Monday, November 27, 2006

Mark Halperin on NPR

Mark Halperin was on KQED tonight; I was listening on the shuttle home. He said something to the effect that "new media" (blogs, cable news, and talk radio) are partly responsible for coarsening the nation's political debate. According to him, new media make the debate more extreme, more polarizing, and more oriented towards pushing a point of view rather than informing the public. Some outrageous "freak show" allegation pops up on Drudge, makes its way onto local news, then cable news, and finally onto major news outlets including the New York Times.

When someone asked him a followup question about whether the "old media" (i.e., people like Halperin's employer ABC News) are therefore somehow responsible as well, his reply was basically:

  1. Yes, sure; however--
  2. the "new media" should elevate its standards, and
  3. the old media are just "giving the people what they want" --- "I didn't get into this business to write about Brangelina, but we need to survive economically".

The latter two arguments fill me with fury. They are misleading in at least two ways.

First, "new media" is a misleading level of abstraction that lumps together many wildly different parts of a huge and decentralized system. There's a world of difference between Drudge and, say, Brad DeLong, and yet the old media pay more attention to Drudge. There will always be sources of bad information in society --- social networks for promulgating rumor and superstition existed long before the Internet did, and they will always exist. The salient fact is not the existence of Drudge; it's the selection of Drudge from an essentially unlimited set of choices. Blaming the "new media" for the offal that gets promoted to the front page is rather like blaming the continent of Africa for the fact that you've elected to eat elephant shit for breakfast.

Second, the problem with the news media is not that they do stories on "Brangelina". Nobody cares that celebrity news fluff gets a few column-inches here or a few screen-minutes there. The relevant choice is not between covering "Brangelina" and covering politics; the relevant choice is between shallow, misleading coverage of important issues, and substantial coverage of important issues. Or between a view of "objectivity" where you refuse to speak the plain truth simply because some powerful person objects to your speaking the truth, and a view of objectivity where reporters arrive at independent conclusions about the truth and (gasp) state what they conclude to be true.

These two problems with Halperin's arguments are so obvious that I almost can't believe he's speaking in good faith. If Halperin's not being disingenuous, then he's either deluded or remarkably stupid. And he's the ABC News Political Director. Hence my fury.

Finally, let's back up and look at the bigger picture. If the "old media" are so easily subverted by a gossip-monger like Drudge, and so in thrall to the needs of advertisers who want to draw eyeballs via entertainment rather than hard news, that seems like a fundamental, structural, endogenous flaw with the old media.

Halperin's argument basically amounts to this: If only the entire world, including our whole audience and all of our potential sources, changed for the better, then we could publish good news. That's a pretty weak defense.

Maybe it's fundamentally a bad idea to have newspapers and television shows, supported directly by advertising, report the news. Newspapers and television news bundle many disparate forms of labor. A newspaper (a) pays reporters to investigate stories; (b) pays editors to aggregate and filter articles; (c) pays columnists and analysts to comment on the news; (d) pays marketing people to sell advertising.

It has historically been efficient to perform these functions under one roof. However, this may be an artifact of technology. A fat bundle of newsprint is more efficient to produce and distribute than a hundred articles on individual pieces of paper, so you have to package a lot of different things in one bundle. Only a few half-hour news shows can fit on the available broadcast spectrum, so you'd better tailor the whole show to the lowest common denominator to draw eyeballs.

It's far from clear that the various functions of "old media" news should be performed under the same roof today. Wire services like Reuters, AP, and AFP do more hard news-gathering than any newspaper. Online tracking systems (Technorati, Bloglines, etc.) and even individuals (Atrios, etc.) aggregate more stories in more ways than any newspaper. Blogs generate more commentary (and, at their best, higher-quality commentary) than any newspaper. Google's AdSense (and its competitors) sell ads more efficiently than any newspaper.

I leave the task of connecting the foregoing dots to the reader.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

McCain, Christianist-pandering hack

I've written before (one, two) about McCain's pandering tendencies. Today, ThinkProgress brings us still more evidence of McCain's pandering --- this time reversing his position on Roe v. Wade. By now, we all know who he's trying to please.

You know, Rick Santorum took a lot of heat for being an extremist, and everyone I know was happy when he lost. But I kind of liked Santorum. Of course, I'm glad that he no longer has any actual power, but in truth Santorum was a far more principled, independent, and honest man than McCain. Santorum was a dyed-in-the-wool conservative, and he spoke and voted exactly what he believed. As a consequence, when Pennsylvania voters discovered that they disagreed with him, they promptly voted him out.

McCain's a far more pernicious animal. His beliefs on many subjects are, in fact, roughly as extreme as Rick Santorum's. I've linked before to this roundup of McCain's positions on a wide spectrum of issues, and he falls well within the right-Republican cluster on everything but the environment. And McCains' environment score from that link is only in the ballpark of Lieberman and Kerry for that year because the latter two missed a lot of Senate votes for their Presidential campaigns; the 2005 rankings reveal a good 50-point spread between Kerry and McCain.

And that's just domestic policy. McCain's foreign policy positions are cartoonishly hawkish: his chief problems with Dick and Don's Excellent Adventure (to borrow Digby's phrase) are (a) it was insufficiently ambitious and (b) we should do this stuff more often.

But somehow even perfectly reasonable people, including political reporters who ought to know better, behave as if McCain were an independent and principled moderate. Why? I could dream up a web of complicated hypotheses, but at heart I'm a simple guy and sometimes simple answers cut to the heart of things. Let's turn to this CNN interview with Dana Milbank...

MILBANK: Well, there was some basis for that. But I think the pattern here is that the press does respond to the guy walking down the aisle and shaking hands with them.

The press responds to the staffers on the campaign just being nice to them. The whole lesson of McCain, reporters fell in love with McCain not because of anything he believed in but because he was nice to them and he gave them donuts. They're like a bunch of children.

SIMON: It was access more than donuts.

MILBANK: It's not a flattering portrayal of the president. I mean, one of the things I wrote about is comparing the quality of food served on the campaigns. Reporters like to be fed. And we are absolutely a large group of children. And it has a tremendous effect.

So when you talk about ideological bias, it's nothing. It's sort of a culinary bias.


KURTZ: Indictment on the food question.

SIMON: I remember the Jesse Jackson campaign where we didn't get fed at all.

MILBANK: Exactly. Look where he went.

Now, of course Simon and Milbank are partly joking in the last paragraph; Jackson lost for many reasons, of which failure to properly feed the press was only one. But the doughnuts are effective synecdoche: McCain gives reporters doughnuts --- and other little tokens to make them feel special --- and in exchange they're happy to sell out their responsibility to the American people. McCain knows that buying the Oval Office with doughnuts is a pretty good deal, so he's happy to buy the doughnuts.

In short, McCain's a much more calculating and manipulative character than Rick Santorum. He speaks in a way that obfuscates his genuine conservatism, and he manipulates the press into carrying his water. As a result, most Americans have no clue what McCain really believes, and (unlike Santorum) McCain remains a major national political figure. Given a choice between a McCain and a Santorum, I'd almost rather have a Santorum.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Growth vs. equality, investment vs. consumption

This week there was an interesting discussion between Tyler Cowen and the Crooked Timberites about economic policies that favor growth versus those that ensure social welfare. This post at MR and this post at CT will give you the gist of the argument, which is more about relative levels of national wealth, but the underlying question is one of balancing economic growth against other aims.

There's a notion, somewhat popular among (economically) right-leaning types, that economic growth overrules almost every other concern, because in the long run even the bottom of the wealth distribution benefits more from growth than from redistributive policies. Truthfully, I don't understand this line of reasoning.

First of all, the bottom of the income distribution in fifty years consists of different people from the bottom of the income distribution now. It's unclear that the moral status of potential future people strictly exceeds that of actual present people.

Second, this whole debate is just a standard tradeoff between investment versus consumption, like any other, and in such cases some consumption is generally warranted even if it means sacrificing some investment. I could have a really awesome retirement if I decided right now to live in a cardboard box, sell my car, live on a subsistence diet, and invest all of the money I save. This policy favors economic growth, but it's also insane.

Likewise, if a family has two children named Alice and Bob, you can ensure nice retirement funds for both by making Bob live in a cardboard box in the yard, feeding him cheap bland food, clothing him in rags, and putting all the money you save into a shared retirement fund for Alice and Bob. As long as Bob stays in school, gets good grades (you can always threaten to take away his box), and gets a job, this strategy favors long-term economic growth. But that would be equally insane, and unfair besides.

Analogies based on well-known time horizons (one human lifetime) don't scale up straightforwardly to indefinite time horizons (however long humanity will be (1) nonextinct and (2) actually running the show). However, I think the core insights carry over. Poverty reduction and economic justice in the present are goods; "spending" on them through redistributive policies can be viewed as a form of consumption.* A society with vast levels of poverty or economic injustice is undignified and painful, in the same way that living in a cardboard box is undignified and painful. If society must trade off some investment for consumption to achieve what we view as an acceptable "lifestyle" today, then so be it.

Of course, this analysis suggests we should also care about economic growth: you don't want to prioritize consumption over investment in all cases. But now we're just haggling over price, if you will. In order to argue for either more growth or more of something else, you have to propose an intellectual framework for balancing growth against other values. It's completely insufficient to pull out the benefits of growth and call that a trump card.

* I am pretending, here, that redistributive policies are never investments. Of course, that's false in many cases. For example, both equalizing educational opportunity and improving childhood health clearly improve long-run economic growth. Achieving these goals in our society clearly requires some amount of wealth redistribution.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Possibly the best thing ever written about Maureen Dowd

C. Bush writes...

So, even Dowd’s defender says mostly bad things about her, but what is more telling to me, ultimately, are the good things even her detractors say about her: she exaggerates, but she provokes with her sharp wit, etc. Well, here are some examples of that wit: “We had the Belle Epoque. Now we have the Botox Epoch.” (Oh --was that a tree breaking outside [my] window or the biggest SNAP! in history?!?).


For me the problem with Dowd is not that her style overrides her substance, it’s that her style is no good. Apparently someone somewhere in the world reads “Botox Epoque” and chuckles to themselves “Botox Epoque, that’s good!”

Amdahl's Law and single parentood

More evidence that Ezra Klein's a bright guy: Observe as he uses Amdahl's Law to eviscerate the conservative contention that attacking single parenthood is the way to attack poverty.

Well, OK, he probably didn't know there was a name for that principle. It is a simple principle, but pretty central to thinking about any optimization problem.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Someone please write this application for me

As follows:

  • Scan the contents of my music collection, including all .mp3 and .ogg files on my hard disk, on my portable music player, and my download history from (And, what the hell, scan that other online music store too, though I never buy anything from there.)
  • Cross-reference with all known databases of concert listings.
  • Email me a weekly schedule of shows in my area for bands I like. The schedule will contain two lists: (1) tickets that go on sale this week; (2) shows playing this week.

Basically, I listen to too many bands to keep up with them all manually. I refuse to spend hours browsing myspace profiles every week. Even scanning the SF Bay Guardian listings taxes my patience, and it's easy to miss a line or forget a band if I've just downloaded their song recently. I always seem to find out about shows a couple of weeks after they've happened. Mobius Band was here in mid-October and Voxtrot was here last weekend. I missed them both. Grrr.

Actually, about 90% of what I need could be accomplished by emusic directly, since they already have my download list, and I get the lion's share of my recent music from them.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Unix man page lookup (Wednesday Emacs blogging)

Today's a quick one:

; man page lookup (by default, f1 is help, but I
; already know how to bring that up using C-h)
(define-key global-map [f1]
  (lambda () (interactive)
    (manual-entry (current-word))))

As the comment implies, by default f1's bound to Emacs help. But of course, longtime Emacs users know how to acces the rich interactive help system using C-h; C-h ? ? gives you a list of the main C-h functions, but here are some favorites that I hit reflexively almost once a day:

C-h a
"Apropos" help: looks up anything (including both functions and variables) matching a substring
C-h b
List all key bindings in the current mode
C-h k keystroke
Look up the function bound to this keystroke

So, what do you really need that f1 help for? Looking up a Unix manpage on the current word is much more useful, especially in M-x shell mode or other modes where you're editing shell commands.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Fast access to dired file manager (retroactive Wednesday Emacs blogging)

Despite the existence of modern graphical file managers, I still find myself dropping into Emacs dired-mode ("the directory editor") for file management surprisingly often.

I haven't really figured out why. Certain operations just seem easier or faster in dired. Maybe it's because I can use Emacs idioms like incremental search (C-s) for moving to files and directories, and dired-advertised-find-file (f) to open things, which makes navigation speedier than scrolling and mousing inside a folder window. Maybe it's because (unlike graphical file managers) you can mark files (m) for an operation without fear of losing that selection on an errant mouse-click or keystroke. Or maybe it's because of little things like tilde (~), which marks all files in the current dired buffer that match the glob *~ for deletion.

Anyway, calling dired on the current directory when you're editing a file is extremely useful. Accordingly I've bound a keystroke to this function:

; F4 for dired buffer of the current directory in the other window
(define-key global-map [f4] (lambda () (interactive)
    (dired-other-window default-directory)))

The above Elisp binds F4 to open dired on the current directory. If you're a Unix user, then some directories have dotfiles (files whose names begin with .) that you'd rather ignore sometimes. Accordingly, I've also got a binding that uses a regexp to filter out all dotfiles from the view:

; F8 to open dired buffer of the current directory without dotfiles
; in other window
(define-key global-map [f8] (lambda () (interactive)
    (dired-other-window (concat default-directory "[^.]*"))))