Politics, Technology, and Language

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

Archive for March, 2007

Colleges: one size fits some

Posted by metaphorical on 31 March 2007

Back in July, the president of Trinity University wrote an article, “For Graduation Rates, Time to Carve a New Yardstick” that argued that the using graduation rates to assess a college might work for some, but doesn’t for all.

In debates about accountability in higher education, few data points are as frequently misused as graduation rates. Graduation rates measure attendance time, not outcomes, predicated upon a narrow cohort of “traditional” students (fewer than 25 percent of today’s undergraduates) who start as full-time, first-time freshmen and graduate within six years at the same institution. Aside from traditional transfer students who are unfairly characterized as “dropouts”(even if they complete degrees on the same timetable elsewhere), this statistical blind spot is also biased against older, part-time students and many female and minority students, who are more likely to have the personal and financial challenges that accompany extended time to graduation. Millions of such students do complete their degrees, albeit on a “non-traditional” timetable and following a more circuitous collegiate pathway.

And as a one-size-fits-all criterion of quality, it’s unfair and counterproductive.

Unfortunately, graduation rates have become surrogates for institutional quality, factoring significantly in the U.S. News & World Report rankings. While graduation rates are agnostic about learning, they reveal much about the homogeneity of a given group of students. As Robert Zemsky points out in Remaking The American University: Market-Smart and Mission-Centered, economically wealthier families with higher parental educational rates will seek out institutions with high graduation rates, assuming that those rates mean academic quality. The continuing critical mass of high-achieving, high-income students keeps the graduation rate high.

Trinity is a women’s college in Washington D.C., a city with a majority minority population, so to speak. It’s a largely poor and black city, that is, with the D.C. area looking like an extreme version of white-flight: the white and well-to-do live in suburban counties of Maryland and Virginia like Loudoun, Fairfax, Howard, three of the richest counties in America.

Most of Trinity’s undergraduates are “nontraditional” — even those who are between 18 and 22 years old. Largely self-supporting, they work substantial hours, often caring for children and elder parents. Sixty-five percent are Black, 15 percent are Latina. About 95 percent receive significant amounts of financial aid. For those who returned to school in their 30s and 40s, the choice to resume their studies arose from an overwhelming desire to succeed intellectually and professionally. These women are not “dropouts.” 

If these students do not graduate in four, five or six years, it’s not because they are deficient, or because Trinity has failed them. Rather, life happens — spouses get ill or leave, babies come along, parents need help, jobs change. I think of Gwen, who raised seven children during the 13 years she took to earn a Trinity baccalaureate. This past spring, she proudly walked across the stage with her master’s degree. Gwen is a great success story, but like Verna and millions of others, she is invisible to the policy makers who want students to go through college the way they did.

Why does this matter? Because among the many ways in which the Bush administration has been gutting this country’s institutions like a fish is an obscure attempt to undermine the college accreditation process.

Inside Higher Ed does a good job of trying to make clear what the administration is doing, though the accreditation process is a thoroughly convoluted as well as obscure one. There’s also a bit of an inside-baseball aspect to the way the story is told that speaking for myself, limited my understanding of it.

The gist of the story is clear though. Margaret Spellings, the U.S. Secretary of Education, convened a Commission on the Future of Higher Education. In September 2005 it reported out its findings. There seems to be a consensus in academia that there were some good things in the report, and quite a few bad things. Critics have charged that the report calls for a much greater federalization of the U.S. university system than has ever existed.

One of the key mechanisms maintaining the loosely-organized national system we have today is the accreditation process, whereby accredited colleges and universities are understood to all live up to some minimum level of quality and to, within limits, allow transfers of students and course credit from one accredited institution to another.

The Department of Education this week conducted a three-day meeting to negotiate “possible new regulations on higher education accreditation.”

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Posted in education, politics | 2 Comments »

Show me the money

Posted by metaphorical on 29 March 2007

If we want better educated young people, a generation who can read well and write well and and find Iowa and Iraq on a map, we may have to—I know this will come as a shock, so brace yourself—pay for it.

There’s been a big trend toward teaching writing skills in colleges, both in separate writing courses and labs, and while teaching the subject matter of individual disciplines, a phenomenon known by various names such as “Writing Across the Curriculum.”

Lord knows it’s needed. I remember grading test papers 30 years ago and seeing students who could fill a bluebook with things that started with capital letters and ended with periods, but didn’t contain grammatically well-formed sentences in between—sometimes not a single one in an entire exam. According to my nephews, things have not greatly improved in the intevening time.

Yet teaching writing, both in its own right and across the curriculum, takes instructors and other resources. In other words, it takes money.

Inside Higher Education reports that the average workload of the instructors on the front lines of the fight for a literate generation coming out of school— community college composition instructors— is 50 percent above what it should be. And for almost 30 percent of all such instructors, it’s double what it should be. Here are the numbers.

Results of a national survey – released at a session during last week’s annual meeting of the Conference on College Composition and Communication—found that those who teach writing at community colleges have a mean of 94 students a semester. The conference – a division of the National Council of Teachers of English—has guidelines that state that no faculty member should be teaching more than 60 writing students a semester – and fewer if the students have remedial or other special needs.

Not only has the norm started to greatly exceed desirable levels, but significant numbers of instructors are teaching well above the mean. The survey found that more than 20 percent of writing instructors at community colleges teach between 111 and 130 students each semester. And 9 percent report teaching 131 to 150 students a semester.

I assume that these instructors have a workload of 4 classes, since that would mean that the recommended level is 15 students per class. That seems reasonable when teaching undergraduates. My experience in an MFA writing program is that 8 students is ideal, 10 is fine, and 12 is pushing it. That’s at the graduate level, where papers are much longer and arguably you need more time for nuanced consideration of what makes for the difference between good and great.

So leaving the idyll of grad school and dividing by 4, we get a real-world average of 23 or 24 students. Two out of ten classrooms have 28-32 students, and 9 percent are even more crowded than that. You can’t really teach much good writing even at the lowest of those numbers. I’m not even sure you could teach a good class in social psychology or cost accounting with that many students. Let’s remember what a writing class involves: lots of writing by the students, which means lots of feedback—reading and editing and commenting and office hours discussions.

Composition professors say such limits are essential because good writing instruction – especially at colleges where many students may not have received adequate instruction in high school – is intensive, involving constant assignments that need to be graded promptly so students can learn from mistakes and advance.

As the article suggests, the pressure on colleges, especially community colleges, would be less if students came out of high school with more—more in the way of writing skills, that is. As the NY Times reported this week, it turns out high schools are working on it. But it takes—you guessed it—money.

States and school districts nationwide are moving to lengthen the day at struggling schools, spurred by grim test results suggesting that more than 10,000 schools are likely to be declared failing under federal law next year.

In many districts across the country, the trend has taken hold. In Miami, 39 schools that are farthest behind have added an extra hour to the school day, as well as five days to the school year. In California, the small West Fresno district, with some of the lowest test scores in Fresno County, added an hour more of school a day for students in the fourth to eighth grades.

The reference to “grim test results” should be a red flag that what’s at issue is No Child Left Behind. Sure enough,

The surge of interest has been spurred largely by the federal No Child Left Behind law, which requires annual testing of students, with increasingly dire consequences for schools that fall short each year, including possible closing.

Pressed by the demands of the law, school officials who support longer days say that much of the regular day must concentrate on test preparation. With extra hours, they say, they can devote more time to test readiness, if needed, and teach subjects that have increasingly been dropped from the curriculum, like history, art, drama.

Let’s just linger for a moment and notice the Orwellian terminology. Regular instruction is now “test preparation.” Test preparation has taken time away from what we used to call high school instruction, which is now thought of as “test readiness.” If every moment of every school day is geared toward tests, it’s not hard to see why Johnny can’t read Dickens or even Salinger well, and, obviously, students who can’t read well won’t write well.

But let’s move on, because the point is moot. We aren’t even giving schools the money to do “test readiness” well.

Money also has proved a big obstacle. Murfreesboro, Tenn., experimented with a longer day, but abandoned the plan when the financing ran out, said An-Me Chung, a program officer at the C. S. Mott Foundation, which does education research. Typically, she said, lengthening the school day can add about 30 percent to a state’s per-pupil spending on education.

Karen Kay Harvey, an assistant secretary of education for New Mexico, said that the state could not afford to do more. Adding the equivalent of one extra day of school a year for all students could run from $3 million to $5 million, she said.

I wish the Times had looked into these numbers a little, instead of taking them at face value. For example, are any schools extending the day with study periods in which students do homework assignments and special projects. They could be staffed with, say, the better college students who could provide tutoring and other help and might enjoy making work-study wages mentoring instead of stacking dishes in the cafeteria? And wouldn’t that be less expensive than extending classes themselves by a few minutes?

Such a system would relieve the burden on single parents and double-income parents who get home at dinnertime and spend much of the evening overseeing homework. It seems at least worth trying.

Even that, of course, would take money. And apparently we’re going to have to find it somewhere, because one way or another, expanding the school day is the direction things are going.

“In 15 years, I’d be very surprised if the old school calendar still dominates in urban settings,” said Mark Roosevelt, superintendent of schools in Pittsburgh, which has added 45 minutes a day at eight of its lowest-performing schools and 10 more days to their academic year.

Posted in education, Orwell, the arts, writing | 29 Comments »

The Web as afterlife

Posted by metaphorical on 28 March 2007

Just to follow up on the previous post, while Life closed its doors, an increasing number of publications, from a variety of publishing niches, have closed down their print operations but are continuing on the Web. The four here come from the computer trade press, teen, entertainment, and women’s markets. You wouldn’t get a better spread throwing darts at a board blindfolded.


On26 March 2007 InfoWorld reported about itself that

InfoWorld folds print mag to focus on online and events

Yes, the rumors are true. As of April 2, 2007, InfoWorld is discontinuing its print component. No more printing on dead trees, no more glossy covers, no more supporting the US Post Office in its rush to get thousands of inky copies on subscribers’ desks by Monday morning (or thereabouts). The issue that many of you will receive in your physical mailbox next week — vol. 29, issue 14 — will be the last one in InfoWorld’s storied 29-year history.


On 28 March 2007 The Wall Street Journal reported on that

Under Jack Kliger, a magazine-industry veteran, Hachette Filipacchi Media U.S. has turned two of its titles — ELLEgirl and the U.S. print edition of Premiere — into Internet-only outlets, their print editions shuttered. Both decisions reflected industry trends: Ad pages for Premiere were down nearly 25% in 2006, according to Publishers Information Bureau. While ELLEgirl’s ad performance was more robust, Hachette knew the long-term future of the magazine was clouded by how teenage girls use media. Mr. Kliger says ELLEgirl’s teen audience gets more of its information from computers and cellphones than it does from traditional magazines. What remains to be seen is if Web versions of magazines carry the same heft and authority as their print counterparts.


NY Times reported on 28 March 2007 that

The Meredith Corporation, a book and magazine publisher, said yesterday that Child magazine would be printed for the last time this spring, although the magazine’s Web site will continue to post original content. The company announced the move as part of a broader restructuring that will eliminate 60 jobs, 30 of them at Child.

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The theory of Life

Posted by metaphorical on 28 March 2007

Life Magazine is dead—again. The magazine that is. In a memo to all Time Inc staff, CEO Ann Moore said on Monday, “I regret to inform you that we will no longer be producing LIFE magazine, effective with the April 20th 2007 issue.” The NY Times reported:

This time, the magazine’s demise looks permanent, largely because Life is moving its huge archive of photographs onto the Web, where consumers will be able to download them free.  

The magazine once featured the work of some of the world’s greatest photographers. In its current incarnation, it has dwindled to 20 pages of mostly celebrity interviews and homemaking tips. The last issue will be April 20.

The Times article offered an analysis which basically argues that Life, the #3 newspaper supplement, failed because it wouldn’t emulate the category’s #1, Parade, and #2, USA Weekend; it had an idea to be a different sort of publication from them, which theory doomed it to failure.

I think just the reverse—a different theory was the right idea, but unfortunately, Life didn’t drink enough of it’s own Kool-Aid. Not enough Kool-Aid, and one other thing—it would have helped if Moore was a reader of climbing magazines.

I’ll explain that, but let’s first recap Life’s life. The magazine began in 1936 in the mind of publishing genius Henry Luce as a sister publication to Time that would engage in the then-rare art and craft of photojournalism. Telling stories largely through pictures worked for 36 years, for some of those years, phenomenally well. As Wikipedia puts it,

The Luce Life was the first all-photography U.S. news magazine and dominated the market for more than forty years. The magazine sold more than 13.5 million copies a week at one point and was so popular that President Harry S. Truman, Sir Winston Churchill, and Gen. Douglas MacArthur all serialized their memoirs in its pages.  

Perhaps one of the best-known pictures printed in the magazine was Alfred Eisenstaedt’s shot of a nurse in a sailor’s arms, snapped on August 27, 1945, as they celebrated Victory Over Japan Day in New York City. The magazine’s place in the history of photojournalism is considered its most important contribution to publishing.

Life was wildly successful for two generations before its prestige was diminished by economics and changing tastes. Since 1972, Life has ceased publication twice, only to be brought back to readers in different incarnations.

The Times theory comes through in quotes from two media executives.

Randy Siegel, president and publisher of Parade, said that Time was wrong to “scapegoat” newspapers for Life’s problems. While newspapers are having problems, Mr. Siegel said, and their ad revenue declined steeply last month, “Life’s inability to be successful is a separate issue.” 

He praised Life’s editorial approach but said it had spurned the kind of advertisers that historically supported magazine supplements, like those that play on a reader’s buying impulses, often involving food or dieting.

“When they came into the category, they publicly declared that they didn’t need the support of direct-response advertisers and package-goods advertisers, which are two of the biggest categories of business for all of us,” Mr. Siegel said. “The folks at Life felt they could rely more heavily on upscale, brand advertising.”

Marcia L. Bullard, president and chief executive of USA Weekend, said that Life had high expenses because it used higher-quality paper and had a strategy of entering several large markets all at once, which increased its distribution costs. “Give them credit for trying as long as they did,” Ms. Bullard said, “but they didn’t gain the advertising traction they needed to continue.”

Okay, we now have all the pieces in place for my theory, except one—a conversation I had with my climbing partner, M., on our way to the climbing gym last week.

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Posted in journalism, technology, the arts | 3 Comments »

UK officials believed, but still denied, the Iraq bodycount

Posted by metaphorical on 27 March 2007

The BBC reported yesterday that despite publicly rejecting the findings of the so-called Iraq study group, British officials had privately accepted them.

LONDON: British government officials backed the methodology used by scientists who concluded that more than 600,000 Iraqis have been killed since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, the British Broadcasting Corp. reported Monday.

The government publicly rejected the findings, published in The Lancet medical journal in October. But the BBC said documents obtained under freedom of information legislation showed advisers concluded that the much-criticized study had used sound methods.

I’m quoting from an AP account, which appeared in the International Tribune and elsewhere yesterday.

The conclusion, based on interviews of households and not a body count, was disputed by some experts, and rejected by the U.S. and British governments.

U.S. President George W. Bush said he did not consider it “a credible report,” and Prime Minister Tony Blair’s official spokesman said the study had extrapolated from an unrepresentative sample of the population.

However, the chief scientific adviser to the Defense Ministry, Roy Anderson, described the methods used in the study as “robust” and “close to best practice.”

A memo from Anderson’s office to senior officials, obtained by the BBC World Service, said the chief scientist “recommends caution in publicly criticizing the study.”

In another document, a government official — whose name has been blanked out — said “the survey methodology used here cannot be rubbished, it is a tried and tested way of measuring mortality in conflict zones.”

The “more than 600,000” figure is 655,000, which itself is a midpoint between the high and low figures in the study.

The researchers, reflecting the inherent uncertainties in such extrapolations, said they were 95 percent certain that the real number lay somewhere between 392,979 and 942,636 deaths.

I wrote about the body-count deniers earlier this month. That post didn’t discuss the deniers in the UK, about which a column by Richard Horton in today’s Guardian Unlimited offers some more detail:

Immediately after publication, the prime minister’s official spokesman said that The Lancet’s study “was not one we believe to be anywhere near accurate”. The foreign secretary, Margaret Beckett, said that the Lancet figures were “extrapolated” and a “leap”. President Bush said: “I don’t consider it a credible report”.

Scientists at the UK’s Department for International Development thought differently. They concluded that the study’s methods were “tried and tested”. Indeed, the Hopkins approach would likely lead to an “underestimation of mortality”.

The Ministry of Defence’s chief scientific advisor said the research was “robust”, close to “best practice”, and “balanced”. He recommended “caution in publicly criticising the study”.

When these recommendations went to the prime minister’s advisers, they were horrified. One person briefing Tony Blair wrote: “are we really sure that the report is likely to be right? That is certainly what the brief implies?” A Foreign Office official was forced to conclude that the government “should not be rubbishing The Lancet”.

The prime minister’s adviser finally gave in. He wrote: “the survey methodology used here cannot be rubbished, it is a tried and tested way of measuring mortality in conflict zones”.

When government officials, in the UK or the U.S., know and accept scientific facts and still deny them, they undermine the scientific enterprise. When the subject at hand is the deaths of hundreds of thousands of human beings, their denials are unconscionable. When the denials are used to twist public policy toward sordid, deadly ends, it ought to be criminal.

Posted in journalism, language, Orwell, politics, technology | 2 Comments »

Call of the beguiled

Posted by metaphorical on 27 March 2007

I had always known that overhearing a cellphone call, say on an train, is more distracting than hearing two people talk, and it made sense. What I didn’t know until today was that there was some science to back it up—a 2004 paper makes the case that cellphones are at least as annoying to bystanders as very loud talking and perhaps more so.


Sixty four members of the public were exposed to the same staged conversation either while waiting in a bus station or travelling on a train. Half of the conversations were by mobile phone, so that only one end of the conversation was heard, and half were co present face-to-face conversations. The volume of the conversations was controlled at one of two levels: the actors’ usual speech level and exaggeratedly loud. Following exposure to the conversation participants were approached and asked to give verbal ratings on six scales. Analysis of variance showed that mobile phone conversations were significantly more noticeable and annoying than face-to-face conversations at the same volume when the content of the conversation is controlled. Indeed this effect of medium was as large as the effect of loudness. Various explanations of this effect are explored, with their practical implications.

The article, “Why are mobile phones annoying?”, is here. You have to buy it, but Jakob Nielsen, usability expert, blogged about it, showing some of the data and saying this about it:

Unfortunately, Monk and his colleagues don’t provide the final answer; more research is called for. But the problem seems to be that people pay more attention when they hear only half a conversation. It’s apparently easier to tune out the continuous drone of a complete conversation, in which two people take turns speaking, than it is to ignore a person speaking and falling silent in turns.

My guess is, that’s just because we’re less used to it. As we become accustomed to the still-novel rhythm of the cellphone call, it will be less distracting.

Meanwhile, we’re learning more and more about cellphones and how they affect ourselves as well as others. The NY Times had a good article Sunday on multitasking in general, which of course has some consequences for things like cellphone reaction times.

The more we know, the better. Speaking for myself, I use my phone quite a bit either when driving long distances on highways, or short trips I know by rote. I know, again, speaking for myself, that I’m not as safe a driver when I’m engaged in a phone conversation. The question is, how much less safe?

I’m going to quote a little bit more of the article than I need to, because I just like Steve Lohr’s writing here:

March 25, 2007
“Slow Down, Brave Multitasker, and Don’t Read This in Traffic,”

Confident multitaskers of the world, could I have your attention?

Think you can juggle phone calls, e-mail, instant messages and computer work to get more done in a time-starved world? Read on, preferably shutting out the cacophony of digital devices for a while.

Several research reports, both recently published and not yet published, provide evidence of the limits of multitasking. The findings, according to neuroscientists, psychologists and management professors, suggest that many people would be wise to curb their multitasking behavior when working in an office, studying or driving a car.

The human brain, with its hundred billion neurons and hundreds of trillions of synaptic connections, is a cognitive powerhouse in many ways. “But a core limitation is an inability to concentrate on two things at once,” said René Marois, a neuroscientist and director of the Human Information Processing Laboratory at Vanderbilt University.

They did MRI studies “to pinpoint the bottleneck in the brain and to measure how much efficiency is lost when trying to handle two tasks at once.”

The researchers said that they did not see a delay if the participants were given the tasks one at a time. But the researchers found that response to the second task was delayed by up to a second when the study participants were given the two tasks at about the same time.

Here’s the consequence for using a cellphone while driving:

In many daily tasks, of course, a lost second is unimportant. But one implication of the Vanderbilt research, Mr. Marois said, is that talking on a cellphone while driving a car is dangerous. A one-second delay in response time at 60 miles an hour could be fatal, he noted.

Again, just a guess on my part, but some of that may change as we become more accustomed to talking in public. In particular, there’s a way in which the conversation is drawn into the phone call that isn’t so much a consequence of phone calls as an artifact of how we’re used to conducting them.

I noticed when my step-daughter was growing up and starting to use the phone that her manner was completely different from mine. When I would come into the room while she was on the phone, instead of telling the person to hold on, then, cupping the phone, give me her attention, she did the opposite. She would engage me directly, expecting the person on the phone to hear me and, in effect, be part of a three-way conversation, just as if the friend were there in person.

Juliane’s way of being on the phone, in other words, was a way of being in the world in a way that mine is not. And that—not being in the world when you’re on the phone—is, I suspect, the biggest difference between being on the phone and, say, fiddling with the radio or CD player to find a song you like.

Speaking of the younger generation, Lohr cited another interesting study that looked at age and multitasking, one that suggests we may never get good enough at talking on the phone to make it completely safe while driving. After all, “according to conventional wisdom,” Lohr says, the young “are the most adept multitaskers.”

The younger group did 10 percent better when not interrupted. But when both groups were interrupted by a phone call, a cellphone short-text message or an instant message, the older group matched the younger group in speed and accuracy.

One of the researchers offered a theory about why:

“The older people think more slowly, but they have a faster fluid intelligence, so they are better able to block out interruptions and choose what to focus on.”

but my guess is, the effect is just a consequence of a true bottleneck in cognitive function. A Porsche 911 can’t go any faster than a Ford Focus when they’re both stuck in traffic at the entrance to the Holland Tunnel, one of the few situations in which it’s perfectly safe to use a phone in a car.

Posted in technology | 9 Comments »

Facing the music

Posted by metaphorical on 26 March 2007

Last Wednesday, the Wall Street Journal took a careful look at last year’s steep decline in music sales.

In a dramatic acceleration of the seven-year sales decline that has battered the music industry, compact-disc sales for the first three months of this year plunged 20% from a year earlier, the latest sign of the seismic shift in the way consumers acquire music.  

The sharp slide in sales of CDs, which still account for more than 85% of music sold, has far eclipsed the growth in sales of digital downloads, which were supposed to have been the industry’s salvation.

We may be approaching the day when musical acts are no longer able to make a living selling their music.

Jeff Rabhan, who manages artists and music producers including Jermaine Dupri, Kelis and Elliott Yamin, says CDs have become little more than advertisements for more-lucrative goods like concert tickets and T-shirts. “Sales are so down and so off that, as a manager, I look at a CD as part of the marketing of an artist, more than as an income stream,” says Mr. Rabhan. “It’s the vehicle that drives the tour, the merchandise, building the brand, and that’s it. There’s no money.”

Mr Rabhan, welcome to my world.

Consider, if you will, the economics of book-writing.

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Posted in technology, the arts, writing | 9 Comments »

What goes to Vegas doesn’t necessarily stay in Vegas

Posted by metaphorical on 25 March 2007

My regular rock climbing partner, M., won’t be climbing this weekend. His wife wants to go to Atlantic City to, in his words, “blow $100 in quarters.”

I said to M, “You both love the movies. For the same $100 you could come to Manhattan, see two movies, and have a nice dinner in between.” I know the Ms don’t have a lot of money, so the Atlantic City trip was even more puzzling than it might have been for another couple.

Moreover, humans as a species are generally risk-averse. If fact, studies show that people, on average, need nearly 2x return on a wager to accept it, as a very nice write-up, here, of some recent research shows.

In other words, the average person will turn down a 50-50 bet, such as a coin flip, even if they’re offered $75 if they win against a $50 loss if they lose. To pass up an investment with a 50 percent rate of return is a somewhat irrational level of risk aversion.

Yet every year, millions of people vacation in Las Vegas, and gamble away billions. My friend K., who was a Sloane management Fellow at MIT and has been a project manager for some very big, important projects has favorite rant that’s relevant.

“Do you like to bet at casinos?” she asks. “Okay, I can save you the trouble. Hand me a dollar. Okay, good. Now hold out your hand.” She then hands the person 97 cents. “Wasn’t that fun?” she asks. “Want to go again?” (This is a very funny routine, when you get to see the stunned look on the other person’s face.)

Some people, the new research argues, aren’t so risk averse. MRI studies suggest that their sense of reward is dulled, compared to other people, but so is their sense of risk. Rock climbers might fall in that category, the researchers argue. But it seems a lot of people aren’t risk averse.

Today’s NY Times Real Estate section has an article, “The Danger in the Fine Print,” about people who buy condos in New York before construction on the apartment building is complete. Then, buyer “are sometimes in for very big surprises, some of them infuriating.”

Rooms are often smaller than advertised. The Viking stove isn’t there, but a stove described as being of “similar quality” is. The view is not at all what the buyers imagined.

Were they deceived?

Not necessarily. In many cases, neither they nor their lawyers read the offering plan carefully.

The article describes a couple who were more than infuriated.

Margery Germain said neither she nor her husband, Mark, noticed the fine print in the offering plan explaining that although their Chelsea apartment had been marketed at 1,500 square feet, it really wouldn’t be that big because the figure measured the space to the unit’s exterior walls and included space that they could neither see nor use.

Mrs. Germain walked through the building for the first time last September, she said, and was devastated when she stepped into the space that would be her two-bedroom apartment: “I was horrified. I ran out and called my husband and said: ‘It’s tiny. What are we going to do?’ Compared with the floor plan we had been given, every room had lost some square footage. It wasn’t what we expected.”

The Germains were lucky; the fine print worked for them as well as against them. An escape clause “allowed them to walk away from the deal and get their deposit back because the building was not ready for occupancy when it was supposed to be, by the end of 2006.”


The Germains, who are empty nesters looking forward to downsizing from their home in Scarsdale, N.Y., and moving into the city, decided that buying from a floor plan wasn’t for them. They have since signed a contract for a loft at the Tribeca Summit, a converted warehouse that is not yet completed. “But we’ve seen the space,” Mrs. Germain said, “and we know what we’re getting this time.”

Clearly, this is not a couple that are risk-averse. So is that what’s going on? Lots of people, including Ms M, and millions of Atlantic City and Las Vegas vacationers, aren’t risk-averse?

I don’t think that’s true. In fact, they’re at least as risk-averse as anyone, is my guess. They take these vacations because of an entirely different calculation from the one that K enacts. And it’s a calculation that’s so rational that it’s almost hard to see why you’d want to take a vacation anywhere else. M put his finger on it himself. He said of his wife, “She thinks she’s going to come back with money.”

That’s the calculation in a nutshell. A person sets aside $100, or $600, or $1600 dollars, for a vacation. They’re going to spend that no matter what. If they go to dinner and a movie, the money is gone. If they go to Hawaii or the Grand Canyon or Paris, the money is gone. If they to Las Vegas, they might come back with $100, or $5100 in their pocket. The odds are low, but they’re higher than zero.

Vegas knows this, of course, and they do everything they can to make this calculation come out right. In the same way that a cruise vacation or a package tour is very predictable—remember, people are risk-averse!—with all expenses accounted for except for time spent in gift shops, the Vegas vacationer knows what the hotel will cost. Food is so cheap as to be negligible—about $10, tip included, will buy you a breakfast that will last until your $19 all-you-can-eat buffet dinner. Everything else is just walking around the strip, seeing the sights, and deciding which casino’s slots to drop those quarters into.

Why do people take other vacations? Because they want to actually see Paris, swim in the Hawaiian sea, or the take in the Grand Canyon and maybe even hike it. But there’s a large group of people for whom a large number of vacations are interchangeable. Cruises to nowhere. Florida beaches with open bars. And Las Vegas. Only one holds out hope of being free.

Posted in technology, travel | 2 Comments »

The Web on 5 blogs a day

Posted by metaphorical on 23 March 2007

I got at least thirteen hits the other day referred from the Free Range Librarian. They came because I was one of her “Five Nonbiblioblogs.”

Apparently the idea is sweeping the library blogger universe, to list 5 blogs that are “absolutely not library-related.”

That doesn’t work so well for us non-librarians (or it works trivially, which comes to the same thing), but for the portion of the readership here that I can identify, I think I can come up with a list of blogs of which no one will know more than two (unless people have actually been following the Blogroll links). And I’m totally skipping the literary blogverse that I read; that’s for another day.

Autobiography of Blue

This 20-something woman in southern California says the purpose of her blog “is to coax my desire to write out of hibernation, to discuss and revel in the strange and lovely, and, especially, to explore and share my ongoing experience with fibromyalgia (FM).”

Which is exactly what I love about her blog. Instead of writing about fibromyalgia, she writes about having fibromyalgia, which is much more interesting and, ultimately, much more informative.

She also tends to “write” in images more than words, which, in the right hands, is an amazing way to communicate. See for example “reaching out, a pen-pal, and cleaning.”

Mambo Palace

This blog has been temporarily given over to exercise routines and extracts from the Old Testament, but I expect the Mamboman to hit his stride again once Lent is over and his extra twenty pounds and Jesus ascend, together, heavenward. Then, hopefully, he’ll return to his post-Midwest perspective on life, politics, and football, and give us more headlines like “I will totally tongue kiss Joe Biden if he stays in the race,” “All we are saying is give surrender a chance,” and “I am the Zogby Poll Terrorist.”

Blue Athena

For one thing, Blue Athena’s blog, which is subtitled, “A skeptic’s last stand…” is a magnet for me because her sensibility is so close to my own. (From her About page: “My background in analytic philosophy ensured that I would never commit the sin of logical fallacy… And yet I’ve taken years to recognize my own false god of reason. So now it’s time to learn what lies beyond reason and deconstruction. Beyond the deepest skepticisms. Outside my own absurd sense of superiority in holding fewer fundemental premises than anyone alive.”)

Mostly though, I love the way she just finds good shit, like an online tone deafness test, and a collection of pictures of Michael Jackson that makes him seem a little less loony than I had understood him to be.

I also like that when she decided to play around with her blog’s template, which is ridiculously easy to do on WordPress (I know from experience), she created a button for it on the same row as “About,” to collect feedback on it. Now that’s just a scary amount of common sense.


I have more than a dozen friends from my non-Blog on-line life who have blogs of their own, and I devour the news and ideas from each of them. But I’m allowing myself to choose only one from the group, and for wit, literary style, and depth of psychosis, in this first group of five, I’m going with Matilda T. Zombie Queen’s Telecommuniculturey.

This self-described 34-year-old “Purveyor of Gently Used Anthropology” in Chicago writes about culture high and pop, her friends, and daily life, with plenty of biology and social science thrown in. Picking among her posts is like picking from the friends list in the first place, but of her recent ones I particularly liked “Happy Birthday, Annie: Darwin, His Daughter, and Evolution,” though for title alone, I should probably mention “Biscuits from on High: The Fried Chicken Throwdown at West Town Tavern.”

The Lunar Gemini

Michael Baker says he “grew up in remote Brazoria County, Texas, but am now hiding among the masses in New York.” I mostly just like his blog just for the writing, but he’s doing something very important that I wish a lot of people, myself included, did more of—he writes about live performance, and he doesn’t care where he sees it. Off-Broadway, cabaret, and even Broadway itself are all too ephermeral. That’s part of it’s charm, but these reviews are like old photographs that capture a moment and make you think what it must have been like.

Even though the reviews dominate, my two favorite moments were the two-part, “Gay dating in the styx” and “Gay dating in the styx (part 2), or why I rarely watch American Idol.”

Posted in journalism, politics, the arts | 4 Comments »

Hip hop just died this morning

Posted by metaphorical on 21 March 2007

Regular commentator digglahhh, who happens to be my nephew and one of the few people who can consistently beat me in Boggle, rightly takes issue with Brookynite’s brilliant March Madness poll for its treatment of hip-hop.

But even before that, I had asked my homeboy to set down some thoughts on the subject. Back at the beginning of the month, I had read a Poynter Institute article that asked the question, “What is Killing Rap?” That article itself took as its starting point an AP article that looked at declining rap music sales. I asked him what he thought about it, and whether it was possible that it was just a less than stellar year for the music itself. The answer, he argues, is a little more complicated than that.

Herewith, digglahhh’s thoughts.

So, according to the Associated Press’s March 1st article, Out of Rhyme, 2006 marks the first time in 12 years that no rap album was among the top 10 sellers of the year.  But, curb your enthusiasm for a sec, Mr. Cosby, there’s more!

A 2005-06 study by the Black Youth Project, one of the most comprehensive ever to focus on young African-Americans, shows that a majority of youth between the ages of 15 to 25 think rap has too many violent images.  Additionally, in a poll of African-Americans by The Associated Press and AOL-Black Voices last year, 50 percent of respondents said hip-hop was a negative force in American society.

All the criticisms of hip-hop music have always been valid; they just haven’t outweighed the artistic and cultural merit of the music. “Gangsta Rap” pioneers N.W.A. made violent and misogynistic music, but did so in a political context, whether intentionally or syllogistically. Is contemporary mainstream hip-hop more explicit or offensive than early Ice Cube, 2Pac or Mobb Deep?  I doubt it.  But, the violence or expletive quotient is not the issue at all, the context is.  Rap music started out as as social commentary on behalf of the marginalized, but over the course of almost three decades it has been gutted, and it retains only the graphic imagery and language, stripped of its larger social meaning.  It is a gruesomely mangled carcass with no war or cause to attach it to.

It’s no accident that this shift coincides with the takeover by Warner Music and the other large media conglomerates—by and large rich white people —of the distribution of rap music, a cause as well as an effect of rap’s meteoric ascent up the Billboard charts. The racial demographic of the consumers of the music today matches that of its distributors; neither matches that of its creators.

When the producers of the product become detached from its financial base, they in effect gives carte blanche to outsiders to manipulate the music and imagery of a culture.  Blues, Motown and jazz, three musical forbearers of hip-hop, were ripped off all to hell and back (just ask the average Led Zeppelin fan if she knows who Robert Johnson was), but not nearly in the way that hip-hop has been. Through artists like Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, and Marvin Gaye, these genres held their authenticity even as white musicians covered their songs and borrowed their styles.  Early hip-hop did as well; but today, prep school kids in Iowa just aren’t close enough to the culture to differentiate between the real thing and a forgery.  Swing down to Canal Street and take a gander out how quickly those fake Louis Vitton bags move if you doubt me…

Nowadays, any one can claim him/herself a rapper; that’s a long way from when the legendary Nas told us he was “too scared to grab the mics in the park.”  Today, Kevin Federline fearlessly grabs mics at large venues.

Firmly in the driver’s seat of hip-hop music, white corporate America began to mold it to its purposes and audience.  The first stage was commercialization of the music and culture.  However, there is something far more insidious in the process of exploiting hip-hop than using appropriated hip-hop culture to sell soft drinks.  Hip-hop artists’ self indulgent images have always been products of an art form that is ultra-competitive and strongly centered on the individual (qualities that made the art ideally suited for consumerist appropriation). But, Slick Rick’s gaudy jewelry and Biggie’s ostentatious Coogies (sweaters) don’t compare to the clownish fashions and shameless materialism of today.

What mainstream contemporary hip-hop is, and how it got here, represents the willful minstrelization of the black culture and celebrity.  You can sugarcoat it and say that the art simply “jumped the shark” or became a caricature of itself.  But that’s not what I believe.  What you are seeing now is what the hegemony wants hip-hop to be, a destabilizing force in minority communities that glorifies assimilating into mainstream culture as opposed to empowering one’s own community.  It is the reason why you won’t hear Dead Prez or Immortal Technique on the radio.  It is the reason why Flavor Flav is given enough face time to help erode the legacy of Public Enemy, one of the greatest political voices in the history of hip-hop.

Nas’s most recent record, “Hip Hop is Dead” is quite appropriately named.  The title track and lead single begins with the wailing of “Hip hop just died this morning.”  Clarification, hip-hop did not die; like all other powerful, pro-minority forces, it was willfully destroyed.  Getting rich in the process was just a fringe benefit.

Posted in politics, the arts | 6 Comments »

What the other 85 U.S. Attorneys were doing “right”

Posted by metaphorical on 21 March 2007

Gonzales will be out as soon as he can be replaced, (details here, thanks, Terry C, for the link) but the Attorneygate scandal just keeps getting more scandalous. While I was writing about the Gonzales’s Orwellian utterances, our Innocent Abroad, Andrew W, was looking for the bigger picture. He found it with a study that shows

the offices of the U.S. Attorneys across the nation investigate seven times as many Democratic officials as they investigate Republican officials, a number that exceeds even the racial profiling of African Americans in traffic stops.

It just stands to reason. If the seven U.S. Attorneys were fired because, as Andrew put it, “they were not pursuing corruption cases against Democratic public officials with sufficient zeal,” then apparently the others were.

Andrew’s fine discussion and a link to the study are here.

Posted in journalism, language, Orwell, philosophy | 3 Comments »

The lunacy of the masses

Posted by metaphorical on 20 March 2007

If you want to get depressed, there are few better ways than to look at the the unlimited ability of your fellow citizens to deny the obvious, especially when reality might be a little bit inconvenient. Of course I’m referring to global warming.

A poll today on the Wall Street Journal’s website asks, “Is global warming tied to human activity?” Everyone from the National Academies of Science to NASA to the U.N. has come to the conclusion that global warming is a fact and human activity is largely the cause. The tiny minority of so-called scientists who deny global warming never publish in peer-reviewed journals and their studies are always found to be sponsored by oil companies and others with a vested interest in denying the blinding obviousness of global warming.

At 5:00 EDT, when I last looked, 6144 people had responded to the WSJ’s poll. Here’s how they answered:

WSJ.com Global warming poll, 20 March 2007

In other words, only 35% answered “Yes definitely” and only a total of 56% said that it was at least plausible. 44% said that it was unlikely, or simply untrue, or denied that global warming was even taking place. In other words, nearly half of all people of one of the wealthiest and most educated demographics you’ll find on the Web have been conveniently bamboozled by the loose consortium of oil companies, Bush administration lackeys, Fox News commentators, and random ecological holocaust deniers who apparently emit enough greenhouse gases to obscure the crystal-clear light of reason.

You might think that rather than represent the average intelligent reader of the WSJ, the surveys there cater to the rare Bush administration afficianado or other religious extremist. But according to a colleague of mine who looks at wsj.com almost every day, these surveys seem to get a broad range of opinion. And sure enough, today there was a survey that asked “Should Attorney General Gonzales remain in office?” In case this blog is being read in the year 2050, I’ll just mention that this post was written a day before Gonzales’s near-certain resignation tomorrow. A healthy 68% of 12838 said yes.

Let’s leave aside the depressing fact that twice as many people care whether Gonzales steps down, only to be replaced by another incompetent Ed Meese clone, than about global warming, even as far as the massive effort of clicking a couple of times on a Web page is concerned. Basically, half of the answering public opts for the scientific belief that conveniently implies we needn’t make any sacrifices to preserve the planet for future generations.

It’s an extraordinary victory of ennui over reason, because frankly, the case for global warming is as overwhelming as an asteroid hitting the White House, a more realistic fantasy by any standard. Though the case is even stronger now in any number of ways, back in 2004 Science magazine published an article, “The Scientific Consensus on Climate Change.” It looked at “928 abstracts, published in refereed scientific journals between 1993 and 2003, and listed in the ISI database with the keywords “climate change.”

The 928 papers were divided into six categories: explicit endorsement of the consensus position, evaluation of impacts, mitigation proposals, methods, paleoclimate analysis, and rejection of the consensus position. Of all the papers, 75% fell into the first three categories, either explicitly or implicitly accepting the consensus view; 25% dealt with methods or paleoclimate, taking no position on current anthropogenic climate change. Remarkably, none of the papers disagreed with the consensus position.

None of the papers. Let’s just let that word echo…. none.

When I said that everyone from the NAS to NASA to the U.N. has come to the same conclusion, I was just skimming the surface. As the Science article notes,

The American Meteorological Society, the American Geophysical Union, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science all have issued statements in recent years concluding that the evidence for human modification of climate is compelling.

Let’s just let that word echo… compelling.

So maybe 44% of the WSJ crowd are assholes—a possibility that shouldn’t come as a complete surprise. But the idea that 44% of any crowd could be global warming deniers is a little bit—to use the word from the top of the post —depressing.

Posted in Orwell, politics, technology | 11 Comments »

Prince (2) vs. Marvin Gaye (15)

Posted by metaphorical on 19 March 2007

When James Brown died in December, my friend Brooklynite and I ended up on the short and long ends of a debate on a mailing list we’re both on—short in terms of people agreeing with us, and long in terms of being right.

It started with Brooklynite writing:

I was pleased to see that the AP obit gave him his due:

“Along with Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan and a handful of others, Brown was one of the major musical influences of the past 50 years.”

(I’d have put it in stronger words than that, actually.)

Surprisingly, I was one of the few to jump in and agree, more by instinct than thought-out opinion. It took me about a month to sort out for myself why I thought that (a rumination that can be found here).

The next time we were together face to face, Brooklynite brought up the subject and another startling gauntlet was thrown down: James Brown might be the most influential artist of the second half of the 20th century, and he would certainly be—I remember these words very well—”one of the final four.”

That naturally made us think of the NCAA’s March Madness, a knockout tournament in which 64 (actually 65) teams are paired off in 16 brackets of 4. Brookynite’s thesis is that while few if any would put Brown at the top of a list of 64 music artists, he might well win every face off, one-on-one, with other artists.

So, in short, this is how great ideas are born in the Internet age: you double-dog dare someone to enact his theory on the Web. Voilà. March Madness—of Musicial Artists.

Today Brooklynite put up the first bracket of 16. I think he did a really good job of filling out the bracket with quietly influential artists who you probably wouldn’t have thought of, but in hindsight make perfect sense. Some of the seeds will seem insane, which is what makes for good horseraces, marriages, and bar debates. I myself made my picks with a Guinness-and-Harp black-and-tan beside my MacBook; if you vote, let me know and the next round is on me.

Posted in the arts | 12 Comments »

It’s easy like Sunday morning

Posted by metaphorical on 18 March 2007

I said yesterday that newspapers were in crisis. Readership is declining in vitality and numbers—aging and dying off.

Digglahhh reminds me that I should point that a lot hangs in the balance—television can’t be counted on to do the serious, expensive, time-consuming investigations that provide a real check on government and industry. The blogosphere is still largely dependent on newspapers and magazines to do the research and reporting that can then be amplified, both in depth and volume.

But young readers can read a lot of news for free on-line. In cities, they even get free newspapers-lite at subways, coffee shops, and kiosks.

What will get young readers reading—and, critically, paying for—a real newspaper? I’m hopeful that Apple has figured that out.

About 8 years ago, I used one of the early Palm Pilots. It was black-and-white, with no memory card. The screen was only about 30 characters across. My favorite feature was a program you could download called AvantGo. Dozens of news sources reformatted their articles for AvantGo. You subscribed to various feeds—this was long before RSS—and then each morning downloaded the new articles.

I subscribed to the NY Times tech section, parts of News.com and Bloomberg News, the Wall Street Journal’s opinion pages (and its wine columnist), and Hollywood’s Daily Variety. Once downloaded, you could read articles anywhere, even on the subway. And as it turns out, the screen was about as wide as a newspaper’s column, so it was easy and comfortable to read them.

For all its value, though, AvantGo was still a pain in the ass. The scheduled downloads couldn’t be counted on, even if you remembered to dock your device overnight. You had to be careful not to exceed your Palm Pilot’s available memory. And one-handed scrolling on the Palm Pilot wasn’t entirely trivial.

Enter Apple, in the form of the iPhone, expected this June. RSS does exist now. The iPhone will download newspaper articles not just when docked, but all the time—even at slow 2G cellular data speeds, they’ll trickle in all day. Scrolling and going from one article to the next should be as effortless as navigating playlists on an iPod. The iPhone will hold an unlimited number of articles, even if some are multimedia files. Compared to the Palm Pilot’s, the screen will be the size of an aircraft carrier. And it will be color.

I can picture a 25-year-old (such as Digglahhh) spending, say, $50 or $60 of his hard-earned first paycheck, annually, on the NY Times. That’s a far cry from the $514.80 that a full paper-based subscription costs. But physical paper and physical delivery are huge expenses that are avoided with an on-line subscription. We’re told they exceed the cost, and all profit comes from advertising revenue. AvantGo had no advertising, but it also ran on a 30×6 black-and-white screen.

For now, Digglahhh’s $60/year is found money. The Times wasn’t getting a dime from him, and probaby never would. At a certain point, the Times will need to count on on-line subscriptions. That day isn’t here, but it’s coming. That’s why I said yesterday that the window of opportunity for creating on-line subscriptions is probably only about five years wide. Would Digglahhh pay $5/month for complete access to the Times’s archive, and whatever subscriber-only features it has? Hopefully he’ll notice this post and answer for himself. But I’m guessing a lot of his peers will say yes, once the iPhone creates the perfect interface.

Posted in journalism, technology | 6 Comments »

Sunday morning and I’m falling

Posted by metaphorical on 17 March 2007

This was Sunday morning: First, the bagel store on 84th Street and 37th Avenue.

“Twelve. 2 plain, 2 poppy, 2 onion, 2 garlic, 4 bialy.” You always tell them how many in total, first, so they know what size brown paper bag to put them in.

“Do you need cream cheese?” They know that 11-year-old boys forget stuff.

“No.” My mother would have gone to another place entirely, Murray’s, the day before for nova scotia (the unsalty kind of lox), kippered salmon, cream cheese (Philadelphia brand, of course), whipped butter if needed any.

If it were cold, I would stash the big bag of bagels in my coat. This kept them warm, but kept me warm too. Though I made the Sunday morning bagel and newspaper run just about every Sunday, for years, in my mind I’m always 11 and it’s always a November morning, cold, damp, and overcast.

Next came the newsstand, Rajah’s, on 78th Street, opposite my elementary school. I run there. Keep the bagels warm. Once I’m loaded down with newspapers, I won’t be able to run. But Rajah’s is only a block and a half from home. The New York Times, and the Long Island Press, mostly for the comics, and because you always buy your local paper. By now, my mother has turned on the oven.

Experience has already taught me to check for the Magazine section, because if it’s missing, my father can’t do the puzzle, and I’d have to go back out to get it. And I check the sports section, because that’s the most important one for me. In the summer there’s the batting and pitching stats for the entire major league, and in the winter there’s the college football scores, even though I watched “College Football Scoreboard” with Chris Schenkel the day before on ABC. You can’t study the scores on television.

The LI Press wraps the comics on the outside of the paper, and Peanuts is always always above the fold. I read it on the way home, looking up carefully when crossing Roosevelt Avenue. When she hears me at the front door, my mother turns off the oven. I run upstairs, I drop the papers on the counter, pull the bagels out of my coat, and throw them into warm oven, brown paper bag and all. The table is set, the nova and kippered salmon and cream cheese and butter are already out.

Coffee is brewed, milk is on the table. My father is already pulling the magazine section out of the paper. He pulls out the sports section for me, and the Arts & Leisure for my mom. My sister is at the comics. Sunday morning, 1967.

I thought of all that while looking at the Project for for Excellence in Journalism’s “State of the News Media 2007” report.

Newspapers have a tough time making the case that their business is headed in the right direction. The year 2006 was terrible in many respects, and there seems little prospect that 2007 will be much better.

The best that the industry can hope for is that some easing of costs — both paper and people — will improve earnings and that they can demonstrate continued strong growth in the range of their online and niche offerings and in ad revenues in the new media.

Even that last seems in doubt.

There were several elements to the “grim 2006 picture.” Here are two:

*Pre-tax earnings at print newspapers were off about 8.4% compared with 2005, and that was not an especially good year either.

*Ad revenues were flat , despite contributions from online and niche publications that continue to grow at an average rate of 20% to 30% rate. Optimistic industry sources are predicting a slightly more positive 2007 for advertising. Most analysts, however, forecast that ad revenues will be down by 1 to 2%.

The basic problem is that readership declined, and has been declining for years. Here’s the basic graph. Though the drop is as gentle as the bunny slope, a percent or so a year, year in and year out, adds up.


I can’t remember for sure, but I think the Times was 60 cents back then, and the Press was 25 cents on Sunday. I know the Sunday Daily News was 30 cents three years later, when I was selling the Night Owl edition in bars on Northern Boulevard on Saturday nights. Today the daily paper is a buck and the Sunday paper is $3.50. That’s not out of line. Inflation calculators say that $3.50 in 2006 was $0.57 in 1996. It feels like a lot of money, though, maybe because in 1966 we had only one phone bill, not two, and weren’t paying for television (or the Internet) at all.

Anyway, revenue is down, so papers have been trying to salvage profits by cutting costs.

Newspapers have been downsizing everything from their staff counts to the dimensions of the paper to the breadth of their coverage and the range of their circulation area. All of that flirts with the danger of chasing away readers from an inferior product. Executives argue that they must live within means, but some are also cutting way back on business-side staffing and circulation promotion, which will likely further depress circulation.

The grimmest stat by far is the age demographic. Take a look:

Newspaper readership, by age

The short take is that people under 35 aren’t reading newspapers. More precisely, they’re reading them at hardly more than half the rate of people over 75. (Though it’s worth noticing that even the rate for people 65 years old is declining.) Newspapers need to start getting money from people young people, before all their old readers die off. The window of opportunity for that to happen is probably only about five years wide. Fortunately, I think there’s hope that that’s enough. More on that tomorrow.

Posted in journalism, technology | 5 Comments »

The Billie Jean generation

Posted by metaphorical on 16 March 2007

I wrote last week about risk compensation, part of the broader phenomenon, as KTK was quick to point out, of ““moral hazard.” I thought of risk compensation this morning on the subway ride to work. A woman was listening to her iPod. REALLY LOUDLY. The sound of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” came through, tinny, but at a volume not that different from what I would want in my own ears.

What I found unusual was that her earbuds were the ones that come with the iPod. Normally, they keep the sound very well contained, or so I’ve noticed on subways and airplanes. She must have had the volume up way high.

She’s Just A Girl Who Claims That I Am The One
But The Kid Is Not My Son
She Says I Am The One….

I stood at the end of the 6 train car, my back to the doors that lead between cars. She was seated about four feet from me, holding her iPod with both hands, bouncing gently, a middle-aged Hispanic woman with a black coat, a wool skirt, and high boots. Outside, snow was accumulating gently on car windshields. New York’s final snowstorm of the year was slowly building to a flight-canceling crescendo, but our train was a dry, noisy oasis. Wheels rumbled over the tracks, the brakes squealed as we slowed down for stops, and Michael spun and shouted on.

She Says I Am The One, But The Kid Is Not My Son
She Says I Am The One, But The Kid Is Not My Son…

She’s going to go deaf, I thought. She’s apparently halfway there already, or else she wouldn’t have had the volume so loud to begin with. Didn’t her parents warn her that loud music would damage her ears?

But then I had the thought that this was the hallmark of our generation, hers and mine. We ignored those warnings completely, and I suspect we were the first generation to do so. Why was that? And that’s when I thought of risk compensation.

We were the first generation to take scientific and technological progress completely for granted. We were the first children who didn’t have to worry about polio and scarlet fever (which killed my mother’s only sister). New diseases were conquered yearly, and even cancer would surely be cured by the time we were old enough to possibly get it.

We’ve started to discard body parts, getting new eye lenses or shaving the old ones down. I myself put off lasik, first confused by the progression of new technologies, then deciding that I needed to wait until lots of other people went first. “Once there’s 10 million people with it, if there’s any problems, there will be a billion-dollar-market to be made in solving the problems,” I thought. Now I don’t get it simply because I’m a chickenshit for whom vision is so important I’m not willing to risk even a slight chance of a catastrophic outcome. I also don’t listen to loud music, and have excellent hearing. But most people I know my age have simply gone for it—lasik and loud music both. “JUST GO FOR IT” is a pretty good slogan for us.

For my generation, products get so much better so quickly that we just throw out the old ones. We repurchased our record collections once for CDs, and now we were doing it again for the iPod. My fellow subway rider had probably paid for “Billie Jean” three times.

Waste and consumption and the expectation that our problems would be solved by the time we needed to worry about them amounted to a form of risk compensation. Instead of lifespans shooting into the triple-digits, we live more and more dissolute lives, and life expectancy has leveled off in the high 70s. More and more of us survive cancer and even AIDS, but one third of us have or will have diabetes. We stop smoking but put trans-fats in everything and find other ways as well to have heart attacks in our 40s.

And sure enough, hearing-aid technology is getting better and better, just in time for millions of baby boomers and post-boomers who’ve been blasting the Rolling Stones into their years for four decades now. The reason the world sometimes doesn’t seem to have improved much since I was a child is we keep spending the improvements on ever more sedentary, product-filled lives of immediate gratification.

Perhaps if times get tough, we’ll all buckle down and get to work, like Scarlett in Gone With The Wind. Until then, though, we’re like something straight out of the opening scene, dressing for a frivolous ball, expecting to be waited on hand and foot, or just sitting back as a $400 stereo we can hold in our hands blasts our eardrums into repairable oblivion.

‘Cause We Danced On The Floor In The Round
So Take My Strong Advice, Just Remember To Always Think Twice
(Do Think Twice)

Posted in technology | 6 Comments »

The Web’s most valuable search tool

Posted by metaphorical on 15 March 2007



Posted in technology, the arts | 6 Comments »

Mistakes were made

Posted by metaphorical on 14 March 2007

At first, the headline really annoyed me.

‘Mistakes’ Made on Prosecutors, Gonzales Says

WASHINGTON, March 13 — Under criticism from lawmakers of both parties for the dismissals of federal prosecutors, Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales insisted Tuesday that he would not resign but said, “I acknowledge that mistakes were made here.”

The mea culpa came as Congressional Democrats, who are investigating whether the White House was meddling in Justice Department affairs for political reasons, demanded that President Bush and his chief political adviser, Karl Rove, explain their roles in the dismissals.

Why, I angrily wondered, was the Times once again taking the White House’s spin as its starting point? When I looked at the graphic accompanying the story, I got even more frustrated. Apparently, Harriet Miers, Bush’s White House Counsel and wholly incompetent appointee to the Supreme Court, had originally floated the idea of replacing all 93 U.S. Attorneys at the start of Bush’s second term.

E-mail from Kyle Simpson, a Deputy Attorney General the Department of Justice and Gonzales’s point person on the firing of U.S. Attorneys, pointed out some practical difficulties in doing that and wrote “I recommend that the Department of Justice and the Office of the Counsel to the President work together to seek the replacement of a limited number of U.S. Attorneys.”

It was quickly clear that Attorneygate is even worse than we thought. We now know many of the details of how individual Attorneys were singled out, in large part because of insufficient loyalty to the Bush administration and its more egregiously partisan projects, or to individual home-state Senators and their petty partisan concerns, whether it was not aggressively pursuing minor illegal immigrant cases, small-time marijuana wholesalers, or unprovable allegations of voter fraud.

As it turns out, though, in its headline, the Times was engaged in a rare flexing of its largely atrophied irony muscles. On the jump page the paper of record ran a brilliant sidebar that explicated the headline and poked fun at Bush officials for their wording:

Familiar Fallback for Officials: ‘Mistakes Were Made’

WASHINGTON, March 13 — Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales fell back on a classic Washington linguistic construct on Tuesday when he acknowledged that “mistakes were made” in the dismissals of eight federal prosecutors last year.

The phrase sounds like a confession of error or even contrition, but in fact, it is not quite either one. The speaker is not accepting personal responsibility or pointing the finger at anyone else.

The sidebar then cited some of the classics of the genre, including Justin Timberlake’s “I am sorry if anyone was offended by the wardrobe malfunction during the halftime performance” and John Sunnunu’s 1991 “Clearly, no one regrets more than I do the appearance of impropriety. Obviously, some mistakes were made.”

The key to these non-apologies is the passive construction, combined with noun and verb constructions designed to obscure any details of the “mistakes” in question. Orwell would have recognized these, even as I think even he would have been impressed by the novel phrase, “wardrobe malfunction.” In “Politics and the English Language” he wrote (emphasis added),

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

In a spirit of bipartisanship, as they say in the Beltway, the Times sidebar included Bill Clinton’s 1997 acknowedgement

that the White House should not have invited the nation’s senior banking regulator to a meeting where Mr. Clinton and prominent bankers discussed banking policy in the presence of the Democratic Party’s senior fund-raiser. “Mistakes were made here by people who either did it deliberately or inadvertently.”

I think Orwell would have especially liked the “it” in that sentence, so thoroughly indeterminate as to be ungrammatical.

The sidebar closed with one of the great coinages of our day, occasioned by Clinton’s non-apology.

The nonconfessions inspired William Schneider, a political guru here, to note a few years ago that Washington had contributed a new tense to the language. “This usage,” he said, “should be referred to as the past exonerative.”

Posted in journalism, language, Orwell, politics, Times-watch | 10 Comments »

Lies, damn lies, and college rankings

Posted by metaphorical on 13 March 2007

“In other words, in the absence of real data, they will make up a number.”

We know there’s lies, damn lies, and statistics. Sarah Lawrence College is tired of the lies, and they’re not going to participate any more. Naturally, they’re going to be punished. It just stands to reason.

In this scenario, the lying statistics are the SAT scores used by the U.S. News & World Report college rankings. It seems that more and more colleges aren’t using SAT scores in their determinations of which applicants to accept. But in order to not upset their U.S. News ranking, they are making SATs “optional.”

The result is a statistical advantage of the “damn lies” sort. As Inside Higher Ed puts it,

When applicants learn that a college is SAT-optional, it doesn’t take an 800 math score to figure out the statistically wise strategy. If your scores are at or above reported averages, submit them. Otherwise, don’t. Not surprisingly then, many colleges that go SAT-optional experience both a surge in applications and an increase in their SAT averages … and their U.S. News rankings go up.

Sarah Lawrence decided it didn’t want any part of that. In an op-ed piece in Sunday’s Washington Post, the school’s president, Michele Tolela Myers, explained:

Two years ago, we at Sarah Lawrence College decided to stop using SAT scores in our admission process. We didn’t make them optional, as some schools do. We simply told our prospective students not to bother sending them. We determined that the best predictors of success at Sarah Lawrence are high school grades in rigorous college-prep courses, teachers’ recommendations and extensive writing samples. We are a writing-intensive school, and the information produced by SAT scores added little to our ability to predict how a student would do at our college; it did, however, do much to bias admission in favor of those who could afford expensive coaching sessions.

The school is doing just as well as it ever did; incoming students measure up just fine against earlier ones. “Their average high school grades, high school ranks and grades in Advanced Placement courses have not changed,” Myers wrote.

But this principled decision has put us in jeopardy. I was recently informed by the director of data research at U.S. News, the person at the magazine who has a lot to say about how the rankings are computed, that absent students’ SAT scores, the magazine will calculate the college’s ranking by assuming an arbitrary average SAT score of one standard deviation (roughly 200 points) below the average score of our peer group.

In other words, in the absence of real data, they will make up a number. He made clear to me that he believes that schools that do not use SAT scores in their admission process are admitting less capable students and therefore should lose points on their selectivity index. Our experience, of course, tells us otherwise.

One option is to just stop playing the U.S. News game entirely. Sarah Lawrence has considered that. But there’s a stiff price to be paid. Myers says,

several faculty members and deans suggested that perhaps it was time to stop playing ranking roulette and opt out of the survey. A few colleges explore this option each year, but most don’t follow through (Reed College is one of the few exceptions I know of), because, like unilateral disarmament, unilateral withdrawal from the U.S. News ranking system is dangerous.

I don’t know if you’ve seen USN&WR lately. It’s as skinny, compared to its heyday, as the abbreviation is compared to spelling out its whole name. The college ranking gig is one of the few things it has going for itself. According to a Folio article back in 1993, in 1992, “the ad-page battle of the newsweeklies, an annual contest between Time and Newsweek, has yielded a surprise winner – U.S. News & World Report.” By 2004, it was “the struggling bottom player among the big traditional news weeklies.”

I should mention that my alma mater, SUNY’s College at Geneseo, is a winner at the U.S. News game of statistical roulette. Over the course of the 1980s, Geneseo steadily rose so that now it consistently ranks among the top mid-sized colleges, private or public. It happens to have done it the hard way, by creating a tough, humanities and science based core curriculum that was a a magnet that attracted serious, smart students and repelled those who are not.

But no matter how well U.S. News has done by Geneseo, you have to admire Sarah Lawrence for preferring no stats to lying stats. Naturally, no honest deed goes unpunished. Hopefully, though, U.S. News will get theirs, as word spreads that its numbers are thin as its ad pages.

Posted in education, journalism | 13 Comments »

Cruel and usual punishment

Posted by metaphorical on 12 March 2007

Lancaster County Sportsmen’s Club Pleads ‘No Contest’ in Animal Cruelty Case

LANCASTER, Pa., March 9 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ — The Elstonville Sportsmen’s Association, 3133 Pinch Rd., Manheim, Pa., today pleaded “no contest” to eight counts of cruelty to animals as a result of charges filed on Jan. 22, 2007, in District Court. Judge John C. Winters issued fines to the association of $50 for each count.

Charges were filed by Officer Keith Mohler of the Farm Sanctuary of Pennsylvania and stem from an event held at the club’s facility on Sept. 9, 2006, during which domestic turkeys were staked to straw bales and used as live targets for a bow and arrow shooting contest. The club was cited for eight violations of the Pennsylvania Cruelty to Animals Statutes including four counts of cruel ill treatment and four counts of offering live animals as prizes in a contest.

The thing I find puzzling about this case is that the acts of cruelty here occur every day, about 17,000 times a day in fact. They occur in every factory farm where, as ethicist Mylan Engel Jr. puts it:

Broiler chickens are warehoused in sheds containing anywhere from 10,000-50,000 birds; veal calves are kept in crates chained at the neck; pigs are confined in metal crates situated on concrete slatted floors with no straw or bedding; and beef cattle are housed in feedlots containing up to 100,000 animals,


To prevent chickens and turkeys from pecking each other to death, the birds are “debeaked” using a scalding hot blade which slices through the highly sensitive horn of the beak leaving blisters in the mouth;[24] to prevent them from “back ripping,”[25] their toes are amputated using the same hot knife machine.[26] Other routine mutilations include: tail docking, branding, dehorning, ear tagging, ear clipping, teeth pulling, castration, and ovariectomy. In the interest of cost efficiency, all of these excruciating procedures are performed without anaesthesia.

You can see 13 minutes of horrific depiction of it here, or you can take in some fast facts from Engel:

98% of all eggs and poultry are produced in factory farms, 90% of pigs are raised in confinement systems, half of the nation’s dairy cows are raised in confinement systems, virtually all veal calves are crate-raised, and 71% of beef cattle are confined in factory farm feedlots. To see just how many animals suffer the institutionalized cruelties of factory farming, consider the number slaughtered in the U.S. each day. According to The New York Times, 130,000 cattle, 7,000 calves, 360,000 pigs, and 24 million chickens are slaughtered every day. Extrapolation reveals that 8.94 billion animals are raised and slaughtered annually, not counting turkeys, ducks, sheep, emu, or fish. Consequently, over 17,000 animals are slaughtered per minute.

It’s good that these “sportsmen” were held responsible for their wanton cruelty, but when will the thousands of factory farms be held responsible for theirs?

Thanks to the NotMilkman for the pointer to the story about the “sportsmen” club, and to Terrible, Wonderful World for Engel’s page, from which I’ve removed the many footnote citations.

Posted in animal-rights, politics | 8 Comments »