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Monday 28 April 2003

Jerry Springer

I turned on the TV recently to find the Jerry Springer show already in progress. Today’s topic? Hillbilly Love Triangles.

Of course, that’s always the Jerry Springer topic, but today, they weren’t trying to tart it up as anything else. See for yourself:


Posted by tino at 00:43 28.04.03
Friday 25 April 2003

A Failure To Communicate

CNN and the AP blow the lid off this one, with the shocking revelation that high-school students can’t write very well.

At this point, I would ordinarily offer a quote from the article in question, but to be honest, there’s almost no information there. The article was prompted by a report from something called the National Commission on Writing in America’s Schools.

The Writing Commission’s report is based in part on a study of high-schoolers’ writing skills, part of which consisted of giving the students information about a haunted house and asking them to write a “newspaper article” about it. The report contains three responses to the assignment — one from each of the report’s categories of ‘unsatisfactory’, ‘adequate’, and ‘elaborated’. These responses are unedited.

2% of the students’ responses were classified as ‘elaborated’. The example:

Years of rumors and unsubstantiated reports have created, in a quiet urban neighborhood, a house of horrors. The dwelling is one Appleby House, a modest
dwelling of 36 rooms built over an 8 year period. On interviewing neighbors, who dubbed the owner ‘strange,’ one finds that 10 carpenters have been employed to build such oddities as stairways to ceilings, windows on blank walls, and doorways going nowhere. According to reports, these bizarre customizings are intended to confuse ghosts. Maybe the owner will report one day that he has caught one in a dead end hallway! Until then, however, the mystery of the building of Appleby House remains just that — a mystery.

Kind of cheesy, and I have a problem with the use of the present participle (‘one finds that 10 carpenters have been…’ — in a haunted and presumably abandoned house, I’d think that ‘10 carpenters were’ or ‘had been’ would be better), but the writer of this obviously understands how to communicate an idea, and how to use the language. Oh, yeah, and he knows something about what a newspaper article is, too.

Fully 50% of the students did ‘adequate’ work:

Man builds strange house to scare ghosts. He says that he did it to confuse the ghosts. But why may we ask would he want to spend 10 years building a house.
For instance there are stairs that go nowhere and hallways that go nowhere. This house has 36 rooms. If you ask me I think it is kind of strange.

It certainly doesn’t look adequate to me; you can tell that this person is writing about a house, but not much else.

48% of the students produced work that was called ‘unsatisfactory’:

The house with no windows. This is a house with dead-end hallways, 36 rooms and stairs leading to the cieling [sic]. Doorways go nowhere and all this to confuse ghosts.

This person’s problem isn’t with writing. As the guy in Cool Hand Luke says, what we have here is a failure to communicate. These kids just can’t express themselves in anything like a comprehensible way.

Presumably the students were given a bullet-list of the house’s attributes and told to go from there — and 98% of them didn’t know how to do it.

There are two major proximate causes of this.

First is a basic lack of understanding about how the language works. I don’t mean that these kids don’t understand the specific rules of grammar and usage — I didn’t, either, really, until I tried to teach English to foreigners. I mean that, fully apart from knowing what a participial phrase is and how it functions, they don’t even know how to use one. In short, these kids are not fluent speakers of their mother tongue.

Second, these kids do not seem to fully understand that writing and speech are different facets of the same thing: the use of language to express ideas. They lack fluency, to be sure, but they almost certainly don’t lack as much fluency as their writing would seem to indicate.

Now, some people will point out that these kids might not be fluent in standard English, but that they’re able to speak some dialect with fluency. I have no doubt that this is correct, that the language these kids speak all day is not standard English but Ebonics.. (The two examples of poor writing seem to be transcribed black dialect. I could be wrong.) There’s nothing wrong with speaking a dialect, as long as you can express yourself in standard English when it’s called for. And writing, in our culture, just about always calls for standard English.

There are a lot of dialects of spoken English, but the written language is very standardized; exceptions, attempts to put the spoken dialect into writing, stand out and are generally the result of an attempt to communicate something about a culture that the dialect represents. Consider the first lines of Burns’ To a Haggis:

Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face,
Great chieftain o the puddin’-race!
Aboon them a’ ye tak your place,
Painch, tripe, or thairm:
Weel are ye wordy of a grace
As lang’s my arm.

Far more expressive and lyrical than if it were written in standard English; but Burns could write in standard English as well. He thus understood how Scottish English stood apart from English English, and what, in particular, it expressed. He could use the dialect so skillfully because he could stand outside the dialect and admire it against a background.

For the last decade or so, there’s been a push to recognize ‘minority’ dialects in the mainstream as legitimate language, one which has resulted in more and more kids not really learning standard English in school. They’ll study it, they’ll take tests, and they’ll pass. But their dialect is tolerated as acceptable speech in school; they don’t get into the habit of using standard English, and they have about as much real familiarity with it as most people do with their high-school Spanish.

‘Ebonics’, as a concept with that name, was conceived of by the Oakland, CA school district, in an attempt to qualify for additional state funding. If ‘Ebonics’ had been approved as a distinct language (it wasn’t), Oakland would have got money for ‘bi-lingual’ education programs. This was a clever, if somewhat cynical, attempt to game the system, rather than a political black-separatist move, or an attempt to claim that Oakland’s students were better-educated than they actually were.

The matter got into the national media, and there was an uproar — because the real intent of the school board was seldom mentioned. This politicized the idea of the black American dialect, and, for a certain type of person, increased the perception that speaking proper English was the thin edge of the wedge of Uncle-Tomism.

Being able to speak a dialect is a valuable skill, one that adds to rather than subtracting from a person’s intellect. Being able to only speak a dialect is a serious intellectual handicap that will cripple a person’s ability to advance in the broader society.

But whatever language or dialect you speak and write, it’s not much use if you can’t form ideas and encapsulate them so they can be expressed. The writer of the ‘unacceptable’ sample above appears to suffer from this particular handicap.

It’s easy to forget that this — the ability to formulate and express ideas — is a skill that must be learned, and one that’s at the root of all communication. This isn’t a skill that’s taught, much, in English class; it’s one that’s taught by being a participant in society, by discussing and explaining things to others, and by having things explained to you. This is the primary skill missing here.

To the Writing Commission’s credit, their report (warning: PDF) points this out. Most of the public awareness fo the report, though, has focused solely on this being a writing problem. Improving students’ writing will necessarily involve inproving their ability to think and to use the basic framework of linguistic communication, but it needs to be recognized that the problem here is more pervasive than just the students’ writing.

Posted by tino at 18:00 25.04.03
Friday 18 April 2003

Customer Service Report

I have been thinking about customer service lately. Actually, I think about customer service quite often, but recently I’ve been thinking about it even more than usual, and an article in Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal brought my thoughts into focus.

bellsouth-card.jpg You need to subscribe to the Journal for that link to work — it’s well worth it — but since the most important thing was only in the print version, that shouldn’t much matter. The printed story was accompanied by this picture of a greeting card, sent by BellSouth to customers they’ve lost.

You can’t really see this in the scan, but the text on the front of the card says “Okay, we admit it, we let the romance slip away”.

I can’t imagine how effective these cards are. Myself, I don’t look for ‘romance’ from my phone company, I just look for phone service. This might be why I’m so dissatisfied with the treatment I get from so many places. I’m looking for goods and services; they just want to snuggle.

Let’s put aside, at least for now, the spookiness of companies hijacking the language of interpersonal relationships in an attempt to paper over their customer-relations gaffes. Let’s just look at one of the customer service horrors I’ve experienced in the past few weeks, and analyze what might have gone wrong.

I moved my base of operations recently, and I even more recently got around to changing my address with my bank — Suntrust. This is important, and not just because eventually the post office will stop forwarding my statements. Because the banks and credit-card companies have never really got around to implementing any kind of real identity-verification system with credit cards (like, say, a PIN), a lot of online merchants will only ship orders to the billing address associated with a given credit card. It is therefore important that the billing address for your card — in this case, a check card — be somewhere where you might want things shipped.

You can’t change your address on the bank’s website, presumably because this is not secure enough. The bank recently changed the password requirements for its website, requiring a 7-byte alphanumeric password that does not contain any dictionary words; you can see all my financial details on this website; you can move money around on this website; but you can’t change your address.

I called the bank’s 800 number, and I was told that I had to go to a bank branch in person to change my address, because my identity needed to be verified. (I was later informed, by someone else, that this was incorrect; but never mind.)

I went to the bank in person and talked to a teller, because the rest of the bank staff were out to lunch, taking a break from their back-breaking 10 am to 2 pm schedule. I made a withdrawal from one of my accounts and gave the teller the details of my new address information, which she wrote on a slip of scrap paper. You see, though she’s allowed to hand out cash that belongs to other people, either she or her system is not trusted enough to change addresses. The branch manager would have to actually make the change, when he returned from lunch.

(This might, in hindsight, be a good policy, because I wasn’t asked for identification, even though I was performing an apparently-incredibly-complex address change operation, and walking out the door with $200 in cash to boot.)

Anyway, this was a Tuesday. On Thursday, I placed an order with an online merchant, who called me back on Friday to tell me that my charge had not been approved because the billing address was wrong. I gave them the old address for the billing address, and that worked. (They still wouldn’t ship my order until Monday, though, because it was so late in the day —12:15 p.m. But that’s another rant.)

I called the bank branch, and spoke to the manager. I gave my name, etc. and was told that “sometimes” address changes took “several days” to make their way through the system. I was told that I should be patient.

I called the bank’s 800 number. I verified my identity by giving my name, social security number, date of birth, account numbers, address (the old one, that is), mother’s maiden name, and the amount of my last transaction (the ID-less $200 withdrawal). I complained that a system that took several days to change an address was insane, and the helpful person on the phone then told me that my address hadn’t been changed at all. This wasn’t an IT fuckup that had resulted in the change not propagating to some sub-system; nobody had ever entered it in the computer. Nobody in this case being the branch manager, the very person who had, minutes earlier, told me that it would take a few days for the change to “go through”. Go through his brain to his keyboard, maybe.

I complained about this at some length, and I was apologized to. My address was changed by the person on the phone, and, aside from a determination on my part to find a bank that wasn’t so glaringly incompetent, all was well.

Or so I thought.

On the following Monday, I tried to order something else online. On Tuesday, I was again told that my charge was being rejected because of an invalid address. I again called the bank. The bank assured me that everything was in order. I told them that I belived that they believed this, and that I’d be in good shape if I was trying to buy a laser printer from the bank, but that in fact the people who actually did sell laser printers were under the impression that my address was incorrect, and that they were probably being told this by the bank.

I was put on hold, and when the person came back I was told that all appeared to be in order. I asked whether something had been changed, and she said no. I pointed out that I had hard evidence that something wasn’t in order — my order being rejected — so I’d appreciate her checking again. We went through a few rounds of this, until eventually — aha! — some sub-system was discovered, a system that had to be manually changed independently of everything else and which — amazingly enough — represented the ‘billing’ address for the Visa account that was associated with the check card.

I placed my order again, and it went through this time. It had only taken me a visit to the bank in person, three 30-minute phone calls, and two delayed mail-order purchases, but I had managed to change my address with the bank.

Until I saw this article in the Journal, I chalked all this up to the bank’s incompetence and the banking industry’s general tendency to see consumer banking as a burdensome business they would rather not be in.

Now, though, it’s all so much clearer to me. I had let the romance out of the relationship. I hadn’t cuddled the bank enough. I hadn’t listened when it wanted to talk about its feelings.

Well, they can be that way. Me, I’m going to find a bank that’s less high-maintenance. This princess routine is charming for the first couple of dates, but it gets old in a hurry.

Posted by tino at 15:43 18.04.03
Sunday 13 April 2003

Wackiness In Federal Court

An AP story in the Washington Post:

The federal government argues that the First Amendment does not protect speech advocating illegal conduct.

The argument is over a book, written by Irwin Schiff, which argues that Americans are not legally obliged to pay income tax. Not that the income tax is an abomination, or contrary to the principles on which the United States was founded, or any of that. He argues that under the law as it currently stands, there is no legal obligation to pay income tax.

He’s wrong, of course; regardless of whether there’s a specific statute saying in so many words that you’ve got to pay income tax (his argument appears to be based on there not being one), federal law clearly sets forth the amounts that people in the U.S. are expected to pay in income taxes, and the penalties that they face if they don’t. The guy is a harmless nut. But when I last checked, it’s not illegal to be wrong or a harmless nut in the United States.

What’s so bewildering is that the government is apparently trying to shut him up on the ground that he’s advocating illegal activity. It’s not as if there could be a real debate over whether the First Amenement applies in this case; people can be arrested if they don’t pay the tax, but advocating nonviolent civil disobedience is clearly protected political speech. (Schiff doesn’t see what he’s doing as advocating civil disobedience, since he believes that the law does not require payment of the tax; neverless, civil disobedience is what it is.)

I’m not too worried that ‘dissent’ will be ‘stifled’ by the government’s actions. I have enough faith in the system to believe in the certainty of this idotic case beign thrown out or overturned at some point on the grounds that it’s absurdly unconstitutional. What I resent is the money — my money, in part — that the government is spending on prosecuting this dog.

Posted by tino at 12:48 13.04.03
Saturday 12 April 2003

Terrorist I.D. Kit

Some pranksters have created a website to advertise the Terrorist I.D. Kit, a lunchbox-looking thing full of jokey items that allegedly will help you identify and thwart terrorists. Among other things, you get a pair of glasses that will superimpose an Osama-bin-Laden-looking beard and turban on the faces of people you look at, and poisoned hummus for dispatching the terrorist once you identify him. I find the whole thing pretty funny. (Note for the seriously impaired: this is not an actual product.)

Another of the items in the box, though, is a ‘Skin Color Identification Chart’, which looks like this:


The description of the chart says, in part, “Experts agree that skin color is one of the quickest and most accurate tests in picking out a potential terrorist.”

Ahh, wonderful. No experts that I’ve heard of say anything of the sort, actually. Let’s just reduce it all to racism, and at that racism of the blandest variety. What had struck me, up until this, as a clever joke poking fun at Homeland Security B.S. turns out to be, at least in part, another random race-baiting attempt.

People who say that the United States is racist have generally had no experience of the world outside the United States.

Posted by tino at 00:02 12.04.03
Friday 11 April 2003

Toy Gun Idiocy

Wal-Mart is in trouble in New York state for selling toy guns that don’t have the right markings. wal-Mart says that they only have to comply with federal law on this, and not with New York’s specific regulations.

Toy guns must have orange stripes along the barrel that cannot be removed, according to New York Law.

But federal law requires toy guns to have an orange cap on the end of the barrel, and Wal-Mart complies with this law.

I don’t think Wal-Mart has a leg to stand on here; they’re selling the things in New York, so New York laws are definitely applicable.

That’s not the idiocy, though. The idiocy is this: presumably toy guns need to be clearly identifiable as such so that the police can avoid shooting people who are brandishing toy guns and thus not actually presenting any danger.

Repeating: orange-striped gun, the police assume it’s a toy, and they don’t shoot you.

Won’t it be a simple matter for the no-goodniks to paint orange stripes down the sides of their guns? While the police hesitate, thinking they’re facing a toy gun, they get shot with the real, but painted, gun.

A better law would be to tell the police to shoot people who point guns at them, whether they’re toys or not. I don’t think that effectively barring the pointing of toy guns at the police is really much of an imposition on liberty.

Posted by tino at 15:12 11.04.03
Thursday 03 April 2003

World War IV

James Woolsey spoke at UCLA yesterday and pointed out the nature of the war we’re engaged in. CNN reports:

He said the new war is actually against three enemies: the religious rulers of Iran, the “fascists” of Iraq and Syria, and Islamic extremists like al Qaeda.

Woolsey told the audience of about 300, most of whom are students at the University of California at Los Angeles, that all three enemies have waged war against the United States for several years but the United States has just “finally noticed.”

You rarely see it pointed out outside of places like the National Review, that there’s an entire diseased Isalmofascist culture that wants to rule the world in a particularly despotic manner, and that the action in Iraq is just one campaign in the broader war against that culture.

Posted by tino at 23:23 3.04.03

San Francisco Development, NIMBYism and Sprawl

One of the usual suspects has sent me a great article on development in San Francisco that’s hard to excerpt in any meaningful way. It repeats most of the things I’ve been saying about urban planning, and makes a few points I hadn’t thought of. It’s quite long, but I’ll try to give a Readers’ Digest version of it here with some comments:

San Francisco has the room to build the housing the city needs, to slow spiraling rents and sales prices, to forestall manic sprawl, to restore sanity to a market wholly out of kilter.

But it won’t.

If the mayor, supervisors, and citizens of San Francisco were to wake up one day and decide they wanted to confront the housing crisis, they could do so with relative ease. It would require nothing more than building the housing already permitted under existing laws and zoning plans, creating enough homes and apartments to house tens of thousands of people.

Which is what San Francisco wants, isn’t it? The residents of that city are famously concerned with the well-being of their fellow man, and with opening up opportunities for the ‘disadvantaged’.

San Francisco’s drum-tight housing market is not the result of a newfound NIMBY attitude, the sort of adolescent suburban fussiness that comes from waiting too long at a stop sign. It’s the end product of a unique — and chronically shortsighted — political culture 50 years in the making that is now part of the city’s genetic structure.
In wave after wave of downzoning, successive San Francisco governments shut out ever more housing, until today, the most densely zoned parts of the city are sparser than the areas that during the 1950s were zoned lowest-density. San Francisco’s total population, meanwhile, decreased from 830,000 during the years after World War II to 780,000 now.
But at century’s end, something has gotten lost in this process, something that is important to the way San Franciscans imagine themselves. As we push thousands more people out toward Brentwood, we become the engine of unprecedented environmental destruction, and globally unmatched energy consumption. We become complicit in the construction of far-flung cityscapes hostile to walking, to bicycling, to public life, and the resultant mingling of social and racial groups that such public life engenders. And by squeezing out successively higher rungs of the lower and middle classes, our city’s own public life loses flesh. By allowing unmet demand to cascade downward through the price levels, we force the downtrodden to choose the street, rather than $25-a-night tenement rooms.

See also this. Neighborhood goups in most cities complain long and loud about “gentrification” whenever anyone wants to do any building, but people also don’t seem to want to allow cheap housing.

There’s also an interesting idea here: that artificial limits on the urban housing market are a major cause of sprawl. That the Birkenstock crowd marching down Market Street shouting ‘no blood for oil’ is partly responsible for the suburb/SUV disaster is particularly insightful.

Events in the recent history of the Bay Area have created massive resistance everywhere.

Patrick Kennedy, an outspoken veteran of East Bay housing wars, is particularly familiar with this fact. Like anyone who’s lived there, developer Kennedy enjoys a love-hate relationship with the city of Berkeley. He’s won approval for a multistory apartment complex in downtown Berkeley. He’s advocated for an environmentally friendly, European-style downtown with smaller apartment units, taller buildings, and reduced parking. He has been an outspoken proponent of a new general plan for Berkeley, which will allow taller apartments to be built in the downtown area. He’s been the city’s leading campaigner to “decriminalize housing,” according to one local environmental group. In doing these things, he has earned the wrath of his fellow Berkeleyites. He’s capitalist developer scum, they say, and he ought to be run out of town.

“Berkeley is a perfect example of cognitive dissonance,” says Kennedy. “They talk and talk about affordable housing, then trash the general plan. Berkeley’s the only city in the Bay Area that’s lost housing in the last 20 years.”

They want affordable housing (about which see this again), but they don’t like developers or anyone who smells like a developer. Who is it that they expect will build this affordable housing? Why is it that the most ‘liberal’ places in the United States, presumably the places that would most readily accept and feel empathy for the poor, the ‘diverse’, etc., are some of the most expensive? The pinker your neighborhood, the more likely you are to in fact have a great deal of real-estate wealth.

The change in the economics of the Bay Area’s suburbs was little noticed, but dramatic. As if to mock developers who built office and industrial parks near where their potential employees presumably lived, anti-housing ordinances typically gained momentum just as groundbreaking began on jobs-oriented projects.
In San Ramon, Dublin, and Pleasanton, voters will consider “anti-sprawl” ballot initiatives in November that would require the approval of any housing development over 10 units to be put to a vote of the citizenry. Livermore is considering such a measure next year, while petitions are circulating in Antioch that would require any development of 20 or more housing units to, likewise, be put to a citywide vote.

And limiting housing “developments” to less than ten “units” each will limit sprawl how, exactly? Better to limit housing developments to no less than ten — or more, actually — units per acre. The very term “sprawl” implies that the problem is a lack of density. (See this.) Why is it, then, that the only anti-“sprawl” ordinances I’ve seen that say anything about density in fact mandate less density? It can’t be actual sprawl in the dictionary sense that they’re trying to put an end to; but I can’t figure out what it actually is that they’re trying to eliminate.

The entire article deserves your attention.

Posted by tino at 22:49 3.04.03
Wednesday 02 April 2003

Book Publishing and Classics

Slate has a story about the sales of classic books. The gist is that classics sell surprising numbers of copies, more than just about anything other than current best-sellers.

Book publishing is in serious trouble as a business, because of a strong emphasis on best-sellers. Every publisher wants at least one Tom Clancy-type author on their list. Clancy’s novels sell in incredible volume, and quite predictably.

The problem is, because Tom Clancy produces a totally predictable product, the publisher assumes almost no risk. If Random House isn’t willing to pay Clancy’s price, then it’s not much work for him to find another publisher who’s more than willing to put their name on the spine of his book. Publishers make almost no money on people like Tom Clancy and Stephen King. With authors like these, the publishers mainly serve as prime contractors for the problem of manufacturing, distributing, and promoting the books.

Classics and mid-list books — this last category is now sadly depleted after the last few decades of best-seller-seeking — are where the publishers make their money. Predictable best-sellers from brand-name authors like Grisham, Clancy, Knig, et al. return nothing to the publisher but publicity.

Posted by tino at 21:37 2.04.03
Tuesday 01 April 2003

Arnett, Geraldo, and the Media

Geraldo Rivera is an idiot, to begin with. He’s an entertainer in the same way Michael Moore is an entertainer, but of a different political stripe. They both mine the real world for material, and then tell stories that are at best loosely connected to the facts. Nobody would think of calling Michael Moore a ‘journalist’, though, and it’s long past time for the world to stop pretending that Mr. Rivera is one.

Peter Arnett is an interesting case, though. In the event you’ve been living under a rock for the past week, Arnett was recently canned by both NBC and National Geographic Explorer following an interview he gave to Iraqi state TV.

In this interview, he said a number of things that were not complimentary to the American war effort. What seems to have been the most damaging statement was that reports about civilian casualties in Iraq were helping the anti-war movement in the United States.

I’ve looked closely at what he said, and none of it appears to be actually untrue. Certainly saying that the U.S. war plan has “failed” is overstating the case, but it’s true that the plans appear to be in the process of changing in the face of stronger-than-expected resistance.

In any case, you can find the same sentiments as expressed in that interview in nearly every issue of the New York Times, or by the BBC, CNN, and even MSNBC.

Arnett’s mistake wasn’t what he said, his mistake was in saying it on Iraqi state TV. And he shouldn’t have been on Iraqi TV in the first place. His mistake was his failure to live by the motto that should hang on every journalist’s wall:

You are not the story.

There are very few exceptions to this rule. Most of them are journalism reviews, and the rest are situations like CNN recently faced, when Rym Brahimi and the rest of the CNN crew were ejected from Baghdad by the Iraqi government. In that case, the journalists legitimately became the story through the actions of others.

Arnett’s mistake was in becoming the story through his own actions. Never mind what he said; he should have been canned for failing to understand that, professionally, he needs to be an impartial observer and reporter of events, not a television personality to be interviewed about his opinions.

There’s an interesting discussion of the issue on the Poynter Institute’s website, but they only barely touch on this point in their official comments. The reader response, though (you can’t read it unless you’re a registered user), tilts strongly toward the journalists-should-not-become-the-story view.

Posted by tino at 12:37 1.04.03