms like Blackwater, DynCorp, and Intercon—and that we’ve been paying them premium wages to do soldiering in Iraq. But we did the same thing in Louisiana, which, despite its parishes and deference to the Napoleonic Code, is still one of the 50 United States.

Back on 22 September 2005, with the French Quarter still underwater and the X’s still not scrawled across homes and stores, Jeremy Scahill reported in The Nation that Blackwater and other private militia services brought their Uzis, flak jackets, and $350-a-day soldiers to New Orleans.

In an hourlong conversation I had with four Blackwater men, they characterized their work in New Orleans as “securing neighborhoods” and “confronting criminals.” They all carried automatic assault weapons and had guns strapped to their legs. Their flak jackets were covered with pouches for extra ammunition.  

When asked what authority they were operating under, one guy said, “We’re on contract with the Department of Homeland Security.”

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in journalism, Orwell, politics, Times-watch | 1 Comment »

Anna Nicole, O.J., and a galloping case of hiccups

Posted by metaphorical on 22 February 2007

If this were a game of Jeopardy, the question would be, “What’s wrong with the media?”

I don’t believe the country is rising up and demanding to know more about this woman’s sad life (well, maybe just the involvement of Zsa Zsa Gabor’s husband), and it’s not much of a newspaper story. But the dynamics are classic cable TV. In a Pew survey, 61 percent say the Anna Nicole saga is being overcovered, but 11 percent say they are following it very closely. Cable is catering to that 11 percent. (In fact, MSNBC has been covering the BREAKING NEWS of the latest court hearing pretty much continuously today.) In cable, you only need an extra half-million or million viewers to produce a serious spike in the ratings, and that’s why Anna Nicole, nearly two weeks after her death, is still sucking up plenty of cable oxygen.

That’s Howard Kurtz, the Washington Post’s astute media columnist, back on Tuesday.

(Thank-you to Al Romenesko of the Poynter Institute for links to the two stories discussed today.)

Kurtz is right as far as he goes. But the problem with the current cable channels isn’t that they cater to that 11 percent, but that no one is catering to any 11 percents of the people who want serious news, who, for example, would rather hear about whether Congress is going to stop funding the war in Iraq or perhaps even take charge of it themselves.

If we had 6 or 7 cable channels that weren’t obsessed with Anna Nicole Smith, we wouldn’t begrudge the two or two that were. Lest you think the news on the broadcast channels is any better, by the way, I guess you haven’t heard about their current obsession with hiccups.

Yes, hiccups. It seems a 15-year-old girl in St. Petersburg, Florida, “started hiccuping four weeks ago today and has yet to stop,” according to a story in the local paper there.

The competition for her story became so frenzied over the weekend that NBC’s Today show changed Jennifer and her mother’s New York hotel after another network’s exhaustive attempts to get an interview. …

Representatives from ABC’s Good Morning America called Jennifer’s home 57 times on Sunday and slipped notes under her hotel room door, her family said.

If three or four broadcast networks want to spend all their time on hiccupping, that would be fine, if there were 30 others that didn’t. The problem is that we don’t have 30 others, and that there a limited number of advertising dollars out there to support news-gathering operations.

To ask broadcasters to behave more responsibly is as futile as asking people to turn their sets to a different channel. Still, it’s fun to dream of a world where everyone has the same sense of honor as my friend Clay Shirky, who once said, “As a service to my country, I live my life as if I may at any moment be called to be an alternate in OJ’s trial, and am thus scrupulously careful to avoid contamination by the media.”

Posted in journalism, politics | 1 Comment »

Know anything special about numbers?

Posted by metaphorical on 22 February 2007

Now this is what make the Web special.

Erich Friedman, an Associate Professor of Mathematics at Stetson University, in DeLand, Florida, has a page called “What’s Special About This Number?” It has a list of numbers from 0 to 9999 and states for each one of them a unique property.

Here are a few examples:

5 is the number of Platonic solids.
6 is the smallest perfect number.
7 is the smallest number of faces of a regular polygon that is not constructible by straightedge and compass.
8 is the largest cube in the Fibonacci sequence.

Don’t know what a “perfect” number is? The site links to other pages around the Web that give detailed explanations. Mathematicians have tons of these technical terms (many of which use ordinary words, like “perfect”).

I had a major in math, and while I knew what a perfect number was, there are plenty of terms and ideas here that I didn’t learn in college, such as “hexomino.”

Friedman has an unfortunate tendency to link to Wolfram’s excellent MathWorld site, which gives extremely complicated, mathematically rigorous explanations (“perfect numbers are positive integers n such that n==s(n), where s(n) is the restricted divisor function (i.e., the sum of proper divisors of n), or equivalently sigma(n)==2n, where sigma(n) is the divisor function (i.e., the sum of divisors of n including n itself).”)

But the Web is rife with simpler ones, and Google knows where they are. For practical purposes, a perfect number is any whose factors, not counting itself, add up to itself: 1+2+3=6. 1, 2, 4, 7, and 14 add up to 28, which is the second perfect number.

Anyway, Friedman’s page is delightful. He doesn’t find an interesting fact for every number between 0 and 9999, but he does for 2,849 of them, which is remarkable. For example, 35 is the number of hexominoes, which are structures made up of six squares. The Wolfram explanation is more helpful here and it has a diagram:


Did you know that 38 is the last Roman numeral when written lexicographically? Or that 40 is the only number whose letters are in alphabetical order? That 727 has the property that its square is the concatenation of two consecutive numbers? I sure didn’t.

The best thing about this site is that Friedman asks:

If you know a distinctive fact about a number not listed here, please e-mail me.

I’m sure that over time, each of the missing 7,151 factoids will be filled in, some of the existing ones will be improved, and the list will expand into the five-digit numbers and beyond. The Web can be the sum of all knowledge, assembled collaboratively, lovingly, in a way that’s never been possible before. We’ve put together a remarkable fraction of the world’s knowledge so far. Imagine what it will look like in a 100 years, if we don’t get in its way.

Posted in technology | 2 Comments »

How a journalist invented that Al Gore invented the Internet

Posted by metaphorical on 20 February 2007

Quotes can spin around and around, even though they’re inaccurate. Once the meme has popped out of the bottle, it’s impossible to jam it back in. Should we care?

Mary Ann Akers, in her Washington Post blog, reported the other day on one misquote that’s been misquoted at least 18,000 times.

During floor debate on the Iraq war yesterday, Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) quoted Abraham Lincoln as advocating the hanging of lawmakers who undermine military morale during wartime.  

“Congressmen who willfully take action during wartime that damage morale and undermine the military are saboteurs, and should be arrested, exiled or hanged,” Young declared.

One problem: Lincoln never said such a thing.

Conservative scholar J. Michael Waller did, in an article for Insight magazine in December 2003. Waller later told Annenberg Political Fact Check that the supposed quote “is not a quote at all” but that a copy editor mistakenly put quotation marks around his words, making them appear to be Lincoln’s.

Annenberg has counted 18,000 references to the Lincoln “quote” by those who typically support President Bush’s war policy.

That’s bad, but it’s not as if Lincoln lost an election over a misquote. But arguably Al Gore did.

On Saturday, Gore will probably get an Academy Award for his documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth.” It will mark the culmination of a remarkable political rehabilitation that’s taken 7 years. But one thing he’ll never shake is the inconvenient falsehood that he said that he invented the Internet. Yet he never said it. That he never said it has been documented thoroughly, and still people say he said it. Vint Cerf and Robert Kahn, who arguably did invent the Internet, have said that what Gore did say, the limited thing that he did take credit for, was true. And yet, for the past 8 years, I’m not sure I’ve had a conversation where Gore’s name has come up without someone jokingly referencing it.

Much of the following historical reconstruction was done originally by Phil Agre in his now-defunct and much-missed Red Rock Eater newsletter. It’s all masterfully coallated by Seth Finkelstein’s excellent
page here.

Here’s the sentence at issue, before tech journalist Declan McCullagh reworded it.

“During my service in the United States Congress, I took the initiative in creating the Internet.”

At 3:00 a.m. EST, on 11 March 1999, McCullagh, at the time a reporter for Wired News, wrote an article, “No Credit Where It’s Due.” It started like this:

WASHINGTON — It’s a time-honored tradition for presidential hopefuls to claim credit for other people’s successes. 

But Al Gore as the father of the Internet?

That’s what the campaigner in chief told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer during an interview Tuesday evening. Blitzer asked Gore how he was different than other presumptive Democratic challengers, such as Bill Bradley. “What do you have to bring to this that he doesn’t necessarily bring to this process?”

Two paragraphs later, McCullagh gets around to quoting the actual quote. He then took Gore to talk for having not invented the Arpanet, the predecessor network that, several generations of networking later, led to the Internet. But that was just the start.

Later that morning, House Majority Leader Armey released a statement headlined, Armey Applauds Vice President Gore for Ingenuity, Creativity and Imagination.” By 3:00 p.m., twelve hours after his original story was pushed on-line, McCullagh put out a message on his influential mailing list, Politech, with the subject line:

House Majority Leader Armey on Gore “inventing the Internet”

Once let out of its bottle, the word “invent” would never make its way back in.

By 23 March, McCullagh was able to write another article, crowing about how far and wide the meme had spread.

Inveterate neatnik Trent Lott, Senate majority leader, claimed credit for inventing the paper clip. House Republicans joined the chorus, with majority leader Dick Armey taking credit for the interstate highway system. 

Next came the media feeding frenzy. On 11 March, Wired News was the first to report Gore’s remarks. Hundreds of articles were quick to appear, many drawing the inevitable comparisons to Gore’s other gaffes.

He went on to mention the story that “Gore took credit for inspiring the tough-guy hero in Erich Segal’s novel Love Story,” which also happens to not be true. (The Daily Howler deconstructed this out-of-the-bottle meme here. There’s also the one about Gore taking credit for Love Canal; the Daily Howler took that on here.)

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Posted in journalism, politics, the arts | 36 Comments »

The banality of courage

Posted by metaphorical on 19 February 2007

I guess I’ve been walking around in some kind of dream state for 50 years. A number of people, it seems, are far more callous and cruel than I’ve understood. Have I been side by side to what Hannah Arendt called “the banality of evil” all these years? A innocent-looking thread on a mailing list forced the question upon me.

One list member threw out a simple question: Does economic inequality matter?

After the usual fits and starts with an open-ended query like that, one member stated the case for lessening inequality with this:

> For crying out loud, even if we tax someone making a million dollars 50%,
> how morally impoverished do they have to be to complain they are as
> “wretched” as a family living on $15,000 a year?

To which another member, R., wrote the following (reprinted here with permission):

> > Whose morals are you using? I frankly don’t give a damn about the
> > family living on $15K – or $50K – a year.
> > You want to steal – via armed robbery – half of what I make, or
> > more. That is wrong. Government *has* to treat me equally to all
> > others. That means a either a flat tax or a sales tax.
> > This progressive BS has to stop.
> > Must we terminate all the progressive tax advocates to make this go away?
> > We can do that. No guns required.
> > When are the “progressives” going to get *it* that their position is
> > armed robbery?
> > When we nail them to an “X” and leave them out to die, Roman style?
> > Yeesh.

There’s so much to be repulsed by here it’s hard to know where to begin, but “I frankly don’t give a damn about the family living on $15K – or $50K – a year” is as good a place as any.

Now R. happens to be a very pleasant guy on the mailing list most of the time. While you never know who’s really sitting at the other end of a keyboard located deep in cyberspace, he comes across as a member of a type you see often enough if you’re on-line often enough, for long enough: a Rocky-Mountain-state engineer or other professional, white, upper-middle class, middle-aged and almost always divorced.

The R.’s of the world are politically libertarian, though usually making a good living off the government teat indirectly as an employee or consultant for some large corporation with big defense or, nowadays, homeland security contracts. They hunt and fish, seemingly build their mountain redoubts by hand themselves, and extol the virtues of every self-sufficiency from dressing their own meat to home-schooling their children, two activities that can sound frighteningly similar when they brag of them. (Elsewhere in the thread, R. blamed the inferiority of inner city schools not on poverty or inadequate funding, but on teachers’ unions.) They have almost as many guns in the home as books and the 2nd Amendment is by far the most important, since we can recover from the loss of all the others by using our home armories to “take back the country” whenever necessary.

And yet, it’s hard not to find an R. entirely unlikeable. They’re usually excellent raconteurs who seem to find on-line discourse difficult owing to the impossibility of reaching through cyberspace to refill your glass from their own bottle, which is likely to be a well-chosen, well-aged single-malt. And they’re usually men (R.’s are uniformly men) of responsibility and honor. If they’re quick to go to war, at least they’re veterans themselves, and while it’s difficult to turn their minds around, it can happen from time to time when you least expect it.

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Posted in language, philosophy, politics | 13 Comments »

God, the universe, and nothing else

Posted by metaphorical on 17 February 2007

The juxtaposition earlier this week of atheism and Andzrej Mostowski (my Berkeley math logic professor) proved surprisingly combustible, igniting some new thoughts last night. I don’t know what Mostowski’s feelings about religion were; I assume, but have no way of knowing, that he would have been some sort of nearly-agnostic Deist, along the lines of what I understand Einstein to have believed.

As Mostowski explained Intuitionism, it too was agnostic, at least about some mathematical entities and ideas. Among them are infinities; it didn’t disbelieve in them so much as withheld belief. And from infinity, it’s just a short hop, at least when you’re drifting off to sleep, to God.

The Wikipedia entry on Constructivism (Intuitionism is a form of it) is helpful here:

In fact, L.E.J. Brouwer, founder of the intuitionist school, viewed the law of the excluded middle as abstracted from finite experience, and then applied to the infinite without justification.

[The law of the excluded middle says that for every proposition p, either p or not-p (in logical notation, p v ~p) is true. It seems even more obvious than Euclid’s parallel-line postuate, so it’s unsurprising that everything changes when you don’t accept it. We’ll come back to the topic of infinity in a minute.]

For instance, Goldbach’s conjecture is the assertion that every even number (greater than 2) is the sum of two prime numbers. It is possible to test for any particular even number whether or not it is the sum of two primes (for instance by exhaustive search), so any one of them is either the sum of two primes or it is not. And so far, every one thus tested has in fact been the sum of two primes. 

But there is no known proof that all of them are so, nor any known proof that not all of them are so. Thus to Brouwer, one cannot say “either Goldbach’s conjecture is true, or it is not.” And while the conjecture may one day be solved, the argument applies to similar unsolved problems; to Brouwer, the law of the excluded middle was tantamount to assuming that every mathematical problem has a solution.

Atheism is sometimes seen as a macho version of agnosticism, but this is a burly agnosticism that anyone could be proud of. Imagine withholding not just belief, but a truth value, to a proposition simply because we cannot construct a proof!

To jump ahead for a moment, I call myself an atheist, but this industrial-strength agnosticism is probably more to my liking. I’ve said in the past that I find the proposition “God exists” meaningless, in the literal sense that I can’t assign meanings to the constituent words. It’s probably more accurate, though, to say that I don’t assent to the proposition that “God exists or God does not exist” (p v ~p), because I cannot imagine how to construct a proof of either side of the disjunction.

Mostowski spent a lot of time talking about infinity and what the Intuitionists think about it. He said pretty much what the quote above says, that mathematicians sometimes say things about finite sets and then say the same things about infinite sets as if the difference didn’t matter. One example is the different “sizes” of different infinities—Cantor “proved” that while the set of odd numbers is just as large as the set of odd and even numbers, even though it is a proper subset of it. He also “proved” that the infinity of the real numbers is fundamentally larger than the infinity of whole numbers. I put the word “proved” in quotes here because these are not necessarily proofs that all mathematicians would be happy with.

As I understood it from Mostowski, the Intuitionists weren’t very comfortable with talking about infinities at all, and they could be quite circumspect about it. “For every number x, there is an x+1” is a sentence an Intuitionist is very comfortable with. “There are an infinite number of numbers,” is not, and they would recast the one into the other. “Add 1” is a clear (and finite!) method of construction.

My point here isn’t to examine those proofs or Intuitionism itself, but to draw from it the basic lesson that, to paraphrase the description of Brouwer, we cannot take ideas abstracted from finite experience and then apply them to the infinite without justification.

I think the same can be said of “the universe,” a concept much related to that of infinity. We sling the word around as if it were a finite concept, like “the White House” or “the Earth.” Physicists in particular have put ideas out into the world that make it easy to talk this way. “The universe is 14 billion years old,” “The universe is largely composed of dark matter,” “The universe is expanding.”

Physicists have a technical sense in which they are using the term “universe” (at least I hope they do), and these sentences can make sense, they can be true or false, evidence can be marshaled in favor or against, in that technical sense. But the sentences bleed out into ordinary speech, and once the enter the atmosphere of everyday life, the meaning of the term “universe” loses whatever spark of precision it had within the Leyden jar of the physical sciences.

And so we talk of the universe as if it were one thing in the world among others, instead of as the totality of all things. Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in language, philosophy, religion | 8 Comments »

A copyright lawyer tackles the SuperBowl

Posted by metaphorical on 16 February 2007

Just when you thought the irony-laden intersection of copyright law and digital media couldn’t get more Beckett-like in its absurdity, along comes the case of Wendy Seltzer vs YouTube and the NFL.

Seltzer is a visiting professor at Brooklyn Law School. This semester she’s teaching Internet law and copyright law, and in that context she posted to YouTube a particular snippet of this year’s SuperBowl. It wasn’t one of the many turnovers that marred a game that wasn’t likely to be very interesting in the first place, rather it was the NFL’s unique copyright notice, a spacious land-grab of a legal claim as expansive as Miami’s Dolphin Stadium. You’ve seen it dozens of times, but it never loses its Kafkaesque charm, so let’s look at it again:

This telecast is copyrighted by the NFL for the private use of our audience. Any other use of this telecast or of any pictures, descriptions, or accounts of the game without the NFL’s consent, is prohibited.

In other words, the NFL claims for itself just about every possible right to the game, even the right to block “accounts” of it. That would, one imagines, include even a tedious blow-by-blow blog entry written after watching XLI in one’s living room. You can see where a classroom studying copyright law might find this noteworthy.

Seltzer posted the clip—which is clearly fair use and not in any way an “account” about the game itself—to YouTube, blogged about it, and sat back and waited. The NFL apparently complained and YouTube rapidly and rather automatically removed the clip. If you follow the link from Seltzer’s blog you get a YouTube page that says:

“This video is no longer available due to a copyright claim by National Football League.”

Of course this comes in the wake of YouTube’s take-down of 100,000 clips that Viacom claims infringed its copyrights. As News.com reported yesterday:

Two weeks ago, when Viacom demanded that YouTube remove 100,000 videos featuring unauthorized clips of its films or TV shows, some innocent users got caught up in the sweep, said the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), an advocate for the rights of Internet users. In a video posted to YouTube last week, EFF said it wanted to hear from anyone who may have been unfairly blamed. 

Two such examples include the removal of a homemade movie of a group of friends eating ribs and a trailer for a documentary about a gay professional wrestler, both of which contained no Viacom copyrighted material, EFF said.

It should be pointed out that the two stories have a non-null intersection in a couple of ways; Seltzer at one time worked as a staff attorney for the EFF.

What makes the YouTube story a bit complicated is that it’s not as if Viacom didn’t have a point. If I watch Jon Stewart on YouTube instead of Comedy Central, Viacom can’t get get credit from its advertisers and if enough people do it, the whole system breaks down (as Immanuel Kant would say, copyright infringment fails the universalizability test). We can note that the entire system of free television paid for by advertising was always a Rube Goldberg contraption held together with fraying twine, dried spit, and inaccurate Nielsen surveys, but that’s really a different issue. It’s the contraption we have, like it or not.

And indeed, on the other hand, when I was in China, Comedy Central was unavailable and YouTube was a lifeline of Jon Stewart segments and other cultural touchstones from the homeland.

Copyright law is always a balance between competing interests and, nowadays, finding the right interface to reflect that balance in the technologies by which we read and view copyrighted works.

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

Blogging, inequality, and the tyranny of big media

Posted by metaphorical on 15 February 2007

“Our democracy, is now put to a vital test, for the conflict is between human rights on the one side, and on the other, special privilege asserted as property rights. The parting of the ways has come.”
—Teddy Roosevelt

Bill Moyers quoted Roosevelt last week at a keynote address to 3500 activists at an odd conference in an odd place for an activist conference: the third National Conference on Media Reform, held in Memphis, Tenn.

Over the previous decades, a series of megamedia mergers have swept the country, each deal bigger than the last. The lobby representing the broadcast, cable, and newspapers industry was extremely powerful, with an iron grip on lawmakers and regulators alike. 

Both parties bowed to their will, when the Republican Congress passed and President Clinton signed the Telecommunications Act of 1996. That monstrous assault on democracy, with malignant consequences for journalism, was nothing but a welfare giveaway to the largest, richest, and most powerful media conglomerations in the world. Goliaths, whose handful of owners controlled, commodified, and monetized everyone and everything in sight. Call it “the plantation mentality.”

Moyers delicately wove together two very different messages. First was the consolidation of wealth:

None of this is accidental. Nobel laureate economist, Robert Solow, not known for extreme political statements, characterizes what is happening as “nothing less than elite plunder,” the redistribution of wealth in favor of the wealthy, and the power in favor of the powerful. In fact, nearly all the wealth America created over the past 25 years has been captured by the top 20% of households, and most of the gains went to the wealthiest. The top 1% of households captured more than 50% of all the gains in financial wealth, and these households now hold more than twice the share their predecessors held on the eve of the American revolution.

Second is the enormous and recent trend toward media consolidation that puts almost all the sources of information that ordinary people get, into the hands of a tiny number of companies—an oligopoly—dedicated to corporate profits and, ultimately, into the hands of the already rich, further enriching them.

What does today’s media system mean for the notion of an informed public cherished by democratic theory? Quite literally, it means that virtually everything the average person sees or hears outside of her own personal communications, is determined by the interests of private, unaccountable executives and investors whose primary goal is increasing profits and raising the country’s share price. More insidiously, this small group of elites determine what ordinary people do not see or hear. In-depth coverage of anything, let alone the problems real people face day to day, is as scarce as sex, violence, and voyeurism are pervasive.  

Successful business model or not, by democratic standards, this is censorship of knowledge by monopolization of the means of information. In its current form, which Barry Diller happily describes as “oligopoly,” media growth has one clear consequence. There is more information and easier access to it, but it’s more narrow and homogenous in content and perspective, so that what we see from the couch is overwhelmingly a view from the top.

Sounding remarkably like George Orwell in “Politics and the English Language” in analyzing the vapid rhetoric that passes for public discourse today, Moyers blamed media consolidation.

Day after day, the ideals of fairness and liberty and mutual responsibility have been stripped of their essential dignity and meaning in people’s lives. Day after day, the egalitarian creed of our Declaration of Independence is trampled underfoot by hired experts and sloganeers, who speak of the “death tax,” “the ownership society,” “the culture of life,” “the liberal assault on God and family,” “compassionate conservatism,” “weak on terrorism,” “the end of history,” “the clash of civilizations,” “no child left behind.” They have even managed to turn the escalation of a failed war into a “surge,” as if it were a current of electricity through a wire, instead of blood spurting from the ruptured vein of a soldier.  

The Orwellian filigree of a public sphere in which language conceals reality, and the pursuit of personal gain and partisan power is wrapped in rhetoric that turns truth to lies, and lies to truth, so it is that limited government has little to do with the Constitution or local economy anymore. Now it means corporate domination and the shifting of risk from government and business to struggling families and workers. Family values now mean imposing a sectarian definition of the family on everyone else. Religious freedom now means majoritarianism and public benefits for organized religion without any public burdens. And patriotism has come to mean blind support for failed leaders.

It’s what happens when an interlocking media system filters through commercial values or ideology, the information and moral viewpoints people consume in their daily lives. And by no stretch of the imagination can we say today that the dominant institutions of our media are guardians of democracy.

The irony, of course, is that I’m writing about this speech on a blog, you’re reading it on a blog, and I first read the speech on a blog. Blogs are precisely a form of information and public discourse that’s beyond the reach of Big Media. It’s a point that didn’t escape Moyers’s ken:

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Posted in journalism, Orwell, politics, technology | 3 Comments »

Creationism, geology, and a scientist’s soul

Posted by metaphorical on 14 February 2007

At first, I thought Marcus Ross was an idiot and the University of Rhode Island was wrong to grant his Ph.D. in geosciences. But then I started to think about my mathematical logic professor, Andrzej Mostowski, and I’m not entirely sure.

As described the other day in a NY Times article (“A creationist takes a place in the world of fossils,” reprinted in the International Herald Tribune here):

Ross is hardly a conventional paleontologist. He is a “young-Earth creationist.” He believes that the Bible is a literally true account of the creation of the universe and that the Earth is at most 10,000 years old.

For him, Ross said, the methods and theories of paleontology are one “paradigm” for studying the past, and Scripture is another. In the paleontological paradigm, he said, the dates in his dissertation are entirely appropriate. The fact that as a young-Earth creationist he has a different view just means, he said, “that I am separating the different paradigms.”

A friend of mine believes this to be possible to do, comparing it to believing “both Euclidian and non-Euclidean geometries as valid in their own contexts.”

Of course, on the face of it the paradigm talk is absurd, and the comparison to geometry inapt. Plenty of people, such as another friend, a retired geology professor in Connecticut, believe the Bible and contemporary ideas of evolution and geologic history to be true, but they believe the Bible to be allegorically true, or true in principle, but not literally. To say you are a “young-Earth creationist” and the Earth is at most 10,000 years old is to believe that the Bible is literally true. And if the Bible is literally true, it’s not just one of several paradigms in the sense of alternate geometries, it’s true, as in a-man-is-on-trial-for-murder-and-you-as-a-witness-have-to-tell-the-truth true.

So really, for Ross only the paleontological paradigm is a paradigm, something that can be supposed for the sake of argument to be true, in the same way that when Hilbert came along with non-Euclidean geometries at the turn of the 20th century, everyone still believed Euclidean geometry to be true-true, while Hilbert spaces were “interesting” and “valid,” meaning self-consistent and internally coherent.

And so I thought the paradigm talk to be bullshit, and a smokescreen, and the university to be complicit and culpable.

But then I remembered Mostowski. When I met him, it was the summer of 1973, between my freshman and sophomore years of college. For some reason I had got it into my head to spend the summer at Berkeley. Mostowski was teaching a math logic class, which I was utterly unprepared for, even more than I knew beforehand. I also signed up for an epistemology class, which I wasn’t worried about it, but the math class had me terrified as well as excited.

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Freedom is a journey, sometimes by bus

Posted by metaphorical on 14 February 2007

From a “Letter From The Closet” to Soulforce, an activist gay and lesbian Christian ministry.

Growing up, I was raised in a fundamentalist Baptist household. I committed my life to Christ at a very young age. While I grew in my faith throughout my childhood, I also began to have these feelings that no one spoke about. It wasn’t until my freshman year in high school that I finally grasped what was happening. It was then that I realized I was having attractions for other guys. The thought that I might be gay scared me. I didn’t understand how this could be. I knew what my church had to say about it. I was very active in my youth group, read my bible, prayed daily, and had a deep respect for–and a good relationship with–both of my parents. I felt close to God at this point, and yet I knew this secret part of my life also existed. While I attempted to repress any thought that I might be gay, there were constantly nagging feelings that I was different. By denying my feelings, I was only lying to myself. I knew what was going on inside my heart, and yet it wasn’t until college that I finally dealt with these feelings. 

For years, I had been looking forward to attending a Christian college. I wanted to be surrounded by students and faculty who would support me in my walk with God and challenge my faith. After visiting Bethel, I knew that this was the place that God wanted me to attend.

Experiences like this, and letters like this one, inspired Soulforce to create an “Equality Ride,” a national bus ride of protest, modeled on the desegregationist Freedom Rides of 1961. (Soulforce discusses this history here.)

In 2006, during the inaugural Equality Ride, participants traveled to nineteen schools and engaged students, faculty, and administrators in conversation about the damaging effects of homophobic doctrine, the false notion that lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender identities are sick and sinful. This year, the journey continues with fifty-seven young adults going to thirty-two Christian colleges and universities. Two buses are taking the group on two distinct routes around the country in creative pursuit of social justice. In doing so, they are empowered to change countless lives. Love liberates the oppressed, redeems the lost, and resurrects the spirit.

The colleges they visited all have policies that ban homosexuals and homosexuality in the name of “Christian principles.” The Covenant College (Georgia) student handbook is typical:

“Student are also required to abstain from all activities which violate Biblical teachings, such as theft, drunkenness, slanderous or profane language, all forms of dishonesty including cheating, and sexual sins (such as premarital sex, adultery, homosexual behavior and the use or possession of obscene or pornographic material).”

To read the accounts of the 2006 ride, success was mixed. The first stop was at Lee University:

Today was a reminder that success is always subjective. We spent the day at Lee University in Cleveland, Tennessee, a Pentecostal school. Half the Riders spent the morning engaging in one-on-one dialogue — this because at 10 p.m. last night, the administration at Lee revoked their offer for us to have public forums, to give speeches, and to assemble in groups larger than three or four.

The bus was sprayed with graffiti — “Fags-Mobile” in hot pink spray paint — but on the other hand some other Cleveland residents helped them wipe it off. Lessons in tolerance and understanding apparently were exchanged in both directions:

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Making the Internet easier to police

Posted by metaphorical on 13 February 2007

I find myself looking for a good working definition of a police state. Wikipedia’s isn’t bad:

In a police state the police are not subject to the rule of law in an emergency and there is no meaningful distinction between the law and the exercise of political power by the executive.

What occasioned this lexicographical search is a story last week, “GOP revives ISP-tracking legislation.”

All Internet service providers would need to track their customers’ online activities to aid police in future investigations under legislation introduced Tuesday as part of a Republican “law and order agenda.” 

Employees of any Internet provider who fail to store that information face fines and prison terms of up to one year, the bill says. The U.S. Justice Department could order the companies to store those records forever.

Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, called it a necessary anti-cybercrime measure. “The legislation introduced today will give law enforcement the tools it needs to find and prosecute criminals,” he said in a statement.

Of course, we could also arm the police with and armored personnel carriers, nuclear-tipped rocket launchers, and attack helicopters. Surely there’s at least one criminal out there who can’t be caught if the police aren’t given all the weapons of a modern cavalry division. So what sorts of evil-doers are we talking about here?

Supporters of the proposal say it’s necessary to help track criminals if police don’t respond immediately to reports of illegal activity and the relevant logs are deleted by Internet providers. They cite cases of child molestation, for instance. Industry representatives respond by saying there’s no evidence that Internet providers have dragged their feet when responding to subpoenas from law enforcement.

Child molestation? We’re apparently going to abandon the entire Internet as a haven for privacy and free speech to crack an indeterminate, perhaps miniscule, number of child molesters. I don’t mean to diminish the consequences of child molestation in any way, but will we actually avert enough of them to justify the legislation being contempated? I not only doubt it, but I doubt the sincerity of those who wantonly trigger the natural fear of every parent for the safety of their children.

Terms like “child molestation,” “pornography,” “cybercrime,” and “cyberterrorism” are catch-phrases intended to evoke a sense of evil, without offering the listener any genuine sense of a danger that merits a rational response. They are the criminal-code, homeland-security versions of what Orwell describes as the problem of “meaningless words.”

Meaningless words. 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. 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.

Proponents of this legislation cannot provide any kind of analysis of actual patterns of criminality that will be ameliorated by legislation of this kind. They cannot provide any sense of proportionality, a weighing of the benefits and losses of turning the Internet into a police state.

There’s that phrase again. I, for my part, can’t be so cavalier in throwing around potentially meaningless phrases. Hence the lexicographical search.

Back in 2002 Rep. Ron Paul took up the question, “Is America a Police State?” Paul is not exactly a poster child for Bleeding Heart Liberalism—he’s a libertarian Republican from Brazoria county in Texas. See if this sounds at all familiar:

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Posted in language, Orwell, politics, technology | 1 Comment »

In case of radiation attack, watch your head

Posted by metaphorical on 13 February 2007

BlueAthena pointed to the site SafeNow.org today. It’s a hilarious reinterpretation of the “universally understood” signs being allegedly used by the Department of Homeland Security’s ready.gov site (though to tell the truth, I can’t find them there).

They actually get funnier as you move down the page. Here’s an example:


After exposure to radiation it is
important to consider that you
may have mutated to gigantic
dimensions: watch your head.

Safe for work, except for the laugh-out-loud-factor.

Posted in language, Orwell, politics | 5 Comments »

One artist’s view of Iraq

Posted by metaphorical on 13 February 2007

Posted without comment, two collections by the artist Trek Thunder Kelly: iPod Ghraib and Target Iraq.

Blogger MarkBrand says these were briefly unfindable via search engines and may have been briefly removed. I have no idea if that’s the case, but you can see where they would piss some people off.

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Hey, what’s this bird, this falcon that everybody’s all steamed up about?

Posted by metaphorical on 13 February 2007

  Gutman: Well, sir, here’s to plain speaking and clear understanding.

  Spade: Swell. Will we talk about the black bird?

In the Life-imitates-art-imitating-life department (via Boing Boing):

Maltese Falcon swiped

An official replica of the Maltese Falcon used in promo photos for the 1941 film has been stolen from John’s Grill in San Francisco. The statue was nabbed out of a locked cabinet where it was on display with signed Dashiell Hammett books and other rarities.

(For those who’d rather spend two hours reading a “summary” of the movie, there’s an exhausting exhaustive summary here. For those who’d rather just watch it, the IMDB page is here, and the fast track to Netflix is here.)

And in the neighboring Further-irony department, there’s a $25,000 reward for the replica, which of course is far more than Sam Spade ever got for finding it.

But then, this is the stuff that dreams are made of.

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