Monday, January 31, 2005

Apple = Very Important Company

Saturday, January 29, 2005

Apple's Genius Bars

I haven't actually used them, but the Genius Bars at Apple stores are pretty cool in theory and, apparently, in practice: the Times tries them out. Come to think of it, iTunes has been flaking out on me lately...

Yo, VIP, Lets kick it!

Vanilla Ice's classic "Ice, Ice, Baby," thorough deconstructed: Part the First, Part the Second.

(Thanks to A Drop in the Ocean for the links and How You Like 'Dem Apples for the science.)

Friday, January 28, 2005

Dollar Power?

Oh, good: a Chinese economist claims that his country is ready to start shifting away from the dollar, which would have bad effects on the U.S. economy, given that our currency is the de-facto world standard and that China is one of our main creditors.

Playing Office

I don't know what this means, but walking around my company's offices I'm often seized by the desires to either do cartwheels (non-joyful ones, to be sure) or to play tag. The long carpeted hallways evoke the former; warrens of cubicles and meeting rooms the latter.

Thursday, January 27, 2005

Will to Summers

George Will, baseball philosopher of the Beltway right, has weighed in on the Larry Summers controversy: the women-folk are overreacting. F$#&ing hysterics.

Interestingly, though, Will connects (certain) critics of Summers' talk to liberal critics of Bush's inaugural address, an oration which, he claims, shares "the Founders' philosophy" that "there is a universal human nature." Now, the Founders didn't believe any such thing: black slaves were distinctly and unalterably different from white men, for instance. But no mind. Will goes on to claim that

The vehemence of the political left's recoil from this idea is explained by the investment political radicalism has had for several centuries in the notion that human beings are essentially blank slates. What predominates in determining individuals' trajectories -- nature or nurture? The left says nature is negligible, nurturing is sovereign. So a properly governed society can write what it wishes on the blank slate of humanity. This maximizes the stakes of politics and the grandeur of government's role. And the importance of governing elites, who are the "progressive" vanguards of a perfected humanity.

This claim is both a commonplace pejorative by the right of the left and utter idiocy. First, no intelligent person on the right or the left who isn't also a freshman taking a philosophy class should apply a ridiculously false dichotomy like "nature versus nurture" to any serious social or cultural issue. It explains nothing, yet purports to explain all. (Chomsky - the real thinker, not the strawman of the unhinged right - does not think that humans are "blank slates," for instance: he thinks freedom is encoded in our brains.)

Second, look only to Burke to see that the right dependson the conservation of tradition, especially the retention of political and economic power by those who have accumulated it, not on the diffusion of such power to "the masses." Hence, George, the name: c-o-n-s-e-r-v-a-t-i-v-e. In a pinch, conservatives are willing to extend, say, political power to certain groups, as long as they can be trusted to vote right. Those blacks can't be so trusted.

Third, the right does, in fact, consider humans to be "blank slates," albeit ones on which can be inscribed the logic of individualism, self-interest, and, yeah, capitalism. What are we doing in Iraq, if not nurturing those cwazy Arabs in the benefits of democratic capitalism? We're not doing a good job, sure, but we're trying really hard. If only they'd stop shootin' and start listenin'.

More generally, it's a basic tenet of the modern GOP that private enterprise will pave the road to the future. (This is key difference between the Reagan-Bush party and, say, the Taft-Coolidge party, which couldn't even fathom a governmental counterweight to businesses.) QED, one task of the government is to accustom citizens to a society in which business institutions will predominate over governmental institutions, and that ye olde profit motive will have free rein. Viz, Social Security privatization. Perhaps the resolution of that debate will shed more light on whether humans, or at least the ones in the U.S., see windfalls for Wall Street as genetically foreordained.

(On the plus side, in his piece Will refers to "America's campus-based indignation industry," which is a useful phrase indeed. He's a bit off, though - I think the campuses are more like the non-profit sector of that industry; the phalangist media like Limbaugh and Fox News represent the larger, louder, and lewder for-profit sector of that industry.)

Using and Ruining English

In this challenging essay, Richard Jenkyns, a professor of classics at Oxford, reviews several contemporary books on English usage and offers his own insights on the topic. The piece is well worth the time of anyone interested in reading and writing more carefully. A key excerpt and a convincing conclusion:

"People still distrust the politicians - at a guess, they distrust them more now than they did then - but the rant that Orwell attacked now seems quaint and dated. For him, too much heat was the danger; now the enemies of clarity and honesty are euphemism, waffle and evasion. Perhaps the most depressing part of Orwell's essay, when we read it now, is his sample of academic writing, for prolix and obscure though it is, one's first reaction is to wonder what the fuss is about: it is so much better than a great deal of today's professorial prose. The public suspects that much academic production is fraudulent, and they are partly right. Since one of Orwell's targets was imprecision of thought, it is interesting to observe how frequently the word 'precisely' is found in a certain type of academic prose, almost always used where 'imprecisely' would be more accurate. You can diagnose weak thought from dead language as you can diagnose firedamp from a dead canary, and 'precisely' is a dead adverb. It is an example of what Orwell called a meaningless word, an upmarket version of 'literally,' as in: 'He literally wiped the floor with his opponent.' In other terms, it is a bad faith word - a symptom of bluster, vagueness or vacuity."

"We should learn educated English, as we should learn to spell, if only because it is a certificate of competence."

Larry David

We've lately been watching old seasons of Curb Your Enthusiasm on DVD, and I'm awed. This is great art, as good in its way as a Borges or DeLillo, Radiohead or Mingus, Gursky or Goya. Okay, maybe not quite that good - yet. Anyhow, I barely noted this profile in the New Yorker when it was originally printed in early 2004, but it's worth reading now if you have any interest in the show.

Secret Bombing?

Secret bombing: Cambodia 1969, Iraq 2005. Horrible information from Seymour Hersh (via After School Snack, via Xtcian.)

Chile in 2005 = USA in 2055

From today's American Progress Report:

President Bush has said the U.S. needs to "take some lessons from Chile" – which initiated private accounts nearly 25 years ago – in its quest to modernize Social Security. But the lesson may be that privatization works less well than the traditional system. The New York Times reports, "Now that the first generation of workers to depend on the new system is beginning to retire, Chileans are finding that it is falling far short of what was originally advertised under the authoritarian government of Gen. Augusto Pinochet." The government has had to direct billions of dollars to a safety net for those whose contributions were too small and "[e]ven many middle-class workers who contributed regularly are finding that their private accounts – burdened with hidden fees that may have soaked up as much as a third of their original investment – are failing to deliver as much in benefits as they would have received if they had stayed in the old system."

It's bad enough that social policies of Pinochet's Chile are being held up for emulation here and now, but for me, this little piece begs a question I haven't yet seen addressed anywhere in the florescing coverage of the Social Security debate: what's going to happen when today's 20-year olds (you know, the ones Bush is always saying should know that the system's "bankrupt") retire in 40 or 50 years and find out that their savings aren't as great as they should have been?

Given that they'll (probably) still be Americans, they'll probably sue and petition the government for redress. This, in turn, seems likely to lead to a bailout by the government of the investment companies who will have had to pay damages for not returning enough on the private accounts, of the irate and borderline-impoverished citizens themselves, or both. It'll be like the 1980s S&L crisis, only far larger, since conceivably every American will be affected by the market's inability to return 10% on every privatized dollar.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

The Jokers on the New Deal

This article in the Times is a good look at one ideological dimension of the debate over Social Security privatization: conservatives' assault on the New Deal edifice constructed by FDR and improved by many since then. The article includes some intriguing and illuminating quotes by conservatives on the privatization plot.

From the ex-Club for Growth president, Stephen Moore, we have this: "Social Security is the soft underbelly of the welfare state... If you can jab your spear through that, you can undermine the whole welfare state." Uh, sure. Stephen Moore, spearchucker. This sort of aggressive, faux-martial rhetoric sounds silly coming from someone whose group has just one idea that's been around since the first villein tried to get out from under his lord's levies. At least it doesn't suggest infanticide like Grover Norquist's infamous "drown it in the bathtub" line.

Then there's this beauty from Newt Gingrich: "'If you frame the private Social Security accounts as giving your children the right to choose, as opposed to cutting benefits or forcing anyone to do anything, I think it's a total winner for us... The accounts will create the first 100 percent capitalist society in history. Fifty years from now, relatively poor Americans for the first time will have their own personal savings; they'll see the power of interest buildup over time and appreciate the importance of property.'"

I know Gingrich is supposed to be quite knowledgeable about history, but this is at least triply idiotic. First, individual savings do not equal capitalism, or even form a necessary part of a capitalist economy. And the current SS system functions in such a way that "relatively poor Americans" already have savings, in a way - the income that's taxed into the SS system. Second, the U.S. in the 1880s and 1890s was a much more capitalistic country than it is now. Third, poor Americans certainly already do "appreciate the importance of property" (isn't that an Ayn Rand essay?); it's that they are unable to actually aquire property - a far different matter. And the SS scheme won't necessarily help them there, anyhow, because the savings they accumulate and invest might well evaporate when some young-gun investment manager errs and overcommits his fund to some declining stock. Where's the property now, Newt?

But I don't want to let facts get in the way of Gingrich's story, because he's really just telling the usual conservative fairy tale about liberty and competition. The "choice" he's describing is nothing of the kind. Everything I've read on the conservatives' plans for SS indicates that a citizen could not opt out of the private accounts plan any more a citizen can opt out of the payroll tax now. Nor, of course, could a citizen say, "thanks but no thanks" and choose to remain in the current SS system. Rather, it's still politicians and bureaucrats who get to make the choices (albeit steered by interest groups) and citizens who get to abide by them. And under the privatization scheme, the government bureaucrats would be joined by scores of mutual-fund managers. An immense improvement, I'm sure. There hasn't been a scandal in the mutual-fund industry in, what, months now?

The Corporate Presentation

At the average meeting, the only break in the awful discussion is someone misusing the technology. While this is not a good thing, it is telling that - despite the looming spectre of public failure to make the !#%$)# thing work - everyone feels the need to show a few PowerPoint slides, display an overly colorful spreadsheet saved on a common server, or - daringly - bust through the firewall to show an external web page. Cue disaster, stage left.

It's strange that things so frequently go wrong, given that IT is ubiquitous in the modern office, from PCs and VOIP phones in the cubicles to LCD projectors and zillion-inch flatscreen monitors in the meeting rooms. Yet more often than not, things do go wrong, and pretty frequently, terribly so. Why, then, does everyone keep using the infrastructure of the e-office? I'd propose a social explantion: a personal facility for technology is viewed as a quality which complements or even replaces an ability, say, to speak coherently or listen meaningfully. It's seemingly much easier to fiddle with the projector's remote control than to learn to deliver better talks. Cue audience suffering, stage right.

Hew Strachan, The First World War

The more I write - mostly on the job, but also in blogs and for my own use - the more I'm convinced that intelligent brevity is the paramount quality of good writing. I'm especially impressed, then, by academic works which are brief, pointed, and still useful, such as Hew Strachan's recent book, The First World War.

Really a precis of a much bigger (three-volume) work on the Great War, The First World War is an exceptionally concise and informative overview of the entire war. With clean prose, Strachan makes two main points about the war. First, the 1914-1918 conflict, like its successor twenty-one years later, was a truly global struggle which involved large-scale warfare in Asia, Africa, and on the high seas, as well as across Europe, from Russia to Italy to France. Strachan is especially effective at showing how the war in Africa epitomized the larger war, for it was there that the powers' colonial ambitions were most nakedly and brutally displayed. Though he rarely delves into "drums & trumpets" military history, Strachan does effectively use tactical accounts of battles and campaigns to illustrate his themes. His examination of the Allies' invasion at Gallipoli stands out, serving not only to educate the reader about that disastrous campaign but about the internal state of the waning Ottoman Empire - in whose domains, Strachan shows, the Germans attempted to incite jihad against Britain, France, and Russia!

Strachan's second argument is that, despite postwar conclusions to the contrary, the Great War was far from meaningless, either at the time or afterwards. Certainly, millions died who needn't have perished if the powers had been able to either avert the war or end it before November 1918, but that counterfactual does not obscure the fact that all of the major belligerents felt, from 1914 through the Armistice (and afterward, all the way to Versailles) that the war would and should determine key aspects of the European and world situation: Germany's continental role, the shape of global colonialism, the strength of political and economic liberalism, and so forth. The poetic-tragic interpretation of the war as a meaningless waste of life and treasure, Strachan shows, was a minority view during the war and only arose afterwards when the peace proved more difficult and, in some ways, harsh than the war itself.

Beyond those two argumentative strengths, the book is worthwhile in numerous other ways. More adeptly than many military historians, Strachan explains the political economy of the main combatants' home fronts, especially relating to industrial production. He demonstrates that a contested and fuzzy kind of liberalism united the main Allies. He's got a novelist's eye for the eerie detail - like the fact that Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife were assassinated on their wedding anniversary. And, stunningly, Strachan includes a number of rare color photographs from the war years. All in all, this is an exceptionally good history which merits the attention of virtually anyone interested in the history of the twentieth century broadly, or in military or political history more specifically.

Improperty Taxes

In my city councilman's winter newsletter, I learned something that makes me pleased as punch to be a private propertyowner: between 1997 and 2004, the share of all Minneapolis property taxes borne by commercial/industrial properties declined from 56% to 35%, while the share borne by residential properties rose symmetrically from 32% to 53%. Where's my tax relief now, Mr. President?

Though the newsletter does mention the Minnesota legislature's 2002 decision to cut commercial/industrial taxes by 40%, it oddly does not comment on the effect of declining federal funding for cities, which is a direct cause of rising property taxes. And - since political-economic theorizing isn't really appropriate for a neighborhood newsletter - the piece also doesn't argue that this reversal of the tax burden is deeply unfair. The individuals and families who own most residential housing have a far more difficult time meeting rising tax levies by decreasing costs and increasing revenues than businesses do. After all, doesn't the capitalist marketplace - as shaped by institutions such as property-tax regimes - function to sort the efficient firms from the inefficient ones, rewarding the former with profits and driving the latter out? I guess not. It appears, rather, that residential property is the bottomless well from which cities can draw the revenues they don't get from the state or the feds, while businesses are allowed to avoid bearing their fair share. I suppose that, ultimately, it doesn't matter if I pay federal income taxes which are then distributed to my or local property taxes to the city itself. Still, this shift from taxing investors to taxing earners is rankling.

Saturday, January 22, 2005

Ahonen Wins

Recovered from the flu, Janne Ahonen jumped 138m and 142m today to win at Titisee-Neustadt:
"With twelve individual events still to be decided, the Finn has already surpassed his bountiful total of 1316 points that won him the World Cup last year, while he has three-points to the better of Adam Malysz's 2002/3 winning total.
The Finn could reach two thousand points in one season if he carries on at this rate! Already 12 wins out of 16 - with a two-meeting enforced flu absence - Ahonen only needs six more wins to ensure that landmark.
He is enjoying Lance Armstrong, Michael Schumacher, Manchester United in the 90s status..."

Friday, January 21, 2005

Weathering It

It snowed, finally and gorgeously, today. It took about an hour to complete my usual 20-minute commute, but on the plus side I saw not one but two Jaguars almost spin out at the corner of 6th St. S and 2nd Ave. N. downtown. Our new neighbor used his snowblower to clear our walks and driveway, which was phenomenally nice of him. The snow is just the thing to make the winter seem perfect, even with the proverbial "near-blizzard conditions."

As I stood outside waiting for my bus this afternoon, smiling because the snow and the wind and the chill felt so right (so U.P.!), I thought about the miserable weather last Friday. How miserable was it? Well, last Friday's high here in Minneapolis was -1°F. In Irkutsk, Russia, that same day, the high was 14°F. Translation: it was warmer in Siberia.

Apple Marches On?

From tech wonk Robert X. Cringley, an explanation of what the Mac mini is really for: "Movies." "It is simple to say that Apple hopes to repeat with video the success it already has with iPod and iTunes." Read the whole piece for the full story, which includes some clever dot-connecting that's probably beyond anyone else in the pop-tech world. The only thing missing is any speculation about where the iPod - specifically, the much-rumored video iPod - would fit into this scheme...

(Thanks to Matt for the link.)

Ahonen Ready to Fly

It sounds like Janne Ahonen will jump in Germany this weekend. We'll see if he's back on form...

History lesson - WOW!

I recently received a forward entitled "History lesson - WOW!" which purports to quiz the reader about various more-or-less recent terrorist acts, all commmitted by "d. Muslim male extremist between the ages of 17 and 40 ." This evidence is used to support racial/ethnic profiling as a counterterrorism tool. The piece must be making the rounds right now, because it's widely available on the web; here's one dolt's unthinking use of it.

Read it and see for yourself, but the piece is utterly misguided. The poor reasoning in this unhistorical mix-and-match exercise mirrors the poor reasoning in Washington, and it does nothing to "support our troops" (whatever that slogan might mean), and in fact only makes it harder to fight actual terrorists - i.e., adherents of bin Laden, as versus Muslim men between 17 and 40 - by making it harder for us to think about what the next threats are, and what shape they'll take. And don't even think about the damage done by racial/ethnic profiling to our universal Constitutional rights.

Of course, there are numerous specific criticisms to level, too:
1. The screenings performed now would not have stopped the 9/11 hijackers: they weren't armed, most of them didn't appear on any watch lists, and they seemed at the time like perfectly ordinary travelers - just like the next suicide bombers will seem perfectly ordinary at the time.
2. It's well known that al-Qaeda is trying to use non-Arabs for its missions now, given the misguided "racial profiling" of Arab men. The Department of Homeland Security will focus its attention there, and then some young Indonesian woman or Nigerian kid will detonate a bomb in a bus.
3. How many of the events listed in the "lesson" occurred in the U.S., or even in a place where American law enforcement could have prevented the attacks? By my count, two: the 9/11 attacks and the first WTC bombing. Racial profiling wouldn't have prevented any of them - not that you could have done it in, say, Lebanon in 1983, where everybody who wasn't a Muslim extremist was a Christian extremist.
4. The Libyan secret agents who bombed TWA 103 were acting on their government's behalf, not that of a worldwide Islamic conspiracy. Apples are not oranges.
5. Sirhan Sirhan a Muslim extremist a la Mohammed Atta? Ridiculous. Why not profile right-wing Christians then, since one of them blew up the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahama City? Mentally-disturbed communists, since one of them killed JFK? The mentally distubed, since one of them almost killed Reagan? Hell, how about southern actors, since one of them killed Lincoln, or Slav anarchists, since one of them killed McKinley?

Thursday, January 20, 2005

Michael Chabon, The Final Solution

This is a wonderful novella, one of the best works of fiction I've read in a long time. It stars an elderly, deerstalker-wearing detective (who is solving perhaps his last case), a young Holocaust refugee (whose case it is), and a gnostic parrot (who knows the secret). The book's short and beautiful and comes to a crushing conclusion which, of course, I won't spoil. (I'd be interested in your take on it, though.) Chapter 10, written in the bird's voice, is a tour de force, but here's a taste of Chabon's glowing prose:

The old man stood, shrugging. With the consciousness of failure, a gray shadow seemed to steal over his senses as if, steady as a cloud, a great obstructing staellite were scudding across the face of the sun. Meaning drained from the world like light fleeing the operation of an eclipse. The vast body of experience and lore, of corollaries and observed results, of which he felt himself the master, was at a stroke rendered useless. The world around him was a page of alien text. A row of white cubes from which there escaped a mysterious drone of lamentation. A boy in a glowing miasma of threads, his staring face flat and edged with shadow as if cut from paper and pasted against the sky. A breeze drawing rippling portraits of emptiness in the pale green tips of the grass.

Bush & Useful History

This is actually kind of hard to believe, but apparently Bush has convened a reading group at the White House, one which has featured such notables as John Lewis Gaddis and Bernard Lewis - both of whom are at the right end of the academic spectrum. Anyhow, Bush definitely reads with an agenda: a book on Lincoln in 1865 steels him for war (but not for assessing new taxes to pay for the war, like the Railsplitter did), a book by Gaddis spurs him to ask about Otto von Bismarck the warlord (but not to use social welfare to strengthen his country, like the Iron Chancellor).

In short, Bush reads like a smart but close-minded undergrad would: not to learn new things, but to confirm old ones. And he seems - like a shocked freshman? like an reviewer? - overly concerned in a book's length: to one author, "Bush sheepishly pointed out in his copy that he was only up to page 211 --but said he would finish the remaining 92 pages soon."

Mr. President, here is just one book you should take with you to Crawford: David Kennedy, Freedom from Fear. Watch out, though - it's 936 pages long.

(Whew: I made it through this whole post without mentioning My Pet Goat.)

Stores' Social Psychology

This article in the Telegraph is a wonderful look at the way retail stores manipulate (persuade? pick your verb: Wal-Mart manipulates, Target persuades) shoppers through straightforward social psychology: product placement, lighting, store layout, et cetera. (The new Apple Store in London is mentioned, too.)

Plus, since the writer's British, you get store names like "Topshop" and crazy word usages like "being rubbish at shopping" and sentences like "Some department stores lower the lighting in the lingerie department so people feel relaxed about flicking through pants." In public! Flicking through pants in public! Have they no shame?

Inaugural Travesties

Absolutely sickening facts on today's coronation, courtesy of the Center for American Progress. If this doesn't make you furious, you're either not paying attention or you're dead inside.

Inauguration: Lifestyles of the Rich and Heartless
Due to $17 million worth of inaugural security – paid for by the city of Washington, D.C. – the Progress Report is unable to access its office. Never fear – it takes a lot more than that to keep us down. We put this list together for you ahead of time. Your regularly scheduled Progress Report returns tomorrow.

A look at this week's festivities by the numbers:

$40 million: Cost of Bush inaugural ball festivities, not counting security costs.

$2,000: Amount FDR spent on the inaugural in 1945…about $20,000 in today's dollars.

$20,000: Cost of yellow roses purchased for inaugural festivities by D.C.'s Ritz Carlton.

200: Number of Humvees outfitted with top-of-the-line armor for troops in Iraq that could have been purchased with the amount of money blown on the inauguration.

$10,000: Price of an inaugural package at the Fairmont Hotel, which includes a Beluga caviar and Dom Perignon reception, a chauffeured Rolls Royce and two actors posing as "faux" Secret Service agents, complete with black sunglasses and cufflink walkie-talkies.

400: Pounds of lobster provided for "inaugural feeding frenzy" at the exclusive Mandarin Oriental hotel.

3,000: Number of "Laura Bush Cowboy cookies" provided for "inaugural feeding frenzy" at the Mandarin hotel.

$1: Amount per guest President Carter spent on snacks for guests at his inaugural parties. To stick to a tight budget, he served pretzels, peanuts, crackers and cheese and had cash bars.

22 million: Number of children in regions devastated by the tsunami who could have received vaccinations and preventive health care with the amount of money spent on the inauguration.

1,160,000: Number of girls who could be sent to school for a year in Afghanistan with the amount of money lavished on the inauguration.

$15,000: The down payment to rent a fur coat paid by one gala attendee who didn't want the hassle of schlepping her own through the airport.

$200,500: Price of a room package at D.C.'s Mandarin Oriental, including presidential suite, chauffeured Mercedes limo and outfits from Neiman Marcus.

2,500: Number of U.S. troops used to stand guard as President Bush takes his oath of office

26,000: Number of Kevlar vests for U.S. soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan that could be purchased for $40 million.

$290: Bonus that could go to each American solider serving in Iraq, if inauguration funds were used for that purpose.

$6.3 million: Amount contributed by the finance and investment industry, which works out to be 25 percent of all the money collected.

$17 million: Amount of money the White House is forcing the cash-strapped city of Washington, D.C., to pony up for inauguration security.

9: Percentage of D.C. residents who voted for Bush in 2004.

66: Percentage of Americans who think this over-the-top inauguration should have been scaled back.

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Apple Conquers the World?

With Apple's recent announcement of numerous new products like the Mac Mini, the iPod Shuffle, new versions of the iLife applications, et cetera, (see the unofficial word here, under the "Recent Articles" heading), Mac enthusiasts have turned to prognosticating about the company's and the products' fortunes. To that point, it's worth looking at Paul Nixon's "Tipping Point" graphic, which is both immensely interesting and very well done. Nixon argues - visually! - that Apple is now extending its tech prowess from the high end of the consumer-electronics market (PowerMac G5, PowerBook, the top-of-the-line iPods) to the low end (iPod Shuffle, Mac Mini). In doing so, the company - or maybe, more precisely, Steve Jobs - is carefully capitalizing on previous successes like the iPod and long-term strengths like the iMac and eMac. Take a look; it's well worth it for anyone interested in Apple, in personal computers, or, for that matter, in a key sector of the capitalist economy.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Paul A.C. Koistinen: The Arsenal of World War II

Monday, January 17, 2005

NFL Three Games to Go

NFC: The Vikings were trounced by the Eagles and the Rams by the Falcons this weekend, which means that the all-bird NFC championship should be a great game, pitting two running quarterbacks against one another. Prediction: Eagles win, 24-17.

AFC: The Patriots made the Colts look abysmal, humiliating Peyton Manning and lining up a rematch with the Steelers, who eked out a victory over the Jets. The New England and Pittsburgh defenses are excellent, and both teams have grind-it-out running offenses, to this should be a low-scoring but entertaining game. Prediction, Patriots win, 10-7.

Tattoo You

I've always wondered about those Chinese- or Japanese-character tattoos worn by lots of (white) people nowadays. Inevitably, there's now a blog, Hanzi Smatter, which is dedicated to deciphering such tattoos. Some good representative posts: "Exile Husband Retrievable Arrow with a String Attached to It" and "Abusive Husband Pimps Me Out" (neither is safe for work). In the absence of any actual commentary on how these tattoos reflect the contingency of cross-cultural exchange, the spread of memes, the postmodern use of the displayed body, &tc &tc, I'll just say that sometimes white people can be really really stupid.

Ahonen Laid Low, Doesn't Fly

World Cup ski-jumping leader Janne Ahonen didn't jump in Austria this weekend, allowing two of his Finnish teammates to earn top spots. Next up - if I'm correctly interpreting the hard-to-use FIS site - is a competition at (wonderfully-named) Titisee-Neustadt, Germany on January 22-23. If Ahonen has recovered from his flu by then, he should be back on the leaderboard.

Thursday, January 13, 2005

Should I Be Worried?

I discovered yesterday that my nameplate, which hangs from my cubicle wall, is affixed not with glue, like some people's, but with Velcro. Should I be worried about job security?

Business Jargon: "Capturing"

Lots of people at my place of employment talk about taking notes to "capture" a discussion or writing a memo in such a way that it "captures" the information to be conveyed or - worse - summarizing a "brown-bag" so that it "captures the learnings."

Captured? There's nothing wrong with using good old words like "record" or "contain" in these contexts. Using a silly imported word like "capture" makes it sound as if the information is wandering ferally through the wilderness, and we're the doughty biologists who will seize it and bring it back to the zoo for study. Nothing could be further from office-life truth.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Getting Your Point Across

Edward Tufte, a statistician who is best known for his work on "information design" and the visual presentation of quantitative data, is soon to release his fourth major book on those topics, Beautiful Evidence. (A sample chapter appears now on his website.) The book, like its predecessors, is sure to be valuable and even compelling examination of how to thoughtfully present information using various visual techniques, especially when those presentations are intended to complement traditional prose.

Reading Tufte as a historian, writer, and teacher, I'm impressed and inspired by his willing aptitude for striking a balance between "words and images." (See page 5 of the sample chapter for a stunning historical example.) Tufte thus stands apart from quant zealots who can't imagine (and aren't capable) of presenting information through the written word, and, worse, those who can't do much better with images.

To that end, Tufte has lately focused on the business world's penchant for visual presentations, which are endemic and almost universally awful. In 2003, for instance, he published a brilliant polemic against "slideware," a pamphlet entitled "The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint." (There's a sample of his argument on Wired magazine's website.) In that piece and in Beautiful Evidence, he inveighs against the information-technology practice of "segregating evidence by mode (word, number, image, graph)," when "a good system of evidence display should be centered on documents, not on a collection of application programs each devoted to a single mode of information... The unfortunate current-day practice of segregation of information by its mode of production should not become a metaphor for evidence presentations. Why should the intellectual architecture of our reports reflect the chaos of the computer bureaucracy producing the reports?" (All quotes from p. 17 of draft chapter.)

Why, indeed? Bill Gates, thou hath sinned! Wrestling every day with a half-dozen loosely interconnected but often warring Windows applications at work, I would love an answer to Tufte's question. (As a historian, I would propose that the distinctions among kinds of information has everything to do with professionalization in capitalist economies.) I see that Apple has wondered, too, and is actually taking steps to abolish those distinctions with its new "Pages" application, which purports to allow a user to create all sorts of documents without having to jump back and forth between Word, Excel, Access, and other apps. The proof will be in the pudding, but I'm eager to see how it works and to try to follow the great Tufte's dicta.

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Academics in the "Real World"

This article in the Chronicle of Higher Education is a humanities Ph.D's first-person account of working in the private sector. Interesting, chilling, and familiar: a lot like another piece from a few years back...

Monday, January 10, 2005

Iraqification = Salvadorization + Vietnamization

New century, same old murderous thinking and action from the Pentagon and Republicans in the White House. Newsweek reports that the Bush administration is considering the "Salvador option" in Iraq, a political-military strategy imported from 1980s El Salvador where, "faced with a losing war against Salvadoran rebels, the U.S. government funded or supported 'nationalist' forces that allegedly included so-called death squads directed to hunt down and kill rebel leaders and sympathizers. Eventually the insurgency was quelled, and many U.S. conservatives consider the policy to have been a success."

The tens of thousands of peasants killed directly by the right-wing death squads or who died in the fantastically brutal civil war may disagree with these chardonnay conservatives' conclusions, but of course they don't meet with Rummy. Suddenly, Mark Danner's horrifying Massacre at El Mozote becomes required reading for understanding what we're doing in Iraq.

It's unclear exactly how, but the "Salvador option" would somehow converge with the process of substituting Iraqi soldiers and police - aka "security forces" - for the American troops and others who are presently leading the counterinsurgency in Iraq. This goal, of course, is latter-day Vietnamization, Nixon's plan for getting the Army of the Republic of Vietnam to fight the North Vietnamese army and its guerrilla allies in South Vietnam. Not even the hardest-dying Republican would consider Vietnamization a success, but that's not to say they won't try, try again in Iraq.

But another model of counterinsurgency operations was at play in Vietnam, too: Operation Phoenix, an American campaign to assassinate communist leaders throughout South Vietnam. Douglas Valentine has written about the use of the Phoenix model in Iraq, and his comments are only the more cogent now.

It's clear the Abu Ghraib was not the bottom of American misbehavior in Iraq: we can and apparently are capable of sinking much lower.

From Football to Skiing

With my Packers done till September (and Favre, perhaps forever: can the Packers get Drew Brees in the offseason?), I can turn my full attention to nordic skiing.

I'm only half kidding. Tracking the World Cup competitions is pretty interesting, not least because Finland is cleaning up. Janne Ahonen is flying away with the title in ski jumping, a sport in which he is as dominant as any athlete has ever been in any sport. We're talking Jordanesque here. According to a Finnish paper, Ahonen won the most recent ski-jumping competition with a hill-record flight of 152 meters. Imagine flying through the air for 166 yards! With the win, "Ahonen also equalled the record for the number of individual World Cup competitions won in a single season. He now has eleven... What makes Ahonen’s achievement all the more astonishing is that the season is not yet half over: there have been only 13 competitions out of a total of 28. "

Stunning. Ski jumping - the wipeout during the old "Wide World of Sports" intro aside - is a fantastic sport to watch. I grew up within sight of a ski flying hill, Copper Peak, near Ironwood, Michigan, and I've been fascinated by ski jumping/flying ever since. I'm eager to see how Ahonen does over the rest of the season.

Sunday, January 09, 2005


The Packers did their utmost to join the other two two teams which lost wild card games at home, and succeeded in dropping a winnable game to the hated Vikings. What an awful game by Favre. He's a great quarterback, but as in the game at Lambeau two seasons ago which the Pack lost to the Falcons, he can be as erratic as something that's incredibly erratic. I'd say, "Good luck, Vikings!" but I sure wouldn't mean it.

UPDATE: Almost as soon as I posted this, I regretted the sore-loser tone. To compound that, Vikings talk radio - talk radio! - was actually rather sweet, just Vikes fans saying (for once), "We won one! We really, really won one!" So I'm changing my attitude: I hope the Vikings tear the Eagles apart and even win the NFC championship. Not even I can say their fans don't deserve it. Now, the Super Bowl's another matter...

0-2 on Wild Cards

The Jets pulled it out at San Diego last night, so I'm 0 for 2 on my predictions. More importantly, the home team has lost both games so far. I hope that trend doesn't hold true today! I hope it's cold and slow in Green Bay...

Saturday, January 08, 2005

'Hawks Lose

Well, I was already wrong on one of my four wild-card predictions, as the Seahawks lost at home to the Rams. I didn't really care about either team, but it was nice to see Mike Holmgren flame out yet again. If he'd stayed in Green Bay, he could be preparing to coach Favre through another playoff run and clinking multiple Super Bowl rings together. As it is, you've gotta think he's heading into his last season in Seattle.

'Hawks Lose

Well, I was already wrong on one of my four wild-card predictions, as the Seahawks lost at home to the Rams. I didn't really care about either team, but it was nice to see Mike Holmgren flame out yet again. If he'd stayed in Green Bay, he could be preparing to coach Favre through another playoff run and clinking multiple Super Bowl rings together. As it is, you've gotta think he's heading into his last season in Seattle.

Wild Card Weekend!

It's wild card weekend in the NFL, the best two days of football all season.


Seahawks over Rams, 41-28
Chargers over Jets, 38-24
Packers over Vikings, 34-31 (of course)
Colts over Broncos, 42-14

Friday, January 07, 2005

Microsoft vs. Apple (as usual)

In a speech yesterday, Bill Gates announced, for the nth time, that Microsoft plans to develop software and hardware that will enable the company's products, including Windows, to serve as the center of consumers' "digital lifestyle." Whatever that is. This article (which appears in the company's hometown paper, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer) rightly points out that MS may have some real trouble reaching that goal - as evidenced by at least two major computer glitches during Gates' speech.

Neither this article nor others I've seen points out that Apple's Macintosh products already do all the key things that Gates says MS will do soon. Any recent Mac, whether desktop or laptop, has the hardware and the software to manage still photos, movies, and music as well as other kinds of digital files (like boring old text or spreadsheet documents). Macs don't suffer from viruses and spyware the way Windows machines do, either. And perhaps most importantly, the success of the iPod shows that Apple knows how to insert itself into new markets that can be oriented to the Mac platform. Next week, it's likely that Apple boss Steve Jobs will announce a new Mac and updated software designed to attract iPod users and others who are interested in a simpler, more integrated home computer. In light of Gates' speech, this must be considered a shot back across Microsoft's bow.

Thursday, January 06, 2005

The Four Freedoms

On this date in 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt delivered his State of the Union address and outlined the "Four Freedoms":

In the future days which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms. The first is freedom of speech and expression --everywhere in the world. The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way everywhere in the world. The third is freedom from want, which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants everywhere in the world. The fourth is freedom from fear, which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor anywhere in the wold.

That is no vision of a distant millennium. It is a definite basis for a kind of world attainable in our own time and generation. That kind of world is the very antithesis of the so-called "new order" of tyranny which the dictators seek to create with the crash of a bomb. To that new order we oppose the greater conception -- the moral order. A good society is able to face schemes of world domination and foreign revolutions alike without fear. Since the beginning of our American history we have been engaged in change, in a perpetual, peaceful revolution, a revolution which goes on steadily, quietly, adjusting itself to changing conditions without the concentration camp or the quicklime in the ditch. The world order which we seek is the cooperation of free countries, working together in a friendly, civilized society.

This nation has placed its destiny in the hands, heads and hearts of its millions of free men and women, and its faith in freedom under the guidance of God. Freedom means the supremacy of human rights everywhere. Our support goes to those who struggle to gain those rights and keep them. Our strength is our unity of purpose. To that high concept there can be no end save victory.

It was an inspiring speech then - Norman Rockwell commemorated the Four Freedoms with four famous paintings - and it is an inspiring speech now.

You can't spell "splatter" without "LRT"

Most days, I ride the Twin Cities' new "LRT" or "Light Rail Transit" system to and from work. Whenever I get off the train, I'm amazed at the idiocy of some of my fellow passengers. A handful always cross the tracks directly in front of the moving train, which then blasts its horn to scare them back onto the sidewalk. It's a powerful loud horn, but it's only a matter of time till someone slips on one of the tracks and gets run over. I just hope I don't miss my connection because of it.

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

"Liberal" Higher Education

From a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

"The professor of the year at Southern Utah University was fired this week for reasons that are unclear, though his supporters say his dismissal had to do with his liberal political views... Mr. Roberds said he had long been a 'thorn' in the administration's side because of his liberal political views. An article on, a student-run Web site, asserts that the university is 'weeding out' professors who do not fit the 'Conservative Utah Brand.'"

If the allegation ran the other way, you can be damnably sure that shyster David Horowitz would be thumping his "Academic Bill of Rights" like the Bible. I don't know if this prof really was dismissed for his politics, but this incident helps explode the myth of higher education as a bastion of liberalism. The right loves to pretend that universities and colleges are seething with Leninists and Trotskyites, but this notion is both ludicrous on its face and contradictory to many conservative principles - individual agency, for instance. How weak-minded must students be, if they just believe everything some crypto-Castro philosopher says in seminar? Anyone who's ever taught a college class knows how hard it is to get undergrads to remember their textbooks, much less key facts, much less the tenets your subversive ideology.

Truth is, colleges and universities mostly reflect their communities, if only because most institutions of higher learning draw most of their students from a fairly restricted geographical area. Students tend to want to go to places that meet some basic need, which is usually pretty banal: a location close to home, convenient class times, interesting majors, low tuition. Sometimes the needs are somewhat more abstract, such as a religious affiliation or a political ideology, but even then localism obtains and students stamp the place with an identity that not even the most skilled tenured radical can destroy.

There's a lot more to this issue of "liberal higher ed," of course, and I'll keep trying to hammer at it.

Wireless - but not really

Hmm. Apparently the wireless world isn't really. How long till the first person's shot over an power socket at Starbucks?

Heavy Industry in the PoMo Age

I know a little bit about shipbuilding, and so I was interested to see a piece in the Times about China's plan to become the world's largest merchant shipbuilder by 2015, surpassing South Korea, which itself only recently surpassed Japan after decades of struggle.

That these East Asian powers have all relied on shipbuilding to modernize their economies is unsurprising, given the industry's historical role in accelerating developing economies. Though the article doesn't provide much history, the center of world shipbuilding only shifted to the Pacific Ocean in the 1960s, when Japan displaced Great Britain as the world's largest shipbuilder. Until then, Britain had jockeyed with several developing nations for that not-insignficant title, including both Germany and the United States during the 19th and early 20th centuries.

In short, shipbuilding has long been a major tool of modernization. The high costs of entering and competing in the industry can be offset, when the industry is managed intelligently, by enormous profits from ships - which are, as the article says, "some of the most complex products on the world market" - and by rapid gains in workforce skill and wages. Every successful shipbuilding nation - whether Britain in the 1900s, the U.S. in the 1840s, Japan in the 1970s, or South Korea today - has pursued a broad strategy of industrial growth that combines this quintessential heavy industry with light or "high-tech" manufacturing, from machine tools in the 19th century to electronics in the 20th. China, of course, is currently the world's workshop, and - like Japan in the 1960s - is likely to use its ships to export its goods, which helps keeps profits at home. Like previous major shipbuilders, China also unabashedly showers its yards with state subsidies.

While not every country that tries to use shipbuilding in this way has succeeded in rising to the first tier of world economies (Brazil has so far failed to do so, for instance), China seems likely to successfully use shipbuilding as a lever of greater modernization. And as the article hints, with shipbuilding acumen comes not only greater commercial strength but greater military strength. This is the classic ulterior motive of developing a shipbuilding industry, and has been since the Venetians mastered the galley. The Pax Britannica Royal Navy is the paragon here, but who knows what we might see in 2035 - Chinese tankers and warships moored off Richmond, California?

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

First Day Back at Work

Going back to work after a long holiday break isn't exactly like getting poked with a sharp stick, but just for comparison's sake, I got some shampoo in one eye this morning. Something about that raw, itchy feeling says, "Welcome back to the hive, Drone #34210853."

Tsunami Absurdity

A headline on today's Times website:

Accident Hampers Aid Effort
The airport in Banda Aceh, Indonesia, was closed after a plane carrying relief supplies hit a herd of cows after landing.

The photo doesn't show any battered bovines.

Sunday, January 02, 2005

A New Xferen for the New Year

I got a little bit annoyed with my standalone blog application, so I've decided to start using Google's Blogger service. I'm going to move all the old Xferen posts here, and, of course, to add new stuff - like a bunch of brilliant posts which I wrote but couldn't publish with the old application. In short, please watch this space.

Saturday, January 01, 2005

Matthew Arnold on America (1882)

I recently read an excellent examination of Matthew Arnold, the British philosopher-poet, in Jerry Muller's The Mind and the Market. Muller shows how Arnold tried to use high culture and intellectual complexity to reverse the deadening of high culture as Britain's expanding commercial class extended its resolutely middle-brow tastes to everyone, high and low. Rupert Murdoch is proof that Arnold failed. Anyhow, interested in finding out more about Arnold, I Googled him and turned up this cutting quote, from his book Culture and Anarchy (1882), addressed to his British audience:

Our society distributes itself into Barbarians, Philistines, and Populace; and America is just ourselves, with the Barbarians quite left out, and the Populace nearly.

Sounds like a good motto for Bush's America: "All Philistines, All the Time."