Thursday, August 27, 2009

T. B. Lee on journalism and the Innovator's Dilemma

T. B. Lee (not T. Berners-Lee) has a newish blog and it has proved excellent enough* that it exceeded my expectations (which were not low to begin with; & I'm not saying this because we're slightly acquainted). For example, this post on newspapers and journalism makes a point which I've never seen stated as clearly anywhere else (well, OK, just once, but it bears repeating):

If I ran the world, no one would be allowed to opine about the decline of the newspaper industry until they’d read The Innovator’s Dilemma. The web is so clearly a disruptive technology, and the newspaper industry is so clearly following the trajectory Christensen describes in his book, that it’s hard to think clearly about the process if you haven’t grasped Christensen’s key insights. To review, the key attribute of a disruptive technology is that when it’s introduced into the marketplace, it is cheaper but also markedly inferior to the incumbent technology, as judged by the criteria of the dominant technology’s customers. Internet-based news clearly fits this pattern. As newspaper people never tire of reminding us, Internet-based news outlets rarely have the resources to staff expensive foreign bureaus, conduct in-depth fact-checking, fly sports reporters to away games, hire teams of lawyers, and so on. If the Huffington Post or TechCrunch were judged as newspapers, they would be pretty lousy ones.

What we learn from The Innovator’s Dilemma is this state of affairs is completely normal when a disruptive technology invades an established industry. . . . So newspaper partisans are absolutely right to point out that newspapers continue to be superior to online news sources in a number of respects. But they’re completely wrong to think this can save them.

More along those lines in the full post. Plus a neat coda on how C. M. Christenson was unfortunately kind of a sellout (or at least naïvely optimistic), which probably isn't said often enough.

*N.b. this does not mean I agree with Tim all of the time, or even most of the time. But the relevant mark of quality here is that even when I disagree with the argument, I usually find it both (a) thought-provoking and (b) neither stupid nor hackish.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Brill on New York City public schools

In this week's New Yorker; read it all and weep. Now, I'm pretty damn liberal, and sympathetic to unions in general — I once marched in a picket line as a member of UAW Local 4121 — but this piece had me frothing for the blood of New York City teacher's unions. As of this moment, I am a supporter of rapid expansion of charter schools everywhere; the sooner the better.

The most maddening thing about the whole conversation is not even the blatant terribleness of the teachers profiled, or the waste of taxpayer money, or the harm to students, but the disingenuousness of the union representatives*:

[Former United Federation of Teachers president] Rudy Weingarten . . . always tries to link the welfare of teachers to the welfare of those they teach — as in "what's good for teachers is what's good for children."

[New York City Department of Education deputy chancellor, Chris] Cerf's response is that "this is not about teachers; it is about children." He says, "We all agree with the idea that it is better that ten guilty men go free than that one innocent person be imprisoned. But by laying that on to a process of disciplining teachers you put the risk of the kids versus putting it on an occasional innocent teacher losing a job. For the union, it's better to protect one thousand teachers than to wrongly accuse one."

. . .

Should a thousand bad teachers stay put so that one innocent teacher is protected? "That's not a question we should be answering in education," Weingarten said to me. "Teachers who are treated fairly are better teachers. You can't have a situation that is fear-based. . . . That is why we press for due process."

Notice how Weingarten completely dodges the question of the cost/benefit tradeoff. Apparently accountability for teachers is synonymous with "fear", and that's unacceptable, full stop.

Sorry, but around the time I became an adult, I realized that, although being held responsible for my actions can produce a variety of emotions, including occasionally fear, this was simply the nature of holding responsibility.

And although it may be better for ten or even a thousand guilty people to go free than for one innocent person be imprisoned, there is surely some number of guilty people going free at which the balance tips. No reasonable justice system can be infallibly free of false convictions; therefore, by allowing a justice system to exist at all, we implicitly acknowledge that some number of wrongful convictions is a price worth paying for protecting society. And that's when the price of a false conviction is putting people in jail. When the cost is merely forcing people to find another job, the balance certainly tilts towards removing more guilty people and occasionally harming an innocent teacher.

It would be one thing for Weingarten to make an argument about where the balance lies, as an empirical matter, in the case of teachers. But she doesn't do that. She simply denies the premise of the question.

And, of course, the willful denial of transparently obvious logic is a huge red flag in any argument. People deny logic when they fear its conclusions, which is to say that they fear truth itself, which is to say that they are both holding an indefensible position, and also aware, on some level, that they're holding an indefensible position. The only remaining question in such cases is whether, in addition to misleading their audience, they're deceiving themselves as well.

Incidentally, this all leads me to wonder if intransigence will ultimately prove counterproductive for teachers' unions in the long run. Treating one's audience the way Weingarten does is insulting to their intelligence; and insulting people is not, as a rule, a good strategy for gaining their support.** I mean, I'm now sufficiently incensed that I'd donate a decent chunk of change annually to any organization that could credibly promise to accomplish nothing at all besides undermining the political power of teachers' unions.

Finally, I should add that the existence of bad teachers is no secret among actual classroom teachers. I was at dinner a couple of weeks ago with a couple of teachers in the Oakland, CA school system and they know who the goofballs are. Talk to a good public school teacher for about twenty minutes about the other teachers at their school, and see if you don't see them roll their eyes about someone or other. Maybe they don't believe that all borderline teachers should be fired, but among good teachers (particularly younger ones) I suspect that you'd find a fair amount of support for booting bad teachers with a much less ridiculously onerous process than currently prevails in New York City.

p.s. If you harbor some suspicion that Brill's article is unfairly slanted due to his haute-bourgeois disdain for the unionized classes, see this Village Voice article which examines a small slice of the same issue. The Voice ain't what it used to be, but anti-liberal it is not. And the union doesn't really come out smelling like roses there either.

*Yes, all of these things are more objectively harmful than the union representatives' disingenuousness; I'm just saying that the latter just pushes my personal buttons more.

**This observation may seem ironic because I insult people on this blog all the time. However, I'm mostly indifferent to the support of those whom I insult.

Friday, August 07, 2009

SFO breakfast receipts (en route to EWR)

Spot the funny.

How destructive was Ozymandias's bomb in Watchmen (the movie)?

Attention conservation notice: nitpicky analysis of a detail that you probably don't care about, from some comic book movie.

Finally saw Watchmen on video (missed it in theaters). I noticed something curious about the final explosion. It is clearly centered on Times Square, and produces a perfectly spherical blast; but in a later shot, the Empire State Building is not only standing but largely intact.

From this, we can infer that the explosion's radius of destruction was less than a dozen or so north/south blocks.

View Larger Map

This got me thinking: how big is this explosion, compared to an actual nuclear bomb blast?

According to HYDESim, a 25-kiloton nuclear weapon detonated at Times Square would exert just enough overpressure at the Empire State Building site to demolish a concrete skyscraper. For comparison, according to the the Ground Zero simulator, the "Little Boy" nuclear weapon detonated over Hiroshima sixty-four years ago was 15 kilotons; if detonated over Times Square, it would have blown the windows out of the Empire State Building, but the structure would probably not be knocked down.

So Ozymandias's bombs appear to create a pressure blast about as powerful as that from the atomic bombs dropped on Japan in World War II.

The nuclear weapons possessed by the U.S. and U.S.S.R. in the 1980's were, of course, vastly more destructive, on the order of hundreds of kilotons; and would have been delivered as batches of multiple simultaneous warheads.

Wikimedia Commons image by U.S. Army; source

Now, regarding Ozymandias's bombs, it's possible that radiation killed many people outside the direct blast radius. But there's no indication in the movie that Dr. Manhattan's electromagnetic emissions are harmful to human life. In my opinion, if one takes the movie strictly on its own terms, Ozymandias has been careful to engineer a relatively small mass-destruction event: only on the scale of a small fission bomb.

Of course, step outside of the movie's fiction, and it seems equally likely that director Zach Snyder simply assumed that most viewers would not be too familiar with the geography of New York. So he had Ozymandias set off the bomb in Times Square, because it's instantly recognizable, and then he left the Empire State Building standing so that viewers would recognize it instantly in the aftermath shot.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

ibuffer: If you do not use it, you are insane (Wednesday emacs blogging)

In short, use ibuffer, now; the relevant .emacs magic:

(global-set-key (kbd "C-x C-b") 'ibuffer)
(autoload 'ibuffer "ibuffer" "List buffers." t)

This is so much better than the regular buffer list it's not even funny. The first thing you'll notice is font-lock colorization (welcome to the 21st century!); but the killer feature is the wealth of buffer management keyboard shortcuts. On your first trip to ibuffer, you'll want to spend a little time reading through C-h b to learn the keyboard bindings; a small sample of just the marking functions:

% f     ibuffer-mark-by-file-name-regexp
% m     ibuffer-mark-by-mode-regexp
% n     ibuffer-mark-by-name-regexp

* *     ibuffer-unmark-all
* /     ibuffer-mark-dired-buffers
* M     ibuffer-mark-by-mode
* e     ibuffer-mark-dissociated-buffers
* h     ibuffer-mark-help-buffers
* m     ibuffer-mark-modified-buffers
* r     ibuffer-mark-read-only-buffers
* s     ibuffer-mark-special-buffers
* u     ibuffer-mark-unsaved-buffers
* z     ibuffer-mark-compressed-file-buffers

Once you start chaining these together, you'll wonder how you ever got along without them. For example, I commonly do * s * r t D y: mark all "special buffers" (*shell*, *scratch*, etc.); mark all read-only buffers; toggle marks (marking ordinary read-write buffers); delete marked buffers; confirm. This is handy since I often work on projects via multiple emacs instances, switching between an X11 emacs instance and a tty instance running under screen. When I switch, I want to close all the files I have open for editing (even if there are no unsaved changes), but leave *shell* and dired buffers alone.

Buffer management has historically been a real bottleneck in emacs productivity. Unlike most IDEs, emacs makes it trivial to have dozens or hundreds of buffers open simultaneously. This works great, except that working with all these buffers can become troublesome. For example, to switch to a buffer, you typically C-x b and type-complete the name; but when you have a half-dozen dired buffers all named client, it gets hard to remember whether the one you wanted was client<2> or client<5>. And, of course, the C-[left click] buffer list gets ridiculous with many buffers — you might as well be using Eclipse or something. ibuffer doesn't completely solve all these problems, but it certainly mitigates them.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

The puzzle of American yogurt... this: Every national cuisine has a vernacular yogurt which is superior to American yogurt.

Think about it. Greek*, Indian, Swiss, Korean (n.b. many Koreans are lactose intolerant!), the list goes on: all better than American yogurt. And I'm not talking about handmade "artisanal" yogurt; this is all mass-produced stuff.

Now, of course, in our globalized world, one can obtain foreign yogurts for pretty reasonable prices, so it's not like I'm suffering here. What I want to know is: who keeps Dannon in business? Haven't they noticed that American yogurt has the unappetizing consistency of snot, and is also excessively sour, which the manufacturer typically tries to cover up (clumsily, unsuccessfully) with excessive sugary flavoring? Or do people just not know any better?

Or maybe it's just the advertising.

*My poison of choice: Fage 2% + fresh pineapple chunks. This may be the only vaguely healthy foodstuff which actually makes me feel satiated when I eat it after exercise.