Adam Rice

My life and the world around me

Page 3 of 108


I’ve been doing a lot of reading about guns lately. No surprise. I’m going to round up some of the more interesting stuff I’ve read and look for some common threads.

The Constitution

First is this detailed analysis of the Second Amendment by Gary Wills. He digs deep into the language, history, and politics prevailing at the time it was written. He also demolishes the modern interpretation that it is saying anything at all about gun ownership by individuals, or that it is meant to create an armed populace to guard against tyranny. What it is nominally about is state militia in distinction to a standing army; England didn’t even have a standing army at the time, instead raising an army when the king wanted to start a new military adventure. So the conflict between armies and militias represented the tension between the king, and his ability to tax, and the aristocracy, and their desire not to support a standing army (this also plays into the third amendment). The U.S. Constitution in its body (not the amendments) clearly established both a standing army and militia, and Wills argues that Madison wrote the Second Amendment mostly to placate political opponents, since it doesn’t create, allow, or disallow anything not already in the Constitution. Anyhow, don’t take my word for it. It’s long but worth reading.

The idea that the Second Amendment originally was intended to show support for state militias is echoed in this much shorter article, which makes the point that our modern interpretation that it ensures individual gun ownership stems from the Reconstruction period, when Republicans were suspicious of local militias in the south, and wanted to de-emphasize their rights.

I’m not a constitutional originalist (though I suspect many gun-rights supporters would say that they are). I think the Constitution needs to be interpreted both in the spirit it was intended and against the circumstances of the day. What we’re seeing here is not a reinterpretation, it’s a reinvention.

The gun life

This essay by someone who got a concealed-carry permit was an eye-opener for me. I was already familiar with the argument that gun ownership was patriotic in that it kept the federal government in line. I don’t buy this a bit—I think of this as the “Wolverines Fantasy,” and I don’t believe those fantasists would stand a chance in a fight against the U.S. military.

What I wasn’t familiar with was the notion that carrying a gun around was somehow civic-minded, because you were always on guard and ready to help out your fellow man against bad guys. As the author describes it, being in this on-guard state—”condition yellow” he calls it—seems exhausting and ultimately feeds into a view of humanity too dismal even for a cynic like myself.

This message makes another point: that the nature of gun ownership has changed in the writer’s lifetime. Guns were once mostly for hunting or sport. Now they’re overwhelmingly for “personal protection.” This is corroborated by Nate Silver’s observation that the demographics of gun ownership have changed: 40 years ago, Republicans were a little more likely than Democrats to own guns, but not by a lot. Today, the difference is so great that it’s a more reliable indicator of party identity than just about anything else.

The changes in the nature of gun ownership, and in who owns guns, go hand in hand. As TNH writes:

Americans love owning guns because it lets them pretend their safety isn’t a function of our shared society. They should grow up.

This fits perfectly with Reagan’s aphorism that “government is the problem.”

More guns

Jenny has said that “The solution to free speech [ie, speech you disagree with] is more free speech [ie, you speaking your piece].” And I agree with that.

In the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting, a number of people are arguing essentially that “the solution to guns [ie, in the hands of Adam Lanza. Or James Holmes. Or Jared Loughner. You get the idea] is more guns [ie, in the hands of schoolteachers. Or innocent bystanders.].”

I reject that argument.

Arizona has lax gun laws. If you’re in Arizona and you want to carry a gun, the state isn’t going to do much to get in your way. That didn’t help Gabby Giffords or the 17 other people around her who were shot by Jared Loughner. As I understand it, the one person on the scene who did have a concealed-weapon license almost shot a cop instead.

This is generally the case in the USA: there’s only one state, Illinois, that won’t issue any kind of concealed-hangun permit at all. And there’s approximately one gun for every man, woman, and child in the country. In short, if you want a gun, you can have one. Short of mandating gun ownership (which I hope would offend the libertarian sensitivities of many gun-rights advocates), we can’t make them much more accessible. And yet, the rate of gun ownership in this country has generally been declining, even though support for restricting gun rights has also been declining.

Of course, there are some places where you can’t have guns. Like schools. Which is why some people are advocating that we should remove restrictions on where guns can be carried. Again, I reject that argument. Nidal Hasan went on a shooting rampage at Fort Hood—a military base—and killed 13 people. This is a place filled with people who are trained in using guns, are comfortable around guns, and are in possession of guns. But in fact, only MPs are allowed to carry guns around on base. Let’s set aside the caustic effect that an environment with armed teachers might have on schoolchildren. It is ludicrous to suggest that an organization focused on educating children should have looser restrictions on guns within its own facilities than one focused on making war.

More guns didn’t help Nancy Lanza, Adam’s mother, who had a collection and reportedly was an avid shooter.

I would like to think that a concealed-carry permit brought with it certain responsibilities and would require some training not only in responsible gun ownership but also in conflict de-escalation, that sort of thing. Not in Florida, where, as far as I can tell, there are almost no requirements. If you’re not a felon, the police will issue you a permit, no special training required (then again, judging by the Atlantic article I linked to earlier, what training there is seems to consist mostly of cheerleading for carrying a gun). Which might explain why Michael Dunn, who was carrying with a permit, shot and killed Jordan Davis for playing the radio in his car too loudly. Firing 8 or 9 shots at point-blank range and hitting his target with 2. Not only a completely irresponsible use of a gun, but a lousy shot. This is not the kind of guy I want around doing his “civic duty” to protect me from bad guys. This is just one anecdote, but it serves to illustrate a larger trend: more guns, more violence.

Phone report

Gwen and I decided to update to the new iPhone 5, and along with that, I decided to switch carriers to Verizon. We’d previously been with AT&T, and Verizon was the one service that neither one of us had ever tried.

AT&T has notoriously bad service in San Francisco and New York from what I understand, but I had never had any trouble with them in Austin—except when there’s a big event in town that brings an influx of tens of thousands of visitors (and they’ve actually gotten pretty good about dealing with that). They do have lousy service out in the sticks—when I was riding the Southern Tier, I went a couple of days at a time without a signal. Verizon has better coverage in remote areas, including the site where Flipside is held, and now that I’m on the LLC, it will be more important for people to be able to reach me easily out there.

But so far, Verizon in Austin is not so great. I had no signal at all when I was inside Breed & Co on 29th St the other day. And Gwen had no data signal at Central Market on 38th St. And sound quality on voice calls seems to be worse than AT&T’s (this could be the phone itself, but I suspect it’s a voice codec issue). Usually, when I am getting a signal, it’s with LTE data, which is very fast. So there’s that.

And while I always felt that AT&T regarded me as an adversary, Verizon seems to regard me as a mark, which is even more galling than the poorer coverage. Immediately after signing up, I started getting promotional text-message spam from them. Apparently this can be disabled if you do the electronic equivalent of going into a sub-basement and shoving aside a filing cabinet marked “beware of the panther.” We also have those ARPU-enhancing “to leave a callback number…” messages tacked onto our outgoing voicemail greetings; some research showed that there are ways to disable this that vary depending on what state you live in (!), but none of them have worked for me so far. I’ve put in a help request. And every time I log into their website (mostly to put in help requests to deal with other annoying aspects of their service), they pop up some damn promotion that’s irrelevant to me. Like “get another line!”. Out of all the mobile carriers, the only one that I liked dealing with was T-mobile—but they’ve got the poorest coverage in Austin (I had to walk 2 blocks away from Gwen’s old place to get a signal), or anywhere else for that matter. As a friend who worked in the mobile-phone industry for years put it “They all suck.”

No complaints about the phones. I haven’t really tried out some of the new hardware features, like Bluetooth 4.0. The processor is much faster. The screen is noticeably better than on the iPhone 4, in addition to being bigger. People bitch about Apple’s Maps app. In Austin, I haven’t had any trouble with it, and in any case, Maps+ is available to give you that Google Maps feeling (in Iceland, I found that neither Apple Maps nor Google Maps had a level of granularity down to the street address—the best they could do was find the street).

Iceland trip, random observations

The nicest thing I can say about most of the architecture is that it’s pragmatic. But it generally lacks grace, decoration, fun, etc. Many of the historic buildings are clad in corrugated sheetmetal (sometimes painted a fun color, usually not). I’ve been surprised by how little stone is used as a building material, either structural or cladding. Because one thing Iceland has in abundance is rocks. We did see some interesting residential architecture in the high-rent neighborhood on the coast, but that’s it.

Regular gas is 95 octane. Premium is 98. Not sure why so high. It’s also about 3x as expensive as in the USA, which is no surprise.

Motorists are unfailingly polite to pedestrians, which causes me no end of confusion. For that matter, they’re very polite with other motorists—cars honking at each other are very rare.

Reykjavik has some excellent used book stores. One pretty big, rambling place, with books piled everywhere, including the floor. I suspect many of the books there have been in that shop for more timed than they haven’t. We found another, smaller and somewhat more orderly, where Gwen bought some interesting-looking old books.

There’s a massive swimming complex a few blocks away. Indoor olympic-sized pool, and outdoor, and a series of hot tubs in temperatures stepping from 38°–42°C, plus a saltwater hot tub. All of these were in heavy use when we went last night—we worked our way up and then down the temperature gradient, and Gwen put in a few laps.

The sun never gets very high in the sky, at least not at his time of year. So at 11:00 AM, something in my brain is telling me that it will be sunset soon.

Tourism is a big deal here. In a country of 320,000 people, they get 600,000 visitors a year. And apparently most of them come during the high season of May–September. A lot of stuff just shuts down the rest of the year. Which leads us to wonder what all the people with seasonal employment do the rest of the year.

Reykjavik apparently has a notorious late-night party scene. We noticed one place had happy hour from 8:00 to midnight, after which things start heating up. We went out to check out the crazy on Saturday night, but by 1:30 AM, things just weren’t that crazy yet, and we decided we didn’t need to stay out any later to watch it happen.

I knew that the level of English ability here is very high, but it’s been interesting to experience it. I’ve only spoken with one person with halting English. Everyone else has spoken it comfortably, and a lot of people speak it as if they’d been raised in an English-speaking country—there’s something about the speech cadences and situationally appropriate word choices that moves them into a different category of fluency.

Iceland trip, part 2

Day 3: Monday

This day was all about Jökulsárlón. A glacier lake at the foot of the glacier Breiðamerkurjökull, it is filled with ice floes calved off the glacier, and is otherworldly. Just shortly before we got to the main entrance, there were a couple of small pullouts along the road. Gwen saw something through a low spot in an embankment and told me to pull over. So I did. We climbed to the top of the embankment and it was a “holy shit!” moment. We walked around on top for a while, climbed down, and walked along the water’s edge. Then we drove the rest of the way to the main entrance and walked along the water there too. We wandered quite a way along the shore, until we were out of earshot of everything, and sat down to listen to the sound of ice melting.

The lake is one of the most extraordinary visual experiences of my life. Any description would be inadequate.

We eventually made our way back, and saw a Duck tour putting into the water, and a couple of tour operators with inflatable boats taking them out without passengers. Back at the snacks-n-trinkets shop, we had surprisingly good cappuccinos. Then we drove down to the point where the lake opens into the ocean and walked along the beach.

We headed back to the hotel, and stopped at Dveghamrar, the “Dwarf Cliffs.” These are columnar basalt formations that have some kind of dwarf-related folk tale to go along with them.

Day 4: Tuesday

This day was mostly about our trip to Vatnajökull National Park, where we did a fair amount of hiking. We saw numerous waterfalls, including the famous Svartifoss, which is ringed by another columnar basalt formation. There were extraordinary views of mountains, glaciers, the plains below. After we did some hiking at altitude, we decided to see if we could work our way around to a glacier tongue at ground level. That wasn’t in the cards (it might have been possible, but would have taken a long hike), and the weather started turning from sunny to blustery, do we headed back. We did get to see some ptarmigans, which were surprisingly indifferent to our presence. Apparently they are capable of flight, but the one that wanted to get away from us just ran straight ahead. Not the smartest bird.

So far, the only wildlife we’ve seen has been avian. No mammals, hardly any insects, even. We might have seen scat from some kind of mammal while hiking, but that’s it.

Day 5: Wednesday

This day, when I am writing this installment, has mostly been a travel day—we’re going to a different hotel about halfway back to Reykjavik.

Our first stop was at Dyrhólaey, a high rocky outcropping on the ocean that in warmer weather is an important nesting ground for birds. And there were plenty of seabirds wheeling around the there today. Mostly we looked at the rocky islands offshore, and the crashing waves.

We stopped next what is apparently the country’s best museum of handicrafts, in the town of Skógar. It has been a good day for indoor activity, because it’s been the first really rainy and cold day of our trip—we’ve been lucky enough to have pretty agreeable weather. We spent a goof while there, marveled at the hard lives of people who lived here not that long ago, and congratulated ourselves for having central heating and modern building materials. The museum had a cluster of old dwellings surrounding it, including several turf-covered homes, and the one thing that stood out is that none of these had any kind of heat source—no fireplace, no Franklin stove (in most of them, no stove period).

Our third stop was at Skógafoss, a big, thundering waterfall. We were able to approach close to where the water hits ground level, creating a spray that rises about three stories, and then we climbed to the top on a staircase provided for that purpose. Between the rainfall and the waterfall spray, I got pretty wet (Gwen wisely wore her rainpants). We were not far from our destination for the day, the town of Hvolsvöllur. Which is where I am writing these words.


I am continually intrigued by the idea of a country whose total population is less than that of St. Louis’, making it barely equivalent to the 60th-largest city in the USA. But despite that, it maintains all the mechanisms of a modern nation-state: it has its own currency, national government, diplomatic corps, road network (despite having one of the lowest population densities in the world), etc. And despite the obvious influence of American popular culture, the country has its own language, literature, music scene, movie industry, etc.

Of course, things are different. There are national highways that are gravel roads. Highway 1, the ring road that encircles most of the country, is frequently interrupted by one-lane bridges that have no traffic-control measures other than the common sense of motorists. None of the national parks that we have visited charge any admission, or even have a way to keep people out if the government decides to start. Some sites are on privately held farms, and tourists are apparently welcome to let themselves in–we climbed over a stile into a sheep pasture to get access to a waterfall.

Iceland trip, part 1

Day 0: Friday

Our flight was uneventful, and only noteworthy for being on a
737—I don’t think I’ve ever seen one used for international travel before, and this one had ass-hammer seats that were impossible to get comfortable in. Neither Gwen nor I could sleep. I wound up getting about 1/6th of the way through Reamde.

Day 1: Saturday

We landed in Keflavik at about 6:00 AM, well before sunup. The passport check was instant and perfunctory. The customs check in the “nothing to declare” line was literally non-existent. We just found ourselves out in a different part of the airport. We went into the shopping part of the airport, thinking we might be able to buy SIM cards there—no luck. So we exited, and were met by someone from the car-rental agency who told us where to get on the bus to pick up our car. Got the car, a mini-SUV not sold in the USA. Also got a GPS unit, which has turned out to be very helpful (in the absence of data connections on our phones). Drove into the town of Keflavik right as the sun was coming up. Parked the car and walked along the shoreline for a while. Had breakfast at a hotel, where there were also a bunch of guys in the U.S. military eating. Gwen ventured to have herring for breakfast; I stuck with a more familiar meal of bacon, eggs, and toast.

The weather was drizzling when we headed out. We stopped at a 1011, a store that’s got more stuff than a 7-11, but doesn’t quite qualify as a grocery store. Picked up fruit, cheese, snacks, water.

Then we proceeded to our first sightseeing stop of the day, the lighthouse at Garðskagi. There was not a lot to see there, aside from the ocean, some seabirds (gannets, I later learned—giant seagulls), and of course the lighthouse. This was on the tip of a peninsula, so there was a lot of ocean to see. The rocky shoreline was covered in some kind of rotting seaweed. It was also notable that we saw no one on the road, but shortly after arriving at this deserted headlands a customs van pulled up and circled around. Gwen thinks this was not a coincidence.

We drove around the edge of the Reykjanes peninsula, which is like no place I’ve been. The only thing growing there is grass and moss. Not a single tree. Nothing to break up the landscape. This seemed to be echoed in the villages by the way that structures seemed to be placed haphazardly, with nothing to delineate or suggest property lines. We drove through villages where fishing is probably the main industry, past a few pastures with sturdy ponies or sheep under massive layers of their own wool. Stopped and looked at a village graveyard. Stopped at the Bridge Between Two Continents, which is literally a footbridge connecting the European and American continental plates. Kind of a gimmick, but we were really killing time until our next stop of the day opened. Which, around then, it did.

That stop was the Blue Lagoon, which is a hot-spring bath that is in all the guidebooks and an obvious tourist destination, but no less worthwhile in spite of that.

The fun starts before you even get to the door, as they’ve got an unused pool for show in front. The water is nearly opaque, milky blue, and white silica deposits accumulate on the black volcanic rocks surrounding it. Completely unreal.

Inside, they’ve got a very efficient, high-tech system where you get an RFID-tagged wristband that gets you in, lets you lock and unlock a locker, and even lets you put drinks on a tab, which you can get while soaking in the waters.

The pool itself is enormous, and could probably accommodate 1,000 people. There was maybe a tenth that number when we were there, so plenty of room. There are various attractions around its edges, including saunas, a waterfall/shower, buckets of silica that you can rub on your face (apparently it’s good for the skin), and the aforementioned bar. Gwen and I worked our way around, found the hottest part of the pool, and stayed there as long as we could stand it. We worked our way around some more and lamented that there was no good place we could take a nap in the pool, since at this point we had gone about 30 hours without sleep.

Eventually we decided that we had had about much relaxation as we could tolerate, so we got dressed and pushed on to Seltún. There’s not much human activity around there, but there is a lot of geological activity. Superheated water is boiling through the surface, creating puddles of bubbling mud and streams of hissing water that leaves unnaturally colored deposits on the surrounding rocks. There are walkways that let you get dangerously close to the fun stuff, and we walked all around before moving on.

The next leg of our drive was on a gravel road over very rugged terrain, with steeply pitched hills and sharp switchbacks, following along the edge of Kleifarvatn, a lake formed by volcanic activity, with sheer cliffs on the far side. Gwen was driving and had to give up at this point due to the utter lack of guard rails, which tapped in to a well-known fear of gravity failing.

As we moved on toward our hotel in the town of Selfoss, we crossed through some mountains and found ourselves in a different terrain yet again, one where at least a few trees can grow.

When we got to the hotel, we checked in, dropped our stuff off, got cleaned up, and headed out immediately for dinner. Partly because we were hungry, but mostly because we knew that if we stopped moving, we’d be down for the count.

Our dinner was a highly recommended place in the next village over, Við Fjöruborðið, but it might as well be called “that lobster place,” because that is their specialty, that’s what people know it for. The lobster was great. The wine was not.

Pleasantly full, we managed to make it back to our hotel room before we fell asleep. Just. We were in bed by 8:00 and slept till 9:00 the next morning.

Day 2: Sunday

Sunday, at the end of which I am writing these words, was less eventful. Breakfast in the hotel restaurant, where several ten-top were filled with middle-aged Icelandic women, with only a few couples to balance them out. Gwen had fish again. There was a decent-sized grocery store very near by, so we checked that out, because grocery stores in other countries are always interesting, and because we might want some food for the road. The rest of the day would be heavy on driving. This grocery store was not that different from a small grocery in the USA, except for the selection of dried fish, the minuscule beer assortment, and the availability of blood in 1- and 3-liter jugs. Vampires would do well to book a vacation here, especially in the winter, when there’s almost no daylight. Of course, that blood probably isn’t human.

We got on Highway 1, the ring road that encircles most of the country, and headed east along the southern coast. There was sporadic sleet, and a very steep climb with hairpin turns (again, no guard rails). Passed through some landscape that was otherworldly, some that was merely dramatic. In the otherworldly column were miles of plains deeply covered in treacherous volcanic rock, which was in turn deeply covered in moss. The effect was of frozen green clouds.

In the merely dramatic column, we drove for a long while with mountains sticking vertically out of the ground to our left, and flat plains or rolling hills to our right. Glacial meltwater formed frequent waterfalls down these mountains, and every so often, we’d see a farmhouse tucked in at the foot of a mountain, sometimes downstream from waterfall. More sheep and ponies.

We passed just south of Eyjafjallajökull, the unpronounceable volcano whose eruption grounded planes across Europe a few years back; we stopped at the information center for it just to stretch our legs.

We made it to our hotel for the next few days, which is just outside the tiny village with the long name of Kirkjubæjarklaustur. We checked in, dropped our stuff off, and went into the village, which has its own waterfall, with a trail leading to the top. We climbed that trail. Being at the top was extraordinary. There’s a lake feeding the waterfall, and a footbridge crossing the top of the waterfall. This mountain, like all the others, is of the thrusting-directly-up-from-the-ground variety, so the top was surrounded by gut-turning dropoffs, but the panorama of the country below is worth it.

We wandered around the mountaintop for a while, exclaiming over the view, and turned to go back down. The descent was much scarier than the ascent, because you have to look down.

Back at the hotel, we just had dinner at the hotel’s restaurant. The food was good, and we got a laugh out of the fact that the music playing was Icelandic covers of soft-rock hits of the 80s. Gwen had fish again.

At 11:00 PM we went outside. Everything was quiet. The northern lights were active.

Islands vs Continents

If you look at just one aspect of sharing information on the web, there are two approaches: islands and continents. Islands are bunch of individuals, each with their own corner of the web, where they publish whatever they want. Continents are where a bunch of individuals all sign up for user accounts and interact through that site’s back end. This post got me thinking about this, and this response got me thinking more about it.

Islands are anything that the user runs in their own web space: such as this blog or a self-hosted photo gallery. Continents are big destination sites like Facebook or flickr.

Continents do have their appeal: for one, they’re easier for the user to get started with.

More importantly, there are more ways to make money off them: advertising, membership fees, selling user data. With islands, the methods for monetization aren’t the same: you can sell the software, and maybe you can sell a support package to go along with it. The notorious difficulty of getting people to pay for anything on the web may explain why the software underlying islands tends to be open source, though there are exceptions. Beyond just the immediate revenue model, a popular website is exactly the sort of thing that its creators can hope to sell to one of the big boys for big, big money (like Instagram selling out to Facebook for [pinky to lip] one billion dollars). Software projects…not so much.

Continents have one huge disadvantage: most of the big ones are supported through advertising and the sale of user data, and as has been said many times, if you’re not paying for it, you’re not the customer, you’re the product. It is in Facebook’s interest to make their site appealing to the extent that it keeps us around long enough to show us more ads, but not necessarily in their interest to really do right by their users.

The advantages of islands may only appeal to nerds: you controls your data, how it looks, how it’s used. Nobody is selling advertising around your data.

In theory, there’s nothing preventing me from hosting my photos in my own web space, even though I don’t. Back in the old days, web space was doled out in such small parcels that it would have been unrealistic for me to throw everything up there. These days, that’s not such a big deal. But flickr, for all its faults and neglect at the hands of a company that doesn’t know what to do with it, still has features that I haven’t seen in self-hosted photo galleries. One of these is that your photos can be viewed in the context of photos by other people: other people can follow your photos can comment on them. You can post them to groups that are organized around a topic or theme. You can organize galleries of photos by other people. You can see other photos that have all been tagged Tokyo or whatever.

In short, because you’re on a continent, you don’t need any bridges to get around. This social connection is huge, and it’s the weak spot of islands. All the island software out there works on one island in isolation. It doesn’t include bridges to your neighbors.

Diaspora is a social network based on the island + bridges model. Perhaps I should say based on a “big island” model, since most pods (as they’re called) have a lot of users, but there are many pods and they all intercommunicate. This is a promising idea, but Diaspora gets discouragingly little use. I’ve got 37 contacts on Diaspora. Two of them use it. Part of this is a chicken-and-egg problem, but Facebook also has useful features (events and invitations, groups, etc) that Diaspora lacks.

The only things that Diaspora has going for it is that you actually are the customer (they run on donations), and you own your own data—stuff that a lot of people just don’t think that hard about. But it’s a big deal. Now that Facebook has gone public, it needs to justify itself to shareholders, and there will be even more tension between doing what’s right for its customers vs its users.

I want it both ways. I want to have control over my data, and not to be someone else’s product. And I also want to connect with my friends and with people I don’t even know yet.

The Diaspora guys have the right idea, and so does Brent Simmons: we don’t just need islands. We need bridges to connect them.

Update: This is the kind of thing I’m talking about

Facts are stupid things

Two recent events that are very much of a piece.

First, the recent publication of the book “The Lifespan of a Fact”, reviewed in the NYTimes. This documents the years-long fight between the author of a supposedly non-fiction article and his fact-checker, the fact-checker’s reverence for factual accuracy, and the author’s disdain for it when mere facts get in the way of Truth.

Second, the kerfuffle over This American Life running a version of Mike Daisey’s performance piece, “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” which turns out to be a fabrication. Mike Daisey more or less admits to his own fabrications, but defends them because he’s not a journalist.

These cases seem to go beyond those of Stephen Glass or Jayson Blaire: at some level, I think those guys knew they were in the wrong. These guys see nothing wrong with making shit up and passing it off as fact. I thought Stephen Colbert dismantled this idea years ago when he coined the word “truthiness.” Apparently not.

Building the Flipside Ticket Exchange for 2012

I’m on the admin team for the Flipside Ticket Exchange, better known as Bob’s List, also known as !Bob’s List, also known as Not Not Bob’s List since !Bob moved on to better things. This year it is running on a WordPress install. I configured that setup, and am writing down what I did so I don’t have to try to remember it.
Continue reading


It’s not bad enough that abortion rights are under attack in much of the USA, conservatives are going after contraception now too. This has become a hot issue because of three things:

First: Rick Santorum, who has emerged as the Not-Romney candidate du jour, said the following to a right-wing Christian blog:

One of the things I will talk about that no president has talked about before is I think the dangers of contraception in this country, the whole sexual libertine idea. Many in the Christian faith have said, ‘Well, that’s okay. Contraception’s okay.’ It’s not okay because it’s a license to do things in the sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be. They’re supposed to be within marriage, they are supposed to be for purposes that are, yes, conjugal, but also [inaudible], but also procreative. That’s the perfect way that a sexual union should happen. We take any part of that out, we diminish the act. And if you can take one part out that’s not for purposes of procreation, that’s not one of the reasons, then you diminish this very special bond between men and women, so why can’t you take other parts of that out? And all of a sudden, it becomes deconstructed to the point where it’s simply pleasure. And that’s certainly a part of it—and it’s an important part of it, don’t get me wrong—but there’s a lot of things we do for pleasure, and this is special, and it needs to be seen as special.

Again, I know most presidents don’t talk about those things, and maybe people don’t want us to talk about those things, but I think it’s important that you are who you are. I’m not running for preacher. I’m not running for pastor, but these are important public policy issues. These have profound impact on the health of our society.

Second: Santorum’s patron Foster Friess recently said “Back in my days, they used Bayer aspirin for contraception. The gals put it between their knees and it wasn’t that costly.” Classy.

Third: the Obama administration angers the Catholic hierarchy and gives the GOP something to bash him over by insisting that even Church-affiliated institutions must cover birth control in their health-care plans. For the Catholic church, their opposition is presumably sincere. For the GOP, it’s tactical.

All of this contributes to a climate of demonizing sex and treating women as either sluts who deserve to get pregnant for their wantonness, or baby-making machinery with no say in the matter.

That is, by far, the worst part of it. But any self-respecting man who doesn’t want to have as many kids as Santorum (seven) should be angry as well as women, and not just from a sense of solidarity with women (although that too). It’s a ridiculous state of affairs that we have three kinds of boner pills on the market, but the only forms of male birth control are mechanical or surgical. I took the surgical option years before I ever met Gwen, and I’m happy with that decision. Santorum is telling me that our marriage is as invalid as he considers a gay marriage to be (another can of worms for another time).

Ultimately, this is just another facet of the right wing’s war on anyone who’s having more fun than they are.

Book Review: Is That a Fish in Your Ear?

Is That a Fish in Your Ear is a book about translation, so it should be no surprise that I picked it up. But it’s not so much a book about the mental process of translation as it is a book about the business of translation and its role in society at large. So it certainly has some tidbits that are of interest to translators, but not a lot of insight. It isn’t the endless buffet of food for thought that Le Ton Beau de Marot by Douglas Hofstadter is.

Early in the book, the author, David Bellos, discusses how many different words the Japanese language has for “translation,” wandering perilously close to snowclone territory—though he later tackles the idea of snowclones head-on.

He does talk about the size of the international translation market, which is interesting, but his source is UNESCO’s Index Translationum, which only covers books. This is only a part of the translation industry, and as far as I can tell, only a small part (also, digging through UNESCO’s statistics reveals some very messy data). There are some interesting facts about the flow of translation—English is overwhelmingly dominant as a source language, exceeding the second-most common source language, French, almost sixfold. Japanese, the language I translate from, comes in at 8th, with only about 1/8th as many works translated as French, and only about 1/47th as many as English.

English is much less popular as a target of translation, coming in fourth to German, French, and Spanish (with only about half as many works as German). Japanese comes in fifth, with only about 15% fewer works translated into Japanese than into English. This would suggest that English speakers are not that interested in hearing what the rest of the world has to say.

But I am sure these figures are not representative of commercial translation. In patents, for example, I have read that English is the dominant target language, and the most frequently translated source languages for English are Japanese, German and French. Not sure where those statistics come from, but they don’t surprise me. It should be relatively easy to get statistics on patents, because they wind up being collected by a few government agencies. Much less so all the newspaper clippings, press releases, user manuals, depositions, specifications, clinical drug trials, and so on that make up the bulk of commercial translation, some of which are never intended for public consumption (and some of which is probably hardly read at all, in any language).

There are also different market forces at work here: a lot of patent translation is “push” translation (by the authors), whereas book translation is “pull” translation (by literary agents in the target language that are proxies for the eventual audience).

As to some of the standard problems of translation—He does talk about translating poetry (with reference to Hofstadter’s book), and to a lesser extent, humor, but these were fairly superficial treatments. He talks about the problem of translating culture-specific features to some extent and some of the solutions. He points out that it is not hard to translate a high social register satisfactorily, but translating uneducated-sounding regional dialects is much more problematic, and in the last pages of the book, he actually gets around to an interesting observation that might explain why: he makes the argument that language in its original form did not emerge to communicate ideas, but to reinforce social bonds, like monkeys grooming each other. And the aspects of speech that are peculiar to one community—which reinforce those social bonds—are exactly what can’t be translated to another, and seem glaringly misplaced when “translated” to the speech habits of a different community.

Is the book worth reading? It’s light. It gives a mile-high view of translation. It doesn’t grapple much with translation problems, much less offer solutions to them. It feels like it’s more intended for people who are interested in knowing about translation than in actually translating (which is fair, since there are probably more of them). It won’t have a lot of keen insights and revelations for translators, but it is interesting.

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