Adam Rice

My life and the world around me

Page 4 of 108

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.
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Inconceivable

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.

Gamification

Brent Simmons writes about gamification, saying

you could look at this trend and say, “As software gets simpler, it gets dumbed-down — even toddlers can use iPads. Users are now on the mental level of children, and we should design accordingly. What do children like? Games.”

I’ve been thinking about gamification a little for a while now, and I think it’s actually more sinister than that. Look at a website like Stack Overflow. They’ve got it set up with this treadmill of meaningless rewards to keep you engaged in the site, asking and answering question. In addition to increased ad impressions (which is cynical enough, the sole point of a game like Farmville, which has no rewards that I recognize as such), your labor makes the site more valuable: a good “answer site” like Ask Metafilter (which is a cool community, not an exploitative business play) gets very high Google rankings—Stack Exchange clearly want to cash in on that action getting strong Google rankings for their own site, leading to more pageviews, and the circle of life continues. For your efforts you get a gold star. A virtual gold star. But they’ve figured out that points and achievements activate some hindbrain reward center that they cynically play off of.

In my own vocation of translation, there’s been an increasing trend toward uncompensated crowdsourcing (another hot-button word) as an alternative to professional work, and I fully expect to see gamification tactics applied to that as well before long.

Three things

Three things I have read in the past few days:

From Innovation Starvation, by Neil Stephenson

My parents and grandparents witnessed the creation of the airplane, the automobile, nuclear energy, and the computer to name only a few. Scientists and engineers who came of age during the first half of the 20th century could look forward to building things that would solve age-old problems, transform the landscape, build the economy, and provide jobs for the burgeoning middle class that was the basis for our stable democracy.

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010 crystallized my feeling that we have lost our ability to get important things done.

From The Onion, Last American Who Knew What The Fuck He Was Doing Dies

Steve Jobs, the visionary co-founder of Apple Computers and the only American in the country who had any clue what the fuck he was doing, died Wednesday at the age of 56.

From An Investment Manager’s View on the Top 1%

The picture is clear; entry into the top 0.5% and, particularly, the top 0.1% is usually the result of some association with the financial industry and its creations. I find it questionable as to whether the majority in this group actually adds value or simply diverts value from the US economy and business into its pockets and the pockets of the uber-wealthy who hire them.

These all seem related.

The universal design critic

In just the past half day, a lot has been said about Steve Jobs. I’m not sure I have anything unique to add, but I’ve been using Macs continuously since the first one I owned, which was one of the original 128K models, so I can’t let his passing go without comment.

Many of the people praising Steve Jobs have focused on the way that he and Apple have provided them with the tools to do their job, the way they have demystified technology and made it elegant and fun. And I agree with all that. But Steve Jobs and Apple have had a more subtle and deeper effect on us than that.

One of Jobs’ greatest talents was as a critic, particularly of design. He didn’t design Apple’s hardware or software, but he had strong, detailed opinions on all of it, which he would forcefully deliver when anything failed to live up to his very high expectations. So it’s no surprise that Apple has delivered consistently well-designed products, but they’ve also delivered design-oriented products. The very first Mac had multiple fonts and typographic controls, could mix pictures with text. Even the screen resolution of 72 dpi was chosen to parallel the point-size system.

We take these sorts of thing for granted today. They would have happened eventually, but they happened when they did because of Steve Jobs and Apple.

Today, we know what a font is, and many of us have opinions on which ones are better than others. We look more critically at industrial design and engineering. There are even movies and shorts about fonts and industrial design. By putting exemplars of good design into the marketplace and making them accessible to regular people, and by giving his competition a higher mark to aim for, Steve Jobs has transmitted some small part of his critical acuity and insistence on quality to the rest of us.

When Jobs resigned as CEO about 6 weeks ago, John Gruber wrote

The company is a fractal design. Simplicity, elegance, beauty, cleverness, humility. Directness. Truth. Zoom out enough and you can see that the same things that define Apple’s products apply to Apple as a whole. The company itself is Apple-like…Jobs’s greatest creation isn’t any Apple product. It is Apple itself.

Zoom out farther.

Boundaries

I often use this blog as a way to think out loud. This will be one of those posts.

This is a post about Burning Flipside and boundaries. Burning Flipside is the central Texas regional burn. If that doesn’t mean anything to you, you might not want to go past the jump.
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Page One

Gwen and I recently saw Page One, the documentary about the New York Times.

It was a sort of mile-high survey of the problems that most American newspapers are facing today. It was interesting watching it while the scandal surrounding Rupert Murdoch’s British tabloids is at its peak—Murdoch had nothing to do with the movie except extolling the iPad as the potential savior of the newspaper industry. The issues that the movie touched on—and there were so many that it didn’t really have much time to do more than touch on them—are all familiar to anyone paying attention to the news about newspapers—declining ad revenue, competition from online sources, the chummy, codependent relationship with power that leads to horrors like Judy Miller—but it was still very interesting seeing these discussed by the people directly affected by them.

Just as the movie hopscotched from issue to issue, it never quite developed a central thesis. But if a documentary can have a hero, this one definitely did in the person of David Carr. And if it can have one defining moment, this one’s came when he was on a panel talking about the future of journalism or something like that, clearly representing the old guard. At one point, Michael Wolff stands up and talks about how the world would manage without the New York Times. Then Carr gets up, shows a printout of the Newser.com (Michael Wolff’s project) front page; then shows the printout with all the stories sourced from old media ripped out, leaving nothing but a rough paper sieve.

There was talk about the role of the professional journalist vs citizen-journalists, of whether the civic function of newspapers actually makes business sense. There was a lot of talk about Twitter. Interestingly, not a lot about Facebook. The talk about blogs was mostly in the context of tabloid-grade professional blogs like Nick Denton’s properties—at one point, Denton is interviewed, and we see his “leaderboard”—the most popular current stories—on a big TV. None of the stories are news. They’re gossip.

For a brief moment, when blogs were new to most people, some people suggested that in the future everyone would have a blog and we’d get our news through legions of citizen-journalists, with some editorial control or artificial intelligence or something to make sure we as readers got the stuff that was of highest quality and greatest relevance to our interests. Technically, that’s possible. My friend Chip long ago set up the website Austin Bloggers, where anyone with a blog can post a link to their Austin-related postings. There’s definitely some good stuff there that’s too finely focused for traditional media.

But the idea that citizen journalists could replace professional journalists entirely was naive from the start, and since then, we’ve learned that most people, even if they are interested in sharing stuff online (and lots of people are), are not very interested in blogging per se.

I think there are two reasons for this: the effort and the reward. While it is possible to dash off a simple blog post, blogging software has not really encouraged this. The writing interface for this blog looks like this:

Admittedly, there are blogging systems that are simpler than this, but this is the system I’m using, and it’s a mainstream one. Contrast that with the posting interface for Twitter:

Even once you’ve got a blog set up, there’s just a lot more cognitive load in getting a post up.

And then there’s the payoff. With Twitter or Facebook, your friends are probably going to see what you write and can easily comment on it; if you’re writing something personal, it’s relatively easy to make it so that only your friends see it. There’s more of a message-in-a-bottle quality to a blog post. Friends are less likely to comment (partly because even the commenting interface is more complicated, thanks in part to comment spam in blogs), and making a blog post visible only to friends involves considerably more administrative overhead for the writer and readers. Live Journal, as easy as it is to ridicule as the repository for bad poetry by teenagers, got this right by providing a blogging platform with social-networking features built in.

And unfortunately, while Facebook and Twitter have displaced what might have otherwise been a lot of blogging, they have not adequately replaced blogging. They’re fine for ephemeral, off-the-cuff communication—better than a blog, I’d say. A friend’s Twitter or Facebook postings are like a running stream that I can dip into when I feel like it, but they don’t work as a repository for sustained writing—one the writing side, because Twitter and Facebook are designed for off-the-cuff and short writing, and on the reading side, because it’s relatively difficult to backtrack and look at previous postings. As a medium for citizen journalism, this means that Twitter can be useful as a channel for minute-by-minute breaking news (Facebook less so, because posts are more often hidden from those you don’t know even if they are on Facebook, and Facebook in general is walled off from the rest of the Internet), but worthless for anything longer than that—especially with Facebook, where it seems almost impossible to dig up an old post. The same is true for discussions on posts, so while Facebook is great for getting people talking, it’s lousy for looking back at what people were talking about. For superficial gossip-grade conversations, this is fine. For more substantial discussions that one might want to look back on, it’s a problem.

Google Plus is too new to have been discussed in the movie. It allows for longer-form writing than Twitter or Facebook. The fact that Google is behind it suggests that maybe old posts would be searchable (though right now, they aren’t). And Google already owns a blogging platform, Blogger. I’ll be interested in seeing how they play out.

Bird down

This morning while Gwen was puttering in the back yard, a juvenile bluejay landed on the ground, near our back door. He looked like he had his flight feathers, but the feathers on his head were still downy. He wouldn’t or more likely couldn’t fly away; he could hop, but mostly stayed put.

Not knowing what else to do, we set out a shallow pan of water for him. He made no effort to get away from us, but did hop into the pan of water.

About an hour later, I looked in on him. He was still in roughly the same spot. I refilled the pan of water and set it next to him. He looked at me and opened and closed his beak a few times as if silently chirping or begging for food. He flapped his wings for a moment and flipped over on his back. The nictitating membranes blinked across his eyes and he died.

When we looked at his corpse, we saw a spot on his back where he had been attacked.

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