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October 29, 2014

Louis Menand, say what???

Can someone help me understand how Louis Menand sets up his Oct. 20 piece on copyright in the New Yorker? Menand’s a great writer, and the piece has gone through the NYer’s famous editorial process, so I am confident that it’s my fault that I am stuck staring at a couple of paragraphs not understanding what he’s talking about. I expect to be slapping my forehead momentarily.

Let me tell you why this matters to me, beyond my high expectations for New Yorker writing. When the New Yorker takes the Internet as its subject, it tends to be in the Traditional Resistant camp — although I acknowledge that this may well be just my observer’s bias. Their writers acknowledge the importance of the Net and nod at the good it does, but then with some frequency focus on the negative side, or the over-inflated side. Of course that’s fine. They’ve got some great writers. And Menand is not taking that side in this article. But if Menand’s description of how the Web works is as wildly wrong as it seems to me to be, then it raises some special concerns. If the New Yorker can’t get these basics right, then we have further to go than I’d thought. (Keep in mind that I am not all confident in how I’m reading this passage in the Menand article.)

So, Menand begins by imagining that an anthology called “Most Thoughtful Essays” includes his essay without his permission. Then he asks us to…

…suppose that a Web site, awesomestuff.com, ran an item that said something like “This piece on copyright is a great read!” with a hyperlink on the word “piece” to my article’s page on The New Yorker’s Web site. You wouldn’t think this was banditry at all. You would find it unexceptionable.

Some courts have questioned the use of links that import content from another Web site without changing the URL, a practice known as “framing.” But it’s hard to see much difference. Either way, when you’re reading a linked page, you may still be “at” awesomestuff.com, as clicking the back button on your browser can instantly confirm. Effectively, awesomestuff.com has stolen content from newyorker.com, just as the compiler of “Most Thoughtful Essays” stole content from me. The folks at awesomestuff.com and their V. C. backers are attracting traffic to their Web site, with its many banner ads for awesome stuff, using material created by other people.

When he says “it’s hard to see much difference,” the two cases seem to be awesomestuff.com including a hyperlink “to my article’s page on the NYer’s Web site” and awesomestuff.com embedding the entire article at their site in an iframe. But in the first case (clicking on the normal link) you are taken to NewYorker.com and are not on awesomestuff.com.

Even more confusing, when you’re now at NewYorker.com, clicking the back button will confirm that you were in fact not at awesometuff.com, for the page will change from NewYorker.com to awesomestuff.com. And, if awesomestuff.com has embedded Menand’s article via an iframe, clicking on the back button will take you to whatever page you were at before awesomestuff, thus proving nothing.

Finally, since the point of all this is to show us how linking is equivalent to printing Menand’s article in a paper anthology without his permission, it’s weird that Menand leaves out what is by far the most common case that might be equivalent: when a page neither links to another page nor uses an iframe to embed its content, but simply copies and pastes from another site.

So, as far as I can tell, the most coherent way of taking the words that Menand has written — and he’s a precise writer — contradicts the most basic experience of the Web: clicking on a link and going to a new page.

So where am I going wrong in reading him???

By the way, the rest of the article provides a good general overview of the copyright question, and is sympathetic to the reformist sensibility, although it is surprisingly primer-like for a NYer article. IMO, natch.

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September 16, 2014

[liveblog] Hendrik Hertzberg on the quick fix for our Constitutional morass

I’m at a Shorenstein lunch talk where Hendrik Hertzberg of the New Yorker is talking about the difficulty of electing a government with the infrastructure we have. The place is packed. HH was one of the very first Shorenstein fellows. When he was here he was covering the 1988 presidential campaign. (I’m sitting immediately behind him, so I will be able to report in detail on the expressiveness of the back of his head.)

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

He says that we keep thinking that if we could just elect the right president, everything would be fine. We have a cult of presidents. But the problem is in the Constitution. “The machine that elects the president is a machine for disappointment.” You get elected by announcing ideals, not by saying that you’re going to have to engage in a series of ghastly compromises. “So much is due to the Framers, who were at the cutting edge in their day.” He points out that when the Constitution was being framed, framing it was illegal, for we already had the Articles of Confederation that said any changes required a unanimous vote by the thirteen colonies. “We should try to be like them [the Founders] and think boldly about our system,” rather than merely worshipping them.

HH reads some selections from the Framers. First, a letter from G. Washington stating that the Constitution is imperfect but was the best that could be agreed upon; he put his hopes in the process of amendment.

HH says we should be wary of the Federalist Papers. “They were op-eds written to sell a particular compromise.” They’re high-minded and don’t reflect what really happened. E.g., Madison and Hamilton hated each state getting the same number of senators. Hamilton wrote that letting a minority rule would lead to gridlock, compromise, and near anarchy…our current situation, says HH.

We are still told the Electoral College exists to to protect the interests of the smaller states and prevent mob rule. “The truth is that it was adopted in order to protect slavery.” Madison, perhaps half-seriously, suggested that the lower house be elected by vote and that the upper house should be elected with the three-fifths rule. The lower would represent the interests of the citizens and the upper would represent the slave states’ interests, because that was the real distinction. “The Electoral College system was born in sin.”

In 1968, we almost got a Constitutional amendment to get rid of the Electoral College, but it was fillibustered by Sam Ervin.

The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact will change this. (The idea for making this into an interstate compact came from a Stanford computer science prof., John Koza.) The Constitution instructs the states to come up with electors who then vote for the state in the presidential election. The states that support the NPVIC say their electors will vote for whoever wins the national popular vote. It goes into effect when the compacting states add up to 270 votes, which would guarantee that the election goes to the winner of the popular vote. This does not require changing the Constitution. And it’s 60% of the way to happening: 11 states + DC. (Mass. has adopted it.) All eleven states are blue states, but there’s Republican support, although their platform came out against it. New Gingrich is a recent convert. Fred Thompson. Many others.

This reform would be an enormous move toward civic health, HH says. No more battleground states. No more spectator states. It would affect how campaign money is spent, although not how it is raised; it would have to be spent all around the country. It would boost turnout by increasing turnout in the spectator states.

Q: How does this compact ensure the electors keep their promise?

A: It’d be a state law. And it says states cannot withdraw from it during the campaign period.

HH continues. We have a controlled experiment: There are a lot of things wrong with Obama, but we’re not going to get anyone much better. This has made apparent the weaknesses in the system. Our dysfunction is the result of people responding to rewards and punishments built into the system. NPVIC is the “gettable reform.” We could get this one by 2016, although 2020 is more likely. “I’m all for campaign reform, but the Supreme Court stands in the way.”

HH says that NPVIC is a mom-and-pop outfit. He’s hopeful because the state electors have a reason to vote for this, because right now “no one returns their calls.” The focus now is on getting a first red state. If you’re interested in donating money, HH suggests you give to FairVote.

Q&A

Q: How might this change the geographic location of campaigns? Will this lead to an urban/rural divide? Will Dems campaign more in the North and Reps in the South, thus polarizing us more?

A: That ignores that only 10-15% lives in big cities. [The Census figures are somewhat hard to parse on this. source.] And it would be cost-effective to buy ads in the poorer and less dense parts of the country. “Every single vote is equally worth going after” in this scenario.

Q: Would this shift parties to nominating people more in the mainstream? And what about third parties?

A: The two-party system is essential to a winner-take-all system likes ours. (I’m also in favor of the instant runoff voting reform.) NPVIC gives its votes to the winner of a plurality.

Q: Why isn’t this being talked about more?

A: It’s weirdly hard to grasp. And it can be demagogued against: “So you think you’re smarter than the Framers??” The media will pay more attention once the count gets close to 270.

Q: Even in states that have passed it, nobody knows about it. It looks like a move among political elites.

A: You’re right that nobody knows about it. But people of all parties do favor electing the president by popular vote. The outcome reflects the wishes of the majority of Americans. But, yes, NPVIC is a Rube Goldberg contraption.

Rube Goldberg machine

Q: Have the Tea Party stars — Limbaugh, Beck, etc. — staked out positions?

A: It may have come up for a few minutes, but it hasn’t become a fixture.

Q: The question will be which party is losing more Electoral College votes.

A: Because of 2000, the sense is the Democrats throw away more. In 2004 if 30K votes had shifted in Ohio, Kerry would have won the election while losing the popular vote. [There is a rapid debate about which party throws away more votes. Couldn’t capture it.

Q: Has there been a non-partisan anaysis of this proposal? And why doesn’t the NPVIC campaign have more educational outreach?

A: There has not been much non-partisan analysis, although there’s some. And many governors are directly elected, so I don’t see how much more we need to learn about this. Plus, when you have a quiet, calm conversation with state legislators, they often tend to like it.

Q: Do you worry that linking this movement to others might break apart the coalition?

A: They’re only linked in my mind. “If I had my way, I would translate the German constitution into English and be done with it,” HH says. Americans wrote it. “If the Framers were around now, they’d write that constitution.” “I hope that once this reform kicks in, people will think more about imitating the Framers rather than worshipping them.”

Q: How is political coverage these days?

A: Political coverage tends to ignore the ways in which the hydraulics limit and affect politicians. And since by definition the US Constitution is perfect (we assume), when things go wrong, it must be because of bad people. It’s still basically a morality tale about Good and Bad. You still hear “If only Obama were more like LBJ: get in their and get stuff done” and it drives me nuts. LBJ did that, but he had a huge majority in the House and Senate. When he lost that, he got nothing done. Or, Tom Friedman pushing for a centrist third party, ignoring the fact that we already a centrist party: The Democrats — ignoring that this would make the right the governing party.

Q: Any major figures backing it?

A: I expect Obama and Clinton would be for it, but saying so wouldn’t help. Tying this up with particular personalities can be risky.

Q: Effect on primaries?

A: It wouldn’t affect that directly. They’d want a candidate who can do well in the entire country, not just in the swing states. It would likely cause people to look at the nominating system.

[Next day: I corrected a statement that I'd recorded as certain rather than probabilistic.]

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September 22, 2013

The New Yorker’s redesign: A retreat from text?

The New Yorker has done it’s first major redesign since 2000, although it’s so far only been rolled out to the front of the magazine.

Personally, the return to a more highly stylized typeface is welcome. But I am disappointed that they’ve made the magazine look like more like everything else in the racks. It’s not a lack of originality that bothers me. Rather, it is the retreat from text.

There’s no less text and so far the writing style seems to be the same. Rather, the previous design presented a wall of text, broken up with occasional insets of text, with empty spots filled with text. For example, “Tables for Two” used to be a small, two-column insert into the Goings On section. The type size was the same as the directions on a tube of toothpaste. Now it’s a single column that takes up the entire right-hand three-fifths of a page, in a perfectly readable font, with a quarter-page color photograph at the top, as if to say, “Well look at us! We have so much room that we’re filling it up with a merely pleasant photo.”

There are at least two results in how we take that page. First, “Tables for Two” has turned from a lagniappe into a column. Second, the magazine doesn’t feel like it’s so bursting with things to write about that it had to shoulders goodies into whatever nooks it could find or force.

Sections now are headed by a graphical emblem (e.g., a Deco knife and fork on a plate for the Food & Drink section) that signals that the New Yorker thinks the section titles themselves are not enough for us. Really? What part of “Food & Drink” does The New Yorker think we don’t understand? Why does the New Yorker now believe that mere words are not up to the task?

The New Yorker used to be for people unafraid of climbing a sheer wall of text. It demanded we make judgments about what to read based solely on the text itself; this was even more the case before Tina Brown put the authors’ names at the beginning of the article instead of at the end. But now it’s pandering to the graphical-minded among us. The graphical folks have plenty of other magazines to thumb through lazily. The New Yorker was a text-based trek that had to earn our every footstep.

Don’t go soft on us, New Yorker! We’re not afraid of words. Bring ‘em on!

 


More to read:

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May 20, 2013

The New Yorker Caption Contest is making me an embittered, broken man

My offering has once again been passed over by the cruel gods that rule the New Yorker Caption contest.

The cartoon shows Noah’s ark filled with giraffes. Noah is talking to what seems to be a young woman. (I describe it because I can’t find a unique url for it.) The selected entries are:

  1. “I wouldn’t say ‘favorite’ animal.”

  2. “Mistakes were made.”

  3. “I have trouble saying no.”

Here’s my rejected caption:

“That’s ok. Everyone has trouble with Excel at first.”

Ok, it’s not so great. But head to head against number 2 above, no?

Someday, Caption Contest, someday…!

7 Comments »

January 30, 2013

I wuz robbed by The New Yorker!

The current finalist punchlines for the New Yorkers’ Cartoon Caption Contest have been announced, and mine was not among them. The only possible explanation is that Big Money — you know, the Boss Men, the Ward Heelers, the Gang of 50, the Backstreet Boys — have wielded their influence to lock me out once again.

For this week only you can see the cartoon in question here. For the sake of posterity and in the name of eternal justice, allow me to describe the set-up comic: A mob boss, Godfather-style, is sitting with three henchmen at a table. Standing right behind them, more or less also at the table, is a horse dressed in a suit, ridden by a NYC-style mounted policeman. All are facing forward and all seem to be listening to the boss. High-larious just by itself!

The three finalists are:

  1. I smell a horse

  2. I hope they don’t crack. The cops are riding him pretty hard.

  3. Because PETA said we can’t whack him.

As the quality of the finalists show, this was not a fecund cartoon. Indeed, there is, of course, only one correct punchline, which I courteously supplied:

“And the last item on the agenda: We have to look into this new Preakness Protection Program we’ve been hearing about.”

Look, I’m not saying that The New Yorker owes me anything. No, it’s Justice, Truth, and Science that are saying so.

In any event, I’m voting for #3.

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