Apr 28, 2007

All those people dying from poisoned water supplies might have some thoughts on the matter. [LINK]

Here's how a recent Boston Globe editorial started:

Since global warming is the most serious environmental threat facing the planet...
Can anything sensible follow?

Your first mistake: "Seeking to understand Seung-Hui Cho" [LINK]

A letter to the Boston Globe that appeared on April 25:

What role did race have in Seung-Hui Cho's social exile? Like Cho, I am an immigrant from East Asia. We both came to the United States at age 8. We seem to share the quiet temperament stereotypical of new immigrants. We probably even look somewhat alike to many. But an important difference is that I am not angry, even though I too was teased and treated unfairly. Minorities in this country face social stressors not encountered by the majority, and I wonder how many nurse resentment that is waiting to explode with the right genetic predisposition.

I recall that in school students segregated into their own social cliques by race. Despite celebrations of diversity, there were still the white, black, and yellow locker areas. More recently, I stepped into a bar and realized that Caucasians congregated upstairs while Asian patrons chose the basement. An Asian friend admitted that she "just felt more comfortable downstairs."

Today, youths live in multiple Americas. It is time to reexamine how we embrace our differences in our communities and concentrate instead on integration. Racial backlash should not be a concern if we are all Americans.

I don't think I ever liked this sort of thing, and now I'm sure. No, it is not time to reexamine a damned thing about racial integration. Seung-Hui Cho did not go on a killing spree because he was in any way deprived of a chance to eat and hang out next to whites. Is it possible to have a screw loose without it being somebody else's fault? Seung-Hui Cho was offered every chance to climb out of his hole. People said hello and were nice to him, and he didn't respond. More than accommodating, Virginia Tech kept him around a lot longer than was wise.

You could almost hear the tapes rewinding after the story broke. First it was the gun nuts on both sides, now it's race. This is tiresome. Stop trying to understand what made this guy tick. You will never get close. Stop trying to relate to him. The time for that is long past.

But when do I get my own revenge? [LINK]

The Village Voice's R.C. Baker describes a showing by Orly Genger in Larissa Goldston's gallery through May 5:

A stew of chemical odors hits you as you enter this darkened gallery. Walking over uneven surfaces, you are surrounded by conical mounds of gnarled nylon rope that has been sprayed and rolled with black paint, a mélange of materials that accounts for the industrial smell. Genger crochets her thick coils into floor-covering mats and topographical heaps that convey a sense of lava flows, or maybe a tire dump. Yet there is something engaging about climbing over this writhing mass, as if it is dumbly alive; with the word "Boo" scrawled on one wall, it's hard not to think of those sci-fi golems that rise up from ecological disasters to avenge nature.

Apr 18, 2007

I Can't Imagine Why! [LINK]

From a letter reacting to the massacre at Virginia Tech:

The National Rifle Association is a cancer that needs to be neutralized. At this very moment the NRA is probably gearing up its propaganda machine to deflect blame.

Apr 16, 2007

Trashed Priorities [LINK]

In Great Britain, the fines for leaving out trash on the wrong day, failing to close trash can lids, or misplacing trash items in recycling containers now exceeds the fine imposed on shoplifters.

(Via Tim Blair)

iPods for All [LINK]

Faced with a $1 billion state budget deficit and a crippled auto economy, Michigan lawmakers proposed a spending plan that included funds to buy every schoolchild an MP3 player.

(Via Captain's Quarters)

Apr 15, 2007

Call for Ambivalence [LINK]

I only recently learned of my former employer Tim O'Reilly's involvement in the idea of a Blogger's Code of Conduct, one that he helped formulate after Java expert Kathy Sierra (no relation) was targeted with on-line death threats. I went over to his original post and encountered the following extended editorial preface detailing the state of the controversy:

[Note: Chris Locke argues in email that the meankids site was set up in fun, and while the first posts on the site were apparently about continuing the conversation that had been shut down on Tara's blog, he insists that those comments were not mean-spirited. (Tara confirms that the second post on that blog was a photoshopped image showing her as Dr. Phil, which is hardly inflammatory.) Chris claims that "There was no cesspool of misogynistic attack rhetoric going on there until the stuff Kathy surfaced began to appear." At which point the site was shut down. As a result, he feels that the characterization of the meankids and unclebobisms sites as "set up for the purpose of celebrating cyberbullying" is "false and irresponsible." I have never seen the sites, and they have now been taken down, so I can neither confirm nor deny Chris' statement about the initial tone of the blogs. However, if what he says is true, then the term "cyber-bullying" may be a bit strong, at least when describing the aims of the sites. I understand Chris' concern to make clear that he and the other founders had no intention of creating sites that would encourage the kind of comments posts that ended up there. That being said, as Bert Bates notes in the comments below, the offending items were posts by members of these group blogs, not comments from unknown participants.]

Understanding that I'm on the outside looking in, my immediate reactions to this paragraph were:
  1. Tim is an excellent writer and all-around communicator, but I can't bear to read one more word of this stuff.
  2. The prose provides a glimpse into what makes this medium so different.
  3. It gives me some reason to be pessimistic about the fate of any conduct code.

Before I even get to the part about the Code, there's a faceful of minutiae involving three or possibly four individuals, three different websites, the supposed intent behind setting up one of those sites, a chronology of who said or did what when, a distinction between comments and posts, between email and web, plus some mention of lesser abuse directed at Tara, whoever she is. (If I were still editing copy at O'Reilly, efforts to clarify all this could easily push out a book's deadline!)

That the paragraph is extraneous to the substance of the post is not important. That Tim felt it necessary to include it is telling, since it represents an effort to defragment the reading experience. For all their benefits, blogs are inherently fragmentary, an effect that's magnified for emerging controversies. To understand the background to Ms. Sierra's allegations, you'd have to visit several different pages and build up a mental image of the chronology, the characters involved, and a distinction between what appears to be primary material and what's extraneous commentary. In the old days it was usually a matter of reading a particular piece in a newspaper or magazine, which offered a common shared experience.

Now, when people talk about this issue, some are relying on what they read in A, B, and C, while others have sampled B, D, and Q. I noticed this tendency during 2004's Rathergate scandal, certainly one of the blogosphere's finest hours. The traditional "mainstream media" was of course terribly slow to digest the details of the dispute. But even among those who relied on bloggers, it was apparently easy to read a great deal of opinion on the subject without ever running across a substantial discussion of typographical terms such as "superscript" and "pair kerning" on which the scandal largely hinged. I think the problem goes beyond partisan-inspired sample bias, and goes to the very nature of the medium.

Clearly, blogs are not like standalone essays, and nothing I'm saying here is brand new. Blogs have enviable qualities -- the ability to rapidly produce, cross-check and refine information -- but these are also their drawbacks. Note how tentative this is: "I have never seen the sites, and they have now been taken down, so I can neither confirm nor deny..." You see much the same effect on the follow-up Tim posted in response to controversy about his proposed Code. There Tim backpedals on the idea of a "badge" for bloggers to display that they adhere to the Code, and regrets the initial "negative" design they came up with in the face of impending coverage from the New York Times. While it's often a laudable quality to be able to reverse a prior stance or admit error, the cumulative effect on the reader is a sense of flux. Blogs invite response, and such response is far more likely to have an effect than anywhere else. Go after Tim with both guns blazing, and he is likely to reverse himself. Partly that's due to his special role as a consensus-builder, but still, try that with some newspaper's columnist and see where it'll get you!

Some of the commentary I ran across referred to the "drive-by" nature of anonymous blog comments, but I can't help think that blogs are "drive-by" by their very nature. It's easy to flit from one post to the next, only dwelling on something that appears especially contentious. I occasionally read Ann Althouse, whose blog tends to focus on legal matters (she's a law professor), what's in the New York Times, and reality television. Recently she caused some fuss by drawing attention to a picture of Bill Clinton posing with a bunch of bloggers, one of whom appeared in such a way as to draw attention to her breasts. This catty observation has generated an immense deal of commentary! That it would crowd out other discourse reflects how blogs tend to thrive more on controversy than reliability. Popular blogs tend to be edgier, and edgy comments are more likely to generate a response. I noticed that the title I chose for my previous post was a pun based on one of the words that Don Imus just got fired for using, a sexist term of abuse I ordinarily wouldn't utter. So why did I use it? Because it was snappy and attention-grabbing, that's why! That I can do so without a second thought seems to be one of the medium's disinhibitors. (Similarly, the very title of this blog is something of a provocative pun.)

Getting back to Kathy Sierra, I find it fascinating that after sampling so much commentary about the death threats directed against her, I still have no idea what it was they were originally discussing that spiraled so out wildly of control. It seems that in blogs the subject matter is less likely to be related to this free-floating contentiousness and constant sniping.

The whole libertarian vs. communitarian argument about whether bloggers should adopt a formal Code of Conduct actually doesn't interest me all that much. Sure, if you think it's a good idea, go ahead and knock yourself out. For some bloggers it may well be a good idea as a matter of simple P.R. Will it make any difference in the overall quality of blogs and their comments, or of how they are perceived by the public at large? I doubt it.

Ho, Ho, Ho! [LINK]

My latest letter to the Globe:

While I appreciate Mike Brown's perspective on Don Imus's firing, on one point he's a bit misleading. He says that Imus "knows what those awful words mean -- he heard them when he grew up." No, Imus did not grow up routinely hearing the word "ho." In those days, the word "whore" on which it's based would have been reserved for more extreme situations, and was especially potent when hurled by a woman. (It certainly wouldn't have appeared above the fold of a respectable newspaper such the Boston Globe, as it did last week.)

That the word now permeates our language is thanks to rap music, where it's used so routinely as to drain it of its actual meaning. If you are a potential sexual partner, it seems, you are simply a "ho." It's unlikely Imus grew up immersed in such wretched language. His apparent sin is appropriating the current slang from outside his assigned context as an older white man. That scandals don't erupt each day such foulness tops the music charts reflects a racial taboo that doesn't make our response to Imus seem particularly sane.

Apr 11, 2007

Western Medicine Offers a Handy Scapegoat [LINK]

Here's my latest letter to the Globe. Harris's own letter was in response to this earlier op-ed.

Having recently watched my brother-in-law die of cancer, I too found Dr. Darshak Sanghavi's op-ed on Elizabeth Edwards' struggle with the disease bracing and unwelcome. But what stuck in my craw was criticism by Barry Harris, who said that Dr. Sanghavi's fatalism exemplifies how "Western medicine disempowers cancer patients."

No, what disempowers cancer patients is cancer itself. In particular, patients who are put into the position of entertaining the idea of "miracle healing" Mr. Harris offers as an alternative are no longer in meaningful control of their lives.

This summer thousands of bicyclists like myself will participate in the Pan Mass Challenge to support to the utmost Western medicine's response to this dreadful set of diseases, and I invite others to do so in any way they can.

More Support for Equal Marriage [LINK]

My latest spurious and philosophically inept proposal for Deval Patrick's site:

As a religious believer, I worry that even if gay marriage remains the law of the land, the bigots in our midst will undermine it and relegate it to second-class status. Since marriage is an inherent social good, it is in society's best interest to encourage committed couples to tie the knot rather than living in sin. But the rate of marriage among gays and lesbians is troublingly low -- a small percentage compared to eligible heterosexuals -- raising the concern such marriages would become marginalized and remain on the periphery of society's conscience. Surely this may be due to a latent fear of getting married only to have one's civil rights later cruelly revoked. Or it may be that for heterosexuals, marriage is more closely associated with childbearing and women's "biological clock." Maybe if they didn't have all these children, they wouldn't be so quick to get married! Or, maybe for gays the sex really is that good.

But the fact remains that for the Commonwealth's GLBTQQ residents, marriage remains an uneven playing field despite its newfound legal status, and they remain disenfranchised. To remedy this situation and allow all our citizens the full benefits of true lasting equality, the Commonwealth should take special measures to encourage gay marriage, preferably with tax credits. The approximately $2,000 straight married couples get as a windfall from the federal government for having children is certainly a start, but it doesn't take into account the special hurdles gays especially often have to jump over to have children. It can cost a lot of money to adopt a healthy baby! (As opposed to one of those troubled older kids you get from DSS.) Since society has a duty to uphold equality and to compensate for its long legacy of discrimination, it should do more to encourage gay marriage.

Apr 10, 2007

Ah, Nostalgia! [LINK]

A notice on a New York galley showing by R.C. Baker of the VIllage Voice:

In 1972, Allan Sekula decided to interrupt the "capitalist circulation of luxury goods through robbery and waste," so he shoplifted pricey cuts of meat and tossed them under the wheels of big rigs thundering down the highway. The black-and-white photos documenting Meat Mass -- long-haired artist skulking out of a Safeway; a gelatinous smudge on the freeway pavement -- capture the spirit of this large group show, culled from the Generali Foundation's seminal collection of conceptual art. In 1969, Valie Export pulled her crawling male collaborator on a leash through a crowded Vienna shopping district; photos of this street-theater gender-bender show passersby both appalled and amused. A 1993 series of videos based on commercials made for the Humanic shoe-store chain between 1969 and 1983 looks like early MTV by way of the Playboy Club: garish clothes, robotic figures, close-ups of pouty lips, and a dreamlike clip of a helmeted man in a food-encrusted suit being engulfed by pigeons. These documentary works, plus sculptures and drawings, use powerful visual hooks to lure us down the psyche's strange alleyways. Don't get run over.

Apr 4, 2007

Compromise on Death Penalty [LINK]

One more for Gov. Patrick:

Since there seems to be a fairly consistent 50/50 split for and against capital punishment, and since there is little definitive research on its deterrent effect (especially concerning sudden "crimes of passion"), I propose a compromise. Make murders committed on even days punishable by death, and those committed on odd days punishable by life imprisonment, or whatever the current sentence is.

Let's Label Genetically Engineered Food Already! [LINK]

As promised, another proposal for Deval Patrick's website, a "positive" restatement of an earlier comment I made on a similar proposal:

Due to the unknown dangers posed by genetically engineered foods, and in response to overwhelming support of Americans polled on the issue, I would like to see genetically engineered products labeled prominently, preferably with a big black skull and crossbones. Let agribusiness prove their products are safe! Such labels should be required if, relying on peer-reviewed science, genetically engineered foods are determined to pose any more of a risk than that of consuming organic produce, from broiling or frying any food, or from eating nectarines or pluots. Let's tame this unsustainable biotech-based economy!

UPDATE: I didn't get anywhere near the response I expected. Instead, I was invited to join a "coalition" by the folks whose proposal I thought I was clearly mocking. At least two people had the opportunity to look over my piece before sending me the invitation password. Either these people really are dumb as a bag of hammers, or I'm not doing my job as a satirist. In case it's in any way unclear, though, let's go through it point by point:
  1. To demand safety labels based on "unknown dangers" is a non sequitur.
  2. To demand safety labels based on popular misconceptions is a non sequitur.
  3. "Big black skull and crossbones" should have been a giveaway.
  4. Maybe this counts more as an inside joke, but among those who do risk analysis it's axiomatic that you cannot prove anything is "safe"; there are just different levels of risk.
  5. Everything about the comparable risks of consuming organic food, burned food, or already "engineered" food should have been a giveaway.
  6. Explicitly advocating to suppress economic growth in Massachusetts should have been a giveaway.

No More Empty Declarations [LINK]

My latest proposal submitted to Gov. Patrick's website:

In the interest of positive change and efficient government, I would like to propose an immediate moratorium on any kind of commemoration or declaration that doesn't result in an actual policy change other than sending someone a plaque or serving as a photo opportunity. These declarations are so often a frivolous waste of precious legislative time. To take a recent example, the Cambridge City Council declared May 1 as "Global Love Day" at the behest of a non-profit organization seeking to spread "Love and Peace on our Planet."

I'm sure Gov. Patrick would respond positively to banning such nonsense at the state level. That must have been what he had in mind when he recently refused to commemorate Ronald Reagan's birthday. (After all, what other reason could he have to snub the man who whipped inflation, grew the economy by a third, got large numbers of women into the work force, and defeated the Godless communists?) If the practice is to continue, I have an alternate proposal. I would like the Commonwealth to officially recognize Miss Massachussetts 2007, Despina Delios, as a Greek Goddess. Thank you.

British Teachers Avoid Presenting Holocaust [LINK]

A study by the British Department of Education and Skills determined that schools are dropping the Holocaust from history lessons to avoid offending Muslim students or contradicting what they learned in local mosques.