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December 31, 2008

My daily affirmation

As 2008 amazingly still finds ways to get worse and worse right up until the ball drops, I pick up my spirits by setting aside a moment every day to think about what it would be like if we were facing the inauguration of John McCain and Sarah Palin.

Ahhhh. Doesn’t that make you feel better?

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December 30, 2008

Animal vids

Great set of user-chosen top animal videos of the year over at the Wired blog.

It makes you realize how inadequate our categories are for understanding animals. For example, is the gibbon “playing”? There’s no way we can answer that question, because if the gibbon could speak, we couldn’t understand it.

But the videos are durn cute!

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Net Neutralities defined

Ed Felten offers a brief and useful taxonomy of Net neutrality. The discussion in the comments is helpful, too. So are David Isenberg’s additional thoughts.

Before the anti-NN folks pounce on the admitted ambiguity of the term, I have two comments.

First, free speech is even harder to pin down and apply, but it’s still a principle worth supporting. (Preemptive defense: No, I’m not saying free speech and NN are equally important. I’m making a point about the logic of the argument.)

Second, as far as I’m concerned, the core of NN, and underneath all three of Ed’s flavors, is the idea that the network should be equally open to all ideas. Or, put differently, those who provide access to the Net should not be allowed to favor some bits over others. Put thirdly, no one should be allowed to decide for others what the Net is for.

None of these formulations are easy to apply. Even doing a first-in-first-out prioritization favors some bits over others. But, this is exactly the same sort of argument one has about free speech: “Oh yeah, Mr. Free Speecher. So you think spies ought to be able to blab state secrets, and there shouldn’t be laws against perjury…?” NN is the right principle. How it’s applied is a matter of justice and politics.

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December 29, 2008

Open for Questions round 2

The Obama transition site has started up a second round of “Open for Questions,” in which anyone can pose a question, we get to vote on our favorites, and the transition team responds.

Here’s the first round.

I like the symbolism of this. It signals not only an interest in open government, but a trust in citizens, a willingness to experiment, and a desire to put technology to use. But, I hope this time they answer more of the questions.

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Bill Kristol: Sounding vs. Being Controversial

Bill Kristol is affable. He’s a good guest on The Daily Show. But he’s been a disappointing addition to the NY Times roster of columnists.

For example, his second most recent contribution is vapid. It’s not just that it rambles so much that it achieves a Zen-like topical emptiness. When he alights for a moment on an actual issue, he’d rather be counter-intuitive than coherent. Here’s how it opens:

O.K., O.K. … you don’t have to. But consider this exchange with Chris Wallace on “Fox News Sunday”:

WALLACE: Did you really tell Senator Leahy, bleep yourself?

CHENEY: I did.

WALLACE: Any qualms, or second thoughts, or embarrassment?

CHENEY: No, I thought he merited it at the time. (Laughter.) And we’ve since, I think, patched over that wound and we’re civil to one another now.

No spin. No doubletalk. A cogent defense of his action — and one that shows a well-considered sense of justice. (“I thought he merited it.”) Indeed, if justice is seeking to give each his due, one might say that Dick Cheney aspires to being a just man. And a thoughtful one, because he knows that justice is sometimes too harsh, and should be tempered by civility.

Does that last sentence make sense given that Cheney is refusing to apologize for his lack of civility? Does Kristol really want to stand by a vice president telling a senator to go fuck himself? If I were the NY Times, I’d worry about a columnist that left readers wondering if he’s mistakenly left out a “not.”

His latest column is a series of things he likes about the planned inauguration. It’s nice to hear this sort of bipartisanship, but the column is really a series of cheap shots at liberals and Obama. And that’d be ok if the cheap shots were amusing or particularly insightful. Instead, it comes off as passive-aggressive and lazy.

It’s not enough for a columnist to define himself as out of place on the NY Times op-ed page. We need some content, some argument, something worth disagreeing with. Surely the Times can find a conservative columnist who gives a damn. [Tags: ]


[Later] Call me fair and balanced, but here’s Glenn Greenwald‘s appropriately scathing criticism of David Gregory’s softball questioning of the Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni on “Meet the Press” this Sunday. Glenn doesn’t bother pointing out that Gregory went on to question David Axelrod mainly about Gov. Blago and Pastor Wright, and then remembered there was this little problem with the economy that was maybe worth mentioning.

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December 27, 2008

Informationalized conversation

In his important 1996 book, Using Language, Herbert H. Clark opens Chapter 7 by analyzing two lines of conversation between ” a British academic” and “a prospective student”:

When Arthur says “u:h what modern poets have you been reading -” he doesn’t want Beth merely to understand what he means — that he wants to know what modern poets she has been reading. He wants her to take up his question, to answer it, to tell him what modern poets she has been reading. She could refuse even though she has understood. To mean something, you don’t have to achieve uptake, and to understand something, you don’t have to take it up. Still, Beth’s uptake is needed if she and Arthur are to achieve what Arthur has publicly set out for them to do at this point in their interview. p. 191

My first response, and probably yours, is: Well, duh But that’s the point. The fact that Clark has to explicitly state that we ask questions usually in order to get a response is evidence of just how deeply we’ve adopted the information-based paradigm that says that communication consists of the transfer of messages from one head to another. Language is a social tool used by embodied creatures to accomplish complex and emergent projects in a shared world. The transfer of messages is the least of it.

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December 26, 2008

The Lincoln Memorial rededication

Like every New Yorker reader, I am perpetually behind. But I’ve been greatly enjoying reading issues from before the election. Knowing how it turns out relieves all the stress.

It also deepens the joy. Thomas Mallon has a terrific article (book review, actually) in the Oct. 13 issue, about how our view of Lincoln has changed over the years. For example, when the Lincoln Memorial was first opened, in 1922, Lincoln was celebrated as the Great Unifier, not the Great Emancipator. Here’s how the article concludes:

In 1909, the Reverend L. H. Magee, the pastor of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Springfield, Illinois, voiced his disgust at the exclusion of blacks from the town’s centennial dinner, but he imagined that by the time of the bicentennial, in 2009, racial prejudice would be “relegated to the dark days of ‘Salem witchcraft.’ ” Next year’s Lincoln commemorations in Washington will include the reopening of Ford’s Theatre, restored for performances for the second time since 1893, when its interior collapsed, killing twenty-two people. Congress will convene in a joint session on February 12th, and on May 30th the still new President will rededicate the Lincoln Memorial. The look and the emphasis of the occasion will have changed—measurably, for certain; astoundingly, perhaps—in the fourscore and seven years since 1922.

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December 25, 2008

Two order of magnitude quizzes: Crowns ‘n’ Crosswords

You win this type of quiz, invented by my friend Paul English, if you come within an order of magnitude of the right answer.

1. In Boston, the going rate for a dental crown seems to be $1,200-$1,600. That’s just for the crown, not for the labor. What is the dentist’s markup on the crown? That is, how much does the dentist pay the lab for it?

2. How much does the New York Times pay the creator of one of their daily crossword puzzles?

The answers are in the first comment. So is the prize for winning, i.e., nothing but the answer.

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December 24, 2008

Christmastime for the Jews

I love mornings. The hour before my family gets up is so quiet and calm. No phone calls. Just a cup of coffee and a keyboard. Ahhh.

That’s how the days before, during and after Christmas feel to me as an American Jew.

Oh, I could do without the cultural assumption that we all celebrate Christmas. I could do without the decorations in every mall and in most towns. I could do without the endless cycle of Christmas jingles. Most of all, I could do without the secret belief that Jews really do enjoy all that Christmasy stuff. The truth is that this Jew does not.

But, at least it all culminates in a couple of days of quiet and calm. Christmas is a lovely time of the year for Jews in America, not because of all the decorations and the ho-ho-ho’s, but because it takes the Christians off the streets and shuts the whole place down. While Christians focus on the sweetness of their faith and deal with passive-aggressive fruitcakes, our calendars are empty and our cellphones are mute. Beautiful.

(PS: NBC has carefully removed the perfect SNL short, Christmastime for the Jews, by Robert Smigel, from YouTube for copyright reasons, thus immensely benefiting NBC’s bottom line. I couldn’t find it anywhere. Jerks. (And if NBC has in fact posted it, I hereby preemptively apologize.) [Ten Minutes Later: See Comments 1 and 2 for the apology])

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