Archive for February 2010

Syndicated Content Kills

In the multiverse there are several “me”s that are bonafide journalists. If it hadn’t been for a serious case of shyness – and a well-timed appearance of a girl – in this universe, I would have gone to the University of Missouri – Columbia and studied journalism. But I’m sure in quite a few universes I’m running around chasing down stories and writing under a byline.

Of course in most of those universes I would have switched careers by now to public relations because journalism – especially newspaper journalism – is dying.

John Dvorak at PCMag.com has an interesting take on why newspaper journalism is circling the drain.

What really killed the papers was their dependency on classified ads. Along came Craigslist, and boom, the classifieds were decimated—and so too were the papers. To save money, publishers cut writers and used more syndicated material than ever. It was like attempting to fix a flat by letting the air out of the rest of the tires.

Many papers began producing a crappy product with no local value. The Internet, radio, and TV all served the public better. Worse, what staff was left on the paper all seemed politically motivated in a very singular, unbalanced, and preachy way. It had no appeal for readers.

His take is that the syndication and the attempted takeover of local newspapers by the big coast dailies that it fostered is really what killed newspaper journalism. Pre-Internet I used to read two or more daily newspapers a day; but I haven’t touched a daily newspaper in probably a decade or so. In Delaware I was frustrated by the lack of local news. The local paper had national and international stories that I could get anywhere, but the local stories I was interested in weren’t there – probably because it cost too much to pay reporters to write it. Cheaper to outsource journalism to the New York Times or the Los Angeles Times. But then why would I buy the Delaware paper? Here in rural North Carolina there aren’t any daily local newspapers – just weeklies. And they are actually a good read because they are 100% local.

The Council Has Spoken: February 26, 2010

Congratulations to this week’s winners.

Council: Soccer DadCry havoc and let slip the fog of (agw) lore

Noncouncil: Michael Yon/Big GovernmentWhispers

Full voting here.

Oh, Oh, We’re Screwed

How A New Jobless Era Will Transform America

One of the best articles I’ve read in a long time. I heard an interview with Don Peck the writer on NPR of all places. Yes, I do listen to NPR - in the same way that I used to read the English version of Pravda and catch an occasional broadcast of Radio Pyongyang on shortwave: because it’s important to keep up with the propaganda used by one’s opponents.

How Global Warming Alarmists Irreparably Damaged Science

I keep telling myself that the unwinding of the greatest scientific hoax since Piltdown Man is proof of the power of Science, that no matter how hard conspirators try to hide it, eventually the Truth comes out. As an anthropogenic global warming (AGW) skeptic (not a climate change denier – I don’t deny that climate changes; a basic understanding of natural history is enough to prove that) I’ve been relieved to see reality justify my faith in Science on the topic. But I’m wondering how much damage the AGW alarmists have caused.

We’re not talking about the failures of one man but of rationality itself as an entire generation of intelligent, educated, and hardworking people were fooled into perpetuating what is at heart not a simple mistake but a bald lie. As the supposed scientific evidence for that lie falls one domino after another I’m beginning to wonder where the domino chain will end and how scientists will rebuild the trust squandered by the politicization of their discipline. Those of us who grew up on a steady diet of Isaac Asimov always believed that a world run by scientists would be a better world than we have today, that the banishment of irrationality by those steeped in the tools of logic could lead us into a Golden Age.

What we believers ignored was the dark side of science, the venality of faculty meetings, the anonymous character assassinations in journal refereeing, the naked power present from faculty advisors forcing their graduate students to work on their own pet projects and ignoring the needs of their charges all the way up the food chain to science committees advising presidents and prime ministers. The global warming alarmists have made it impossible for us to ignore the dark side of science, and in so doing all science becomes suspect.

The issue is not that science changes. Science itself is dynamic, and to reflect that change scientists must never forget John Maynard Keynes’s statement to a questioner who claimed his position on monetary policy flip-flopped during the Depression: “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?” Each should strive to keep an open mind, but balance that need with healthy skepticism. When that skepticism is lost, and as in the case of anthropogenic global warming used as a pejorative, scientists debase their own discipline and become no better than the propagandists and politicians they believe themselves better than.

The CIA claimed that Saddam Hussein was building nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. The claim was used to justify the invasion and occupation of Iraq, but those weapons were never found. Two years ago the CIA claimed that Iran was not building nuclear weapons. Yet even Iran’s sympathizers in the IAEA say that Iran has an active nuclear weapons program. How can we trust the CIA anymore? Since bad information is worse than no information it would be better for the CIA to be disbanded after its 60 year run and replaced by a more effective intelligence tool.

It’s interesting to note that the CIA’s recent mistakes stem from its increasing politicization (the intelligence leaks that undermined the Bush administration’s foreign policy) just as the global warming alarmists have exchanged the laboratories and lecture halls for UN negotiating tables and Congressional hearings.

The trouble is that we can replace the CIA but it’s nearly impossible to replace the alarmists. We can embarrass them and cause a few resignations here or there but for the most part we’re stuck with them for the foreseeable future. They will just continue to politicize science and people will tune them out just as they tune out other political voices. And in the end when there is truly an emergency that scientists agree on – say a future collision of an asteroid with the earth for example – they will be ignored.

It’s rare these days to see the term “global warming” preceded or followed by the the term “consensus” as if this word alone makes global warming unassailable. Besides being a fallacy the usage of a subjective term “consensus” to describe a scientific hypothesis merely suggests its weak underpinnings. We don’t talk about the consensus of Newtonian physics or the quantum physics consensus. We don’t have to appeal to popularity in order to prove these ideas. We have solid experimental evidence supporting them. Historically science has had numerous agreements on principles and ideas that were later proven wrong. Steady state universe consensus? Wrong. The consensus supporting the geosyncline theory of that explained sea animal fossils on mountain tops? Replaced by plate tectonics.

Science isn’t about perfection. The people who believed that the stars and planets moved through ether weren’t fools or bad scientists. Their work advanced Science until it reached a point where a new idea explained the universe better than existing ones; in the case of the ether theory, Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. It’s not as important to be right than it is to be methodical and skeptical of one’s evidence and results. This is a basic tenet of science that today’s climate scientists have lost. These people should be stripped of the term “scientist” to protect the reputation of scientists who don’t fall victim to fads.

The Council Has Spoken: February 19, 2010

Congratulations to this week’s winners.

Council: JoshuapunditLife 2.0

Noncouncil: M. Zhudi Jasser @ DCFailing at force protection: The misguided Pentagon report on the Ft. Hood massacre

Full voting here.

Anti-Government Psychos

Last week it was Amy Bishop (faculty page). This week it’s Andrew Stack.

It’s hard for me to sympathize with a guy who ends his Unabomberish screed with “The Communist Creed: from each according to his ability, to each according to his need. The Capitalist Creed: from each according to his gullibility, to each according to his greed,” before flying his personal plane into a building. Yep, the guy’s life was ruined by the government but evidently not by enough to prevent him from affording a private plane.

See you in hell, Andy.

UPDATE: Stack’s daughter Samantha Bell calls her father a hero for his actions.

Asked during a phone interview broadcast Monday if she considered her father a hero, she said: “Yes. Because now maybe people will listen.”

The man Stack killed in the office, Vernon Hunter, survived two tours in Vietnam. So let’s see… Vietnam vet on one hand, wealthy whining middle aged guy on the other.

Sorry Samantha, but the man your father murdered is the true hero in this saga. Your father is just a douchebag.

Of Chinese Wheelbarrows and Iran’s Nuclear Weapons Program

I have been wanting to write about China for a very long time. My interest in China predates my interest in Japan by several years. I began studying the Chinese language my freshman year of high school and continued studying it through high school although I never reached more than a rudimentary ability with it. By studying the language I became exposed to Chinese culture and its rich (and lengthy) history. But in college I got caught up in the “Rising Sun” fad and switched my focus to Japan.  I ended up getting a degree related to that nation and spent most of the 1990s there.

My personal experience with Japan has made me deeply skeptical of the current thinking that China will supplant the United States as the world’s great superpower. But that doesn’t mean that we should ignore what Beijing does and act as if its economy is going to cool and its leaders are going to mellow. Far from it. We need to seriously consider what motivates the Chinese and how their viewpoint on everything from foreign relations to economic globalization differs from our own.

I recently bought a wheelbarrow at a home and garden chain, spending about $90 on a model that was three times the cost of the cheapest one sold there. It came completely disassembled and was made in China – as was every wheel barrow sold there and at all the home stores in the area. I wasn’t intimidated by the fact that I had to put it together in the least. I have assembled things from Ikea furniture to servers and everything in between. But after an hour this thing is still sitting on the porch unfinished.

Shoddy workmanship that cut corners to save pennies or even fractions of pennies made putting it together an exercise in frustration. For example, instead of punching square holes into the metal to match the square locking heads above the threads, the Chinese company drilled round holes in the wheelbarrow pan. This may have saved the company a few tenths of a cent per pan, but it made stripping the screws inevitable as they spun when bolted and dug out the metal hole to the diameter of the locking head. Other metal pieces hadn’t been pressed properly, forcing me to bend them and shape them into place. The warning “Do not tighten nuts until you have completed assembly of all parts,” appears before step 1 of the five step assembly instruction. The reason for this warning is the ill-fitting, poorly machined parts. If everything was machined properly everything would fit together properly and it wouldn’t matter when bolts were tightened.

This is a wheelbarrow – a tool designed for a very simple chore: hold and haul yard waste and dirt around. But its very existence is indicative of much more.

When did America stop making wheelbarrows and did anyone beside the workers who made them notice? It’s quite possible that Americans built shoddy wheelbarrows; after all I only drive Japanese branded cars (some made in America, by the way) because I got tired of the American ones I owned dying at 40,000 or 50,000 miles. But the Honda I drive is 10 years old and on its way to 200,000 miles; it is a much better car than the Chrysler I pushed into the dealership to trade in at 50,000 miles. Thanks to globalization I got a better car.

But this wheelbarrow isn’t better than the American ones I grew up. My parents had an all metal wheelbarrow that lasted over 20 years. Looking at this Chinese made wheelbarrow, I’ll give it five – and that is if I can fix the stripped hole in the pan. Here globalization has taken away a better product and replaced it with a poorly made one.

It’s not just wheelbarrows. I don’t shop at Ikea anymore because I got tired of throwing away my purchases after two or three years. When we moved the moving company made us sign a waiver absolving them of damage to Ikea furniture. Luckily for us there was little left.

Globalization is supposed to allow choice, but when I searched at several stores yesterday for a better made, preferably American-made wheelbarrow, I couldn’t find one. All were made in China to the same sloppy standards and often by the same manufacturers.

North Carolina used to be a state known for furniture manufacturing. The industry is gone today, and the empty factories litter the landscape. Our family has given up buying new furniture and we now shop in second hand and antique stores looking for solid, well-made wood furniture. Try to buy solid furniture today, and you’ll find that you have deal directly with carpenters and small outlets that specialize in Amish made furniture.

Even countries like Mexico are feeling the pinch. Many of the jobs that left the USA for cheap labor there have moved on to China. When I find products made there or in other nations like Brazil, Honduras or Colombia it’s a relief from the guilt that underlays all my transactions with the Middle Kingdom. That guilt derives from supporting a nation that has chosen to become an adversary of the United States in all areas.

Being a communist country, China takes a Marxist view of the free market. Whereas free marketeers emphasize the win-win nature of basic economic exchanges, China views such transactions as zero-sum with a winner and a loser.

A free market capitalist will say that in the sale of my wheelbarrow I exchanged $90 that I didn’t need for a wheelbarrow that I did need. From my perspective as a buyer, I give away something that I don’t want in exchange for something I do want. The sale is a “win” for me. Conversely the Chinese company through the retailer sells me a wheelbarrow that it needs less than my cash. The sale is therefore a win for the manufacturer.

Marxists don’t see it that way. In their view I lose part of my wealth in exchange for a piece of junk. I am made less wealthy through by the transaction, whereas the Chinese company gets wealthier. Since money is power in capitalism, as an American I am weakened while the Chinese nation is made stronger.

China views all transactions this way, not just economic ones. This zero sum nature of relations hearkens back to its colonial period when under occupation by Germany, Great Britain and Japan China was forced into political and economic circumstances that were to the benefit to the occupiers and to the detriment of China.  It explains the deep nationalism that drives China in its relationship to the outside world, and its knee-jerk reaction to do the opposite of whatever the United States or other major power proposes.

The North Korean problem isn’t an American or a Korean problem; it’s a Chinese problem. Imagine an unstable Mexico run by a hermit with a taste for Russian hookers, Chivas Regal, and nuclear missiles. Would the United States expect the European Union or Russia to handle the situation? Absolutely not. These nations would expect the United States to intervene and stabilize its region. Yet for some reason American, Russian and European leaders allow China to ignore the North Korean problem and use Kim jong-il for its own advantage. North Korea therefore becomes a tool to weaken the outside powers to the benefit of China since in China’s view,  that weakness makes China stronger.

Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons has even rattled its traditional supplier the Russians who recently have come around to supporting stronger sanctions against the Teheran regime. But in the zero sum world of Chinese foreign policy, whatever the Western powers propose must be resisted, drawing China closer to Iran.

China cannot imagine a system whereby both sides win or both lose. This basic failure of imagination on the part of its leaders make China a difficult power to deal with, especially by foreigners who fail to appreciate the Chinese point of view or understand its underlying mindset.

UPDATE: I took the wheelbarrow back to the home improvement store and picked up the cheapest one they had – a $30 model. I figured that if all the wheelbarrows were poor quality, I may as well spend as little as possible on one. I gave it to the Kid to assemble, and he dutifully followed the instructions. Step three called for two 3” carriage bolts, but the box only contained one – and an extra 2 1/4” bolt that wasn’t long enough. So I’m going to call the store and see if they can Fedex me a screw since I won’t be in the neighborhood anytime soon.

The Council Has Spoken: February 13, 2010

Congratulations to this week’s winners.

Council: American DigestBarack Obama: Imaginary Friend of Democrats. Cause and Cure.

Noncouncil: American DigestBarack Obama: Imaginary Friend of Democrats. Cause and Cure.

Full voting here.

The Emptiness at the Heart of Facebook

Like many people I have been messing around with social networking on Facebook. It’s kind of fun finding out what your old friends have been doing, and keeping in contact with current friends is much easier through built in messaging and chat programs. But I’m beginning to wonder what the limits of the technology are, and whether we’re already having our faces pushed into them.

Facebook is like masturbation. It feels good while you’re doing it, but it leaves you feeling empty afterward. Most of the chatter is inane. Does anyone really care what I’m thinking most of the time? Hell, I don’t care about what I’m thinking most of the time so why would anyone else? The applications are time wasters, and the quizzes make those found in Cosmo look like GRE, LSAT and MCAT prep questions by comparison. Join a group or become a fan of something and your inbox will never be the same. You’ve just allowed a tide of spam to wash into your inbox that sends your crackberry vibrating like a sex toy in a porn movie.

If you’re looking for meaningful conversation, good luck. The level of discourse seems to be inversely proportional to the weight of the subject. Mention the weather or clothing and people will respond with footnoted and well-considered treatises. Say something about politics or religion and the comments become shallower than Britney Spears’s gene pool.

It encourages shallow commentary by the 420 character (85 word) post limit. That’s 3x longer than Twitter’s 140 character limit and makes Twitter look two dimensional by comparison. Still, that limit is too short when we have something interesting to say, and too long when we don’t.

There’s a reason why we lose contact with old friends: we’ve changed and so have they. I believe it’s a conceit on our part to expect that we still have something meaningful to say beyond reminiscing about the past. Relationships have natural lifespans; some last decades while others last only days or weeks. Most fall somewhere in between, but Facebook doesn’t recognize this. It assumes that everyone we met and befriended in our lives is exactly the way they were when we met them, and worse, that we haven’t changed either.

The Jesus Trailer

The Wife had an elderly patient who had been married sixty-eight years. On his property he had a mobile home completely filled with paintings and figures of Jesus Christ. His wife called it his “Jesus trailer.” “Whenever I go in there, I feel like I’m being lifted up high in the air,” he once said. He offered to show the Wife the trailer, and although she isn’t religious she thought it might be fun to take him up on the offer sometime when the weather improved on the mountain.

Tonight she found his chart laying on a table with the word “deceased” written across it. He had passed away a few weeks ago while she was gone.

Sympathy for the Devil

Symbols Aren’t Leaders

Saturday Night Live recently did a skit listing Obama accomplishments with 60 votes – 3 whip up the screen. The mainstream media has taken up the meme that President Obama’s failures are due to America becoming ungovernable. The problem is not with the system. The problem is with the man elected by the system to lead.

Those of us who opposed his candidacy from the outset were written off as racists by his supporters. Instead of listening to us and considering our opinions, they brushed us off as ignorant red necks who hated black people. They never were broad minded enough to take our criticism seriously.

We pointed out that Obama had leaped from one elected to position to another with the help of powerful patrons, and that he had not done much in any of his positions. We worried about placing someone with no executive decision making experience into the nation’s highest office where all he would do was make executive decisions. We pointed out how he was all things to all men – a cipher that eventually would be forced to reveal himself because there was simply no where else for him to go. There was no higher office than the one he coveted, so he would finally be forced to perform the job he was hired to do.

His supporters were caught up in the symbolism of electing a black man to the nation’s highest office. While they called opponents like me racists, they were the ones focused on race. They weren’t in love with Obama’s policies; they were in love with themselves for supporting a black man in his quest for power. It alleviated the guilt they have carried throughout their lives for being born white.

Being black doesn’t make you a good leader. Cities from New York to Chicago have had black mayors, yet they’ve proven to be just as corrupt as the white men and a woman (in the case of Chicago) they’ve replaced. But this was a reality that was forgotten in the symbolism of electing a black president to electing a nation that had once dragged black people to its shores in chains.

Symbols often make terrible leaders, especially when they symbolize such shallow and selfish desires of those who follow them. Usually symbols succeed when they are leaders first who become symbols due to fate. Winston Churchill was already a skilled leader when the Blitz rained terror from the skies in England. His tenacity and calm facing the ferocity of the German war machine made him a symbol of a people that would “fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.” Even Gandhi knew that as a symbol of Indian independence he needed the political acumen of Jawaharlal Nehru to actually lead the Indian people after independence.

Perhaps Obama already knows this. It could explain why he outsourced health care reform to Congress instead of creating a plan of his own and exercising his leadership to sell it to Congress and the American people. Maybe he simply didn’t know how to lead the effort because he never had to lead before. Similarly the months of fretting over the surge of troops in Afghanistan can be best explained by a neophyte leader better at being a symbol than in making decisions. Why had the decision taken so long – especially one which enjoyed broad bi-partisan support? Maybe it’s not because it upset his pacifist supporters as some on the right – including me – have alleged; perhaps it took so long because he simply lacked the experience of making timely difficult decisions.

For the past year I have been attributing his decision making failures to complex reasons like trying to move the country hard to the left. Instead a simpler explanation and one that may fit the facts better is that President Obama is a man who is a great symbol but a terrible leader.

America isn’t ungovernable after all. Obama is simply a bad leader. It’s not the first time America has had bad leaders in its highest elected office. Even Obama’s personal hero Abraham Lincoln stumbled badly in his first years in office, first by preventing the breakup of the Republic and later by outsourcing the war to incompetent generals. He was only redeemed in the final years of his presidency.

Can Obama do the same? Lincoln faced reality and changed how he governed. At this point in his presidency I do not see President Obama doing the same. He is too quick to blame others and unable or incapable of recognizing his own faults. President Jimmy Carter had a similar problem, and those of us who remember his Hamlet-like deliberations in the White House Rose Garden see more similarities between him and Obama than between Abraham Lincoln and our current president.

Nancy Pelosi Was Right in 2003…

And right today if she had the guts to say to Obama what she had said to Bush:

“The fact is that President Bush’s misguided economic policies have failed to create jobs. Since President Bush took office, the country has lost 3.2 million jobs, the worst record since President Hoover. And today we learned that in July nearly half a million people gave up looking for a job.”

Meanwhile Obama used the number of half a million people giving up searching for jobs as proof that “we are climbing out of an economic hole.”

But Nancy doesn’t have guts – or convictions for that matter – so she didn’t take President Obama to task in the same way she had President Bush even when the job losses under Obama are far worse than under Bush: 8.4 million vs. 3.2 million. So Obama’s hole is almost 3x deeper.

The Council Has Spoken: February 5, 2010