Archive for December, 2006

The End of an Era

December 31, 2006

Today is the final broadcast (in reruns) of George Jellinek’s radio program The Vocal Scene, through which he “shared his knowledge and love of singing” for 40 years. Here is a New Yorker appreciation of Mr. Jellinek’s career from 2004, when he recorded his last episode. His memoir, My Road to Radio and “The Vocal Scene”, is available here.

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Posting resumes after a needed break. Happy New Year.

Friday Mystery Author: Dec. 22, 2006

December 23, 2006

No mystery this week. Our passage is from the second chapter of the Gospel according to St. Luke:

In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to his own town to register.

So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.

And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,

“Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.”

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”

So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.

From the New International Version, via Bible Gateway. Merry Christmas.

Friday Mystery Author: Charles Dickens

December 22, 2006

This week’s Friday Mystery Author passage was from Charles Dickens’s lovely fable A Christmas Carol, which begins with these inimitable lines:

Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it: and Scrooge’s name was good upon ‘Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

Mind! I don’t mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country’s done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

Scrooge knew he was dead? Of course he did. How could it be otherwise? Scrooge and he were partners for I don’t know how many years. Scrooge was his sole executor, his sole administrator, his sole assign, his sole residuary legatee, his sole friend and sole mourner. And even Scrooge was not so dreadfully cut up by the sad event, but that he was an excellent man of business on the very day of the funeral, and solemnised it with an undoubted bargain.

The mention of Marley’s funeral brings me back to the point I started from. There is no doubt that Marley was dead. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate. If we were not perfectly convinced that Hamlet’s Father died before the play began, there would be nothing more remarkable in his taking a stroll at night, in an easterly wind, upon his own ramparts, than there would be in any other middle-aged gentleman rashly turning out after dark in a breezy spot — say Saint Paul’s Churchyard for instance — literally to astonish his son’s weak mind.

Scrooge never painted out Old Marley’s name. There it stood, years afterwards, above the warehouse door: Scrooge and Marley. The firm was known as Scrooge and Marley. Sometimes people new to the business called Scrooge Scrooge, and sometimes Marley, but he answered to both names: it was all the same to him.

Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster. The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shriveled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice. A frosty rime was on his head, and on his eyebrows, and his wiry chin. He carried his own low temperature always about with him; he iced his office in the dogdays; and didn’t thaw it one degree at Christmas.

External heat and cold had little influence on Scrooge. No warmth could warm, no wintry weather chill him. No wind that blew was bitterer than he, no falling snow was more intent upon its purpose, no pelting rain less open to entreaty. Foul weather didn’t know where to have him. The heaviest rain, and snow, and hail, and sleet, could boast of the advantage over him in only one respect. They often “came down” handsomely, and Scrooge never did.

Nobody ever stopped him in the street to say, with gladsome looks, “My dear Scrooge, how are you? When will you come to see me?” No beggars implored him to bestow a trifle, no children asked him what it was o’clock, no man or woman ever once in all his life inquired the way to such and such a place, of Scrooge. Even the blind men’s dogs appeared to know him; and when they saw him coming on, would tug their owners into doorways and up courts; and then would wag their tails as though they said, “No eye at all is better than an evil eye, dark master!”

But what did Scrooge care? It was the very thing he liked. To edge his way along the crowded paths of life, warning all human sympathy to keep its distance, was what the knowing ones call “nuts” to Scrooge.

As I said on Friday, I thought of this week’s passage after reading a thread on lists at Edward Tufte’s website, and I see that this bit is full of lists too: “the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner;” “his sole executor, his sole administrator, his sole assign, his sole residuary legatee, his sole friend and sole mourner;” “a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner!” “froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shriveled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue and spoke out shrewdly;” “on his head, and on his eyebrows, and his wiry chin.” This is what George Orwell called Dickens’s “fertility of invention… of turns of phrase and concrete … unecessary detail.”

Light Posting

December 17, 2006

Holiday travel for the next few weeks, much of it away from fast Internet, so posting will be a little lighter.  Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all.

Friday Mystery Author: Dec 15, 2006

December 15, 2006

Welcome to this week’s edition of Friday Mystery Author. Take a shot at identifying this passage (author and title) from a well-known novel, or just say hello in the comments.

It was his own room. There was no doubt about that. But it had undergone a surprising transformation. The walls and ceilings were so hung with living green, that it looked a perfect grove, from every part of which, bright gleaming berries glistened. The crisp leaves of holly, mistletoe, and ivy reflected back the light, as if so many little mirrors had been scattered there; and such a mighty blaze roaring up the chimney, as that dull petrification of a hearth had never known… Heaped up on the floor, to form a kind of throne, were turkeys, geese, game, poultry, brawn, great joints of meat, plum-puddings, barrels of oysters, red-hot chesnuts, cherry-cheeked apples, juicy oranges, luscious pears, immense twelfth-cakes, and seething bowls of punch, that made the chamber dim with their delicious steam.

I was put in mind of this passage by this fun thread on lists and lists in literature at Edward Tufte’s website, with citations from Evelyn Waugh, T. S. Eliot, Jorge Luis Borge, Gilbert and Sullivan, and Richard Nixon.

Last week’s edition of Friday Mystery Author is here. Thank you for coming by, and have a good weekend. I’ll post this week’s title and author on Monday.

John Hinderaker’s Modest Proposal for Iran

December 15, 2006

On November 30, ABC News reported that Iran is arming Shiite militias in Iraq with “brand-new weapons fresh from Iranian factories.”

“There is no way this could be done without (Iranian) government approval,” says a senior official.

This is only the latest evidence of Iran’s involvement via proxy in Iraq. In November 2004, U.S. News and World Report published “The Iran Connection” (via Blackfive). Key excerpts:

[A] review of thousands of pages of intelligence reports by U.S. News reveals the critical role Iran has played in aiding some elements of the anti-American insurgency after Baghdad fell–and raises important questions about whether Iran will continue to try to destabilize Iraq after elections are held. …

[T]he picture that emerges from the sheer volume of the reports, and as a result of the multiplicity of sources from which they were generated, leaves little doubt about the depth of Iran’s involvement in supporting elements of the insurgency…

Iranian intelligence agents were said to have planned attacks against the U.S.-led forces and supported terrorist groups with weapons. Iranian agents smuggled weapons and ammunition across the border into Iraq and distributed them “to individuals who wanted to attack coalition forces…”

In November of last year [2003], the Iraq Survey Group received information that Iran had formed small groups of fighters to conduct attacks in cities across Iraq. “Iran had reportedly placed a bounty on U.S. forces of U.S. $2,000 for each helicopter shot down, $1,000 for each tank destroyed, and $500 for each U.S. military personnel killed,” the Iraq Survey Group reported. …

[A]s it continues its elaborate dance with the West over its ambitious nuclear program, the Islamic regime has yet to turn the heat up full blast in Iraq, evidently secure in the knowledge that it can do so when and if it sees the need to. “I would not put it past them to carry out spectacular attacks,” says David Kay, the former chief U.S. weapons inspector in Iraq, “to demonstrate the cost of a hostile policy. That is the policy issue–can we learn to live with Iranian nuclear capacity?”

Now John Hinderaker of Power Line says President Bush should place the new evidence before the nation, a la Cuban Missle Crisis, and threaten preemptive strikes on terrorist training camps and supply depots. Futhermore,

declare that no nation that is engaged in killing American servicemen… will be permitted to arm itself with nuclear weapons. Iran must either open all nuclear-related facilities to inspection by an international group headed by the U.S. … or those facilities, too, will be destroyed, along with the economic infrastructure that supports them.

I doubt very much that Mr. Ahmadinejad’s domestic position would permit him to back down to this kind of threat. He would stand defiant, implying an enormous bombing and cruise missile campaign; necessarily boots on the ground in Iran, to direct air strikes; and great economic and physical suffering for the Iranian people. The analogies write themselves: Cambodian Incursion and Linebacker.

The Power Line Forum commenter Bird of Paradise is correct that U.S. public opinion was entirely different during the Missile Crisis. Could the President execute Mr. Hinderaker’s plan with out asking Congress for a declaration of war or getting the approval of the Iraqi government?

Rather than such a dramatic escalation, I would submit that a show of moral and psychological “force” or resolve would have greater effect on Mr. Ahmadinejad than an overt bombing campaign. This would include signals of commitment in Iraq (increases in deployment levels and the base size of the Army), selected and deniable strikes on Iranian safe havens, some level of partnership with Iranian Kurdish insurgents, Congressional endorsement of a plan for Iraq, and so forth.

RELATED on Zeal and Activity:

UPDATE: Here is an odd report on conflict within Saudi Aribia on “Iran and how to contain Iran” (via Instapundit). More here.

UPDATE: Dean Barnett says it’s not the nukes, it’s the regime: “What makes the Iranian potential nuclear arsenal an untenable threat is the nature of the country’s leadership. In short, it’s not Iran’s nuclear weapons program that must be made to disappear. It’s the present ruling regime.”

Eason Jordan for Transparent Media

December 14, 2006

Yesterday, I wrote about Wired Magazine editor Chris Anderson’s innovative thoughts on media transparency and open content. I support transparency to improve the reliability of scandal-plagued news organizations.

Today, Eason Jordan, former news head of CNN, is leading an experiment in media transparency.

On November 24, the Associated Press ran a sensational story about mob violence in Baghdad. Its primary source was a “police Capt. Jamil Hussein.” The next day, the coalition’s press office issued a release contradicting the story and denying Jamil Hussein’s employment in the police (see blogger Curt of Flopping Aces, who broke the story, assisted by Austin Bay and many others). The AP stuck to its story.

Now, Eason Jordan, who resigned under blogger attack after alleging that U.S. troops in Iraq were assassinating journalists, has started an Iraq news bureau. To kick things off, he’s going to the bottom of the Jamil Hussein affair. And he has invited Curt of Flopping Aces and prominent right-wing blogger (and Eason Jordan critic) Michelle Malkin, to accompany him to Iraq. This will be interesting.

Wired Brainstorms

December 14, 2006

Chris Anderson is writing about open and transparent media from the perspective of innovation at Wired Magazine, starting with a few trends in the media landscape. From my own experience as a blogger, this one is right on the money:

THEN: Bookmarks and habit drive traffic to the home page; site architecture and editorial hierarchy determines where readers goes next. Portals rule.

NOW: Search and blog links drive readers to individual stories; they leave as quickly as they come. “De-portalization” rules.

Zeal and Activity is 32 days old. The great majority of hits come to individual posts from search engines, tags (WordPress’s Tag Surfer), and trackbacks. Of course, Zeal and Activity doesn’t have the focus of a Strange Maps or the niche of an I Eat Games (via Best Blog).

In the spirit of transparency and user participation, Mr. Anderson then outlines six possible innovations for Wired, including:

  • 1. Show who we are. All staff edit their own personal “about” pages
  • 2. Show what we’re working on. [Open internal wikis]
  • 5. Let readers decide what’s best. … Why not just measure what people really think and let statistics determine the hierarchy of the front page?

Great ideas, and as commenter Lisa said, it’s good to see a media organization leading innovation. I agree with many of the commenters (e.g. Jeremy), however: greater transparency probably increases user involvement and trust by addressing the issues that Glenn Reynolds noted here and Dow Jones chairman Peter Kann wrote about here. Greater openness with data could have prevented such media scandals; user access might add some perspective to partisan news coverage.

But while handing over editorial control to users may work well for the article on Wikipedia that Mr. Anderson cites, it won’t work as well for controversial material (e.g. the Los Angeles Times’s wiki editorial experiment). As commenter Soni said, the degree of openness will depend on context and content, and will be phased over time. And like many commenters, I value editorial judgement – filtering is an important function of the media.

Other potential areas for innovation:

  • More ways to link. When Zeal and Activity was three days old, I got a huge number of hits (well, more than 100) from an automatically-generated link at a Wall Street Journal post that I linked. The easier this gets, the more you fertilize the ecosystem around your content – without giving up control of the trunk (your story).
  • More ways to filter. Nested tags and keyword searches are good but don’t have the flexibility and power they could. What about an Amazon-style smart filter that learns what stories you and others like you prefer? Different weights for stories I (a) fail to demote, (b) click the “read the rest link,” (c) comment, (d) digg, (e) link myself, etc.

What Are They Up To in Tehran?

December 14, 2006

Last night I wondered out loud what President Ahmadinejad of Iran is up to. On one hand, U.S. and NATO activity in Afghanistan and Iraq could feel a lot like encirclement, especially for a country that has made hatred of the United States a public policy.

A crash nuclear program would then be a rational attempt to regain leverage. Mr. Ahmadinejad has no doubt absorbed the lesson of the Persian Gulf War, reportedly articulated by the chief of staff of the Indian military: “Don’t fight the Americans without nuclear weapons.” (1)

On the other hand, why on Earth is Mr. Ahmadinejad providing such a prominent stage for Holocaust denial? The recent conference is sure to outrage the West and portray Iran as “koo-koo-nutty” in the minds of U.S. voters. (For example, see the report of Frederick Toben and Richard Krege on their trip to present at the conference.) Why is Mr. Ahmadinejad predicting that Israel will soon be “wiped out,” apparently at a press conference?

It’s not because of U.S. response to Sept. 11 or the war in Iraq. Ayatollah Khamenei made the same proposal in 2000 (via Wikipedia).

If Mr. Ahmadinejad learned from the Persian Gulf War, he has also learned from the present Iraq War. His strategy against the West rests on three strong legs: (a) the nuclear development program, to provide Iran with a “Sampson option;” (b) asymetrical warfare of the type practiced by proxies against Israel in Lebanon and against the Iraqi government and the U.S. in Iraq; and (c) opinion warfare in the press and intelligentsia of the West.

The Holocaust conference falls in the latter category. It is positioned as a defense of free speech:

Manouchehr Mottaki [the foreign minister of Iran] told participants the event did not seek to confirm or deny the Holocaust, but rather to allow people to “express their views freely”. … “Its main aim is to create an opportunity for thinkers who cannot express their views freely in Europe about the Holocaust,” he said. [BBC]

Perhaps Mr. Ahmadinejad calculated the free speech cloak would paralyze or divide his Western critics, as the West is divided over Saddam Hussein’s trial or the status of prisoners from Afghanistan. Now, James Lileks speculates that Mr. Ahmadinejad is laying the intellectual groundwork for an attack on Israel (via Instapundit). Elsewhere, the Los Angeles Times says (via Captain’s Quarters):

To Ahmadinejad, attacking the legitimacy of the Holocaust allows him to attack the legitimacy of Israel, which was created by the United Nations as a result of the Holocaust. If the first act didn’t happen, then the second act wasn’t necessary.

The Iranian president wrapped his hateful nonsense in the false mantle of free speech. …

I prefer the first Mr. Ahmadinejad: rational, subject to negotiation and deterrence, capable of a modus vivendi.

On the other hand, note the protests at a recent speech by Mr. Ahmadinejad (via Powerline). And the trailer for this film suggests a people with great humor, patriotism, and a lot more on their minds than America and the U.S. (see also Breathless 7 and Time).

(1) I found this remark quoted as early as 1996, but it sounds apocryphal. Can anyone verify?

UPDATE: The New York Times:

Just as Soviet leaders used to invite Americans who suffered racial or political discrimination to Moscow to embarrass Washington, Mr. Ahmadinejad seems to enjoy pointing out that countries like Germany, France and Austria claim to champion free debate yet have made Holocaust denial illegal. …

“It is for public consumption in Arab countries,” said Mustafa El-Labbad, editor of Sharqnameh, a magazine specializing in Iranian affairs and published in Cairo. “It is specifically directed toward deepening the gap between the people and their regimes and toward embarrassing the rulers so that the regional power vacuum, especially after Iraq, can be filled by Iran.”

Review: The Price of Admission

December 11, 2006

Daniel Golden’s The Price of Admission (based on his Pulitzer Prize-winning series of Wall Street Journal articles) is an expose of preferences for various types in undergraduate admissions: children of alumni, the wealthy, celebrities, and politicians; non-Asians; athletes; etc. Mr. Golden leaves little doubt that cash- and limelight-hungry institutions use admissions as a powerful perk (though probably not an explicit quid pro) for donors and supporters. (A student’s attractive connection is a “hook.”)

As a result, lots of merely talented students (the “unhooked”) are supplanted by those with natal qualifications. Says Mr. Golden:

Since Harvard and other elite universities with ballooning numbers of applications still make room for preferred groups, everybody else’s chances have shrunk dramatically. An applicant with my credentials (1410 SAT score, top-10 class rank, one advanced placement course) wouldn’t even be in the running at Harvard today unless he were a legacy, a development case, a recruited athlete, a faculty child, or a minority.

Mr. Golden suggests that preferences reduce upward mobility and contribute to an ossifying class structure in the U.S.:

Of all the sorts of diversity that elite college profess to seek, socioeconomic diversity counts to the least. To build a freshman class that is balanced in other respects, colleges routinely sacrifice the interests of low-income families. … Opportunity is scarcer today for children of poverty than in living memory, and our higher education system is partly responsible.

Unhooked students miss the chance to attend prestigious schools, matriculate with the best students in the country, and study under the top professors. On the other hand, although an Ivy League brand may provide greater initial opportunities, a degree from a more selective school doesn’t confer higher lifetime earnings when controlled for individual students’ earning capacity, according to this 1999 study (pdf) by Alan Kreuger and Stacy Darcy (via Zen Personal Finance and Money & Hapiness; see also this article) (1). Some critics, like Harvard’s Derek Bok and Harry Lewis, charge that elite schools are failing their basic mission of teaching. And only 10% of Fortune 500 CEOs have Ivy League degrees, according to the Wall Street Journal (via Greg Mankiw).

Kreuger and Darcy found that for students from low-income families, attending a more selective school did improve future earnings. Yet these students, with the most to gain, are most handicapped by preferences. Mr. Golden does not attempt to measure the cost or even the magnitude of admissions preferences, though he clearly believes that both are high. To do so, one might compare the level of variation in SAT scores for hooked and unhooked students at the same school (Mr. Golden often notes SAT scores – an indication of their importance to admissions officers?). One could then identify unusually unqualified students and thus estimate the number of students unfairly admitted not on their own merits.

Instead, Mr. Golden has published a collection of anecdotes. Even his “applicant with my credentials” example, which cries out for quantification (how likely is that profile to be admitted today, hooked and unhooked? What about 1990? 1980? 1960?) stands on its own. Perhaps the data for more detailed analysis is simply unavailable. Too bad. The top universities have only a few thousand slots each year, and society would clearly benefit by allocating them to the best students, not to amiable mediocrities. To prompt a national debate on the issue, though, we need to know how many hooked students there are and how much weaker they are than the unhooked.

Colleges that admit mediocre students because their fathers and uncles are alumni are like major league baseball teams signing high school players with great looks and “potential.” In his popular book Moneyball, Michael Lewis chronicled how manager Billy Beane transformed the small-market Oakland A’s by pricing players only for demonstrated performance. At the end of The Price of Admission, Mr. Golden profiles several colleges that could be described as the Oakland A’s of higher eduction, for admitting students strictly on academic merit: Caltech, Cooper Union, and Berea College.

The Krueger and Darcy study and the Fortune 500 data above suggest that corporate hiring and promotion are much more egalitarian than college admissions. Ability seems to be recognized and rewarded without regard to alma mater. But colleges have less data than companies: they are selecting unformed high school students. Billy Beane dealt with this problem by recruiting college players, not high schoolers. Software guru Joel Splosky wants to hire only the best programmers, but he thinks that they are on the market only a few times in their careers, so he hires them very young – as interns. He is running a series of posts on how to do this:

You’re looking for people who are

  1. Smart, and
  2. Get things done.

The series includes Sorting Resumes, The Phone Screen, and The Guerilla Guide to Interviewing.

For the first interview of the day, I’ve started including a really, really easy programming problem. …

Serge Lang, a math professor at Yale, used to give his Calculus students a fairly simple algebra problem on the first day of classes, one which almost everyone could solve, but some of them solved it as quickly as they could write while others took a while, and Professor Lang claimed that all of the students who solved the problem as quickly as they could write would get an A in the Calculus course, and all the others wouldn’t. …

[T]he good programmers stand up, write the answer on the board, sometimes adding a clever fillip (Ooh! Unicode compliant! Nice!), and it takes thirty seconds…

In some ways, this results-oriented, cut-and-dried approach sounds like the admissions practices of Cooper Union and Caltech, as described by Mr. Golden. How long can elite universities exempt many applicants from such rigor before undercutting their own excellence?

(1) Kreuger and Darcy found while that selectivity as measured by average SAT score did not affect future earnings, selectivity as measured by average tuition (which they took as a proxy for “resources devoted to instruction”) did. Also, 40 percent of students in their study turned down the most selective college that admitted them.

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