Monthly Archives: December 2006

Folly on the march

One of the joys of vacation is more time to read (and I write that as a voracious reader in normal times). I’ve had a great time reading Mozart in the Jungle, An Unfinished Season and Slicky Boys (more on those to come), but I’ve just started what looks to be the most meaningful of my Christmas break books.

Barbara Tuchman published The March of Folly in 1984, when the folly of America’s involvement in Vietnam was still fresh. The last third of the book is devoted to Vietnam, after analyses of the Protestant succession and the British loss of America. Tuchman died in 1989, but there will clearly be an equivalent history of folly to be written about our current war in Iraq.

I loved this quote about Philip II of Spain: “No experience of the failure of his policy could shake his belief in its essential excellence.” President Bush, meet Philip II.

Remembering Larry DuPraz

A friend sent me a long-expected obituary from The Daily Princetonian, where I was Chairman (what we called the editor-in-chief) 29 years ago: “Larry DuPraz, the beloved flat-topped, cigar-chomping curmudgeon whose critical eye refined six decades of journalism at The Daily Princetonian, died Christmas Eve morning in Massachusetts. He was 87 and suffered from heart disease.

When I joined the Prince in 1974, Larry had already been on the paper for 28 years. He was incredibly irascible and he just about defined curmudgeon. But he, far more than any of the paper’s editors, was the guardian of standards for the Prince. If you worked on the nighttime production crew, which we all did on a regular rotation, you had to put up with Larry’s endless belittling of your talents. “You guys don’t know how to write a headline.” “Who taught you to do that?” “I don’t know why I keep working here with you guys.” “You’re the worst bunch ever.”

And there was a definite rite of passage with Larry. “When [fill in the blank] was Chairman, this was a good newspaper.” Sure enough, when I returned for my 25th reunion and went to the Prince barbeque, Larry regaled the 2003 editors with a familiar line: “When Knobel, Doyle, Klinger and Resnick were here, they knew what they were doing.”

Big country

My geography knowledge, if I say so myself, is excellent. But there’s a difference between knowing something and really feeling its effects. So I know the US is an enormous country. But it’s only when I have to fly across it, as I did yesterday, that the scale is brought home to me.

I had an important business meeting today in Atlanta. From London, my home for so many years, a 2pm meeting anywhere in Europe (excepting Moscow) would be easily reachable by a morning flight. Not so Atlanta from San Francisco. I had to fly Sunday morning at 11am to get to Atlanta at 6:30 in the evening. It’s the effect of both distance and time zones. Atlanta is 2100 miles away and three hours ahead of the Bay Area. To go that far from London, you would need to fly to Egypt.

By the way, Apple computers used to have a little utility that measured global distances (I seem to recall the default measured from Cupertino). I don’t know whether they still do, but in my World Link days we determined that the two most distant national capitals are Singapore and Quito, Ecuador. They are 12,269 miles apart (19,745km). The earth’s circumference at the equator is 24,902 miles, so it’s almost impossible to be further apart than Singapore and Quito. I challenge anyone to find two more distant places of any significance on our planet. We dreamed for years of having one World Link staffer in Singapore at the same time as one in Quito (they were the kinds of places we went to), but never quite managed it.

(In the absence of the Apple utility, you can use for the calculation.)

Update It occurs to me that Quito/Singapore would have been perfect for Ze Frank’s earth sandwich.

Further update As David Derrick points out in the comments, Madrid and Wellington are a bit further apart.

Can you handle the truth?

During a stimulating walk and lunch with Dave Winer today, our conversation digressed to obituaries. There’s a striking distinction between British obituaries – irreverent, witty, enjoyable – and US obituaries – sententious, eulogistic and boring. Dave nailed the reason: “This country isn’t good at handling truth.”

I think he’s right. Obituaries are just one of the manifestations.

Go on a school tour led by a volunteer parent. Everything is wonderful; the sun always shines. In Britain, at the opposite extreme, there would be constant grumbling and sniping. But there’s a happy medium of helpful truth. After all, everyone knows that there’s no place that is absolutely perfect. Wouldn’t some honesty about that help people make decisions?

In universities the phenomenon of grade inflation seems a manifestation of the same blindness. The truth is that individual performance varies. But in a world where everyone gets an A or an A- that’s another truth considered too difficult to handle. The same applies in the world of job references (reinforced by the worries about litigation). Everyone is wonderful; you have to read between the lines to figure out whether someone was truly wonderful or a no-hoper.

On an issue of greater importance, consider the craven US mainstream press. Now that the worm has turned, the papers are full of the incompetence of the Bush administration and the unfolding disaster in Iraq. When it was unfashionable to criticize the president? The press was largely silent. Truth wasn’t part of the equation.

Strange bedfellows

I enjoyed the (unintended?) irony at the end of Paul Krugman’s column in today’s New York Times. After an honor roll of those who spoke out against the war in Iraq at the cost of derision and insults four years ago, he writes: “We should honor these people for their wisdom and courage. We should also ask why anyone who didn’t raise questions about the war — or, at any rate, anyone who acted as a cheerleader for this march of folly — should be taken seriously when he or she talks about matters of national security.”

Look to the left of Krugman on the page and what do you find? Tom Friedman, a prominent cheerleader back in the day.

Microsoft and innovation

I’ve been so head down with my work that I am only just catching up with dozens of interesting discussions. The debate between Dave Winer and Robert Scoble about whether Microsoft is an innovator, hosted by The Wall Street Journal, is well worth a look. I particularly appreciated Dave’s point: “I say [Microsoft doesn’t] do it. To expect them to innovate would be like expecting a football quarterback to throw a shutout. Different sports. Innovation comes from individuals, and with Microsoft the big old stodgy giant that it is, it can’t handle the rugged individualism that real innovators bring to the party. People at Microsoft are more interested in keeping things nice and predictable, they care too much about manners, and innovation is anything but predictable, or mannerly!”

Some of the discussion is at cross-purposes. I suspect it’s because Scoble and Winer are talking about different kinds of innovation. Scoble, citing things like True Type, better search and Halo (I find it hard to credit gory games as an innovation), is talking about incremental innovation. Winer is focused on disruptive innovation. Both are innovation, but it’s the disruptive innovations that really change the world.

Encouraging science illiteracy

Mark Liberman at Language Log:

My point here is that journalists still maintain the presumption that the news media ought to tell the truth about politics, economics, natural disasters, and so on. If it’s shown that fabricated evidence has been presented as if it were true, someone ought to apologize or even get fired. However, it’s clear that there’s no such presumption in the area of science reporting, even when the issues have major public policy implications. Has any journalist ever been disciplined for publishing a source’s fabrications about science, even when a small amount of research would have uncovered the problems? I’ve never heard of a case. Science writing is treated as a form of popular entertainment, of a vaguely utilitarian sort, and even when articles present quantitative “facts” that are completely fabricated, as has recently become common in the case of the “science” of sex differences, there are no consequences.