Aug 262002

Springsteen is bad. The Cult of Springsteen is worse. You can always pick out those home-grown grassroots up-from-the-bottom types: they’re the ones who show up on the covers of Time and Newsweek before they ever have a hit. Bonus authenticity points for continuing to write from the point of view of the put-upon 25 years after becoming rich and famous.

Aug 252002

Since the word “blog” is scheduled to enter the Oxford English Dictionary its origins are now, officially, a serious matter. As everyone knows, it is a shortened form of “web log.” William Safire tracks it down to Jorn Barger, who created a “Robot Wisdom Weblog” in 1999. Not so fast. Barger always referred to his site as a “weblog” and never used the one-syllable version. In his September 1999 remarks about blogging Barger writes:

A weblog (sometimes called a blog or a newspage or a filter) is a webpage where a weblogger (sometimes called a blogger, or a pre-surfer) ‘logs’ all the other webpages she finds interesting.

Barger certainly doesn’t credit himself with the term blog here, although this may just be out of modesty. (Safire, if you read him carefully, never actually credits him either.)

For the word “blog” as we know it today Peter Merholz, who in April or May of 1999 announced on his home page that he was going to pronounce “weblog” “wee-blog, or blog for short,” seems to have a stronger claim. Merholz has discussed this with the powers that be at the OED, but they require a print source.

Yuk yuk yuk. Still, I see their point. The same flexibility that makes Web so easy to write for makes it the worst possible source for historical citation. I would demand a dead tree source myself.

Aug 232002

James Lileks says there are worse things to go to war over. In case you’re one of the last three people on the web who hasn’t read this do so immediately.

Aug 232002

What’s all this fuss about Dr. Atkins and the government recommendations and whether Gary Taubes does or does not understand nutrition science? We have known for decades about easy-to-follow diets of proven effectiveness. Here are three that are guaranteed to work. It is important to note that, while silly fad diets demand exclusive allegiance, these highly scientific recommendations can be combined, for a powerful synergistic effect leading to even more rapid weight loss.

1. The Smack Diet. The hardest part of the Smack Diet is getting started, overcoming those irrational fears of needles and social stigma. But once you get rolling you’ll find all kinds of unexpected benefits. Your burgeoning new habit will induce you to spend a lot of time alone, mostly in the bathroom, instead of waddling around the mall displaying your unsightly bulges and stretch pants in public. The Smack Diet is also cheaper than the Zone, for a while. And unlike the Zone, it’s 100% effective.

2. The Crack Diet. A couple rocks for breakfast, a couple more for lunch, and a sensible dinner. You’ll keep off the weight. And don’t worry if you have a sudden craving for a few more rocks as a late-night snack. Go ahead and indulge!

3. The Marlboro Diet. Start small, with just 1 or 2 a day. Don’t worry if at first you cough and feel sick: no pain, no gain. Keep at it, and soon you’ll be up to a couple packs a day and well on your way to a svelte new you. And for New York City residents there’s a surprising bonus: at seven bucks and change a pack, you won’t even be able to afford food!

Aug 222002

Today Steven Den Beste, interesting as always, cites Ken Arrow’s result that “all electoral systems are flawed in one way or another.” This is true, as far as it goes, but inexact. More precisely, Arrow proved that no electoral system can, in every case, so long as more than two choices are involved, accurately reflect the subjective preferences of the electorate. Still more precisely, he proved that no election can meet all of a fairly long list of plausible-sounding “fairness conditions.” Den Beste confuses two kinds of failure when he writes:

The same thing goes for electoral systems. No matter which you consider, it is always possible to construct a scenario where it fails and clearly gets the wrong answer. Arrow proved it. What you do, instead, is to try to make sure that failures are rare, and the consequences of them are not serious. Ideally you’d like to engineer the electoral system in such a way that structurally it is resistant to critical failures, but that may not be possible and it may be necessary to get above the level of signal processing and start applying semantic filtration.

In the case of the American electoral system, the founders decided that there were certain specific issues which were much too important to risk. The consequences of failure in these areas was perceived to be so great that even if the chance of failure was low, it had to be prevented. So they passed the Bill of Rights.

Arrow’s result assumes mob rule, electoral preference, to be the desideratum: he addresses himself to means, not ends. The Founders had larger considerations. They designed the Bill of Rights to protect certain liberties against mob rule. If the American electorate votes to repeal, say, freedom of assembly, this is a catastrophe, but not a “failure” by Arrow’s lights. I agree with Den Beste about “the wisdom of the Founders to put certain decisions beyond the reach of the normal electoral process” and I share his preference for “a system with a high degree of noise rejection,” but these questions have nothing to do with group decision theory. Suppose it were possible to design a “perfect” election, in the Arrovian sense. Wouldn’t the Bill of Rights still be an excellent idea?

Aug 212002

Curated by Alex Boese, who claims that most of the good ones that are missing (like my favorite, Spectrism) will be in his book, and I believe him. The 20th century was the Golden Age of the Hoax. Most of Marcel Duchamp’s career, for instance. Or all of Andy Warhol’s.

Aug 202002

Norah Vincent has a new blog, and she complains straightaway that the trouble with the media is that they’re too doctrinaire! Not “ecumenical” enough. No, seriously:

Why does not a single sustainable and consistently non-doctrinaire editorial/op-ed page exist in any newspaper in this country? (The Washington Post is the closest we come.) Why is there not a single opinion journal or magazine out thereon the web or in printthat truly cant be pegged as liberal or conservativeand usually rigidly so?
Every publication has a mission, and none of them is, as one editor I know called it, ecumenical. Theyve all got an agenda, a bias, a slant, and in some cases a virtual campaign of rhetorical terror that would hark back to the days of yellow journalism, if only it were so honest.

Passing briefly over “a virtual campaign of rhetorical terror,” which is in pretty bad taste, we see a startlingly naked plea for what Harold Ickes once called “a wide-open mind.” It is not possible to approach a topic de novo, and it wouldn’t be advisable even if it were. One reasons about politics, or any other subject, by applying some general principles to the matter at hand. These go by many names, pejorative and otherwise — agenda, slant, bias, ideology, doctrine, dogma — sometimes they’re true, sometimes false, but principles are still indispensable. Now it is perfectly just to complain that certain publications — let’s say The New York Timeshide their ideology, or are so smug as to believe that they have no ideology, because everyone (who’s anyone) thinks the way they do. (Vincent aptly names this “The Echo Chamber Effect.”) This isn’t her chief gripe, however. She cites The New Republic and National Review by name. Both of these magazines have an ideology, but neither exactly skulks about in disguise. As for The New Republic, which Mickey Kaus accurately describes as “left on welfare, right on warfare,” is it rigidly liberal or rigidly conservative? How about Reason? The Atlantic? Slate even?

Vincent proceeds to claim that people who own opinion journals are actually interested only in lobbying politicians and buying votes:

Private money keeps most journals going, and not even a multi-billionaire with nothing else to spend his thrift on is going to waste millions every year on something so noble as ideas for their own sake. Thats not what his magazine is for. Its to further his ideological agenda and, if all goes according to plan, to buy hefty political influence in one of the few remaining ways that John McCain wont ever be able to get his hands on. Opinion. Real votes are being bought. Real politicians being lobbied. Thats the only thing that makes these journals worth the money their owners spend on them, I suspect.

Turns out people write opinion pieces in magazines and newspapers to persuade readers to change their, uh, opinions. And this whole sneaky process is bankrolled by the owners, who may even have “ideological agendas” of their own. Golly, I never knew.

According to Vincent, though, we readers are too stupid to change our minds anyway:

The sad truth is that most of us subscribe to magazines and newspapers because we need them to tell us what we think. Remember the voir dire process when you went to do jury duty? Did the lawyers ask you what magazines you subscribe to? If so they did it because its a thumbnail, and for my money, a remarkably reliable way, to get a sense of who you are and what you think. Most of us dont want to be challenged. Were not intellectually secure or curious enough to want to know what the other guy thinks.

Alert to my multi-billionaire readers, and you know who you are: don’t bankroll newspapers and magazines! You’re wasting your cash!

But enough. Vincent has objectivity exactly backwards. It consists in examining your principles, changing them if necessary, making them explicit, and applying them rigorously. “Balance” and “ecumenicism” are J-school bugaboos. Give me more good honest ideology, not less.