Unmistakable Marks

Warranted Genuine Snarks

Antonin Scalia, Asshole

The New York Times has some welcome news; in what seems like a rare moment of common sensibility, the court has struck down laws banning gay sex. Of course, some members of the court dissented:

"The court has largely signed on to the so-called homosexual agenda," Scalia wrote for the three. He took the unusual step of reading his dissent from the bench.

"The court has taken sides in the culture war," Scalia said, adding that he has "nothing against homosexuals."

"Why, some of my best friends are homosexuals," Scalia didn't quite add.

Update: The full text of the opinion makes it clear the the AP's quote of Scalia was slightly misleading. That final sentence of his is, in full:

Let me be clear that I have nothing against homosexuals, or any other group, promoting their agenda through normal democratic means.

Not exactly an admirable sentiment, but neither the damning phrase that it first seemed. The substantial assholishness of Scalia remains undiminished, though, by the full opinion -- indeed, in a lot of ways, the full force and impact of the assholishness only comes through in the unabridged text. The cheering thought is, Scalia's already on the losing side of this battle, and time is only going to push his opinion further out of the mainstream. In a few decades, the dissent he wrote today will look as unambiguously embarrassing as "separate but equal." But don't take my word for it; take his:

At the end of its opinion... the Court says that the present case does not involve whether the government must give formal recognition to any relationship that homosexual persons seek to enter. Do not believe it. ... If moral disapprobation of homosexual conduct is "no legitimate state interest" for purposes of proscribing that conduct, and if, as the Court coos... "[w]hen sexuality finds overt expression in intimate conduct with another person, the conduct can be but one element in a personal bond that is more enduring," what justification could there possibly be for denying the benefits of marriage to homosexual couples exercising "[t]he liberty protected by the Constitution"?

Comments | June 26, 2003

Incipient Fjord Pining

Slate on the ringtone business:

In the United States, cell phone owners spent more than $16 million on ring tones last year, and with the trend starting to gain momentum, that figure is expected to rise tenfold or more. This is plausible given what is already being spent on tones in Europe and Asia--an astonishing $1.36 billion in Western Europe alone last year, according to figures cited in the Wall Street Journal.

I'm sure there are legions of startups out there whose business plans feature nice little exponential curves of ring-tone revenue, too. Which is cool and all, except that a more realistic projection would show the numbers dwindling to about $0 in the very near future.

The only reason anyone buys ringtones at all is that there's no other way to get them -- they're generally in proprietary formats, and on proprietary networks. As phones increasingly become general purpose computing devices that can attach to the broad Internet, the enormous MIDI and MP3 archives out there will make the idea of paying for a ringtone seem like paying for a desktop background image.

I'm not pretending to any great insight here; the inevitable ephemerality of the ringtone business ought to be obvious to even casual observers of the technology industry. That's why I'm baffled by seeing article after article talking about the supposedly incipient tidal wave of ringtone revenue. These writers aren't that stupid; and in the post-dot-com era, they can't possibly be that naive, so why the fluffy numbers?

Comments | June 24, 2003

Kids These Days

Via the Wall Street Journal, a deeply stupid AP piece on the decline of cursive.

Such attitudes are worrying to a growing number of parents, educators and historians, who fear that computers are speeding the demise of a uniquely American form of expression. Handwriting experts fear that the wild popularity of e-mail, instant messages and other electronic communication, particularly among kids, could erase cursive within a few decades.

Why, why, why would anyone mourn the death of cursive? It's a worthless writing style, combining inefficiency with illegibility, and is only taught out of inertia. The primary benefit of learning cursive is being able to read other people's handwritten cursive scrawls; if nobody learned cursive in the first place, there'd be no need for anyone else to ever learn it. That schools waste time teaching cursive instead of something useful -- particularly now, when even utilitarian printing is less useful than ever -- is an absolute shame.

So how do the defenders of cursive make it seem useful? By lying to children:

"The truth is, boys and girls, even if you write a lot of e-mail on the computer, you will always need to write things down on paper at some point in your life," Boell says. "The letters you write to people are beautiful, and they'll cherish them forever. Have any of you ever received an e-mail that you cherished?"

The students eagerly shout, "No!" and return to loops and curves.

Well, I have. A bunch of them, actually. Equally to the point, even if I were in the habit of writing letters using legacy input devices, I still wouldn't use fucking cursive. Like a lot of people, I abandoned cursive the instant that teachers stopped requiring it on homework.

If I sound slightly bitter on the topic of cursive, there's a reason for it:

"Cursive was so character-defining when I was in school," says Amy Greene, whose 9-year-old daughter and 11-year-old son prefer keyboards to cursive in their Palo Alto classrooms. "The way you wrote something was considered part of your inner being, your core, your worth. ..."

Yeah. In elementary school, I got a C in penmanship, by far the worst grade I got in all my years of schooling. I really long for the days when my unmastery of a useless skill would be considered part of my inner being and worth.

Cursive can't die fast enough to please me.

Comments | June 23, 2003

Foregone Conclusions

If you listen to election horse-race analysis (and if you listen to the news, that's about all you're going to get -- substantive policy analysis is apparently of no general interest), you'll hear a lot of "Do the Democrats have a chance against Bush?" questions. And I haven't the foggest idea why. Andrew Tobias gets right to it:

Look at it this way: Do the 51 million folks who voted for Gore - 537,000 more than voted for Bush - wake up each morning thinking, "Gee, this is really better than I expected! We've got peace and prosperity, we're funding the things that need to be funded, and, well - the guy really is a uniter, not a divider." I don't think so. ...

And then look at the other side of it. Do the 50 million folks who voted for Bush wake up every morning feeling glad they did? Yes, I think most do. But I think some small but crucial proportion feel betrayed. This is not the balanced budget they expected. This is not the humble foreign policy they expected. This is not the bipartisan spirit they expected.

Bush got his job while losing the popular vote; his base of support was never strong, and I just can't imagine that his abysmal record of the last four years -- horrible economic mismanagement, an abdication of fiscal responsibility, involving us in a Middle Eastern quagmire under false pretenses -- has brought any new converts to his side. Most Republicans can probably put aside their misgivings and vote for Bush, but whyever would a swing voter who voted for Gore in 2000 consider voting for Bush in 2004? As I see it, Bush's support in 2004 pretty much has to be a subset of his support in 2000, and that's not going to be enough for him to win.

Comments | June 23, 2003

Earth's Killing Surface

If you're not reading Izzle Pfaff, you're not reading the funniest site on the Web. Today's entry is a foray into the world of horse racing:

Certainly the racing forms were no help: they were filled with the kind of pompous declarations of purest bonehead opinion that anyone who has spent time following sports is familiar with:it was all sportscaster-speak, which is to say, utter horseshit. "EUCLID'S CHUNDER raced very well her last time out, and will certainly make a spot in this race." Which turns out to be a horse that was raised on the low-gravity rings of Spacepost Gamma, and who instantly succumbs to four broken legs on Earth's killing surface.

Go read the whole thing.

Comments | June 18, 2003

The Death of IE, Part II

Following on the discontinuation of Internet Explorer for Windows comes the discontinuation of Internet Explorer for Mac.

Reactions so far have been... well, sad. The current version of MacIE was a ground-breaking product; when it was released, it had better standards support than any of the competing browsers of the time (including, emphatically, WinIE). Of course, it's stagnated since, and now lags far behind Mozilla, and is probably being overtaken by Safari as we speak. Still, Mac users understandably look fondly on a Microsoft product that worked better on Mac than on Windows.

My reaction is a bit different, I'm afraid. I'm delighted that MacIE is dead, because it makes the standards-compliance story easier to sell to management. Sure, there've always been a billion good reasons to write Web apps to W3C standards, but when it came right down to it, everyone could use IE if they really really wanted to. That's not the case any longer. Now, when faced with the prospect of making an IE-targeted site, it'll be easy to say, "Well, if you do that, Macintosh users won't be able to view the site at all, because there is no current version of IE on the Mac."

I'm excited. IE has effectively ceded the Mac browser to Apple and Mozilla; and they're no longer competing hard in the Windows browser space. There's a very good chance that two years from now, IE will be just another browser, rather than the all-encompassing Face Of The Web that it is today. Among tech-heads, the tipping point is past -- everyone's using Firebird, or Mozilla, or Safari, or Opera. And geeks' preferences have a way of spreading quickly, if for no other reason than that geeks typically end up installing software on the computers of their friends and relatives.

We're watching the beginning of the end of the browser monoculture, and I'm pretty jazzed.

Comments | June 14, 2003

Waiting for Longhorn

Jeffrey Zeldman considers the ramifications of Microsoft's product roadmap. To summarize: They've announced that Internet Explorer is a dead product, and future enhancements will only come with new versions of the OS (or, as on the Mac, new versions of MSN); and that the next version of Windows, code-named Longhorn, isn't due until 2005.

If you're using IE6 right now and have been reluctant to switch, consider what this means: If you stick with IE, you're guaranteed to be using the same, increasingly sub-standard browser for at least a full two years; and after that, you'll only get an upgrade if you buy a new OS. That's two more years of popups, two more years without tabbed browsing, two more years of failing to support standards that have been around since 2000.

What are you waiting for?

Comments | June 11, 2003

Strange Causal Relationships

And speaking of kids learning to program, go take a look at the hilariously annotated BASIC source code to Gervase Markham's ADVENT, a game eerily similar to about a dozen I wrote at the same age.

BBC BASIC may well have supported subroutines, but as a larval hacker I had not yet learnt to use such complicated constructs. The program flow therefore consists entirely of GOTOs, which give one an unparalleled amount of freedom in determining and changing code paths. In my view, we've been on a slippery downward slope of encapsulation, data hiding and modularisation ever since 1968. ...

The user's first taste of failure. Abrupt, arbitrary and often painful death is a recurring theme of the game; one suspects this was partly due to a small child's inherent fascination with murdering things in nasty ways, and partly because killing the user off is less effort than writing new locations, or keeping track of state to permit them to revisit old areas.

Comments | June 11, 2003

Nice Predicament

Slashdot has an article entitled The Little Coder's Predicament, bemoaning the fact that kids today don't have such easy access to programming tools as those of us growing up in the GW-BASIC era had. To this, I can only say: Whaaaa?

I would have killed, as a kid, to have had the wealth of tools that are available today. You can write JavaScript in your browser; you can download Perl and Emacs; you can get professional-quality Java IDEs, compilers, and application servers; even Microsoft's .NET SDK and a low-end IDE is available for free. All of those are languages and environments that real, professional programmers use to make real, professional programs -- something that emphatically wasn't true of GW-BASIC, or even the Borland Turbo C++ that I saved up my birthday money for when I was 13.

And then there's all the other stuff: the billions of tutorial sites that could keep you from having to read a book; the access to newsgroups and mailing lists, so that you can eavesdrop on smart professionals; the toy languages -- Ruby, Smalltalk, OCaml, Python -- you can download and play with to broaden your horizons; the easy availability of entire Unixy operating systems chock full o' goodies. Version control systems like CVS! Unit testing tools like xUnit! Relational DBMSes like Postgres! Hell, even interactive fiction (read: adventure game) creation tools like Inform. (Not to mention commercial games like Neverwinter Nights that have elaborate, programming-heavy, module creation bits.)

If today's kids can't grab some of this stuff and learn programming, then they damn well don't deserve to be programmers.

Comments | June 11, 2003

Job Insecurity

The New York Times has an article about the new realities of the work world, which points out that an efficient economy is not necessarily pleasant for those living in it:

That moderation [of recessions] has been achieved, paradoxically, by transmitting job insecurity up the economic ladder. Recessions used to land most heavily on manufacturing workers, the part of the labor force that would be furloughed any time manufacturers misread the market signals and made more goods than they could readily sell. So-called core employees -- managers, headquarters workers, most administrative personnel -- were spared. ''Goods producers used to take 70 percent to 80 percent of the job loss,'' says Ratajczak. ''Now they only take 45 percent to 50 percent. The rest falls on the core employees who used to be safe.''

The changing pattern of layoffs is a portent of the ''friction free'' economy that many economists aspire to. ''It's an economist's wet dream,'' says Roger Martin, dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto and a former co-head of the Monitor Consulting Group. ''Economists love maximum efficiency. But people don't. We want market efficiencies to make us richer, but we don't like what an efficient market feels like.''

Or, as Teresa Nielsen Hayden has summarized succinctly: "The invisible hand is not to human scale." Something that's good for society as a whole can be awfully damn hard on the people in that society.

Daniel Davies explores this further, analyzing the loss of job security in terms of class and risk allocation. It's a long post, but worth reading in full. The most interesting part to me was this:

What effect does it have on the allocation of the general risks of production if one shortens the term of implicit and explicit labour contracts, increases the proportion of casual and temporary staff and increases the proportion of labour hours which are overtime? To ask the question is to answer it; the effect of doing this is to transfer volatility from profits to wages. Previously, owners of companies had effectively provided income insurance against the business cycle to workers as part of the wage bargain; starting 1980, this insurance was gradually withdrawn, and it is difficult to see from the national income statistics that there was any compensation for this loss of benefit in terms of higher wages.

All of this is something that I've been thinking about lately. About a month after my last employer went under, I was simultaneously presented with two job offers. One was a permanent job, offering a reasonable wage; the other was a contracting job, offering a wage significantly higher. I was torn between the short-term benefits of the contracting job and the job security of the permanent job. Torn, that is, until I realized that I'd spent most of the last three years worried about losing my job (And for good reason: Two of the companies I worked for in those three years no longer exist; and all of the companies I worked for engaged in continual layoffs), and hadn't felt "secure" since the Great Boom. If I'm going to be facing serious and persistent unemployment risks, anyway, why not get explicit payment for doing so?

In one sense, contracting even has better job security than a traditional job: Here, they need to give me two weeks' notice before they cancel my contract, which compares favorable to the negative-three weeks' notice we got at my last place. I'm not going to say that contracting is a panacea; but I will say that such advantages as the wage-paying world has historically held are fast disappearing in a mad rush toward efficiency.

Comments | June 9, 2003

RSS: Now Smaller Than Ever

I've modified my RSS feed so that, instead of showing whole entries, it only shows excerpts. Essentially, I've got a pretty small bandwidth cap, and RSS files get grabbed frequently, so I figured it'd be best to shrink it up a bit. If this inconveniences anyone, let me know.

(I also meant to restrict it to just showing the last ten entries, but for whatever reason, I couldn't get the stylesheet to work; worked fine in Xalan-C, but gave really flaky output in Xalan-Java. Drat it.)

Comments | June 6, 2003

Doom! Doom!

For whatever sick reason, I'm fascinated by personal finance. Even more twistedly, the subgenre of personal finance writing I love best is the "You are so fucked" stuff. So, as you can imagine, I just ate up this article from Fortune, which direly warns that you need more money for retirement than you think, that your savings aren't going to appreciate as briskly as you've been planning, that you're not going to get any of the help you might have counted on, and that (lest you be tempted to step up your retirement savings in response) you also need more money in your emergency and kids' college funds than you thought.

I just eat it right up, I tell you. It's got all the terrifying-but-not-quite-real force of a good rollercoaster.

Comments | June 6, 2003

The Problem of Shelving

Now that we're freshly moved, we need to unpack our books; the thing is, before we can unpack them, we need to figure out how to shelve them. I am at a loss.

The situation is this: We have about 1500 books, which will fill up about a dozen bookcases, scattered across four rooms. Right now, the books are placed totally randomly in boxes. They need to be shelved following some organizational principle -- I've tried purely random shelving, and it was too hard to find a book even when they were all in the same room; spread out over a whole house, book-finding would be impossible without organization.

But what organization? Every scheme I can think of is too difficult. To wit:

Any ideas? I'm sure someone out there has had to have rebuilt a substantial library from scratch.

(Ooh! A late-breaking thought: Alphabetical clusters. Treat the first letter of an author's last name the same way I'd treat publishers in the publisher grouping method above. Within each letter group, ordering would be discretionary (i.e., no formal ordering, but I'd try to keep an author's books together); between letter groups, there'd be no order at all (N could abut A); but I'd be guaranteed of finding Wolfe, Wodehouse, and Watt-Evans within a small subset of shelves. I think I like it. Objections? Better methods?)

Comments | June 2, 2003

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