Some free publicity

The idea of a magazine about the Internet seems strange at first sight, but the idea that the Internet was going to wipe out print media can now be seen as one of the popular delusions of the late 20th century, and if I can blog about what’s in magazines, there’s no reason why magazines shouldn’t run stories about blogging.

Internet.au (whose very limited online presence is here has done just that in its February issue, including quite a few comments from me. There’s a teaser about how “blogs are so dangerous they could get you into trouble with your work, the government … or your mum …”, but the article itself is quite sensible, except that a piece from the Onion on the last point is reported as fact.

Monday Message Board, late again

I realised as I was going to bed that I’d failed, yet again to open up the Monday Message Board on time, though it is still Monday in Queensland, just. I can only plead that a long weekend does not get me into a Monday mood. As we all return to work, please vent your frustrations on any topic (in a civilised fashion and without coarse language, of course).

The Hard Way

My summer holiday activities over the last couple of months included a lot of work on my music collection (I’m slowly transferring from vinyl to MP3/AIFF) and rereading Nick Hornby. So, I was naturally struck by how rapidly the skill of making compilation tapes, a central theme of High Fidelity has gone from the esoteric to the everyday. Not surprisingly, not everyone is happy about this. Joel Keller, writing in Salon, says

Putting together a home-brewed compilation of songs used to be an act of love and art. Now it’s just too damn easy to be worth caring about.

and much more in the same vein, though his conclusion is more elegiac than polemical

When making the decision between practicality and artistic merit, I’ll choose practicality more often than not. I may be wistful for the old days, but I’m not an idiot.

So let’s have a moment of silence, for the mix as we used to know it is dead. Technology has overtaken the experience and made it cold and impersonal. But it’s time to look forward, as the Internet has allowed us to trade and download more varied types of music, making for better-sounding, albeit more antiseptic, mixes. One of these days, Nick Hornby should do a sequel to “High Fidelity” and list Rob’s Top 5 music downloads. I’m sure it’ll be a nice read. But it just won’t be the same.

The first time I heard this form of argument, it was from my Grade 4 teacher, lamenting the arrival of the ballpoint pen, and its adverse effect on the quality of handwriting. Possibly since I never mastered the steel nib/inkwell technology still favoured by the South Australian Department of Education in the 1960s, I was not impressed. Since then, I’ve seen the same argument applied to calculators, word processing and desktop publishing. And of course, the argument wasn’t new when I first met it – in one form or another, it’s been applied to almost any technical innovation that replaces a complex skill with an easily usable machine. (It’s separate from the income-distributional arguments that apply when skilled workers are displaced by unskilled ones, although the two are often entangled).

Before defending modernity on this , let me extract what I believe to be the core of validity in this argument. If the production of an item requires substantial skill and effort, the average quality of the items produced will be higher. This is for the same reason as (I ahve been told) some Japanese stores giftwrap their fruit – given the cost of a piece of fruit, giftwrapping makes sense. If making a compilation tape at all takes hours of work, and requires skills that only a music enthusiast will bother to acquire, a lot more effort and judgement will go into the selection and ordering of the tracks, correction of the levels and so on, than if a 14-year old can put together a CD in five minutes, as is now the case.

Similarly, when WYSIWYG word processing first became feasible, it was asserted that the quality of writing declined because students were spending too much time on flashy presentation. While this possible, I suspect the truth is that the total input of time declined substantially. Students judged (probably correctly at first) that an essay that looked professional, contained no spelling errors and so forth would get by even if the content was pretty weak. Moreover, cut and paste made it easy to produce an apparently final version without rewriting. In this case, the problem is that those setting the essays wanted to elicit some amount of work from the students but (with the exception of those students who actually wanted to learn something) the student’s objective was to minimize the effort required to do the job. At least until teachers learned to disregard cues like good presentation, the result was a decline in average quality which (if you agree that Teacher Knows Best) made everyone worse off.

Another case where average quality declined with bad effects, following an increase in ease of use, was that of Internet newsgroups. These were useful forums as long as the skills and effort required to use them confined access to those willing to make serious contributions. When they became easily accessible (roughly when AOL merged with the Internet) the newsgroups were flooded with garbage. It’s only since the rise of blogging software that the old vision of the Internet as a forum for debate that could bypass media monopolies has reasserted itself.

In most cases, though, (including that of blogging) a decline in average quality is quite consistent with an improvement across the board, in the sense that more and better good quality outputs are produced, even while the average is dragged down by people who would previously not have produced at all. People like Sal Tuzzeo, quoted by Keller may sneer that

On the subways you see people with iPods. They have, what, a thousand songs on them. Ten thousand, even. They stare random-glared into oblivion. [R]obots with s***ty music taste and too much money to spend on music-listening hardware and shoes, in that order

but why shouldn’t people be free to follow their taste, s***ty or otherwise? Keller argues that

Fewer people who are connected to the music they listen to translates into a less critical and picky audience for the crapola that the record companies and radio stations promote. The quality of music overall goes downhill.

but, again, why should anyone care about average quality or what is promoted on radio stations? People who are critical and picky, but don’t have the time or skills to make compilation tapes, chase down obscure records and so on, now have a much better capacity to find and reward those who are producing it.

By the way, talking of innovation, this post was produced using Ecto, a blogging client for Mac OS X currently in version 0.2.1, but already a big improvement on anything else I’ve used. Thanks to Brad DeLong for the tip.

[Posted with ecto]

Assimilated by the Blorg?

Following my visit a month or so ago, I’ve decided to join the Crooked Timber collective. When I polled readers around the same time, the response was, as usual, in favour of the status quo, but I think the arrangements I’ve made will be a Pareto-improvement. I’ll continue to run this blog as normal, but posts I think appropriate to CT will also appear there. As far as I can tell, the overlap in readership is quite small.

One complication is that for posts appearing here and on CT, there will be two separate comments threads. I don’t think this is too much of a difficulty – the same issue arises when I put up several posts on the same topic, and it’s analogous to the case in comment systems that support multithreading.

Looking ahead, I’m planning on moving from mentalspace to a domain of my own. I see that Robert Corr who originally set me up on mentalspace, has just done the same. Although one can never tell, I hope the new arrangements will last for quite some time.

Australia Day message

Australia Day seems like a suitable occasion to look at the question of whether and how Australia should become a republic. The whether question is, in my view, straightforward. Monarchy is an undemocratic institution. The monarch in a constitutional monarchy is at best, a dignified but powerless figurehead and at worst an undemocratic centre of power. In Australia’s case, the monarchical role is split between a political appointee with significant (if only occasional) power and a hereditary foreign monarch whose powers are presumed (but only presumed) to be nonexistent. The contribution of this setup to national dignity is negative.
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Pearson discovers DDT

This piece by Christopher Pearson in today’s Oz, denouncing green opposition to DDT, encapsulates everything that’s wrong with Australia’s right-wing commentariat. Not only is almost everything in the article either false or grossly misleading, but it’s a fourth-hand recycling of points that have been flogged to death in the blogosphere.

Pearson’s source is an article in Quadrant, which in turn relies on such authorities as Bjorn Lomborg, Michael Crichton and junkscience.com (Steven Milloy), none of whom have any scientific qualifications more advanced than Milloy’s master’s degree in health sciences, and none of whom have done any research on this topic.

Having accused the green movement of being responsible for millions of deaths as a result of DDT, Pearson’s sources come up with three specific claims.

First that the ban on agricultural use of DDT in the US was unjustified by the health risks. Whether or not this is true, widespread agricultural use of DDT was a major contributor to the rapid increase in resistance that rendered anti-malarial use of DDT largely ineffective in many countries. Illegal agricultural use is still a major problem.

Second, that Greenpeace is campaigning to close the factory in India that is the sole source of DDT. Greenpeace’s official position, easily discovered is that it supports a phase-out of DDT, and its replacement by safer, but more costly substitutes, to be funded by industrialised countries. More precisely

Financial and administrative mechanisms be included in the UNEP POPs treaty to assist less industrialised countries eliminate DDT production and use

Third, that aid agencies in Scandinavia refused to fund programs using DDT. This claim isn’t supported in enough detail to check it, but it’s scarcely much of a basis for alleging a global conspiracy, especially since there are equally effective and safe, but more expensive, substitutes which the Scandinavians may well have preferred to fund.

I’ve written more on DDT, indicating just how thoroughly Pearson is engaged in recycling, and how fundamentally the case he presents is undermined by consideration of resistance.

Meanwhile, shouldn’t journalistic and magazine ethics be extended to include some kind of Google rule, prohibiting the publication of articles that can be replicated by less than an hour’s Googling, or at least the payment of more than an hour’s casual rates for such pieces.

Update Various commentators have pointed out that this kind of thing is not confined to the right wing of the commentariat. Still, the DDT story is a particularly egregious example. And I can put my hand on my heart and say I’ve never signed my name to a recycled piece like this. I do occasionally repeat myself, but that’s because not enough people listened the first time I said it.

Sistani and slavery

Responding to my post on Sistani, Brad de Longsuggests that I need to read the Declaration of Independence , going on to assert that

A Bonapartist or a fascist or a theocratic dictatorship is not a legitimate government, no matter how large are its plebiscitary majorities and how enthusiastic are its crowds. The only governments that have even a possibility of being truly legitimate are those that maintain an underlying liberal order–which means protecting minority (and women’s) rights.

I’m tempted to snap back with Dr Johnson’s observation on the American revolutionaries

How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty from the drivers of Negroes (quote from memory here)

but Brad’s post and the comments thread raise a number of important issues.
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Men are from Microsoft, women are from Apple?

I went to see Something’s Gotta Give recently and noted what appears to be a recently-established convention of romantic comedy and related genres. The sensitive, intellectual one (normally the woman) always has a Mac (more precisely, a late model Powerbook), while the opposite-to-attract has a Windows machine (also a laptop, brand depends on who bids most for product placement). This seems a pretty good convention to me.

What this country needs is a good 5-cent anything

A couple of times in recent weeks, I’ve had the experience of being at the front of a queue to pay a machine, with the exact money ready, only to discover that the machine doesn’t accept 5-cent pieces. I have a few observations on this.

First, this is really annoying, and I will do my best to avoid patronising the operators of these machines in future. I don’t mind them being slow in modifying machines to accept new coins, but what possible justification is there for modifying machines (or changing the design for new ones) to reject existing coins.

Second, since consumer sovereignty is invariably impotent in situations of this kind, I guess it’s time to exercise voice in support of the abolition of the (now-useless) 5-cent piece.

Third, this presumably implies that 5-dollar coins can’t be far away.

Finally, in all this process, would it be totally impossible to introduce a 50-cent piece with a sensible size and shape?