Monthly Archives: December 2005

Kalepa ta kala

Joel Spolsky posts an interesting essay on why it’s important for computer science students to learn the hard way (through languages like Scheme), rather than the easy way (Java). I know very little about programming or CS, but Joel’s essay struck a chord. Not least because of this passage:

Heck, in 1900, Latin and Greek were required subjects in college, not because they served any purpose, but because they were sort of considered an obvious requirement for educated people. In some sense my argument is no different that the argument made by the pro-Latin people (all four of them). “[Latin] trains your mind. Trains your memory. Unraveling a Latin sentence is an excellent exercise in thought, a real intellectual puzzle, and a good introduction to logical thinking,” writes Scott Barker. But I can’t find a single university that requires Latin any more. Are pointers and recursion the Latin and Greek of Computer Science?

As Jerome Karabel explains in The Choice, Latin and Greek were also an effective way to exclude both the horny-handed sons of the soil, however bright, and immigrant kids from the cities. Only private schools, and a handful of old public institutions like Boston Latin, taught Latin and Greek. So Harvard, Princeton and Yale could rely on excluding those undesireables without being too explicit about it.

Of course, if Joel had studied his Latin and Greek he’d know there’s a perfect Greek aphorism for what he describes: kalepa ta kala. It translates as “beautiful things are difficult”, or more loosely “naught without labor”. It was the first phrase I was taught when I took ancient Greek and it holds true both for that great language and many other things.

Stalin's community of practice

Further to my Stalin reading, I had an interesting discussion today with Paul Duguid. One of Paul’s areas of interest is communities of practice, which is usually considered a warm, cosy kind of notion. Stalin’s inner circle, Paul pointed out, was a great community of practice. It’s just that the members learned from each other how to be effective at mass murder, rather than anything that might have made the Soviet Union a better place.

I encountered a similar dissonance a few years ago when I was discussing social capital. Although usually used in reference to positive things like bowling leagues and community organizations, social capital can also be highly deleterious. Street gangs have tons of social capital, and the Mafia may have the most intense and long-running social capital of any group. Inevitably, some people have thought deeply about the downside of social capital. Worth a look.

Stalin's court

My major holiday reading certainly wasn’t light: Simon Sebag Montefiore’s Stalin, The Court of the Red Tsar. It’s a fascinating, gripping read, exposing both the horror and the political intelligence of Stalin and his courtiers, many of whom of course did not survive his regime.

Just as slinging “fascist” around is ridiculous in most political discussions, so too with Stalinist. After all, Stalin probably tops the charts of the last century’s three major dictators for number of people killed. No one alive today, thankfully, is coming close to challenging that record. But I have to confess that there were many points in Stalin where my thoughts turned to today’s Washington. Consider some of the parallels. Stalin’s absurd promotion of the pseudo-science of Trofim Lysenko. Check. The elevation of doctrine over truth. Check. The importance of agreeing with the leader even if decisions are clearly wrong. Check. The relentless manipulation of news. Check.

Back from my break

In a very un-American way, I vanished for the past week with my family to spend some time in the mountains, enjoying the fresh air and skiing. I’ve spent most of the past 30 years in places where whole nations shut down around Christmas. Even when I worked at the World Economic Forum, with the Davos Annual Meeting less than a month away, Christmas was largely lights out for the organization.

The US is certainly different. My impressions are undoubtedly colored by the minor kerfuffle that sprang up concerning my business, in the few days before Christmas. But even without that, it is striking how little variation in the daily rhythm and routine is practiced here. Some of the difference is certainly healthy. As a secular Jew, I have to say I felt the huge emphasis on Christmas – to the exclusion of any other holiday – in Europe wearying. It’s a relief that Chanukah and other traditions get fair billing in the US.

But America would certainly benefit from a bigger breather than most people seem to take. So I did take a decent break, including from Davos Newbies.

Instructions from the jury

In all likelihood, my jury duty ended today. We heard closing arguments from the three lawyers (one for the plaintiff, and one each for the two defendants), then the rebuttal from the plaintiff’s lawyer and finally the judge’s instructions. That took nearly four hours in the court (and of course there was both a morning break and a lunch break as well).

As the alternate juror, I was then thanked by the judge and dismissed. My fellow jurors will come back on Monday to deliberate and render a verdict. If one of them falls ill, I’ll be called back. So I still won’t comment on the specifics of this case. But I thought I’d offer this one juror’s advice to lawyers.

1. Don’t be too pleased with yourself. One of the lawyers in my case was very good, but he made a point of showing he knew it. That’s just annoying.

2. Don’t mimic a witness, particularly in a demeaning way. One lawyer, in his closing argument, chose to speak a witness’ words in a whining voice, presumably to cast doubt on the witness’ veracity. If people make fools of themselves, fine. If you make fools of them, wrong.

3. One of the parties to the case had a habit of making significant glances to the jury at various parts of the trial. Raised eyebrows, rolling eyes, that sort of thing. Not good.

4. Get organized. One lawyer in particular seemed to lose his way in every presentation he made. If he can’t keep track of his argument, does he really think the jury will follow it?

5. Brevity is the soul of (fill in the blank). We heard three closing arguments. They took by my estimate 60 minutes, 90 minutes and 10 minutes. Guess which one the jury felt most happy about.

It could well be the verdict in this trial has nothing to do with these five points. None of my strictures really affect the law or the evidence in a particular case. But they certainly form part of getting a jury on your side.

Sitting in the box

I’ve now sat on the jury for two days of the trial to which I’ve been assigned at Alameda County court. I can’t comment on the trial itself, but I think I’m on safe ground to wonder at the resources being devoted to a small (very, very small) civil case.

There are 12 jurors and two alternates. So 14 of us are having at least six days of our normal working life interrupted at who knows what cost to each of us. There are always at least three lawyers attending, and today there were four. In addition to the judge (who is very good, by the way), there is a court attendant, a clerk and a court reporter. And, of course, there’s the plaintiff and one person from one of the defendants. And then there are the various witnesses for the plaintiff and defence who come in for their hour (after hour, after hour) on stage. So at least 24 people are stuck in a courtroom to argue, hear and decide on very small case.

I know it’s a vital part of democracy, but it doesn’t make much sense to me for the subject at hand. On which I’ll have something to say when the trial is over.

Which is worse: connection or coffee?

Martin Varsavsky observes a technology mystery:

Right now, i’m in the famous Silicon Valley. The cradle of the internet. I’m having lots of meetings with legendary venture capital firms, with WiFi access point makers and with the giants of the internet. In each one of these meetings, i try out the internet connections that people use here and i come to the mind-boggling conclusion that internet connections here are REALLY BAD. Seriously, people here surf at speeds that we were used to in Spain back in 2000. It’s common knowledge that Spanish highways are in better shape than in the US but i am astonished to see that the people who design the most advanced software, websites and hardware, surf at internet speeds hardly faster than a dial-up modem. I inquired why internet was so slow and I always got the same answer: that it’s due to the fixed line operator monopoly in the US where you have 2 or 3 operators per city and are all colluding. Interestingly, in Europe, there is a lot of competition among fixed line operators and very little with mobile operators. Here, it’s the contrary, mobiles are much cheaper but fixed phone lines have smaller bandiwths and are very expensive. Clearly, this is not Sweden where Labs2 amazed me with their 1 Gig bandwidth for only 89 euros. Every time i enter one of these meetings here in Silicon Valley, i don’t know what will be worse, the coffee or the internet connection.

Modernity as a plot

Philip Stephens in the Financial Times (subscribers only), pins down France’s role in both EU and WTO disputes:

The facts about France defy crude caricatures. It has an impressively productive economy and an array of globally competitive companies. As an Anglo-Saxon, I am as often envious of French culture and intellectualism as infuriated by its self-conscious exceptionalism. If the recent riots in the banlieues were a vivid reminder of deep-seated social problems, they were are also a wake-up call for most of the rest of Europe.

Yet, look back over the past decade and Mr Chirac has misjudged and miscalculated at every turn. Each new challenge has been treated as a threat. Stubbornness has replaced confidence. EU enlargement, globalisation, international trade talks: all have been seen as part of a global conspiracy against the fifth republic. Every change has somehow been a betrayal; modernity itself is cast as a plot to diminish France’s standing in the world. Mr Chirac has thus swapped his country’s identity as a leader for that of victim.

More Europe once meant more France. By welcoming the former communist states into the club, Paris might have projected its leadership across this wider landscape. But Mr Chirac has never been able to conceal his disgruntled condescension towards these “lesser” states from the east. The decline of French influence has thus become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The same persecution complex has defined his response to globalisation. The French social model has much to recommend it. A confident leader would have shown how the model could be adapted and updated to meet the new insecurities of the age. Instead, Mr Chirac has built another Maginot Line.

Members of the jury

For the first time in my life, I’ve been called for jury duty. At one level, I’m happy to be part of an essential part of democracy, but at another, I’m annoyed at the disruption to the work I need to do.

Until the middle of this afternoon, I thought my jury duty would be over almost before it began. Yesterday, when I had to report to the Alameda County courthouse, I was called with 64 other citizens for selection for a civil case. All we had to do yesterday was fill out a questionnaire. The odds didn’t seem too bad: 12 jurors out of 65 people.

Today wasn’t so simple. Twelve of our number were called to the jury box and asked to elaborate on various responses they gave on the questionnaire. Until the judge asked one of the attorneys to speed things up, the voir dire was taking forever. Even with an improvement of tempo, we reached lunchtime only part of the way through the 12.

After lunch, things sped up. Once the questioning of the original 12 by the judge and attorneys for plaintiff and defence was over, various individuals were eliminated by one side or the other’s peremptory challenges. Eventually, at about 2:30 in the afternoon, there were no further challenges and the judge swore in the 12 members of the jury.

Phew, I thought. I won’t have to spend the next week in the courtroom. Wrong. The judge suggested the trial should have two alternates. So two more people were called. Still not me. But after two of the potential alternates were eliminated, I was called to seat number 13. I would have loved to have claimed some terrible prejudice that should rule me out of the jury, but I was honest. Sadly, no one objected and at about 3pm I was sworn in as an alternate for the jury.

When the judge dismissed the 30 or so people who had not been selected or already dismissed, there were a lot of happy faces. The judge commented, when the 14 jurors and alternates were the only people left, “I never understand why the people that leave are smiling. The smiles should be the people left in the jury box. It’s a great privilege to take part in such an important democratic process.”

I believe that theory, but I certainly didn’t feel like smiling today. We’ll see what next week brings.

Wikipedia accuracy v NYT

Andy Hargadon brings sense and perspective to the Wikipedia fracas:

I’ll be the first to admit that technologies bring unintended, and often catastrophic, consequences. But this is an example of how new technologies that are no worse than old technologies managed to get blamed for crimes that, in the old ways of doing things, were just business as usual.

Worse things happen every day in the book reviews posted anonymously on Amazon (I should know). Worse still happen in the NYT Review of Books, considering the far greater damage to writers’ careers of a bad review in the NYT magazine. And of course, the irony absent this NYT report on the Wikipedia makes it seem that such a travesty of truth could never happen to the Times news organization itself (see the Wiki for Jayson Blair and Judith Miller).

As the Times reports, “Mr. Seigenthaler discovered that the false information had been on the site for several months and that an unknown number of people had read it, and possibly posted it on or linked it to other sites.” Seriously, how many people do you think saw it, or possibly posted it on their sites? Now compare this number to how many people read Judith Miller’s reports on the Iraqi Weapons of Mass Destruction?