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Thursday, May 31, 2007

Gerrymandering: legal election fraud

From David Kaiser's History Unfolding blog, a fascinating look at the effects of gerrymandering on Congressional elections:
In 2004, the Republicans won 232 seats with 51.4% of the major party vote; in 2006 the Democrats won 53.3% of the major party vote--almost two percentage points more--but emerged with just one more seat. The electoral math clearly favors the Republicans now. much is 53% of the major party vote usually worth? The answer, on average, is 246 seats, thirteen more than the Democrats collected (although to be fair, most of the data points come from the era of the Democratic solid south, which does seem, at first glance anyway, to have given the Democrats more seats with less votes, perhaps because southern turnouts were so low.) And as a matter of fact, when the Republicans took over the Congress in 1994, they won only 230 seats with the same 53% of the major party vote, suggesting that they overcame a considerable Democratic districting advantage. That advantage did not last, however--in 1996, the Republicans kept the control of Congress with 228 seats to 217, even though the Democrats actually outpolled them in the popular vote for Congress. (I do not recall seeing any mention of that rather anomalous result at the time, and this was the first I had heard of it.)
The best part is, once your unelected presidents and Congress bring in right-wing Supreme Court justices, you no longer have to worry that gerrymandered districts will be declared unconstitutional!

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Tuesday, May 29, 2007


At a party a while ago, my friends and I were playing the "in case of fire, what would you take from your apartment?" game. Like Beyonce, I couldn't think of anything in my apartment that was irreplaceable. Sure, my computer would be useful, but I have back-ups of the things that are important, and the machine itself is on its last legs. It would be more inconvenient than devastating to lose that. Losing all my books would be as close to devastation as I could get, but, again, they're replaceable. I don't have photographs or many mementos; there are probably a few things that I would miss, but maybe I wouldn't miss them enough that I could think of what they were. I wasn't very good at the game. The only way I could think about it was in terms of practicality, not sentimentality.

My friend Scriblerus called me a nihilist and demanded I come up with at least one item. The game wasn't hypothetical for Scriblerus, for he had recently had to deal with fire and water damage in his apartment. I insisted that I could only think of mundane practicalities, so it's not like anything I named would establish What I Really Care About, What Matters Most to Me, or whatever the answer was supposed to reveal. After some prodding, I decided I would take my copy of Amy Hempel's At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom because the collected edition of her short stories hadn't been published yet and I was the only person I knew with a copy. Later, when I told Priscilla about my pathetic performance in the game, she reminded of me of Hempel's short story "Pool Night" (from Reasons to Live), about what people save in a fire and a flood. I re-read the story, wept at the last line, and decided I wasn't a nihilist after all.

Now Scriblerus is writing about how eighteenth-century authors dealt with the problem of durability and information overload. I saw the connection between his indignance about my vague sense of durability and his research interests when I read Alec Wilkinson's New Yorker article about Gordon Bell, a man sometimes called "the Frank Lloyd Wright of computers." Since 1998, Bell has been recording his entire life into a personal digital archive: he has scanned all of his books and papers, as well as his personal scrapbooks and photographs, labels of bottles of wine he has consumed, maps of places he's visited, and anything else that he can think of. Part of Bell's idea for a personal digital archive came from Vannevar Bush's essay "As We May Think," in which he proposes the idea of a "memex," or a memory extender. The essay, published in 1945 in The Atlantic, is an amazing piece of writing about how technology changes the way we think about human memory and the structure of knowledge. Bush writes,
One can now picture a future investigator in his laboratory. His hands are free, and he is not anchored. As he moves about and observes, he photographs and comments. Time is automatically recorded to tie the two records together. If he goes into the field, he may be connected by radio to his recorder. As he ponders over his notes in the evening, he again talks his comments into the record. His typed record, as well as his photographs, may both be in miniature, so that he projects them for examination.

Much needs to occur, however, between the collection of data and observations, the extraction of parallel material from the existing record, and the final insertion of new material into the general body of the common record. For mature thought there is no mechanical substitute. But creative thought and essentially repetitive thought are very different things. For the latter there are, and may be, powerful mechanical aids.

Bush's memex idea is interesting for the ways that it tries to contend with two different scales at the same time: personal minutia at one end and vast expansion of all types of knowledge at the other. Bell has focused on the former in hopes that his experiment will be useful for future applications of the latter scale. Bell's son, writes Wilkinson, "regards his father's project as self-involved to the point of being 'egocentric.' Gordon Bell considers himself something more like invisible in terms of the archive's intentions. 'I'm not particularly interesting,' he says. 'I'm just typical of what you should be able to do.'"

In working between those two scales, Wilkinson has a fascinating task in the article. How do you write about a project of voluminous reiteration of minutia without giving into that structure as a narrator? Or, how do you write about excess without being excessive? He starts describing what Bell's personal archive looks like by asking Bell's secretary, Vicki Rozycki, to show him what's on the file while Bell tells him about the information. But Bell talks about his project in conventional terms of autobiography, and it's not clear how the archive adds any complexity other than oddity.
In 1952, Bell went to M.I.T., the first person from Kirksville to go there. “Here’s your letter of acceptance,” Rozycki said, the clicks of her mouse making sounds like knitting needles. “I got a big trunk and put all my junk in it, and my parents took me to Boston,” Bell said. The city at night, seen from the banks of the Charles River, impressed all of them, and in the hotel Bell’s father wept, realizing that his son would never run Bell Electric.

“Here’s your fraternity,” Rozycki said.

“I joined a fraternity,” Bell said.

Rozycki brought up a black-and-white photograph of boys wearing suits and sitting at a table with a white tablecloth and eating. “I fell in with two Missouri boys—Kansas City and St. Louis—who got Ph.D.s in chemical engineering,” Bell said. “They were smart and supportive and nice. They helped me catch up with the prep-school kids who’d had calculus, and I hadn’t.”

On the third screen appeared a table with several nearly empty glasses of red wine. Bell ignored it. “I graduated in ’57, with a master’s,” Bell said. “Computers were just being invented.” He didn’t want to get a Ph.D., and he had an aversion to the rows of desks that were typical of engineering firms—he believed that anything designed by more than four or five people wouldn’t work the way it should. The head of his department knew a man who had started the University of New South Wales, in Australia, and he suggested that Bell teach computing there. Bell and a friend got Fulbrights to do it. At the university, Bell began seeing another Fulbright scholar, a city planner named Gwen Druyor, and when they returned to America they were married.

I don't know what the image of the wineglasses means or where it came from, but it's interesting that the "archive's intentions" aren't really as important to Bell as the autobiographical narrative he's already established. Bell's collaborator Jim Gemmell says he envisions a way of making these types of archives into movies, a form of "auto-storytelling." Gemmell tells Wilkinson, "My dream is I go on vacation and take my pictures and come home and tell the computer, 'Go blog it,' so that my mother can see it. I don't have to do anything; the story is there in the pattern of the images." Because Wilkinson has spent so much of the article telling a conventional pattern of a biography, this claim seems like a difficult one to enact in a meaningful way, given what's happened earlier with Bell's skipping over images that don't fit the pattern of personal narrative. (William Gibson's Pattern Recognition should give anyone plenty of wonderful ideas about the intricacies and possible digressions of this type of plan.)

I was impressed not only with how Wilkinson moves back and forth between the scales of potentially fascinating minutia (the biographical detail) and tedious repetition of it (wine labels?!), but also for how moves from those two ideas to more general thoughts on what it means to try to remember and record everything for people other than Gordon Bell.

I'm totally fascinated by this idea of how to register excess without reproducing it. I ran into this problem this semester in writing about an eighteenth-century American historian's penchant for pointing out his colleagues' errors in long, digressive footnotes that took up more of the book than the actual text of the history he was writing. In trying to correct others' errors in such mean-spirited detail, the historian, William Douglass, made all sorts of errors of his own, which his contemporaries then delighted in detailing in their own works. Because of this quixotic, polemical obsession with correcting other people's errors, Douglass is now remembered mostly for his own errors--and for his objection to inoculation as a method for managing smallpox, though he later revised that position and corrected his own errors in print.

When I set out to write about how Douglass's method of error correction tended to produce errors rather than eliminate them, I couldn't figure out how to give the reader a sense of how such proliferation could occur. Douglass is the kind of writer who writes footnotes that last for pages, and each paragraph of the notes end with self-conscious comments such as, "this note has already grown too prolix" or "I should put this information in the appendix." Then he adds another paragraph about how an earlier author has made another egregious error that he would be remiss to leave uncorrected. His polymathic character leads him to digress on subjects of currency, botany, medicine, and mathematics because he's sure that his reader will benefit from the information. There's one three-page footnote, for example, about the different types of fir trees in New England and how previous natural historians have neglected the different species. His Summary of the British Settlements in North America (1749-52) was never finished because the author had to tend to his medical duties in treating another smallpox epidemic in Boston in 1752, and he died that year. But the book is in many ways unfinishable. He eventually realizes (in multiple footnotes) in that the appendix he keeps referring to will never be written because it will take up more pages than the two-volume book itself.

One of Douglass's more sympathetic biographers said his history resembled the novel Tristram Shandy more than it resembled any of its contemporary histories. That's half-true: it's a lot like Tristram Shandy in its digressions, but it's also a lot like other eighteenth-century histories such as Cotton Mather's Magnalia Christi Americana, which is, by the way, a totally weird book that I wasn't looking forward to reading until I read the first page, at which point I was hooked. Mather spends much of that book talking about errors, too, and it's noteworthy that Douglass directs much of his criticism at the similarly error-obsessed minister (the two also feuded about the experimental basis for inoculation). Jenny Davidson has noted how talking about Tristram Shandy can lead anyone to digression.

So I really want to know how to write about digression and excess in such a way that I don't reproduce those qualities. I think Wilkinson's article is a good model. It's easy and tempting to reproduce that excess by doing close-readings of the excessive passages and saying why they're excessive--but it can also get tedious to read, as I found out in revising my work (who wants to read a polymath's digressions on fir trees?). I can see some of the strategies as conventional: make lists and cherry-pick items that convey the broad range of the subjects in the digression; mimic the excess of the tone (practice this one in moderation); identify patterns in how the author digresses or writes in excess and diagnose how the repetition of the pattern functions in the text. I practice these strategies with students in composition class when I ask them to identify the sentence structure that they over-use and then hypothesize why they do it. That exercise has produced writerly examination that's both important and adorable.

The other funny thing about William Douglass is that he's remembered with enmity in part because he insists that he doesn't want to take the time to look through all the documentary history of America because it's "trifling." He was on the wrong side of this debate; his contemporaries were obsessed with collecting American historical ephemera and cataloguing it in newly formed antiquarian and historical societies. I figure these two practices are two sides of the same coin: either you compile documentary history obsessively or you disdain it vociferously and correct errors in these printed records at exactly the moment when you're unsure what to do with all this stuff. Both types of projects are inherently impossible to finish because you never run out of stuff to account for. I see it all over the eighteenth century: in the nastiness between Lewis Theobald and Alexander Pope that ends up in the Dunciad and is reflected earlier in the opening lines of Pope's Essay on Criticism:
'Tis hard to say, if greater Want of Skill
Appear in Writing or in Judging ill,
But, of the two, less dang'rous is th' Offence,
To tire our Patience, than mis-lead our Sense:
Some few in that, but Numbers err in this,
Ten Censure wrong for one who Writes amiss;
A Fool might once himself alone expose,
Now One in Verse makes many more in Prose.

Bell and Gemmell are trying to get at a similar problem of proliferation and durability in their project to archive everything in Bell's life. They aren't sure what they'll do with it or why these particular procedures may be important later on, but they want to experiment with how to archive at both ends of the minute and vast scales. I think Bush gets at the problem in a compelling way:
The historian, with a vast chronological account of a people, parallels it with a skip trail which stops only on the salient items, and can follow at any time contemporary trails which lead him all over civilization at a particular epoch. There is a new profession of trail blazers, those who find delight in the task of establishing useful trails through the enormous mass of the common record. The inheritance from the master becomes, not only his additions to the world's record, but for his disciples the entire scaffolding by which they were erected.

Thus science may implement the ways in which man produces, stores, and consults the record of the race. It might be striking to outline the instrumentalities of the future more spectacularly, rather than to stick closely to methods and elements now known and undergoing rapid development, as has been done here. Technical difficulties of all sorts have been ignored, certainly, but also ignored are means as yet unknown which may come any day to accelerate technical progress as violently as did the advent of the thermionic tube. In order that the picture may not be too commonplace, by reason of sticking to present-day patterns, it may be well to mention one such possibility, not to prophesy but merely to suggest, for prophecy based on extension of the known has substance, while prophecy founded on the unknown is only a doubly involved guess.


Blogger Jeff'y on Wed May 30, 10:51:00 AM:
You still haven't bought a new computer? Still?
Blogger Scriblerus on Wed May 30, 05:18:00 PM:
Ha! Thanks for the free press. Very useful entry too--dovetails nicely with my latest reading. Response brewing...

Steve Jobs on Bill Gates

Wired has a set of quotes by Bill Gates on Steve Jobs, and Jobs on Gates. Jobs has all the best lines:
"I am saddened, not by Microsoft's success -- I have no problem with their success. They've earned their success, for the most part. I have a problem with the fact that they just make really third-rate products."
-- Triumph of the Nerds, PBS documentary, 1996 (Ed. note: According to an Aug. 8, 1997 New York Times story, Jobs later called Gates to apologize for his comments in the film.)

"I wish (Bill Gates) the best, I really do. I just think he and Microsoft are a bit narrow. He'd be a broader guy if he had dropped acid once or gone off to an ashram when he was younger."
-- The New York Times, 1997

"Here's something Microsoft will never be able to rip off."
-- Mac World Expo, 2007, introducing the iPhone


Monday, May 28, 2007

Russian gays fighting for Russia's soul

From Moscow, the NY Times's Michael Schwirtz reports on a gay rights rally that was suppressed by Russian police and violent counter-protesters.

This comes during a nadir in the outlook for human rights in Russia. The state of human rights--the contempt the government has for human rights principles and the NGOs that argue for them--has a hand in the vanishing freedom of the press, discouragement of foreign investment, ethnic discrimination and hate crimes, denial of the rising AIDS crisis, foot-dragging on security of nuclear materials, and continued Russian imperialism in Moldova, Ukraine and Georgia.

These are connected in a overarching political culture of aggression, denial and intolerance, which appears to serve Russia's nationalist project but in reality is eating away at the country's economic and human capital. Russian gays don't only need gay rights; all Russians need gay rights.

From the article:

A man in camouflage clothing struck Peter Tatchell, a British gay rights campaigner, in the face as he tried to speak to the press. Officers arrested the man who threw the punch and took Mr. Tatchell to a police van for his protection, a police spokesman said.

Later, Marco Cappato, a European Parliament member from Italy, traded blows with another man wearing camouflage as the riot police looked on.

The police detained Mr. Cappato, along with Volker Beck, a member of the German Bundestag, but later released them. It was unclear what happened to the man who had been fighting with Mr. Cappato.


Today’s protest was the second attempt by organizers to hold a gay pride demonstration in Moscow. A similar event last year ended in bloodshed when more than 100 ultranationalists and radical Orthodox Christians attacked gay rights demonstrators in Moscow.


Representatives from gay rights groups, however, seemed undaunted by the violence and vowed to continue organizing demonstrations.


Sunday, May 27, 2007

To quote myself...

Catching up on my New Yorkers...

Even several weeks later, I keep going back to Jeffrey Goldberg's article about Bob Woodward's May 6 Washington Post review of George Tenet's At the Center of the Storm. The number of possessives in that summary sentence illuminates the weirdness of the article. When I read it the first time, it didn't seem like much of an article: it's quote-heavy and relies on a repeated structure of casting Tenet against Woodward, or Tenet against another critic on all sides of the debates (Douglas Feith, Maureen Dowd, and so on). But the more I think about it, the more I'm convinced that it's a fascinating example of how an author's decisions about quotation, whether from a book or from an interview, frame how the argument works well or less well.

In the article, Goldberg quotes Tenet and Woodward at length as they defend their positions in the disagreement about whether Tenet ever called the case for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq a "slam dunk." Tenet disputes Woodward's description (in State of Attack, 2004) of his excited leap from an Oval Office couch to make a basketball analogy; Woodward insists that multiple people can back him up on the story. Goldberg makes this dispute the center of the New Yorker story:
Tenet acknowledges in his book that he has helped Woodward, and the two were known to be friendly. In fact, Tenet met with Woodward before writing his memoir, in order to seek Woodward's advice. In the book review section of the Post on May 6th, Wododward called Tenet's account a 'remarkable, important and often unintentionally damning book.' He accused Tenet of being 'all over the lot' in his explanations of the slam-dunk comment, and, more significant, chastised Tenet for misunderstanding the relationship between CIA directors and Presidents they serve. Tenet, Woodward wrote, was 'hampered by a bureaucrat's view of the world, hobbled by the traditional chain of command, convinced that the CIA director's "most important relationship with any administration official is generally with the national security adviser."' Woodward then wrote, in a distinctly parental tone, 'No. Your most important relationship is with the president.'

I bolded that section of Goldberg's quotation of Woodward's criticism of Tenet's writing (see, the possessives and the quotations of quotations are difficult to keep track of!) because it seems like that's probably a pretty good description of the limitations of Woodward's review of the book. Goldberg cites Sydney Schanburg's wry assessment of the review: "it’s not really a review of the Tenet book; it’s more like an explanation of how Tenet could have been a better intelligence chief and written a better memoir if only he had listened to Bob Woodward." Goldberg's choice of what to include from his interviews with Woodward underscores this point. He devotes a long section to how Woodward cites his own experience at the Washington Post to show how Tenet should have relayed information straight to the president. From an interview with Woodward:
'I would argue that Tenet's job was to boil the President's blood. That's why you show up on the President's doorstep. I'm raised in a culture where you don't observe the chain of command, you go around. Read "All the President's Men." Who was my "action officer"? Ben Bradlee'--then the execuitve editor of the Post. 'If something is important you go to your action officer.'

At that point, Woodward read to me a dramatic passage from "All the President's Men..." [which Goldberg then quotes in a block]:

They got into Woodward's car. They decided not to talk in the car, either. Several blocks from Bradlee's house, they called him from a pay phoen. He says come over, Berstein said.

The reporters had never been to Bradlee's house, and they wondered how the boss lived. The streetlights created a half-dark atmosphere. As they approached the porch, a barking dog charged out. A man stepped out of the dim shadows. It was Bradlee, his hair combed, his voice and eyes sleepy.

Woodward then paused and said, "Sometimes there come points in your life when you have to make a decision about what you're going to do and they don't tell you in the morning that this is the day that one of those decisions is giogn to come. Do you break down the doors, do you break out of the system? This is the issue of courage."

Bradlee, who retired in 1991, said, 'Oh, Jesus, I remember that. We were really one-on-one throughout that story. He called me up and said he had to see me in the middle of the fucking night--Bernstein, too--and they made me come outside because they thought he house was bugged. I was in my jammies, for Chrissake.' I asked Bradlee if he agreed with Woodward that Tenet had abdicated his responsibilities on July 10, 2001. 'It seems to me elementary that if you've go the story that's going to dominate history that you might as well go right to the President,' Bradlee said.

The awkwardness of Woodward opening up All the President's Men to quote himself reminds me in the most absurd way of the arguments between Jay Bennett and Jeff Tweedy in I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, when Bennett tries to defend himself and insists, "To quote myself..." It's such a cringe-worthy moment (wherever one falls on those arguments in the movie, which seem even pettier now); I remember thinking, Please let me never, ever get to that point of self-regard in an argument. I'm fond of quoting conversations and comments when I'm talking to people or writing, and sometimes I even have to stop and pause to work out the difficulty of moving between what was said previously and what I'm saying in the present. I don't think I do it as often in argument situations, or in such formal language as Woodward (or Bennett) uses.

The other thing that long block quotation reminded me of is how awkwardly the double-author narration works in All the President's Men, as in this passage early in the book:
It appeared that Wood ward was also working on the story. That figured, Berstein thought. Bob Woodward was a prima donna who played heavily at office politics. Yale. A veteran of the Navy officer corps. Lawns, greensward, staterooms and grass tennis courts, Bernstein guessed, but probably not enough pavement for him to be good at investigative reporting. Bernstein knew that Woodward couldn't write very well. One office rumor had it that English was not Woodward's native language.

I don't remember this narration problem showing up after the characters are established and they start to tell the story. That's in part because casting two people against each other produces a kind of formulaic narration that they use over and over again in the book--to good effect most of the time. I opened up the book at random to find this example:
Clark Mollenhoff, six foot four inches and 230 pounds, Washington bureau chief of the Des Moines Register and Tribune Syndicate, rose, his face contorted in anger. Mollenhoff, a Pulitzer Prize-wining investigative reporter, had briefly served at the White House as resident ombudsman charged with keeping things honest. [Director of Nixon's re-election campaign Clark] MacGregor and Mollenhoff looked like two giants getting ready to lay clubs on each other.

It's a compelling formula for most of the book because the x vs. y structure is clear-cut (reporters against various members of the administration). It's confusing in the first passage I quoted because the two narrators are set against each other.

The x vs. y formula gets repeated again and again in Goldberg's article, "Woodward vs. Tenet." It yields long quotations from the different players to state their cases and defend themselves, but it doesn't yield as much on a more difficult point: Tenet's failures are numerous and systemic. They're not reducible to a single bad decision to the approach the wrong person with intelligence information if decision-making processes in the White House were circular or tended to confirm only the things people wanted to believe. The subtitle of Goldberg's article is "the new intelligence war," but the huge scale of the problem of ignored intelligence, bad claims, and misinformation isn't suited to collapsing it to an x vs. y (whether Woodward vs. Tenet, or Larry Johnson vs. Tenet) formula. That formula simply reproduces old claims and quotations of oneself--literally in Tenet's insistence that he didn't say the WMD case was a slam dunk, or in Woodward's case when he quotes his books. That is, the structure looks compelling because we're used to casting people against one another, but the problems to be discussed may be larger than the structure can accomodate.

On that note, this is one of the many reasons I've tired of Maureen Dowd: her comic renderings of these interactions do about a third of the work of satire in that they expose the power-hungriness and failures of everyone involved, but they don't do much beyond that. She gets so wrapped up in writing the scenes that I'm always left thinking about the labor it takes to write the satires (and some of them are pretty belabored), not the situation that she's trying to illuminate.


Saturday, May 26, 2007

Ashcroft, Mueller saw eavesdropping as illegal: the missing headline

The testimony given to the Senate by former justice official James Comey is riveting. See it while you can on YouTube, before it's taken down (because, in our crazy system of intellectual property, footage of Senate hearings isn't in the public domain).

From Jim Dwyer's "About New York" column in the NY Times today:
Mr. Schumer asked about an evening three years ago, when Mr. Comey — a lawyer who grew up in New York and New Jersey — was the acting attorney general of the United States because his boss, John Ashcroft, was sick in the hospital.

“You rushed to the hospital that evening,” the senator asked. “Why?”

“I’ve actually thought quite a bit over the last three years about how I would answer that question if it was ever asked, because I assumed that at some point, I would have to testify about it,” Mr. Comey answered.

And for the next 16 minutes and 35 seconds, Mr. Comey peeled open the evening of March 10, 2004, revealing that the country’s top law enforcement officials were prepared to resign in a group over President Bush’s surveillance program. These included John Ashcroft and Mr. Comey, attorney general and deputy attorney general during the president’s first administration, and Robert S. Mueller III, the director of the F.B.I.

This is history at high velocity: just 18 months ago, The New York Times was being criticized as treasonous for having published an article on the existence of those surveillance operations, recounting that unnamed senior officials in the Bush administration were deeply skeptical about their legality.

What I don't understand is why everyone buried the lede, which is that Ashcroft and Mueller were ready to resign as a group in protest against Bush's wiretapping policy because they viewed it as illegal. The Times headlines about Comey's testimony read:
"Mr. Gonzales's Incredible Adventure"
"Bush Intervened in Dispute Over N.S.A. Eavesdropping"
and the Washington Post's were
"Gonzales Hospital Episode Detailed : Ailing Ashcroft Pressured on Spy Program, Former Deputy Says"
"White House Pushed Ashcroft on Wiretappings. Former Deputy Says Program Implemented Despite Objections"
The Post's headlines at least were informative, especially the second one. But shouldn't there have been a headline along the lines of "Ashcroft and FBI Director Saw Eavesdropping as Illegal; Planned to Resign, Former Deputy Says"? That Ashcroft, as supportive of the PATRIOT Act as he was, was so opposed to Bush's policy and to Gonzales's legal interpretation says a lot. You shouldn't be able to scan the headlines and not learn that fact.


Friday, May 25, 2007

Running interference on a 747

To my friends, I am something of an ambassador from the world of technology to their world, which is one of stone-age tools, grunts and unashamed nakedness. I am asked often to recommend computers (standard answer: a Dell laptop in the $1000 range; choose the slowest processor, get an external hard drive to make upgrading easy, skip the service plan, and reformat it completely as soon as you get it), digital cameras (HP Photosmart in the $200 range; current one is the R817), mp3 players (get an old iRiver H140 on eBay and install RockBox), and other electronic devices (whenever possible, get a Sanyo). And if I don't know the answer to a question, I'm always ready and willing to just bullshit my way through an answer.

My friend Babble likes to challenge me to explain random phenomena such as the difference between the two sides of tin foil (it's just a by-product of the way it comes off the roller; both sides will dissolve equally quickly when in contact with acidic foods like tomatoes). But I had to do some sincere research when he asked me a tough one: do cell phones really interfere with airplane instruments?

The short answer is yes, but it probably hasn't caused any accidents. From Phil Windley's Technomatria blog:
Bill Strauss, M. Granger Morgan, Jay Apt, and Daniel D. Stancil measured the RF spectrum inside commercial aircraft cabins during 37 real flights over the course of three months in late 2003. They found that a cell phone was illegally used on average at least once per flight. In addition, at least one passenger neglects to turn off their cell phone on any given flight. They also found that cell phones and even laptops with Wi-Fi cards can interrupt the normal operation of key cockpit instruments—especially Global Positioning System (GPS) receivers...

The radio frequency data was collected, with the permission of the airlines and the FAA using gear concealed in a standard carry-on bag stowed in the overhead luggage bin.
The paper these researchers published concludes:
...we estimate that the average number of reported interference events might be as high as 23 per year...

In one telling incident, a flight crew stated that a 30-degree navigation error was immediately corrected after a passenger turned off a DVD player and that the error reoccurred when the curious crew asked the passenger to switch the player on again. Game electronics and laptops were the culprits in other reports in which the crew verified in the same way that a particular PED caused erratic navigation indications...

So what about accidents? We can extrapolate by looking at the existence of interference. Beginning in the 1930s, industrial safety pioneer H.W. Heinrich found—across many industries—that the ratio of incidents to accidents is about 300 to 1. Since then, this ratio has been approximately confirmed in a number of studies, including ones by the U.S. Air Force in the early 1970s. If this ratio holds true for the aviation industry, then we would expect PED interference to be a factor in an accident about once every 12 years...
So dangerous interference does happen, but why? After all, cellular frequencies are different from GPS frequencies, and devices like DVD players aren't supposed to emit external signals at all.

The truth is that we're still learning about how interference works, but one thing is certain: the world of electromagnetic radiation is a messy and sloppy one. Between personal electronic devices (PEDs), power lines, the television and radio waves that pass through us constantly, radiation from the sun and earth and the universe's background "noise", there's interference going on all the time, but usually it is harmless or essentially cancels out.

That's pretty wild when you think about what radio and other waves used in communications actually are. They're just light--the same as light you see with your eyes, just tuned to frequencies that our eyes can't see. Different animals, and to a small extent different people, can see farther than others in the infrared and ultraviolet directions, beyond the end of what others can see.

Imagine an extreme example of such a person, perhaps the beneficiary of an eye mutation, who can see the entire spectrum. What would this mutant see, if he stared at an AM radio tower? AM means "amplitude modulation"; in other words, the frequency--which we experience as color when the frequency is in the visible light range--is fixed, and the information in the signal is sent by making the light brighter and darker, in patterns. So our eagle-eyed person would see, say, a bright green light shining from the radio tower, and this light would quickly blink from bright to dim in an uneven pattern.

What about FM? That's "frequency modulation", and frequency corresponds to color in our perception. So the person would see a light whose brightness is constant but whose color, instead, is changing rapidly; imagine a light that alternates between lime green, forest green and aqua.

What if there was someone else in the way, standing between our friend and the tower? Our optically-endowed pal would still see lots of light reflecting off the ground and the air, the same way that you can still see the ambient light from the moon if it's hidden from view by a tree. In addition, most of the light hitting the person in the way would just pass through them; light at the low frequencies used by television and radio isn't powerful enough to be absorbed by flesh and bones, which would require it to bump electrons up to higher states. This is why radio waves are able to go through walls and reach radios inside buildings. Some amount of these photons do get absorbed in the process of passing through solids, however, and thickness and density affect how much gets through; hence losing radio reception while in a tunnel, or bones blocking x-rays.

(X-rays pass through your body for the same reason radio waves do, except in reverse: they are too powerful to be satisfied by bumping electrons up to higher energy levels, and that is why they pass through flesh so easily; but when they do hit an atom, they disrupt its electrons violently, which is why x-rays are dangerous.)

What if our buddy the hawkeye was standing a mile from the radio tower? She might not see the tower directly, but she would see its light shining off other objects, even off of clouds and the sky in general. Think of how long you can still see sunlight after the sun sets; our friend would see the sky flickering with radio light from towers below the horizon, thanks to waves which have curved around the earth by bouncing off the atmosphere and back. This is how you get long-distance shortwave radio signals; they can't go through the dense earth, but they can curve around it by bouncing back and forth between the ground and atmosphere.

Back to the airplane. If I make a call on my cell phone, it starts sending out light in every direction, at a certain frequency. Let's assume that this frequency of light appears orange to our perceptive friend. But it won't be perfectly orange, as the device's frequency specifications call for it to be; it may be slightly off, due to design error or age, and might have a bit of a yellow tint. And if I use my laptop or GameBoy, those will send out a little light as well, as a by-product of their circuitry; perhaps this too is yellowish.

The airplane's devices are designed not to interact with photons a the orange frequency, which is reserved for consumer products and cell phones; perhaps they stick to chartreuse. Problem is, there's a few small components that erroneously respond to broader shades of yellow and green, and these can see the light from the cell phone and GameBoy. They are shielded a bit by heavy metal casing, but maybe some bouncing light gets in through the glass surface of the instrument panel; you can't design away every possibility of exposure to outside radiation. It's not bad if they get a signal here or there from your call to check on your brood, but if events conspire and error-checking isn't done well, such a mistake could snowball and lead to disaster.

So do turn off your cell phone and stop playing Snood while the plane lands, and imagine all the conversations, free XM and internet porn you could see bouncing off buildings in blinking colors if you were an X-Man.


Tuesday, May 22, 2007

The 5 baby names you meet in Haeven, and the 995 you meet in Hell

The Social Security Administration has taken its annual timeout from underreporting my earnings and released the list of the thousand most common baby names from 2006. (The front page only gives you the top 5 boys and girls; choose "Top 1000" next to "Popularity" in the middle and click "Go".)

As always, the girls' names are much more entertaining than the boys. We guys have no analogue to the swings of fashion that brought Alexis and Madison to the top 5 in recent years, though a few names have dropped far from their former glory. Richard, which was fifth in 1947, now lags behind Brayden, Kaden, Caden, Jaden and Hayden, and old standbys like Peter and Max are now behind soap opera imports like Gage, Bryce, Tanner and Colton. But as long as it's Young Turks on top, New England Patriots fans will be happy to know that Brady is beating Peyton hands down. (Even better, Peyton is actually more popular as a girls' name than as a boys', which can only mean the WNFL is 19 years away.)

Still, the top 10 boys' names don't get more interesting than Ethan (number four), while the girls have both Ava (fifth) and Olivia (seventh), and the names get more surprising as you go down the list. In 2006, there were more baby Valerias than Rebeccas, more Brooklyns than Michelles, and even with the vote split with Peyton, there are more Paytons than Pamelas, Penelopes or Phoebes.

It was even hard to compete with Addison, a name that must owe part of its popularity to the ascension of Madison (107th in 1992, 2nd in 2000, 3rd last year), and another part of its popularity to being one of the words on textbooks that high-schoolers spent years staring at while bored and thinking about sex. To beat Addison, you'd have to gather and sum the stodgy has-beens Mary, Christine, Cindy, Deborah, Nancy, and an especially jilted Alison. Laura loses to fast-climbing Genesis, which I hope means that the band has passed from collective memory.

Celebrity names seem to have some effect, boosting Kimora (as in Kimora Lee "Baby Phat" Simmons) and Malia (as in eight year old Malia Ann Obama) into Patricia and Lauryn territory. But despite the popularity of Gilmore Girls and its alternative spelling of Lorelei, Lorelai couldn't even beat out Beatrice, McKinley or Briley, thanks to Shakespeare fans, mountain climbers and idiots.

It's never clear just what is and isn't a black name, by which I mean a name whose owner is more often than not black. But the top names I would bet belong to more black than white babies were Xavier (followed by Marcus) for the boys, and for the girls Destiny, followed by a trio of closely-ranked, celebrity-inspired names: Aaliyah, Jada and Mya.

Latino names are also tricky because some names, like Diego and Marco, have become popular outside Latino families, and because hip alternative versions of English girls names often wind up the same as existing Spanish spellings (like Cristina and Mariana). This may be why there are more clearly Spanish names at the top of the boys' list--Jose leads at #32--than there are on the girls', where I don't see a clear-cut Latina name until Elena at #187. Is a name like Angel (which ranks well on both the boys' and girls' charts) being given mostly to Latin babies? I don't know, and I'd like to peek at the demographic breakdown.

My sisters and brothers have pretty common names, except for Mariam, which is tied with the inexplicable Lizeth. My sister Sarah's spelling triumphed (Sarah:Sara :: 5:2) but my sister Rebekah's didn't (Rebekah:Rebecca :: 1:3). Benjamin and my brother's name, Alexander, are going strong, resisting challenges from upstarts like Mason and Jackson, though our truncated versions don't do so well; Alex is behind Landon, and Ben is behind Trace, Jett and Titus.

As for Alice, sorry, Alice, but you are off in the Kuiper belt, past Heaven, Diamond, Piper, Emely, Kayleigh and Kaydence. You're even behind a knockoff name like Brooklynn, though you do edge out Madyson and Maddison.

What else? The name Nevaeh arrived in 2001 thanks to the baby-naming frontman of the rock band POD (or "Payable On Death", as in, your sins and Christ etc.), and it continues its storied rise, reaching #43, right between Kaylee and Brooke. Unfortunately, a few parents not gifted in spelling fumbled the name and put it down as Neveah, or "Haeven" backwards. But not to worry--it's still tied with Janice.

A last note about unusual names: my wife-to-be, Kate, teaches around the city, and has a few funny stories about names she's encountered. Once, she was writing vocabulary on the blackboard, and on seeing one of the words, student raised her hand and said excitedly, "Hey miss, I think I got a cousin named Loquacious!"

(She has another, even better, story, but I hesitate to tell it because it's so hard to believe, as it raises questions about how someone could get so far into life without fully realizing her parents' terrible mistake. I can only swear to you that the below has been corroborated by the other witness, and that I believe it to be true.)

Kate was driving in North Jersey with a film producer, while they were working on a movie. They stopped at a Burger King drive-in, and Kate was surprised to see the producer, normally a gentleman, staring at the chest of the young woman working the window. When the woman turned away to attend to the order, the producer waved to Kate frantically and pointed to indicate her name tag. When she came back to the window, Kate peeked over and read: Diahrrea. Trying to keep his cool, the producer remarked on the name, called it interesting, and asked if the woman could tell him how it was pronounced and where it was from. She explained happily that it was pronounced "Deeuh-rahay", and that her father had spied it on a hospital wall while sitting in the waiting room with her mother in labor, and had thought it melodic and unusual. Kate and the producer could only agree.

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Blogger Alice on Wed May 23, 11:11:00 AM:
Other readers of this blog are also familiar with the amazing Baby Name Voyager site, which tracks the popularity of names since the nineteenth century:
Anonymous Anonymous on Wed May 23, 08:17:00 PM:
I think I'm going have to put 'Diahrrea'up to urban legend. Though my father swears that as an intern he heard a few OB residents giggling over their suggestion to a young black mother that she name the baby 'S'Phyllis'.
Anonymous Anonymous on Fri May 25, 09:30:00 AM:
Alice, I think you should change your name to Kaydence.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Ira Glass: De Art of Storytelling

Current TV ran a documentary that featured Ira Glass giving advice on storytelling and creative work, and he really digs down for valuable knowledge and perspective.

From part 2 (available on YouTube):
"It's time at that point to be the ambitious, super-achieving person who you're gonna be, and to kill it. It's time to kill. And it's time to enjoy the killing. Because by killing, you will make something else even better live. And I think that, like, not enough gets said about the importance of abandoning crap... If you're not failing all the time, you're not creating a situation where you're gonna get super-lucky."
From part 3 (also available on YouTube):
"There's something nobody tells people who are beginners, and I wish someone had told this to me... All of us who do creative work get into it because we have good taste. You know what I mean? You want to make TV because you love TV, because there's stuff that you just, like, love, okay? So you get into this thing, that I don't even know how to describe, where there's a gap; that the first couple years that you're making stuff, what you're making isn't so good, okay? It's really not that great. What you're trying to make is good, it has ambition to be good, but it's not quite that good. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is so good that you can tell that what you're making is kind of a disappointment to you, you know what I mean? Like, you can tell that it's still sorta crappy?

"A lot of people never get past that phase. A lot of people, at that point they quit. And the thing I would like to say to you, with all my heart, is that most creative people I know, who do creative work, they went through a phase where they had years when they had really good taste, they could tell what they were making wasn't what they wanted it to be. They knew it fell short... The most important thing is to know that that's totally normal, and to just do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week, or every month, you know you're gonna finish one story... It's only by going through a volume of work that you'll catch up, and close that gap."

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Sunday, May 13, 2007

The eruv, which lifts sin effortlessly

Harper's discusses the lines of cord that surround parts of New York City so that huge areas can qualify as an "eruv", a boundary that symbolizes a mixture between private and public areas for Jews. There are several types of eruv; this kind allows observant Jews to perform basic tasks outdoors on the Sabbath that would otherwise be allowed only inside their homes. The lines are strung alongside power lines and telephone lines. (Knowledge of this phenomenon has provided me with party banter for the last ten years.)

My stepbrother Daniel once tagged along on an inspection of one of the city's eruv borders. A team of volunteers constantly patrols its perimeter, checking the lines for wear; even a single break in one line renders the whole eruv null. The patrollers told him that the best part of having the eruv was that unobservant Jews like him, thanks to the eruv, would be living in line with a great commandment without even knowing.

See Wikipedia on eruvs, and take a look at the directory of eruvim at the bottom of the page. I used to live inside the Park Slope-Prospect Heights eruv, which includes a swath of Prospect Park for Saturday-morning picnics, but I moved out of it. I love the hand-drawn map, above, of the Forest Hills, Queens eruv boundaries.

In one sense, it's wonderful that an age-old tradition is being kept alive by a small group of the faithful. In another sense, it seems colossally pointless, a misguided waste of time in a world where people are dying needlessly. But then again, I write, and no fewer orphans perish. God knows religious fanatics could do worse than twist wires onto poles. So good citizens, you who patrol the perimeter and keep me from sin, I salute you.

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Blogger Jenny Davidson on Sun May 13, 04:46:00 PM:
If you have not yet, you must read Michael Chabon's new novel!
Anonymous Anonymous on Sun May 13, 10:03:00 PM:
It's interesting to me that the concept of the eruv creates such responses as yours. It really relates back to the concept of the Sabbath, to the idea of setting aside a "sanctuary in time" during which we withdraw somewhat from creative control of technology and enjoy the fruits of Gods and humans creativity. Is this really such a weird concept to you.
Blogger Ben on Sun May 13, 10:44:00 PM:
Purpose does not equal value.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Chinese Jews

Here's a joke from the excellent 1988 movie The Outside Chance of Maximilian Glick: A Rabbi travels to Beijing, and finds himself wandering the streets on Friday night, thinking about his faith. Suddenly he hears chanting in the distance. He can't believe it--he's hearing the shema, a core prayer of Judaism. He follows the sound for blocks and comes to some steps leading down into a basement, where a few dozen Chinese men and women are crammed together, dressed in talit and kippot and singing prayers. He opens the door and introduces himself, mentioning that he's a rabbi; and one man says to him, "You're a rabbi? Funny--you don't look Jewish!"

This joke notwithstanding, Max Glick predated a surprising trend among American Jews: families, often middle-aged single women, adopting baby girls from China.

From the NY Times earlier this year:
Fu Qian, renamed Cecelia Nealon-Shapiro at 3 months, was one of the first Chinese children — most of them girls — taken in by American families after China opened its doors to international adoption in the early 1990s. Now, at 13, she is one of the first to complete the rite of passage into Jewish womanhood known as bat mitzvah.
“I knew that when I came to this age I was going to have to do it, so it was sort of natural,” she said a few days before the ceremony at Congregation Rodeph Sholom, a Reform synagogue on West 83rd Street where she has been a familiar face since her days in the Little Twos program. Besides, she said with a shrug, “Most of my Chinese friends are Jewish.”
Cece was born on Jan. 29, 1994, in Jiangxi Province in southeastern China. She was abandoned to an orphanage because of China’s one-child rule, and adopted by a lesbian couple, Mary Nealon and Vivian Shapiro. (The couple later adopted another Chinese girl, Gabie, now 5.) Cece has been drawing double-takes for a while, like when she used to ride on Ms. Shapiro’s lap on a packed crosstown bus and would burst into the Passover standard “Dayenu.”
Cece laid her scroll on the bimah and read in Hebrew, in a loud, clear voice, from Chapter 21 of Exodus, a compendium of commandments on the treatment of servants and slaves.

Then she moved to her English speech.

“This long journey to becoming a bat mitzvah today has provided me with so many ways of learning,” she said. “The part that will always stay closest to me is the importance of caring for strangers. Just like Jews were once strangers in the land of Egypt, we have all been, or will be strangers at some point in our lives.”
Alan Dershowitz and others have publicly worried that with the decline of anti-Semitism in America, and the draw of emigration to Israel, Jews here no longer have a reason not to assimilate. Maybe we'll find that Judaism does continue, but in ways we didn't predict.

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Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Samuel Johnson is indignant

I've gotten in trouble a few times this semester for describing too many works of literature as "experimental," and now here's my favorite author Lydia Davis disdaining the term (link via Maud Newton). Davis has a new collection of short stories out this month called Varieties of Disturbance, and she is speaking at the Astor Place Barnes and Noble on May 22. She gave an interview to the Boston Globe about her work:
I haven't met a so-called experimental writer who likes the term. It must be people who aren't experimental writers who call people experimental. It's just the wrong word. 'Experiment' carries the suggestion that it may not work. I prefer the idea of being adventurous, exploring forms. You wouldn't call Beckett an experimental writer, would you? You look at the whole span of his career--he started with poems and short stories and novels, and then he got into these strange texts. Kafka is the same with his parables and paradoxes. You wouldn't say, "Oh he's an experimental writer," you would just say, "That's Kafka writing in that way because that's what interested him."

This semester, I had learned my lesson by the time we got to Beckett and kept my mouth shut about why we couldn't say Beckett was experimenting with tape recording technology in Krapp's Last Tape--or I suppose the real problem was, what else would I say after making that claim, which was somewhat self-evident? Lately I've been somewhat convinced that the term 'experimental' loses its currency when it's applied to too many works (or to an entire century...).

But one way of thinking about experimentation in writing is trying out a number of different ways of getting at a problem and seeing what happens. A few weeks ago I was talking with a few University Writing teachers who are interested in teaching first-year college students about formal experimentation and I wondered if we were limiting ourselves if we thought of experimentation only as something that looked weird or cool (or "experimental"). It's just as much of an experiment--albeit one of a different type--to tell students to write four different introductions to an essay and consider what they're doing differently in each essay, what works and why, and what might work better in a different essay. That's a productive form of experimentation that forces us to think about why we make certain choices; done thoughtfully, it can be a great exercise. Talking about writing as experimentation opens up a lot of vocabulary other than the worry that it's of lesser quality or more interesting as a failure.

Ben Marcus gets at some of the more productive possibilities of experimentation in his review of Davis's new book in this month's issue of Bookforum, but he manages not to use the word "experimental" at all. The review is one of the best appreciations of Davis's work I've ever read, and it's also useful for me to think about how to talk about experiment in other ways. Marcus praises her interest in what breaking things down can and can't do. Here's his take on one of the stories from Varieties of Disturbance:
These developments are most strikingly on display in "We Miss You: A Study of Get-Well Letters from a Class of Fourth-Graders," a title that—-lest you think it's a joke—-perfectly serves this text. Unlike some writers, who might adopt such a formal conceit as a gateway into a narrative, Davis never wavers from the critical task she sets herself in the piece, and the result is confoundingly literal. A series of get-well cards is parsed and analyzed for the meaning in each line, studied under a magnifying glass in the manner of a kind of linguistic archaeology: "The letters are written on lined exercise paper of two different sizes.""The teacher has inked in corrections on some of the letters." "Only a few children express curiosity about Stephen's experience in the hospital."

As the methodical assessment unfolds, burrowing into the usage strategies of each student and the implications of their stylistic choices, Davis achieves something uncanny: a disturbing portrait of a bewildered young community confronting the possible loss of one of its own.

Whether the cards are an invented conceit or a "maniacally odd" archaeology of found objects is irrelevant, Marcus says, for the story's formal constraints show something larger.
By scrutinizing the sentences spoken or written by her subjects, Davis performs a forensic examination on their personalities, proving that even their most casual or accidental phrases, the little bits of banal and inaccurate language we all use daily, can serve as dramatic evidence of our fears and desires. Her effort suggests that the creation of character could just as well be a matter of science as of art. And it's the empirical method of science, rather than an intuitive style of storytelling, that drives her best stories. But this method has not previously been applied to the texts of get-well cards or to the maid-hiring practices of a woman over the course of her life ("Mrs. D. and Her Maids")-—and it's this pairing of technique and content that yields vital, genuinely original writing, fiction as fascinating and absorbing as the most engrossing traditional narrative. Thus the issue of genre—whether this is fiction or something else—quietly stops mattering...

Marcus's essay has changed the way I think about Davis's work in the best way: I read the Globe interview yesterday, re-read a couple of stories in Break It Down and the beginning of The End of the Story, worried about why I wasn't as taken with her narrative precision and remove at this particular re-reading, sighed a little, went to Labyrinth, saw the issue of Bookforum and was delighted to see Marcus's review of the new collection, read the review, re-read the stories from Samuel Johnson Is Indignant, thought about how Davis's one-sentence stories compared to Amy Hempel's (not better or worse, just what are they doing differently, and why do both of them work so well when I'd usually think they were contrived? Marcus has a great take on what the one-sentence stories do in Davis's stories), went home and read Almost No Memory, and was torn apart (as always, but in a slightly different way this time) by my favorite of her short stories, "The Professor." So I highly recommend the essay to Davis's fans.

Lydia Davis is, by the way, my favorite Barnard alumna. I saw Cynthia Nixon on the street the other day and nearly ran up to her to shout "Barnard!" but decided against it. I'd like to think she'd be cool with that. I mean, I probably would have said something else, but that would have been the gist of it.

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Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Free Hugs Campaign comes to Georgia

My friend Hans, a gentle German living in Tbilisi, Georgia, found a video of the Free Hugs Campaign at work in Tbilisi.

You've never truly loved a city until you have seen its denizens, from schoolgirls to badass guys who are definitely armed, hugging strangers.

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