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Ronald S’s View

June 25, 2013 Leave a comment

at&t

I’m thinking of changing the name of the blog, thanks to AT&T.

I received a letter in today’s mail from the Vice President and General Manager of AT&T in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska with news of improvements to the wireless experience. They’ve been building and growing their 4G LTE Network (which I use for the internet connection on my iPhone). They’re developing sustainable business practices, promoting education, upholding human rights. (Hmm. Does that include not handing over my cell phone data to the NSA?)

And then Mike began the concluding paragraph with unexpected intimacy.

In all, I truly appreciate you being our customer, Ronald S.

How did he know that that’s what my closest friends call me? Now that the word is out, I may as well adopt the moniker for the blog.

I would infer that the algorithm used for this line in the letter is to take my account name—which is used in the postal address at the top and in the salutation—and truncate the last name. Thus, when the time comes for intimacy, Bobby Joe Smith would be addressed as Bobby Joe, and Leigh Anne Jones as Leigh Anne. You wouldn’t want to err by calling Bobby Joe just plain old Bobby, or Leigh Anne just Leigh.

Perhaps AT&T should revise the algorithm to drop penultimate names that are one character long. That would save some tone-deaf intimacies. Better yet, of course, would be to omit the phony intimacy altogether.

What do you think, Mike?

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Categories: Language, Stupidity

Abolish Tenure

June 14, 2012 Leave a comment

[Stephan Pastis, Pearls Before Swine, 8/16/09]

What? Abolish tenure? Am I — long-tenured professor and one-time university administrator — really saying that?

Well, no. Not regarding academic tenure. I’m thinking of a completely different category of tenure: the tenure the New York Times bestows on its columnists.

Growing up, I knew something was wrong. I would read one Arthur Krock column after another and never figure out why he kept filling space. Then there was Flora Lewis. And now? Yes, once again, it’s time to complain about David Brooks. (See here and here and here and here and here.) What’s with that guy anyway? He’s so totally full of you-know-what.

Two days ago, in his now-famous The Follower Problem, Brooks offered his latest take on what’s wrong with the rest of us. Only by reading it in its entirety can you properly appreciate how dickish Brooks is. Here’s a sample (emphasis mine).

The old adversary culture of the intellectuals has turned into a mass adversarial cynicism. The common assumption is that elites are always hiding something. Public servants are in it for themselves. Those people at the top are nowhere near as smart or as wonderful as pure and all-knowing Me.

You end up with movements like Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Parties that try to dispense with authority altogether. They reject hierarchies and leaders because they don’t believe in the concepts. The whole world should be like the Internet — a disbursed semianarchy in which authority is suspect and each individual is king.

Maybe before we can build great monuments to leaders we have to relearn the art of following. Democratic followership is also built on a series of paradoxes: that we are all created equal but that we also elevate those who are extraordinary; that we choose our leaders but also have to defer to them and trust their discretion; that we’re proud individuals but only really thrive as a group, organized and led by just authority.

I don’t know if America has a leadership problem; it certainly has a followership problem. Vast majorities of Americans don’t trust their institutions. That’s not mostly because our institutions perform much worse than they did in 1925 and 1955, when they were widely trusted. It’s mostly because more people are cynical and like to pretend that they are better than everything else around them. Vanity has more to do with rising distrust than anything else.

In his memoir, “At Ease,” Eisenhower delivered the following advice: “Always try to associate yourself with and learn as much as you can from those who know more than you do, who do better than you, who see more clearly than you.” Ike slowly mastered the art of leadership by becoming a superb apprentice.

To have good leaders you have to have good followers — able to recognize just authority, admire it, be grateful for it and emulate it. Those skills are required for good monument building, too.

Good god!

I am so so grateful for our leaders. Where do I begin? Let’s see. There was LBJ. He sent thousands to Vietnam to die in order to look strong. And Nixon. He said he would bring them home, but sent more, and bombed the crap out of Hanoi for no good reason on the eve of a peace agreement. Should I go on? Well, let’s jump ahead a few decades. Bush led us into war on lies so he could one-up his father. Obama kills selected lucky duckies — US citizens aren’t exempt — in countries we’re not at war with because, well, I suppose because he’s extraordinary and we trust his discretion. Oh, and what about all those leaders of financial institutions who destroyed the economy? Extraordinary as well.

I must have an attitude problem. Good thing Brooks is on the case.

Without naming names, Brooks’ neighbor down the NYT hallway, Paul Krugman, slipped in a comment today. Writing a blog post about a Bloomberg article with the title “Hungary Lauds Hitler Ally Horthy As Orban Fails To Stop Hatred,” Krugman concludes: “But remember, the big problem is that the public isn’t showing enough deference to the elite.”

Does the NYT have a tenure review process? If not they certainly should. If so, time to set it in motion. And when they’re done with Brooks, they can turn to Tom “suck-on-this” Friedman.

I’ll give Radley Balko the last word:

Those of us who question authority do so not because we’re vain or think we’re better than everyone else. On the contrary. We question authority because we recognize that human beings, ourselves included, are flawed. And we’ll always be flawed. Which means that we will build flawed institutions and produce flawed leaders. We question authority because we recognize that not only is authority (another word for power) inherently corrupting, but also because we recognize the perverse values, priorities, and notions of merit upon which authority is generally granted.

People like David Brooks think people rise to positions of power and status because they’re better, wiser, or otherwise more meritorious than the rest of us—they’re “Great Men” touched by the hand of God. (But only if we get out of their way!) He thinks people achieve political power because they exemplify the best in us. We “bad followers” recognize that they usually embody the worst. We don’t buy the idea that people who have the power to tell other people what to do are inherently worth obeying simply because they’ve managed to get themselves into a position where they get to tell other people what to do. In fact, we think there’s good reason to believe the institutions that confer telling-people-what-to-do authority grant that authority to all the wrong people, and for all the wrong reasons.

Individualism is of course worth embracing and championing for its own sake. But celebrating and promoting individualism is as much about recognizing, fearing, and guarding against the corruption of power as it is about preserving the right to do your own thing. When a flawed individual (and that would be all of us) makes mistakes, he affects only himself and the people who associate with him. When a flawed political leader (and that would be all of them) makes mistakes, we’re all affected, whether we chose to associate with that leader or not. And the more we conform, follow, and entrust our political leaders with power, the more susceptible and vulnerable we are to their flaws and mistakes.

Categories: Journalism, Stupidity

Eskimo Perception

December 23, 2011 Leave a comment

I’m a huge fan of the Language Log blog and its co-founders, the linguists Mark Liberman at Penn and Geoff Pullum at Edinburgh. Pullum has spent two decades in fierce combat with the myth that Eskimos have twenty-three words (or is it two hundred? or two thousand?) for snow. (See his 1991 essay The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax, which follows up on the 1986 work of Linda Martin.) I made brief reference to this in a post three Julys ago on linguistic fact checking, or the lack thereof.

Two Sunday nights ago, I was reading some of the next day’s NYT online when I clicked on the Monday book review and stumbled on the astonishing opening by Emma Brockes to her review of Alan Hollinghurst’s latest novel:

“The Stranger’s Child,” Alan Hollinghurst’s fifth novel, opens on a scene in Harrow and Wealdstone, a suburb north of London chosen by the author to represent the middle ground, that is the space between the upper and lower orders — or rather, this being England in 1913, between the orders of lower upper middle and upper upper middle.

As Eskimos do with snow, the English see gradations of social inadequacy invisible to the rest of the world; Mr. Hollinghurst separates them with a very sharp knife.

Wow! Eskimos have not just a multitude of snow words, but also gradations of snow perceptiveness invisible to the rest of the world.

The thing about those words is, any language has every bit as large a snow vocabulary as the Eskimos. Slippery snow. Grainy snow. Powdery snow. Oh, those aren’t words? Okay, how about slippery-snow, grainy-snow, powdery-snow? The oft-repeated claim is inane. But read Pullum for that.

Speaking of which, I wasted no time sending the latest example of Eskimo snow inanity on to Professor Pullum. A day later, in his characteristic style, he pounced.

If Emma Brockes were one of the sharper knives in the journalistic cutlery drawer she might have avoided becoming the 4,285th writer since the 21st century began who has used in print some variant of the original snowclone. (I didn’t count to get that figure of 4,285, I just chose a number at random. Why the hell not? People make up the number of words for snow found in Eskimoan languages that they know absolutely nothing about. I might as well just make stuff up like everybody else.)

I notice that Brockes’ version of the familiar Eskimological claim deals in visual cognition rather than linguistics (though the two are closely intertwined). The usual citation of a surprisingly large (and randomly chosen) number of snow words is absent; instead she actually claims to know about Arctic nomads’ perceptions of gradations that non-Eskimos cannot see. Where does she get this fascinating fact about perceiving the imperceptible?

Apparently, from credulous acceptance of an urban myth that goes back to the writings of an amateur linguist, Benjamin Lee Whorf.

Pullum goes on at length, all worth reading, concluding with a blast at the NYT.

A casual unsupported assertion about Inuit people perceiving distinctions to the rest of us are blind? That won’t cause any trouble at the New York Times (which has published several different figures for the number of snow words in “Eskimo”, and has ignored the letters of correction that have been sent). Don’t worry about it: it’s only language and cognition we’re talking about — just make stuff up.

I’ll say this, though. We Pacific Northwesterners perceive gradations of gray invisible to the rest of you. Dark? Rain? Give us more, so we can make our perceptive skills still more powerful.

Categories: Journalism, Language, Stupidity

Lunar Madness

December 11, 2011 Leave a comment

[Dan Grayson, Tokyo, December 10, 2011]

Those of us on the west coast enjoyed a total lunar eclipse just before moonset yesterday morning, the last one until April 2014.

The entire lunar eclipse will be visible in East Asia, Australia, and the far western portion of North America that includes Alaska and Canada’s Yukon and Northwest Territories. The spectacle will last nearly three and a half hours, starting on Saturday at 4:45 a.m. Pacific Time.

Totality—when the full moon will be completely blocked from direct sunlight—will start at 6:05 a.m. PT and last until 6:57 a.m. PT.

We were discussing the eclipse at dinner with friends Friday evening. Would we wake up for it? Would we be able to see it without trees in the way? Jean mentioned that she would be up anyway, as she would be rowing. Plus, her location out on the water would provide unobstructed viewing. I imagined waking up and walking out to a clear area at the edge of the backyard with a good view to the southwest, but when the time came to set the alarm, I decided not to bother. I would either arise naturally or miss it.

At 5:55 a.m., I arose naturally. I looked at the clock, then noticed that the early morning moonlight that a full moon usually brings into the bedroom was missing. The eclipse was underway, on schedule, with totality ten minutes away. I couldn’t believe my luck. I got out of bed, got dressed, went down to the garage to get my coat and hat out of the car, got gloves from the closet, opened the backdoor, and headed out for total eclipse viewing.

Something didn’t seem right. I could see a faint glow to the southwest where the full moon must be. I couldn’t see the moon, which of course was the whole point. Then I realized what the problem was. I couldn’t see much else either, because it was cloudy.

Boy did I feel stupid. I completely forgot to look out the window to check for clouds before getting dressed. I could have done that and gone back to sleep.

Or maybe not. It was well before sunrise after all. Because of the darkness, I might not have been able to assess the nature of the cloud cover without going outside.

I went out again about 15 minutes later and then 30 minutes later, in case there was a break in the clouds, but there wasn’t. I had to content myself with my old friend Dan’s posting on Facebook at 5:34 a.m. PT of an eclipse photo he took from Tokyo. (See above.)

I’ll try again in a couple of years.

Categories: Life, Stupidity

Stupid Trick of the Week

August 15, 2011 Leave a comment

The performer of this stupid trick, alas, was me, and I did it a week ago, so I’m a little late in reporting.

Where to begin? Well, first you need to know about sharps containers. If you don’t have one at home (and why would you?), you will at least have seen them at your doctor’s office. They’re those plastic colored containers attached to the wall that used needles get dropped into.

It turns out you can buy them at pharmacies for home use. Unlike the ones at the doctor’s office, the home-use ones are free standing. No need to attach them to the wall. You can see one in the photo above. Over time, you drop needles in, and eventually the needle pile reaches the line that says the container is full. At this point, you put the handy container lid on and bring the container to a place that accepts it for disposal. The crucial point here is that the containers are not meant to be re-used. Rather, you dispose of a full one properly, buy a new one, and repeat. As for disposing, it seems that some pharmacies will accept the full containers. Failing that, hereabouts, one can bring them to the county transfer station.

Okay, so, that’s that. Now to my story.

Until twelve days ago, I didn’t know about home sharps containers, or care. But then, for reasons I won’t go into in this post, I found myself in a class in which we were given blood glucose meters (free!) and the associated paraphernalia with which one can measure one’s own blood glucose level. I had no idea what I was missing all these years. It’s the coolest thing, getting this instant feedback about what’s going on in your blood. But you can’t get that feedback without sticking the tiniest little needle into your finger first and coaxing out a little drop of blood.

That little needle, or lancet, comes under the heading of sharps. You can’t just toss it in the garbage. You need to put it in a sharps container. The odd thing is, at the class, we were given those blood glucose meters but not sharps containers. We were told that we can’t throw the used lancets in the garbage, that we should get a sharps container, and that we should eventually bring it to the county transfer station. I can’t imagine the first thing every student does after class is buy his or her own container. I imagine, more precisely, that some students never buy a container. There must be a lot of those lancets in the garbage stream.

Not my lancets. Gail bought a sharps container. She brought it home, I examined it, and I wondered what to do about the fact that the container lid was attached by a thin strip of plastic that was sufficiently stiff that the open lid kind of hung out at an awkward angle. It was in the way. I figured it was supposed to stay attached for some reason, like maybe to remind you to cover the container between uses. But it really was going to be a nuisance. So I got the scissors out and cut it off.

Now what? Well, if the lid was meant to cover the container, I may as well cover it. Which I did. That was the moment when I realized the lid, now firmly shut on the container top, had no grasping point, no place to get your finger under in order to flip it off. Yup, that sucker was on for good. I had just put the permanently locking lid on an empty sharps container.

Good job, Ron.

It all made sense after the fact. Once you’ve filled the container and need to dispose of it, you put the lid on. There’s no reason ever to take it off again, and good reason to make sure it doesn’t come off, so once it’s on, it’s on. A permanently locked lid goes hand-in-hand with safe transport and disposal of the sharps. I then saw, too late, that there was a label glued on the side of the container with instructions, and sure enough it explained that you put the unremovable lid on when you’re done.

There you have it, my stupid trick of the week.

Except that I really couldn’t bear the thought of wasting the four dollars it cost to buy the container. I decided to experiment, and discovered that you can get the lid off after all, with a little prodding. I won’t say how. I’ve said enough.

Categories: Medicine, Stupidity

Art Outing

December 28, 2010 Leave a comment

I’ve been making a list of art exhibits to see once the term ended, which it did with my turning in of grades a week ago. The time had come to attack the list. Last Thursday we went to two galleries, with lunch in-between. One was a success; one wasn’t.

First the success story. I wrote last March about the BIG IS BETTER (or so some claim) exhibit at the Wright Exhibition Space. As I noted at the time, the Wright Exhibition Space mounts small shows from time to time, each of which draws largely or entirely from the Virginia and Bagley Wright Collection, the largest collection of contemporary art in the Pacific Northwest. The gallery typically opens just two days a week for limited hours. For the current show, those two days are Thursdays and Saturdays, and for the next two weeks, that means Thursdays only. So last Thursday was the day.

We drove down to the gallery (just east of the Seattle Center and the under-construction home-to-be of the Gates Foundation), parked in one of its reserved spots, and entered. Often, we pick up the small printed brochure and see the show on our own. This time, as we picked up brochures, the docent on duty asked if we were on the mailing list — yes — then proceeded to grab her looseleaf binder with pages on each of the show’s objects, stand up, come around the desk, and head off to give us a guided tour. We didn’t know we wanted one, but she turned out to be excellent company, and informative as well, and we’re quite glad we did.

The current show, curated by the Wrights’ son Bing, is called Bing’s Choice, with the subtitle “Art from my parents’ collection that was in storage that I liked (plus some other things thrown in that I also like).” He explains: Read more…

Categories: Art, Restaurants, Stupidity

Big Ten Silliness

December 13, 2010 Leave a comment

The Big Ten conference announced names for its new divisions, two of the most meaningless names one can imagine. But maybe I should back up. The Big Ten is the oldest and, I suppose, most famous university sporting conference in the country, dating back to 1896. It became the Big Ten only in 1917, with Ohio State joining in 1916 and Michigan re-joining in 1917 after an absence, the other eight being founding members Chicago, Illinois, Minnesota, Northwestern, Purdue, and Wisconsin (along with Michigan), plus Indiana and Iowa, who joined in 1899. The arithmetic got a little complicated when Chicago left after 1946, but Michigan State joined in 1950, restoring order. When Penn State joined in 1990, there was no changing the name, as will be the case after Nebraska joins next year. The Big Ten is a brand now, not a count.

I will pass on providing a primer on the economics of college football and the motivation for conferences to have 12 teams. The short version — and remember, this is about football only, not other sports that conference teams participate in — is that once a conference has 12 teams, it is allowed to split into two 6-team divisions and conclude the regular season with a conference championship game between the two division champions. This means big money. Millions. Many millions. And it’s why both the Big 10 and the Pac 10 chose earlier this year to expand. Losing out in this is the Big 12, which will lose not just Nebraska to the Big 10, but also Colorado to the Pac 10. (Yes, that’s right, this means the Big 10 will have 12 teams and the Big 12 will have 10. Get used to it.)

The Big 10 expansion and concomitant addition of a conference championship game necessitate a split into divisions. Those conferences that already split divisionally generally did it geographically. The SEC (Southeast Conference), the model for this, has east and west divisions. The east is perhaps more east and north, but the west is a geographically compact region, one that makes sense, and so the divisional alignment as a whole makes sense as well. The west schools (going roughly from west to east) are LSU, Arkansas, Mississippi, Mississippi State, Alabama, and Auburn. The east schools (going from south or southeast to northwest) are Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee, Vanderbilt, and Kentucky.

The Pac 10 has a plan for post-expansion divisions that has some logic as well. To the north are Washington and Washington State, Oregon and Oregon State, Cal and Stanford. The six in the other division come in handy pairs as well: USC and UCLA, Arizona and Arizona State, and the two newcomers, Colorado and Utah.

Take a moment now to think about how you would split the twelve Big 10 teams into two divisions. Remember, they are Penn State, Ohio State, Indiana, Purdue, Michigan, Michigan State, Illinois, Northwestern, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Nebraska.

Seems kind of obvious, doesn’t it? In fact, I’ve just done it, and handy pairs are staring you in the face. In the east we put Penn State and Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State, Indiana and Purdue. In the west we put Illinois and Northwestern, Wisconsin and Minnesota, Iowa and Nebraska. Done, with natural rivalries built in, rivalries that may not respect past history but are ready made for new history.

The problem is that past history, with the mother of all rivalries, Ohio State and Michigan, the primacy of which has to be preserved somehow. And then, well, let’s see what the Big Ten had to say in its announcement a few months ago:

The Big Ten football division alignments will include a division featuring Illinois, Indiana, Ohio State, Penn State, Purdue and Wisconsin, and a division featuring Iowa, Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, Nebraska and Northwestern. Each school will play the other five schools within its division and will also face three teams from the other division, including one cross-division matchup guaranteed on an annual basis. The guaranteed cross-division matchups are Illinois-Northwestern, Indiana-Michigan State, Ohio State-Michigan, Penn State-Nebraska, Purdue-Iowa and Wisconsin-Minnesota. Names for each Big Ten football division will be announced at a later date.

This isn’t how I would have done it. In particular, there’s no geographical logic to it at all.

But about those division names, which were announced today along with the logo pictured at the top, they are: Leaders and Legends. League commissioner Jim Delany explained to the AP that “The Legends, not too hard in that we have 215 College Football Hall of Fame members, we have 15 Heisman Trophy winners. We thought it made perfect sense to recognize the iconic and the legendary through the naming of the division in that regard. … We’ve had plenty of leaders in the conference, that’s for sure, but the emphasis here is to recognize the mission of using intercollegiate athletics and higher education to build future leaders.”

I think he lost me. And which is which? The division with Ohio State is the Leaders; the division with Michigan is the Legends.

Sigh.

Categories: Football, Language, Stupidity