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30.Oct.2011 Permanent URL to this day's entry

Searching for a sympathetic figure Permalink to this item

In a story about three year investigation of fixing traffic tickets in the Big Apple leading to the arraignment of 16 police officers, I thought the headline about officers jeering referred to contempt expressed at the unlawful behavior of the miscreants.

But no!

Hundreds of officers showing up to "applaud their accused colleagues and denounce their prosecution" of more than 1,600 criminal counts. "The assembled police officers blocked cameras from filming their colleagues, in one instance grabbing lenses and shoving television camera operators backward."

28.Oct.2011 Permanent URL to this day's entry

Fantasy and reality Permalink to this item

It's hard to read minds; just going by what comes out of Paul Ryan's mouth, one can't tell whether it's delusion or duplicity. Maybe he's bought and sold this fantasy so many times that he really has come to believe

"in supply-side fairy tales in which cutting taxes for the rich will produce enormous growth. Never mind that the last two presidential administrations have disproved the supply-side theory about as conclusively as a real world experiment can do. (Bill Clinton raised taxes on the rich, conservatives predicted disaster, and instead we experienced a long boom; George W. Bush lowered taxes on the rich, conservatives predicted a huge boom, and instead we got an weak recovery with no income growth for anybody save the very rich.)"

If you want something to be true hard enough, no amount of evidence will persuade you otherwise. Just click your heels together three times.

My preference for a new Senator would be Elizabeth Warren, even though I worry that her clarity and purpose may be absorbed and mutated by the world's most bloviated deliberative body. Rather than the regurgitated Randianisms of Paul Ryan, consider this observation from Warren:

"[This is] the taxation bargain that the state strikes with its citizens: in order to allow entrepreneurs to thrive, the state pays for police (to create stable property relationships), education (to create skilled workforces) and infrastructure (to create the means for commerce to flow). In exchange, those who thrive on the fruit of the state's investments are taxed a fraction of their earnings to pay for more of this sort of thing so the next generation of business-people can benefit from them too."

25.Oct.2011 Permanent URL to this day's entry

Start your day with a letter Permalink to this item

Letters v and A, in brick Thanks to my big sister for this morning's treat, a lovely TEDx video featuring Andrew Byrom and his quirky life in typography: If h is a chair.

As with what passes for my cursive writing these days, it made an unexpected series of connections: designing a font for a 7x9 dot matrix printer (and figuring out the cryptic code to instruct the machine on the particulars) 28 years ago, painting the number of my dorm room on its door in negative, and #15 in a sunset sky gradate on my next residence in Arny's Trailer Court, finding initial bricks on a Lake Michigan beach once upon a time, writing a letter to our grandson on the occasion of his 14th birthday earlier this month.

24.Oct.2011 Permanent URL to this day's entry

Missed her by that much Permalink to this item

Under the Huckleberries blog repost of Marty Trillhaase's jeers for our Idaho Republican Party Chairman's self-dealing, we have a colorful anecdote from Idaho's capital city, provided by Hucks regular, Sisyphus.

"On Thursday I observed a lady crossing the street in a cross walk with the light in downtown Boise. She had to scream and yell at a driver attempting to turn left right into her. ..."

21.Oct.2011 Permanent URL to this day's entry

Deeply in need of invigorated ethics Permalink to this item

Thanks to the University of Idaho, the Oppenheimers and the other sponsors for Thursday's symposium, "Reinvigorating ethics in education and practice in the digital age."

I was especially interested to see the panel discussion moderated by Betsy Russell, of The Spokesman-Review, because it included former journalist Wayne Hoffman who has undertaken anti-government advocacy with his Idaho Freedom Foundation and its quasi-journalistic offspring, the online-only

That panel discussion, as well as the keynote speakers, and two other speakers from the afternoon session can be viewed from Idaho Public TV's video archive, a fact that I'm sure Hoffman would decry as an illegitimate use of public resources.

At some point in the discussion, Hoffman averred that no one has criticized Idaho Reporter for reflecting its parent's biases. In other words, he either doesn't read comments people post on (or about) his site, or else he completely discounts them. (Of course! No one whose opinion he accepts has criticized his site's work.)

In response to the question of why Idaho Freedom Foundation conceals (most of) the sources of its funding, Wayne glibly responded by arguing that since other media organizations aren't as completely transparent as he can casually demand they be to suit his purpose, the question is completely irrelevant and can be ignored.

"I don't think journalism is about finding the middle," Wayne said, before he lost his train of thought.

How about reporting useful and relevant facts, then?

He wants "an honest critique of government." In other words, reporting bores him and he wants to advocate his point of view.

He took considerable trouble to insist that all reporters are opinionated and that their opinions inevitably "bleed through" to their writing. He thinks reporters should disclose their biases, including telling everyone who they vote for.

Most remarkably, he claimed that all of the content of Idaho Reporter is edited, even though there has never been a hint of anyone holding such a job on the IdahoReporter "About" page, any more than there is anything like a masthead identifying who the staff are. Even as it advocates enforced disclosure on others, his organization accepts no responsibility for itself.

But in its ideological statement, that page reflects the purpose that its founder and chief operator evidenced in the panel discussion. The organization is about advocacy, about denying that what it seeks to do is advocacy, and about accusing others of doing the same thing it does. This is either profound confusion, or, if Hoffman is not as ignorant about journalism and ethics as he appears to be, disingenuous in the extreme.

20.Oct.2011 Permanent URL to this day's entry

Martial unlaw in NYC Permalink to this item

Naomi Wolf: How I was arrested at Occupy Wall Street. For walking down the sidewalk. And stuff.

"...when the protesters marched to the first precinct, the whole of Erickson Street was cordoned off—'frozen' they were told, 'by Homeland Security.' Obviously if DHS now has powers to simply take over a New York City street because of an arrest for peaceable conduct by a middle-aged writer in an evening gown, we have entered a stage of the closing of America, which is a serious departure from our days as a free republic in which municipalities are governed by police forces."

Oppenheimer Ethics Symposium Permalink to this item

Tuning in to the afternoon session here in Boise , courtesy of Idaho Public TV's webstream. Hoping the first speaker (or someone helping him) figures out how to get PowerPoint out of the edit view and into the slide show mode. Professer in the College of Law, you'd think he'd know.

Meme-o-rama Permalink to this item

Road sign: SLOWER TRAFFIC KEEP RIGHT Feeling a bit overwhelmed by interesting ideas coming my way at the moment, and taking a turn through Facebook with the morning news only made it worse. Let me say that I briefly felt like I understood Facebook (including the fact that they're continuously modifying the user interface and that having no one understand it is considered a "feature" for whatever their business model is, which seems to be sucking people into believing they have a business model because I'm certainly not and never going to give them any money and have zero interest in the people who are advertising there or the ads they're running. I might occasionally notice something, but click through? No way.)

Among the cat and dog pictures and political comments and reposted news items, there was this picture, accompanying a classic "why don't slow drivers get the hell out of the fast lane" complaint. (Answer: because they don't have to, and it's comfy over there on the left. Duh.) But I realized that this was really one of the political signs, not about traffic. Facebook is ideally suited for the slightly-longer-than-you-can-read-on-a-bumper-sticker message, although

Republicans 2012
Keeping Millions Out of Work
to put one Man out of a Job

is not quite too long to work on a bumper. There's a connection with what one (real) friend (who happens to also be a "Facebook friend") called "sorched earth Christianity," a term which could be quite literal as regards global warming, if one acts in accordance with the conviction that

"The Earth is not 'fragile' when it comes to human interference. Humans cannot destroy the Earth (let alone the Universe). Humans cannot eliminate the ozone layer. Humans cannot cause permanent, life-threatening global warming. Human ability to pollute, contaminate, and destroy the environment cannot begin to compare with the destructive forces of nature itself: volcanoes, tornados, hurricanes, drought, typhoons, earthquakes, and floods."

What a comfort to know that God is watching out for us, and we cannot possibly do anything as big as nature, and so facts and knowledge are really kind of silly and irrelevant, as long as we all BELIEVE.

While there is a certain charm in colossal stupidity, it's also a fairly dangerous approach to life. The same scorched earth approach to politics has brought us to the impasse where Republicans think that obstruction is good enough, and all that matters is the next election cycle, and we are Hegemon and so nothing can stop us. Chances are very good that that is very wrong.

16.Oct.2011 Permanent URL to this day's entry

A busy man (and an NGO) with financial issues Permalink to this item

Newly posted entry in the "running like a business" category, the front page report by Cynthia Sewell and Rocky Barker that Idaho GOP chairman, Eagle councilman and Idaho Water Users Association Executive Director (I'm out of breath just reciting his titles) Norm Semanko has one of his two mortgages carried by the nonprofit IWUA. He says he's working two jobs full-time (plus the unpaid party chairman gig), one of which—the government job—pays $5,610, and the other—the "nonprofit" job—pays about $160,000, just shy of half of the organization's annual income from membership dues paid in by irrigation and water districts, cities, private canal and water companies—an interesting mix of government, business and nonprofit entities.

Norm, on election night some years ago Semanko is running for Eagle Mayor in next month's election, which would upgrade his city-paid income to $30,000 (and make officially a full-time job), but "he says already spends about 40 hours a week on his Eagle City Council work, so the transition to mayor would not pose a problem timewise." And he's been working 80 hours a week for 24 years. "Semanko told the Idaho Statesman if elected he would, at some point, relinquish his Republican Party chairman position," so he does recognize a limit to his boundless energy at 2x full-time.

But let's talk about this sweetheart "investment" the IWUA is carry on its director's behalf. They're getting 6.5% interest, so from that standpoint it is a good deal for them as long as they're OK tying up more than a third of their assets in Semanko's house. A 6.5% mortgage in reasonable proportion to the property value could be sold for a premium, you'd think, but there are a stack of mitigating factors.

It took the IWUA eight years to get around to recording the transaction with Ada County, for some reason. The late 2008 incident when he decided that his daughter's college tuition was a higher priority, and took 5 months off making payments apparently provided the motivation. And two (now-dismissed) disputes with payday loan companies, that can't enhance your credit score.

And the problem of the real estate bubble. After borrowing $136,000 from the IWUA in 2001, and $40,000 more in 2007, he still owes more than $160,000 to them. Not quite "interest only," but pretty close. Toward the bottom of the Idaho Statesman story, we read that his mortgage [singular] was up to $449,532 in 2008, the year after his assessment peaked over half a $mil. For 2011, his assessment is back down closer to a third of a $million, and unless they've changed their pattern of payments, the Semankos are substantially underwater, even if by "mortgage" the story means the sum of the IWUA loan and a regular mortgage on the property.

Speaking of financial issues, an honorable mention (in the "business on a wink, nod, and blind trust" category) has to go to the current board president of the Idaho Water Users Association for her endorsement of her predecessors' actions. "They know a lot more about finances than I do. If they as a group made the choice, then I certainly trust them," she said.

15.Oct.2011 Permanent URL to this day's entry

New math Permalink to this item

The country has a gambling problem. Third quarter campaign finance reports show that people are throwing away millions of dollars on hopeless causes. $8 million to Ron Paul. $3 million to the pizza guy (and he says another $2 million into October). $4 million to Michele Bachmann (who spent 50% more than she raised).

Also an arithmetic problem.

If the L.A. Times' analysis is correct that "More than one-quarter of Romney's donors also hit the contribution limit of $2,500 per person," we need help to understand the Romney campaign's spokesman saying that more than 80% of the donors to the campaign gave less than $250.

Genius. And tyrant Permalink to this item

Ryan Tate tallies up some of what everyone is too polite to say about Steve Jobs, on the principle that "a great man's reputation can withstand a full accounting." The part about censorship and authoritarianism is the least attractive.

(In the "ok, that might be going too far" department on the other side of the ledger, we read that California Gov. Jerry "Moonbeam" Brown declared today "Steve Jobs Day." With a Twitter post, because how else could you possibly do that?)

Honey, the Republicans broke the Senate Permalink to this item

James Fallows deconstructs the false equivalency the because the Senate is broken, everyone's to blame.

"Since Scott Brown's victory over Martha Coakley and the end of the Democrats' 60-vote majority, Mitch McConnell has flat-out won, and (in my view) the prospects of doing even routine public business have lost, by making the requirement for 60 votes for anything seem normal rather than exceptional. And by eventually leading our major media to present this situation as an "everyone's to blame" unfortunate and inexplicable snafu, rather than an intended exercise of political power by one side."

14.Oct.2011 Permanent URL to this day's entry

Vying to lead the free world Permalink to this item

Everything seems simple in Rick Perry's world, although he can turn the reading of a 10-word sentence into a poetic adventure.

"Creating jobs
in America
is as simple
as changing Presidents"

he said on the stump today, with that charming, cute-little-boy incoherent style and the comic timing of a set of Burma Shave signs. Meanwhile, the latest up-and-comer, Herman Cain, is thumping his 9-9-9 plan to wipe away decades' accretion of bureaucratic madness with a simple plan that works pretty well in SimCity so why not roll it out into the real world? Campaigning against any or all of the tax code sounds like a sure winner, although eventually voters can do the math (or listen to others who can) and figure out that a plan to shift taxes from the wealthy to the middle class and make our system a lot less progressive is not very bright.

Mitt Romney is being confronted with new religious tests (in spite of how we're not supposed to have any such thing), and we won't know if he's passing until we find out what comes out from behind those voting booth curtains. I'm no fan of made-up systems of beliefs, but the differences between them tend to be less important than the way the holders behave. The more-Christiany-than-thou group is especially disturbed, and disturbing, acting as if they own the place.

It's just an alternative perspective Permalink to this item

Bonner County, waaaay up north in Ideeho's panhandle (but just shy of Boundary County and the aliens of Canada) appears to have pressed the big red SELF DESTRUCT button, forming a "Property Rights Council" to oversee the mechanics.

The WEBSITE PENDING APPROVAL says the PRC's mission is "to review county government activities and inter-governmental activities to determine whether they may cause adverse impacts to private property rights."

And then what?

Well, with the help of a Tea-Party activist who just landed a new government job (not-quite half-time, $25,000/year), even before the website gets approved or the county commissioners vote on how 7-member council including "a former Republican commission candidate, GOP officials [and one] Planning Commission member,"

"Their first tasks include figuring out how to jettison the historical society, extension agency and county fairgrounds from taxpayer support, [quasi-paralegal T.P. mole Pam] Stout said. ...

"Council members will also vet proposed county watershed rules that could limit junkyards, landfills, feedlots and hazardous materials near Lake Pend Oreille and Priest Lake, to make sure the regulations don't meddle too much in individual freedoms."

Because who wants government meddling with the individual freedom to have a junkyard, landfill, feedlot or hazmat dump near two of the most beautiful lakes in the world, you know what I'm saying?

You could not make this stuff up. It is too incredible.

The council is being advised by the State Policy Network, a free-market California think tank that aims "to push back against an oppressive federal government," according to its website. The Idaho Freedom Foundation, the network's Idaho branch, will teach classes on free-market theories to council volunteers, Stout said, including using a text called "Government Failure" supplied by the libertarian Cato Institute.

California, Idaho, and national anti-government think-tanks teaching a how-to course on Government Failure. What could possibly go wrong?

13.Oct.2011 Permanent URL to this day's entry

An introduction to artificial intelligence Permalink to this item

Ever had that dream where you're late for class, and it's the end of the term, and you haven't actually been attending, and you don't have any idea what the course material is, haven't done any of the work, and OMG what are you going to do?

It's not quite that bad hearing about a course offering for which I'm supposed to sign up "by October 10" today, and I don't actually have to take any courses anyway, but several key words in the LinkedIn email about an online course caught my eye: Stanford, free, Intro to Artifical Intelligence.

About a hundred years ago (ok, maybe it was only 25), I took a Stanford course by that name through their "Stanford Instructional Television Network" distance learning setup. That was back when distributing tele-vision was done by mailing videotapes from California to Idaho. I thought it would be an interesting and worthwhile course (which it didn't actually turn out to be), but two and a half decades later, I imagine it really must be more interesting now, even if AI remains the technology of the future. (The future's getting closer all the time.)

If nothing else, Sebastian Thrun's not-quite two minute introduction is charming, and you can watch it via YouTube embedded in the article about Stanford Engineering professors reinventing online education. He says that two weeks after they announced the class with a single email message, more than ... well, I won't spoil his punchline, you can hear it directly, but suffice it to say he and his teaching teammate have multiplied their reach from the couple hundred students at a time who have taken their class on campus.

Maybe I'll pick it up next term.

12.Oct.2011 Permanent URL to this day's entry

Project for a new century Permalink to this item

Joe Nocera disclaims his column introducing the white paper commissioned by the New America Foundation, saying, "it is impossible to do justice to [it] in this space," but he said enough to pique my interest. While leaders in Congress continue a stalemate by pontificating for dramatic steps and blocking every proposal by the opposition, without action the prognosis is grim. He quotes from two of the paper's three authors:

"Unless we take dramatic steps, it will be Japan all over again. Continuous deflation, no economic growth, in and out of recessions. And high unemployment. It will be like the economic version of chronic fatigue syndrome. A low-grade fever all the time."

Photo: sunset in pumpkins, 2010 The underlying reality is that the workforce of the "developed world" has gone global, and grown fivefold. Nocera:

"That change alone has had a great deal to do with the stagnant wages, income inequality and the oversupply of labor in America that was masked by rising home prices and access to credit. The bursting of the bubble exposed how much the American economy depended on cheap credit. Now that the curtain has been pulled back, cheap credit alone can’t fix our problems. The country is in a deflationary cycle that is very difficult to get out of: as wages decrease (or more workers become unemployed), people become afraid to spend. Assets like homes drop in value. Businesses react by lowering prices and laying off yet more workers—which only triggers a new round of deflation. The only thing that doesn't change is the unsustainably high debt that was accrued during the bubble."

The authors call for drama: a 5 to 7 year program with north of $1.2 trillion for a "sustained infrastructure program" to create jobs and demand. It's a buyer's market, says co-author Robert Hockett, professor of financial law at Cornell and consultant to the New York Federal Reserve:

"Labor costs will never be lower. Equipment costs will never be lower. The cost of capital will never be lower. Why wait?"

Except, um, the nature of a deflationary cycle is that labor costs and equipment costs, at least will be lower. Not that that's good news, or a reason to say no to the idea. The cost of capital might not go lower because it's so close to zero, but somehow zero cost capital is not the same as "readily available," which I understand you'd find out if you're looking for a mortgage loan these days. Not that I'm looking.

Nevertheless, this sounds more worthy than listening to another round of video bites from Congress. The whole report, available for anyone in the world (who reads English) to read: The Way Forward: Moving From the Post-Bubble, Post-Bust Economy to Renewed Growth and Competitiveness.

11.Oct.11 Permanent URL to this day's entry

Irony is alive and kicking Permalink to this item

"Americans deserve more than a clumsy political stunt," says Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. "They deserve better than the same well-rehearsed talking points they've been hearing..."

What he didn't say is when in the heck he's going to deliver on the least little part of what he says Americans deserve.

8.Oct.2011 Permanent URL to this day's entry

I think "maelstrom" was the word you were looking for Permalink to this item

The Opinionator Occupy Wall Street Quiz was not as much fun as The Daily Show's treatment this week, but still and all, it's fun. Match up the "mobs" with the apoplectic Republican leaders decrying them. Then there's the serious talk that must follow, quoting some blogger who I've never heard of (but then he's never heard of me, either), saying that "the dilemma for the Democrats is how they can channel the protests against the Republicans without getting caught up in a generalized anti-government tsunami in 2012."

But no, it's not an earthquake-instigated wall of water that's going to inundate a coastline. It's just a crazy whirlpool and a giant sucking sound, as political opportunists of every stripe do their best to declare their outsiderness so they can get inside. Or stay inside. Never more comical when it's the Republicans complaining about powerlessness, but the company Democrats are getting enough of what they want, apparently, to make their complaints disingenuous, too.

One political animal, Steve Benen scores with a dollop of well-earned ridicule for the House Majority Leader's script, and

"this notion that progressive activists are 'pitting of Americans against Americans.' I'm not sure what that means, exactly, but I suspect the oft-confused Majority Leader believes it's divisive to support economic justice, to demand tax fairness, and to expect responsible corporate conduct."

Government for sale Permalink to this item

In the October 10th "Money Issue" of The New Yorker, Jane Mayer illustrates part of the legacy of the Supreme Court's landmark 2010 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, a "game changer" that puts state legislatures, in particular up for discount purchase, with a return on investment promised through redistricting after the 2010 census.

"According to an analysis by the Institute for Southern Studies, of the twenty-two [North Carolina] legislative races targeted by [conservative multimillionaire James Arthur "Art" Pope], his family, and their organizations, the Republicans won eighteen, placing both chambers of the General Assembly firmly under Republican majorities for the first time since 1870. North Carolina's Democrats in Congress hung on to power, but those in the state legislature, where Pope had focussed his spending, were routed."

That .818 batting average came from spending that comprised ¾ths of the spending by independent groups in the 2010 N.C. state races came from accounts linked to Pope and his pals, showing how much further one can leverage your $2.2 million with a Variety Wholesalers approach. The Pope family's private corporate piggy bank has disgorged twenty times that amount in the past decade to reshape North Carolina's political agenda to match his own, even as he collected tax benefits from cloaking his political advocacy as philanthropy. All perfectly legal, Pope (and the Supreme Court of the United States) assures us. Nothing to see here, just move along.

In Idaho, there's no need to turn a blue state red; we're already as sunburned as any, and buying influence is a time-honored practice. But plenty of money is flowing to "nonprofit" efforts to manipulate policy with "think tank" palaver justifying the particulars of the pro-business, anti-government strategy.

6.Oct.2011 Permanent URL to this day's entry

Remembering Steve Jobs Permalink to this item

"You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart."
Steve Jobs, 2005

Sometime in early 1990, when we were living in a married student apartment in a high-rise at Stanford, one of the events related to my Manufacturing Systems Engineering classes was also attended by Steve Jobs. The room it was in was rather crowded, if not jam-packed with about 50 people. It was informal, with drinks and snacks and no agenda I can recall. I remember the buzz when he showed up with a small entourage that rippled through the room, and I was thinking I'd remember the moment... but for no particular reason. I didn't have any clever questions to ask him, and he would have had no reason whatsoever to take an interest in me. He was halfway between being deposed and reinstated as the head of Apple Computer.

Somebody else's photo, used by ABC News, scraped by me There is a certain unreality about a Famous Person, creating a bubble of separation, I suppose. Our lives felt intertwined to me because of the effect he'd already had on technology, even though his legacy was as quixotic as profound at 35. Unlike a lot of people at Stanford, I hadn't got around to getting a Mac. Back in the high-rise, we had our our second "home computer," and first PC, running Windows 3.1, as well as what was then a high-powered, engineering workstation. Jobs was in the middle of his adventure with Next Inc., later to be swept back into Apple.

On its page about the timeline of his fatal disease, ABC News has a tightly-edited video, "Steve Jobs in 60 seconds," just slightly more in-depth than the crossing of our paths way back when, albeit more interesting to watch than this will be to read.

"Inventor, icon. genius. Steve Jobs gave Silicon Valley its identity," it starts, turning up the hyperbole to 11. The still of Jobs and Wozniak from 1976 is priceless. Woz intent on the electronics, Jobs' stare piercing camera, photographer and now millions of web viewers, 35 years into the future.

Whatever other praises will be heaped upon a man whose faults no longer seem to matter, there is this: he's made our lives a lot more interesting.

4.Oct.2011 Permanent URL to this day's entry

Speaking of morally disqualified Permalink to this item

If there were a God, and She were in the business of saying "Enough," there would be far fewer persons pursuing careers in the Mass Media Moral Scold line of work. But alas, Brian Fischer continues to ply his trade. Cold comfort that he's no longer working out of Idaho and adding to this state's occasionally unhappy history, his move to larger media markets is sad commentary on what occasionally passes for "morality" in our culture.

Gale Courey Toensing, writing on the Indian Country Today Media Network seems to have a mix of horror and fascination about Fischer, understandably enough for someone so fascinatingly horrible.

Right Wing Watch is hoping for "someone, anyone within the GOP or Religious Right to condemn Fischer's relentless bigotry," so far without satisfaction. Will Mitt Romney step up to the job at the Values Voter Summit (co-sponsored by Fischer's employer, the American Family Association) when Romney is in the warm-up slot before Fischer's appearance at this Saturday's plenary session?

Seems as unlikely as Fischer's bizarre notion that the First Amendment only applies to "the Christian religion," because that's what the Founding Fathers were thinking about when they wrote it.

H/t to Dave Oliveria.

Brute force for elegance Permalink to this item

Something I did not know until I read the excerpt of David Bellos' book this morning: how Google Translate works. I've had a bias toward the "familiar" tool that was part of Altavista (and maybe something before that?), now Yahoo!'s, Babelfish, and I never knew how that worked either, but the general caveat that one should use machine translation "only to translate into a language in which you are sure you can recognise nonsense" is familiar, and of course annoyingly useless. I have seen that the two tools deliver different sorts of nonsense (as best I can tell) from time to time.

Anyway, it figures that Google's approach would be to handle as much information as possible and come up with a really smart path to the solution, since that's "all" they've ever done.

For me, the challenge of language is to avoid what Bellows notes speakers at international conferences (and so many others) repeatedly do: "use the same formulaic expressions." A lot of what we have to communicate is old hat, but the least we can do is spark it up a little, to keep the audience awake if nothing else. (Works for book titles too, such as Is That a Fish in Your Ear?: Translation and the Meaning of Everything.)

I wonder how GT does for American to British? Bellows must have purposely tweaked his phrasing for such a book, but there were a few turns in the short excerpt that gave a chuckle. "Translators don't reinvent hot water every day," for example. I've never heard of anyone reinventing hot water. (We reinvent wheels on this side of the pond.)

The basis for GT, that "anything submitted to it has probably been said before" is a rather depressing idea for a writer, no matter how cozy one may find "the great basement that is the foundation of all human activities," common human needs and desires. At the end of the day, I just want to break out of the box, don't you know. Or, as one youngster said after her first experience of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, "I liked it OK, but it was just one cliché after another."

So, we've got one team building electronic bulldozers to churn a very large pre-existing corpus of translations, and we've got the rest of us trying to come up with something new to say. Good luck with that.

3.Oct.2011 Permanent URL to this day's entry

Making your vote count (extra) Permalink to this item

You don't need a million bucks to buy an election any more. If your electoral unit is using Diebold touch-screen technology, it looks like $10.50 will cover it. Or $26 if you want go with the remote control option. Gee, what could possibly go wrong with a fully electronic system that has no physical record of voter action?

Whether it was inspired prescience, dumb luck or going with the low-bidder (I'm guessing a mix of the latter two), Idaho went from punch card ballots after Florida's 2000 Bush v. Gore disaster to using fill-in-the-oval paper ballots and optical scanning. Simple, inexpensive, countable and re-countable. Not a lot of "user interface" instructions needed, and not so many opportunities for invisible hacking.

Sometimes the old ways are better.

Swan song Permalink to this item

I missed the show, but I see NPR has CBS' video of Andy Rooney's farewell on 60 Minutes last night. If my dad were still around, just past his own 92nd birthday, he would have certainly tuned in. More than their age and a certain similarity in appearance, the two of them seemed to be on the same wavelength. My dad was a writer too, although he didn't make a career out of it. He saw it as a way to connect with people, and to share important ideas.

Lt. (jg) Bruce Walthers, 1945, La Jolla, California When he was putting his affairs in order close to the end of his life, that task included collecting the letters his children had written him over the years, and returning tidy packages of them to their senders. In the same way that Rooney spoke of echoing what others' already know, my dad gave us a literal gift of that very thing, our own words, cast off long before the days of locally stored Sent Items and come back to give us a chance to think again.

60 years after his experience serving in the Navy during WW II, dad made another gift of his writing, serializing some memories of his early life and ending with the his time on Kwajalein and then Majuro in 1944-5. He had more in the works that didn't get done. (Chapter 23's teaser was: "There will be a delay in sending the next series of installments to give me time to edit the story and fill in some of the details of the Crossroads Atomic Bomb tests on Bikini.") Here's an excerpt from Chapter 11, and September, 1944:

"Lt (jg) Walthers reporting for transportation, SIR."

I saluted the Officer of the Day aboard the USS Copahee and handed him my orders.

He checked them briefly, found my name on the ship's passenger log and motioned to one of the sailors standing by, "Seaman Jones will show you your quarters. Stow your gear and report to the Wardroom at 1400 hours."

Seaman Jones grabbed my sea bag and led the way, along narrow passageways, stepping high through waterproof doorways from one compartment to another and down several ladders to a cabin on a lower deck on the starboard side of the CVE, a "baby flat top." I knew all the lingo of port, starboard, heads, ladders and decks, but this would be my first time aboard ship—and only as a passenger from San Francisco to Pearl Harbor.

Seaman Jones asked, "Will that be all, sir?" and when I said "Yes", he saluted, turned and left. I threw my sea bag and suitcase on the lower bunk and looked around. This would be my home for the next week. Bunks were three high and I was glad to see that they had real springs. There was some storage space at the end, but there was no desk or chairs. It reminded me of a sardine can. We were allowed only two pieces of luggage. I had three pieces—a suitcase, a sea bag (a canvas duffle bag) and my Royal portable. After struggling for a while, I decided to wear my raincoat and squeeze the typewriter into the duffle bag. It worked, and I got all my gear into the cabin.

I looked at my watch. It was almost 2:00 o'clock—1400 hours—time to find the wardroom. I stuck my head into the passageway and looked one way and then the other. I hadn't the slightest idea where I was, how I got there, or which way to go to find the wardroom (officer’s dining room). It would take me several days to find my way around the ship. ...

2.Oct.2011 Permanent URL to this day's entry

Otherwise occupied Permalink to this item

As the effort to "occupy Wall Street" continues, I suspect I'm not the only one wondering how much of it is recreation and entertainment, and how much the participants think they can make a difference by delivering some well-deserved outrage to oh-so-deserving recipients.

Nicholas Kristof describes the scene, a little, and also gives a short list of suggestions for practical demands. Three items may be more than the attention span of the political elite can handle, but even if we could get one of the three, it would be a positive step. Imposing a financial transactions tax would be a great first step, to introduce some stabilizing friction into markets that are showing increasing instability. There are plenty of arguments in favor of high-frequency trading, mostly advanced by the people who profit from it. But there are no good arguments for letting machines run financial trading systems that enrich a few practitioners at the expense of gigantic exported risks to global economics.

Making banking boring again sounds like a very worthy goal after the not-at-all boring half-decade we've just been through.

1.Oct.2011 Permanent URL to this day's entry

Hot Permalink to this item

Saturday afternoon outdoor recreation today, and I was amazed at how hot it was. It's been getting right up to 90 degrees for the last three days in a row. My tennis buddy spent last night at 7,000' after tromping around looking for big game. He said it was too warm to sleep inside his sleeping bag. No hint of frost in the neighborhood, still plenty of mosquitoes and flies up there. Daisies, the skunk cabbage is still green, and so are the aspens, a week or two after they're usually gone golden. "It looks like August," he said.

Rewarding failure Permalink to this item

I had a college professor who told one class something memorable: "if you're going to fail, at least fail spectacularly." The context was for a design and construction project to throw and catch ping pong balls, I think it was; not exactly spectacular advice for engineering students, but OK for monster truck rallies and contestants on reality shows.

And giant corporation's CEOs, it turns out. If you somehow manage to get the nod (with or without having to interview), you've pretty much got it made.

As far as stockholders are concerned, Léo Apotheker's failure at HP could hardly have been more devestating, but for him personally, it was a heckuva job. $23 million for 11 months' work, thanks to what passes for a "fairly standard termination agreement" these days. (Executive summary: heads I win, tails you lose.)

"Imagine if you were applying for a job, and you said, 'I want to make it clear that if I do a terrible job, I want to walk away with a ton of money.' Do you think you’d get hired? Yet that's now standard practice in negotiating executive compensation."

HP's first departure from the principle of promoting leadership from within came with hiring Carly Fiorina, who certainly carried out her charge to shake things up. The contentious merger with Compaq left that company's CEO, Michael Capellas temporarily "President," but with one of those fabulous compensation deals (hidden from the HP stockholders considering whether to approve the merger, deep in Compaq's paperwork) that guaranteed he'd be out the door with suitcases full of money in less than a year. From Compaq's shareholders point of view, Capellas was probably a hero and deserved the golden parachute; for HP's, not so much.

After a decade of stumbling, is HP ready to turn things around, led by the two outside directors who felt they were the best people to take over? For the many friends and former colleagues still in the company, I hope so. I don't have any other personal stake in the outcome, nor do I have any nostalgic notion that the present-day behemoth with a third of a million employees bears any resemblance to the company I knew and worked for, once upon a time.


Tom von Alten      tva_∂t_fortboise_⋅_org

ISSN 1534-0007

Tuesday, 01-Nov-2011 09:58:48 MDT